by B.B. Pelletier

Can you believe it? In an airgun blog, I went for almost four years before blogging the Red Ryder. This is an early (1947) model.

Well, here we go. The Red Ryder is the American icon of BB guns, and some would go even farther to include all airguns. Daisy still makes a Red Ryder than can trace its lineage back to the original model made in 1938, but what I am testing for you now is an original. Well, I need to qualify that a little.

The first model Red Ryder was a No. 111 Model 40. There are at least eight major variations of that model, of which mine is No. 5. It has a wood buttstock and a plastic forearm, with no barrel band around the forearm. The steel is blued in the old way, and the gun was definitely made in Plymouth, Michigan, around 1947, which is also the year of my birth. A steel shortage in 1947 forced Daisy to make the cocking lever from aluminum, and it was painted black.

After the No. 111 Model 40 had finished its run, Daisy switched the Red Ryder name over to another model called the 94. That one ran from 1955 until 1962. Then, the model switched again to the 1938. The model 1938A came along in 1978 and was immediately followed by model 1938B in ’79. If you buy a Red Ryder today, that’s what you’ll get.

So, the Red Ryder is a concept rather than a specific design, a lot like a Ford Mustang. The name has stayed the same, but a lot of different models have slid underneath it. Currently, Daisy does their best to preserve the retro look and feel of the BB gun that has been their cash cow for so long.

I’ve owned this model in the past, as well as model 1938 Red Ryders, and I once owned a model 94 that was in like-new condition. But at the 2009 Roanoke Airgun Expo, I came into possession of a beautiful No. 111 Model 40. In other words, a vintage gun. That’s what I’ll test for you here. I don’t want to be crass and say that it’s a “real” Red Ryder, because they’re all real. But this one is closer to the model that first came out in 1938.

My Red Ryder is a little different that the rest of the No. 111 model 40s, though, because it came to me as part of an incomplete boxed set called the No. 311 Target Outfit. That outfit included a long model 300 scope, a BB trap, a cork barrel and some other small things. Mine is missing the scope, but it’s still a valuable set. The gun still has the hard-to-find rear scope mount that’s different from the rear mount found on the Daisy No. 25 pump gun that used the same scope.

Lightning Loader
One cool feature of an older Red Ryder is the Lightning Loader–a tube running under the barrel where BBs are loaded. The No. 111 Model 40 guns were all 1,000-shot models, despite what author Jean Sheperd believed when he wrote his book, In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, that inspired the iconic 1983 movie A Christmas Story. He said they were, “…200-shot carbine-action range-model air rifles.” He was also wrong about the sundial and compass in the stock; those things belonged on a Buck Jones trombone-action BB gun. But Daisy was so pleased with the publicity from the movie that they released a special edition Christmas Story Red Ryder with those features. And here’s a trivia tidbit. Peter Billingsley, who plays Ralphie in the movie, is left-handed, so the gun(s) (there were about six used in the movie) that you see in the movie are all reversed from the guns Daisy made for sale. The compass and sundial are on the other side of the stock. Also, the “copper” bands around the forearms are actually painted. Orin Ribar of Daisy told me they couldn’t get the metal plated in time, so he just painted them and it worked.

Turn the muzzle and the Lightning Loader is open.

Shot tube
Another feature of the vintage Red Ryder that’s gone from today’s BB guns is the shot tube. It still exists, but today it’s amalgamated into the overall gun and isn’t meant to be removed by the shooter. And there truthfully isn’t any reason you would want to remove a modern shot tube. Because modern Red Ryders don’t jam. Or at least they jam so infrequently that the shooter doesn’t need to think about it. But in the 1950s, jams were more common, because BBs were less round in those days. Then, too, the shot tube had to be removed to oil the piston seal, which had to be done frequently.

Little boys from the 1950s and ’60s know what this is, but we don’t see shot tubes anymore. They’re inside the guns and don’t need to come out.

Red Ryder was a mythical western hero who appeared in comic books in the 1930s and later. Daisy licensed certain rights to the Red Ryder character to go with their gun, but even the most insensitive person knows that cowboy is the central theme. So, Daisy put a saddle ring on the left side of the gun and tied a leather thong through it. Mine had the original leather thong on it when I got it, but the leather was so dry-rotted that it crumbled off during handling. It left the saddle ring heavily rusted through years of exposure to tannic acid, and the places closest to the saddle ring on the receiver are the most rusted on the entire gun.

The saddle ring rusted heavily from the acid in the original leather thong. Stalk sticking up from the receiver is the rear mount for a Daisy model 300 scope.

A real Red Ryder from back in the day was considered to be a powerful and desirable BB gun, perhaps second only to the No. 25 pump. It was a status symbol of youth in the 1940s and ’50s. If parents had only known! Their $4.50 purchase would propel their offspring from one of the nameless horde to the rank of privileged progeny. It was the youthful equivalent of having an extension phone in the home, in the day when Ma Bell owned everything.

The vintage gun looks robust to contemporary eyes. We would have shunned a plastic forearm in the 1950s, and, indeed, today’s Red Ryder has an all-wood stock, but the thought of 1947 plastic is becoming kitchy. It wasn’t until the 1967 movie The Graduate that actor Dustin Hoffman learned for all of us that plastic was going to be the great secret of the future, and yet here is a plastic part that was already two decades old.

The bluing runs deep and even by today’s standards. Heck, a modern Savage centerfire rifle would have to improve significantly to be as good. The black paint on the cocking lever is chipped and looking scuzzy, but the plastic forearm looks surprisingly fresh. Apparently, it never came in contact with the heat that destroyed these early synthetics so quickly.

Today, we would say this gun is hard to cock, because the mainspring is a vintage one with lots of pepper in the pot. Today’s guns are all tuned down with thinner coiled wire mainsprings that don’t develop the same velocity as the old ones. Having said that, I expect a good Red Ryder of this vintage to make 325-350 f.p.s. Only the No. 25 went faster, so far as I know, and it’s the 13-year-old in me saying that. I’ve done very little velocity testing on BB guns, other than the No. 25, the Crosman M1 Carbine and the Daisy 499. And my prediction assumes a good leather piston seal, which in this gun is now 63 years old.

I remember back in the day that we worked hard to cock our guns. Watching little Ralphie in A Christmas Story gives the impression that these were fast-shooting guns, but as I recall they took some work to operate. I remember putting the butt between my legs to anchor the gun as I hauled back on the cocking lever.

The sights are fixed, but you could adjust windage by bending the front post with pliers. Most kids just corrected with Kentucky windage, though, because nearly every gun shot to one side or the other. Elevation was handled similarly. You soon developed a good feel for it because you could often see the golden BB in flight.

The Red Ryder logo is stamped into the left side of the wooden butt. On gun versions 1 and 2, the logo is burned into the butt. On gun version 3, it’s silkscreened on because of problems with the logo-making machinery. The Blue Book of Airguns isn’t clear on this, but it appears that version 5 is the first version to have the logo stamped on. Minor point but, oh, so important to a Red Ryder collector!

Famous Red Ryder logo was found on the butt.

So much has changed in the decades since this gun was new. The tin pop cans we used to test BB-gun power have morphed into thin aluminum cans that most modern BB guns can rip through. I don’t have a vintage pop can to use for my velocity test, so I will try to do something else creative for you.

As for accuracy I recall these guns were hard-pressed to keep their shots under two inches at 25 feet. It should prove interesting to see what effect, if any, modern BBs will have in this vintage shooter.

I’ll do both of those things in Part 2, which will be the finish to this report. So, if you have any strange cravings to see something out of the ordinary done to Ralphie’s Old Blue, now is the time to speak up.