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    

Kilgore Cast Iron Six ShooterVintage 1950's Hopalong Cassidy Double Holster Cap Gun Set - George Schmidt Rare7 Mattel Shootin Shells 40+ Bullets Greenie Stik M Caps And Bag VintageGeorge Schmidt Alan Ladd Gap Gun And HolsterVery Rare First Year Colt 1930's Hubley Dark Finish Texan Cast Iron Cap Gun BoxVintage Mattel Toys / Tommy-burst Rifle / Toy Rifle / Camouflage StyleVintage Stevens Cowboy King Cap Gun Pistol In Original Box Never Used PerfectMiniature Gun....complete With 9 Flares In Original PackagingVintage Mattel Toys / Tommy-burst Rifle / Toy Rifle / Mattel Fanner 50 Double Gun And Holster Set With ShellsVintage Hubley Colt .45 Repeating Cap Pistol Iob!Fd Stevens Cast Iron Monkey With Coconut Cap Gun 1890sHubley ~ Texan ~ Cast Iron Cap Gun Works !!!Cast Iron Antique Stevens ~billy The Kid~ Cap Gun For PartsCast Iron ~ Peace Maker ~ Cap Gun Works & In Nice Condition!!Vintage Rare Stevens Acorn Cast Iron Toy Cap Gun 1890 Derringer StyleCast Iron Antique ~colt~ Single Shot Cap Gun Works!!Vintage 1936 Kilgore G-man Automatic Repeater Cast Iron Cap Gun Removable ClipE1930's Hero Cap GunRare Black Lone Ranger Cap Gun & Holster Set1962 Nichols Heirloom Dueling Set Box Cap Gun Derringer Metal Diecast Hubley VtgVintage 1959 Hubley "ric-0-shay" Toy Cap Pistol #279, W/ Box, 11 1/2" LongHubley Model 1860 Colt .44 Replica In Original BoxRoy Rogers Leslie Henry Cap GunAntique Wyandotte Hopalong Cassidy Cap Gun In Rare Gold Finish.Roy Rogers Classy Cap Gun With Gold Handle Grips!Edison Montecarlo Doppietta Cal .12 Toy Cap GunMattel Fanner 50 Gun And Holster SetNichols Stallion 41/40 Cap Gun With Bullets!Vintage Mattel Fanner 50 Toy Cap Gun & Swivel Shot Holster W/ Belt BulletsUnusual Pistol Cigar CutterGold Wild Bill Hickok Cap GunVtg 1967 Box Only Mattel Chuck Connors Cowboy In Africa Fanner-50 Box OnlyVintage Mattel Shootin Shell Toy Metal Cap Gun With Original Pouch & Toy BulletsVintage Miniature Silver Chadwick Miniature Cap Gun Rabbit Deer W Pin FiresMattel Fanner 50 Lone Ranger Double Gun And Holster SetRare Zorro Official Outfit - Walt Disney Cap Gun Cuffs And HolsterNichols Stallion 45Rare Vintage 1950's Kilgore Kit Carson Cap Gun And Double Leather HolstersMarx Gun & Holster From Bonanza Outfit Old Store Stock?Gene Autry 44 By Leslie Henry1950s Nichols Stallion 45 Mark 2 Cap Gun With Ammo Shells,...Vintage Cap Gun And Holster Fanner 50Mattel Fanner 50 Holster With Non Mattel PistolVintage Stallion 32 Six Shooter Cap Gun W/original Box By Nichols IndustriesNichols Stallion 45 Mk IiVintage Cowboy King Toy Die Cast Cap GunShooting Shells Bullets 5 Casings & 7 TipsVtg 1950's Hopalong Cassidy Box For Holster Set Style 1502, No GunsMattel Fanner 50 Cowboy In Africa GunsVintage Rare 1952 Hubley Cowboy Cap Gun Gold Finish - Works Perfect. Mattel Fanner 50 With Antelope Grips2 Topper Johnny Eagle Lieutenant Colt 45 Toy Pistol With ClipToy Cap Gun Wild Bill Hickok 1950's Leslie Henry Believed Canadian Gold FinishHubley Dagger Derringer Toy Gun Made In UsaVintage Hubley Colt 45 Cap Pistol Toy Gun, With 4 Shells, 13"Eagle Die Cast Cap GunVintage Marx Cap Pistol 4 1/2" LongVintage Marx Miniature Famous Firearms Toy Cap Guns 3 Pistol Set Original Card1977 Galaxy Space Ray Cap Gun Carrib Pistol Wildwood New Jersey Nj Souvenir