Western Guns from the Silver Screen: Were They Practical?

The Mare - Western Guns

The Winchester 92 Mare’s Leg used in “Wanted: Dead or Alive” featured a nine-inch barrel and sawed-off stock.

The gun was anchored in the special holster by slipping the saddle ring through the steel hook (shown under the receiver) and securing the barrel with a spring clip. Note: Due to BATFE regulations, this non-firing prop gun, originally acquired from a Hollywood studio, features a dummy aluminum barrel.


This article about western guns continues a feature from the Sept. 24, 2012, issue of Gun Digest the Magazine. It's an excerpt from Gun Digest 2013, the world's greatest gun book.

Another Hollywood-ized version of the Winchester Model 92 is much more readily available, even though, in my opinion, it is even less practical than Chuck’s carbine.

That said, it is probably the ultimate TV western “fun gun.” From 1958 to 1961, Steve McQueen, as bounty hunter Josh Randall in Wanted: Dead Or Alive, brought justice to TV’s banditos with a loop-levered Model 92 that featured a dramatically shortened barrel and stock so it could be carried on the hip, like a pistol, in an open-sided holster. McQueen dubbed it the “Mare’s Leg,” because, as an avid shooter in real life, when he took it to the range to fire with live ammo, he discovered it kicked like a mule.

How handles were altered on TV Western guns
During the heyday of TV Western guns, many studios filed down the mainsprings of Single Action Armies to enable actors to cock them easier and faster. Today, this same effect can be achieved by the addition of Wolff mainsprings.

Needless to say, such Western guns had never been seen before in either the real or imagined West. With its nine-inch barrel and no sights, it was a realized figment of imagination born from producer John Robinson, who wanted to outfit his hero with Western guns that would garner attention.

That it did, causing the U.S. Treasury’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Division to take notice, when the series premiered on September 6, 1958. The government agency declared the Mare’s Leg illegal, as they reasoned it was neither a rifle nor a pistol.

After the show’s accountants ponied up $11,000 in registration fees (thus making it the most expensive of the TV Western guns), the Mare’s Leg went on to achieve stardom. The Mare’s Leg mystique was heightened by the fact that, even though it was a .44-40, Randall carried .45-70 shells in his specially designed gun belt, as Robinson felt the larger cartridges showed up better on camera.

Today, there are no less than four different companies producing the Mare’s Leg, all of which have front and rear sights and 12-inch barrels, rather than the original nine-inch tubes. While featuring an earlier-series wider loop lever, unlike the TV Western gun, the Rossi Ranch Hand is only available in .45 Colt, .44 Magnum, and .357 Magnum.

The Puma Bounty Hunter, built by Chiappa and available from Legacy Sports, has McQueen’s later-styled triangular loop lever and is available in Wanted: Dead Or Alive’s prototypical .44-40 as well as .45 Colt and .44 Magnum chamberings. J.B. Custom offers a Mare’s Leg built by Armi Sport (Chiappa) in the same three calibers, as well as a take-down version. And Henry Repeating Arms makes two variations, one in .45 Colt and the other in .22 Long Rifle, although neither is built on a Model 92-type action.

Having fired the modern Model 92-style versions of Josh Randall’s sidearm, I have to concur with the late Steve McQueen, as it does kick like a mule, especially in .44 Magnum. But, frankly, in .44-40 or .45 Colt, recoil-wise it is no different than shooting a Buntline Special.

After all, the barrel lengths are the same. These Western guns are touted as personal-defense and camp guns. Indeed, I can see packing a .44-40 Mare’s Leg in a door-mounted scabbard of a pickup truck or Jeep (it is too short to straddle a cab-mounted gun rack).

As for practicality, I can only relate an incident that occurred years ago, during a promotional fast-draw contest held at the 1960 Pioneer Days celebration in Palm Springs, California.

McQueen was able to snap his Mare’s Leg from its holster and fan off a shot in a respectable 2⁄5-second, outdrawing James Arness, John Payne (Restless Gun), and Peter Brown (Lawman). Thus, once again, the legend became fact.

Read More About Western Guns

More about Western GunsThe full article and photos from this feature on Western guns can be found in Gun Digest 2013, the world's greatest gun book. It's only one of many interesting features on gun history.

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