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    When cap guns were king

    As soon as I saw the two sets of cap guns, they brought back memories. Memories of my boy cousins and little brothers who fired paper caps at each other with toy guns.

    How far we have come from the 1950s and 1960s when every little boy (and some girls) wanted a cap gun. Now as adults, we can’t pry loose those destructive devices from many of their hands. The seemingly innocent child’s play with guns has turned into a culture of violence and killings played against a national debate on gun control.

    Today – at least over the last 30 years – in far too many cases, kids playing with toy guns that looked real have become victims. As a consequence of the prevalence of guns in general, you won’t likely find cap guns under Christmas trees. In too many places, though, you may find the real thing masquerading as a gift.

    Gene Autry cap guns in double holster, at auction.

    Gene Autry cap guns in double holster, at auction.

    Back then, it was all in fun (except for the Native Americans who were victimized as villians in the then-irreverent cowboys and Indians game).

    The two cap pistols and double holsters I saw at auction recently had been well-preserved – as if no little boys had every played with them. One bore the inscription Gene Autry, the well-known singing cowboy actor, and had a bone handle with a horse’s head along with a cinnamon-colored brushed suede holster with leather trim.

    The other was stamped Texan Jr., which was unfamiliar to me but I learned was made by Hubley Manufacturing Co. The gun had a bone handle with a steer’s head, along with a black leather holster with white trim and a steer’s head, and red bullets.

    Up-close view of Gene Autry cap gun inscribed with his name.

    Up-close view of Gene Autry cap gun inscribed with his name.

    Both showed their age, and had lost their sheen. The Autry gun had attracted an absentee bid.

    Autry was known as the singing cowboy first on radio, then the movies and then TV. He was most popular during the 1950 and 1960s in a career that lasted more than 30 years. Apparently, there were all kinds of Autry cap guns to feed the desire of millions of children who wanted to shoot the “bad guys.”

    Even before Autry and others made them popular in the 20th century, cap guns had been around since after the Civil War. They were named for the “small cap, or capsule, of flammable material, which explodes upon contact with the trigger’s hammer mechanism.” They were cast iron, and made by manufacturers to keep their firearms business in business.

    A Texan Jr. cap gun with holster by Hubley.

    A Texan Jr. cap gun with holster by Hubley.

    They started out as novelty items – some designs innocent, some not so – and by the 1930s they were fueled by mobster shootouts, and then World War II and western films. TV shows with cowboy heroes advertised and sold cap guns to youngsters who wanted to be like Autry, the Lone Ranger, the Rifleman, Hopalong Cassidy and Roy Rogers. A movement by mothers during the 1930s rallied against toy guns. Two years ago, black mothers and grandmothers in Wisconsin urged parents not to allow their boys to play with toy guns in light of the police shooting death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice who had a toy gun.

    According to a 2010 Toys and Prices catalog, the number one most collectible gun and holster in mint condition is the Hopalong Cassidy Double Holster Set by Wyandotte from the 1940s, worth about $4,000. A Hopalong Cassidy set from the 1950s was said to be the third most collectible. Dale Evans’ D-26 cap pistol by Schmidt from the 1950s also made the Top 10 at $1,250.

    Cap guns fell out of favor in the 1970s. Almost two decades later, the federal government required that every look-alike gun – including cap guns – bear a bright orange plug in the muzzle. Kids and some store owners apparently removed the plugs.

    Up-close view of "Texan Jr." by Hubley.

    Up-close view of Texan Jr. by Hubley.

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