It's a ray-gun, British made, from an era long gone: late 1940s and early 1950s, a quarter of a century or so before man would ever walk on the moon. The body is chromed pot metal, with big red windows in the side. It takes roll-caps, and as long as the light isn't too strong you can see the flash of the cap through the windows. When you pull the heavy trigger, the barrel slides forwards and then slams back to fire the cap. It's among the finest toy guns ever made, and arguably the finest toy ray-gun ever made, though some prefer the far cruder American-made Hubley Atomic Disintegrator. Armed with my trusty Space Outlaw I'd cheerfully take on any Jedi with his puny light-sabre, or indeed anyone with a Hubley. The Space Outlaw is more accurate: you can tell just by looking at it. And much more dangerous: look at the range of adjustments. The dial on the left (above) gives a choice of Gamma, Cosmic or Sonic rays; the dial on the right (below) is for range, though there are no distance markings.

Like all great guns it fits perfectly into the hand. The metal construction imparts a gravitas that is simply not available with plastic. The detailing is gorgeous: the cooling fins, the hints of insulators, the reinforcing struts, the multiple sights including a folding ring-sight, the adjustable dials. It's the lack of details (especially moving parts) that makes the Hubley so inferior, even though a good Hubley goes for around three times as much as a good Space Outlaw. That's maybe $500 instead of $150, incidentally: call it £300+ instead of £100+. I paid 3 euros for mine, under $5, at a vide-grenier in 2014.

The little catch at the back of the gun releases the magazine,which takes roll caps. I've tied the trigger back with a cable tie so you can see how the barrel moves forwards: that's the less shiny bit

Alongside its complication, though, it is wonderfully uncomplicated. All it needs is a roll of caps, which admittedly are quite hard to find nowadays, but it's pretty noisy even without them: certainly, a lot noisier than the average six-shooter thanks to that very heavy trigger and the massive barrel that slams back and forth. When you're playing with your friends, the noise is what matters. Of course toy guns are less common nowadays than they were, but ray-guns, six-guns and James Bond PPK replicas can perfectly well be mixed in the same game. It is after all unlikely that small boys will ever stop playing with guns; or if not “ever”, then at least for the next few centuries. Any man who does not remember what it was like to be a boy with a gun in his hand is already dead; if he is not transported back to his childhood by the smell of cap-smoke, he is already in hell. Thanks to its substantial construction the Space Outlaw is quite hard to break, at least conclusively (the folding foresight is a worry), and it doesn't need batteries, which makes it a very practical toy. I would guess that more have been lost, or thrown away, than ever broke. It is a gun a grandfather may let his grandson use.

So did I buy it because I wanted one sixty years ago? Not exactly. It goes back long before that. It is the distillation, the essence, of the space opera stories not just of my childhood in the 1950s, but of thirty years before: of Amazing Tales and Fantasy and Science Fiction in the glory days of the 1920s and 1930s. It is what the future looked like then, and it is what it was (and is) still supposed to look like. It is akin to the images of steam trains that appear at level crossings, or the images of cameras that advertise photogenic vistas. We know what trains are meant to look like; we know what cameras are meant to look like; and by the same tokens, we know what ray guns are meant to look like. Space Outlaws.

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