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On October 7, 2021, Rock Island Auction president, Kevin Hogan, opened the bidding for the Colt Single Action Army revolver John Wayne used in “True Grit” with the line, “Fill your hand you son of a bitch,” from the movie. After a few fast-paced minutes, the SAA and holster rig had sold for $517,000.

Among fans of famous firearms and western movies, there could almost be no gun more desirable than the .44 WCF revolver and rig used in “True Grit,” ”Rooster Cogburn,” ”The Cowboys,” and other John Wayne films. The gun belonged to Wayne personally, and besides using it in several movies, he wore the rig for a photograph shot on the set of “The Cowboys” that also appeared on the cover of Life Magazine in 1972. It also seems to be the gun, belt, and holster depicted on the statue of the actor at the John Wayne Airport in Orange County, California.

The gun’s original owner purchased it in 1909 as a .45 Colt. In the 1950s, Wayne had it converted to .44 WCF and had a larger, Bisley grip and enlarged trigger guard added to better fit his hands. The belt contains .44 WCF cartridges and one .45-70, which Wayne is thought to have carried as a tribute to soldiers who fought in the Indian Wars.

John Wayne's revolver from True Grit.
Wayne had the grips custom made to fit his hands and shaped with finger grooves. Rock Island Auction Company

In 1978 he gave the gun and holster to one of his employees at Duke Energy Company (DECO), Gary Hess, an engineer brought in as a troubleshooter. The story goes that Wayne asked Hess what he would like as his reward for services that had turned around an important project. Hess asked for the gun, holster, and accompanying movie memorabilia that had been on display in the DECO offices and later at the John Wayne Theater at Knotts Berry Farm. Wayne was diagnosed with stomach cancer that same year and died in 1979.

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When the gun was initially received prior to the sale, it came without documentation, and RIA estimated it might realize $20,000-$40,000. By the time of the auction, however, the gun’s provenance was established beyond doubt. It was sold with a copy of a notarized statement from Gary Hess, and with copies of two notarized statements by witnesses confirming that Wayne gave Hess the revolver and rig. And, the gun is listed by serial number in a 1976 appraisal of Wayne’s gun collection.