A Salute To The Duke

The Sheriff celebrates the 100th anniversary of John Wayne's birth in a special way.

As part of his celebration of John Wayne's 100th birthday, the Sheriff had Legends in Leather build this "Hondo Rig," which duplicates the one worn by The Duke in so many of his films. The cartridge belt is soft chap leather that molds to the wearer's hips and has 30 cartridge loops. The holster is a variation of the old Mexican loop design.

"John Wayne--American" reads the coin that was commissioned by the United States Congress to honor this American legend. And that about says it all, too. For many years John Wayne provided us with superb entertainment. He was more Marine than most Marines, though he never served in the military. And he was the cowboy that most real cowboys looked up to, though he was born in Iowa and never worked on a ranch. In addition, a lot of us lawmen referred to John Wayne movies as "training films."

Most shooting sportsmen know that John Wayne was part of our fraternity, too. The Duke had a very nice gun collection and enjoyed hunting whenever he could get the time off from movie work. Roy Weatherby was one of Wayne's close friends, and Wayne did quite a bit of hunting with the several Weatherby rifles that he owned. Guns were so important to John Wayne that he seldom used the movie rental guns that were provided on location, preferring instead to bring along his own special gun case containing his signature sixguns and carbines.

In my view, one thing that added a good deal of realism to John Wayne westerns was the way he relied on a rifle when it looked like a fight was coming. Early in his career, Wayne was cast as the Ringo Kid in the classic western Stagecoach, and the Winchester carbine was the Kid's firearm of choice. Later, as John Wayne began to have more control over his films, he nearly always carried a Winchester Model 92 Trapper's Model with his signature big-ring lever. Less knowledgeable western actors might try to make us believe that they could fan their sixgun from the hip and knock a man off of a horse at 100 yards. Yeah, sure. But the Duke knew enough about the actual fighting men of the Old West and the value they placed on a good repeating rifle. Besides, when he got that look in his eye and snaked that carbine out of his saddle scabbard, you knew it was going to be another rough day for the bad guys.

I can remember when John Wayne came to San Antonio to film The Alamo. Now, as you might expect, the vast majority of Texans were mighty pleased with the way Wayne told that particular story. But I've found that fighting men all over the world appreciated the way that Duke captured the combat mind-set in that picture. In private, Wayne said on several occasions that he hoped people would realize freedom and liberty were worth fighting for.

In the early 1970s, I was working as a police officer in North Texas. A local fellow, Homer Koontz, had just completed construction on the Omega rifle factory and was going to throw a big party to celebrate the opening. The opening, held at a fancy cutting-horse arena, would be highlighted by the presentation of guns Nos. 1, 2, and 3 to John Wayne, John Connally, and Herb Klein (a big-game hunter and Weatherby Trophy recipient). To top that all off, several other men and I were tapped to work security for the event. It was exceptionally tough duty because we'd been asked to just wear our jeans, mingle with the crowd, have a good time, and eat lots of barbecue. Hey, you do what you gotta do.

That evening, before the festivities, several of us happened to be gathered in the bar when we were joined by John Wayne. Since I was going to have to tag along after Duke for the evening, I figured I'd better introduce myself.

Now I had already learned that a lot of actors just don't like police officers, so I already had me a little speech worked up, suitably short and sweet. "Mr. Wayne," I said, "I'm an officer, and I'll be staying pretty close to you this evening. I'll do my best to stay out of your way, but if there's anything you need, I wish you would let me know."

The big man stood there, hands on his hips, looking down at me while I made my little speech. When I was done, he nodded and said, "That's fine, son. What do you drink?"

I said, "Scotch usually, sir."

He nodded again, and smiled for the first time. "Good choice, son. Let's go." And with that we repaired to the bar. Well, like I told you, it was rough duty.

Based on that evening's contact with John Wayne, I can report to you that he was just the kind of guy most of us hoped he would have been. He was cordial and polite with everyone that came into contact with him. When asked how he could stand to be swarmed by so many people over the long evening, he simply said there wouldn't even be a John Wayne if it weren't for these folks. Today, when I hear someone use the term "a man's man," I immediately think of John Wayne.

And now, all these years later, we are celebrating the anniversary of the Duke's 100th birthday--May 26, 1907. Just about a week prior to the Duke's 100th birthday, I found myself in Prescott, Arizona, visiting with my friend Jim Lockwood. Jim operates Legends In Leather, an outfit that crafts duplicates of the gun rigs that were used in movie and TV westerns. On numerous occasions, Lockwood had mentioned that he would like to build one of his rigs for me. Now, I had thought about having him build a duplicate of the butt-forward double rig that Wild Bill Elliott wore, and I had also considered the fancy two-toned gun rig that the Durango Kid packed around. But last May, it quickly became apparent that the only proper gun rig would have to be the practical setup John Wayne wore for so long.

Duke first wore the outfit in Hondo (1953) and pretty well wore this rig in every one of his westerns until he made The Shootist in 1976. It's this rig and his old yellow-handled sixgun that are most closely associated with his career as a western-movie icon.

Lockwood told me that movie experts do not know who made the early versions of the outfit for John Wayne, but in 1969, California holstermaker Andy Anderson began making the rigs to Duke's special order.

So, thanks to Jim Lockwood, I now have a Hondo Rig for my ivory-handled .45 single action. As you would expect, it's really a quite practical outfit, just about perfect for packing a sixgun while on horseback. And wearing it may be as good a way as any to say thanks to the man who entertained us for so many years. For what it's worth, and not meaning to start any heated debates, my top five John Wayne westerns would be Hondo, The Searchers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, True Grit, and The Shootist. And, if you wanted to throw in Red River, Fort Apache, or She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, I wou

ldn't argue too much.

Now, naturally, John Wayne's films were fiction. But he had a way of throwing realism into the mix that set him apart from many other movie stars. Just about everyone can quote the lines he gave just before he put the reins in his teeth and rode across that meadow at Lucky Ned Pepper. But I would call your attention to some lines from another of his films. "...I won't be wronged. I won't be insulted, and I won't be laid a hand on. I don't do these things to other people, and I require the same from them."

Movie life or real life, those are pretty good words to live by. Happy birthday Duke, and thanks.

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