Astute readers will notice that the Austin Magic Pistol isn’t a classic, or a replica or even an air pistol. But this 1950 kid’s toy is so endearingly insane that it just has to be worth covering here.
I sometimes wonder if our current obsession with safety has gone too far. Do replica manufacturers believe that there are people so stupid that they don’t realize that shooting yourself (or anyone else) with a pellet or steel BB traveling at over 400fps is a really, really bad idea? And if there are such people, will putting big blocks of “safety” text on replicas actually stop them? I don’t think so. Same with kid’s toys – anything smaller than a grapefruit is a “choking hazard” and anything sharper than an elbow is simply unacceptable. But how will our children learn about safety and responsibility if we never allow them to do anything that has the potential to hurt?
However, when I look back at some of the replica (and toy) guns from the 1950s, I think that maybe we are actually better off today. One such gun which I came across recently was the staggeringly, incandescently stupid Austin Magic Pistol. Now, this isn’t really a replica gun (well, it’s a sort of replica of an imaginary ray-gun I suppose) but it’s just so completely insane that I thought I’d share it with you here.
Back in the 1950s, science and science fiction were big news. People were seriously talking about things like nuclear powered vacuum cleaners and television shows like Captain Video and his Video Rangers, Rocky Jones – Space Ranger and Space Patrol were thrilling small boys around the world. If you didn’t fancy a western styled toy gun then the chances were that what you really wanted was a working ray-gun.
The King of the Rocket Men had a cool ray-gun in 1949. Even if it did look a bit like a Luger with an ice cream cone stuck on the front.
Of course, toy manufacturers were keen to cash in on this promising interest in science and science fiction. For example, in 1950 US toy manufacturer A.C. Gilbert introduced the Atomic Energy Lab, an “educational toy” which contained, amongst other things, a Geiger counter and several samples of radioactive materials including Uranium bearing ore samples. There is little doubt that little Jimmy (or Jemima) would quickly have learned all about the wonders of atomic energy when they started growing extra limbs after playing with this, but parents become worried when their children began to glow in the dark. What mum and dad really wanted was a “scientific” toy that was a little safer for their children to play with.
Exciting! Safe! The 1950 Gilbert Atomic Energy Lab, complete with Uranium and Geiger counter. You couldn’t make this stuff up…
Happily, at about the same time the Austin Manufacturing Company of Port Austin, Michigan released the Austin Magic Pistol 38mm Special. This looked a bit like a Buck Rogers ray-gun and provided reassurance for parents as it was described as “harmless” and was claimed to have been “thoroughly tested for safety by the Detroit Testing Laboratory”. Period advertising went on to explain that the Austin Magic Pistol used something called “magic crystals” to shoot ping-pong balls. Well, that sounds pretty safe, doesn’t it? I mean, what could possibly be dangerous about a replica ray gun that uses crystals to shoot ping-pong balls?
1950 advertising for the “Harmless” Austin Magic Pistol.
There are actually a couple of important clues in this advert which should probably have raised a red flag to any concerned parent. First, the advert happily notes that the Magic Pistol goes off with a bang “as loud as a .45” cal. pistol or 12 Gauge shotgun” which suggests a reaction of some violence. And it claims to fire a ping-pong ball up to 100 feet. Even allowing for manufacturer’s hyperbole, just think for a moment about the kind of muzzle energy needed to shoot something as large and light as a ping-pong ball 100 feet!
So, just how did the Austin Magic Pistol work? Well, the “magic crystals” were actually Calcium Carbide (CaC2) which, when mixed with water, undergoes a violent chemical reaction to produce extremely flammable acetylene gas. The Calcium Carbide crystals were placed inside a compartment which formed the main body of the pistol and then water was added and an end-cap screwed in place. The CaC2 reacted with the water and the compartment rapidly filled with acetylene. Pulling the trigger produced a spark which explosively ignited this gas, propelling the ping-pong ball out of the muzzle with a deafening report.
However, there were a couple of tiny safety issues which the advertising doesn’t mention. First, the reaction when water is mixed with CaC2 is violent and can lead to fragments of reacting CaC2 being thrown off. Get some of this in your eye and there is a good chance that you’ll lose it. Second, there was nothing to stop an enterprising child from adding more than the recommended amount of CaC2 and water, producing a bigger and more powerful explosion when the trigger was pulled and providing a very real risk of blowing off the tinplate end-cap and liberally dousing the shooter’s face and head with burning acetylene. Finally, even when using small quantities of magic crystals, each shot involved the ping-pong ball leaving the muzzle at high velocity followed by a tongue of flame of up to eight feet long. Just imagine shooting at your little sister with one of these (because you just would, wouldn’t you? After all, it’s “harmless”). If the ping-pong ball didn’t get her, the flame-thrower certainly would.
Nowadays, none of these features would be considered ideal in a child’s toy but back in the 1950s I guess that parents just shrugged and decided that this was probably safer than letting their kids play with Uranium. It also rather makes you wonder just who the Detroit Testing Laboratory were – they were the people who Austin claimed had “thoroughly tested for safety” the Magic Pistol.
The Austin Magic Pistol provided hours of harmless fun for children and gave them the opportunity to meet lots of interesting people like fire-fighters, paramedics and plastic surgeons.
Below you can see a YouTube video of someone actually firing an Austin Magic Pistol. You may notice a couple of basic issues. First, the shooter spits into the rear compartment of the pistol to start the reaction that produces acetylene. Without any form of eye protection (don’t try this at home, kids!). And second, he is holding in his hand a not particularly robust tinplate toy that is now sixty-five years old and almost certainly corroded and inside of which a fair sized explosion takes place. You know, maybe we do need that safety text on our replicas after all!
I’m guessing that a fairly small amount of CaC2 was used when filming this video because the flame produced by the Magic Pistol is fairly small, perhaps only eighteen inches long. Contemporary reports suggest that this toy was capable of producing a much, much larger flame on firing. Which makes it even more odd that the instructions for the Magic Pistol suggested that it could be fired without a ping-pong ball in place “into the palm of the hand.” Look at the picture below and imagine a hand held directly in front of the muzzle. Can you see a potential safety issue here? I wonder if the Detroit Testing Laboratory tried that…
Austin Magic Pistols still occasionally turn up for sale on e-bay and other places, but if you are thinking about adding one of these to your replica collection there are a couple of things you should be aware of. First, this is now classed as a firearm in many parts of the world and owning one may be illegal. Following a number of accidents involving Magic Pistols the state of Virginia in the US for example passed a law in 1950 making illegal any toy gun which “by action of an explosion of a combustible material discharges blank or ball charges.” The second thing to think about is whether you want to actually shoot something like this. The explosion which propels the ping-pong ball out of the muzzle is extremely violent and there is a chance that the now brittle tinplate which forms the rear part of the magic crystal compartment may blow off, spraying your face with red-hot shrapnel and burning acetylene. If you do decide to shoot one of these, you’ll need to use eye and ear protection and you should hold the Magic Pistol as far away from your face and body as possible before you pull the trigger. I’d suggest at least 100 feet away.
So, there you go. A (sort of) replica pistol from the days before safety was invented and when real men laughed at the prospect of being enveloped in a cloud of burning gas. Kind of makes you appreciate modern replicas, doesn’t it? I mean, if you are careless with a modern replica pistol, you can certainly injure yourself. But if you had messed around with the Austin Magic Pistol you might not only have incinerated and/or blown yourself and any spectators up, you might also have burned down your house. With a kid’s toy!
Nostalgia gives you a nice, warm feeling inside. The Austin Magic Pistol potentially combines this with an even warmer feeling all over.
Happy shooting. But please, not with one of these…