A Christmas Story

Remembering when every boy wanted to find a Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle under the tree.
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Daisy Manufacturing Co.
Take Aim: Daisy Manufacturing Co. in Plymouth, circa 1915. // Photographs courtesy of Plymouth Historical Museum

“Boy, that’s a Daisy!” Lewis Hough exclaimed on March 6, 1888. Hough, general manager of Plymouth Iron Windmill Co., had chosen a colloquial expression of approval for inventor Clarence Hamilton’s prototype air gun. The all-metal BB gun was an improvement over the crude “Chicago” model produced by Markham Air Rifle Co., also located in Plymouth.

Hamilton had formed his windmill company a few years earlier and, at first, the Daisy — the name had stuck — was provided as a bonus to buyers of windmills. Within six years, the enterprise changed its name to Daisy Manufacturing Co., developed even more appealing guns like the Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air gun made famous in “A Christmas Story,” and discontinued making windmills altogether.

As the appetite for inexpensive training guns grew throughout the 1890s, Daisy’s metal stamping and molding facilities met the demand. Having Charles Bennett in sales helped, too. On his way to succeeding Hough as general manager, Bennett oversaw Daisy’s
promotions, including the annual calendar — the first of which cost $2,000 to produce.

It so happened that Bennett prospered through his service at Daisy, and in 1903 the “mechanically minded businessman who ran an air gun-making company” joined the board of Ford Motor Co. Three years later, however, a dispute led him and four other board members to sell their shares.

While involved with Ford, Bennett carried on Daisy’s business. A 1904 promotional tour took him around the world with the latest offering: a 1,000-shot, lever-action rifle. All these BBs were loaded through a hole that appeared when the barrel was rotated. “The Daisy Air Rifle teaches accuracy, trains the hand and eye, steadies the nerves, and develops manly qualities,” extolled an early advertisement. The walnut stock and nickeled barrel made it a great value at $2.

W. F. Markham
W. F. Markham, owner of Markham Air Rifle Co., saw his company acquired by Daisy in the 1920s.

Another important step in the company’s success was taken when Charles “Fred” Lefever joined Daisy in 1913. From a family of gun-smiths — his father had patented the first automatic hammerless shotgun — Lefever designed the powerful, pump-action Model 25 air rifle. Ads touted its rapid firing and invoked the exemplary boyhoods of George Washington, William McKinley, and Andrew Jackson. Such heritage and value for only $3! At least 8 million were produced over more than six decades.

Daisy’s marketing always capitalized on national trends. For example, the Model 40 Defender’s long wooden stock, canvas sling, and rubber-tipped bayonet emulated a World War I doughboy’s rifle. Selling for $5, it helped Daisy surpass $500,000 in 1916 sales. 

During the 1920s, Daisy expanded by purchasing American Ball Co., a manufacturer of BBs, and moved the new division from Minnesota to Plymouth. Millions of BBs were produced daily to satisfy young marksmen. By 1929, Daisy had bought King Manufacturing Co., the successor of Markham Air Rifle Co., and integrated operations. 

To face the Great Depression’s challenges, Daisy introduced the Model 101 — a single-shot, lever-action rifle — in 1933, proclaiming, “Now, a genuine Daisy for One Buck.” As the economy improved, Daisy perfected the Model 40 Red Ryder Carbine, named for the popular comic-strip cowboy. It came with Daisy’s Red Ryder Gun Book, featuring tips on horseshoe-ing, calf-roping, and camp cookery. 

Concurrent with Daisy’s success — annual sales topped $5 million by the mid-1950s — the company trained its sights elsewhere. “In 1958, Daisy’s 70-year residency in Plymouth ended and the company relocated to a 350,000-square-foot factory in Rogers, Ark.,” reports a company history found on NRAmuseum.org. 

While boys still ask for BB guns at Christmas — the Red Ryder came equipped with a compass and a sundial in the stock — and mothers still warn, “You’ll shoot your eye out,” the prestige of being made in Michigan was gone.

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