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]

Most watched eBay auctions    

Vintage Miniature Cap Gun Rifle W/bayonet AustriaOld Vintage Nichols Model 61 Toy Cap Gun * Super Cool Find * No Reserve* D2Old Vintage Wyandotte Toy Cap Gun's With Hopalong Cassidy Toy Holster Nr * D10Two Hubley Colt 45 Die Cast Toy Cap Guns W/ Leather Holster Belt - Hubley Toys!Mattel Colt Six Shooter Shootin Shell 31" Rifle 1960's Toy Gun Old Roy Rogers Toy Cap Gun Geo. Schmidt Mfg. La Cal. 10 Inches LongVintage Hubley Toy Cap Gun's & Beautiful Leather Gun Holster * No Reserve* D7Vintage Marx M1 Toy Rifle Gun Vg 35" Long Plastic Battery Op For SoundLarge Roy Rogers Classy Cap Gun And Holster Set Box - Box Only No Cap GunsMattel Fanner 50 Lone Ranger Double Holster Set With 2 GunsVintage Rare 1948 Nichols Silver Mustang Cap Gun New Unfired In BoxToy Maus Berloque German Miniature Cap Pistol Gun Worlds Smallest 2mm Rare Vintage Wyandotte Toy Cap Guns With Hoppy Hopalong Cassidy Toy Holster D11Vintage 1950s Marx "thundergun" Diecast Toy Cap Gun All Original And Beauty!Hopalong Cassidy Wyandotte Cap Gun And Holster Set Box - Box Only No Cap GunsHopalong Cassidy Mint - Set Of Children's Wrist Cuffs And BoxRare Old Vintage Hopalong Cassidy Toy Cap Gun & Toy Holster * No Reserve * D82 Very Old Vintage Stevens 49-er Cast Iron Toy Cap Gun's * Nr * C30Vintage & Antique Toy Miniature Cap Gun Pistol Marked Austria 1 5/8" Long Vintage Paladin Holster Cap Set Toy Clean Find Original6 Vintage Toy Cap Guns, 1 Holster Hubley,nichols,bgm,american West,stevensVintage Hubley Police 38 Dandy Cap Gun Metal. Mechanically Sound. No Reserve!Vintage Stevens Cast Iron Army PistolVintage Nichols Dyna-mite Toy Cap Gun & Toy Bullet In Original Box 3.5 InchesVintage Wells Fargo Cap Toy Clean Find OriginalMgc Model Gun Company Model P-38 Non Firing Replica Japan All Metal Original Box1958 Nichols Stallion 300 Saddle Cap Gun Rifle With BoxMiniature Xythos Automatic Toy Cap Gun 6-shot Pin Fire Revolver W/ Case AustriaVintage Metal Marx Stagecoach Pistol Cap Guns In Original Box Antique Historic 1950's Mattel Shootin Shell Fanner 45 Toy Cap Gun One Owner Vintage Nichols Dyna-mite Derringer Toy Cap Gun Rare Black Handle With Box!Lasso'em Bill Double Holster Set Original Pair Nice FindJohnny Eagle Magumba Rifle And Pistol Topper 1960's Cap Gun1965 Topper Multi-pistol 09 Plastic Toy Dart Gun W/ Case & AccessoriesMixed Lot Of Toy Cap Gun Bullets Mattel Hubley Old Vintage Wells Fargo Toy Cap Gun With Nice Toy Holster Great Piece Nr * D9Rare Jeweled Roy Rogers Cap GunVintage Marshal Wild Bill Hickok Toy Gun EucHubley Colt 45 Toy Gun / Cap Gun Vintage Parts Or RepairOld Vintage The Cheyenne Lone Star Toy Cap Gun With Toy Holster * C22Heavy Leather Custom Made Gun HolsterVintage Matel Pair Toy Western Fanner 50 Cap Guns With Holster, Lone RangerHubley Wyatt Earp Buntline Special Cap Gun Diecast Lancaster PaThe Big NoiseNice Old Vintage Hubley Remington 36 Rare Toy Cap Gun * C28 * Sweet Looking Nr1958 Mattel Winchestor Bullet Pak Play Bullets Packaged LookVintage Hubley Police 38 Dandy Cap Gun Lh Wild Bill Hickock 44 Cap GunVery Nice Old Vintage Smoky Joe Toy Cap Gun With Toy Holster * C24Early Cast Iron Cap Gun Marked S & S In Working ConditionCap GunGene Autry Holster Very Nice!1950's Mattel Shootin' Shell Winchester Rifle Okay Working Condition2 Mattel Toymakers Fanner Shootin Shell Toy Cap GunsVintage Fanner Mattel Shootin Shell Toy Cap Gun Pistol To Repair Or For PartsNichols Stallion Cartridge Clip And Original Display BoxVintage Mattel Fanner 50 Genuine Top Grain Cowhide Holster & Belt [ No Capgun ]Vintage Billy The Kid Western Cap Gun. Vintage Roy Rogers Toy Cap Gun Schmidt For PartsVintage Halco Western Heritage Holster Set With Toy Cap Guns In Original Box