Bang! 5 Toy Guns from 1962
This week Roadtrip-'62 ™ takes a look at a subject that was very familiar to my 1962 me…toys! I was only nine years old most of the year and that meant I spend a lot of time playing. And playing with toys for a boy in that era meant I spent time with toy guns. We had a lot of different types of toy guns back then, many of which still exist but some that may not.
One popular gun of the time straddled the line between toy and firearm: the BB gun. While advertised to and used primarily by boys, it fired a real projectile that could do real damage. Windows and light bulbs were clearly good targets, along with tin cans and other thin metal that could be easily pierced. Mothers’ fears were always that “you could put your eye out with that”, and though real life instances of such injury were few, they did happen. My family never had a BB gun and I don’t recall seeing any of the other boys along the street with one, even the older boys. I’m not sure why, though the lots in our neighborhood were small and houses close together, so maybe it was not a good place to shoot things. The main manufacturer of BB guns was Daisy Manufacturing Company, whose slogan "ask Dad - he had a Daisy" was found in every publication targeted to boys, such as comic books. Crosman BB guns were also advertised in the same magazines. BB guns commonly operate with a spring piston action, pumping air to power the projectile. The guns are smoothbore and fire at low velocities. The pellets were once made of lead but have long been steel because steel is cheaper and shoots more accurately. Modern BBs are plated with either zinc or copper to resist rust and some Asian companies make plastic BBs.
Daisy Manufacturing Company began as Daisy Outdoor Products in 1882 and built windmills used on farms. In a sales promotion just a few years later, they sent a free air gun with the purchase of each windmill. The guns became so popular that they formed their own product line. The company captured the lions share of the BB gun market in the late 1930s with their Red Ryder model, a name licensed from a popular western newspaper strip and radio show character of that time. The Red Ryder newspaper comic strip, by Fred Harman, ran from 1938-1964. This character was used for movie serials beginning in 1940, which were later edited into TV shows, comic books, and the Red Ryder radio program from 1942 until the early 1950s, and Daisy rode along. Daisy’s Red Ryder BB gun model is still in production today, though the movies and TV shows are long gone and even the Red Ryder comic strip was canceled in 1963. Youth groups such as 4H and Boy Scouts held BB gun competitions, and Daisy still sponsors competitions. During the Vietnam War Daisy BB guns were even used for training!
Daisy was originally located in Plymouth, Michigan but moved to Rogers, Arkansas in 1958. Their new corporate offices have housed an impressive airgun collection since 1960. I imagine you could have visited the offices and seen the collection in 1962, but today the Daisy Airgun Museum offers even more to see. The museum, in downtown Rogers, Arkansas, opened in 2000 after the old Daisy plant was sold, with the original corporate collection as its core. Daisy continued to subsidize the museum from 2000 to 2003, but the museum is now operated by a non-profit corporation. It moved again a couple of years ago to it current location in a former Rexall Drug Store. If you love or collect Daisy BB guns, the museum has and online forum to discuss the guns and a gift store to buy current Daisy products and branded collectibles.
Though I never had a BB gun, I had several of the most common toy gun of the time, the cap gun. Cap guns, along with pop guns and other guns that made noise and puffed smoke, were marketed as safer alternatives to BB guns because there was no projectile to shoot at someone. Like the Red Ryder BB Gun, cap guns were made to tie-in with many TV westerns, including Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, The Lone Ranger, Bonanza, Gunsmoke, Maverick, Cheyenne, Wagon Train, and The Rifleman. Several of these were on the air in 1962. I don’t remember having guns with any distinctive label, so I probably had just generic cap pistols. The Nichols Rancho was introduced in 1962 and was originally priced at just 29 cents, which was certainly in my mother’s price range for toys. Many toy companies made cap guns, including Nichols, Hubley, Kilgore, Marx, Mattel, Halco, Wyandotte, Kenton, Stevens, and Actoy. Some had realistic, bullet-loading, rotating cylinders, but the less expensive guns used roll caps. Mattel marketed their own “Greenie” brand of caps that were green instead of the industry standard red. I used mostly roll caps, but the 2- and 3-piece bullets used in bullet-loading guns needed single-shot round caps. The only time I used round caps was for the Space Bomb, which was a plastic, vaguely rocket-shaped toy with a top that could be removed to install the cap. You then threw the bomb at the sidewalk to explode the cap! Not a gun, but lot’s of fun.
A cap gun is a toy gun that creates a loud sound somewhat like a gunshot with a puff of smoke when a small amount of gunpowder is exploded. Some models had multi-part bullets that actually fired, like Mattel’s "Shootin' Shells". After World War II, most were made of a zinc alloy, and most newer models are now made of plastic. The metal tasted metallic if you licked them…not sure why we ever did that, but we did. The bit of gunpowder was encapsulated (hence the name “cap”) between two pieces of paper. Roll caps had perforating holes between the caps that were engaged by pins in the gun when you pulled the trigger. This advanced the roll to the next cap for firing. Today, a compound called Armstrong's mixture, which gives a smaller explosion, is often used, but previously it was simple gunpowder. Cap guns were first made following the end of the American Civil War in the mid-1860s, when firearms companies experimented with toy guns in order to stay in business. The "Golden Age" of cap guns was a roughly 20-year period after World War II when television gave us westerns every day. While many were given names from these TV shows through licensing, many cap guns also were given generic western-sounding names. They came in models reproducing just about every type of western gun: Derringers, rifles, six-shooters, and pistols. Besides westerns, during the Civil War Centennial years of 1961-1965, some cap guns were produced that mimicked weapons from that conflict. As the popularity of westerns later diminished, military and secret agent models were sold.
Another toy gun that everybody had several of was the squirt gun. It seems that every one I had was a hard, transparent plastic, so you could see your water level inside the gun. The plastic always cracked, so these didn’t last long. And if you managed not to crack the plastic for a few weeks, then the stopper got lost when you refilled the gun or the trigger spring sprung so you couldn’t shoot. But they were always fun while they lasted. I might have had some other inexpensive model, like a mini-squirt gun that was available in boxes of Kellogg’s cereals. This was a softer, opaque black plastic. The gun was barely half the size of an adult hand and probably only shot about 3 times before it was out of water. Maybe you could get something similar for sending Popsicle wrappers: I sent away for a lot of their premiums!
Though my squirt guns were plastic, some early models were metal. Some Japanese models from the 1950s were metal and I might have seen one of those in the hands of one of the older boys in the neighborhood. Even Daisy made a metal water pistol from 1919-1932. I wonder how they held water: maybe a rubber bladder inside? More expensive, bigger squirt guns existed in 1962, such as Mattel’s "Dick Tracy Snub-Nose .38" and "Dick Tracy Tommy-Burst" guns. The large gun was advertised as shooting water 30 feet and besides shooting water, these fired caps too!
Besides Mattel, other manufacturers tried the two-guns-in-one approach. Ranger Steel Products made a variation on the squirt gun that blew bubbles when you pulled the trigger. It was sold with a bottle of bubble liquid. Another company made a combination squirt gun with a flashlight, marketed as a ray gun. Which brings us to another type of toy gun, the ray gun or space gun. Like the one mentioned, these often were fanciful combinations of effects, with a light being the only actual ray. The Astro Ray Dart Blaster from Ohio Art, the inventors of the Etch-A-Sketch, combined a flashlight with a dart gun. This gun was introduced in 1962 and looks like something I had, though I don’t believe mine shot darts. Maybe they used the basic design for a plain cap gun too? The Astro Ray was sold as the Astro Ray Dalek Gun in England a couple of years later, after the original Dr. Who TV series became popular. And in a testament to a successful product, the Astro Ray is still sold today with Nerf-style foam darts replacing the old rubber tipped darts. Yet another space gun introduced in 1962 was the Century 21 Space Gun, which was the official toy of the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair. It was a red plastic space gun with two stocks. One shot a spaceship spinner up to 150ft, then the second let you fire a missile at the spaceship! Guns that generated sparks inside a see-through window were often marketed as space guns and we had one. I recall a disc that spun when you pulled the trigger, creating sparks by spinning a rough, sandpaper-like side against flint, the same material that gave sparks in a cigarette lighter.
Other oddball toy guns of the period included the Kusan Ping Pong Ball Gun. This was a hollow red rubber gun that held enough air to blow a ping pong ball out of the muzzle when you squeezed the gun. They had been around since the 1950s. But perhaps the oddest toy gun of the period was the potato gun. These usually used a cap to provide a burst of gas to fire a small chunk of potato. The cool thing was reloading: all you did was stick the muzzle end into a raw potato and when you pulled away, a circle of potato was stuck in the end of the gun. As with any cap gun, the explosion made a sound, but the potato gun used the gas from the explosion to shoot the potato…just barely.
I’m guessing that some of the fun of toy guns has disappeared since 1962, as we make the world ever safer. In 1988, a federal law was passed that required the tip of the muzzle of toy guns be either bright orange, red, or yellow, so the sense of realism of some guns was lost. For retrofitting older toy guns for resale, you can buy orange toy gun plugs. This law was passed to reduce the chances that children with toys could be mistaken for having real guns and shot. Later, in 2008, the US Consumer Product Safety Commission banned toy caps producing noise above 138 decibels. Caps that would once have banged and smoked now just kind of pop due to the change in the explosive chemical. The purpose of this law is to protect children’s hearing. But here at Roadtrip-'62 ™ it’s still 1962, so enjoy a commercial for Mattel’s "Shootin' Shells" cap guns!
All photos by the author and Copyright © 2017 - Milne Enterprises, Inc., except as noted.
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