Follow TV Tropes


Series / The Rifleman

Go To

The Rifleman is an American live-action western that ran from 1958 to 1963.

The story is about Lucas McCain (Chuck Connors) and his son, Mark McCain (Johnny Crawford). Mark's mother and Lucas' wife died of an illness when the medicine failed to reach her in time. Lucas enters a turkey shooting contest to buy a plot in North Fork, New Mexico, but throws the contest to a younger gunman (Dennis Hopper) when the man who runs the town threatens Mark's life. Lucas confronts the man who runs/owns most of the town, who killed the younger gunman's relative/guardian. In the saloon Lucas, with a bit of help from Hopper, kills the man and his henchmen. The judge in the town invites Lucas to stay, which he does and buys the ranch.

The Rifleman is notable for being the first primetime television series about a single parent. It also is distinguished among Westerns by the fact that the main character almost never carried a pistol. True to the show's name, McCain's rifle is prominent in the series, appearing in virtually every episode. While not all episodes were resolved with violence, McCain did rack up a substantial body count, killing 120 villains in the show's 5-year run, a pretty staggering amount for a protagonist who was not in the military, law enforcement, or security services.

The show was created by Arnold Laven and ran on ABC. Among the show's more notable crew members was Sam Peckinpah, who wrote the Pilot and wrote and directed several other episodes.

The Rifleman is available completely and legally on Hulu.

Tropes related to The Rifleman:

  • Abusive Parents: The adoptive father of a boy, whose similar-looking father Lucas killed in the Civil War, hates him bitterly and takes every opportunity to try to get him killed in a shootout.
  • Affectionate Gesture to the Head: Lucas often ruffles Mark’s hair.
  • The Alcoholic: Micah Torrance, who gets a second chance from Lucas.
  • Alliterative Name: Mark McCain. Also Lucas' late wife Margaret.
  • Always Someone Better: Lucas tells Mark that there's always someone who's a better gunman in "The Angry Gun".
  • Anachronism Stew: The rifle itself; The show takes place roughly from the late 1870s to about the 1880s. However, the rifle is a modified Winchester Model 1892. May be justified since Lucas made the rifle and it was perhaps an earlier Winchester such as an 1873 one and it simply resembled a later model.
  • Anger Born of Worry: Lucas will chew Mark out for disobeying orders, usually because said orders are meant to keep him safe. However, he’ll calm down, apologize, and explain himself once he’s sure there’s no immediate danger.
  • Anti-Villain: Many episodes feature villains with sympathetic backstories but end up on the wrong side of the law, and occasionally Lucas's bad side:
    • Sammy Davis Jr. in "Two Ounces of Tin," playing a gunfighter who wants to run Micah out of town, or else kill him, to avenge his father's death at the hands of North Fork's townspeople. Despite being a villain, he befriends Mark and Lucas tries to talk him out of his plan, without success.
    • Claude Akins in "The Safe Guard" as a retired gunfighter who works as a bank guard, then is manipulated into helping with a bank robbery. Though his plight's depicted sympathetically, he crosses the line when he kills a bystander during the robbery, and Lucas guns down him soon afterward.
    • Royal Dano as a wounded Confederate veteran in "The Sheridan Story," who holds Lucas and Mark hostage in a revenge plot against Union General Philip Sheridan.
    • Cesare Danova as the title character in "Baranca," a bandit who arrives in North Fork to avenge the murder of a Mexican farmer. He and Lucas butt heads and have a fistfight, but eventually wind up on the same side when the murderer's gang attempts to free him.
  • Bandito: A whole band of them appears in "The Vaqueros".
  • Bears Are Bad News: The mountain man in "Day of the Hunter" is done in by a bear he didn't see coming because he was so focused on getting McCain to duel him.
  • Blasting It Out of Their Hands: Lucas McCain frequently performs this trick when he doesn't want to kill the person or even persons he is facing off against. Typically, it is a fast hipshot blasting a pistol out of a person's hand leaving them clutching a seemingly unwounded hand in pain.
  • Blind Weaponmaster: Lucas for an episode where some gunpowder went off in front of him and temporarily blinded him. He still managed to use his rifle with amazing skill.
  • Bullying a Dragon: This tends to happen frequently. Sometimes occurs alongside of Mugging the Monster on occasion.
    • Many folks like to challenge Lucas. Sometimes they know of his reputation, and just want to prove who is better, and other times, they see him as some dumb sodbuster who doesn't know who he's messing with.
    • One Gentle Giant gets on the wrong end of two sore brothers. The big guy has no issues tossing them around, but that doesn't stop them for very long — fools learned the hard way.
    • Some bullies messed with one Japanese noble's servant. Turns out that the noble is a Samurai, and his servant is a Battle Butler.
    • Some racists mess with a Chinese laundryman and his son. Turns out, All Chinese People Know Kung-Fu.
    • Some folks also messed with an Italian Count, who turned out to be a crack shot with a revolver.
  • Children Are Tender-Hearted: This was a trait of Mark McCain, who was often quick to bond with troubled characters and often tried to help them, even if the audience knew the character in question couldn't be trusted. One good example was when a trick shooter came to town to kill the Northfork's marshal as revenge for when a former, more corrupt town marshal had murdered the shooter's father and the town had done nothing. Mark had spent time with the gunman, and while he didn't condone the man's desires, he understood the gunman's resentment based on how he would have felt in the same situation.
  • Daddy Issues: Lil, though she and her father do rebuild the relationship.
  • Don't Tell Mama: Happens, in one form or another.
    • In one episode, an outlaw, whom most think to be an honest man, decides to take Lucas and Mark hostage when his mother comes to the area. Lucas and Mark decide to play along upon learning that the man's mother is an innocent old woman, who is dying of medical issues — this includes Mark pretending to be her grandson, and when the outlaw's former partners show up for revenge over a prior incident, Lucas claims that he's the one that the gang are after.
    • Early in one episode, a retired outlaw is gunned down in a Mutual Kill with a bounty hunter. His dying words to Lucas and Mark were to not tell his wife and son. While Lucas tells the Marshal the truth, he's informed to go with the lie, at least until the man's wife and son have left the area. As a result, the bounty hunter's father and angry brother are convinced that Lucas is the outlaw that they were after. This leads to Lucas and Mark being captured, and Lucas accidently killing the angry bounty hunter.
  • Easily Forgiven: Lucas gave lots of people second chances, but YMMV on how much they were deserved.
  • Evil Twin: Lucas has one who comes back for an episode.
  • Food as Bribe: In one episode, the bank manager tries to hire Lucas to serve as a guard when the one he'd hired turns out to be late. Lucas turns down the money. Thus, the bank manager switches tactics — dinner for him and Mark at the hotel, as well as a room for the night, and that if nothing happened before noon, Lucas was free to leave. Mark convinces Lucas to accept the offer, and gets himself a slice of pie.
  • Gun Twirling: Of the "twirl a lever-action gun to cock it" variety. Lucas' rifle was specially designed to allow this, and also could have a screw put through the lever so that it would hit the trigger every time he cycled the action.
  • Handicapped Badass:
    • One episode involved a blind man who could tell who someone was by their footsteps. He even (unknowingly) attacked and got the upper hand in a fight with Lucas.
    • Lucas himself became this for an episode where he was temporarily blinded. It helps that he was a badass before that happened.
  • Heartbroken Badass: Lucas is so devastated by his wife's death that he never remarries, and her memory is often brought up.
  • Hired Guns: Despite being good with a gun, Lucas refuses to sell his gun skills for any amount of money. So, in one episode, when a bank guard he'd hired had yet to turn up, the bank manager comes to Lucas, asking for help. When Lucas turns down the offer of money, the bank manager switches tactics, and offers to buy Lucas, and Mark, supper and a night at the hotel, stating that if nothing happened by a certain time, Lucas was free to leave. Lucas accepted this offer.
  • Historical Domain Character: Samuel Clemens turns up in town in one episode. Mark can't stop squeeing. Union General Philip Sheridan also puts in an appearance.
  • Hunter Trapper: In the episode "Day of the Hunter", one of these tries to goad Lucas McCain into killing him in a showdown.
  • Improbable Aiming Skills: Lucas McCain frequently displays uncanny shooting ability with his rifle. He almost never misses and is as fast or faster than gunfighters with a pistol. He does most of his shooting from the hip with pinpoint accuracy. Other feats include shooting weapons out of opponents' hands, not missing despite being blind, and landing a shot with an improvised rifle made out of a bit of junk lumber for a stock and pistol.
  • Instrumental Theme Tune: In the Title Sequence, it's preceded by a rapid firing of 12 shots and the announcer calling out, "The Rifleman!" Then announcing, "Starring Chuck Connors."
  • I Want You to Meet an Old Friend of Mine: Duke Snider, Chuck Connors' former Dodgers teammate, once played an outlaw in one of the episodes.
  • It Will Never Catch On:
    • One episode has Mark come up with the idea of a dishwasher, but with the current technology (he proposes a leakproof box that's then attached to a horse) it's not practical.
    • The episode "The Bullet" involves a town Marshal trying to use ballistics to solve a case. Both Lucas and the Marshal's Deputy are skeptical before the ballistics start showing results. The evidence is eventually brought before a judge, who dismisses the science and allows drops the case. The episode ends with the Marshal suggesting they use fingerprints, which Lucas is dismissive of.
  • The Load: Mark McCain. Somewhat justified since he's just a kid, but a good 80% of the conflicts are directly caused or made worse by him. When Mark isn't directly getting into trouble himself (and forcing poor Luke to rescue him), or getting his father into trouble that he has to bail himself out of, he's probably having problems at school.
  • Manly Tears: With Mark unconscious and suffering from typhoid fever, Lucas breaks down completely as he begs his ailing son not to die.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: In "The Vision" (Season 2, Episode 26), Mark contracts a bad case of typhoid fever. On the edge of death, he dreams - or sees - himself in a heavenly valley with a woman who appears to be his mother. Is it merely a fevered dream? Or is the valley the edge of heaven, and is his late mother's spirit comforting him through his illness?
  • Missing Mom: Margaret, Mark's mother and Lucas' wife died due to disease when Mark was only six, leaving Lucas to care for his son alone. It comes up frequently in the various episodes whether from Lucas reminiscing, Mark asking a question, or another character bringing it up in some way. She actually does appear. The spirit of Margaret McCain returns to help Mark through a bad case of typhoid fever in "The Vision" (Season 2, Episode 26). She's wearing a bridal gown with a veil and her wedding ring. Upon revealing her face, Mark doesn't want to leave her side, so she gently tells him that he must go back bestows Mark a flower to give to her husband.
    Margaret: Give him this. Until we can all be together again.
  • The Neidermeyer: One episode had an Army Major was this to his troops and the civilians of North Fork. Fortunately, everyone in North Fork realized how insane his military command was, and his superiors got a message from Lucas McCain about his incompetence, recalling the Major back to headquarters. However, the Major spun the story, claiming that his superiors needed his command elsewhere, even leaving his Lieutenant with this message: "Lieutenant, remember, the key to command is a firm hand, discipline!"
  • No-Holds-Barred Beatdown: Lucas has found himself in a number of situations where he and his foe get involved in a fistfight to the death, or something close to one. Lucas tends to come out on top, often beating the other man senseless.
  • No-Sell: When the mountain man in "Day of the Hunter" attempts to provoke a Nobody Calls Me "Chicken"! reaction when challenging McCain to a duel, Lucas doesn't even hesitate in his answer.
    Cass: You gunna take that challenge? Or be called a coward?
    Lucas: Be called a coward.
  • Papa Wolf: Lucas McCain is this in spades. Some of the other fathers also get in on this, such as the Chinese laundryman, who shows a group of racists what he can really do when they put him and his son in danger.
  • Posse: As typical of a Western series, these come up from time to time. On a number of occasions, Lucas is asked to join in the hunt for the criminal.
    • On one occasion, he turned the offer down, citing that he needed to spend some time with Mark due to an earlier incident. The Marshal understood his reasons. Turned out to be a good thing too.
  • Reformation Acknowledgement: This shows up a few times, usually preceeded by a bout of Reformed, but Rejected. One particular standout example occurs when a new preacher and his son come to Northfork. At first Lucas McCain plans to be welcoming, but recognizes the man as a former gunfighter and troublemaker who'd used brutal tactics to run farmers and ranchers off their land and even burned a records office in order to steal land for resale before disappearing. The priest insists he's no longer that man, having undergone a spiritual change after being confronted by one of his victims, but McCain accuses him of only using his collar as a shield against his past. Sure enough a pair of bounty hunters arrive in Northfork to stir up trouble, citing the preacher's past to his new parishioners and even embellishing it to provoke the preacher back to violence so they could kill him. Pushed to the brink, the man begs Lucas for some guidance in what to do, as he doesn't want to let his son down, only to be rebuffed. Finally he decides to spare his son the shame of so disreputable a father and confronts the bounty hunters, ready to lose the gunfight and end their cruelty. Lucas intervenes at the last minute, deciding that the callous outlaw the priest had once been would never have been willing to confront death. In the end, McCain offers to help the priest rebuild his reputation with the town, accepting his reformation as genuine.
  • Revolvers Are Just Better: Numerous characters in the show, both good and bad, carry Colt Peacemakers.
  • Sentenced Without Trial: An army deserter, Ben Haskell, ends up on Lucas McCain's ranch, wounded and exhausted. Unfortunately, the soldier's command Major, Damler, was not only overly-strict and emotionally abusive to his regiment, but also very uncaring about the troops under his command, as he not only did not have the regiment doctor tend to Haskell's wound (causing it to get infected), but Damler also arrests, judges, and sentences Haskell to a firing squad without reasonable charge. Haskell's only "crime"? He stole some water out of desperation, of which he was denied in the arid climate of New Mexico, and was shot for it, while escaping.
  • The Seven Western Plots: A ranch story chronicling Lucas McCain's trials in raising his son Mark on his own and running a ranch in North Fork, New Mexico.
  • Shared Universe: With of all things the TV movie series The Gambler... more specifically The Gambler Returns, where an elderly Lucas McCain and an adult Mark McCain appear, still played by the original actors, and yes, they are identified by name.
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: Lucas' first kill in the Civil War was a very young man; when Lucas thinks he sees the same man alive, he gets a severe Heroic B So D.
  • Shirtless Scene: Lucas spends most of "The Vaqueros" without a shirt, and his hair all messed up. And it is awesome. He also frequently is shirtless while performing manual labor on a hot day.
  • Spin-Off: Michael Ansara appears in two episodes as the Native American US Marshal, Sam Buckhart. Ansara's character later received his own show, Law of the Plainsman, which ran 1959-1960.
  • Stern Teacher: "The Schoolmaster" focuses on a strict new teacher who gets on Mark's bad side, and vice versa. Naturally he gets better as the episode goes along.
  • Suicide by Cop: In "Day of the Hunter", a Hunter Trapper tries to goad Lucas into killing him in a duel.
  • Technical Pacifist: In one episode, a Chinese laundryman and his son move into town. Despite issues with a bigot, and said bigot's son, the Chinese folks try to avoid trouble. Then the Bigot's son attacks the young Chinese boy. Mark, who has befriended the lad, jumps in to protect him. When the Bigot's son gets the upper hand, the Chinese lad jumps back in, and thus bests the Bigot's son. Then, the Bigot tries to attack the Chinese family at their camp site. Lucas shows up, and jumps in to help the Chinese. The Bigot pulls a knife, and cuts off the Chinese man's queue — cue the Chinese man giving the Bigot quite the slapping.
  • Traumatic Haircut: In one episode, a Chinese laundryman, and his son, show up in town. Both of them have queues. A Bigot and his son make threats involving cutting the pair's hair. Lucas himself mentions to the father that cutting the long hair off would make things easier. The father says to do so would be seen as a sign of dishonor, and would prevent them from going back to China. Lucas is understanding. The Bigot, however, attacks the pair, and cuts of the father's queue. The father unleashes a No-Holds-Barred Beatdown upon him. A much lighter case is right at the end of the episode, where the son has also had his queue cut off, proudly saying that he and his father are Americans.
  • Unorthodox Reload: The "flip-cock method" became the show's gimmick.
  • Unwitting Instigator of Doom: Mark is sometimes guilty of this, particularly when chatting with strangers about his father. In one episode, a son of a barber gets fed up with Mark's boasting about his father, and a couple of mean-spirited buffalo hunters get into it, hoping to gun down the barber for pure malice.
  • Weakness Is Just a State of Mind: How the strict and insane Major Damler from "The Deserter" views military command. For example, he blames a previous regiment for cracking under pressure while on a campaign against rebel cell, when in-actuality, they were shot up, and they rightfully turned and ran from a lost cause. Later in the episode, he calls out one of his soldiers for "resting", when in-actuality, the soldier collapsed from heat exhaustion in blazing weather, from an already-grueling four-hour duty shift.
  • Worthy Opponent: How General Sheridan describes Blandon and the rest of the Confederates.