Top 5 John Wayne Gun Moments

There simply is not a more iconic actor of Old West movies than John Wayne. It doesn’t even matter what your age is, you know who John Wayne was and are probably familiar with a few of his movies. According to movie critics, he starred in no less than 169 feature-length films, and that doesn’t even touch on his television roles (among other things). Throughout those movies, John Wayne showcased a lot of memorable gun moments. We picked our top five movie moments where his gun use was an extra layer of cool for your enjoyment. Haven’t seen these movies? Maybe you should.

1. The Snake Pit in “True Grit”

john wayne in true grit
“True Grit” is one of those movies with a lot of great gun moments, but this one just might be the best. (Photo credit: CA Herp)

If you’re only familiar with the remake of “True Grit,” it’s definitely time to remedy that situation. The movie first came out in 1969 with Wayne playing Rooster Cogburn, of course. In the movie, Wayne’s chasing an outlaw by the name of Tom Chaney. He’s doing this for a girl named Mattie whose father was murdered by Chaney (Mattie pays him for this service, proving her own cleverness in the process). Toward the end of the movie, Mattie falls into a random pit full of skeletons and rattlesnakes, because of course she does.

As John Wayne lowers himself into the pit to rescue Mattie she’s bitten by a snake. He uses his Colt Single Action Army to shoot the snake with fantastic precision and saves her. The guns blazing into a pit full of Western Diamondback Rattlesnakes scene is a great one. During the course of the movie, Wayne used three different Colt SAA guns, two of which he rented specifically for the movie. One rental was chambered in .44-40 WCF and the other in 45 Colt. The third was his personal Colt SAA chambered in .44-40 WCF, and that’s a gun he used in quite a few of his movies. It’s unknown which gun he was using in the snake pit scene.

2. Nitroglycerin and a river raft in “Rooster Cogburn”

Rooster Cogburn gatling gun
In “Rooster Cogburn,” Wayne makes good use of a Gatling gun. (Photo credit:

It seems appropriate to mention a dramatic gun scene from “Rooster Cogburn” since it was the sequel to “True Grit.” As its title suggests, it follows the adventures of Rooster Cogburn once again. The movie was filmed in 1975 and featured Katharine Hepburn as Wayne’s co-star. In the spirit of its film predecessor, “Rooster Cogburn” follows the character of the same name and he is once again helping someone whose father was murdered by outlaws. This time, Wayne is helping Hepburn’s character retrieve her deceased father’s shipment of nitroglycerin.

There’s a lot of firepower in this one but the most memorable gun moment has to be the one that took place on a raft in the middle of a river. At that point in the movie, Wayne and Hepburn have recovered the nitroglycerin. Not only is it on the raft, but so is a Gatling gun. Now remember, nitroglycerin is super sensitive to movement and temperature, so it’s bad enough jostling it around on a raft. Add a firefight and you have what should be a recipe for disaster. Somehow Wayne manages to run the Gatling gun while on the raft with the nitroglycerin. He does it to fend off the bad guys who are safely on dry land (so if the nitro had exploded, they likely would’ve survived, but Wayne wouldn’t have been so lucky).

3. The Forbidden Gun in “Brannigan”

John wayne in brannigan
John Wayne and his revolver in the movie “Brannigan.” (Photo credit:

If you’re at all familiar with the teachings of the late Col. Jeff Cooper, you’ve likely heard the quote where he said that the first rule of a gunfight is having a gun. After all, if you don’t have a gun, you can’t defend yourself. In the movie “Brannigan,” which came out in 1975, Wayne plays the title character who is a Chicago cop who’s sent to London to apprehend an American bad guy and get him back to the States. Cops have guns, right? Well, not in London. In fact, it wasn’t until the mid-90s that Scotland Yard began allowing a select few “specially trained” law enforcement officers to have handguns. This has to do with the Police and Criminal Act 1984 and the Human Rights Act 1998, but that’s a whole other story.

In “Brannigan,” Wayne manages to have a gun on him in London. He does this much to the displeasure of his Scotland Yard contact, Commander Charles Swann. After all, British officers didn’t and still typically do not carry handguns, so Wayne having one was a problem. Despite that, his character hangs onto his handgun and uses it against the bad guys as needed (amidst much complaint from Swann). The gun in question is a Colt Diamondback, a revolver chambered in 38 Special. Take it from John Wayne: if you don’t have a gun, you can’t defend your life against people determined to maim or kill you.

4. Kids Should Shoot, Too, in “Big Jake”

Big Jake derringer
The coolest part of “Big Jake” took place during the climactic gunfight. (Photo credit:

The movie “Big Jake” is epic for many reasons, but the picture above illustrates a great moment. In the movie, Wayne plays Big Jake (of course). His ex-wife, played by Maureen O’Hara, asks for help when her grandson is kidnapped by a gang. When the gang kidnaps the grandson, they also murder many of her ranch hands. Feeling she has no choice, she gets Big Jake to go after the gang and get her grandson back.

This one’s a family affair. Along with John Wayne as Big Jake, there’s his real-life son Patrick Wayne portraying his son James and his real-life grandson, Ethan Wayne, playing the kidnapped boy. During the first part of the movie, there’s a moment you don’t realize the relevance of until later. Big Jake is checking his shotguns and spots his Remington 1866 derringer, after which he remarks to his ex-wife how happy he is it’s there because you just can’t be too careful. It’s during the final firefight the derringer’s use becomes clear.

Big Jake has managed to get the boy back from the gang (and yes, it’s his grandson he didn’t know existed). Of course, they aren’t clear yet, the gang has them pinned down in a firefight. Realizing he needs to ensure the boy can defend himself should the need arise, Big Jake pulls out his derringer. He asks the boy if he’s ever fired a gun, and to use it if he has to do so. Why is this important? Because far too often, people treat kids as though they’re helpless and incapable of defending themselves in any way, let alone with a gun. The fact that Big Jake decides the boy should have some sort of gun as protection speaks volumes. Kids should know how to safely operate firearms. There have been real-life cases where it mattered in a self-defense situation, typically during a home invasion.

5. What it Takes, “The Shootist”

john wayne in the shootist
Gillom gets a shooting lesson from J.B. Books, played by John Wayne. (Photo credit:

Considering the fact that “The Shootist” was John Wayne’s final film, it seems a must-mention for this list. It’s also an excellent movie. In “The Shootist,” Wayne plays J.B. Books, an elderly gunfighter dying of cancer (so yes, reality mirrored the movie, or vice versa). He’s hoping to live out the remainder of his life quietly, but of course, he ends up facing a final duel. In the course of that, he gives a young man named Gillom, who’s played by Ron Howard, a few tips and lessons on firearms and gunfights. Books allows Gillom to fire his prized Great Western revolver (one of a matched set). As it turns out, Gillom’s a fair shot, and this conversation follows:

Gillom Rogers: But how could you get into so many fights and always come out on top? I nearly tied you shooting.

John Bernard Books: Friend, there’s nobody up there shooting back at you. It isn’t always being fast or even accurate that counts. It’s being willing. I found out early that most men, regardless of cause or need, aren’t willing. They blink an eye or draw a breath before they pull the trigger. I won’t.

When you watch “The Shootist” it’s a bit of an odd experience because although the movie is fiction, it feels like John Wayne has moments where he’s truly portraying himself. In this scene with Gillom, he makes it clear that hesitating can get you killed. Taking it a bit further, it’s important to decide whether or not you can actually use a firearm in self-defense before you start carrying one. The character of Books gives out some fascinating advice in the course of the movie. It’s a must-watch.

Which John Wayne movie’s your favorite? Tell us in the comments.

Kat Ainsworth Stevens is a long-time outdoor writer, official OGC (Original Gun Cognoscenti), and author of Handgun Hunting: a Comprehensive Guide to Choosing and Using the Right Firearms for Big and Small Game. Der Teufel Katze has written for a number of industry publications (print and online) and edited some of the others, so chances are you've seen or read her work before, somewhere. A woman of eclectic background and habits, Kat has been carrying concealed for over two decades, used to be a farrier, and worked for a long time in emergency veterinary medicine. She prefers big bores, enjoys K9 Search & Rescue, and has a Master's Degree in Pitiless Snarkastic Delivery.

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