'Gee Dad ... A Winchester!' Marketing Guns to the American Youth of Yore

In the wake of the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, it seems grotesque. But gunmakers in the US used to advertise their deadly products directly to teenage boys, marketing them as the perfect Christmas present. And if the wife resisted, Winchester had the answer.

The living room is decorated for the holidays, an armchair is positioned invitingly in front of the fireplace and a glistening Christmas tree stands next to it. The presents, piled up on the shag carpeting under the tree, have already been unwrapped -- and are displayed prominently throughout the room. Pistols, rifles and ammunition. "Make this a Browning Christmas," reads the perky font above the photo.

The image was part of a newspaper advertisement printed decades ago to lure US readers to purchase Browning weapons as gifts for their loved ones. In recent years, it has made its rounds on the Internet, and the comments attached to it show that many Americans can still recall having seen it. And there are others too, such as the image of the wide-eyed, freckled boy who has just unwrapped his present. He holds his new rifle in his hands and says, "Gee Dad … a Winchester!"

In the wake of the recent school shooting in the US, the ads now seem like a macabre joke. Back in the 1950s, however, when they were printed, they hardly raised eyebrows. Indeed, many of those in the US who vehemently insist on their right to own guns were shaped by such ads when they were growing up. And they clearly show the nonchalance with which Americans then and, to a large degree, now approached weapons.

The Markham Air Rifle Company was particularly adept at selling its weapons. As early as the 1880s, the company introduced the first mass-produced air rifle. It was vastly profitable, and not just because of its simple construction. The company, based in Plymouth, Massachusetts, was particularly adept at marketing.

Business Training?

"The King Air Rifle gives a boy an air of manliness and power, makes him alert, self-confident, resolute. It starts in a natural way the training which in later years will make him a leader in the business world," the advertisement from 1905 reads. It shows two boys playing with guns.

The air rifle as a status symbol for young boys: It was Markham's competitor Plymouth Iron Windmill Company, later Daisy Company, which perfected the strategy, with an air rifle called "Daisy." The film "A Christmas Story" first hit the cinemas in the US in 1983 and quickly advanced to become a holiday classic. It's success can at least partially be explained by the fact that entire generations of men could identify with its protagonist, Ralphie, who grew up in Indiana in the 1940s. Ralphie wanted nothing for Christmas as bad as he did an "Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle."

Daisy Outdoor Products named its coveted "Red Ryder BB Gun" after a famous comic book super hero from the 1940's, a cowboy named Red Ryder. The comic book cowboy featured heavily in the advertising and the air rifle was modelled after Winchester rifles from old Western movies.

For many boys of that era, owning a Daisy Red Ryder was their greatest wish. The gun afforded them the hallowed combination of responsibility and adulthood. The BB gun is still in production and more than 10 million have been sold since Daisy started making them in 1938.

'You'll Shoot Your Eye Out'

Many kids who identified with Ralphie from "A Christmas Story" shared his dramatic fate. When they expressed their Christmas wish for a Red Ryder BB Gun, their desire was spurned with the warning, "You'll shoot your eye out!"

The original maker of Winchester guns understood the broad sentiment of fear shared by mothers and addressed it in their own advertising campaign directed towards fathers. The ad starts out, "Suppose you want to give a Winchester 22 to your 12-year old. But the wife says, 'It's too dangerous now. Wait till he's older.' What do you tell her?"

The ad then goes on to answer the question it poses:

"First, tell her exactly why you think a boy should learn to handle guns early. Tell her he may not get a chance later. And too many kids grow up thinking guns are toys. Tell her a boy's hankering to shoot and go hunting is perfectly normal. Something he's born with. A part of his American tradition…. Tell her what it's like for a boy in the woods with a 22. Tracking his first rabbit. Outwitting a fox. Sitting very still under a squirrel tree. Tell her that state conservation programs even encourage hunting to help maintain the balance of nature. And the National Rifle Association conducts a shooting program to teach youngsters gun safety and sportsmanship and how to handle guns. Finally, tell her that when an oldtime hunter like you has a boy who wants to hunt, it's his obligation to teach him all he knows about guns, game and the ways of nature. And buy him a Winchester. And take him hunting. Why a Winchester? Because at Winchester we still believe 22's are real guns."

The transition from playing cowboy to shooting real weapons was fluid, especially for people who grew up in the 1950s and the 1960s and were drafted to fight in the Vietnam War. Still those who went off to war had a lot to learn. "Viet Nam is no place for the traditional American rifleman, who prides himself on long-range sharpshooting and an unerringly steady hand," wrote Time Magazine in a 1967 article about a new training program called "Quick Kill" in solider slang.

"Quick Kill is for the shot you've got to make when you don't have time to line up your sights," Colonel William Koob, 47, director of weapons at Fort Benning, is quoted as saying in the article. "When it's either kill or be killed."

The article compares the technique with the methods that young kids instinctively use when they play cowboys and Indians. The training program used, of all things, Daisy BB guns, the air rifle that so many little cowboys yearned for.

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gclaheh 12/21/2012
1. Love reading Der Spiegel
I have to respond to this. One thing that Germans don't know about is the culture of the US. The US had to be settled-especially in the west. There was no central government in places in the US before they officially joined the union as states. People who lived in the frontier couldn't call 911 if they faced danger because phones weren't invented and there were no policemen. Pioneers had to carry their own guns for their protection and safety. The issue now is should Americans be allowed to carry guns-even though they don't really need to carry them. Personally I believe that this decision should be decided by the local governments. Some places in the US are still very rural and there is no local police force and they should be allowed to carry weapons to protect themselves. Places where there are a lot of gang violence, a gun ban would be appropriate, but only if it would be enforced by the police.
Jen101 12/22/2012
As an American, I am offended by the statements made in this article. There is no nonchalance when it comes to our right to possess firearms. This nation is currently divided about the issue and the tragedy in the Sandy Hook Elementary School has only exacerbated it. In a society where it is illegal to have guns, only criminals will have them, if there are consequences for irresponsible behavior, the behavior may be avoided. The problem is not in advertising, it is in the general public's perspective of guns. Our nation is attempting to find a less violent way of life. People are not violent because they possess guns, nor does access to them give way to violent acts. The guns are a tool, like a knife, a car, or a wrench; it is all in how they are used. Please, do not believe that all American's are nonchalant when it comes to something so precious as our way of life. Guns are for hunting, sport, and often simply collecting. The majority of gun owners are neither violent nor uneducated as is portrayed elsewhere. Passing along the traditions of being able to provide food for one's family or protecting one's family in the event of need are some reasons why American's own guns. Do those reasons sound nonchalant to you? People who are against guns believe that having one around will potentially lead to violence and so take a stance against them. Again, does that sound nonchalant to you?
princeinpurplrayn 12/27/2012
3. What a lame attempt at anti-Americanism
Author Solveig Grothe, you should be ashamed at yourself. This article is nothing but one tiny piece of the social anti-American machine Germany has churned out in the last decade. The topic of this article is absolutely un-newsworthy and totally irrelevant, yet the editors of der Spiegel thought it good enough to be posted to the English section of this site four days before Christmas. How disgusting. As an American, having lived in Germany for the last 3 years, I can feel how people buy into such propaganda as this (see - it's in Americans' BLOOD that they're GUN NUTS!) negatively affects my life here. I'm part German (of course, this means nothing to you pure-bloods), and I've always loved the idea of one day living in Germany.. I never thought that I would come to rue that false idealistic idea. Why the hell didn't I move to a warmer country! Where the people don't have these weird ideas that you can tell is somewhere deep down there. Germans, apart from a few good friends I have met here along the way, have so many complexes it's almost indescipherable. Of course, I'm not talking about just this article, it is but one of, well, pretty much all the articles about the U.S. in the Stern and Spiegel. Why don't you fully turn and embrace Russia and Putin, Germany? Go communist again - lord knows I've met enough people here who call themselves that. Oh, and of course, this particular article mentions gun advertising focuses on young kids from the early 20th century. Really Solveig Grothe? Need I remind you what kind of messages Germany was sending to young kids at the same time? Deutschbag
coolblueice 12/27/2012
4. The times have changed...
Now the teenage boy would be saying, "Gee Mom --- It's a Bushmaster!" shortly before he would pop a couple of rounds into her head while she slept, then would drive off in her car to murder 20 small children. My my, how times have changed.
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