April 06, 2012
I know in these PC days, it's hard to imagine a time when most of the toys at the five and dime incorporated some sort of violent component. Of course there were the great cast-iron cowboy and cops-and-robbers cap pistols, rubber police truncheons and flexible knives, but for sheer great design, imagination and implied destructive power, the ray guns of the '30s, '40s, '50s and '60s were tough to beat.
The granddaddy of them all the pressed metal "Buck Rogers Rocket Pistol," which the manufacturer, Daisy, followed up with an improved "Disintegrator" that used cigarette lighter flints to produce sparks when the trigger was pulled, set the tone. It seems like all blasters, no matter where or when they were made or what they were made of, right up to Han Solo's "Broomhandle" Mauser C96-inspired laser pistol of Star Wars fame, maintained a decided Art Deco look.
I started out a committed Hopalong Cassidy fan, but have to admit that once Space Patrol appeared on television in the early 1950s, the oaters started to lose their luster. Let's face it, there's a big difference between rounding up a few owlhoots and conquering the universe. I never missed Tom Corbett Space Cadet or Captain Video, not to mention every sci-fi movie I could cajole my folks into taking me to. When Worlds Collide, Destination Moon, War of The Worlds, not to mention the wonderful omnipresent retreads of the Buster Crabbe Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials turned me into a committed space junkie.
No one could be a proper spaceman without the right sidearm. Toy manufacturers outdid themselves coming up with new and clever designs for their blasters. You could get guns that shot smoke rings, made various kinds of threatening noises, shot light beams, bubbles, water -- or ink, if the kid was particularly creative -- fired darts and propellers, blew out balls of air (really!) popped caps and paper strips -- there was no limit to the amount of carnage a kid could inflict on any hapless alien that might wander into his neighborhood.
Growing up in the '50s, I naturally have a fondness for some of the molded plastic zappers of that time period -- never went to bed without one under my pillow -- but enough of the guns from previous decades were left lying around in older brothers' forgotten toy boxes, that we were also able to enjoy the great, colorful tin and die-cast metal ray guns of the pioneering years of space travel. There seemed to be no limit to the shapes, styles and color one could encounter. Some were sleek, Spartan silver, no-nonsense pieces of hardware, while others were bulbous, be-finned rainbow fantasies, bedecked in bright, metallic hues. Often they were embellished with likenesses of Flash, Buck, Dale or Buzz, and other times they had their model designations brightly emblazoned across their lengths in dramatic lightning bolts or sinuous contrails. Some (oh, joy!) even had rockets and space monsters on them!
Most weren't too expensive. A Buck Rogers Rocket Pistol originally sold for 50 cents, which granted, during the Depression wasn't a disposable sum that was that easy to come up with in many households, but still enough of them are still around to indicate they enjoyed healthy sales.
It was even possible, in the 1950s, for a kid to buy a ray gun out of his own meager allowance. For 25 cents and the box top from Wheat or Rice Chex cereal, you could get a Space Patrol Cosmic Smoke gun -- a little plastic horror that forcefully squirted out puffs of some mysterious white powder. According to the TV ads, the "secret sleep ingredient" -- one blast put you to sleep for one hour, two blasts for 24 hours -- in the powder used by Commander Buzz Corry in his own Cosmic Smoke Gun had been removed in those guns sold to the general public, "so it is guaranteed harmless" (drat!). You can imagine how this one would go over with today's toy safety police.
Ray Guns are still being sold, though not in quite the numbers and variety the field once enjoyed. Perhaps the most spectacular incarnations of the genre are the wonderful steampunk "Dr. Grordbort" models being offered by Weta, a New Zealand firm specializing in other such wonderful flights of fancy.
I suppose today video games have taken the place of actually getting together with your friends and patrolling the streets for Emperor Ming or the Purple Monster. Too bad. For all its destructive capabilities, I still don't think a PlayStation is a match for an illuminated Rex Mars Planet Patrol pistol.
Did you ever own a ray gun? Would you get your kids one today?
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