Labor day weekend is upon us and as another summer fades into memory it makes me recall my own youth. The days before action figures and computer games. When the only theme parks in the world were Disneyland and Tivoli Gardens and I’d never been to either one. So kids had to make up their own fun. And, thanks to guns we were able to spend many a happy hour gleefully killing our best friends.
Back in the day every kid, even girls, had at least one toy gun in their possession. It might be a water gun or a cap gun, but they had one. Boys had entire arsenals of them. No matter how many you had, like the NRA members in good standing, you always wanted more of them and there was always a new one showing up on the shelves of Sears, Montgomery Wards, JC Penny’s, Woolworths, TG&Y or the host of other stores that made up “downtown.”
I honestly cannot remember the first toy gun I had. Like a baseball and toy trucks and cars, it was always there. My parents may have bought it as soon as I arrived (back in ancient times, nobody knew what the sex of a baby was until it actually was popped out of the chute).
Initially there were cap guns in the form of the old Colt peacemaker of the Hollywood Wild West era. Roy Rogers had a licensing agreement with Mattel and there were all sorts of RR cap guns. Mattel even created a cap gun version of the Winchester repeating rifle as part of the RR line along with a derringer that was in a hat.
One of my personal favorites was a Paladin two gun set with holster. Paladin was program starring Richard Boone and my guns, like his had the stylized horse-head knight figure from a chess set inlayed in the pistol grips. White knights on black handles. Paladin was a lot like an unmasked Lone Ranger who went from place to place righting wrongs by killing bad guys with those cool guns of his. His partner was a Chinese manservant in lieu of Tonto.
As for ‘army guns” there were a plethora of them. 45′s, M-1′s, Carbines Thompson Sub-machine guns, pineapple hand grenades with places to put a cap. Helmets, canteens, ammo pouches that fit onto you belt, semi-working binoculars. There were Lugers, but that was it. The Germans and Japanese were not very well represented in guns. I suppose it was deduced by the manufacturers that it would be bad for business to make foreign guns for the kids. Might cause repercussions by the retailers. Who knows? But if you were playing a German or a Japanese soldier, odds were that you were carrying the same weapons as your opponents.
There was an unwritten rule about BB guns. If you had one, you couldn’t use it with BB’s in it when playing war. All that bitching and moaning about shooting out someone’s eye by your (and Ralphie’s) mom stuck and you just didn’t do that. Now, you could use dirt clods as hand grenades and it was even better to actually hit someone with one, but you couldn’t shoot him with your BB gun. The same was true with dart guns. Because the springs inside them were not that strong it wasn’t practical anyway. Most of the darts fizzled out after only a couple of feet. Dirt clods were great hand grenades. Especially late in the summer when there hadn’t been rain in weeks and the clods were very dry. They would explode in a great puff of dust and leave a mark on your friend where it hit him. And even if it hurt you could never cry or whine about the impact. It was sissy and nobody wanted to be called a sissy.
Consequently, with the exception of dirt clod grenades, your ability to qualify as a marksman was limited as the killing of your opponent was based upon a mutual agreement as to whether or not you actually “got him.” Many a game of war was interrupted by an escalated disagreement including fisticuffs as to who shot or didn’t shoot whom. I am convinced, although I have no evidence to support this theory, that the people that invented laser tag were kids that knew they shot some cheating little turd that said they had missed.
When James Bond appeared on the silver screen followed by a host of TV spies an armada of spy guns appeared on the shelves. Mattel had a line that included a radio that converted to a rifle/machine gun. One of the coolest was the Napoleon Solo Man from U.N.C.L.E. gun with all the attachments to turn the pistol into a semi-automatic rifle. It didn’t look exactly like the one on TV, but it was as close as you could get . Unfortunately nobody ever produced a speargun like the one 007 used in Thunderball. But, of course it would have been used against siblings more frequently than opponents in a game of war.
And the cool thing was our guns looked like real guns. Well, pretty close. They were usually molded of a dark gray or black plastic or from some gunmetal colored metal. Oh there where lots of them made of camouflage colored plastic and the space/ray guns were usually some unusual color as well as design, but most army, police and cowboy guns were made to look as close as possible to the real thing as profits would allow. And, more importantly, parents didn’t care and neither did law enforcement. No requirements for them to have a red tip on the end of the barrel or made in some bizarre color to make sure they are not taken for the real thing. If any kids were ever gunned down by the cops because they pointed a toy gun at them back then it never made the evening news.
Any kid worth knowing had at least a half a dozen guns within his personal arsenal. There was unspoken respect for kids that had unusual guns. There was a kid that had a 30-cal., tripod mounted machine gun that we all drooled over. It took four D-cell batteries and made a wonderful noise when the trigger was pressed. His dad had gone TDY to Japan and he picked it up there. Lucky bastard! Another kid had two shotguns. One was a pump action and the other was a double barrel. The latter even came with fake shells for you to pop into the breech! Besides my U.N.C.L.E. gun, I had two tommy guns, a luger and 45 and at least a a half a dozen peacemakers. That was about the norm. Some kids had more some less, but every kid had at least a dozen toy guns. Nobody bothered to create any kind of storage system for them, they were simply tossed into the toybox with all the other “stuff” you had.
Even though some gun sets, especially army ones, came with knives we rarely used them in play. I suppose because we never got to the point of hand-to-hand combat (except for disputes over being shot) so knives were pointless.
Unlike today’s youth that live structured lives where every moment of their waking lives are controlled by someone, kids in my day were run out of the house and told not to come home until dinner. So, creative ways of pretending to kill one another were the highlight of the weekends and summer