John Wayne Movie Gun from "The Big Trail"

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    There are 8 replies in this Thread. The last Post () by stairstars.

    • John Wayne Movie Gun from "The Big Trail"

      Good morning. Just registered to this forum in hopes that an expert Duke Movie buff might confirm or add to some info I have regarding a studio firearm I purchased that may have been altered for use by John Wayne in "The Big Trail." The gun is an original M1851 Cadet Springfield model that was sold off to Fox studios after the turn of the century and used in Hollywood films of the 1930's through 1960's or later. It appears identical to another firearm carried by John Wayne in "The Big Trail."

      Here's the background of the rifle, it's probable connection to John Wayne, and how it ended up in the movies:

      According to studio expert Joseph Musso, this particular cadet musket was purchased by Fox Studios for use as a movie prop sometime in the 1920’s as part of a larger group of guns, most likely from Stembridge Arsenal, a privately owned company formed by James Stembredge sometime between 1916-1920. As the story goes, famed movie director Cecil B. DeMille hired Stembridge to coach actors on how to act like soldiers and emulate their habits. This led to some steady work for Stembridge, and sometime after 1916, they recognized the need to accumulate a stock of firearms that could be used as movie props. At that time, surplus Civil War weaponry was available for pennies on the dollar, with cadet muskets typically selling for prices between $1.00 - $5.00 each, complete with accouterments including belt, cartridge box, bayonet and scabbard for and additional .75 cents. Thus was the beginning of the Stembridge gun arsenal. Stembridge guns were ultimately used in many famous movies, including Gone with the Wind, Northwest Passage, Across the Wide Missouri, Unconquered, and theRed Badge of Courage.

      Regardless whether Fox Studios acquired the gun from Stembridge or another surplus dealer such as Bannerman’s, this particular gun was subsequently stamped with serial number A52, a 20th Century Fox Studios prop house ID number similar to numbers assigned all props stored in Building 41 (aka: the Tom Mix barn) aboard the studio grounds. Building 41 housed an arsenal of weapons featured in various Fox films over the years. Unfortunately, nearly all of the historical records identifying the props and their associated films were accidentally destroyed, thus the specific films in which ‘prop A52’ was used are not documented, according to Fox archivists. However, it is believed that due to it’s uniquely carved stock, the musket was specifically altered for the 1930 John Wayne breakout film, “The Big Trail.”

      The stock of this particular gun, as well as an untold number of others, was carved in an intricate pattern described as “Indian design.” This particular musket is carved nearly identically to a slightly larger M-1861 Remington carried by John Wayne in his breakout role as Breck Coleman in Fox Studio’s “The Big Trail.” For most films, studios often had back-up guns available for use during filming in the event a prop gun malfunctioned or was broken during filming.

      This gun, a .57 caliber smoothbore musket, was slightly smaller than the .58 caliber rifle carried by Wayne. Although smaller than the full sized M-1861 Remington carried by Wayne throughout the film, the specific pattern and design of the carving on the stock suggests it was indeed carved for “The Big Trail,” perhaps as the original prop for use in the film. However, due to its relatively dimunitive size compared to the M-1861, especially in the hands of the 6’4” lead actor, it is surmized that the larger Remington was subsequently carved and chosen for Wayne to carry, leaving the smaller carved cadet rifle unused in the film and put away as a back-up, since it is not identified in the film's footage. I don not know if it was used in other films, although the likelihood is high since Fox produced dozens of westerns between the 1930’s-1960’s wherein this gun would likely have been carried by an actor or supporting actor, particularly in scenes involving American Indians or trappers.

      Many of the Fox Studios prop guns were sold off in 1988, including this example, eventually ending up in the collection of Walter J. O’Connor, whose priceless collection of militaria, firearms and artifacts were posthumously auctioned in September, 2018. O’Connor was a preeminent firearms appraiser, known best for cataloguing the entire Stembridge antique weapons collection in 1967, followed by the entire Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios collection in 1970.

      Although the gun's link to Wayne is logical, especially since it was owned by the same studio and carved identically to the Remington Wayne carried, it's not backed up by documentation, as FOX studios lost all of their paperwork in a large studio fire. With that said, does anyone have any additional information regarding carved firearm props, particularly movie muskets, that were used by Wayne in The Big Trail or subsequent films that might help pin this particular modified rifle to him? Has anyone seen any John Wayne film other than The Big Trail wherein he carries a prop gun that has an intricately carved stock similar to this? Thanks for taking the time to read this long winded story!

      Top pic: Wayne and his prop
      Next pics: My M1861 Cadet Rifle from FOX studios

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    • Hi, welcome to the JWMB @vmicraig glad to have you here.

      This is an interesting post, as I'm not the expert in this area I'm sure one of our members would be able to shed some light on this and help you find your answer.

      Kevin
      Kevin - Moderator/Administrator
      jwayne.com
      ___________________________________
      Official JWMB online store
    • I watched that sale with great interest. Some of the guns were not as claimed, but I did not look closely into yours. I know Joe Musso had such a rifle years ago and sold it -is this that one? A letter from him will go far, but I still have doubts about the ones he has issued for swords, as one can not tell one from another where WCC had 1000s.

      I know much about FOX inventory numbers used on their props and costumes, but have handled few firearms which do not conform to that numbering system. I had a flintlock with a break open modern blank firing mechanism hidden in it from THE BLACK SWAN, but it's FOX number began with a 'B' and had a three digit number. I also have a jewel encrusted Prussian 19th Century thin blade, also with the a 'B' and a five digit number.

      FOX inventory can also be dated as before and after the merger. Pre 1935 is just FOX where the top of the F extends over the OX. After May 1935, it is, of course, 20th Century Fox which is usually abbreviated. I think in that same sale there was a rifle (most likely from WHAT PRICE GLORY 1926) where you can see the proper stamped FOX mark for a pre merger weapon.
    • I am enjoying these very interesting posts. I can't help you with your questions, vmicraig, but that is one fantastic looking rifle, And to be able to tie it to The Big Trail, and Duke, would be fantastic for you.

      Mark
      "I couldn't go to sleep at night if the director didn't call 'cut'. "
    • stairstars wrote:

      I watched that sale with great interest. Some of the guns were not as claimed, but I did not look closely into yours. I know Joe Musso had such a rifle years ago and sold it -is this that one? A letter from him will go far, but I still have doubts about the ones he has issued for swords, as one can not tell one from another where WCC had 1000s.

      I know much about FOX inventory numbers used on their props and costumes, but have handled few firearms which do not conform to that numbering system. I had a flintlock with a break open modern blank firing mechanism hidden in it from THE BLACK SWAN, but it's FOX number began with a 'B' and had a three digit number. I also have a jewel encrusted Prussian 19th Century thin blade, also with the a 'B' and a five digit number.

      FOX inventory can also be dated as before and after the merger. Pre 1935 is just FOX where the top of the F extends over the OX. After May 1935, it is, of course, 20th Century Fox which is usually abbreviated. I think in that same sale there was a rifle (most likely from WHAT PRICE GLORY 1926) where you can see the proper stamped FOX mark for a pre merger weapon.
      Thanks for the detailed response. By any chance would you have the contact info for Joe Musso, assuming he's still alive? Perhaps he can shed some more light on this particular rifle. Interesting that you knew exactly which one I have and were following the auction. Although mine doesn't have "FOX" stamped on it, it has the correct prop house letter/number stamp and of course, can definitely be compared with what John Wayne carried, so no doubt it's the real deal. Even if I can never associate it directly to John Wayne, it's still a unique civil war era weapon that was produced for cadets at West Point and VMI, which is valuable to me as a period firearms collector, aside from it's post-war Hollywood career.

      FOX prop inventories all seemed to start with a letter designator followed by 1, 2 or 3 numbers. I've added a pic below of some music props from the Tom Mix barn that shows some property bins and their associated numbers if you enlarge it. When I reached out to the historical department at FOX for any possible info, they gave me little to nothing, other than a "No files....we cant help you, good luck."

      The similarities in carvings are far too great for me to discount that this rifle was carved specifically for "The Big Trail." The only other plausible idea is that it was one of a group of identically carved rifles already on hand at the prop department, and one (the Remington) was simply chosen as John Wayne's movie weapon. If they were already on hand, however, I would think that at least one of them would have been previously identified in a film, but other than "The Big Trail," I have no other examples of this particular carved stock appearing in any other movies, which is why I'm sticking with the original theory that these were carved for JW and the larger of them was chosen.

      bldg-41-horns-5.jpg

      bldg-41-armory-5.jpg
      For many years, Bldg. #41 housed the studio’s extensive armory. Cannon, rifles and bayonets – 20th Century Fox Film could outfit an entire army (and often did, at least in the movies; mid-1930s).
    • dukefan1 wrote:

      I am enjoying these very interesting posts. I can't help you with your questions, vmicraig, but that is one fantastic looking rifle, And to be able to tie it to The Big Trail, and Duke, would be fantastic for you.

      Mark
      Thanks Mark. I'm not optimistic I will ever get to that point, but never say never. I certainly didn't expect StairStars response and info, so there's always hope more is out there. As I said, even if I cant get the full Hollywood story, it's value to me as a Civil War Collector is equally important, so I'm happy to at least have the photo of JW holding it's big brother.
    • Sorry, it has been years since I saw Joe. I was working in LA when he came to see me about a John Wayne hat and stockade jacket. Maybe, others here can be of help or an inquiry to the IATSE or his local.

      Once a prop is in house, no matter how unique, it will find reuse. I have a houseful of such pieces; some in more than five films. I agree the carvings make it hard to consider anything but THE BIG TRAIL, but FOX did other historical films as DRUMS ALONG THE MOHAWK (1939,) and more, where long rifles are carried or on display hanging over a fine fireplace mantle. Historical accuracy is not a factor, as many of us have seen out of date/place firearms in many Hollywood productions.

      Annex - Fonda, Henry (Drums Along the Mohawk)_NRFPT_01.jpg

      I know I'll be keeping a lookout for it :)

      The post was edited 1 time, last by stairstars ().

    • stairstars wrote:

      I agree the carvings make it hard to consider anything but THE BIG TRAIL, but FOX did other historical films as DRUMS ALONG THE MOHAWK (1939,) and more, where long rifles are carried or on display hanging over a fine fireplace mantle. Historical accuracy is not a factor, as many of us have seen out of date/place firearms in many Hollywood productions.

      Annex - Fonda, Henry (Drums Along the Mohawk)_NRFPT_01.jpg

      I know I'll be keeping a lookout for it :)
      Great pic, and it gives a clear shot of similar carvings used. Is that photo from Drums along the Mohawk? Thanks for all the great info.