I am sure many readers of this blog series are fans of the Western genre of film, or have at least seen a few good oaters here and there. There are actors who are synonymous with the Western, such as John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Jimmy Stewart, and many, many more. Every so often there are Westerns that feature more than just the protagonist as a central character. Firearms are usually a common element to the Western. Cowboys, outlaws, townsfolk, saloon gals, gamblers, etc., are almost always carrying a gun of some sort. In some cases though, a firearm makes it’s way in the film bearing as much significance as the main character carrying the gun. Classic Westerns such as Winchester ’73 (1950), Quigley Down Under (1990), and the television series Wanted: Dead or Alive (1958-1961) , are examples in which firearms play a main role in the story.
One of One Thousand
Some firearms had their own legendary history before they were prominently featured in a Western. Winchester ’73, starring Jimmy Stewart, told the story of Lin McAdam on the trail after notorious outlaw ‘Dutch Henry’ Brown. Early in the film, McAdam and his adversary compete against one another in a shooting competition in Dodge City, Kansas. Whoever wins the match was to receive none other than a Winchester Model 1873 lever action rifle. This Winchester ’73 wasn’t just any ordinary gun, it was a coveted “1 of 1000” model. 136 of these Winchesters were made as a marketing campaign by Winchester. The rifles selected demonstrated unusually accurate groupings in test firing, and they would be outfitted with expensive upgrades. Sold along with their test fire targets, these rifles made for a very exclusive package. The movie that featured the “1 of 1000” prize Winchester, would make the Winchester 1873 even more famous, and the film would go on to be a classic Western.
The Buffalo Gun goes Down Under
These movies that prominently display a certain frontier firearm sometimes even generate such popularity that there are specific reproduction models and shooting stages because of the film! Quigley Down Under, starring Tom Selleck, features Australia as the setting for this Western flick. While not a major success, the film inspired a following of Western fans, particularly for the main character, Matthew Quigley, carrying no other firearm besides an 1874 Sharps single-shot breech loading rifle. These rifles were popular with the buffalo hunters on the plains of the American frontier, as they were accurate at long range and could use heavy caliber ammunition. Quigley is exceptionally accurate with his custom Sharps, which uses a .45-110 paper patch bullet, and has an extra long 34 inch barrel. The rifle nearly stars alongside Tom Selleck in the film, and many reproduction models of the “Quigley Sharps” are made today for shooters and fans of the movie. Inspiring even more Sharps and Quigley fans, there is annual Matthew Quigley Buffalo Rifle Match is held in Forsyth, Montana on Father’s Day weekend. The shoot is the largest of its kind in America, attended by around 600 shooters, who use Sharps rifles to shoot at targets out to 800 yards.
The King of Cool & the Mare’s Laig
A short lived Western television series launched the career of one of the coolest actors on the silver screen. Wanted: Dead or Alive ran from 1958 to 1961 (3 seasons), and starred Steve McQueen as bounty hunter Josh Randall. A former Confederate veteran, Randall is a bounty hunter who makes his living chasing fugitives, but often uses his money to aid others. One of the coolest firearms in Westerns is also featured in the series. Randall carries a modified Winchester Model 1892 carbine which is called the “Mare’s Laig”. Carried in a custom gunslinger style hip holster, the Mare’s Laig actually used .44-40 WCF cartridges. However, more impressive .45-70 rounds are seen in the loops of Randall’s gun belt. Again, companies make reproduction Mare’s Leg’s for those who would like to own a classic Western firearm inspired by the TV series. One of the actual Mare’s Laigs is displayed in the Western Frontiers: Stories of Fact and Fiction exhibit at the Autry National Center in Los Angeles, California.
These are just a few examples of firearms as Western “stars”. These firearms have been made iconic due to their presentation and prominent feature in these movies. The allure of such marksmanship and firearms stem from historical fact to fictional manifestations of frontier arms. However they make their appearance, the firearm has the potential to bring just as much interest and appeal to a Western as the famous stars that use them.