Memories of a Red Ryder

Americana, Traditions
on December 11, 2005
Air Rifle

Gene Powers, 77, wholeheartedly identified with his 11-year-old grandson when the boy yearned for a Daisy Red Ryder BB gun last year. After all, the same gun topped his Christmas list in 1940.

“It still looks brand new, and I still shoot it,” Powers says about his original Red Ryder, made by the nation’s oldest air gun company. It didn’t take much arm-twisting for the grandfather in Hawkinsville, Ga. (pop. 3,280), to buy each of his four grandsons his own classic Red Ryder. Now, when the boys visit, they head to the backyard to practice their marksmanship on a plywood bull’s-eye propped against the azalea bushes.

Memories of three generations of his family’s backyard competitions, sweetened with laughter and praise, prompted Powers’ son to write to the Daisy company last July: “Once in a while, you have an experience with a product that is so positive you literally become a customer for life,” wrote David G. Powers, 48, of Altamonte Springs, Fla. (pop. 41,200). “You have become a fixture in a family’s legacy.”

Letters sharing these family stories are cherished by Ray Hobbs, president of Daisy Outdoor Products, headquartered in Rogers, Ark. (pop. 38,829). “A lot of Daisys get passed down, grandfathers to fathers to sons,” says Hobbs, 49. “It’s a rite-of-passage.”

Today, Red Ryder fans can visit the Daisy Airgun Museum, housed in Daisy’s corporate offices in Rogers, Ark. Started in 1960, the non-profit museum illustrates Daisy’s history through vintage packaging and advertising as well as products. Serious enthusiasts will particularly appreciate the collection of antique airguns dating back to the 1600s.

Letters from farmers in the 1880s first revealed the popularity of the Daisy BB gun. Inventor Clarence Hamilton of Plymouth, Mich., introduced the metal and wire rifle, which could fire a lead ball using compressed air, to the Plymouth Iron Windmill Co. in 1886.

Lewis Cass Hough, then the company’s general manager, fired the contraption and exclaimed, “Boy, that’s a daisy!” The name struck, and soon the company was offering the Daisy BB gun as a premium item to farmers who purchased a windmill.

Before long the company was receiving letters from farmers who wanted to buy a BB gun, not a windmill. By 1890, 25 employees were producing 50,000 guns a year. In 1895, the company stopped building windmills, changed its name to Daisy Manufacturing Co. and began making air guns full time.

Daisy hit the bull’s-eye again in 1938 by teaming with artist Fred Harman, creator of the popular Red Ryder comic strip. The company had long promoted its products with Western and circus stars, but the perfect partner was the fictional cowboy who always shot straight. In 1940, Daisy’s Red Ryders hit the market, and young boys across America set their sights on owning one.

In 1958, Daisy, which had outgrown its Michigan factory and faced a tight labor market, relocated to Rogers, Ark. Today, Daisy’s Red Ryders, Buck and Grizzly model youth rifles, and higher-velocity PowerLine model air rifles and pistols are manufactured in an energy-efficient underground cavern in Neosho, Mo. (pop. 10,505). About 100 employees assemble the guns, which remain popular—and nostalgic—gifts during the holiday season thanks in part to the showing of the 1983 classic, A Christmas Story.

In the movie, young Ralphie Parker longs for “an official Red Ryder, carbine action, 200-shot, range model air rifle with a compass in the stock and this thing that tells time.”

In reality, the Red Ryder rifle Ralphie described in the film didn’t exist; the Buck Jones model had the sundial and compass in the stock. However, Daisy accommodated filmmakers by producing three custom-made models for the movie.

“The movie was so successful that we had to reproduce that model,” says Joe Murfin, Daisy’s vice president of marketing. “This was a case of life imitating art.”

And a case where Red Ryder remains a Christmas wish come true—for Daisy and the millions of buckaroos who yearn for a BB gun of their own.

Visit the Daisy Museum’s website for more information.