“The Rifleman” starring Chuck Conners and Johnny Crawford aired for the last time on television 54 years ago this week on April 8, 1963. The first broadcast of the series was September 30, 1958. During its inaugural 1958-1959 season it quickly became the 4th most popular show on television. American households with television sets totaled 43.95 million. An unbelievable 14,547,450 viewers watched “The Rifleman” at the time.
Westerns dominated the airwaves:
- Wagon Train
- Have Gun – Will Travel
- The Rifleman
- The Danny Thomas Show
- Tales of Wells Fargo
- The Real McCoys
- I’ve Got a Secret
- The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp
The Rifleman entered the market with abundant competition. Other popular series included The Texan, Wanted: Dead or Alive, Cheyenne, The Lawman and Rawhide. But it was rapid-action opening credits that roped the audience in. Conners as Lucas McCain fired his quick action Winchester rifle like no one had ever seen.
Tough and violent life on a frontier ranch near the New Mexico town of North Fork provided a fierce backdrop for each episode, but it was balanced by McCain’s character as a loving father, sharp nonconformist with high moral standards and a principled outlook. He was the iconic western hero–the definitive marksman with rifle in hand and son by his side.
Here are ten fascinating facts about The Rifleman:
- One writer wrote that “when McCain picked up his rifle, he wielded it not only with confidence and competence, but also with rational deliberation and fair-minded determination. He admonished his young son in one episode, ‘A man doesn’t run from a fight, Mark, but that doesn’t mean you go looking to run to one.’”
- In 2004, Lucas McCain one included in TV Guides list of the “50 Greatest TV Dads of All Time.” In 1959, Johnny Crawford, 13, was nominated for an Emmy for his role as son Mark McCain. After the show as over Connors later observed how young Crawford always showed admiring respect toward the crew, addressing them as “sir” and “ma’am” upon arriving to the set on his first day until departing on the last day.
- While McCain’s Winchester rifle appeared in every single episode, it wasn’t fired each time. In some episodes the rifle wasn’t used at all. While McCain tried to solve many of the circumstances without using his gun, a grand total of 120 villains were killed by McCain on the program.
- The setting of the McCain Ranch and North Fork was 1870s and 80s. What many viewers didn’t realize was that McCain’s Winchester was actually from 1892. Gunsmith James S. Stembridge modified two Model 1892s specifically to use in regular and close-up filming. There was also a Spanish-made Gárate y Anitúa “El Tigre” lever action, which was nearly identical to the Model 1892. It was modified for use as a knockabout gun. They were the only three guns used by Connors on the show.
- Stembridge modified the Winchester Model 1892 rifle with a large ring lever drilled and tapped for a set screw. This alteration allowed Connors to cock the rifle by spinning it around in his hand. The screw could be positioned so he could depress the trigger each time he used the lever. Connors emptied the magazine in under five seconds during the opening credits set on North Fork’s main street.
- In total, McCain fired 12 shots from his rifle during the opening credits. Seven of the shots are shown in a close-up shot, five others featured as the camera changes positions. The rifle contained blank cartridges, which are shorter than standard cartridges, allowing the magazine to hold more blanks than standard ones. The Rifleman opening soundtrack included a 13th, dubbed shot so the end of the firing would coincide with a particular section of theme music. McCain could reportedly fire off his first round in just three-tenths of a second, which gave him an advantage in a showdown
- Although only three guns were used during filming of The Rifleman, two more existed. The additional rifles were created by fan Maurice Hunt. He presented them both directly to Chuck Connors, who in turn gave one to the legendary golfer Arnold Palmer, who was a fan of the show. Palmer displayed the rifle at The World Golf Hall of Fame. In 2005, Hunt, a member of the Reel Cowboys (a group of stunt actors), shot and killed his estranged girlfriend and then turned the weapon on himself.
- Connors was a native of Brooklyn and a player on the very first Boston Celtics team in 1946. He was the first ever professional basketball player credited with shattering a backboard. After the Celtics he went to play with his childhood heroes on the Brooklyn Dodgers. Connors joined the Chicago Cubs in 1951, where he played first base. Later he was drafted by the Chicago Bears.
- The Rifleman was one of the first American TV shows to air in Russia. On a 1970s visit to the United States, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev (the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union) was very keen on meeting Connors. When they met, Connors and Brezhnev became good friends who spent much time together. At Brezhnev’s invitation, Conners visited Russia on several occasions.
- Besides Boris Karloff, Glenn Strange was one of the most famous actors to play the role of Frankenstein in film. Strange appeared in six episodes of The Rifleman playing the same role in different variations: Cole, the stagecoach driver, in “Duel of Honor” (episode
7); a stagecoach shotgun guard in “The Dead-eye Kid” (episode 20); Joey, a stagecoach driver, in “The Woman” (episode 32); as well as an unnamed stagecoach driver in “The Blowout” (episode 43), “The Spiked Rifle” (episode 49) and “Miss Bertie” (episode 90). Strange, who was 6′ 5″ tall, played Frankenstein’s monster in House of Frankenstein, House of Draculaand Bud Abbott and Lou Costello Meet Frankenstein. He also famously played the bartender Sam Noonan in Gunsmoke.