What would Paladin have been without his handcrafted Colt revolver and signature chess knight, or Wyatt Earp without the Buntline Special? Perhaps they would have been a little less memorable. In the case of The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, it would also have been historically inaccurate, at least in the opinion of Earp’s biographer, Stuart N. Lake. It’s a pity no one bothered to look at historical records when choosing a gun and holster for Gene Barry’s portrayal of Bat Masterson. The Dodge City lawman almost always carried 5½-inch-barreled Colt single actions, many ordered with factory or custom engraving, and there are even letters from Masterson to authenticate that. Instead, the show had Bat carrying a short, nickel-plated, 3½-inch-barreled (sometimes 4-inch) Colt. But, more to the point, television characters were just that—characters—even the ones based on real people. And creating a memorable television character, particularly for a Western, requires three essential elements (aside from a good actor): a memorable gun, an interesting holster and an even more interesting hat. Any questions about that, just look at Hell on Wheels.
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Back in the days when Paladin, Marshal Dillon and Josh Randal were cleaning up the Old West, television sets were in cabinets, not on top of them, the screens were a lot smaller and the characters were larger than life. As the Western saga unfolded on television each week, we watched wagon trains heading West, cattle being driven and an endless stream of frontier lawmen standing up against the worst gunmen history could provide, or a writer’s imagination could dream up. As noted by TV Western authorities Doug Abbott and Ronald Jackson, between 1949 and the end of the 20th century, there were more than 145 shows either based in the Old West, about the Old West, or shows modernized to the present day but still Westerns at heart. Some only lasted a season or two, others a decade or more, and then there was Gunsmoke, which remained on the air for an unparalleled 20 years. What made the show so successful was the chemistry between its characters, and of course, Matt Dillon’s stag-gripped Colt and the unforgettable shootout that eventually became the show’s trademark opening. It is Dodge City’s fictitious marshal that begins our look at 10 of the greatest guns, holsters and hats ever to grace the airwaves.
Quick On The Draw
A fast gun was essential to survival in the Old West, at least on television in the 1950s and 1960s, and city marshals, real ones like Wyatt Earp and fictional ones like Matt Dillon, had to be fast on the draw but wise enough to know when not to draw. It was an underlying theme in almost every TV Western of the era. The gun was the last resort. Few made that more clear than Paladin in Have Gun, Will Travel. But when their hands were forced, Earp, Dillon and Paladin were among the fastest on film and in real life, where the actors practiced to perfect their draw.
What nearly all of them had in common was one man, Hollywood gun coach Arvo Ojala, who designed their fast-draw holsters. In fact, it was Arvo who drew against Matt Dillon in the opening scene in Gunsmoke. Ojala holsters were standard fare in almost every TV Western. There were different versions, but the fundamentals were shared by all, a trick shot’s cheat: Arvo’s holsters were designed with metal liners that allowed the cylinder to rotate in the holster so the gun was already cocked when Dillon, Earp or Paladin cleared leather. These Buscadero-style holsters were suspended through a cutout in the cartridge belt, rather than sliding over it, as had been the practice since the 1830s. The style first emerged in late 1920s Western films, and the elaborately hand-tooled Buscadero became a staple with the famed H.H. Heiser Saddlery in Denver, Colorado, and Ed Bohlin of Bohlin Saddlery in Hollywood, California.
Nearly every holster in this article is a variation of the Ojala design, but not all of them. As Westerns became more “authentic,” the Buscadero became less desirable and show-runners began looking back to the original styles of holsters worn in the Old West.
Nothing catches the eye like a nickel-plated sixgun. While the vast majority of Western heroes carried blued Colts, a nickel-plated gun was fast becoming a trademark on early television shows like The Lone Ranger. One of the first television Westerns, it originally aired on September 15, 1949. Back then, the small black and white screens barely did the masked man justice, with Clayton Moore wearing one of the most handsomely crafted, hand-tooled gun belt and holster rigs in TV history. The original Lone Ranger holsters and cartridge belt were designed by Ed Bohlin and indicative of the handsome hand tooling and silver work that were the trademarks of Bohlin holsters and saddles.
Moore carried a pair of nickel-plated Colt SAAs through 221 episodes of the series (with the exception of season four, when Moore was temporarily replaced by actor John Hart). Moore, who masterfully portrayed the Lone Ranger, became the epitome of the white hat, a man who only resorted to his nickel-plated Colts when all else failed and a signature silver bullet was needed to settle things.
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Although Bat Masterson, another of the real-life Western lawmen portrayed on television and in film, favored nickel-plated Colts, Gene Barry’s portrayal of him was more on point than not, as the real Masterson dressed well, wore a derby hat and, as a result of a wound to his hip in a gun battle, carried a cane as much to aid his pace as to knock a man down. In the TV series, the show-runners gave Bat a shorter-barreled gun than Masterson actually carried, but it was nickel plated. Like many TV guns of the era, this one was also fitted with Franzite stag grips. On the show, Barry wore the 3½-inch-barreled Colt in a cross-draw holster with a deeply cut and slightly arched throat to expose the entire triggerguard—something that wasn’t seen until the late 1890s and early 20th century and later incorporated into holsters designed by Arvo Ojala and Alfonso Pineda. Barry carried off the Bat Masterson character with style for four seasons and 108 episodes.
There were men who carried guns in the Old West, and then there were gunfighters. The two are not synonymous, nor are the guns they may have chosen to carry. In the 1950s, creating a Western TV series was something that happened almost yearly among the three major networks: CBS, ABC and NBC. CBS had shows like Gunsmoke, Have Gun, Will Travel, Rawhide and Wanted Dead or Alive. NBC had Bat Masterson, Wagon Train and Bonanza (second only to Gunsmoke for longevity with 440 episodes), and ABC ran The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, The Lone Ranger, Maverick and The Rifleman. And those were just the frontrunners.
With very few exceptions, most of the shows relied on Colt single-action revolvers and Ojala’s gunfighter rigs. Hats were actually more distinctive to characters than a gun, that is, until 1959, when a bounty hunter with a heart of gold named Josh Randall made his first appearance on an episode of the CBS series Trackdown starring Robert Culp. The two shows are worthy of note because Culp’s character, Texas Ranger Hoby Gilman, didn’t carry a Colt Peacemaker—he holstered a Smith & Wesson Schofield, which stood out from all the rest of the TV guns until Josh Randall wandered into Gilman’s territory with a sawed-off Winchester lever-action rifle in a cutaway holster. The rest is TV history.
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Trackdown lasted from 1957 to 1959, and Wanted: Dead or Alive stepped into the CBS lineup beginning in September 1959 and concluded its 94-episode run in September 1961. In two years, it made Steve McQueen a star and added the Mare’s Leg to the western gun lexicon.
But CBS wasn’t done with unique guns or holsters. The network had one more up its sleeve being carried by an unlikely lawman based on the outlaw gunman Johnny Ringo. The show debuted in 1959, a month after Wanted: Dead or Alive, with Ringo trying to put the past behind him by becoming the sheriff of Velardi, Arizona. In the show’s pilot, which had aired on Dick Powell’s Zane Grey Theater, star Don Durant carried the requisite Colt Peacemaker with stag Franzite grips, but when the series began he had traded his Colt for the most unlikely handgun any lawman or gunslinger would have carried—a LeMat!
Lonesome Dove is one the most iconic of TV miniseries. We were first introduced to Texas Rangers Augustus “Gus” McCrae and Woodrow F. Call (played by Robert Duval and Tommy Lee Jones) in Larry McMutry’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel, which was adapted for the miniseries by screenwriter Bill Wittliff. Making Gus McCrae unforgettable on the screen were a worn Colt Walker that was long out of date but suited to Gus’ bravado, a holster and gun belt that were “make do” at best, and a dusty old hat that managed to survive every situation McCrae encountered, even his own death. You could show the hat, the Walker and holster to anyone who has seen the miniseries, even once, and they would say, “That’s Gus McCrae’s rig.” It was that good.
In television writing, there is something known as an “arc,” where two or more episodes tie a story together from beginning to end. In the case of Hell on Wheels, every story is part of an arc that has been predetermined by history. The building of the Transcontinental Railroad began in 1862 and ended when the Central Pacific, racing East from Sacramento, California, and the Union Pacific, racing West from Omaha, Nebraska, finally met at Promontory, Utah, on May 10, 1869. For Hell on Wheels, the end of the story has already been written. That is the ultimate arc. What lies between is the human adventure of Cullen Bohannon (played by Anson Mount) and everyone he encounters as the railroad is built.
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Writing fiction based on history has made this five-season journey, which concludes in 2016, one of the most watched Westerns in recent time. Not only because it is good storytelling, dramatically filmed and as gritty and real as the show’s producers can make it, but because the characters are more interesting perhaps than many of the real individuals who built the railroad that joined East and West. Facts, events and the intrigue that actually surrounded the building of the Transcontinental Railroad have been meticulously interwoven with the real and fictional characters of Hell on Wheels, and sometimes it is hard to tell where one stops and another begins. Certainly there were men like Cullen Bohannon, and there was indeed a Thomas “Doc” Durant; in fact, there are nearly as many factual characters in the show as those invented by the series’ creators and writing staff.
The show’s costumers and armorer built an indelible image for Bohannon—even if the gun he carried in the show’s first two seasons never existed! A subtle ploy in the writing was Bohannon losing his hat in the third season, which led to him throwing away almost every hat he found until he miraculously acquired another one remarkably similar to the first. His rig, a makeshift drop-loop conversion of a Civil War flap holster and a worn leather belt, has worked for Bohannon’s ill-fated fake Griswold and the current .44-caliber Remington Army. These have become almost as intrinsic to Cullen Bohannon’s character as the old mismatched holster, belt and Colt Walker were to Gus McCrae. Can these simple items make or break a strong character? Most definitely not, but what they can do and have done as far back as John Wayne spin-cocking his Winchester in 1939’s Stagecoach is define a character as no other visual elements can. That is the power of the right hat, gun and holster.
Editor’s Note: Hats courtesy Bill Knudsen of Golden Gate Western Wear. Be sure to look for the revised Second Edition of 50 Years of the Television Western, by Doug Abbott and Ronald Jackson, available on amazon.com, and to see more legendary photographs from TV western history visit Doug Abbott’s website, westerntvphotos.com.
This article originally published in the Winter 2016 issue of GUNS OF THE OLD WEST®, print and digital subscriptions to GUNS OF THE OLD WEST are available here.