Were it not for Hollywood’s Westerns, the late Val Forgett and Aldo Uberti might not have been motivated to replicate 19th century firearms that, from a technological standpoint, were passé. Hollywood also inspired the fast-draw sport of the ’50s and ’60s that, in more recent times, was the catalyst for cowboy action shooting.
Until recently anyone wanting to relive “those thrilling days of yesteryear” was limited to straight-from-the catalogue sixgun configurations of the Colt SAA, or Italian clones by firms such as Uberti, Cimarron Firearms and Taylor’s & Co., plus the Ruger Vaquero. Likewise, just as the Winchester 92 was omnipresent on big screen and small, we had to settle for originals and replicas of standard rifles and carbines, even though our tall-in-the-saddle movie and TV heroes often carried more elaborate versions.
Of course, what was good enough for Matt Dillon and Paladin was certainly good enough for us. But what about wanting to emulate Steve McQueen as Josh Randall with his chopped Winchester 92 in “Wanted Dead Or Alive”? Or to take aim with Chuck Connors’ loop-levered ’92 carbine, as seen in “The Rifleman”? Owning such look-alike theatrical arms was out of the question (not to mention the legalities of McQueen’s “Mare’s Leg” barrel length) unless one opted to invest in the services of a skilled gunsmith for such modifications.
Yet many years ago that is exactly what I did after seeing a VHS version of the 1939 motion picture “Stagecoach,” and having become captivated with one of the first guns ever modified for a Western, the loop-levered Winchester 92 carbine used by John Wayne as the Ringo Kid. Although Wayne had previously appeared in numerous B Westerns, “Stagecoach” director John Ford wanted this to be Wayne’s breakout role. As such, he envisioned a dramatic on-screen entrance for his young star.
“When the camera zooms in on you for your opening shot,” he told Wayne, “I want you to spin that rifle like a pistol.” Of course, Wayne knew it was impossible to twirl an unmodified Winchester in such a manner, but he wasn’t about to tell that to the irascible John Ford. Instead, he and stuntman Yakima Canutt devised a rounded lever that did indeed enable Duke to dramatically spin his Winchester 1892 carbine, one of two used in the movie—a .44-40 Win. for firing 5-in-1 blanks and a .32-20 Win. Trapper with a 15 1/2-inch barrel for spinning. As an aside, on June 5, 2007, the Trapper sold for $113,000 at Little John’s Auction Service in Anaheim, Calif.
Evidently it also inspired Winchester Repeating Arms, because, as an indication of today’s growing interest in replicating guns of the Hollywood westerns, this year Winchester unveiled its Model 1892 Large Loop Carbine, which had the added allure of not only being chambered in .44-40 Win., but in .357 Mag., .44 Mag. and .45 Colt. And at $1,256, it is substantially more affordable than the auction price of the Duke’s original Winchester.
Following the evolution of Wayne’s “Stagecoach” loop-lever actions, the actor discovered that the wide three-quarter-circle lever was prone to becoming bent during action scenes. Thus, by the 1950s Stembridge Gun Rentals at Paramount Studios had modified the lever concept into a pinched oval or egg shape. This smaller contour, affixed to a standard Winchester 1892 carbine, became one of Wayne’s trademarks, and appeared with him in many Westerns, from “Rio Bravo” in 1959 to “The Shootist” in 1976. Although the smaller contoured lever was not particularly suitable for spinning, the Duke does give it a creditable twirl in one scene near the end of “El Dorado,” a movie in which Robert Mitchum, as town sheriff, and Wayne, playing a gunfighter, both carry identical Winchester 92s with modified levers. As they walk down the street during the first part of the movie carrying their carbines, Mitchum says to Wayne, “I had one made up just like yours.”
Now we can all quote that famous line, because a replica of Wayne’s carbine is offered as the El Dorado by Cimarron Firearms ($1,244), with a case-colored receiver, hammer and lever, and as the Rio Bravo ($1,253) either blued or case-colored from Taylor’s & Co. and Chiappa, both of which sell the loop lever separately for $109 for those who want to make their own conversion. Calibers include .38 Spl., .357 Mag., .38-40 Win., .44-40 Win. and .45 Colt, depending on company. Legacy Sports Int’l also has a Puma 16-inch Trapper version made by Chiappa for $1,031. Although some tout the large lever as suitable for gloved hands, in my opinion gloves have nothing to do with it. Like Robert Mitchum, we just want a carbine like the Duke’s.
A lot of us evidently feel the same way about the Mare’s Leg used by Steve McQueen as bounty hunter Josh Randall in TVs “Wanted Dead Or Alive,” which aired on CBS from 1958 to 1961, as there are four different companies offering versions of what has to be one of the most impractical yet unforgettable firearms ever depicted in any Western. With a 9-inch barrel, no sights and a stock cut-off just behind the comb, it started out as a Winchester 92 and ended up being carried by McQueen like a pistol on his hip in an open, spring-clipped holster. The gun, which never existed before in either the real or “reel” West, was conceived by series producer John Robinson, who wanted McQueen to pack something unique. Adding to its distinctiveness was the fact that even though McQueen’s Mare’s Leg was chambered in .44-40 Win. (thus enabling it to fire 5-in-1 blanks), the actor’s gunbelt sported .45-70 Gov’t cartridges, as Robinson felt they looked better on television. (No one ever accused Hollywood of being influenced by reality.)