The Origin of Toy Guns in America

  • Date:
  • July 18, 2019

In The Gunning of America, Pamela Haag challenged the idea that “guns are part of the American identity,” and argued that in the United States, “the gun culture was forged in the image of commerce. . . it was etched strongly by the character, ambition, and will of gun capitalists rather than by diplomats, politicians, generals, and statesmen.”

I have found some foundation for that argument in the realm of toy gun laws on the Repository of Historical Gun Laws. Before continuing, it is worth noting what the term “toy gun” refers to in the nineteenth and early twentieth century context. An Ohio statute from 1883 defined toy pistols as “pistol[s] manufactured out of any metallic or hard substance.” According to a Pennsylvania statute from 1883, toy (or imitation guns) were “arranged as to be capable of being loaded with gunpowder or other explosive substance, cartridges, shot, slugs or balls and being exploded, fired off and discharged.” These definitions, which could just as easily define guns, suggest that states initially struggled to differentiate between toy guns and real guns. Despite these ambiguities, we can at the very least infer that the toy firearms referred to in these laws are far more sophisticated than the plastic gun you might be imagining. In fact, articles that discuss toy arms from the 1800s include in their discussion cap guns and BB guns.

I began researching toy guns with the hope that there would be a connection to the current debate on 3D printing firearms (see here and here), such as a lack of regulation and traceability. Unfortunately, that connection is not apparent, at least not at the moment. What I have seen instead is a more general reaction to toy guns as a mechanism for causing harm distinct from other firearms. This was in part because toy guns were marketed for children, as lamented by the New York Times in 1875 and the Baltimore Sun in 1881. Considering this fear, it is unsurprising that there are many laws throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s, including out of Ohio (1883), Kansas (1883), New Hampshire (1883), Pennsylvania (1883), Washington (1883), Iowa (1884), New Jersey (1885), New Orleans (1893), and Virginia (1903), that limited the sale and possession of toy guns and pistols to minors.  What is surprising, though, is that there were also many toy firearms laws that targeted adults, including legislation out of Baltimore (1881), Wisconsin (1882), Maine (1883), Utah (1884), Indiana (1885), and Arkansas (1909). Wisconsin’s statute is pretty representative of these laws, and it made it “unlawful for any person to sell or use, or have in his possession, for the purpose of exposing for sale or use, any toy pistol, toy revolver, or other toy fire-arm.” These states went beyond keeping toy arms out of the hands of children, which suggests that toy firearms posed a risk in addition to being attractive to children. And notably, some of these states, such as Mississippi (1892) and Tennessee (1895), had a constitutionally protected right to arms (see here and here).

Now to return to Haag. According to CNN in an article from 2003, modern toy guns, beginning with the cap gun, were invented following the Civil War and they were produced by the same factories that produced standard firearms. Given these facts, Collectors Weekly, an online resource that sells antique toy guns, claims that modern toy guns were produced in an effort by gun factories to stay in business after demand dropped at the conclusion of the Civil War. Others have similarly made this claim, and CNN insinuates as much (“[T]he modern history begins with the cap gun, invented by shotgun manufacturers who retrofitted their factories in the settling smoke of the Civil War”).

If modern toy firearms were in fact introduced to keep gun factories in business, Haag’s claim that gun culture was “etched strongly by the character, ambition, and will of gun capitalists” rings true, at least in relation to toy guns.  According to the Repository, “diplomats, politicians, generals, and statesmen” did not begin to regulate toy guns and thereby make their mark until the 1880s.  As such, toy gun culture seems to have been “forged in the image of commerce.”

At the very least, the Repository suggests that regulations of toy arms began much earlier than other sources suggest. Several sources, such as the Roanoke Times and The Cute and the Cool: Wondrous Innocence and Modern American Children's Culture, cite Rose Simone’s toy gun burning in Chicago in 1935 as the first example of resistance to toy guns. The Washington Post (2014) similarly describes the early 1900s “the golden years” for toy guns, and suggests that now “[t]hings have changed in the toy gun world . . . [because] attitudes about parenting and children and play have shifted markedly.” The Repository suggests that attitudes have not changed so much as they have reverted back to the old normal, where strict regulation of toy firearms was commonplace.

Yet the Repository leaves many questions unanswered. Why did states strictly regulate toy firearms in the late 1800s? In particular, why did some states seemingly regulate toy firearms more rigorously than they did real firearms? Was it because of a risk that no longer applies, such as a hazardous component part? Or were they regulated for the same reasons they are now? And finally, the age-old question remains: will you in fact shoot your eye out? The world may never know.

[Ed. Note: This post about gun laws in the Center’s Repository of Historical Gun Laws is written by Center research assistant Catie Carberry. This post, like the Repository, is exemplary and not exhaustive.]