Here’s how BB guns came to be a favorite Christmas present for youngsters, and a whole lot more.
Story by Jim Dickson
For well over 100 years, the BB gun has been a rite of passage for many youngsters. It was a training tool for the next rite of passage, the first real gun. Sadly, many missed out due to a widespread misuse of the BB gun that prompted many parents to skip that first step and go straight to the .22 a few years later. The infamous BB gun wars, where kids shot each other with BB guns, caused many to lose an eye and as time went on, the public no longer tolerated this and it faded from memory. Good riddance.
As a training tool, the BB gun is a fine one and tailor-made for the
younger would-be shooters. The problems arose when it was used without adult supervision. Young children need parental supervision and guidance, and they particularly need it in the formative years. The BB
gun is the middle ground between a toy gun and a real gun and if it is to serve its purpose as a training gun, it must be treated as a real gun.
The muzzle should never be pointed at anything you do not intend to shoot. Lexan plastic wrap around safety glasses from the local hardware store will protect against BBs ricocheting off flat objects. Other children, pets and small game too small to be killed with a BB gun should be strictly off limits. Properly used, the BB gun can be a very valuable training aid.
It takes a lot of practice to make a good shot and BBs are a lot cheaper
than bullets. Training hand-eye coordination while teaching the muscles to hold steady is learned through repetitive motion. The BB gun is a great training aid here.
THE HISTORY OF air rifles goes back to the 1500s, but these were powerful arms meant for the battlefield. Napoleon threatened to execute foreign soldiers caught with one since the expensive weapons had no smoke and little noise. The Lewis and Clark expedition carried one, which still survives today.
These early air guns had a compressed air cylinder or sphere that was pumped up by many strokes of a hand pump.
The first spring-loaded compressed air rifle made for children was
produced by the Markham Manufacturing Company in 1886. In 1887, the company was renamed the Markham Air Rifle Company.
This company was later bought out by Daisy. The future Daisy company
was started in 1882 as the Plymouth Iron Windmill Company. Lack of
an efficient sales and distribution system was killing the company.
In 1888, Clarence Hamilton, the inventor of their windmill, showed
the prototype of his new air rifle to the board of directors. The firm’s
president, Cass Hough, fired it and delightedly exclaimed, “Boy, that’s
a daisy!”, a popular expression of the day. The name stuck.
Originally given as a premium to farmers who bought a windmill, the BB gun took off with a life of its own. By 1895 the decision was made to drop the windmills to concentrate on air gun production and the firm was renamed Daisy Manufacturing Company.
Extremely efficient advertising and marketing soon made the name Daisy
synonymous with air rifle. The guns were called BB guns because the first ones were made to use size BB lead shotgun pellets. Today’s BB guns shoot smaller plated steel shot, but the name remains unchanged.
After all, smaller plated steel shotguns just doesn’t cut it as a name.
In 1914, Daisy introduced the famous Model 25 pump BB gun. This would be one of the most popular sellers for decades. The lever-action BB guns gave less trouble, though, and this led to the company concentrating on them.
CONTINUALLY INTRODUCING NEW models was an effective marketing strategy for Daisy. In the 1930s they began making signature guns endorsed by famous comic book and Hollywood stars like Buck Rogers and Buck Jones.
In 1940, they brought out the famous Red Ryder model. Red Ryder was one of the most popular comic strip characters of all time.
Beginning in 1938, it captured the imagination of kids across the country and when Daisy introduced its Red Ryder BB gun, every youngster felt like they just had to have one. This is the gun immortalized by little Ralphie in the 1983 movie A Christmas Story, about a young boy’s fervent desire for a BB gun for Christmas.
Today Daisy still sells the Red Ryder BB gun and the 80th anniversary edition is on the store shelves now. The most important use of the BB
gun came about when the late Lucky McDaniel developed a way to rapidly
teach instinct shooting through the use of the BB gun. Since sights just
get in the way when you are instinct shooting, Lucky would rip the sights off his BB guns with a pair of pliers before shooting them. With a rifle you cannot see the bullet in the air so you do not know where the student is missing.
You can see a BB in the air, though, and then tell the student what
corrections to make. If you see him or her shooting under the target, you tell them to look over the target. If they are shooting over the target, you tell them to look under the target. This was the first time anyone had found a way to quickly teach this vital skill.
Once his students were trained with the BB gun, Lucky would switch them to real guns. He would soon have them shooting coins out of the air with a pistol or hitting a five-gallon can at 500 yards offhand with every shot, all without using the sights on the gun. All this in one lesson.
I knew Lucky very well and I truly believe he was the world’s best hand-eye coordination instructor. No one could impart their skill to a student as fast as he could.
I think some of that was through telepathy, as no one else could do it as fast and efficiently as he could despite copying his every word and gesture. During the Vietnam War, Lucky spent a lot of time at Fort Benning giving free lessons to the troops. That ended when he would not kowtow to a high ranking officer, who then had him banned. That did not stop the army from adopting his training methods as the Quick Kill instinct shooting system though.
This training saved countless lives during the war. Daisy was soon selling BB guns without sights to the army and they then came out with a lever-action BB gun without sights as part of their “Quick Skill”
instinct shooting kits, which they sold to the public. I bought one of these and promptly altered and lengthened the stock to fit me according to the gun fitting Robin Nathan at Purdey’s in London had given me. While the workmanship of my stock alteration is certainly not up to Purdey’s standards, it fits me now and that is always a great help to
accurate shooting. It’s probably the only Daisy BB gun out there with a
159/16-inch length of pull. I use this gun to keep up my instinct shooting skills.
The use of the BB gun to teach instinct shooting has made the gun a vital part of the adult’s training routine. Hand-eye coordination has
to be maintained and you have to practice this to maintain your skill
level. The BB gun was no longer just for kids. Now it not only had a place in the adult world, but skill with it was now a life and death matter to many.
Today Daisy is still going strong. Economic reasons forced a move from Plymouth, Michigan, to Rogers, Arkansas, in 1958. They opened a Daisy Museum there in 1966, which was moved to a larger facility twice.
It remains a top tourist destination in Rogers today. It looks like Daisy is going to be part of America from now on, and every American can be thankful for that.
Editor’s note: For more, see daisy.com.