Twenty-eight: That’s how many times young Ralphie Parker mentions his desire for a Red Ryder BB gun in 1983’s A Christmas Story. For Ralphie, the Red Ryder represents the zenith of the Christmas holiday—a BB-shooting firearm that will help him manifest the Western heroes of his imagination. To not get the weapon would mean Ralphie would be inconsolable, his life irrevocably ruined. Not even warnings that he would shoot his eye out can dissuade him.
Unlike the leg lamp, another infamous totem of the holiday classic, the Red Ryder was a real product that had a life outside of the film. But were kids of the 1940s that fanatical about getting one? And who or what is a Red Ryder?
Ralphie begging for a Red Ryder was not unlike a kid today asking for a pair of Spider-Man pajamas. The air gun was a licensed product based on a popular cultural character of the era: Red Ryder, a comic strip character that debuted in 1938 and ran in roughly 750 newspapers.
Created by Stephen Slesinger and illustrated by Fred Harman Jr., Red Ryder was a cowboy who attempted to right wrongs in the San Juan Mountains. He had a sidekick, Little Beaver, and a horse named Thunder. Such was the appeal of the strip that in 1940 Republic Pictures produced a 12-chapter movie serial, Adventures of Red Ryder. That was followed by a staggering 23 feature films between 1944 and 1947, television pilots, radio programs, and comic books.
Red Ryder’s name recognition made the character attractive to licensees. While licensing is a common practice now, it was less prevalent in the 1940s, when little more than Disney products and Beatrix Potter characters showed up in toy aisles. (Licensed entertainment products, in fact, wouldn’t see a major push until the 1977 release of Star Wars.)
In 1983, Pensacola News-Journal staff writer Bruce Martin recalled a childhood bedroom that was stuffed with Red Ryder paraphernalia. “I sported a Red Ryder adjustable secret decoder ring,” he wrote. “A life-size poster of Red Ryder and Little Beaver stared from the back of my bedroom door. In my private museum, there was an official Red Ryder lariat, a bull whip, bank and gun and holster set.”
Having Red “endorse” an air rifle made a lot of sense. He was, after all, prone to shooting his way out of trouble. And there was really only one company that could do it justice.
At the time, Daisy was considered the market leader in BB guns. The company was founded in 1886 as the Plymouth Iron Windmill Company in Plymouth, Michigan, which distributed steel rather than wood windmills to farmers. (It would relocate to Rogers, Arkansas, in 1958.) With the purchase of a windmill, customers would get a free gift—a metal air rifle made by Clarence J. Hamilton, who had also designed the company’s windmills.
Unfortunately for the windmill company, people seemed far more interested in the gun than the main product. The good news? They were more than capable of meeting that demand. By 1895, the business was renamed Daisy and had set its focus on manufacturing the guns.
While Daisy became a recognizable brand name, the company did its best to goose sales during the economic downturn of the 1930s. Kid-friendly cowboy actors like Buzz Barton and Buck Jones were used for tie-in advertising. So was Buck Rogers, the space fantasy comic strip hero who inspired a Buck Rogers Rocket Pistol and Buck Rogers Disintegrator Pistol.
In spring 1940, Daisy tackled Red Ryder, another bit of synergy that paid off. Reportedly, the strip’s creators, Slesinger and Harman, suggested Daisy make a Red Ryder revolver: Daisy offered instead to rename an existing BB carbine after the character. Although production of the steel rifle was interrupted from 1943 to 1945 as a result of World War II, the Red Ryder wound up moving 1 million rifles in 1949 alone, a massive success for Daisy. It was, as the film depicted, a highly desirable plaything.
Although Ralphie lusted after a real gun, the particular model he coveted wasn’t exactly one you could buy off the shelf.
In A Christmas Story, Ralphie is hellbent on acquiring a “Red Ryder range model air rifle with a compass in the stock and this thing that tells time.”
This was a bit of creative license: The Red Ryder didn’t have a compass or sundial. The previously-mentioned Buck Jones rifle did, however. It’s possible author Jean Shepherd, whose work inspired the movie—he’s also the narrator—misremembered the gun from his own youth as a Red Ryder. In the end, Ralphie’s trophy was an amalgam of the two, with Daisy agreeing to modify a Red Ryder with a compass and a silkscreen sundial for the props used in the movie.
Daisy rifles are still being manufactured today, representing nearly 140 years of nearly-uninterrupted production. Few remember Red Ryder the character, but most everyone understands Red Ryder as the marquee name in BB guns—in fact, a 25-foot-tall Red Ryder leans against the Daisy Museum in Rogers. The name has supplanted its original creation.
And while all air rifles demand to be used with a sense of responsibility, Ralphie’s mother’s lament was not totally unfounded. In a 2002 lawsuit filed against Daisy by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), the agency accused Daisy of manufacturing defective model 880 and 856 Powerline Airguns that could appear unloaded even if they weren’t, a flaw the CPSC believed was related to 15 deaths and 171 serious injuries. They demanded Daisy recall the models. (A settlement was reached in 2003, with the CPSC dropping its demand for a recall and Daisy agreeing to include more safety information with the guns.)
Even so, air guns and kids remain a volatile mix. According to a 2019 study published in the journal Pediatrics, nearly 14,000 children were treated for injuries relating to a “non-powder” firearm, like a BB or paintball gun, each year from 1990 to 2016. Roughly 15 percent of those injuries involved the eye.
A version of this story ran in 2022; it has been updated in 2023.