Five Great Old TV Shows and The Guns That Made Them Famous

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Steve McQueen in ‘Wanted Dead or Alive’

Back in the day, television was heavily censored. Even married TV couples had to sleep in separate beds (Luuucyy!). But characters could shoot at each other with reckless abandon, if the spirit moved them. And move them, it did.

There was a fair amount of gunplay in old television shows. Westerns were big, with at least one climactic gun battle each week — usually more — to keep things interesting.

Combat WWII tv show
Sal Mineo and Vic Morrow in “Combat”

Some of the more action-packed programs were based upon World War II. The most popular were westerns. Whatever the show or time period, the basic recipe was usually the same; somebody who’s bad was going to get ventilated.

That said, the early TV programs were still subject to strict violent image restrictions. The Powers That Be™ prohibited graphic depictions of real physical damage. The bad guys grimaced, grabbed their stomach and fell down dead with their eyes closed when they were hit. Most of us young ‘uns grew up believing that a gunshot wound was little more than a scratch.

However real or unreal the depictions, the TV shows we grew up with had a profound effect on us, on how we enjoyed entertainment, and on our love and appreciation for firearms. Here are five famous weapons from TV’s “Golden Age” that most of us of a certain age still can’t forget.

Chuck Connors The Rifleman Winchester lever action
Chuck Connors was “The Rifleman”

1) One of the most interesting weapons on TV was The Rifleman’s modified Winchester Model 1892 rifle. The lever action rifle had a rapid-fire custom trigger release that allowed Lucas McCain to shoot almost Miculek-fast and ask questions later. It also meant that fans rarely missed the intense opening sequence as the rangy hero moved forward behind a spray of bullets.

2) Josh Randall in the western series ‘Wanted Dead or Alive’ also owned a modified Winchester rifle. Steve McQueen, with his mare’s leg, played the lead, bringing an icy coolness to cowboys, a bunch who were already plenty damn frigid.

Steve McQueen Wanted Dead or Alive mare's leg

Randall wore the shortened Winchester a leg holster. He was able to draw the weapon as quickly as any fast gun with a pistol and he looked while cool doing it. (Did I mention that already?) He even wore larger caliber .44-70 bullets on his gun-belt, even though his rifle was chambered for smaller caliber .44-40 bullets.

Paladin Have Gun Will Travel

3) Paladin from ‘Have Gun Will Travel’ was a master of many weapons. His primary piece was a western favorite, the Colt .45 handgun. The opening sequence had the viewer staring down the barrel of his gun.

Paladin also carried a saddle-holstered Winchester lever-action rifle on his horse. He was an expert marksman with his trusty weapons. To add an element of concealed lethal surprise to his arsenal, Paladin sometimes packed a Remington derringer in his belt, just for good measure.

Gunsmoke Marshal Matt Dillon
James Arness in ‘Gunsmoke’

4) ‘Gunsmoke‘s’ Marshal Matt Dillon was a big man who worked hard to keep the peace in wild and wooly Dodge City. The marshal could settle disputes with his fists or with his Model 1873 Colt .45 single action handgun.

The actual TV prop was a real Colt manufactured in 1895, so Matt was essentially period correct. The opening sequence was originally a showdown in the streets of Dodge — at high noon, no doubt — in which some idiot tested Matt’s draw. Bad idea.

5) The final TV show up for discussion is ‘The Rat Patrol’ because nothing says WWII fun quite like a Jeep-mounted Browning M2 mowing down Nazis.

In the show’s opening sequence, a steely-eyed Christopher George spots a passing German column in the North African desert and our heroes spring into action. The shootouts and scenes of Jeeps racing around and over the dunes, getting air while the gunner hangs on and blazes away at enemy forces was mighty impressive for young viewers in the late 1960s.

It was a bygone era that was anything but politically correct, one in which men were men and the firearms were as important as the actors.

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      • Inspired me to carry one in Vietnam, great bush gun when walking point, muzzle flash was a tad much at night…

      • Do you guys remember “Branded”.with Chuck Conners? I liked his broken saber knife.

        As a kid, I liked the Rifleman reruns. Recently I watched a few, and was shocked that he killed some fool every episode.

        The A-Team had their full auto Mini-14s but never killed anyone. 😏

        • Considering the less-than-stellar accuracy of your average Mini-14, “A-Team Firing” was halfway realistic!

        • the less-than-stellar accuracy of your average Mini-14

          Not my experience, maybe you just can’t shoot… my Mini is a tack driver at 100 yds.

        • The real funny thing was that all the stunt drivers had to get out after crashing and wave to the camera so that the kids could see they were all right. I rememberone episode where the driver rolled his car over multiple times then got out, waved at the camera, then fell flat on his face unconscious .

    • Yeah, me too but you kinda had to be there… I think Rifleman and Gunsmoke still run on some obscure cable channel but don’t know about the others and The Rebel only ran for two seasons was supposed to come back as The Rebel and the Yank (I think with Robert Fuller “The Virginian” as the Yank) but didn’t make it… Could have tossed in The Lone Ranger, gave us that baddass Fanner 50 that every boy lusted after to carry with their “Red Ryder Carbine”… BB gun.

    • So, back in the ’50s and ’60s, there was gunfire, but not sex, on the small screen.

      Well, those decades were fresh off of the Second World and Korean Wars, so the viewing public was well acclimated to the notions of guns. The Frontier (Antebellum, Davy Crockett, Westerns) was solidly ingrained as Americana.

      Now? We have drag queen story hours, $exually confused people serving in high offices, and a concerted effort to groom children via public school programs. Life has turned upside down.

    • Hmm. Moderated. I camouflaged a couple of words, but neglected to do the others.

      I still don’t know how comments are released from moderation jail. A real person actually reading them?

      • I think both Dan Z and Jeremy have commented in the past that they periodically look through the comments and release those held captive.

  1. I love the Rifleman shooting his levergun! With all the kerfuffle over the AR having one seems like a great idea. Even Jamie Lee Curtis deems them cool enough for shooting undead Halloween ghouls🙄😎. Maybe I’ll sell my AR,ammo & stuff and go retro🙄…or not.

    • Go for it. I can fire well aimed shots with my ’94 as fast as my friends do with their AR’s, and more accurately. Therefore, I do not feel I have a need for an AR or AK.
      I have also outshot some friends with their Glocks with my old Security Six. The same revolver I use to shoot groundhogs with out to about 80 yards. It is so smooth that while shooting some informal competition at a local gun range, where we shared our handguns, several of the group offered equal trade of their Colt Pythons for my old Ruger.

    • Some Brit has invented a bullpup, belt-fed, lever gun to get around the rules.
      While a bit bizarre, it’s also pretty cool – just to pull those things together and put them all in one.

      Now, if we can just do one on an AR platform….

  2. “What is Simon Templar’s Walther PPK on The Saint?”

    “I’ll take ’Iconic Movie Guns’ for $400, Alex.”

    • I was a robbery detective in L.A. and the firing version of the revolver turned up under the drivers side seat of a gangbanger. Had been stolen from the movie set and never reported. I didn’t watch 5he show because of working hours and was unable to identify the grips, not could any of the other detectives. The car owner said he never say the pistol before and it wasn’t his.. Finally, someone gave me the phone number f a master engraver in San Diego, who, as it turned out, had carved the grips and he identified the pistol. Studio reclaimed it and belatedly reported it missing, so we got the driver was booked for RSP.

  3. Richard Boone (Paladin) was a legend to my eldest brother. He kept a life size poster on Boone on the wall in the family room, had every episode of Have Gun, Will Travel, tons of memorabilia, etc.

    My favorite Boone role was in The Shootist. It’s my favorite John Wayne movie, too.

    • Boone was good in Big Jake as well. I like when John Wayne offers him some canned peaches and Richard Boone say no thanks they make my teeth hurt.

  4. Uncorn, I feel you. I have a couple of Mini-14 carbines.A 186 stainless series and a 181 series. Blue. My favorite though was a stainless Government Barrel w/ a factory stainless folding stock. A problem is that a ridiculous show in the ’80s made many look down their noses at a nice little carbine. I always thought that the greater tragedy of the A-Team was that George Peppard be reduced to that from the Blue Max. There is not a thing wrong with a Mini-14. Call me if you have an early production for sale.

  5. I had a deprived childhood. didn’t get to see any of those shows—except a few episodes many years later in reruns.

    • Mark, I saw most of them as reruns also. Some Gunsmoke and Bonanza episodes were prime time. Didn’t feel deprived because they were reruns. Besides, they were only reruns to my dad.

      • I got into Westerns much later in life. Gunsmoke, Bonanza, High Chaparral, and the Rifleman.
        But I grew up watching Robert Conrad and Ross Martin in The Wild West. Secret Service agents living on and working from a train. Completely unrealistic, but I thought it was cooler than Johnny Quest.

    • westerns made in the thirties and forties were a staple of early tv…even managed to work them into sci-fi shows….

    • Got one of those too. Vented upper handguard and all. Four digit serial #. Stupid/lucky/good deal. Everyone is deserves one sometime.

  6. Nice list.

    But can we, please, avoid phrases such as “spray of bullets” that hearken to the language the gun grabbers use regularly? It’s not accurate (pun intended) in the first place.

  7. Westerns were before my time.
    A-Team must have been my first exposure not counting cartoons like GI Joe but I don’t recall paying any special attention to the guns. It was more the rampant corruption in government, the abuse of tax schemes and nepotism, Murdoch’s jokes and of course BA’s welding skills that kept me watching.

    Perhaps it wasn’t the specific guns I was drawn to but rather their use as a tool against bullying and abusive criminal behaviors by those in positions of authority.

    Stephen Cannell apparently did a lot to shape my world view.

    • Murdock was my id, Face was my ego, and BA Baracus was my superego.

      Loved the A-Team. Never saw myself as Hannibal. Ironic given that I had to plan all kinds of stuff later in life.

  8. IIRC in a couple of episodes Paladin said that his custom 45 had a 1-ounce trigger pull…remember thinking even when I was young that was B.S.

    Didn’t care for The Rifleman…Lucas was ok, it was his son always yelling “Paa…Paa” every show that aggravated me.

    Another older, but decent, short-lived military themed series was The Lieutenant.

    Combat, Rat Patrol and Maverick were my faves.

    • There is (or rather, was, last time I was there) a trigger exhibit at the Cody Firearms Museum (part of the Buffalo Bill Center of the West) sponsored by Timney. It has pistols from a number of eras, which you can cock and try the feel of their triggers. Among them are a Glock with a New York trigger (insanely heavy – it took one visitor two fingers together to get it to release), and what looks like a black powder single-shot pistol from the Age of Sail. (Maybe a percussion cap or a flintlock – I don’t recall.) That sucker, now, had a trigger you could just brush against and it would release.

      So, yes, I can believe there’s such a thing as a 1-ounce trigger. Not something I’d want on a carry gun, or any other firearm I ever would consider carrying cocked.

  9. You missed Yancy Derringer, played by Jock Mahoney:

    When called to action, Yancy’s weapons of choice are four-barrel Sharps pepperbox derringer handguns carried concealed (one held by a clamp inside the top of his hat, one in his vest’s left pocket under his jacket and one up his jacket’s left sleeve in a wrist holster) and a knife in his belt. (A belt buckle inset with a toy single-barrel derringer, sold by Mattel at the time and popularly associated with Yancy, did not resemble anything that the character actually used.) He is an expert marksman. He also carries a cane or a riding crop with hidden swords and is said to have iron fists: one punch and his opponent remains unconscious for a day. Yancy dresses elegantly, most often in a white suit with a long coat, ruffled white shirt, a silk vest, a sash instead of a belt, a black under-the-collar bow tie, and a white flat-topped straw hat with curled brim.

    Yancy Derringer – Return to New Orleans | EP01 | COLORIZED | Classic Western Series

  10. I’d like a tally on how many times Matt Dillon was shot in one arm or the other. There were roughly 600 episodes in its 20 years, and it seems more often than not he was getting shot, and very seldom was he shot anywhere other than the arm. Surprised he had the arm strength to continue to draw his his own firearm😂

    • The “official” count is 432 episodes and Matt Dillon was shot at least 56 times, knocked unconscious 29 times, stabbed three times, and poisoned once…

    • If you listen carefully during the opening sequence in the very early episodes, you realize that the bad guy shoots first… and misses.

  11. Johnny Ringo (Clu Gulager, maybe?) carried some sort of LeMat revolver with a scattergun in the center of the cylinder. Opening showed 6 shots holes (IIRC) in a window followed by the shotgun blast knocking it all out.

    Another thing not mentioned in the article is that the actors from that era actually owned, shot and collected firearms, enthusiastically and without embarrassment. Try that today…

  12. A western that I always liked as a kid was Laredo. Neville Brand and the one and only William Smith (aka Conan’s father, aka the Soviet colonel in Red Dawn, etc.) starred in it.

  13. Anyone remember the show that featured the LaMat Revolver which was a cap and ball revolver with a second 20 gauge smooth bore barrel?

  14. In the sheriff’s office on Andy Griffith show they have all of their guns locked up on the wall. There is one on the end, a military type weapon with a sling. Always wondered what it is.

    • The rack held six long guns but it varied from 4-6 through the eight seasons.

      From left to right:

      Winchester Model 70 .30-06

      Winchester Model 21 12 ga. double barrel shotgun w/32″barrel

      Mauser 98k 7.92 mm

      Winchester Model 94 .30-30

      Winchester M1897 12 ga pump shotgun

      Mannlicher-Carcano Model 38 7.35mm

      You are welcome…

  15. Mannix used to get knocked on the head every episode. It makes me cringe when I see everyone with their fingers on the trigger almost all the time. The ones that didn’t were probably real life owners.

  16. Thomas Magnum’s M1911. I remember the freeze frame on the huge muzzle flash when he flat out executed Ivan.

  17. This was old Hollywood. Unfortunately that time has passed. Now you’ll have movie directors like Steven Spielberg. Who 10 years after “E.T. the Extraterrestrial” came out, he replaced the guns in the hands of FBI agents with handheld radios.

    Hollywood used to show righteous violence by civilians using guns all the time. Now all they show are Agents of the State using guns. And civilians are shown using guns in an unsafe manner and or usually unsuccessfully. You won’t have 11, 14, or 16 year olds using guns like in the “Cowboys” film With John Wayne and Roscoe Lee Browne.

    Even Walt Disney movies from the 1950s and early 60s had kids using guns safely to defend themselves and others. But that’s over with now.

  18. When stationed in England (USAF, mid-’70’s), was told by locals that the BBC tried Rat Patrol, but it was cancelled after one show due to the volume of complaints. Turns out they for some reason got the impression that the Rat Patrol concept was stolen from the real WWII Desert Rats, a British outfit.

    Similarly, Hogan’s Heroes was an abysmal failure in England, even with a token half-Brit, Richard Dawson “Survey says!”). My father-in-law (WWII B-25 tech) hated that show, as he found the Germans to be smart, tidy and very savvy, not the nincompoops as portrayed.

    Also, the Great Escape was criticized, as the actual even was far more British/international.

    Hollywood productions such as the above and so more tend to be understandably US-market focused, but I like to think that w/o them there may not be as much info popularized about life in WWII. They were the very reason I, and others took German in high school – to understand the dialogue between soldiers!

  19. Funny thing about the Germans portrayed in Hogan’s Heros. Most of the main German characters were Jewish actors. The only reason they agreed to play the German characters, was if the writers turned them all into buffoons. So Klink, Schultz, Hofstadter, and Burkhalter were all Jews. Kemperer (Klink), Banner (Schultz) and Askin
    (Burkhalter) fled Germany/Austria during Hitler’s rise. Caine (Hofsteader) was an American Jewish actor.
    Corporal LeBeau (Robert Clary) was a French Jew that spent 3 years in a Concentration Camps. He was the only member of his family to survive. He was freed from the Buchenwald when the Allies liberated it.
    Kemperer, Banner and Askin all served in WW 2. Kemperer in the US Army, Banner and Askin in the US Army Air Corp. Banner appeared as a model on Air Corp recruiting posters. Caine, served in the US Navy in the Pacific Theater.
    Just a little trivia of a show I watched regularly as a kid, along with many others already mentioned in the comments.

    Ironically, most of these old shows could not be made today. That makes watching the reruns all the more fun.

  20. I was a kid in the 60’s and hands down my favorite tv show was Combat
    Vic Morrow as Sgt Sanders and his Thompson sub machine gun to me were the reason we defeated Hitler
    Matel made a camo version which I got for Christmas one year. Combat comes on every Saturday night on H&I (free tv) and the battle scenes hold very well, didn’t care much for Rick Jason the Lt Hadley character
    Shout Out to my second favorite character the B.A.R.
    RGW in NC

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