Shadow Of The Gun

Today, the wife and I went antique store lookin’. And I sure enough saw an antique.

It was a little box. Brightly colored, in red, white, and blue. ROLL CAPS FOR HANDGUNS, it said.

Used to be, you could get those for a dime in any dime store in the country.

I examined the box. There wasn’t any clear explanation of exactly why you needed roll caps for a handgun… or, for that matter, any safety warning, despite the fact that the box clearly stated that it was a gunpowder product.

Of course, this particular little box was a relic of another time, back before the Safety Nazis and the Association Of People Who Want To Make The World Safe For Stupid People With Lawyers succeeded in their crusade to have warning labels put on every stinkin’ thing in creation.

Anyone who knew anything about Back Then could have told you what these things were. They were a form of children’s toy.

Roll caps were intended to be rigged inside toy pistols… known to we who dwelt in ancient times as “cap pistols.” You threaded them through the works, and when you pulled the trigger, the hammer would fall on one of the little brown blisters full of gunpowder, making a loud and satisfying BANG.

Well, not a BANG, per se. More of a loud firecrackery snapping sound. Still, it was much louder and more fun than just pulling the trigger and hearing it click.

If you were feeling bored, you could get Dad’s hammer out, and blast a whole roll of caps to hell with one blow. It made a fine BANG sound, as well as discoloring the concrete beneath it, so you wanted to watch where you pulled this particular trick, but oh, my, it was fun… and you didn’t have to wait until the Fourth Of July to buy caps, either.

As I stood there in the antique store, looking at this box of ancient caps… maybe dating back as far as the seventies, or more… I thought about how one would explain this little box to a denizen of the early 21st Century.

“Yeah, they’re little tabs of gunpowder, on a long red paper roll. Yes, gunpowder. And kids play with them. They stick them in toy FIREARMS, to make the shots sound more like real gunshots.”

I could already hear the horrified gasps of imaginary parents.

“Yeah, I had a cap pistol when I was a kid. Y’know, for playin’ cops and robbers, cowboys and indians, and such. Friend of mine had a REAL neat gun, too… a Lone Ranger gunfighter set… gunbelts made of REAL LEATHER, and little cartridge loops in the back with REAL SILVER BULLETS in ‘em, right? (actually chromed plastic, but what did WE know? We were children…) And you could actually open the revolvers’ cylinders and actually LOAD UP those silver bullets, into the chambers! I mean, those guns were almost REAL! They actually did everything REAL Colt Revolvers did, except actually fire real bullets that made real holes in people!”

And I can hear, across the ether, the horrified gabble of angry mothers, gleeful lawyers, and avaricious child psychiatrists.

When I was a boy, they sold a variety of interesting toys. You could buy most forms of popular ordinance in toy form. I remember Lugers, Broomhandle Mausers, Colt .45s, Browning High Power Automatics, Thompson Submachine guns, a whole slew of M-16s (it was the Vietnam era, after all…), and I even remember toy Garand rifles of real wood with actual working gunbolts… I remember, during the height of the James Bond 007 popularity wave, you could buy a variety of shoulder holsters, toy spring-clips, concealed knives, rockets, and weaponry… even a briefcase that could be rigged to dispense throwing knives, and came with a disassembleable rifle that could be rigged to shoot through the closed briefcase it came in!

Nowadays, when I find myself in the toy aisle at Wal-Mart (which is where, according to statistics, MOST American children get their toys these days)… you aren’t likely to find much in the way of toy guns. Water pistols, molded in colored translucent plastic, is about as close as you’re likely to get to any kind of realistic weaponry. Oh, and large expensive water cannons molded in carnival colors, and which can shoot pressurized water jets powerful enough to nail someone’s cat two houses down the street, or peel the paint off your porch at a range of five feet.

I find this interesting.

I first began to see this line of thinking not long after Vietnam… around 1976 or so… when trends were leaning away from war toys. Even with the Reagan Revolution, when GI Joe quit being an adventurer, and went back to being a high-tech soldier, you didn’t see the massive batteries of toy armaments on the shelves that you used to. They just… weren’t… cool any more.

And nowadays, it’s irrelevant. Bringing toy guns to school these days can get your kid expelled, arrested, and psychoanalyzed, and your fitness as a parent loudly and intimidatingly questioned, publicly. There’s a case on record where a kid was expelled for bringing his GI JOE’S toy pistol to school – a tiny .45 automatic, about an inch long – but still in violation of the school’s “zero tolerance” policy. There’s another one, dating from 2000, where four fourth-grade boys were suspended for running around POINTING at each other, and shouting, “Bang! Bang!”

Pointing with their FINGERS, that is. Zero tolerance is zero tolerance. In an age where teeners can blaze their way into legend and oblivion in a hail of gunfire, school officials take no chances.

Admittedly, the kind of tyranny that this sort of thinking brings about is exactly the sort of thing that makes kids WANT to shoot up a school or two… but, hey, better to be dam’d for DOING something than for doing NOTHING, right? If you’re a school administrator, anyway.

But I stood in that antique store, and looked at that tiny, harmless, carnival-colored box that once held paper and gunpowder, and I thought about it. I never shot up a school. Neither did anyone in my entire generation. And we went to school in TEXAS, durnit! We all HAD guns, and knew how to use them! We all of us, durn near, went hunting with our dads every deer season, dove season, quail season! Heck, some of us didn’t even bother waiting for the season, or with hunting licenses, for that matter!

And it is true that a few of us – a very few, comparitively – wound up using these guns on each other. Each generation has its murderers.

But none of us ever shot up a school. It never occurred to us to do that. None of us.

School shooters are a new breed. Different bunch. They were all born well after Viet Nam, well after the beginning of the Reagan Years… in an age where toy guns weren’t made to look realistic… when they didn’t come with toy bullets, or working gunbolts… and you couldn’t buy roll caps for them. These children grew up without ever seeing the violence of those old cowboys-and-indians movies, where innocent settlers caught arrows in their breasts, and died dramatically, and indians got shot off their horses in record numbers.

Nope. The school shooters were born into a different age… an age of political correctness, an age where televised violence was monitored and discussed and criticized and argued… not taken for granted.

Makes y’think, don’t it?


I have fond memories of a toy bolt action rifle - you could operate the bolt normally and there was a cartridge in there (although it didn’t come out).

You can still buy cap pistols and caps here in New Hampshire.

I can smell them now. The puff of acrid blue smoke eminating from the scorched mark on the sidewalk. The hammer was by far the best method. I think the violent play methods of our youth somehow leeched some violence from us. Maybe it just satisfied some deep seated need that boys need to fulfill.

Maybe we learned early on the pain our actions caused, as we held down the last remnants of the roll, trying to get one last pop, when WHAM our aim was off by mere centimeters. A throbbing red finger lay offended by our hammer. The decimated roll lay taunting. Calling out. That menacing unexploded red blister looking back up at you, as your eyes welled up with water. In the moment it took for the alarm signal to travel from your eye, to your finger, back to your brain. In that moment that can be measured in milleseconds yet felt in years. In that moment the red blister quips “see how it feels?” We learned more in that moment than any sensativity classes could teach in a year of school.

I am inclined to agree.

Y’see, I built bombs, back when I was in middle school.

I read in a book about how these particular household chemicals, when carefully combined in the proper proportions, made an explosive compound that made dandy fireworks. Our fireworks were so dandy, we could blast fist-sized holes in inch-thick plywood.

We developed a game that involved tamping a charge in the ground, putting a sheet of iron over it, and putting something heavy on the sheet of iron… and then detonating the charge. How much boom did it take to flip over Dad’s chopping block? A truck tire? An old refrigerator? It was a real learning experience.

We mixed our own black powder, and even built a primitive bazooka, once. Learned the hard way about why projectile weapons should only be built by professionals who know something about metallurgy.

And one day, a block of kaboomite – a cube, about an inch on each side – detonated for no reason on my desk, where I had put it to dry. It tore the corner off my desk, vaporized a hunk of wood the size of my fist, and left me with some extremely awkward questions to answer for my folks. It also made me realize that explosive compounds are extremely dangerous unless you know what the f’k y’r doing.

Could I have gotten killed? Sure. We built charges specifically designed to knock an old refrigerator into the air and make it flip over at least once.

Could I have gotten injured? Sure. Got some lovely burns at the time, but no scars that still show.

…but I learned that the grownups MIGHT just know what the hell they’re talking about when they don’t let kids screw around with such things.

…and it never occurred to me to bring any to school and trigger it under the Principal’s table while he and the Gestapo were having lunch.

Why is that, I wonder? I mean, why it never occurred to me, but it sure seemed attractive to the generation that followed me?

I had roll caps when I was a kid. I also had…they were LIKE caps, but they came on a plastic ring of 6-7 caps. Don’t remember what they were called. Anyone know?

Yep I learned a lot from being able to experiment with firecrackers too. Or at least had a lot of fun.

Used to do a lot of target shooting. If the weather was bad, I could just open up my bedroom window and have at it.

Also, someone made a toy for kids that was very much like a starter pistol, It basicaly had a ring of percusion caps that you would load into a revolver.

Me either. Is it the parents? Is it some sort of lack of respect for others? Lack of knowledge about guns?

Lack of responsibility? The “the it’s not my fault I fucked up lawsuit?”

It’s sad, kids seem to be so over-protected today. Maybe, because of all the weirdos out there they need to be. But really, didn’t the weirdos always exist? We just know about them more now. Something happens in Dusty City Kansas, and the whole world knows about it in an hour.

Shit, I think it’s sad. A lot of kids are missing good lessons that would help them later in life.

Yeah, you might have something there… new things aren’t necessarily happening, it’s just that we all know about it in ten minutes or less.

Or maybe not.

The plastic caps on a ring were called “Ring Caps”, as I recall. You’d break open a starter’s pistol, Webley-style, and install them behind the hammer. I’d forgotten those even EXISTED…

Wang-Ka, thanks for the insightful musings. I agree that some things in our society seem to have evolved in some insidious way. I grew up in Kansas, was a teen in the early sixties, and never experienced the kind of pressures that young people have to contend with today. My world view back then was much more restricted and naive than today’s sophisticated, complicated global perspective. As you and enipla point out, perhaps it is just a result of instant communication. On the subject of “caps” - I still to this day remember constantly tearing off the spent caps strip from the top of my cap gun so it would look more “real” - no “real” gun had a strip of paper sticking out of the top! We also used to tear a single cap off the roll, put it on about a one inch square of aluminum foil with a BB on the cap, twist it up into a missile-looking device and then drop these out of upper windows close to unsuspecting victims (usually young females). The resulting “pop” and ensuing squeal amused us beyond words. We discovered rather quickly that if we used tissue paper and a bit of airplane glue instead of the aluminum foil, we actually had flame-producing missiles! Ah, the idle hours of misguided youth…

In NY, the only place you can reliably get caps, roll, ring, and strip, as well as six-shooters to go with, is Wal-Mart, oddly enough.

I had one of those. The cylinder on mine was actually covered by plastic, so every time you “shot”, the sparks would make the entire cylinder would light up. Very cool!

I had a lot of cap guns as a kid. My favorite was a silver roll cap pistol that was metal and heavy and had it’s own holster. I especially liked playing cowboys and indians with it and hiding in the trees to ambush my dog. I got that gun when I was about 4 years old. Imagine giving a 4yo a gun with gunpowder today!

My cousins had some neat play pump rifles that made a neat noise and would recoil when you shot them. Magic to us then.

My brother is ten years younger and he too had toy guns. The big plastic ones with the bright orange tips and then the big carnival colored ones.

The attitude about guns changed a lot in the years between my games of cowboys and indians and his games of soldier with an uzi. I’m probably more representative of the earlier generation, a child of the 70’s, and he an eighties baby well ensconced in the political correctness sweeping forth… passed through school illiterate so as to not hurt his esteem.

So much about the two of us is different but it seems to get at some of what the op is about. It wasn’t our parents, they were the same, the house was the same, we even went to the same schools and had some of the same teachers (who also couldn’t fathom that we were from the same family) What then has made me a stay at home mom with a wonderful husband and a baby on the way and turned him (and indeed most of the kids he grew up with) into a common thug who celebrated his 21st birthday in jail?

Oh and he’s in jail on armed robbery charges… yes with a gun.

I dunno what to say.

I’ve spent much of the past fifteen years working with teenagers. I’d like to think I haven’t forgotten what it was like to be one… but the kind of teenager I was seems to have ceased to be.

I deal with fourteen and fifteen year olds who are going through the same crap I had to deal with when I was twelve… and they don’t like it. I’m astonished. When I was fifteen, I had my hardship license, a job, and more money than I knew what to do with (a result of the job). Oh, and I was still in high school, and made decent grades.

Nowadays, getting a job at fifteen is durn near impossible. Getting a driver’s license doesn’t happen until you’re eighteen, period. Getting insurance on a car wasn’t easy when I was a teener, but today it’s damn near impossible.

It’s like we’re doing everything we can to KEEP our kids from growing up. Making mistakes is part of the process… and it’s like we can’t stand that, and we just… keep… pushing the legal and acceptable ages back … for EVERYTHING, it seems like… and restricting the hell out of everything else.

I mean, I’m totally in favor of safety… but it seems to me there’s a difference between “making things safe” and “trying to make a padded world for kids to grow up in so they don’t figure out quite soon enough that some things are dangerous… at least, not until they’re eighteen, and I don’t have to be legally liable.”

I never much liked the roll caps, primarily because the pistol I had for them would always jam up. Hammers were good, though.

The best were a string of a dozen or so caps laid in a plastic strip, which you inserted into a magazine you could dramatically slap into place through the grip of the pistol–which was more solid and heavier than it looked. Lots of playground points for that piece of hardware.

I’m really glad I’m not a kid these days. I probably would have been suspended/expelled/drugged for the obvious mental imbalance of creating notebook-margin doodles of epic ninja vs. ninja vs. robot vs. spontaneous self-generating explosion battles. Not to mention never being without a pocketknife, and the plastic gun arsenal.

Good thread, Wang-Ka.

Are roll caps really not widely available anymore? I missed another meeting!

I had lots of cap-guns as a kid, both the roll-cap & plastic-cap variety.

The only harm I can imagine coming of the roll-caps was that it was hard to resist laying them out on the table and running your thumbnail across a dozen or more of them, creating a nice fizzy pyrotechnic display-- sometimes the powder would accumulate under your nail for a while before igniting, which hurt like a bastard.

Then again, I too went on to make small bombs out of whatever was at hand-- black powder if I could get it, saltpetre and charcoal (even icing sugar) if there was nothing else. Chemical bombs made with lye, aluminum, and hair/nail-clippings. Silver nitrate? No twelve-year-old should be without it! I made electronic detonators with flash bulbs after learning that home-made fuses are less than reliable. (My scars still show, Wang-ka– but they’re small.)

I never did any damage to anyone’s property or person, but I sure got chased by CN security a lot, since the train-tracks were my test-site.

My kiddy-arms would probably horrify a lot of folks today, I guess. I made blowguns from drinking-straws, cotton-tipped swabs, and needles-- which would stick in the wall with no problem, if you missed the person you aimed them at. (This was always consensual battle.) We made shooters out of sticks, heavy rubber bands, and clothes-pegs. Those ones were a lot of fun, and the predated paint-ball by about ten years.

The idea of actually doing harm to someone never entered my head, and I grew into a pacifist and a gun-control advocate. I still remember what it was like to be a kid, though, and can’t imagine depriving kids of the same sorts of play I enjoyed because of some unfounded belief that it would make them more likely to become sociopaths.

I pick cable TV for for that scape-goat. :wink:

Yep. This is gonna start sounding like a ‘I walked to school 12 miles in the snow, uphills both ways thread’, but, I learned to drive when I was 9. Had a motorcycle (dirt bike 100cc Yamaha) when I was 12.

We lived in the country, so that gave me the oppertunity to learn how to drive, one of the best things my folks ever did for me.

When it came time to get my licence, It was easy, hell, I was already a veteran driver.

On my 7th birthday, my parents deemed me old enough to own my very own puukko (Finnish sheath knife). So we walked down to the market and found a nice looking classic, with clean lines and none of those ugly finger guards like the silly over-safety conscious Swedes insisted on putting on things. And it was perfectly sized for my 7-year old hands, so obviously designed for that age. Then we went home, and within half an hour, I ran crying to those same parents who slapped a bandage on my bleeding finger, patted me on the head, and let me get right back to playing with my new toy. A half hour after that, I went back for a second band-aid. And then a third.

But I definitely learned to respect sharp objects from that, and did not have a single knife-related accident for a good 15 years, when a kitchen knife slipped and nicked me.