A cap gun or cap pistol is a toy gun that creates a loud sound akin to a gunshot and a puff of smoke when the trigger is pulled. Cap guns were originally made of cast iron, but after World War II were made of zinc alloy, and most newer models are made of plastic. Cap guns get their name from the small discs of explosive compounds (roughly 1.4 to 1.6 mm in diameter) that provide the noise and smoke, effectively the same as the separate percussion cap used to replace the flintlock in real firearms, although invariably smaller and made from cheap plastic or paper rather than soft metal. Some are arranged in plastic rings of six, seven, or eight. There are also single caps, roll caps (of 50 to 500), and disk caps, all of which were actually extremely small versions of percussion fireworks. Armstrong's mixture is often used as the explosive.
Cap guns became especially popular when the heroes of cinema and television rode through the West ridding the territories of villains. Many cap guns were named after or endorsed by leading matinee idols like Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy, The Lone Ranger, Tonto, Dale Evans, Marshal Matt Dillon, or any of countless others.
The "Golden Age" of cap guns was after World War II when television became popular and such companies as Nichols Industries, Hubley, Kenton, Kilgore, Wyandotte, Classy, Mattel, Actoy, Esquire, George Schmidt, and Stevens made millions of cap guns in various versions. While many had their names patterned after a hero or heroine, many cap guns also were named "Stallion 45", "Pony", "Mustang", "Pioneer", "Cowboy", "Texan", "Colt 45", "Rodeo", and such.
From the end of the war until about 1965, children all over the world emulated their heroes and collected and played with these toy guns. However, when the Western television shows began to fade away and the heroes retired, the popularity of the toy guns also diminished and eventually all of the famous cap gun manufacturers either sold out to other toy companies or started manufacturing other types of toys.
There were many types of cap guns, including small guns like Derringers, large rifles, and working miniatures of most of them, one of which (the most famous) was named after the television show, The Rifleman. The pistols generally were in 3 styles, the semi-automatic, the revolver (that actually had a revolving cylinder) and the revolver that looked like a regular revolver, but opened to load a roll of caps. Almost all of the early models used either roll caps or circular disks of caps, but in 1950 Nichols Industries came out with a large model called the Stallion 45, which had a revolving cylinder into which individual bullets were loaded, which each had two parts. The circular cap was placed into the 2-piece bullet and then when the gun was loaded and fired, it was very realistic. Eventually several companies used this idea and a few years later Nichols invented a plastic bullet that was inserted into a hollowed out version of the regular 2-piece bullet and when the gun was fired, the plastic pellet shot out of the end of the barrel. Eventually Mattel also came out with a model called Shootin' Shells.
Ring cap guns are usually modeled after revolver pistols, with the cap ring placed in the cylinder section of the toy gun. Like its real-world counterpart, when the trigger is pulled, the cylinder rotates a new cap into place, the hammer is drawn back, and then released; the shock causes the cap to explode harmlessly, producing the noise and smoke.
Strip or paper cap guns use the aforementioned cap strip in lieu of the cap ring. As in the ring style of gun, each pull of the trigger advances the cap strip forward, pulls back the hammer, and then strikes the cap.
Cap guns in the United States and Canada must be manufactured with a bright orange, red, or yellow tip placed over the "muzzle" of the cap gun, or with the entire gun made in these or other bright colors. Laws requiring these markings were made because of incidents where civilians - usually children or teenagers - were killed by police officers at times of low visibility (such as dusk or nightfall) when the officers thought they saw real guns, but these incidents were very rare.
There are millions of collectors throughout the world who collect all types of cap guns, even though restrictive laws in some areas may make it difficult. Whereas the toy guns brought small prices originally, they now command significant prices for many models, with some of the most famous sets of holsters, guns and original boxes selling for high prices at auctions and toy gun shows. Some collectors will collect all types of cap guns, but many collectors specialize in either guns named after a famous western hero or a particular company's set, like the Nichols Industries or Hubley cap guns.
Caps have occasionally been used in toys other than cap guns where an explosive effect is desired. One example would be the "Thunder Punch" version of the He-Man action figure from the original 1980s Masters of the Universe toy line. Ring caps were placed in a "backpack" integrated into the figure, which contained the striking mechanism for the caps (as well as tiny vents to allow smoke from a triggered cap to escape). This mechanism was triggered by drawing the figure's spring-loaded right arm back and releasing it to swing forward; the explosion of the cap was intended to simulate a thunderous noise caused by the supposed superhuman power of the character's punch.