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The Old West Meets Outer Space

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For most of its history, Western popular culture has taken place, well, in the actual West. However, the template for the genre has expanded into other frontiers. 

Early Western films usually centered around melodrama, meaning the characters and plot fell under clear lines of good and evil. Yet, as the world changed so did the Western.

As a result of major world wars, the Western no longer portrayed the world as black and white. For example, famed director John Ford, after traveling with a photographer during World War II, created an adult Western in 1946, My Darling Clementine. 

The evolution of Westerns at this point blurred lines between good and evil with the creation of the antihero, a rough-around-the-edges protagonist who despite many flaws still saved the day. 

For example, actor Clint Eastwood often portrayed this character very well in films such as The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Westerns also began to portray increased levels of violence, especially through Italian spaghetti Westerns. 

Clint Eastwood in the iconic western The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly
Clint Eastwood in the iconic western The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly

At one point, plot lines even served as an allegory for the Cold War. And by the 1970s, the Western expanded into a new frontier: outer space.

Of course, some of the most iconic space Westerns were Star Wars and Star Trek. However, the genre didn’t stop there. It continued to rise in popularity. While not every film or show was an initial success, some became cult favorites after cancelation. 

The networks can and did take the show away from its fans, in the words of Captain Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds, “You can’t take the sky from me.”

Shiny – But Not Enough

There may be many readers who’ve never heard of that quote. However, devoted fans will instantly recognize the 2002 Joss Whedon television series, Firefly. 

Sadly, the show was canceled after the first season. The popularity that followed though, including an Emmy Award in 2003, led Whedon with Universal Pictures to create the film Serenity in 2005. 

The show took place in 2517 in space, and while the Old West was far, far away, many plot points remained the same. Like many Westerns, the show took place after a civil war and followed outlaws, in this series known as brown coats. 

These men and women were the antiheroes of the show, fighting against the government known as the Alliance, which consisted of a merger between the United States and China — the only two surviving nations. 

Firefly cast
Firefly cast

The characters included Captain Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), Commander Zoe Washburne (Gina Torres), Washburn’s husband and pilot Hoban “Wash” Washburne (Alan Tudyk), courtesan Inara Serra (Morena Baccarin), mercenary Jayne Cobb (Adam Baldwin), mechanic Kaylee Frye (Jewel Staite), Dr. Simon Tam (Sean Maher), prodigy River Tam (Summer Glau), and Preacher Shepherd Book (Ron Glass). 

In the general plot, Captain Reynolds and his second, Zoe, were veteran brown coats. After the war, Reynolds had a complex backstory, but the show focused mainly on his purchase of the Firefly-class ship that he called “Serenity.” 

He and his crew predominantly operated as smugglers. While every episode saw the crew engaged in one problem or another, the overarching plot line for the show surrounded River Tam and her brother Dr. Simon Tam. 

In one episode, Captain Reynolds allowed the doctor on board for a trip. However, it’s discovered that he smuggled his sister onto the ship as well. The Tams were seeking safe passage after Simon rescued his sister from the Alliance, which was conducting experiments on her brain and psychic abilities. 

As for a play-by-play of the show, take a few days and binge it on Disney+, Amazon, or Hulu. 

The West and Taurus?

Firefly featured many firearms that were a nod to the Old West, including Lemat, Colt, and Smith & Wesson revolvers, but it also branched out into futuristic firearms.  

In the show, Zoe carried a replica of a Winchester Model 1892 carbine, known as a Mare’s Leg. The Winchester Model 1892 lever-action rifle was in part designed by John Moses Browning. Smaller than an 1873, it became a popular rifle used both in the military and civilian markets. 

While the most iconic Winchester is the 1873 — a gun also carried by Zoe — this firearm appeared in notable John Wayne films as well as The Rifleman television series. The Mare’s Leg model was famously carried by actor Steve McQueen on the show Wanted Dead or Alive. Although a modern concept, it was a cut-down version of the carbine that was easier to wield in a pistol form and fitted with a large lever loop. 

Old West Meets Outer Space (5)
The Winchester Lever Action is one of the most iconic Western pop culture guns of all time. So, it’s only fitting that, even in outer space, it makes an appearance. Picture via ISS

It’s fascinating to see a true Old West-style firearm on a show in space. Certainly, a show that takes place over 500 years in the future would have better technology than these 19th-century firearms. However, without them, would you really see it as a Western? 

The cool thing about the Western genre over the years is that the overall plot and location may not remain the same, but there are several mnemonics that are used to imply to the viewer that it’s a Western. Firearms are just one of the many ways creators, producers, and directors accomplish that.  

However, that doesn’t mean modern guns don’t come into play. In The Wild Bunch, Western characters carry Colt Model 1911 semi-automatic pistols and in shows like Longmire, they even carry Glocks. However, sci-fi movies have a history of taking historic firearms and making them their own. 

For example, Han Solo’s blaster is a modified Mauser C96, and the Mandalorian pistol is a modified Bergmann. Firefly is no exception. 

Mando pistol
The Mandalorian's IB-94 blaster pistol

Captain Reynolds’ sidearm is a futurized Taurus Model 85 revolver. However, the entire firearm is encapsulated in a brass exterior, so the pistol is basically unrecognizable. The revolver is covered to simulate a semi-automatic, but the overall appearance is a reference back to a Volcanic repeating pistol. 

The Volcanic was originally patented by Smith & Wesson in 1854, but quickly became the property of Oliver Winchester. Volcanic pistols and rifles were certainly not as successful as the future Winchester lever actions; however, they were an early predecessor to them.

The backstory for Reynolds’ gun is that it was carried by officers during the war, a Moses Brothers Self-Defense Engine Frontier Model B. According to the storyline, the gun had two firing systems. One was supposed to be battery-powered and fired some type of superposed loads. The other utilized a hammer and traditional ammunition. 


This show and subsequent film — as well as the firearms — have reached cult status of epic proportions. 

New Scientist magazine did an internet poll in 2005, and Firefly was voted the “World’s Best Space Sci-Fi Ever.” And almost a decade later Entertainment Weekly listed the show as No. 11 in the “25 Best Cult TV Shows from the Past 25 Years.” 

Possibly the oddest connection to the show is through star Fillion’s hit TV show Castle, in which he plays a famous writer who pairs up with a detective to solve crimes. While the show could not have been further from the sci-fi Western, it constantly placed Easter eggs for fans. 

Image via ISS

Fillion’s character, Richard Castle, decorated his home with props from the show, dressed as a space cowboy in one of the episodes, spoke Chinese which he references he learned from a TV show, said popular phrases from the show, and many others. 

The most direct connection was an episode in which a crime is committed and centered around a canceled space show that only ran for a season. 

Castle isn’t the only show to refer to Firefly, and the popular space Western joined the mouse house when Disney acquired 21st Century Fox several years ago. It’s rumored that Disney is in the process of making a reboot of the show. 

While details have been vague, we fans truly hope they call Independent Studio Services to rent out the original guns. 

Need some more old-west action? Take a look at these:

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