Guns of The Wild Bunch
It’s been 50 years since Sam Peckinpah’s landmark Western blasted onto the big screen. How does the era-bridging film hold up after five decades.
THE “WESTERN” HAD BEEN a popular movie genre since its earliest days of Hollywood, but in the late 1960s, after a massive surge in love for the genre on both the big and small screen, the mood of the country shifted. The the Vietnam War, and the anti-war movement back at home, were in full swing and Westerns changed a bit.
No longer where they the cut and dry morality tales of the 1950s with the white hat wearing good guys and black hatted bad guys. The age of the anti-hero was beginning, and this was evident in the spaghetti westerns of Sergeo Leone, notably the Man With No Name film series starring a young Clint Eastwood. Notably, Eastwood cut his teeth in one of those old school 1950s westers, the TV show Rawhide as Rowdy Yates.
This shift in the genre can also be seen in two landmark westerns that were released in the same landmark year: John Wayne’s True Grit (1969), and director Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969).
Peckinpah had established himself in the Western genre as a writer for Gunsmoke, Have Gun – Will Travel, The Rifleman and Dick Powell’s Zane Grey Theatre. His handling of the Old West—at least Hollywood’s idealized version of it—allowed him to create the short-lived series The Westerner (1960), which starred Brian Keith as a gritty cowboy drifter who didn’t always follow the letter of the law.
After his success in TV Peckinpah made the jump to motion pictures, and again focused on Westerns, including The Deadly Companions(1961), _ Ride the High Country_ (1962) , and Major Dundee (1965).
As younger moviegoers began to see westerns as passé, Peckinpah adapted to the country’s shifting mood with The Wild Bunch, which he co-wrote with Walon Green and Roy N. Sickner. Instead of being set in the “Golden Age” of the Old West in the post-American Civil War era, this film actually takes place in 1913 and focused on an aging outlaw gang in a world that is changing. Appropriate for the times, and a really interesting time for firearms.
The time period saw a unique mixture of firearms across the American landscape. Guns like the Winchester 1873 lever guns and Colt Single Action Army revolver were still common and certainly still effective, but new firearms that hit the scene in the early 20th century just on the cusp of The First World War were beginning to become just as common—like the Colt 1911, the Luger P08, a host of new and accurate bolt action rifles, and, of course, machine guns.
Peckinpah’s filming and editing technique was also not what Western fans were used to and was a look ahead at action movies to come. He employed intricate, multi-angle, quick-cut editing that featured both normal and slow motion images.
This heightened the chaotic nature of the movie’s intense shootouts. While almost tame by today’s standards, back in 1969, it was controversial for its graphic violence as well as the fact it’s a film with anti-heroes and villains and no true “good guy.”
If anything, this was arguably a more accurate depiction of the violent gangs of the Old West, which is why it has endured as one of the greatest Westerns ever made.
The Western With Machine Guns
In addition to focusing on the aforementioned anti-heroes, The Wild Bunch accurately reflects the guns that could be found in North America in 1913. As in the real world, Colt SAA revolvers and Winchester Model 1892 rifles are seen in the film being used alongside Colt M1911 .45 ACP pistols (with Spanish Star Model Bs standing in for production reasons) and Springfield M1903 bolt guns.
And this is also a western that takes place in the era of the machine gun! A key plot point (Spoilers) involved the gang, led by Pike Bishop (William Holden), robbing a railroad office while dressed as U.S. Army soldiers, and later robbing a weapons shipment from a U.S. Army train. In the process, the gang steals a .30-06 water-cooled Browning M1917 machine gun. This is an anachronism as the gun, denoted by its military designation of M1917, wasn’t developed yet in 1913 when the movie takes place. But the Maxim Machine Gun and similar models like the Colt M1895 had been around for a couple decades already, so the presence of a machine gun isn’t far fetched.
Pike’s gang was charged with acquiring American armaments for Mexican Federal Army General Macpache and his German advisor Commander Mohr. It is true that the German Army was trying to find out what types of weapons were being developed prior to the outbreak of WWI, and while the American military was still using the outdated Colt M1895 machine gun, it was already considered obsolete.
Throughout the film, Pike and most of his gang, carry the aforementioned Colt M1911 as their sidearms, which are specifically called out by Commander Mohr as not being legally available for civilian sales. While there weren’t a lot of restrictions on private ownership of some firearms, it is true that at that time military contracts did bar some items from being sold to the public.
It is never actually explained where the gang obtained the Colt M1911 pistols, but likely these came from the same source that provided the uniforms. The handguns used in the film were actually Spanish made 9mm Star Model B pistols, which were used because a 9mm pistol can be made to more reliably cycle blank rounds than a .45 ACP pistol with a heavier spring and slide, and because they were inexpensive and looked almost exactly like an M1911.
While the film has some firearms that are a bit anachronistic for the period, some are absolutely spot on and were used widely in the era. This includes the Colt New Service model revolver, which can be seen carried by some Mexican soldiers. The firearm, which was first produced in 1898, can also be seen in a flashback sequence when a lawman tries to arrest Deke Thornton (played by Robert Ryan) – the former partner of Pike who leads a posse of bounty hunters to capture the gang.
A jealous husband also shoots Pike in the leg with a Colt New Service model revolver, and it is likely the same firearm repurposed for use in a different scene.
In the opening robbery of the railroad office, several of Pike’s gang carry Springfield M1903A3 rifles, and these are also seen in the later train robbery. While the U.S. Army did adopt the Springfield Model 1903 rifle by the time the film takes place. the guns used in the movie are actually the World War II variant of the ’03, which featured a peep sight in place of the original rear sight.
These rifles were produced to supplement production of the M1 Garand during WWII and were used by the U.S. Marine Corps in the early stages of the war. Many were also modified and used as sniper rifles through the Korean War.
Several Mexican soldiers are also seen carrying the M1903A3s, but at the time, these rifles weren’t being supplied to the Mexican Federal Army. However, it can be assumed that General Macpache had “obtained” weapons illegally to aid his efforts in the then on-going Mexican Revolution.
The inclusion of “classic” Western firearms—including the SAA and the Winchester 1892 Saddle Ring Carbine—helps show that the characters are at a crossroads in terms of firearm innovation. Several members of the Wild Bunch gang, as well as the posse of bounty hunters, can be seen with the Winchester carbines, and one member of the posse is seen with the full length Winchester Model 1892 rifle.
Other older firearms can also be seen, including the Sharps rifle from the 1870s that old timer Freddy Sykes (Edmond O’Brien) carries. Sykes is one of the few outlaws to survive to the end, so perhaps that explains why he sticks with his outdated but still reliable choice of firearm.
The Wild Bunch has another technological innovation that isn’t often seen in westerns: the automobile. Mention is even made about “aero planes.”
The film also include an interesting piece of geopolitical history with the character of German advisor Commander Mohr, working in Mexico. His character results from the fact that Germany was courting the Mexican Federation at the time and in 1917 even attempted to bring Mexico into WWI as an ally. The U.S. intercepted a telegram from Imperial Germany to Mexico and learned of the offer. As a result, the U.S. entered the war against Germany while Mexico remained neutral.
The presence of German influence is also seen in the fact that several Mexican soldiers are carrying Steyr-made Mauser 1912 short rifles. This is historically accurate, as German-made Mauser rifles were supplied around the world, and the Steyr versions were used by the Mexican Army during the country’s revolution.
Commander Mohr can also be seen with a Luger P08 pistol during the climatic shootout but it doesn’t appear he’s able to fire it.
Several members of Pike’s gang carry the Winchester Model 1897 shotgun in what could be seen as foreshadowing of combat tactics soon to come.
While the movie guns are the full sized version of the pump action shotgun, the U.S. military used a shorter version of the M1897 that was often called the “Trench Gun” by soldiers who carried it in WWI for the obvious devastation a 12 gauge shotgun could cause in a confined, narrow trench. It is notable that use of the shotgun was protested by the German military, which claimed the weapon violated the Hague Convention.
Interestingly, one of the gang, Clarence “Crazy” Lee (Bo Hopkins), is seen not with the Model 1897 shotgun, but with what would have been brand new Winchester Model 1912 Riot Gun. The Model 1912 set the standard for pump action shotguns for the next half century and was produced until 1964. No mention is made as to why Lee had the gun.
The gun that truly stands out in The Wild Bunch is that Browning M1917 machine gun. While it is anachronistic, it does prove to be the ultimate game changer in the final shootout, as belt fed machine guns have a way of doing.
In many ways, while director Peckinpah did go on to make a more “traditional” Western with Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, it was The Wild Bunch with its setting in the twilight of the Old West and violent climax that signaled the end of his style of Westerns.