Today I wrench open the hundred-foot thick doors of the Atomic Armory so I can bring you the finest space weaponry of the Thirties, Forties, and Fifties. And what better place to begin than in the beginning.
Presenting the Buck Rogers XZ-31 Rocket Pistol.
This, friends, is the very first toy ray gun ever produced. Made by Daisy (whose BB rifles are probably most responsible for creating a mainstream market for child-sized eye patches), the XZ-31 is constructed out of sturdy, blued steel. You cock it by pulling back the handle, and firing it creates a loud Pop! It's not a very complicated toy, and its design avoids the multiple rings, embossed stars, and wild curves that would define later space guns, but maybe it's this subtlety that's helped keep it near the top of most collectors' want-lists for 75 years.
It was available in bare metal and a blued finish -- but the latter is almost always worn away. Mine has a mottled coating of finish, which I think makes the toy look like it was rendered in water colors or something. Rather striking, yes?
On its side, the XZ-31 is stamped with the words:
DAISY MFG Co., Plymouth, Mich. U.S.A.
On the handle is an engraving of Buck Rogers himself.
The XZ-31 has an interesting history. Buck Rogers first leapt from the pages of Amazing Stories magazine in 1928. Soon after, he was given a comic strip, drawn by the legendary Dick Calkins. This lead to licensing deals, and it wasn't long before a whole store's worth of toys bearing the likenesses of Buck and his partner Wilma were vying for parents' money. None of them could compare with the XZ-31, though.
Daisy produced the toy for the 1934 Christmas season. Macy's was granted exclusive sales of the gun for a whole week if they agreed to promote the living hell out of it. They certainly did agree, and set up an entire "World of Tomorrow" section of their store on 34th Street and Broadway, complete with rockets, moonscapes, and people dressed like spacemen. No one was sure whether a space gun would sell, and in fact, when parents first heard about this Buck Rogers fella, they thought he was a cowboy.
But on the day the toy went on sale, lines stretched around the block. The department store kept selling out, and Daisy went into overtime to manufacture and deliver the ray gun to New York. Everyone was making money hand-over-fist, and life was easy for the Macy's executives.
But then their week ran out, and Daisy started shipping Rocket Pistols to Macy's fiercest rival, Gimbel's department store. This kicked off an apocalyptic price war. Macy's would lower the cost of their XZ-31s to attract customers, so Gimbels would lower the cost of theirs. Back and forth, back and forth, until one store would run out of stock. Then the other would immediately jack its price back up! Often, the stores would cut the price so much that they'd be selling it for less than they paid to buy the toys from Daisy. At which point Daisy would come in and buy back their guns -- only to turn around and sell them once again to the retail giants!
One other quick note: Daisy decided that it would be just wonderful if Calkins redesigned the comic strip's gun to reflect the toy. He gladly did so. Nice.
I've always loved the XZ-31, but it was a long time before I bought one. They're super common, and you can almost always find them floating around on eBay, even in excellent condition -- these toys were built to last. Consequently, they're not particularly expensive, despite how popular and desirable they are. Given all that, I decided to save my money so that I'd be able to grab rarer toys whenever they popped up. The XZ-31 could wait -- it wasn't going anywhere.
But eventually I became tired of people asking how I could have such an extensive ray gun collection and not have the world's first ray gun. I decided that it's just such an amazing toy with such a fantastic history, I really had no excuse for not adding it to my shelves. Once a nice one appeared, I pounced.
Finally, I leave you with a photo of a brick.
This isn't any brick -- it's a brick from the original Daisy Manufacturing Plant in Michigan! A few years ago, condo developers were tearing down the old building. A collector I know named Darryl snuck into the construction site late one evening and snagged me a brick for posterity.
What a nice gesture. I make sure to send a card to his prison cell every Christmas.
Daisy would go on to produce a number of Buck Rogers weapons, all of which will eventually appear in these pages.