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    

Antique Miniature 1 3/4" Fob Gun/pistol!!!Pair Of Hopalong Cassidy Cap Guns & Black Double HolstersOld Metal Toy Gun Colt 451907 "probably Kenton" ~ Rotating Barrel Cast Iron Cap Gun ~ S.n.111.1 **** Vintage Miniature Cap Gun Pistol Watch Fob In Case Austria1892 Stevens "magazine" ~ Cast Iron Pea Shooter ~ M2.1 Rarity *** Very UniquePair Of Roy Rogers Cap Guns With Copper Grips With Original Leather HolsterVintage Hubley "toy" Wyatt Earp Cap Gun - Longhorn Grips - 1950's - BoysHubley Western Scout Lever Action Rifle Cap Gun1950's Hopalong Hoppy Cassidy Cap Gun Black Bust George Schmidt Pistol Vintage Lot Of 2 Halco Toy Marshal Guns Sweet!Topper 1960 Johnny Eagle Magumba Toy Cap Gun Rifle W/bullet1950's Hopalong Hoppy Cassidy Cap Gun White Bust Black Grips George SchmidtVintage 1950's Hubley "the Rifleman" Flip Special Cap Gun Toy Stamp & 1950s60s Buck-n- Bronc Toy Cap Gun Gold-tone Perfect ConditionHopalong Cassidy Buck 'n Bronc Cap Gun White Bust Black Grips George SchmidtOld Mattel Toy Gun " Shootin Shell Rolling Block Rifle " Parts ?1878 Stevens "navy" ~ Double Barrel Cast Iron Cap Gun ~ N6.1 Rarity***Very Scarce Item A First Model Gold RiflemanNichols Stallion 45 Mark Ii Toy Cap GunVintage Hubley The Rifleman Flip Special Cap Gun Rifle PartsDouble Roy Rogers Rig By Schmidt1880 Stevens "victor" Cast Iron Cap Gun V2.1.1 Rarity **Kilgore American Cap GunVintage Hubley Bolt Action Army Sharp Shooter Rifle Cap GunNichols Stallion 45 With 6 2pc. BulletsAntique Miniature Metal German Cap Gun Watch Fob AustriaShootin' Shells Store Display With 2 Packs Of Shootin' ShellsMattel Winchester Saddle Gun Toy Cap Holster Shotgun Rifle Old West Lone RangerToy Stamp & 1950s60s Nichols Western Heritage The Deputy Holster Set Mint In BoxTex Tan Tophand Holster Set W/ Nichols Cow-tyke Cap Guns Army 45 "colt" Die Cast Hubley Cap Gun Toy Cap Pistol Works!!! No Reserve!!!!Range Rider Quick Draw Cap Gun & Holster Set With Box By Perrin Contur CompanyVintage Pair Of Hubley Colt 45's Cap Gun And Leather Holster Incredibly Rare Early 1900's Cast Iron Bozo Clown Cap Bomb,vintage Rare, 1950s,tv Show, "restless Gun" Leather Double Holster Toy Gun SetVintage Nichols Stallion 45 Toy Cap GunVintage 1959 Mattel Shootin Shell Remington Derringer 1867 Belt Buckle Cap Gun"toy" Vintage, Mattel Machine Gun, Complete In Great ConditionLone Star Navy Colt 1851 Cap Gun Nib1950's Western Cap Gun By Hubley - Black Handles Lot Of 2 Made In Usa MiniaturesNichols Mustang 500 Toy Cap Gun With Beige Plastic Grips And HolsterVintage 1950s Roy Rogers Small All Metal Cap Gun By Classy Products Corp.Nichols Replica Of A Derringer Toy Cap Gun - Die Cast -3 1/2'' Long Antique Kilgore Dough Boy Cast Iron Toy Gun ScarceVintage Bullets And Shells For Mattel Shootin' Shell Toy Cap GunsVintage "have Gun Will Travel" Paladin Toy DerringerTex Tan Texas Ranger Tophand Holster Set W/ Box(2) Vintage Soft Leather Texas Ranger Cap Gun Western HolstersAntique 1800's Cast Iron Cap Gun Ranger Cap Gun Working Stevens Org. Finish MintEdison Giocattoli Monte Carlo Toy Double Barrel Break-action Shotgun Vintage Johnny Eagle Lieutenant Rifle ToyNichols Mustang 500 Cap Gun5 Original Mattel Fanner 50 Bullets Nichols Stallion 22 Toy Gun Near Mint1928 National No. 350, Cast Iron Cap Gun By National1920 No Name Cast Iron Cap Gun, By KentonHuge Lot / 6 Vintage Die Cast Cap Guns & 6 Holsters / For Repair Or PartsGene Autry Toy Cap Pistol1950's Hubley Western Dude Cowboy Outfit Rifle & Holster Rare