Saturday, 2 May 2015


I'm going to try and get through this post without mentioning Proust, but -- oops -- it seems I have already done so.  Impossible not to, really.  I was making myself a cup of coffee, and had laid on the worktop the plastic screw-cap of a litre bottle of milk.  Something about the colour and shape of the knurled green top lying there triggered something deep in my memory and -- bang! -- suddenly I had an overwhelming sense-memory of a long-forgotten acrid smoky smell.  Caps!

A set of vivid images and sensations heaved into view: caps, cap guns, cap bombs...  Once, from about the age of five to the age of ten, I had been quite the gun-nut.  I had a drawerful of sidearms that might have alarmed even a particularly paranoid Tea-Party Texan.  There was a Buntline Special, long in the barrel, a Luger, a Derringer, multiple versions of the western revolver -- variously decorated with indian heads, bucking broncos and elaborate scrollwork -- and a selection of snub-noses and automatics, as packed by various TV detectives, spies, and law enforcers.  Some were water pistols, a couple were spud-guns, and a few merely went "click", but most of them fired caps.

Guns have largely disappeared from the toy repertoire in recent decades.  There seems to have been an outbreak of parental pop psychology in the late 1970s that predicted that heavily-armed toy-gunslingers like me would probably go on to carry out acts of mass slaughter.  I imagine cap guns are kept under the counter in toyshops, these days, along with the catapults and the pierced and tattooed Barbie dolls.  But in the 1950s and 60s, the production of toy weaponry must have been a significant industry.

Armed and mostly harmless, 1962

OK, I'll take it...

An important part of running a decent armoury, of course, was ensuring a proper supply of ammunition. Caps came as a tightly rolled paper strip, like a watch-spring, generally green but sometimes red, with regularly spaced black blisters of percussion explosive.  You would usually break open the gun, place the roll inside the gun onto a spool, and then feed the free end up through the feed mechanism and between the hammer and the strike-plate.  When properly loaded, pulling the trigger would cock and release the hammer, exploding the cap with a snap not unlike a Christmas cracker, and feed the roll through so that the next cap came up into the firing position.  After a firing frenzy you would end up with a pall of that glorious reeking smoke and a slightly annoying strip of spent caps protruding from your gun.

Back then, caps came in little round cardboard pillboxes with crimped lids, like bottle-tops.  I think they cost one penny a box, and out of my vivid Proustian reverie emerged a practically photographic memory that the brand we bought in our local sweet-shop had the words BROCK'S AMORCES crudely printed on the lid.  Brock's were a well-known fireworks company, but I have just looked up "amorces" -- it's the kind of word you take for granted at age eight, but not at sixty-one -- and it turns out to be a synonym for "caps".  Well, of course.

My most vivid memories, though, concern cap-bombs.  You could buy cap-bombs in the sweet-shop, too.  The crudest ones were made out of moulded metal, but they were generally a finned, rocket-shaped plastic projectile, with a spring-loaded plunger in a sort of cage on the nose end.  You would place as many torn-off single caps as you could get under the plunger, and then either toss it into the air or hurl it at the ground.  Where it went bang -- we were easily amused, I suppose.  The best place to do this was on the concrete driveway between two rows of garages, where the surface guaranteed an explosion, which the metal garage doors would amplify and reverb gratifyingly.  P-tangg!

The best cap-bomb of all, though, was made by finding a suitably large metal nut and two matching bolts.  You would screw one bolt in partway, pack a wad of caps in (or match-heads), and carefully -- very carefully -- screw in the other bolt on the other side.  Done just right, the thing made a terrific noise and stayed in one piece; done wrong, it flew apart at lethal speed.  Or exploded in your hands as you were tightening the bolt.  We discovered that parents would get inexplicably and unfairly exercised when they found out what was going on.

An advanced seminar on the merits of roll caps
versus the new plastic ring caps, 1973


Anonymous said...

I remember all of them, we did exactly the same bolt and nut bombs down at my end of Bedwell. However did you manage to accrue so many guns at that young age? I can recall a trusty silver cowboy gun with a tawny-red handle which lasted me for several years.

Zouk Delors said...

Never tried the thing with nuts and bolts myself, but did you ever try just whacking the whole box of caps, unopened, with a lump hammer? Very satisfying, but rather expensive, what with caps at 1d a box!

PS How about using the first pic on your website About, with the caption "Buy my photos or the bunny gets it"?

Mike C. said...


as I say, I was a gun-nut -- no-one needed to wonder what I wanted for Xmas...


Mike C. said...


Somewhere I've got a terrific photo of my grsndfather in a string vest and trilby, clutching a shotgun snd a rabbit -- maybe that's the one.


Kent Wiley said...

Zouk, that Wascally Wabbit can't be gotten by nobody!

Zouk Delors said...


He didn't want to do it, Mike ... but they wouldn't buy his photps!

Martin Hodges said...

You've reminded me of an incident involving matches, a hollow key, a nail and a piece of string. Oh yes, and a neighbour's shattered window!

Zouk Delors said...


Of course you realize this means war!