Thursday, May 28, 2009

Toy Guns

Soon after my family moved to Faculty Lane -- when I was about eight years old in 1960 -- I got my first cap gun, which looked something like this.

A cap-gun pistol (closed). Image taken from

At that time the state of the art for cap guns was ammo in the form of roll caps.

Types of ammunition for cap guns. Image taken from

The gunman opened his pistol's ammo chamber, fit the roll over an internal wheel, and closed the chamber. Then every time you pulled the trigger, the roll would advance the next cap, and the hammer would hit that cap, causing a bang and releasing the smell of burnt gunpowder.

A cap-gun pistol (open). Image taken from

Oh, how I loved the smell of that burnt gunpowder! The smell is still a vivid memory.

We boys enjoyed that bang and smell so much that we would unravel a roll out onto the sidewalk and hit the caps with a rock.

Cap guns were mostly pistols, as I remember. Sure, there were cap-gun rifles too, but they were far less common than pistols, as I remember.

I think (I'm not sure) that this fascination with exploding caps is the reason why my brother Steve and my neighbor Dave Hackmann began to play with fire underneath the porch of our Sylwester home on Faculty Lane. (Some other kids might have participated, but I remember only Steve and Dave.) There was a dirt-floor, dark space underneath our porch, and I suppose we began by going into that space and shooting cap guns in order to see the sparks. Then we would have progressed to unraveling a cap roll onto a brick and hitting it with a rock to see lots more sparks.

Eventually we would make a small fire on the dirt floor and hold the ends of sticks in the fire. Then we would draw and write on the under-the-porch walls, using the burnt ends of the sticks as charcoal pencils. After we were done doing that for a while, then we would always extinguish the fire very carefully.

Of course, when my parents found out that we were doing this, they got all hysterical about how we might have burned down our house. But as I have told my parents a million times, WE WOULD ALWAYS EXTINGUISH THE FIRE VERY CAREFULLY!! So there was really nothing to worry about.

I clearly remember us setting these fires and writing with the carcoal on the walls under our porch at Faculty Lane, but I can't remember how or why we started doing so. The only explanation that makes sense to me now is that we started going under the porch in order to see the sparks from the cap rolls.

Pistols were fun because we could practice quick-draw techniques. Doing a quick-draw and firing a cap gun was much more realistic and difficult than doing a quick-draw and just yelling "BANG."

The television show The Rifleman starred a cowboy, Lukas McCain, who did quick-draws with his rifle and always won his gun fights. In every episode, he would kill a few bad guys by quick-drawing his rifle faster than they could quick-draw their pistols.

Rifleman poster. Image taken from

We kids were too little, though, to quick-draw a rifle. Lucas McCain was about 6'5" tall, so a rifle was relatively small for him to handle. His son Mark McCain -- like we Faculty Lane kids -- was big enough only to fire a rifle by the normal method. The only firearm we could quick-draw was a pistol.

Rifleman poster. Image taken from

In Seward there were essentially two kinds of boys. One kind of boy had parents who really trusted and loved them, parents who really wanted them to have fun, parents who did not want their own boys to be jealous of other boys, parents who knew how to raise boys right, parents who did not want their boys to cry themselves to sleep every night -- parents who let their boys have beebe guns. The other kind of boy unfortunately had parents who did not let their boys have beebe guns. I was the second kind of boy.

Beebe gun. Image taken from

Beebe guns were always rifles, as I remember. A boy with a beebe gun could shoot at a target -- such as a piece of cardboard nailed to a tree -- and really test and improve his aim. Then as he improved his aim, the boy could shoot pesky birds that were sitting on the lawns or in the trees.

Beebes were cheap. A cylinder container of beebes held dozens of beebes.

Beebe ammo cylinders. Image taken from
Beebes. Image taken from

I liked all the fuss involved with removing the beebes from these cylinder containers and loading them into the beebe guns. If you didn't do it right, then the beebes might fall down all over the place. So, you had to be fussy about doing it, and my heart broke every time I watched all this fussing being done by a boy who did own a beebe gun. How careful, responsible and grown-up he had to be, compared to me with my childish, stupid toy rifle!

My friend Jim Hardt was in the Boy Scouts, and he subscribed to Boys Life and another magazine or two of the same type. These magazines had a lot of advertisements for beebe guns, and when I visited him and browsed through his magazines, I always studied these beebe-gun advertisements with much envy.

Parents who did not let their kids have beebe guns always had the same excuse -- we might shoot someone's eye out. That excuse was absurd, in my opinion. The chance that you might hit another kid in his eye with a beebe was infinitesimally small. Even if the other kid was being a jerk and deserved to be shot, I would have shot him in his arm or back, not in his eye. Lots of kids -- like Toby Beck and Danny Janzow on our own Faculty Lane -- had beebe guns and didn't shoot anybody's eye out.

My Dad (I'm sure my Mom had nothing to do with this) did make me very happy one Christmas -- our first or second Christmas on Faculty Lane -- by giving me and my brother Steve drill-team rifles as presents, which was a total surprise. I think my Dad was tired of my nagging him for a beebe gun, so he figured he could divert us with drill-team rifles.

Our drill-team rifles were essentially high-quality toy rifles, made of real wood and metal, not of plastic. They came with illustrated instruction manuals that showed how to handle and manipulate them in armed drills. The manuals showed pictures of kids who belonged to clubs where they wore uniforms and did armed drills in parades. I wasn't able to find any old pictures of such rifle-drill clubs on the Internet, but I did find this video of a current club that shows the concept. The essential differences are that the club members in the video do not wear uniforms and include some girls.

Steve and I tried to teach ourselves rife-drill from our manuals for a while, but we didn't have any mentors or other kids to practice with, so we never developed the skills. Eventually we just used our drill-team rifles as combat rifles when we played War in the neighborhood. We just pointed the rifles and yelled "BANG BANG" as we ambushed and killed the other kids.

Poster from the movie Day of the Evil Gun. Image taken from

My brief exposure to rifle drill did continue to intrigue me, however. During 1962 and 1963 NBC had a situation comedy called McKeever and the Colonel about life in a military school for boys, and I always watched it with great interest. Whenever I saw the cadets doing rifle drills on this TV show, I envied those boys because they really were able to be in a rifle-drill team.

Poster for the TV serial McKeever and the Colonel. Image taken from

Many years later, I joined the US Air Force and went through basic military training first as an enlisted troop and then again as an officer cadet. On both occasions I learned and practiced march drill, which I loved a lot. We USAF pukes never drilled with rifles like the other military services, but just doing military march drill was always fun.

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