TV WESTERNS GIMMICK GUNFrom the 1950s through the 1960s, TV Westerns dominated our family room televisions. Every week there were shootouts, saloon brawls, and owlhoots brought to justice. Certainly far more pretend bullets were fired across TV’s dusty boomtowns, interchangeable saloon sets, and sagebrush soundstages than were ever fired for real in the Wild West.
During this pinnacle of TV Western’s popularity, it was difficult some evenings to find shows other than Westerns on any of the three major networks. Westerns had been wholeheartedly embraced by our post-war nation, as if we were yearning for the simplicity of six-guns, fists, and fast horses, all leading to the comforting normalcy of white hats clearly triumphing over black hats—something we had lost in the war along with our innocence.
Each network labored to make their Westerns stand out from competing shows. TV gunslicks, lawmen, and drifting cowpokes were all fighting for Nielsen ratings and commercial sponsors. Many TV Westerns tried to distinguish their hero by giving him a celebrity horse—Topper (Hopalong Cassidy), Champion (Gene Autry), Diablo (The Cisco Kid), Target (Annie Oakley), Apache (Lash Larue), Tornado (Zorro), and others. Sometimes shows had more than one celebrity equine star, as was the case with Roy Rogers (Trigger) and Dale Evans (Buttermilk), or the Lone Ranger (Silver) and Tonto (Scout). The more TV Westerns tried to be different, the more they remained alike.
TV Westerns also had a passion for celebrity guns. Like celebrity horses, these gimmick guns were given to TV’s Western heroes in another attempt to make each show stand out from the competition. Many of the hybrid six-guns and rifles used to establish law and order on Hollywood’s backlots and sound stages were made by Ed Stembridge's Gun Room at Paramount Studios. Once created, a show’s celebrity firearms were treated with great care. However, the majority of onscreen Western guns were simple blank firing props and subjected to much rough usage.
Quick draw gun coaches were hired to work with the stars of TV Westerns. These professionals earned a certain notoriety for their skills, and were paid handsomely to teach not only the quick draw and its variations, but also simple gun handling so a star could at least appear somewhat proficient with his fancy weapon.
THE LIFE AND LEGEND OF WYATT EARP: Arvo Ojala, who worked regularly with Hugh O’Brian on the set of The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, was among the best of the gun coaches. When The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp premiered, O'Brian initially wore a double holster rig with two 4¾" Colts. However, in the show’s mythology, Earp was gifted with a with another Colt revolver, this one specially designed with an extended 12” barrel. The gun was called a Buntline Special, named after dime magazine writer Ned Buntline (a pseudonym for the prolific Edward Z. Judson) who claimed to have convinced Colt to create it especially for him. The writer was a real life character, but the tales of his own adventures were as embellished as those of the real life Western heroes, like Earp, whom he immortalized with his purple prose.
As cool as it was, the appearance of the Buntline Special on The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp created a number of problems. O’Brian was a fast draw master in his own right, but dragging out the Buntline Special’s extended barrel slowed him down considerably. To assist him in clearing leather with the foot-long barrel an extended drop was added to O'Brian's right-hand holster. Eventually, gun coach Arvo Ojala perfected a non-period accurate metal-lined holster. His design permitted the Colt to be cocked and the cylinder rotated while the gun was still being drawn. This was a technique unique to Hollywood, but it was so successful that Ojala's holster was used regularly in most TV Westerns.
Western historians disagree regarding the actual existence of the Buntline Special, which Buntline claimed to have made and bestow upon those heroes he thought worthy. However, if the Buntline Special never actually existed in the Wild West, The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp made the gun so popular, Colt was virtually strong-armed into adding a 12" Buntline Special to their line in 1957. Colt continued to make the gun for more than 30 years, outlasting the TV series by decades.
THE RIFLEMAN: Chuck Connors as Lucas McCain used his famous Model 92 Winchester carbine with large loop and an aluminum barrel for lighter weight. In the hands of the six foot six inch tall, athletic Conners, the 1892 carbine performed spectacularly. Using an adjustable screw threaded into the trigger guard, Conners was able to trip the trigger every time he slammed the lever home.
Because of his exceedingly long reach, Conners didn’t need any adjustments made to the Winchester’s 20” barrel, which made him highly proficient at spin-cocking and swing-cocking his rifle. Conners was also was ambidextrous, which is why you see him carrying his carbine alternately in his right or left hand at various times during the show.
No special photography was used because Connors was as fast as he looked with his Winchester, able to crank off ten rounds in an eye-blinking 11.2 seconds. He can be seen performing this rapid-fire feat at the beginning of every show. If you count the opening scene shots, however, Conners fires ten times, but the sound of an extra rifle shot was dubbed in to match the soundtrack.
WANTED—DEAD OR ALIVE: The title of the most famous TV Western gimmick gun has to be awarded to the highly altered Winchester carried by Steve McQueen as bounty hunter Josh Randall in Wanted: Dead Or Alive. McQueen, who knew his way around guns, christened the gun a Mare’s Leg (alternately Mare's Laig) because when it fired live ammunition it would kick at both ends. The term Mare's Leg was first coined in a 1957 episode of the TV Western series Trackdown, where Steve McQueen made his debut as bounty hunter Josh Randall.
To make the Mare’s Leg, a .44-40 caliber Model 1892 Winchester had its barrel cut back to nine inches, which had the effect of reducing the magazine capacity to six rounds. To shorten the gun further, the stock was cut back almost even with the customized loop lever to make the gun able to be fired with one hand. In reality, the bizarre gun was an impractical nightmare. Due to the risk of a deafening and dangerous muzzle blast, the gun could only be fired on the set using half-load blanks.
The Mare’s Leg also required a custom holster with a spring-loaded clip that secured the barrel and allowed McQueen to snap the gun free as fast as any owlhoot could draw his six-shooter. The Mare's Leg was .44-40 caliber, however, the bullets in McQueen’s cartridge belt were .45-70 caliber. This anachronism was used because the .45-70s were more visually impressive than the relatively small rounds used in the 1892 carbine.
With the sawn-off barrel, the Mare’s Leg did not have a gunsight, so Hollywood gun coach Rod Redwing was brought in to teach McQueen the finer aspects of point-shooting the weapon. The lessons worked. McQueen’s proficiency with the weapon look cool on screen, but his skill also paid off in real life. During a Pioneer Days celebration in Palm Springs in 1960, McQueen entered a fast draw contest against other TV Western stars. McQueen won easily, able to snap his Mare's Leg from its holster and fan off a shot in a respectable two-fifths of a second, outdrawing James Arness (Gunsmoke), John Payne (Restless Gun), and Peter Brown (Lawman).
JOHNNY RINGO: Another unusual TV Western gimmick gun was carried by Johnny Ringo (Don Durant). The gun was a custom-built revolver called a LeMat and was actually based on its historically authentic counterpart except for its top break cartridge-fed design. The 19th-century LeMat was, a nine-shot percussion revolver with a twenty gauge smoothbore barrel underneath the pistol's barrel. A flip of the firing pin on the hammer determined which barrel the gun would fire. Many episodes found Ringo getting into scrapes where that final round in the shotgun barrel was the deciding factor.
SHOTGUN SLADE: Detective Shotgun Slade (Scott Brady) did not utilize the normal six-shooter as his weapon of choice. Instead, he favored an over-and-under combination shotgun-rifle. The lower barrel fired a 12-gauge shotgun shell, while the top barrel fired a.32 caliber rifle bullet, giving Slade both heavy stopping power at close range and at distance when needed.
HAVE GUN WILL TRAVEL: While he was a master of many weapons, Paladin (Richard Boone) favored his Colt .45 handgun in his black holster with the trademark silver chess knight in the center. While the gun wasn’t particularly fancy, it looked huge in the opening sequence, which had Paladin in an action pose as he turned the gun on the audience. Paladin also carried a saddle-holstered Winchester lever-action rifle with which he was an expert marksman. And always one step ahead, Paladin also added a lethal surprise to his arsenal—a concealed Derringer small bore handgun.
THE REBEL: Johnny Yuma (Nick Adams) was a man proud of the remnants of his rebel uniform and was often forced to defend himself against slurs directed at him and the bitter defeat of the South. Using both his fists, a Civil War style Dragoon pistol in a cut-off Cavalry-flapped holster and what Yuma called his scattergun—a sawed off double barrel shotgun altered at both ends, which he usually wore strapped to his leg—as Steve McQueen did in Wanted: Dead Or Alive.
YANCY DERRINGER: While the dapper Yancy (Jock Mahoney) carried a four barreled Sharp’s Derringer, his Indian companion Pahoo carried a short, sawed-off, exposed hammer shotgun similar to the gun used by Johnny Yuma in The Rebel.
RESTLESS GUN: Vint Bonner (John Payne) used a Colt .45 caliber with a removable, longer barrel, and a detachable buttstock.
THE SHERIFF OF COCHISE: United States Marshal Frank Morgan (John Bromfield) was known for the Winchester mounted in a scabbard on the door of his patrol car.
THE WILD WILD WEST: In what would come to be considered the first steampunk influence TV Western (even though the term wasn’t coined until 1980), The Wild Wild West had gadgets galore. There were exploding belt buckles, a spring-loaded knife blade in the toe-box of a boot, and so many more.
There were also a number of gimmick guns including James West’s (Robert Conrad) hidden sleeve gun, a derringer designed to be broken down and concealed in a boot heel, and a grappling hook attachment to be shot from a rifle. The Wild Wild West was the ultimate in gadget cool.
A number of the original TV Western prop guns have turned up at auction. The real value of these TV Western guns is not monetary, but to be considered for their collector’s value, they must have a provenance—usually markings with the name of the studio. Some of the TV Western prop guns sold at auction are listed below...
BAT MASTERSON: Carrying a gold-tipped cane with a hidden sword, TV’s Bat Masterson (Gene Barry) already had a gimmick weapon, but he also carried a Remington Navy .36 until he switched to a custom .45 caliber Colt single action with a 3.5” barrel, commissioned for him by the people of Dodge City during his service as sheriff. The original prop gun sold at auction for $6,500 in January 2018...
TALES OF WELLS FARGO: Special agent Jim Hardie (Dale Robertson) carried a Colt Frontier single action revolver. The original prop gun from the show sold at auction for $2,800 in 2011...