Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Rifleman - We Need Him Today!

OK, I'll confess, I love watching The Rifleman! I have for years, and thanks to re-runs and my DVR, I will for a long time to come.

Each episode had a moral, a message, a great life lesson, things that made sense and were right. And yes, I loved it then just as I love it now. As for you who have never heard of The Rifleman, well you're missing out on a great show.

"The Rifleman" is a Western television show that aired on ABC from September 30, 1958 to April 8, 1963 as a production of Four Star Television. During the production of The Rifleman back in the early 1960's, its star was Chuck Connors who played Lucas McCain. His son Mark McCain was played by Johnny Crawford. It was set in the 1880s in the fictitious town of North Fork in the New Mexico Territory. And please, don't try finding it because it's not there.

The show was filmed in black-and-white as were most in those days. And frankly, I don't remember any shows back then in color. It was only produced in half-hour episodes. It was one of the first prime time series to have a widowed parent raise a child.

The three main characters consisted of Chuck Connors as Lucas McCain, a rancher, Union Army veteran of the American Civil War and widowed father; Johnny Crawford as Lucas' son Mark McCain; Paul Fix as marshal of North Fork Micah Torrance. Other regulars included Bill Quinn as Sweeney the bartender; Patricia Blair as Lou Mallory; Joe Higgins as Nils Swenson the blacksmith; Harlan Warde as John Hamilton the banker; Joan Taylor as Milly Scott; Hope Summers as Hattie Denton; John Harmon as Eddie Halstead.

As for trivia? Well, seven actors played the town doctor during the series, for some reason all were usually known as "Doc Burrage": the first was Edgar Buchanan, then came Fay Roope, Rhys Williams, Jack Kruschen, Robert Burton, Ralph Moody and Bert Stevens. And as for guest stars, more than 500 actors made guest appearances in over 970 credited roles during the series' run -- and many went on to big time careers.

The series centers on Lucas McCain, a widowed Civil War veteran who was supposedly a Union Army Lieutenant in the 19th Indiana Volunteer Infantry Regiment. Lucas McCain and his son Mark live on their ranch outside the fictitious town of North Fork, New Mexico Territory. You notice how I said fictitious town of North Fork again? It's because people really do go looking for it. The series was set during the 1880s, a wooden plaque next to the McCain home states that the home was rebuilt by Lucas McCain and his son Mark in August 1881 after the first one was burnt to the ground.

The pilot episode, "The Sharpshooter", was originally telecast on CBS as part of Dick Powell's Zane Grey Theater on March 7, 1958. It was repeated in an edited form as the first episode of the series on ABC. Believe it or not, actress Ida Lupino directed one episode. Chuck Connors wrote several episodes himself. Actor Robert Culp wrote one two-part episode, and Frank Gilroy wrote "End of a Young Gun".

The February 17, 1959 episode of The Rifleman was a spin-off for an NBC series, Law of the Plainsman, starring Michael Ansara as Marshal Sam Buckhart. In the episode "The Indian", Buckhart comes to North Fork to look for Indians suspected of murdering a Texas Ranger and his family.

A common thread in the series is that "people deserve a second chance." For example, Marshal Micah Torrance is a recovering alcoholic, and McCain gives a convict a job on his ranch in "The Marshal". Lucas McCain himself is a man with human foibles. He is not perfect. Yes, he too learns during some of the episodes.

In an episode with Phil Carey who played a former gunman and old adversary Simon Battles, he is unwilling to believe the man has changed and become a doctor and father. It takes a gunfight with Simon Battles standing alongside him to make him admit that he was wrong.

In "Two Ounces Of Tin" with Sammy Davis, Jr. as Tip Corey who is a former circus trick-shot artist turned gunman, McCain angrily orders him off the ranch when he finds him demonstrating his skills to Mark. McCain has a reputation in the Indian Territories of Oklahoma, where he first acquired the nickname "the Rifleman," and where Lucas' wife died in a smallpox epidemic.

The series was created by Arnold Laven and developed by the famous Sam Peckinpah, who would go on to become the director of some of the bloodiest movies ever made. Peckinpah, who wrote and directed many episodes, based many characters and plots on his childhood on a ranch. His insistence on violent realism and complex characterizations and his refusal to sugarcoat the lessons he felt the Rifleman's son needed to learn about life put him at odds with the show's producers at Four Star. Peckinpah left the show and created a short-lived series, The Westerner with Brian Keith.

Television Westerns were extremely popular when The Rifleman premiered, and producers tried to find gimmicks to distinguish one show from another. Show creators really did try to make characters interesting by equipping them with a "gimmick" of some sort such as different types of guns. For example, the three most famous having been Josh Randall's "mare's leg" rifle which was used by Steve McQueen in CBS's Wanted: Dead or Alive,  the over-and-under shotgun used by Scott Brady in Shotgun Slade, and of course Lucas McCain's trick rifle from ABC's The Rifleman,

The Rifleman's trick rifle was his gimmick. As with the guns in many Western movies, it is anachronistic in that it was first manufactured in 1892 which is 12 years after the time in which the show is set. But hey, it's just a television show! It was a modified Winchester Model 1892 rifle, with a large ring lever drilled and tapped for a setscrew allowing for rapid fire by setting the screw to depress the trigger instead his having to pull the trigger for each shot fired. The unique feature of the Rifleman's rifle and screw pin attached to a large loop lever positioned to trip the trigger when the ring was slammed home allowed Lucas to fire the rifle as fast as he could work the lever, emptying the magazine in under five seconds. It also enabled McCain to spin-cock the rifle.

The trigger-trip screw pin was used in two configurations, with the screw head turned inside close to the trigger or more often outside the trigger guard with a locknut on the outside to secure its position. In some episodes the screw was removed, when rapid-fire action was not required. When properly adjusted, the screw “squeezed” the trigger when the lever was fully closed.

So how does an 1892 Winchester lever action rifle make it into a television show that is supposedly taking place 12 years before it was invented? Friends, that's Hollywood! In Hollywood, anything is possible. For example, Lucas McCain fires 12 shots from his rifle during the opening credits. Seven shots in the first closeup and five more as the camera switches to another view. The people doing the soundtrack put in a dubbed 13th gunshot to allow the firing to end with a section of the theme music. Most, if not all, of the sound effects for the rifle shots were dubbed, which is why the rifle sounded so different from the other gunshots on the show.

For us gun folks who can appreciate the Winchester used in the series, the rifle was chambered in .44-40 caliber, which could be used as six-gun cartridges or rifle rounds. He could supposedly fire off his first round in three-tenths of a second, which certainly helped in a showdown if he needed rapid fire and run his rifle dry. 

Despite the anachronism of a John Browning-designed rifle appearing in a show set 12 years before it was designed, Connors demonstrated its rapid-fire action during the opening credits on North Fork's main street. Although the rifle may have appeared in every episode, it was not always fired. As surprising as it may sound to some folks, some plots did not require violent solutions. For example, one involving Mark's rigid new teacher. McCain attempts to solve as many problems as possible without having to resort to shooting.

Gunsmith James S. Stembridge modified two Model 1892s for use in regular and close-up filming.  In addition, a Spanish-made Gárate y Anitúa "El Tigre" lever action near-copy of the Model 1892 was modified for use as a knockabout gun.

The El Tigre is seen in scenes where the rifle is in a saddle scabbard and is not drawn and in stunts where the rifle was thrown to the ground, used as a club, or in any stunt where there was the possibility of damage to the real Model 1892s. These three rifles were the only ones used by Chuck Connors during the entire series.

The 1892 Winchester caliber .44-40 carbine with a standard 20-inch barrel used on the set of The Rifleman appeared with two different types of levers. The backwards, round-D-style loop was used in the early episodes. Sometimes the rifle McCain uses has a saddle ring. The style later changed to a flatter lever instead of the large loop with no saddle ring. The 8-32 set screw tapped through the trigger guard for the rapid-fire action also came in different styles. Some were silver, while others were black with a silver nut under the head of the screw. Sometimes Connors had the screw head turned inside close to the trigger, but he mostly had it on the outside of the trigger guard.

The rapid-fire mechanism was originally designed to keep Chuck Connors' finger from getting punctured by the trigger as he quickly fired and cocked the rifle. The rifle and ammunition were provided by the now-defunct Stembridge Gunsmiths. Ammunition was quarter-load 5-in-1 blank cartridges containing smokeless powder, which did not produce the thick clouds of smoke the genuine black powder cartridges of the 1880s did. If memory serves me right, smokelesss powder wasn't invented until invented until 1884 in France, and it wasn't introduced in the United States until 1887.

The 1892 Winchester is a top-eject rifle as the top is open when the lever is cocked forward. The empty shells are ejected straight up when the lever is pulled towards the shooter. When the rifle was spin-cocked down to Connors' side, the cartridges would have fallen to the ground. Therefore, the rifle was modified with a plunger which would hold a round in place. Smart huh!

The Model 1892 Winchester rifle, a descendant of the Civil War-era Henry rifle and Winchester Model 1866 "Yellow Boy" rifles, was made from 1892 to 1941 which had a total production run of over one million. Many variations and calibers were introduced over the course of production, but the basic design was kept the same. Winchester made 27 different variations of its 1892 rifle.

Like the earlier 1873 model, the light and handy Model 1892 was chambered for handgun cartridges, favored by many Westerners to simplify ammunition supply problems by using the same cartridge for both your handgun and rifle. And yes, like many other fine firearms, the Winchester Model 1892 rifle was designed by the great John Moses Browning who designed the M2 heavy .50 caliber machine gun which our troops are using in combat to this day.

As for what ever happened to the famous rifle? On July12th of 2012, it was reported that Profiles In History has announced that the iconic Hollywood firearm would go to auction July 30th, 2012. In lot #369, Chuck Conners 44-40 Winchester rifle from the TV Show The Rifleman went on the block.

Jeff Conners, son of Chuck Conners, said his father presented the rifle to him when he was at his father’s ranch inn Bear Valley Springs in Tehachapi, California, and was one of five rifles custom built for the show. The estimated auction price was $40,000 – $60,000. And yes, as silly as it sounds, since it was in California, the buyer needed to have a transfer of ownership done with an FFL to receive the $60,000 rifle -- including a background check.

Background check? As if a criminal would use a $60,000 1892 lever-action .44-40 rifle to do a drive by shooting? Right.

Now as for the idea of remaking The Rifleman? I hope not! Though in 2011, CBS announced plans to remake the original Rifleman series, I really hope it's not done.

Hollywood's new version of The Rifleman would not be like the old version at all. They would want to portray Lucas McCain as a Civil War hero and unparalleled sharpshooter who is haunted by personal demons of wrongs that he had committed. Something that Lucas McCain was not. They would depict him as a dark figure who moves to the New Mexico territory trying to put his past behind him -- yet becomes the unofficial guardian of the town. Again, something that Lucas McCain was not.

During a discussion on a forum lately, some were talking about the 2011 CBS announcement of remaking The Rifleman. I commented on how it wouldn't be the same. My belief is that if it happened, it simply would not be the same because Hollywood has changed for the worse.

Back then, in the 1950s and 1960s, each Rifleman episode had a moral or a message. It had great life leassons for kids and adults. Whether it was against bigotry or selfishness, regarding greed or injustice, the idea of never losing hope and staying on right side of the line, each episode gave the viewer something to think about.

Take for example, the very second episode of The Rifleman: The Home Ranch. Here is Chuck Connors' own words describing part of the episode:

"Mark and I stood together as we watched our home burn. I had a discouraging look on my face, but Mark’s face showed confusion and disgust. He couldn’t believe our home was going up in smoke. I walked across the burn and ashes, trying to take everything in. I threw a can down in disgust and walked to the wagon, banging my fist against it. With our new home burned to the ground, Mark was upset and discouraged.

"Pa, it's just not fair!” He cried in his little ten year old voice. "We ride half way across the country looking for the right place, and when we finally got it...well look what happened!"

Suddenly another board fell from the house. I turned and closed my eyes, knowing I needed to stay strong for my boy and mustering up the strength to do so. "Looks to me like the Lord is dead set against us having our own place'!" Mark said practically in tears.

His words shook me, and I realized I had to restore his faith in the Lord. So instead of comforting him like my whole being wanted to do, I simply stated, "Help me saddle up boy. I want to tell you a story.”

Mark just sat still, not understanding why I was wanting to tell him a story at a time like this. “Come on," I ordered sternly. As we started saddling my horse, I told the story:  A long time ago in a country so far west, it's almost due east of here, lived a big stock man with a beard so long it reached down to his belly button. His name was Job.

Now Job had seven sons and seven daughters, over seven thousand head of fine cattle and sheep, not to mention a considerable amount of camels. Now Job was top dog with the Lord because he was so hard working, righteous. The Lord never lost a chance to brag on him...made a point to tell the devil about the old man...about how he hated evil, temptation and, most important, how he never lost his faith in God.

Well the devil swished his tail and laughed and he allowed that Job was such a good man because everything was going his way. Just give him some trouble and he'd switch sides in a hurry.

Well the Lord thought this over and then he said he'd give the devil a hard dollar against a penny's worth of brimstone that Job would keep faith with his maker no matter what trials were put upon him.

Well the devil sent some rustlers on to the old man's stock. Then he called up a big wind that knocked down his house and killed all his children. The old man's beard turned white with grief. But he held stead fast. So the devil reared back and saddled him all over with festers and boils.

Mark, Job was a miserable as a man could be. He got himself a piece of broken jug, sat out in the corral doctorin’ his boils and shaken ashes over his head and bewailing his faith, wondering why the Lord has forsaken him until finally three of his friends came up, and they told Job that wailing about the situation only made it worse and it looked to them like he sinned somewhere along the line and why didn't he repent.

Job jumped right back at them. He said he'd repent when he had something to repent about. He knew he'd been good and righteous and while he might complain about his life, he had not lost faith with the Lord.

‘Oh that my words were now written and printed in a book, graven with chisel and granite rock forever. For I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand beside me later on.’

That's how the old man put it! Well Mark, the devil was plum wore out, so he just tossed in his chips and quit the game. The Lord was so proud of Job that he restored all the old man's children and his house and his camels and sheep and he gave him over twice as many cattle as he had before. And Job lived a hundred and forty years happy as a bird dog and finally died being old and full of days."

Mark thought about what I had just said. "Makes our troubles look kind of piddlin' don't it?"

I nodded, giving him a gentle smile. "I guess we're gonna keep this ranch!" Mark said proudly, his faith restored. 

So I then told him, "Well I guess we're gonna try!" Mark knew then that we could overcome any kind of obstacle as long as we keep our faith in the Lord and faced them together."  
Hollywood would never go for that sort of Christian message today. They like dark and negative where good guys fail and bad guys prevail. In today's Hollywood, there is no place for such a good man.

In the 50's and 60's version, Lucas McCain is a strong man who read the bible, a good practical Christian who might have a cold beer but mostly drinks coffee, is a rancher and a true steward of the land, a person who lives his life believing that doing what's right is right. He is a man who volunteers to do his Civic Duty by being part of the School Board and volunteers to cover for the town marshal from time to time just as most others in town do.

He defends himself, his family, neighbors and country, all while giving people a fair deal and trying to bring up his son the best way he knows how. He is like most around him -- hard working, good, strong, brave, steadfast in making his property and life a go, living a life good and rich with close friends and family, using the Bible as a guide, remembering that there is a law higher than that made by man, respecting others and himself. Lucas McCain's character is what those in the Old West were like. His character is that of those who persevered, settled the West, and made our nation great.

Those are not the traits which Hollywood wants to sell these days. Instead they focus on the seedy, the greedy, and the worse of the worse in human nature trying to make people believe that we are all essentially bad. And yes, ironically, Hollywood's desire to depict the Old West as a place that lacks all humanity shows just how out of touch Hollywood is to the rest of the country and truth history.

Whether Hollywood likes it or not, the 50's and 60s version of Lucas McCain is what America really wants and needs right now. America needs to see how tough our forefathers really were, and maybe find inspiration in knowing that we too can persevere and win in the battle of keeping the Devil at bay -- no matter how bad things get.

Tom Correa


  1. Great bio of Chuck Conner's portrayal of Lucas McCain and the Rifleman series.

    And I agree Hollywood would totally ruin it if they made a remake of it. You just can't improve on perfection now can you?

  2. I don't know - If they could remake it so that Lucas doesn't end up KILLING 2 or 3 people in each episode, it wouldn't be so bad . . . . would it?

  3. Why yes today's political correctness would absolutely ruin a swell old t vee show. Just like it has wrecked our society today. It taught a great lesson back then life isn't fair.

  4. I purchased the HULU app for my TV because they offer all 5 seasons of The Rifleman ... but would you believe it? There is ONE solitary episode that HULU does NOT offer! That's right! Season 1, Episode 2 – The Home Ranch!


    Thank YOU, my friend for publishing Lucas' story of Job! I plan on sharing it ... BIG time!

    ~Alan Horvath | WatchAlan . com

  5. Hulu is obviously run by haughty ignorant filthy-hearted sanctimonious extremist anti-christian bigots!
    Small-minded ignorant hate-driven anti-christian bigots at Hulu have deliberately removed The Rifleman Season 1, Episode 2 - The Home Ranch. And it's no wonder why. That, and the offensive bigoted Handmaids Tale series, itself produced by HULU makes it pretty clear where these hateful intellectually bankrupt pigs stand.

  6. I find a great number of those old westerns had messages that reflect uplifting scenarios and values. I watch them to this day and always will. With out a doubt they helped to form my values and outlook on life. God works in many and not so mysterious ways. I feel blessed to be brought up during that time.

  7. I am a big fan of the Old West and Westerns, so for me this is truly a godsend. Sadly, we lost Johnny Crawford only two years ago. He was the last cast member to die and at the time of his death he we the last one alive. His final public appearance had been for the YouTube channel, "A Word On Westerns" in 2019 promoting his latest film, "The Marshal" where he played his Hollywood cowboy hero William S. Hart. Johnny was also a singer and was the bandleader of a 1930s-style orchestra. For those of you that can remember, Johnny Crawford was also in John Wayne's 1967 Western film, "El Dorado" where the Duke shoots him after Johnny tries to ambush him. His character's name was Luke McDonald. In his later life, Johnny had suffered from Alzheimer's and was forgetting some of the TV shows and movies he had been in. After his final film appearance in 2019, it got much worse. Then with CO-VID, there was no telling if Johnny would make it. As you all know, he later died. But he and Chuck Connors were my favorite characters from The Rifleman. I will always love Westerns. But not as much as I love The Rifleman.


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