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GUNS OF THE OLD WEST - #52 Winter 2007

Gun Test
BY DENNIS ADLER

Steve McQueen's cut-down Winchester - TV Westerns' TOP GUN!

BACK IN THE HEYDAY OF THE TELEVISION WESTERN, the 1950s and 1960s, there were more horse operas than any other type of show on the air, and many, like Wanted Dead or Alive, managed to tell a credible story in only 30 minutes, and do it in black and white with just a few commercial interruptions.

The first episode was actually a spin-off from the hit western "Trackdown" starring Robert Culp as Texas Ranger Hoby Gilman. That episode, titled "The Bounty Hunter," ( this episode has also been listed as "The Bounty Man" ) introduced Steve McQueen as Josh Randall and aired on March 1958, on CBS. Between the three major networks, CBS, ABC and NBC, there were nearly 60 westerns or western-themed shows during the 1950s and 1960s, many of which lasted only one or two seasons. Others like Bonanza (1959-1973), Wagon Train (1957-1965), The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp (1955-1961), and Gunsmoke (1955-1975), stayed on for years, and in Gunsmoke's case, two decades, plus several made-for-TV movies. Wanted Dead or Alive ran from 1958 to 1961, outlasting Trackdown, which aired from 1957 to 1959.

1) Steve McQueen was 28 years old when he began his TV career as bounty hunter Josh Randall on "Wanted Dead or Alive." His signature gun was a sawed-off Winchester Model 1892 carbine, recreated here by J.B. Custom of Ft. Wayne, Indiana.

2) McQueen practlced every day to perfect his fast draw with the Winchester until he was as quick as a sixgunner.

3) Josh Randall was played as a very polite and respectful cowboy, not at all the type you would expect to make a living as a bounty hunter.

4) Josh Randall was almost too kind to be in his profession, and often gave half or all of his reward money to good causes. McQueen played Randall as a man of few words, more adept at using his gun than rattling off long dialogues. But that was the way he was written. In almost every episode he spoke and walked softly, but like Theodore Roosevelt, believed In carrying a big stick!

The series launched McQueen's career, making him one of the few television actors to make the transition to film star, and a legendary one at that. His brooding, softspoken character, Josh Randall, was so well received by audiences and critics alike, that he was cast in the 1960 film "The Magnificent Seven" playing opposite Yul Brynner and fellow television actors James Coburn, Charles Bronson, and Robert Vaughn. The movie launched McQueen's film career just as Wanted Dead or Alive ended its run in March 1961.

In the 1950s and 1960s almost every western character had a gimmmick, whether it was their wardrobe, an unusual hat, or a fancy gun. For McQueen's character, the writers and prooducer John Robinson decided upon something truly different, a sawed-off Winchester Model 1892 rifle with a big ring lever, similar to John Wayne's famed Winchester repeater.

Chambered in .44-40, the Model 1892 used for the show was an original working gun and the price of the Winchester and its modifications set the studio back a tidy $1,100 in 1958 and they had to build three. (Most often three guns are built for any film or series to ensure a damaged or broken gun does not delay production). The idea of shortening the barrel on a Winchester carbine wasn't new. Many had been sawed off back in the Old West and later still in the gangland days of the 1920s. In fact, the use of sawed-off shotguns and rifles by mobsters in the 1920s and 1930s is what prompted Congress to pass the National Firearms Act in 1934, limiting the barrel length of a rifle or shotgun to no less than 18 inches. Interestingly, the McQueen Winchester was classified as a handgun, not a rifle, and the same applies to the J.B. Custom reproduction.

According to an article written by John Lachuk in the June 1959 issue of TV and Movie Western Magazine, when McQueen first test fired the Winchester, which he personally nicknamed "Mare's Laig" the studio used full-power .44-40 blanks. "The first time I took the gun on location;' said Steve, "the gun was pointed toward the camera. The blast nearly knocked me down, blew the hat off of the cameraman's head, and knocked all of the pages out of the script girl's hands. After that, we attached a plastic shield to the camera and returned to quarter-powered blanks, even for outdoor scenes." It was after that experience that McQueen coined the Mare's Laig name. "It's like a Hog's Leg, only it kicks harder."

In the TV series McQueen handled the six-shot Winchester like a pistol and practiced with it constantly until he was able to draw and fire as fast as anyone with a revolver. "I drew and fired that gun until I had blisters on my hands," said McQueen in the TV and Movie Western Magazine interview. "I can outdraw an average fast man with a revolver, and at least tie with the fastest, and without the aid of camera tricks." He also mastered the trick of spinning the gun to cock it, a stunt copied by Arnold Schwarzenegger in "Terminator 2" with a sawed-off 1901 Winchester lever-action shotgun. An avid firearms enthusiast and hunter, few people outside of the TV crew knew that when they were filming on location McQueen practiced with live ammunition so he'd have a better feel for the Mare's Laig. He also practiced with a Colt Peacemaker and became equally adept at fast draws. In a friendly competition with a California Highway Patrolman known for his quick draw ability, and using a double-action Smith & Wesson, McQueen out-drew and out-shot him with his SAA.

In the TV series, both the Winchester and Randall's unusual holster were made to look worn, as though they had seen plenty of use. Robinson said the idea was also to give viewers the impression that Josh Randall had built them himself. To heighten the fearful appearance of the sawed-off rifle, or "add menace" as they say in Hollywood, the cartridge belt was filled with massive .45-70 cartridges, rather than the .44-40 rounds the gun actually fired. No one knows how many viewers picked up on this, but since Winchester did make rifles chambered for .45-70, it wasn't that much of a stretch.

Recreating The Mare's Laig

Jim Buchanan, of J.B. Custom in Fort Wayne, Indiana, has been building custom Winchester lever guns and doing refurbishing and restoration for over a decade, but his fascination with the Mare's Laig goes back all the way to his childhood. "I watched the show when I was a kid, and all of the other westerns that were on, but there was just something about the Mare's Laig that stuck in my mind." says Buchanan. "Many years later when I got into gunsmithing, I looked around and there was just nothing like it, and given my expertise in Winchester parts availability and such, I decided to build one. This didn't happen overnight; it took close to 10 years before I finally built one using an original Winchester." Buchanan had a few unfinished pre-64 Model 94 receivers that were never assembled as firearms and he explains, "That's what I used for the first one I built." He had assembled several others using original Winchesters when he decided to see about putting the Mare's Laig into limited production.

"I met with several manufacturers at the SHOT Show in 2002 and settled on an arrangement with Brazilian gunmaker Amadeo Rossi S.A. They were already manufacturing a copy of the Model 1892 Winchester carbine and were open to the idea of building a limited edition copy of the Mare's Laig." Buchanan sent Rossi pictures of his prototypes and manufacturing speciifications but it took several years to get the gun into actual production. The first models, including the gun tested for this article, arrived in the summer of 2006.

The Mare's Laig is limited to a run of 500 specially serial-numbered guns (JBCML001 to JBCML500) beginning with those chambered in the correct .44-40 caliber. They are available in .45 Colt, .44 Magnum and .38/.357 Magnum. Buchanan is planning to add .454 Casull and .480 Ruger to the line, but they will be more expensive than the current series, which sells for $1,495.

The barrel length of the J.B. Custom Model 1892 is about 1-1/2 inches longer than the one made for "Wanted Dead or Alive." Buchanan says he made that decision so the magazine capacity would be six rounds, the same as a revolver. He also manufactures the Mare's Laig skeleton holster rig for $250 and a more affordable belt holster for $125.

The cover gun has a custom antique finish done by R.L. Millington of ArmSport LLC to match the finish on Steve McQueen's Mare's Laig, and Buchanan is considering making it an option on the current series of 500. He's already had requests for a stainless steel version and an engraved model, so the future of the Mare's Laig looks very promising.

Test Range Results

With the skeleton rig strapped on and a box full of Remington Express Rifle 2000 grain .44-40 cartridges in hand, we set out to do our best Josh Randall shootout. Remembering McQueen's first experience firing the Mare's Laig with full load blanks we had a degree of apprehension on the first shot but found the weight of the sawed-off Model 1892 (4Ibs. 10 oz.) more than adequate to tame the recoil. Mind you, this is only one ounce more than a Colt Walker reproduction, so as rifles go, the Mare's Laig is a lightweight.

Measuring just 24 inches from butt to muzzle, the barrrel takes up half the overall length, with the stock cut down to a mere 8-1/8 inches. Fired two handed it's as accurate as any carbine, even from the hip, and with a little practice, it punches out a tight pattern. At 50 feet our best six-shot hand-held group placed four rounds in the X bull and two in the 10 on a full-size silhouette. The overall spread from center to center was 2-1/2 inches. Fired from the hip, the shots were spread pretty far apart, but every round was on the target. Best overall handdheld score for a total of 15 rounds was six in the 9 ring, five in the 10, and four in the X.

At a time when reproductions of traditional Winchester rifles and shotguns are at an all-time high, it is refreshing and encouraging to see something as unique as the Mare's Laig. It is a well made, well balanced copy of the famed Model 1892, but moreover, as a special limited edition copy of Steve McQueen's legendary "Wanted Dead or Alive" sidearm, it is a reminder of times gone by, when the television screen was filled with western heroes and horse operas ruled the airwaves.

Archival photos from the Eddie Brandt and Doug Abbott Collections