The Rifleman is an American Western television program starring Chuck Connors as rancher Lucas McCain and Johnny Crawford as his son Mark McCain. It was set in the 1880s in the fictional town of North Fork, New Mexico Territory. The show was filmed in black and white, in half-hour episodes. The Rifleman aired on ABC from September 30, 1958, to April 8, 1963, as a production of Four Star Television. It was one of the first primetime series on US television to show a single parent raising a child.
|Created by||Sam Peckinpah (uncredited), Arnold Laven|
|Composer||Herschel Burke Gilbert|
|Country of origin||United States|
|No. of seasons||5|
|No. of episodes||168 (list of episodes)|
Arthur H. Nadel (associate)
|Running time||25 minutes|
|Production company||Four Star Productions|
|Distributor||Peter Rodgers Organization|
|Original release||September 30, 1958 –|
April 8, 1963
|Related shows||Law of the Plainsman|
The program was titled to reflect McCain's use of a Winchester Model 1892 rifle, a historical anachronism, as the show was set in the 1880s, and customized to allow repeated firing by cycling its lever action. He demonstrated this technique in the opening credits, as well as a second modification that allowed him to cycle the action with one hand using a technique known as "spin-cocking".
The series centers on Lucas McCain, a Union Civil War veteran and widower. McCain had been a lieutenant in the 11th Indiana Infantry Regiment, and he had received a battlefield commission at the Battle of Five Forks just before the end of the war. (This conflicts with episode 3/25, "The Prisoner", in which a former Confederate cavalry major states that he was Lieutenant McCain's prisoner after the Battle of Fort Donelson.) Having previously been a homesteader, McCain buys a ranch outside the fictitious town of North Fork, New Mexico Territory, in the pilot episode. His son Mark and he had come from Enid, Oklahoma, following the death of his wife, Margaret (née Gibbs), when his son was six years old. The citizens of North Fork are sometimes willing to subject themselves to tyranny, showing themselves to be cowards in several episodes.
The series was set during the 1880s; a wooden plaque next to the McCain home states that the home was rebuilt by Lucas McCain and his son Mark in August 1881.
A common thread in the series is that people deserve a second chance; Marshal Micah Torrance is a recovering alcoholic, and McCain gives a convict a job on his ranch in "The Marshal". Royal Dano appeared in "The Sheridan Story" as a former Confederate soldier who is given a job on the McCain ranch and encounters General Philip Sheridan, the man who cost him his arm in battle. Learning why the man wants him dead, Sheridan arranges for medical care for his wounded former foe, quoting Abraham Lincoln's last orders to "... bind up the nation's wounds".
Despite his status as the series' protagonist, Lucas McCain is not without fault; He has a tendency to be stubborn and bossy, and has a bit of an inflated ego. In "Death Trap", an episode with Philip Carey as former gunman (and old adversary) Simon Battles, he is unwilling to believe the man has changed and become a doctor. It takes a gunfight (with Battles fighting alongside him) to make him admit he is wrong. In "Two Ounces Of Tin", with Sammy Davis Jr. as Tip Corey (a former circus trick-shot artist turned gunman), McCain angrily orders him off the ranch when he finds him demonstrating his skills to Mark. Corey suggests he is a hypocrite, because McCain has an equally deadly reputation in the Indian Territory of Oklahoma, where he first acquired the nickname "the Rifleman", and where his wife had died during a smallpox epidemic.
Eight actors played the town doctor during the series (usually known as "Doc Burrage"): Paul Fix (first episode only; he returned to the cast as Micah), Edgar Buchanan, Fay Roope, Rhys Williams, Jack Kruschen, Robert Burton, Ralph Moody, and Bert Stevens. Several actors also played blacksmith Nels Swenson.
More than 500 actors made guest appearances in more than 970 credited roles during the five-year run of the series. Guest stars included veteran actors: John Anderson, Richard Anderson, Whit Bissell, John Carradine, Lon Chaney, Jr., Ellen Corby, Sammy Davis, Jr., John Dehner, Jack Elam, Med Flory, Dabbs Greer, Rodolfo Hoyos, Jr., L.Q. Jones, John Milford, Rex Holman, Agnes Moorehead, Denver Pyle, Lee Van Cleef, Royal Dano, and Adam West, most appearing multiple times in different roles. Several then-newcomers also appeared in the series, including Claude Akins, James Coburn (credited as "Jim") Mark Goddard, Dan Blocker, Dennis Hopper, Michael Landon, Warren Oates, Harry Dean Stanton, Robert Vaughn, Robert Culp (who starred in his own western series for Four Star Productions, "Trackdown" from 1957 to 1959), Martin Landau, and Richard Kiel. Notable people in other fields also made cameo appearances such as future baseball Hall of Famers Duke Snider and Don Drysdale, comedian Buddy Hackett and writer, director and producer Paul Mazursky.
With the death of Johnny Crawford on April 29, 2021, all main and recurring cast members of The Rifleman are now deceased.
|First aired||Last aired|
|1||40||September 30, 1958||June 30, 1959|
|2||36||September 29, 1959||May 31, 1960|
|3||34||September 27, 1960||May 16, 1961|
|4||32||October 2, 1961||May 7, 1962|
|5||26||October 1, 1962||April 8, 1963|
The series was created by Arnold Laven and developed by Sam Peckinpah, who became a director of Western movies. Peckinpah, who wrote and directed many early episodes, based many characters and plots on his own childhood on a ranch. His insistence on violent realism and complex characterizations, as well as his refusal to sugarcoat the lessons he felt the Rifleman's son needed to learn about life, put him at odds with the show's producers at Four Star. Peckinpah left the show and created a short-lived series, The Westerner, with Brian Keith.
The opening theme at the beginning of each episode depicted McCain walking down the street of a town while rapid-firing his Winchester 44-40 1892 model rifle that had been modified at the trigger and lever. The rifle's modification allowed McCain to fire the rifle only by hand pumping the lever, which had a setscrew imbedded in it to trip the weapon's trigger. At various points during the series, episodes would show McCain deftly handling and shooting the rifle ambidextrously. When Connors auditioned for the show, the director suddenly threw a rifle at him; the former Major League Baseball player caught it and got the job.
Westerns were popular when The Rifleman premiered, and producers tried to find gimmicks to distinguish one show from another. The Rifleman's gimmick was a modified Winchester Model 1892 rifle, with a large ring lever drilled and tapped for a set screw. The lever design allowed him to cock the rifle by spinning it around his hand. In addition, the screw could be positioned to depress the trigger every time he worked the lever, allowing for rapid fire, emptying the magazine in under six seconds during the opening credits on North Fork's main street.
The trigger-trip screw pin was used in two configurations: with the screw head turned inside (close to the trigger), or more often, outside the trigger guard with a locknut on the outside (to secure its position). In some episodes, the screw was removed, when rapid-fire action was not required. When properly adjusted, the screw “squeezed” the trigger when the lever was fully closed. The rapid-fire mechanism was originally designed to keep Connors from puncturing his finger with the trigger as he quickly cycled the action of the rifle. With this modification, Connors pulling the trigger for each shot was not necessary, so he did not have to place his finger in harm's way.
The rifle may have appeared in every episode, but it was not always fired; some plots did not require violent solutions (for example, one involving Mark's rigid new teacher). McCain attempts to solve as many problems as possible without resorting to shooting, yet still manages to kill 120 villains over the show's five-year run. Notably, McCain almost never carried a pistol, although he is a good shot with it, especially when he improvised a crude gunstock from a board, when facing a villain who had stolen his rifle.
The rifle used on the set of The Rifleman, an 1892 Winchester caliber .44-40 carbine with a standard 20-inch barrel, was an historical anachronism, as the show was set in 1881, 12 years before John Browning had designed the rifle. It appeared with two different types of levers. The backwards, round-D-style loop was used in the early episodes. Sometimes, the rifle McCain uses has a saddle ring. The lever style later changed to a flatter lever (instead of the large loop) with no saddle ring.
McCain fires 12 shots from his rifle during the opening credits - seven shots in the first close-up and five more as the camera switches to another view. The blank cartridges are shorter than standard cartridges, so the magazine can hold more of the blanks. The soundtrack contained a dubbed 13th shot, to allow the firing to end with a section of the theme music. The rifle was chambered for the .44-40 Winchester center fire cartridge, which was used in both revolvers and rifles. He could supposedly fire off his first round in three-tenths of a second, which certainly helped in a showdown.
Gunsmith James S. Stembridge modified two Model 1892s for use in regular and close-up filming. In addition, a Spanish-made Gárate y Anitúa "El Tigre" lever action, a near-copy of the Model 1892, was modified for use as a knockabout gun. The El Tigre is seen in scenes where the rifle is in a saddle scabbard and is not drawn, and in stunts where the rifle was thrown to the ground, used as a club, or in any stunt where a possibility of damage to the original Winchester 1892s existed. These three rifles were the only ones used by Connors during the run of the series.
The now-defunct Stembridge Gun Rentals provided the rifles and ammunition. Ammunition was quarter-load 5-in-1 blank cartridges containing smokeless powder, which did not produce the thick clouds of smoke the genuine black powder cartridges of the 1880s did. Most (if not all) of the sound effects for the rifle shots were dubbed, which is why the rifle sounded so different from the other gunshots on the show.
The 1892 Winchester is a top-eject rifle (opening the action by pushing the finger-lever forward moves the bolt rearward and thereby opens the top of the receiver). Loaded rounds or empty cases from the chamber eject straight up when the lever is pushed fully open (forward). When Connors cycled the action by spinning the rifle to his side, the cartridge in the action could fall out. Therefore, the rifle was modified with a plunger, which would hold the round in place.
The Winchester Model 1892 rifle was designed by John Moses Browning, and other than general appearance, it has nothing in common with earlier lever-action rifles using the same class of cartridges. The significant improvement was the addition of vertical lugs that securely lock the bolt and receiver when the gun fires. Winchester originally produced this gun from 1892 to 1941; total production was slightly over 1,000,000; 27 variations in five chamberings were made over the course of production, but the basic design was largely unaltered. As with the earlier Model 1873, the light and handy Model 1892 was chambered for handgun cartridges, favored by many Westerners to simplify ammunition supply problems by using the same cartridge in both a handgun and a rifle. The Model 1892 was replaced by the Browning-designed Model 1894, which also had an impressive manufacturing history, with over 7,000,000 produced; it is still being produced to this day by a successor to Winchester. The Model 94's popularity and long production history may be related to its being the first Winchester to be designed for the then-new "smokeless" powder.
The pilot episode, "The Sharpshooter", was originally telecast on CBS as part of Dick Powell's Zane Grey Theatre on March 7, 1958; it was repeated (in edited form) as the first episode of the series on ABC. The episode was written by Sam Peckinpah, and guest starred Dennis Hopper.
Regulars on the program included Marshal Micah Torrance (R. G. Armstrong was the original marshal for two episodes, the first and the fourth), Sweeney the bartender (Bill Quinn), and a half-dozen other residents of North Fork (played by Hope Summers, Joan Taylor, Patricia Blair, John Harmon, and Harlan Warde).
Connors wrote several episodes. Robert Culp (star of CBS's Trackdown, another Four Star-produced series), wrote one two-part episode, and Frank D. Gilroy (creator of ABC's Burke's Law, another Four Star-produced series), wrote "End of a Young Gun".
MPI Home Video has released The Rifleman on DVD in Region 1 in a number of versions. It has released single-disc DVDs with five episodes; from 2002 to 2006 it released six sets, each with 20 episodes. The releases are random collections of episodes, rather than the original broadcast order. These releases are out of print, since MPI Home Video no longer owns the rights to the series. Levy-Gardner-Laven Productions, the original producer, is again the sole copyright owner of The Rifleman series.
In late 2013, Levy-Gardner-Laven Productions, Inc. announced it would be the only authorized outlet to offer for the first time all 168 episodes of The Rifleman, the original series, newly restored and assembled in DVD box sets. The episodes were to be released in sequential order, by season, in high-quality boxed sets with exclusive special features. The first boxed set of all Season 1 episodes was made available on December 4, 2013, for $69.95. The second season was released on November 28, 2014. Season 3 was released on December 2, 2015. Season 4 was released on December 4, 2016. Season 5 was released on November 27, 2017.
|DVD Name||Ep #||Release Date|
|The Complete First Season||40||December 4, 2013|
|The Complete Second Season||36||November 28, 2014|
|The Complete Third Season||34||December 2, 2015|
|The Complete Fourth Season||32||December 4, 2016|
|The Complete Fifth Season||26||November 27, 2017|
|Season premiere||Season finale|
|1||40||September 30, 1958||June 30, 1959||4||33.1|
|2||36||September 29, 1959||May 31, 1960||13||27.5|
|3||34||September 27, 1960||May 16, 1961||27||22.1|
|4||32||October 2, 1961||May 7, 1962||28||22.3|
|5||26||October 1, 1962||April 8, 1963||Not in the Top 30|
The February 17, 1959 episode of The Rifleman was a pilot for an NBC series, Law of the Plainsman, starring Michael Ansara as Marshal Sam Buckhart. In the episode "The Indian", Buckhart comes to North Fork to look for Indians suspected of murdering a Texas Ranger and his family. He subsequently reappeared in "The Raid". Three episodes of "The Rifleman" served as pilots for Westerns that never became a series. These were: "The Lariat" (March 29, 1960) starring Richard Anderson as a gambler and sharpshooter; "Death Trap" (May 9, 1961) featuring Phil Carey as Simon Battle, a gunslinger turned doctor; and "Which Way'd They Go?" (April 1, 1963), a comedy-western with Peter Whitney.
Chuck Connors briefly played the same character again in 1991's The Gambler Returns: The Luck of the Draw, which featured a number of 1950s and 1960s television Western series leads reprising their roles in quick cameo appearances (Gene Barry as Bat Masterson, Hugh O'Brian as Wyatt Earp, Jack Kelly as Bart Maverick, Clint Walker as Cheyenne Bodie, David Carradine as Kung Fu's Caine).
In late 2011, CBS announced plans to remake the original Rifleman series. Chris Columbus was slated to be the executive producer and direct, with Robert Levy, Steven Gardner, and Arthur Gardner (related to original producers Levy-Gardner-Laven) as executive producers. The remake project was canceled a few months later, without a pilot episode being made.
American toymaker Hubley produced a well made toy copy of McCain's Model 1892 known variously as The Rifleman Rifle, the Flip Special, and the Ring Rifle. Marx Toys also marketed a version called the Wild West that was simply the Lone Ranger/Roy Rogers Winchester with the loop lever used by McCain replacing the standard straight lever.
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