All projectile weapons are dangerous, but some are a lot less dangerous than others. The Lone Star WHAM! Spudmatic is about as un-dangerous as a gun can be. Although it has a remarkable range of up to about 10 metres (30+ feet), its projectile is a tiny slug of potato about 4mm (0.16 inches) in diameter and about 10 mm (0.28 inches) long. This translates to maybe 1/8 of a gram (1/200 ounce) of less-than-deadly ordnance. It's reasonably accurate up to about 3 metres (10 feet), "reasonably accurate" being defined as "able to hit your brother's T-shirt more often than not". Fortunately its near-absolute harmlessness doesn't detract from its excellence as a toy; or, as I found out in the early 1960s, from its deterrent value for discouraging cats from using one's parents' garden as a latrine.

Its origins are unclear. Wikipedia refers airily to its having been patented during the Great Depression but gives no details, and mine carries no patent numbers either on its body or on the box. In all fairness it's hard to see how you could patent a modest variation on a pop-gun

The way it works is very easy to understand. With the barrel fully extended, you stick the end of the barrel into a potato as far as it will go. The thick part of the barrel serves as a stop. Then you turn it through a right angle to snap off the slug of potato. The gun is now loaded. Squeeze the trigger smartly (using two fingers) and the air inside the gun is  compressed and shoots out the potato.

It's actually slightly more complicated than that, and indeed, slightly more complicated than it needs to be. The box claims, "Four in One: Shoots Water! Corks! Spuds! Caps!" Well, yes, you can fill it with water and squirt it, but it leaks pretty fast and it leaks even worse if you don't cap the barrel with the captive bung. The tiny corks offer few advantages over bits of potato, except perhaps indoors, apart from being even less dangerous. They are quickly and easily lost. The unnecessary complication is the single-shot caps, which are something of a faff and necessitate the hammer and its associated mechanisms. In other words, it's a superb spud gun, but the other three options are of limited appeal.

Most men (and some women) who see one say either "I used to have one of those" or "Wow, I've never seen anything like that before," even though they are still available. They seem to be made in China nowadays, and they're generally painted red instead of blue, but they're still die-cast metal. I found a cache of proper Lone Star Spudmatics at a vide-grenier a few years ago, new and in the original packaging, for a few euros each. I bought two, then went back and bought five more. One of the latter, I sold on the way back to my motorcycle at 100% profit. I've given a couple away to friends, but I still have at least one and a spare. 

Lone Star was the trademark of Die Cast Machine Tools Ltd., who may first have started selling toys just before World War Two. They went into receivership in 1983, and in 1988 production was moved to Hong Kong. The sad thing is that such things are no longer made in England. I say that not as a "Little Englander" but as a believer in Ha-Joon Chang's "Making Things Matters". As a friend at Leica pointed out, once you lose skills it is very hard to recover them. He made it clear that he wasn't just talking about manufacturing skills: it was a matter of mind-set as well. 

The Spudmatic really should have earned its designer, whoever he (or she) may have been, some sort of recognition. These guns are still in production, almost sixty years since I first became aware of them. They are a work of genius. If a Ph.D. is awarded for a contribution to the sum of human knowledge, then someone at Lone Star deserved a doctorate for adding to the sum of human happiness.

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Words and pictures copyright (c) Roger Hicks 2016