Volume 8 Issue 1 Spring-Summer 2023
By Leslie Singer
Photos by Mike Kemp
herever you stand on the issue of guns, one thing is certain. Most young boys who, like me, grew up in the 50’s, absolutely loved them. Cowboy cap guns. Army rifles. Water pistols. Anything with a barrel and a trigger was an essential piece of our daily equipment.
Growing up on Long Island as a fan of Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, Tom Corbett and others, it was all about ray guns for me. They were the weapons of tomorrow! Some could disintegrate your enemy with a quick zap. A blast from other ray guns would freeze them in their tracks like a statue. Some weapons could instantly put them to sleep. Unlike the other kid’s more traditional guns, you could often control their power intensity with a twist of a knob — low power as a warning shot, or instant annihilation when called for.
And the design! All those cool fins, lightning bolts, knobs and other not-of-this world controls. You were holding the future in the palm of your hand, your trigger finger just a quick squeeze between good and evil. Pack the right kind of heat (or electron beam) and the universe was yours.
But as I grew, my mind shifted from cosmic beams to cars, girls and music. Fast forward to the early 70’s. I am now living in Arkansas— a whole other story — and I’m poking around an antique store. There it is, an old toy ray gun like one I had as a kid. It all literally flashed back to me. But this time I was more enchanted by the near-Deco design rather than its blasting power. So futuristic. So optimistic. Right then and there I decided I would collect vintage ray guns and other space toys. I had not heard of anyone else specializing in these items and of course there was no internet and no Ebay to help with the search. But looking back, this actually made the hunt more fun. I poked around every antique store and garage sale I came across. Information came from the few toy collector magazines and auction catalogs that existed. Coming across one of these precious artifacts was a real thrill and soon I was traveling to antique toy shows all over the country. For days before my trip I would dream about my happy childhood.
By the early 90’s I already had an arsenal of over 50 early sci-fi weapons that included the first space hero-themed ray gun— the 1936 Buck Rogers XZ-38 Disintegrator; the majestic 1950’s Hubley Atomic Disintegrator (apparently total disintegration was the gold standard of ray gun performance) the Space Patrol Cosmic Smoke Gun, whose talcum powder ammunition would put your enemy to sleep with a silent puff, and dozens of other armaments that buzzed, clicked, popped, zapped, squirted — and sometimes did nothing at all. If I was really lucky I would also come across a gun in the original box which would often have fabulous retro style graphics. In 1991 I realized there was no book that focused on these wonderfully designed artifacts. I pitched my idea to Chronicle Books, a major California publisher, and to my amazement I was soon notified that they were interested in publishing ZAP! Ray Gun Classics.
I contacted the late Dixie Knight, a wonderful Little Rock photographer and together we put our project together. I wrote what little copy there was, Chronicle did the design and soon we were on the shelves around the world. I’m proud to say that the book started a whole new category of collectors, many of whom were also toy robot aficionados or graphic designers.
A year later, friends, Senator David and Barbara Pryor introduced me to Peter Max, a very popular artist whose own hobby was collecting other people’s collections. (He had Andy Warhol’s cookie jar collection for instance.) He offered to create an original painting of my book’s cover in exchange for a portion of my ray gun collection. I told him he would be getting the short end of the deal but he insisted, and we both came away happy.
A few years later the internet and Ebay were major forces and it sure was fun for me to see the new interest in antique space toys of all kinds. Of course the prices shot up but what I cared about was the beauty of the design and the wonder of childhood imagination.
They say there's a fine line between a hobby and an obsession. I’m not sure exactly what side of that line I was on-- and it didn’t matter. Those old fantasy weapons blasted me full of joy and adventure that I can still feel today.
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