There aren’t too many Westerns I can think of that have an undercover agent as the hero. The only two that readily come to mind are Charles Bronson’s “Breakheart Pass” and “Springfield Rifle” with Gary Cooper. 

“Springfield Rifle” (1952) is set in the American Civil War at a time when the Union Army is in desperate need of horses for a planned offensive against the Southern forces. Someone at Fort Hedley in Colorado is tipping off the Southern Army about the movement of horses, allowing raiders to ambush convoys and steal the animals. 

At a time when the use of spies and undercover agents was frowned on and considered despicable by chivalrous military officers, Major Lex Kearney allows himself to be court-martialed for cowardice and booted out of the Union Army so that he can infiltrate the ring of Southern spies that is responsible for stealing the horses.

Gary Cooper is branded with a yellow streak in "Springfield Rifle"

This puts our gallant hero in all sorts of tight spots – Kearney has a yellow streak painted on his back (yes, that’s the origin of the term) as he’s unceremoniously booted out of Fort Hedley, he can’t tell his virtuous wife Erin (Phyllis Thaxter) about the work he’s doing, and his son runs away from home, unable to face the idea that his father is a coward (remember this was the early 1950s, when leads in Westerns were stand-up guys like Van Heflin or father figures like Alan Ladd’s “Shane”).

The rest of this fast-paced film focusses on Kearney’s quest to unmask the Southern spies, smash the gangs of raiders and regain his position in the Union Army. And just in case you’re wondering, the film’s title is derived from a batch of experimental firearms that Kearney and his troops use in the climatic shootout against the bad guys. Though it’s another matter that the real Springfield Rifle entered service well after the end of the US Civil War.

Lobby card for "Springfield Rifle"

Veteran director Andre de Toth’s keeps things moving at a clip, aided by a tight script from Charles Marquis Warren. There are also good turns by David Brian as rancher Austin McCool, Philip Carey as the army officer who accuses Kearney of cowardice and Lon Chaney Jr as a dim-witted and brutal horse thief.

“Springfield Rifle” is available on DVD in regions 1 and 2 with a transfer that is more than acceptable.

For a great collection of stills on the making of “Springfield Rifle”, go here.