Before it was deemed dangerous or politically incorrect for young children to point pistols at each other and fire at will, cap guns were a staple of toy chests. The earliest ones were made of cast iron, later ones of plastic, but all used some form of mild explosive to create a popping sound and puff of smoke when the toy's trigger was pulled. Cap guns are named for this small cap, or capsule, of flammable material, which explodes upon contact with the trigger’s hammer mechanism.

The first cap guns date to the 1860s, immediately following the end of the American Civil War, when firearms companies experimented with toy guns in order to stay in business. These cast-iron weapons used paper strips enclosing sealed tablets of a gunpowder mixture, similar to tiny fireworks. Later toy-ammunition strips were designed to advance automatically, often including eight or 10 percussive caps in a single plastic round.

Many early cap guns were produced as novelty items with little resemblance to actual weaponry. These toys represented cartoon characters or animal figurines, like the “Sea Serpent” gun shaped like an underwater goblin, whose snapping jaws ignited the cap. The “Lightning Express” pistol was loaded by retracting a miniature steam engine; when released, the train careened down the weapon’s barrel to detonate its capsule with a satisfying pop. Other toys played on prevailing racial prejudices, like the “Chinese Must Go” gun which depicted an American immigration officer kicking a caricatured Chinese man, whose mouth would then fall closed on a gunpowder cap.

During the Great Depression, mobster shoot-outs by comic-strip icons like Dick Tracy made every elementary-school pipsqueak long for a gun of their own. Well-known cap gun manufacturers of the era included Nichols, Esquire, Daisy, Halco, and Stevens, as well as larger toy companies like Hubley and Marx. By 1935, concerned parents like Chicago’s Rose Simone were organizing toy-gun bonfires in an attempt to eradicate the violent toys.

However, the stories of American heroics during World War II, along with the popularity of Western films, served to glorify guns and their miniature toy replicas. Cap guns became associated with cowboy movie characters such as Roy Rogers, Buck Jones, Gene Autry, and Hopalong Cassidy. In the 1950s, an endless stream of merchandising for Western-themed television shows put miniature guns in the hands of millions. Young fans of "Johnny West," "The Lone Ranger," "Gunsmoke," "Bat Masterson," "The Rifleman," "Maverick," and "Bonanza" could own a pistol emblazoned with the name of their favorite show or character.

In 1955, Mattel launched its noisy, fully-automatic “Burp” gun, which it promoted through a year sponsorship of the Mickey Mouse Club television show. Ads featuring mini-machine-gun toting youngsters played during every episode. A few years later, in 1958, Mattel released its extremely successful "Fanner" cap gun line, which allowed kids to fire their guns in rapid succession by hitting the hammer directly, without actually having to pull the trigger. Though no real bullets shot from these guns, kids could load them with realistic-looking plastic cartridges.

Mattel also created a series of “Shootin’ Shell” guns and playsets, which fired plastic bullets that could be coupled with its “Greenie Stik-M-Caps” to create the desired popping sound. The cap gun craze finally slowed during the '60s and '70s, though, when images of bloodshed in Vietnam and increasing parent protest cast the toys in an unflattering light. Finally, in 1988, the U.S. Federal Toy Gun Law made it illegal to sell any "look-alike firearm," including toy cap guns, without a "permanently affixed," bright-orange plug in the end of its muzzle. In fact, even vintage cap guns are now required to be sold with this orange marker, as a casual glance of cap guns for sale on eBay reveals.


Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Museum of Childhood

Museum of Childhood

Embrace your inner child on this website from the Victoria and Albert Museum, filled with high-quality images and i… [read review or visit site]

The Wheelmen

The Wheelmen

This elegant tribute to turn-of-the-century bicycling includes memorabilia, photographs, and an index of 3140 bicyc… [read review or visit site]



Clubs & Associations

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Rare Marx Spinner Rifle Vintage Toy Cap Gun With Original Box - Rifleman Style1930 Kilgore "big Horn" 1st Model (steel Cyl) Cast Iron Cap Gun / Factory Box Gene Autry 44 By Leslie Henry1885 Ives "butting Match" Animated Cast Iron Cap Gun An2 Kilgore American Cast Iron Cap Shooter - 1940 - Rarity *Stevens 49-er Cast Iron Cap Shooter - 1940 - Rarity *1959 Hubley Rifleman Flip Action Vintage Toy Cap Gun Rifle1960 Vtg Mattel Tommy-burst Tommy Toy Machine Cap GunKilgore Ranger Cast Iron Cap Shooter - 1940 - Rarity *Kilgore American Cast Iron Cap Shooter - 1940 - Rarity *Vintage 1950's Mattel Shootin Shell Winchester Saddle Rifle Toy Cap Gun 1930 Hubley "yanki Boy" Long Barrel Cast Iron Cap Gun Y3.1 Rarity***Stevens America Cast Iron Cap Shooter - 1880 - Rarity ***Matching Kilgore Six Shooter RigHubley 101 Ranch Cast Iron Cap Shooter - 1930 - Rarity **Rare Toy High Chaparral Rifle 60's 70's Model 694 Daisy ManufacturedVintage 1965 Johnny Eagle Magumba Topper Toy Auto-loading Magazine Fed PistolHopalong Cassidy Leather Cap Gun Holster% 1960's Marx Cap Howitzer Cannon In Original Box 12" LongKenton C-boy Cast Iron Cap Shooter - 19401890 Unknown Maker "hotspur" Cast Iron Cap Gun H15.1 Rarity ***Kenton Gene Autry Cast Iron Cap Shooter - 1940Vintage Gene Autry Red Handled Die Cast Cap Guns In Nice Shape!Kilgore Invincible Cast Iron Cap Shooter - 1930Very First Model Lone Ranger Cap By KilgoreVintage Stevens ? Single Shot Toy Cap PistolVintage Buffalo Bill Long Barrel Cast Iron Single Shot Cap GunKenton Two Time Cast Iron Cap Shooter - 1929 - Rarity *Vintage 1950's - 60's Mattel Shootin' Shell Fanner Cap Pistol W/8 BulletsVintage Roy Rogers Guns And Holsters SetMint Buscadero Holsters With Texan Cap GunsVintage Mattel Shooting Shell Fanner Toy Cap Guns W/ Casings & TipsVintage Rayline Tracer Gun Gold Rapid Fire Action W/ 250+ Disk Ammo Works Great!Little 45 Miniature Cap Gun Pistol In Mahogany Case WorksLarge Vintage 1950s Hubley Colt 45 Six Shooter Cap Gun Vintage 50s George Schmidt Roy Rogers Double Holster Cap Gun Set - Rare - No ResVtg 1957 Classy Roy Rogers Contest Double Holster Cap Gun Set - Gold Plated RareRare Nichols Ranch Stallion 45 Mark Ii Six Shooter Toy Cap Gun 60's Ray Line The Westchester Shooting Carbine Plastic "big Game" Toy N.o.s.Halco Marshal Nichols Pinto Cap Gun In Box With 2 Piece BulletVintage Hubley Western Repeating Cap Pistol Gun With Original Box No ReserveVintage Halco Gunsmoke Toy Cap GunJohnny Eagle Pistol Bullets (3)Disney Davy Crockett Vintage 1950's Flintlock Long Rifle Cap Gun60's Ray Line Automatic Repeating Plastic Rifle Toy Western Shooting Set N.o.s.Vintage Nichols Of Texas Circle N Toy Stallion 38 Six Shooter Cap Gun Box OnlyLarge Vintage 1950s Hubley Cowboy Colt 45 Six Shooter Cap Gun Works!60's Ray Line Fast Draw Plastic Fanner Hammer Action Gun Holster Toy N.o.s.Vintage Rare Toy Cap Gun Hubley Colt 38 Very Good Condition-works Great!Vintage Childs Toy~ Wells Fargo Cap Gun Pistol 38 Hubley Cap Gun. Colt 38. 1960s Mattel Fanner 50 Toy Western Cap GunAntique Die Cast Toy Gun LotJohnny Eagle "lieutenant Colt 45 Toy Pistol With Carrying Case Topper Toys 1965Vintage 1940 Bang-0 Toy Cap Gun With Shoulder Holster And Toy Texas Ranger BadgeTopper Johnny Eagle Red River And Lieutenant Empty Display CasesMignonnette Tiny Mite Cap Pistols 1960s Display Card "loudest Gun In The World" Vintage Hubley Toy Cap Pistol And Tooled Leather Belt & Holster1960s Maverick Cap Gun W/ Notch Grips