Two of the biggest names that come to mind when people think of the Wild West – fact or fiction – are Wyatt Earp and John Wayne. Though the two men lived extremely different lives, their careers intersected in Hollywood.
Late in his life, Wyatt Earp spent time on the sets of early movies. When actor William S. Hart made the 1923 film, Wild Bill Hickok, Earp was on hand as a subject matter expert and consultant regarding the “real” wild west.
Around the same time, silent movie star Tom Mix helped get John Wayne (who was still known as Marion Morrison) his first job in the movie business as a prop boy and an extra. Wayne was not quite 22 when Earp died in 1929; a story about The Duke’s attendance at his funeral is false, but it is true that their mutual friend Tom Mix was one of Earp’s pallbearers.
Though the two men never met, John Wayne admits to having based his now-iconic persona on the legendary lawman. Together, the two of them have influenced generations of gun collectors eager for the “genuine article” as well as an entire industry of replicas and other firearms-related collectibles for the more budget-minded enthusiasts.
Colt’s Buntline Special
There’s famous story that tells of dime novelist Ned Buntline ordering a number of Colt revolvers with extra long barrels (10” or 12” depending on the source) that he then presented to famous individuals of the old west – including Wyatt Earp – when visiting Dodge City in 1876. What is peculiar about Buntline’s presumably high-profile presentations is that they didn’t make the papers when it supposedly happened. The story goes unmentioned in print until 1931.
The story itself is hotly debated among professional and armchair historians alike. Whether or not it’s actually true is, for our purposes, irrelevant because the tale has traction, has sparked the imagination of many, and it has been used to sell guns.
Companies like Uberti and Pietta make Single Action Army replicas with extra long barrels to capitalize on the popularity of the Buntline Special’s legend with Wild West enthusiasts.
Cimarron’s offering (made by Uberti) has a sterling silver presentation plaque, addressed to Earp, inlaid in the grips, much like the one depicted in the movie Tombstone (1993). Uberti also offers an over-the-top ‘target’ variation with an 18″ barrel, which most certainly never existed in the 19th century. You can have one for $859.
The verdict is still out on whether or not Colt made any revolvers in the 19th century like those described by Buntline. Colt did, however, make some in the 20th century. The company produced approximately 4,000 of them between 1957 and 1974 – right in the middle of the heydey of western films. They have made other special edition runs, but those 4,000 were considered as standard production models.
The Rooster Shooter
One of John Wayne’s most iconic roles was that of Rooster Cogburn in 1969’s True Grit. In that film, and others, one of the guns Wayne carried was a Colt Single Action Army revolver that was actually his personal gun. With a 4.75″ barrel and synthetic grips made to look like aged bone or ivory (both have been claimed), the left grip panel has three finger grooves specially molded for John Wayne’s right hand.
Cimarron offers an Uberti-made Colt SAA revolver that recreates this exact gun, right down to the synthetic finger grooves. Because of the Rooster Cogburn connection, they have alliteratively named this model the “Rooster Shooter,” which is chambered in .45 Long Colt and has a street price of approximately $750.
Over the years, companies have produced myriad versions of guns that commemorate Wyatt Earp and John Wayne. In 1982, Colt offered 3,100 blued SAA’s with ivory grips and gold embellishments that included Big John’s face on the cylinder and his signature on the backstrap. They sold for $2,995 when new.
Commemoratives are usually made in small batches, so unless you buy one while they’re being produced, you’re out of luck until one comes up for sale second-hand. If you’d rather have a new one right now, there are both Earp and Wayne options available.
A Wyatt Earp commemorative rifle is currently being offered through Historical Armory, Inc. You can choose from one of four different Henry Repeating Arms offerings on which to have the commemorative information engraved. The gun pays homage to the O.K. Corral and even mentions Buntline Specials. Prices range from $720 to $1,840, depending upon which Henry you choose.
America Remembers sells a Winchester Model 1873 rifle made by Uberti that commemorates the career of John Wayne. Production of that engraved and gold-inlaid model is limited to 3,500 guns and the price is $2,495.
In addition to these firing replicas, countless companies have made and still make non-firing commemoratives for both of these men. The guns available include the Colt Single Action Army, Smith & Wesson Model 3 Schofield, the Winchester 1873 and 1894, and even a 1911. Because they aren’t real guns, most can be had for relatively cheap. Options abound on eBay.
The Genuine Article
Guns that have actual provenance of ownership by Wyatt Earp and John Wayne command a premium when they come up for auction.
In November 2018, Morphy’s auctioned off a Colt Single Action Army with a connection to Wyatt Earp. His name had been scratched into the inside of both grip panels and the gun has documented ownership by the Earp family until 1974. It sold for $108,000 (photos above).
In the spring of 2014, J. Levine’s sold one of Earp’s Colts for an astounding $225,000. Documentation suggested that it is the gun that the legendary lawman had with him at the O.K. Corral, but some historians have concerns about the provenance and some say Earp had a Smith & Wesson Model 3 Schofield during the famous gunfight. Those concerns were not on the mind of the successful bidder, who spent $75,000 more than the gun’s high estimate.
Little John’s auctioned off one of The Duke’s Colt Peacemakers that was, at the time of the auction in 2003, owned by Wayne’s eldest son, Michael. The chain of custody doesn’t get any better than that, and the gun hammered at $20,000. The same year, another one of his Colts sold for $85,000.
A less expensive way to own an item with a documented connection to John Wayne is to buy a bullet. The Winchester Model 1892 lever-action carbine used in Rio Lobo is in the NRA’s collection on display in their “Hollywood Guns” exhibit. In 2017, staff members (including yours truly, at the time) fired and recovered 1,130 rounds of .44-40 through the gun. The bullets and cases were framed and sold as fundraising items during 2018 Friends of NRA banquets. Of course, prices for those varied from auction to auction, but they could be had for considerably less than a gun!
John Wayne solidified the image most people have of what gunslingers and lawmen were like in the Wild West. His admiration of Wyatt Earp helped shape that image throughout his career. Together, they inspired generations to pretend to be cowboys as kids and then grow up to buy the real thing from companies like Colt, Cimarron, or Uberti.
The prices realized by the sale of genuine items owned by these men and the active commemorative market that exists is a testament to how popular they both remain today.
Even though they never met, their lives combined to influence generations of kids’ imaginations, gun collectors, and movie buffs.
Wyatt Earp and John Wayne died 50 years apart, both in Los Angeles, separated by a distance of just 10 miles.