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! Vintage Hubley The Rifleman Toy Cap Gun Rifle WorksMattel 1959-65 Shootin' Shell Fanner Dc Cap Gun W Original Box + Shells Ex Cond Hubley 2 In 1 Toy Cap Gun/pistol Mint In Box No.252 Vintage 1958Kilgore American Cap Gun With The Original BoxHubley Panther Pistol Derringer Cap Gun Unused In Box Hubley Model 1860 Colt 44 Cap Gun With Bullets And Wall Plaque Hubley 2 In 1 Toy Cap Gun/pistol Mint In Box No.252 Vintage 1958Vintage 1964 Topper Johnny Seven 7 Oma Machine Gun/assault RifleVintage Hubley "the Secret Rifle" #204 Toy Gun Mib New Old Store StockVintage Hubley Texan Cast Iron Cowboy Western Cap Gun Circa 1940sWild Bill Hickok 1950's Cap Gun Leslie HenryVintage 1965 Topper Toys Johnny Eagle Us Army Topper Div. Rifle^& PistolVintage 1950's Hubley Colt 45 Cap Pistol W/ BoxVintage 1950s Hopalong Cassidy Leather Double Holster W/toy Wyandotte Cap GunsVintage Mattel Fanner Leather Shootin Shell Holsters, Belts & Shells From EstateVintage Cap GunVintage Mattel Fanner 50 Toy Cap Gun Original Leather Holster & 18 Bullets EucVintage Roy Rogers Cap Gun Brass Colored GripsVintage Nichols Stallion 38 Toy Pistols With HolsterVintage Daisy 303 Bb-gun Scope Plymouth Mich. Mib M-25 Pump, Red-ryder & EtcVintage Hubley Colt Detective Special Cap GunVintage Hubley Special, Long Barrel Die Cast Cap GunVintage Hubley "cowboy "cap Gun & Vintage Fringed Holster Topper 1965 " Johnny Eagle Lieutenant " Cap Gun W/ Case + 6 Complete Toy BulletsHubley Colt .44 Model 1860 Polished Nickel Toy Cap Gun With Display Board, 1959Vintage Mattel Shoot In Shell Fanner Toy Cap Gun PistolVintage 1940's Kilgore Lone Ranger Toy Cap Gun Pistol Butterscotch GripsToy Cap Gun & Leather Holster Set Rr On Holster Vintage Pony Boy Leather Holster Set Vintage Hubley Army 45 Cap Gun Box OnlyVintage Toy Cap Guns,kilgore,nichols,hubley,plastic Knifes,toy Holsters,powder Rare Vintage Actoy Wyatt Earp Buntline Special Cap Gun Toy 11" Long 1955 TlcRoy Rogers Toy Cap Gun 1950's Vintage Mattel Official Winchester Saddle Gun Toy Cap Gun Rifle Working Nice1950s Nichols Stallion 32 Cap Gun With The Original BoxVintage 60's Johnny Eagle Red River Cap Gun With Case Works PerfectCisco Kid Lone Star Cap GunVintage Old 50's Or 60's Hubley Pioneer Cap Gun Pistol Antique Toy Western Rare Vintage Hubley Colt 45 Cap Gun For Repair Or Parts Made In Usa1950s Metal Cap Guns & Holsters Lot / Nichols Stallion W Hubley Trooper & RodeoNichols Stallion 45 Notched Cylinder Cap Gun With Toy Bullets And BoxVintage 1960's Daisy Spittin Image Toy Cap Gun Model 3200 Chuck LaymanAntique Keyston Bros Leather Toy Cap Gun Holster & Belt Studded Vintage WesternVintage Leslie-henry.."cavalry" Cap Gun. And Holster....not A HubleyVintage, Old "hubley Cowboy" Red Star Cast Iron Toy Pistol Cap Gun Cap Gun, Miniature Cap GunVintage 1950's Gunsmoke Matt Dillon Toy Cap Gun Pistol Leslie HenryBeautiful Vintage Mattel Fanner 50 Toy Cap Gun PistolVintage Toy Antique Children Cap Guns Holster Hubley Wagon Train Western MarshalTopper Toys Johnny Seven One Man Army Red Anti Tank Missal & One BulletVintage Hubley Texan Jr. Cap Gun W/box, Nr Vintage Mattel Fanner 50 Die Cast Cap Gun W Leather HolsterVintage Hubley Western Cap Gun With Bull And Star On HandleVintage Roy Rogers Holster Belt's & Hubley "pioneer" Cap Gun, Vtg Toys Lot Of 3Berloque Silver Miniature Toy Pistol Set - In Collectors Wood Crate 1964 V-rroom Motor In Box Mattel Hot Rodder Engine BikePair Of Hubley Gold Texan Cap Guns With White Double Holster, Vintage 1950Nice! Rare Hopalong Cassidy 1950's Diecast Toy Cap Gun By Wyandotte1920's S&w Western Cast Iron Kenton Cap Gun 7" Long Vintage Mattel 1965 Agent Zero M Pocket-shot Cap Gun & Play Knife