American Heritage Chronicles — “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out”

Mid-1950's Daisy ad showing two of their most popular models, the Red Ryder and the Model 25. Applebee's collection includes both of those.

May 10, 2023 — I had a vendor booth at the recent annual indoor garage sale held at the Florence Event Center and among the shop tools, household items and hobby stuff, I had several vintage BB guns for sale in my booth. I must have heard that line from the cult-classic movie from 1983, at least a dozen times, as one of those guns was an iconic ‘Red Ryder’ commemorative.

The 1983 movie, “A Christmas Story” was of course centered around the countless efforts of Ralphie Parker in his quest to receive a prized Daisy Red Ryder, named after the popular 1930’s comic book hero. The story, set in the 1940’s, enhanced the already wildly popular and successful BB gun produced by Daisy, which has been one of the leading manufacturers of airguns for decades.

I originally dabbled in collecting and shooting airguns back in the 1980s when I lived in the land down under – that’s California not Australia. One divorce and several moves later I found my collection down to just two guns. When I fully retired in 2019, I re-discovered the fun and joy of collecting them again. Soon, my collection grew to a couple dozen, including multiple makes and models.

As I gained in my knowledge, I soon found myself overwhelmed by both the variety and breadth of guns to choose from, so eventually narrowed the journey down to primarily BB guns made by Daisy. Even that has its challenges.

The original incarnation of Daisy Outdoor Products as it is known today, was the Plymouth Iron Windmill Works in Plymouth, Mich., founded in the early 1880’s to manufacture and sell windmills to farmers in the Midwest.

Like so many commercial endeavors at that time in our nation’s evolution, their market was predominantly regional, as national marketing and distribution was at its infancy too. They soon discovered sales were struggling as that regional market became saturated. Through a combination of circumstances, they began offering a low-end airgun as an inducement to purchase the windmills. Coming close to bankruptcy in 1888, the company soon dropped windmills and focused on the successful and growing market in airguns, and quickly became the industry leader.

Throughout the century since that time, Daisy has produced a phenomenal number of models, including pellet, CO2, high-end competition guns, even soft-air guns, as well as models like Ralphie Parker’s Red Ryder.

I have two books in my library that cover the gun models produced by Daisy, and others; the Daisy Airgun Collectors Guide produced in 2015, and the Blue Book of Airguns, produced in 2014. Each source numbers the quantity of Daisy produced gun models at over one hundred!

Amazingly enough, the actual number is probably much higher as many of those models have had ‘variants’ produced during their production lifetime, sometimes as many as ten variants or more. In addition, several models have been re-produced as commemoratives for purposes such as anniversaries or recognition of organizations such as National Rifle Association., and celebrities such as Roy Rogers.

In the case of the Red Ryder model, first offered in 1938, there have been nearly twenty variants, commemoratives, or special editions alone. So as you can imagine, focusing on even one model can be challenging. While I do have a couple Red Ryders in my collection, my actual focus is on the Model 99 that is called a ‘wide body’ frame, and more compatible to shooting as an adult.

The value of these iconic guns is sometimes surprising. A vintage 1943 ad shows the price of a Red Ryder at a paltry three dollars. One mid-1950’s ad shows that price up to $7.95, and that ad portrays one of the Red Ryders in my collection. In the 2014 Blue Book, the value for that particular model is $215. You can purchase a current edition Red Ryder at BiMart for $39.97.

While some collectors focus on collectible values, I focus on collecting guns that I simply like and enjoy, despite current or potential value.

The Daisy company went through many challenges and changes during its long and storied existence. It moved from Michigan to Rogers, Ark. in 1958, resulting in enhanced and expanded production capabilities. In doing so, it also created two distinct categories for collectors to choose from: Plymouth guns or Rogers guns.

In the early 2000’s, like so many other American companies unfortunately, they began outsourcing some production to China. While the quality really hasn’t diminished, the pride has.

In 2004 the Daisy Airgun Museum was created, and although I have not been able to visit in person, there is a two-hour video tour circulating on-line that is a wealth of information. In addition, their Curator, Joe Murfin, is a phenomenal resource. Each vintage Daisy I acquire, I send him an evaluation request form and he responds with actual manufacturing date as well as other valuable information on that particular model.

As if collecting Daisy’s isn’t confusing enough, the Red Ryder depicted in the 1983 movie was never actually mass produced by Daisy. The creator of the story, Gene Shepherd, evidently confused models in his mind. The compass and sundial were not an actual Red Ryder feature, but were on another 1930’s model, the Buck Jones Rifle. However, Daisy actually manufactured six of the movie guns for the production, and after the film was completed, all six were disturbed to people involved with the production including Peter Billingsly, who portrayed Ralphie. Since that time, Daisy has, however, continued to produce a variety of anniversary models based on the movie gun, including special models exclusively for Walmart.

In 2004, an avid fan of the cult-classic movie, purchased and refurbished the actual Parker House in Cleveland, Ohio and in 2006 opened it as a museum. In 2015 they were able to acquire one of those original six movie guns and it is now on display in the Museum. He had been that avid fan since the age of twelve, and eventually gave up a career in the US Navy to pursue his passion, including manufacturing and selling the infamous leg-lamp trophy won by Ralphie’s Dad, which provides much comic fodder in the story.

So whether you had one as a youth, or want one to re-live your youth today, you just can’t go wrong with a Daisy. In fact, legend has it that when one board member in 1888 shot their current product in the boardroom during the meeting, he was so impressed, he stated “Now that’s a Daisy!”, and the name stuck.