A Christmas Story: The Red Ryder BB Gun

By Karen Harris

Peter Billingsley sits on Santa's lap in a scene from the film 'A Christmas Story,' 1983. (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Getty Images)

Although the classic holiday movie A Christmas Story is packed full of noteworthy and quote-worthy nuggets, at the center of it all is young Ralphie's burning desire for a Red Ryder BB Gun, the most coveted toy for young boys in 1940s Indiana. There was a reason why young Ralphie wanted this particular BB gun. It was—and still is—the best.

The Company Started Out Making Windmills

The Red Ryder BB Gun is made by the Daisy Outdoor Products, which was founded in 1886 as the Plymouth Iron Windmill Company, a manufacturer of iron windmills for farm use. The company distinguished itself from the competition by offering freebie items to the farm families that bought their windmills, and one of them was a newfangled metal air rifle. (As an added bonus, it could be used by salesmen to demonstrate the durability of the newly installed windmill blades.) By 1888, the air rifle had become more popular than the windmills, so Plymouth rebranded with a new name inspired by a customer who exclaimed, using the hip slang of the day, "Boy, that's a daisy!" after trying out the air rifle.

Steel BBs with copper or zinc jackets. (Hustvedt/Wikimedia Commons)

BBs Are A Unit of Measurement

Pop quiz: What does BB stand for? It's not "ball bearing" or "ball bullet." A BB is actually a unit of measurement assigned to the 0.180-inch lead shot. Smaller than buckshot, BB shots were better suited for shooting pheasants, ducks, and other game birds. When Daisy got into the air rifle business, they developed their own specialty-size lead shot that was smaller than the standard BB at 0.175 inches and tried to get the term "air rifle shot" to stick, but folks stubbornly called the ammo BBs.

Red Ryder comic by Fred Harman. (Vilseskogen/Flickr)

Red Ryder Came Before the BB Gun

Daisy's iconic BB gun took its name from a popular comic strip featuring a rugged cowboy named Red Ryder and his adventures in the Old West. From its debut in November 1938, it was a huge hit with young boys, so the marketing geniuses at Daisy worked out a promo agreement with the strip's creators. Daisy introduced its now-famous Red Ryder BB Gun in early 1940, and both the comic strip and the air rifle soared in popularity. By the end of the decade, Daisy was selling more than a million Red Ryder BB Guns each year.

Daisy Red Ryder BB Gun. (Mike Mozart/Flickr)

The BB Gun Ralphie Coveted Never Existed

More than 30 times in A Christmas Story, Ralphie expresses his desire for a "200-shot Red Ryder range model air rifle with a compass on the stock and this thing that tells time." Though he gets his wish in the end, it shouldn't have been possible because this gun never existed. To enhance nostalgia for the 1940s, the movie's writers added in a few embellishments to make the Red Ryder BB Gun even more appealing. For filming, the props department combined the Red Ryder with an earlier Daisy air rifle, the Buck Jones Special. Fans of A Christmas Story can still get a Red Ryder BB Gun to keep alongside their leg lamp, but it won't be the version Ralphie had. 

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.