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 Toy "long Tom" Six Shooter Kilgore Cast Iron Cap Pistol W/ Original BoxRoy Rogers 9" Leslie Henry Cap Gun - Made In Canada Miniature Berloque Pistol Toy Vintage Cap Gun 2mm Pinfire Watch Fob PistolVintage Mattel Shootin Shell Cap Gun WorksNors Germany 2mm Pinfire Rifle Bayonet Cap Gun Vintage 1958 Hubley Colt .45 Toy Cap Gun W/6 Shells In The Original Box Nmint1950s Leslie Henry Gene Autry 44 Cap Guns And Holster In Used Condition Twin Hubley Texan RigVintage Hopalong Cassidy Schmidt Cap Toy GunVintage Hubley Boys Toy 1950 Marshall Cap GunVintage Hubley Model 1860 Colt .44 Toy Gun Complete With Box And PlaqueVintage Hubley Colt 45 Toy Cap Gun W/6 ShellsVintage Marx Toy M1 Garand Army Gun 1960'sCool Old Vintage Collectible Roy Rogers Toy Cap Gun & Holster * No Reserve Ab1Rare Fanner Shootin Shell Toy Cap Gun With Box @ Original BulletsLtd Toy Stamp & 1950s Leslie Henry 11" Gene Autry 44 Cap Gun & Leather Holster Stallion .45 Toy Cap GunJohnny Seven Oma, One Man Army, Topper Toys, Gun & Original Box! Rare!Ultra Rare Mmp Mattel Machine Pistol With Shoulder - Stock & Box1964 James Bond "goldfinger" Cap Pistol (plugged) With Box Ltd Toy Stamp & 1950s Nichols Stallion 45 Mark Ii Plated Metal Cap Gun W BulletsLot Of Two Vintage Cork Guns And One Vintage Cap GunVintage 1950’s, Paratrooper Carbine W/ Bayonet, Toy Gun, Maco, Brown Plastic, A+Gene Autry "champion" Cap Gun. Leslie Henry, 1950's, W/ Belt&holster. No ReserveRare Vintage Hubley Atomic Disintegrator 1950's Die Cast Space Toy Cap Gun Mattel Fanner Bullet Pak In Original Display Box, Sealed (rare)1950's Wyatt Earp Double Cap Gun And Holster Set By Esquire Novelty Co.Gene Autry Cap GunsAntique Pocket Watch Fob Austria Cap Pistol Toy Gun Miniature Vintage Vintage Hubley Texan Jr Toy Cap GunRare 1964 Mattel Agent Zero M Sonic Blaster Bazooka Toy Gun 5530 Non Working Rare Vintage Kilgore Rotor Fifty 1930s Cap Pistol Revolver S20.2.2Miniature Berloque Pistol Toy Vintage Cap Gun 2mm Pinfire Watch Fob PistolLtd Toy Stamp & 1950s Hubley 9.5" Texan Jr. Cap Gun Pair W Double Holster #1Ltd Toy Stamp & 1950s Hubley 8" Metal Remington 36 Cap Gun W Bullets & HolsterRare Vintage Marx 175 Desert Patrol Pistol On Original Card "look"Nichols Mustang Cap GunLtd Toy Stamp & 1950s Hubley Pair Of Cast Metal 8" Coyote Cap Guns Excellent!Kenton Texas Cast Iron Cap Shooter - 1936 - Rarity * 1964 Mattel Agent Zero Radio Rifle Cap GunRare Mattel Fanner Shootin Shell Cap Gun With Original Box @ Bullets Ltd Toy Stamp & 1950s Hubley 9.5" Texan Jr. Cap Gun Pair W Double Holster #2Mattel Shootin' Shell Cartridges, Circa 1960Rare Vintage Cast Aluminum .38 Revolver Toy Gun Pistol Replica Prop Ltd Toy Stamp & 1950s Mattel 11" Fanner 50 Cap Gun Pair W Leather Double HolsterRare Mattel Fanner 50 Bronze Die Cast Cap Gun Super CondtionVintage Miniature Key Chain Cap Gun With Original Case & Accessories Exc. CondGene Autry 9" Leslie Henry Cap Gun Mib Agent Zero M Snap-shot Camera To Safe Cap PistolVintage Kilgore Cast Iron Lone Ranger Cap Gun Original GripsAntique Cast Iron J&e Stevens Scout Cap Gun Pistol Toy In Original BoxNichols Stallion Cartridge Clips Bullets Holster Mint In Display Box Vintage 1950 Toy Cap Gun With Leather HolsterVintage Mattel Shootin Shell Fanner Toy Cap Gun 1950’s.Vintage Marx Cap & Ball Civil War Shell Firing Toy Cap Gun With BulletsLtd Toy Stamp & 1950s Actoy 9.5" Restless Gun Cast Metal Cap Gun, Holster & BeltVintage 1950's Hubley Texan Gold Cap GunHubley Colt Detective Special Minature Cap Gun Pistol Boxed 1958Vintage Hubley Rodeo Cap Gun And Box Of CapsVintage Toy Double Barrel Rifle Cap Gun With Strap By Edison Giocattoli Italy