Those of us weaned on TV westerns during the Golden Years of television in the 1950s and '60s, or who are just now discovering “…those thrilling days of yesteryear” (to quote from announcer Fred Foy’s opening monologue of "The Lone Ranger"), have long been fascinated by the rifles and revolvers packed by our tall-in-the-saddle heroes. I’m not just referring to their ubiquitous Colt Single Action Armies and Winchester lever actions. I’m talking about those specialized guns that still capture our attention after all these years, such as Hugh O’Brian’s Buntline Special in “The Life And Legend of Wyatt Earp,” which ran from 1955 to 1961 on ABC. Or the ultra-fast-shooting, loop-levered Winchester Model 1892 carbine so deftly wielded by Chuck Connors as Lucas McCain in "The Rifleman," which was originally shown on ABC from 1958 to 1963.
But perhaps no TV western captured not just the bad guys but our imaginations as vividly as the dramatically cut-down Winchester Model 92 saddle ring carbine that was so menacingly carried in a spring-clipped, break-open belt rig by Steve McQueen, as bounty hunter Josh Randall in TVs “Wanted Dead Or Alive,” which aired on CBS from 1958 to 1961. With a 9" barrel (thus reducing the magazine capacity to five rounds), no sights, a wide “Rifleman-styled” D-loop lever and a stock cut off just behind the comb, it was one of the most impractical yet unforgettable firearms ever depicted in a western–or anywhere else for that matter.
Nonetheless, it was mesmerizing to the point that famous toymakers such as Marx made cap-gun replicas of what became known as the "Mare’s Leg" – so-named by McQueen because “…It’s kinda like a mare’s leg, only not as mean….but if I have to use it, I want to make sure the message gets to where’s I’m pointin’.” Later in the series–in keeping with the practice of always having three of any necessary prop in case one of them got damaged–the carbine was augmented with two octagon barreled cut down rifles sporting teardrop-shaped loops for easier handling in action scenes and widened hammer spurs for occasional fanning (after all, this was Hollywood).
Of course, McQueen’s sawed-off Winchester 92s never existed before, in either the real or the “reel” West. Rather, the gun was conceived by series producer John Robinson, who wanted McQueen to pack something so unique it would set his upcoming "Wanted Dead Or Alive" series apart from every other western airing at the time. In order to help bring this non-existent gun into reality, McQueen enlisted the talents of a reclusive, desert-dwelling Southern California friend, a multi-talented, gunsmith-mechanic-custom car artist named Kenny “Von Dutch” Howard, who thus transformed a standard Winchester Model 92 saddle ring carbine into what became the Mare’s Leg.
The accompanying holster (if it could be called that) was fashioned by Hollywood fast draw leather craftsman Andy Anderson, who used a metal hook to secure the saddle ring of the carbine to a wide gunbelt, while a leather-covered steel clip held the barrel against the rig’s leather drop-down skirt. Adding to the distinctiveness of this atypical rig was the fact that even though McQueen’s Mare’s Leg was chambered in .44-40 (thus enabling it to fire 5-in-1 blanks), the gunbelt sported much larger .45-70 Gov't cartridges. Of course, they could not possibly be chambered in a Winchester Model 92, but that didn’t matter, as series producer John Robinson felt the bigger cartridges were much more impressive-looking on television. (No one ever accused Hollywood of being influenced by reality.)
The Mare’s Leg made its first TV appearance–not in "Wanted Dead or Alive"–but in another 1958 TV western series called "Trackdown," starring Robert Culp as Texas Ranger Hoby Gillman. It was in an episode entitled, “The Bounty Hunter,” which was written by Robinson and intended as a pilot for the upcoming "Wanted Dead or Alive" series. In their TV debut, McQueen and his Mare’s Leg definitely provided enough combined star appeal to launch their own series. However, unlike McQueen, his gun only got a single close up in the "Trackdown" episode, but it was enough to create a lot of viewer curiosity, which, of course, was the whole reason for its existence.
Indeed, it was difficult to define the Mare’s Leg as either a handgun or a rifle, a problem that not only intrigued viewers, but perplexed the U.S. Treasury’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Division when they first spotted it on TV. They finally ended up classifying it as a machine gun and slapped Robinson with $11,000 in fines and registration fees, thus making it the most expensive gun on any TV western.
A conscientious method actor, McQueen took one of the sawed-off guns to the range to experience what it was like to actually fire it with live ammo. With the muzzle blast from its stubby barrel and basically no stock to anchor it, he famously declared the gun kicked like a mare’s leg. And because Robinson’s original script referred to McQueen’s gun as a Winchester Model 92 rifle, the property master initially requested full house 5-in-1 blanks to be used during filming. However, even with blanks, the muzzle blast was so excessive from the shortened 9" barrel that only quarter-load blanks were used thereafter (the gunshots were always dubbed in afterwards).
Today there are countless "Wanted Dead Or Alive" fans (myself included) that continue to fantasize about owning and shooting an actual Mare’s Leg. Of course, a rifle with a barrel less than 16" in length is illegal, according to the National Firearms Act of 1934 (NFA), unless one wants to fill out an ATF Form 4 to register it as a short-barreled rifle (SBR) and pay a $200 registration tax. Thankfully, none of that became necessary, due to guns such as the Puma Bounty Hunter and the Rossi Ranch hand, which were built on Model 92-styled actions, but sported legal 12" barrels, as they were factory-designated as pistols rather than rifles. Thus, they helped fulfill some "Wanted Dead Or Alive" wish lists, and even though no longer imported, these guns can occasionally be found on secondary markets such as gun shows and auctions.
Today, I am aware of only two Mare’s Leg-styled lever actions in current production. One is from Henry Repeating Arms and is built using HRA’s proprietary lever-action design, rather than a Model 92 action. Henry offers various 12.75" barreled models, ranging in calibers from .22 LR to .44 Rem. Mag., in addition to a .410 bore Henry Lever Action Axe, with a 15.5" smoothbore barrel.
However, Chiappa produces an almost-exact replica of McQueen’s Model 92 Mare’s Leg, which is “…built from ground up as a lever action handgun with a pistol grip length stock and pistol length barrel,” according to their website. Indeed, it features either a 9" or a 12" round barrel and, although not available in .44-40, is chambered in .45 Colt and .357 Mag. A takedown version and a 12" barreled Mare’s Leg in .44 Rem. Mag. are also available.
These current Mare’s Legs, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosive’s Gun Control Act of 1968, are classified as non-Class 3/NFA firearms, but you should still consult with your local and state laws, which may nonetheless prohibit the sale of these guns in your area, despite their federal classification.
Like so many others, I have often wondered just how effective McQueen’s short-barreled, stockless Mare’s Leg would have been in an actual Old West gunfight. I decided to find out, at least in a shootout against paper targets. The 12" Chiappa Mare’s Leg in .45 Colt, with a standard Model 92 lever and a case-hardened receiver, was the only version available to me at the time, but even with the extra 3" of barrel, it was sufficient for my test.
In anticipation of doing some rapid-fire exercises, I did my testing on a private range in Simi Valley, Calif. I needn’t have bothered, as any semblance of rapid firing with the Mare’s Leg was mitigated by the lack of a stock in which to brace the gun while working the lever. Instead, I found the Mare’s Leg was much more adaptable to one and two handed point shooting from chest-high level, and at close range–we’re talking a gunfighting distance of approximately 7 yards, in which I was able to get some 2.5" groups. Beyond that range, the shots began to spread out to the point of being impractical for anything other than a few lucky hits on paper. In the interest of safety, fanning was out of the question, although I can certainly see why McQueen widened the hammer spurs on his guns for that purpose.
My conclusion is that the Mare’s Leg, aside from being nostalgically cool, could possibly be a practical choice for close-range home defense, as it can easily fit under a bed–or under a mattress, for that matter. It could also serve as a compact truck gun, and I admit to having daydreams of bouncing across the Arizona desert in a Jeep with a Mare’s Leg clipped inside the driver’s side of the door. Obviously, it would be a fun gun to take on camping trips for impromptu plinking, as well as to serve double duty as a deterrent to any unwanted two- and four-legged intruders.
After my testing, I ordered a blued version of Chiappa’s Mare’s Leg for myself and then had a gunsmith swap out the factory lever (currently a non-prototypical rectangular shape) for Chiappa’s more correctly proportioned D-ring “1892 Modern Hunting” lever, such as seen on McQueen’s original gun. Chiappa also offers an “1892 Bounty Hunter” teardrop lever, as found on the two later guns used in the series. In addition, I had the action slicked up to make shoulder-less cocking easier. So even though I don’t plan on rousting up some desperados and collecting the bounty on them anytime soon, just taking my Mare’s Leg to the range and getting curious and envious glances from my fellow shooters is reward enough.