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
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