Three things have pretty much killed toy guns:
- The anti-gun attitude of American elites from the 1960s through to the present rendered them toxic to the parents who did most toy buying. We recall circa 1971 being Christmas shopping in Sears and hearing an earnest, prerecorded voice promise that Sears had sworn off “war toys” for the season. (It makes it hard to feel bad about the company’s woes, eh?) But that was the popular attitude in the press and of celebrities and soi-disant thought leaders.
- The occasional use of toy guns by criminals, and the weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth that results when Officer Friendly trumped their toy gun with a couple of .38s in the boiler room. (Personally? Who cares if his gun wouldn’t have worked. Try making that call in a fraction of a second from 20 feet away. And he was a robber or whatever anyway — the world is better shot of him. “Literally,” in the real, not Biden, sense).
- Laws that have banned them in some places and required them to be outlandish colors elsewhere.
But when we grew up, in the sixties, toy guns were everywhere. There were little ones in Cracker Jack and Frosted Flakes boxes. There were big ones in a whole aisle in department stores. When Saturday cartoons came on, especially as the Christmas gift-giving season approached, we impressionable tykes were hard-sold all kinds of plastic imitation hardware.
It’s like we used to tell each other in Group. “We played with war toys, but it never influenced us.”
In the 60s, the top movies and shows were usually Westerns like Bonanza, Rawhide and Gunsmoke. So were the top toy guns. Here’s Mattel’s Fanner .50 and Cross-Draw Holster. It’s probably from around 1964, which explains why it’s black and white: in the early 1960s, RCA was just losing its monopoly on color TV, and so was RCA’s network, NBC. But for a lot of America for several years, there were only three channels, and two of them were always black and white, even if you sprang for the costly and temperamental color set.
Mattel was a huge California toymaker, and their wide range of plastic guns gave rise to the Urban Legend that Mattel was the producer, or a producer, of the M16 Rifle, an affront to all lovers of parkerized steel and walnut. Mattel did not produce any part of the M16, but we’ve seen homemade retro ARs with the Mattel name and logo where Colt’s or Armalite’s would have gone!
Mattel’s competitor Topper Toys — actually, a division of Reading of Elizabeth, NJ — had you covered if you were still holding out for the M14. Of course, its wood stock was plastic, but by now that was true for the real M14, too.
This is the Topper “Johnny Eagle” brand “Lieutenant” set. There were three sets in the brand: the Lieutenant (Army), the Red River (Western, naturally) and the Magumba (big game hunter). This example set was auctioned for a little over $100 in 2013. The “M14” and “1911” were available separately, also.
This is the ad, courtesy of Video Archaeology. No extra charge for the When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again pastiche:
We wanted the Johnny Eagle Lieutenant, but it was too much money. None of the kids in the neighborhood had it. We did have a variety of tommy guns, lousy ones from Marx and okay ones from Mattel and Topper (again).
Here’s the cousins’ version, an Airfix plastic L1A1 Self-Loading Rifle, presented by CJ Campbell. “A faithful replica… in brittle plastic.” Since British TV was then a government monopoly, there are no period TV ads from that side of the pond.
Finally, along with Western guns, Army guns, and spy guns (which we’ve covered previously), the remaining popular gun-toy genre was the cop or detective gun. Mattel again:
We played with one of these Tommy guns and it never influenced us. Relax, Mr and Mrs America.