As a television hero’s gun, the cut-down Winchester Model 1892 used on Wanted: Dead or Alive was without question the most unusual and unforgettable of all Western guns from the golden age of television. The idea was conceived by the show’s writers and producer John Robinson, but the gun didn’t exist—it had to be created.
The Model 1892s (yes there were more than one) used for the series were original Winchester Model 1892s modified for the TV series by famed artist, knife and gun maker Kenny “Von Dutch” Howard, at a cost of $1,100 for the first gun used in 1958, when Josh Randall (Steve McQueen) first appeared on the TV series Trackdown (1957-1959) starring Robert Culp as Texas Ranger Hoby Gilman. In the popular “Bounty Hunter” episode that aired on March 7, 1958, McQueen’s character was first introduced to American audiences. His character was so well received by TV audiences that CBS decided to spin off another series with McQueen the following September. The rest is television history.
Von Dutch Creations
The customized Winchester Model 1892 used for the Trackdown episode (and two other versions for Wanted: Dead or Alive) were built by Von Dutch—better remembered among hotrodders as the king of pinstripping and for creating the famous “Flying Eyeball”—to look old and as if Randall had made the gun himself out of a Winchester rifle.
Von Dutch was somewhat of a recluse and a hard man to get to know. Steve McQueen was one of the few, and oddly enough, many years later so was I. Visiting him at his California desert retreat to discuss the history of pinstripping and his penchant for handcrafting knives and handguns, he spoke little of the guns, other than to mention some unusual .22s he had designed and built, and that he made the Mare’s Leg for McQueen, though it wasn’t called that at the time—it was just a custom-built 1892 lever action. It was McQueen who nicknamed the gun.
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As to Von Dutch’s feelings about the guns one way or the other, he was more than humble, saying that nothing he did, even his art, was original. “Everything is in the subconscious, we just ‘tap’ it sometimes and think we have originated something.” That may be true for the Mare’s Leg; the idea of shortening the barrel and stock on a Winchester carbine had been done back in the Old West and later still in the gangland days of the 1920s. After the National Firearms Act of 1934, however, sawed-off rifles and shotguns became illegal to own—not that the NFA stopped gangsters from using them, just everyone else. Interestingly, when Von Dutch made the 9-inch-barreled Winchesters for Wanted: Dead or Alive, they were classified as handguns, not rifles. And thus it is possible today to continue making copies. None, however, have come so close to the third Von Dutch gun as this latest model from Chiappa.
Unique Mare’s Leg
There have been many attempts in past years to copy the gun used on Wanted: Dead or Alive, but there were problems in manufacturing, issues with barrel length (most used 12-inch barrels and not the correct 9-inch length), manual safeties on the handful of examples originally built by Rossi for J.B. Custom (and now offered as the Rossi Ranch Hand) and the time and research needed to make an ex-act copy, the mission Rino Chiappa set out on after building a very authentic Model 1892 with a 12-inch barrel and the D-ring loop. (I must make exception for authentic copies that have been handcrafted from original Winchesters and are very expensive.)
Chiappa picked up the Mare’s Leg gauntlet a little over six years ago with its first design, and in 2013 added a more authentic copy of the first Von Dutch model Winchester 1892 fitted with a correct 9-inch, round barrel and a D-loop lever. During the course of the TV series, the lever design was changed at least twice, with the most memorable being the large D-ring seen early on, and the oval or teardrop loop used throughout most of the series and on the third variation Mare’s Leg, which was the only one of the three with an octagonal barrel. This is the version McQueen used for promotional pictures, but the octagonal-barrel Mare’s Leg was never seen in Wanted: Dead or Alive episodes.
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To create the third Von Dutch model, Rino Chiappa spent months researching photographs of the gun and noting differences in the design from the previous models as well as specific details that made the original Von Dutch Mare’s Legs unique, such as their checkered spoon hammers and the shapes of the levers. The guns also had no front or rear sights. An antique finish was the last step in creating a replica that was as close to the Von Dutch gun as possible. With this latest effort, Rino Chiappa has achieved his goal. This is McQueen’s Mare’s Leg.
Chiappa’s third Von Dutch Mare’s Leg has an overall length of 21¼ inches with the 9-inch, octagonal barrel; dual barrel bands (around the stock and barrel, and around barrel and magazine); a buttstock measuring 7¾ inches long with an antiqued steel butt cap; a teardrop-shaped lever; a saddle ring; an oversized, checkered spoon hammer; and a walnut forend. The top of the barrel is marked “.44-40 WIN.” Despite losing most of its barrel length and half its stock, a Model 1892 is still a pretty hefty gun even when cut down, tipping the scales at 4.38 pounds, and with a magazine capacity of five rounds, plus one in the chamber, the Mare’s Leg is a real six-shooter.
Josh Randall, like all Western heroes, rarely had to reload, though McQueen made a point of doing it at least once in each episode. Interestingly, the cameras never actually showed him take a cartridge from his belt and put it directly into the Mare’s Leg in the same shot; it was always two separate shots, the second showing the back of the cartridge as it went into the receiver. That’s because the .45-70 cartridges in his bullet loops, used for a more menacing effect, wouldn’t fit in a Model 1892. The TV guns were all .44-40s, and McQueen practiced his shooing techniques off set with live ammo. He became proficient enough with the Mare’s Leg that he could match or beat the speed of a man using a holstered Colt singe-action! Because the barrel and magazine tube were shorter, the capacity was reduced to five rounds, and McQueen would often chamber a round and then load another into the magazine. He did this in numerous episodes, and it was a lot more true to life than the old six-shooter cliché of opening the loading gate and spinning the cylinder to see if the gun was fully loaded.
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I ran the new Mare’s Leg from a Bianchi rig, and it didn’t take much practice to draw, aim and fire quickly. Having tested all of the earlier Mare’s Leg models, the new Chiappa feels more balanced in the hand and the teardrop loop is easier to handle than the big D-ring. I even tried spin-cocking it (with an empty chamber and magazine) and, with a little practice, you too can spin cock the Mare’s Leg like McQueen did in “Rope Law,” the 18th episode of season one.
I shot from 10 paces (Old West speak for about 25 feet) using a man-sized cardboard silhouette target. My best five rounds clustered into about 2.5 inches with aimed shots and a two-handed hold; shooting one handed, as McQueen occasionally did on the TV show, my groups were a little larger and higher than I aimed by 3 inches. Shooting from the waist with the butt of the Mare’s Leg pressed into my hip, I hit high again with five rounds clustering into 3.6 inches. This gets easier the more you do it because there is only moderate recoil with cowboy loads like Ten-X’s 200-grain RNFP, and the Mare’s Leg has a crisp trigger pull that drops the hammer with only 4.52 pounds of effort.
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The gun is consistent, and once you get a feel for where rounds are hitting, you can begin to dial in your accuracy, even without sights. The lever action on the test gun ran smoothly, empty cases ejected high and to the right, and it did not require any excessive effort to lever in the next round. Overall, Chiappa’s third Von Dutch model Mare’s Leg would have suited Steve McQueen to a T. For more information, visit chiappafirearms.com.
Chiappa 1892 Mare’s Leg
- Caliber: .44-40
- Barrel: 9 inches
- OA Length: 21¼ inches
- Weight: 4.38 pounds (empty)
- Stock: Walnut
- Sights: None
- Action: Lever
- Finish: Antiqued grey
- Capacity: 5+1
- MSRP: $1,289
This article originally published in the Spring 2016 issue of GUNS OF THE OLD WEST®, print and digital subscriptions to GUNS OF THE OLD WEST are available here.