Playing Cowboy

Playing Cowboy

It was Christmas Eve and I was watching television as my mother made last minute preparations for the holiday. I was hooked on the Rifleman television series starring Chuck Connors as rancher Lucas McCain and Johnny Crawford as his son Mark. When the TV show was over I went to bed knowing Santa would be at our home soon.

I awoke the following morning to discover a Christmas tree with presents under it. There was holiday music playing softly in the background, the lights on the tree were twinkling, and the stockings were all bulging with treats. It was magical.

Soon I was joined by my parents. We sat on the floor in front of the tree, singing along with the music, gazing at the tree and all the packages beneath it. Among the gifts was a long narrow box covered in brightly colored wrapping paper. It was tied with red ribbon and a big bow. I don't know what I was expecting, but nothing prepared me for what awaited when I tore open the packaging.

To my six year old eyes, the toy was a perfect replica of Lucas McCain’s rifle, a modified Winchester with a lever around its trigger that allowed it to be spin cocked and shoot rapid fire.

Fast Forward

On February 10, 2023 the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum opens a new exhibition exploring the topic of the American West as represented and experienced through Western-themed toys. The exhibition will look at the beginnings of Western toys following the Wild West shows of the 1880s, their growth in popularity in the 1930s through the 1960s, and examples of their enduring appeal today. According to Michael Grauer, McCasland Chair of Cowboy Culture and Curator of Cowboy Collections and Western Art, movies and TV shows have been a major force driving toy market growth since the 1950s.

Western movies and TV shows created an enormous cast of Western heroes for children to admire and want to emulate, and spurred a Western toy industry that was inescapable in the 1950s and 60s and still plays a role in the toy market today. (National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, 2022)

The exhibition is drawn entirely from the Johnie and Bob Terry collection from Springtown, Texas. Bob Terry is a renowned historian of Western toys and appeared as “Woody” in promotions for Disney’s Toy Story series. The Terrys operate Wild West Toys, a company that makes molded plastic Western figures and casts toy cap guns from the original vintage molds. More than 800 items from their collection were loaned for the exhibition, which will showcase everything from cap guns to costumes; board games to a coin-operated mechanical horse.

“Nostalgia is a strong emotion, and few things are more nostalgic than the toys we played with as children,” said Grauer. “For those who grew up on serial and TV Westerns, carried Gunsmoke lunchboxes and cap pistols, this exhibition will be an emotional trip down memory lane. But today’s youngsters will also see familiar examples of Western-themed toys that will also resonate with them.”

“We’re so grateful to the Terrys for this chance to show off their amazing collection,” said Seth Spillman, Chief Marketing Officer. “Our hope is guests get a glimpse of the history behind these toys and how deeply ‘playing cowboy’ has penetrated popular culture around the world.”


National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. (2022, December). Playing Cowboy Exhibition to bring Private Collection of Vintage Toys to the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum.

Back to blog