This article, "You'll Shoot Your Eye Out, Kid," appeared originally as a Rifles column in the December 2017 issue of Shooting Illustrated. To subscribe to the magazine, visit the NRA membership page here and select Shooting Illustrated as your member magazine.
Chances are pretty good that even if you have not seen 1983’s “A Christmas Story,” you are at least familiar with lines from this classic movie. Set in late-1940s suburban Indiana, the central character—an eight-year old boy named Ralphie—spends most of his time scheming to get a Daisy Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas. Generations of American youth have lived out their own versions of this story and heard the now-famous “You’ll shoot your eye out” mantra from their own parents.
I began my personal BB-gun campaign in earnest at the age of nine after moving to a wandering boy’s paradise. Our front yard was the city limit, but the backyard led to hardwood forests and cornfields that were tailor-made for a good rifle. Unfortunately, in addition to being the new kid on the block, I was the only boy without something more potent than a cap gun. It was embarrassing enough that I skipped past all the normal tricks young boys use on their parents and went straight to begging.
I must have been pretty convincing, because it only took a year and a half for my efforts to pay off. I had pretty much given up until one Christmas morning, when I awoke to find that St. Nick had left me a long, skinny box under the tree. My dad must have had Santa’s ear that year, since my mother was convinced I would instantly be maimed if I got near anything with a trigger. Dad told me later that he had suffered through the same trials as a kid. I will never forget the feeling of pure, unadulterated joy that I felt that first time I removed my gleaming, Crosman Model 500 Powermatic BB gun from its box.
A famous scene in the aforementioned movie finds Ralphie stroking a table lamp that was made to look like a woman’s stocking-clad leg. His mouth hangs open and his eyes are wide and full of wonder, until his mother slaps his hand away. My new rifle had the same effect on me. OK, it was actually a smoothbore, but such technicalities were not on my 10-year-old radar. All that mattered was that I had a 50-shot, shoulder-fired, BB gun that was fueled by CO2 “Powerlets.” I planned to demonstrate some fast-and-fancy shooting for my pump-gun toting buddies just as soon as I finished pretending to read the manual.
Ever the teacher, my dad’s choice of a semi-auto BB gun served to teach me lessons in logistics, economics and fire discipline in under an hour. The first kid in my clan to run dry on ammo usually ended up placing cans on fence posts or flushing rats from piles of farm scrap. As I hung my head and ambled downrange to reset targets I suddenly understood the value of slow, steady aim over volume of fire.
The old Powermatic was eventually replaced by a spring-piston pellet rifle, but that first BB gun lit a fire that still burns hotter than a tobacco barn in August. I have had the joy of continuing the Christmas morning BB gun spectacle several times in my own house and plan to continue the tradition well into the future.
Back when flea markets sold more than sock bundles and painted furniture, I managed to acquire a bunch of old BB guns, pellet rifles and single-shot .22s dating back to the 1800s. These discarded beaters had languished in closets and barns long past their useful lives and set me back about $10 apiece. But, in their prime they served as building blocks for generations of American kids.
If they could talk, those beginner guns would tell of woods roamed through, fields shot over and imagined battles fought. I would wager a couple of the previous owners went on to carry Springfields or Enfields in The Great War. No doubt, some of those little rifles helped prepare boys from our greatest generation for “graduation” to the M1 Garand. I imagine a few of the kids who carried the old guns even ended being issued M14s or M16s in the latter half of the 20th century the same way I was.
Somehow, the founders of this great nation understood the perils a free people would encounter well into the future. In spite of the safeguards and warnings put in place for us, a large percentage of today’s population fails to see the hazards we currently face. One thing made clear in their writings was the Founders’ belief that an armed populace is critical to maintaining a free republic. Thomas Jefferson’s private correspondence goes a step further, making a strong case for steering young people toward excellence through arms. We would do well to follow that advice now. Since the urge to “arm up” in fear of lost gun rights has temporarily subsided, this is the perfect time to focus on the next generation. Equip them, teach them, set a good example and encourage them to continue the journey after we are all gone, just as the Founders did for us.
You can go the traditional Red Ryder BB gun route or even shorter with Daisy’s Model 10 Carbine. Watching a young boy or girl discover a long-ish box amongst their presents is a treat, but the real payoff comes when you see their discipline and self-reliance bloom.
Introducing this child to a structured youth shooting program is a logical next step. Trail Life USA, 4-H Clubs, FFA and the Royal Rangers are examples of groups that teach the fundamentals of gun safety and proficiency through structured, professional, adult-led programs. Check out youth.nra.org and eddieeagle.nra.org for good, child-centered resources.
Oh and remember to buy your new BB-gun enthusiast quality eye protection to quash the whole eye-shooting-out thing. My mother and I have a good laugh over the path my life has taken since my Ralphie days. Rumor has it she has shouldered a rifle (or two) herself over the years.