I like to brag a lot about being too upstanding to ever watch television drama, but this is one I really caught onto when it came out in 1958. I would have been in my senior year in high school, and I’m guessing I missed much of the seasons from 1959 to 1961, which time I was living on a ship where TV reception tended to be notoriously bad.
Nothing much opened like this show, with a fusillade of fire from the iconic Winchester Model 1892 .40-44, specially modified. Conners, as McCain walks down the middle of a dusty street in the make-believe New Mexico town of North Fork, on a 20th Century Fox outdoor set. He pumps a seeming endless volley at nothing in particular on down the street. Viewers never get to see the focus of this violent outburst, but it does make for a hormone rush.
Conners was a towering hero, just right for the big screen. In the series he played a veteran Union soldier from the Civil War. In real life he was a veteran of World War Two, having served as a tank warfare instructor at Fort Campbell and West Point. Before starting his acting career he played major league sports, both basketball and baseball. You would never suspect he was from Brooklyn.
The initial observation watching the first episode is the dreadfully bad script by Sam Peckinpah. The story opens with three men on horseback meeting up with two others at a deserted ranch outside of town. They make a deal regarding a shooting contest that’s coming up. The younger man shown here is the shooter, Vernon, played by Dennis Hopper. Vern’s uncle is a conniving promoter, seeking to profit from his nephew’s proficiency with a six-gun. The three other men are gangsters, who run the town of North Fork. They are enjoying their last few days on the planet.
Next we see Lucas McCain, a widower, with his son Mark, played by Johnny Crawford. They have come out West to make a new life. They inspect the Dunlap Ranch, up for sale, and ride into town to arrange the purchase.
In town Lucas meets up with Judge Hanavan, who has the ranch for sale. Lucas also gives the judge ten dollars to enter the shooting contest.
The contest is rigged. Lucas scores even with Vernon in the first round, but during the shoot-off, with a gang member holding a pistol pointed at Mark, Lucas directs his last of five shots into an outer ring.
There’s lots of grumbling, as it’s apparent Lucas has thrown the match. The judge, who had bet thousands on McCain, withdraws his offer to sell the ranch.
The local gangsters are not finished with their double dealing. They dry-gulch the uncle in the town saloon so they won’t have to pay off on the business arrangement. The leader says something like, “Let’s see if you can shoot that,” and when the old man pulls his pistol the outlaw shoots him in the belly.
Vernon aims to barge into the saloon, avenge his uncle’s murder, and get back the money he’s owed. It’s a trap. Lucas talks Vern out of going, and he picks up his famous rifle and strides across the street. It’s High Noon at the Last Chance Saloon.
The outlaws lose the shootout with The Rifleman. He mows down all but one, and Vernon, ignoring McCain’s instructions, joins in and takes down the other, getting a bullet, himself, in the wrist.
Lucas and Mark decide to settle down in North Fork.
And the plot is beyond belief. The premise is some outlaws are running the town of North Fork. How many times has that worn-out setting been employed to stir up interest?
There’s going to be a shooting contest. It costs $10 to enter, and there’s a $500 first prize. You’re going to need 50 entries just to make the top prize. Who’s going to pay $10 to go against some of the best shooters in the area at those odds?
The contest is draw and shoot, five shots-five seconds. Lucas is the only one entering with a rifle. It seems everybody is shooting from the hip. This makes for drama, but not much realism.
The gang leader shoots the old man in the saloon, and there’s no hew and cry? Nobody seems concerned that a murder has just occurred in the middle of the town. Believe it or not, life was never that cheap in the Wild West.
The gangsters figure that Vernon, an established dead-eye shooter, is going to come after them. They aim to take him on in a barroom gunfight. Really? Somebody’s going to get killed, and that would likely include at least one of the gangsters. Who, even a Wild West outlaw, takes chances like that?
When Lucas shows up for the gunfight the gangsters take him on one at a time. He and Vernon kill them one at a time. These crooks apparently have had no experience gunfighting, as they throw away completely their numerical advantage.
Wikipedia provides additional information of interest. Obviously the Model 1892 Winchester, designed by John Browning, did not come out until well after the setting for this series, shortly after the Civil War.
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 five seconds during the opening credits on North Fork’s main street.
For the show the producers used blank ammunition, shorter than regulation cartridges and allowing the weapon to hold more than the standard 15 rounds. Modifications were performed by gunsmith James S. Stembridge.
Conners went the way of many like him, a long-time smoker and dead of complications from lung cancer at 71. He’s buried at San Fernando Mission Cemetery, close by Bob Hope.