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Each American generation seems doomed to live a life less dangerous, original, and exciting than the one before. My kids love their drum-fed fully automatic Nerf guns, which couldn’t kill a mosquito unless you squished it with the buttstock. They shake their heads in horror at the spring loaded dart guns my pals and I used to shoot at each other all summer, back in the 1970s: they could easily put an eye out even before we pulled off the soft suction tips for better range and accuracy. But back in the 1940s, things were even cooler

The Austin Magic Pistol was well before my time, but I would have traded all my Red Series Star Wars cards for one. It sold (briefly) in the late 1940s and fired ping-pong balls at velocities no modern Nerf gun can touch. How did it do that 65 years ago, you might ask? With a few spoonfuls of calcium carbide and a few drops of water.

Never mind this guy’s horrible range safety practices (no eyes, no ears): I can’t believe he puts his face up to a can of calcium carbide and spits into it. Calcium carbide hydrolyzes on contact with water to produce extremely flammable acetylene gas.

In a carbide lantern it yields a bright, steady flame with very little smoke or soot. In the Austin Magic Pistol it yields an impressive fireball at the muzzle, that easily puts a Mosin-Nagant M44 carbine to shame. Also notable are the flames and sparks shooting out the breech end of the gun as well, scorching the shooter’s wrist.  How long before the screw-on lid, I meant ‘breech’, blows off and scorches the shooter’s face with burning acetylene gas? Statistically speaking, not very long.

The Austin Magic Pistol was only a state-of-the-art toy back then, but many states now classify it as an actual ‘firearm’ because it uses a chemical explosion to propel a projectile. They’re highly collectible and expensive these days, because there aren’t too many surviving examples: many of them ruptured or exploded during firing.

If you’re looking to fill an odd niche in your collection of toys or guns (or toy guns) the Austin Magic Pistol is a great find. But if you want to bring some old-school danger, originality, and excitement to your children’s play, you’ll want something a little less dangerous. Like lawn darts.

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  1. Cool. Gramps used to blow the lid off of paint cans using the same stuff on the Fourth. Make a small hole in the bottom for ignition and BOOM.

    • We did the same! My dad worked at a parts store and would bring home empty quart paint cans just for that. One day I found a piece of pipe, I believe 5 inch, and made a cannon to shoot the cans out of, what a “Blast”!

  2. We Had Bangsite Carbide cannons and we would sleeve down the bore to glass marble caliber and it shot those marbles with great velocity and noise and the shattered nicely if we managed to hit a hard target… they would go in their full size with an old phone book as the target we had a lot of fun in the 1950s

  3. When I think about the things we did for fun in the 50s and 60s, I cringe because they seem so unsafe. I don’t know how we survived without warnings like “Small Parts — Choking Hazard,” “Do Not Light Indoors,” or “Open Other End.” Thank God that we are now fully protected by the federal government, from which all bounty flows.

  4. At Boy Scout camp in the late 1950s, we took glass bottles of insect repellent (OFF, I think), filled them with cutoff matchheads, rigged a fuse of sorts, and wrapped the glass with electrician’s tape to which were stuck as many BBs as we could manage.

    This IED (in effect) was placed on a stump or rock in the woods. One of us would light the fuse and we’d all run and hide behind trees. The bang was greatly satisfying, as was the quickly fading sound of BBs ripping through foliage.

    Then we beat feet in all directions in case Someone In Authority had heard the noise and came to investigate.

  5. Wow, y’all we’re CRAZY! All I ever made were homemade, uh, ‘fireworks’ with substantial quantities of gunpowder in them. Nothing illegal, mind you…

  6. I’d shoot it, via the spit method, without eyes and ears.

    This nation is becoming a collection of hand-wringing 14 year old girls.

    Fortunately, technology has permitted a very similar principle to be enjoyed by many youths. It’s called the paintball gun.

  7. To reply on a serious note, after having made and exploded several matchhead bombs with no one getting hurt, we quit doing it. The itch to make a real bomb was scratched soon enough by…making one. (Or two.)

    Then we went on to other woodcrafty activities involving pocket knives, hunting knives, and axes, both hand- and regular. Bandages promptly sprouted on fingers.

    For what it’s worth, this Scout camp also offered marksmanship merit badge classes on its rifle range (.22 LR bolt action, single shot; I forget what make). The range was run by a Marine lance corporal hired or borrowed for the summer, and he (correctly of course) permitted No Nonsense Whatsoever from us. It’s a shame that such a facility is all but unthinkable for a Scout camp today.

    • It’s not that unthinkable. My childhood was late 90s to early 00s and the scout camps I went to (or at least the ones I enjoyed going to) had rifle ranges just like the one you describe. And this is in California of all places!
      We even made our own bug spray bomb, minus the BBs (I guess we weren’t that crafty).
      I put my faith in that a good boy scout will always find something that explodes in the most dangerous way current technology allows.

  8. My uncle was the one who invented the Austin Magic Pistol. I used one when I was 12 and still have all my fingers and eyes. Great fun, especially at night. I still have several I got from my aunt.

  9. Though I freely grant you the “horrible range safety practices”, I have to call out that absolutely nothing else in this uninformed, subjective diatribe is even remotely true. I don’t advocate neglecting your eyes and ears, or setting a bad example by doing so, but for myself, I save my eyes and ears for the real range, not for playing with toys. Though it is a good idea, I would no more think to wear them shooting off the Austin Magic Pistol than I would while shooting off fireworks.

    This is a safe invention, and your baseless accusations of this toy ever exploding come from nothing more than myth and hearsay, and are no truer than your assertion that lawn darts would be a safer pastime. There have never been any true, reported cases of this pistol exploding (it’s welded sheet steel 0.010 thick), but there have been an abundance of injuries and deaths from lawn darts, to the point that the US CPSC has seen fit to ban them and issue numerous warnings. Sure, you were simply making a jocular exaggeration, but the fact remains.

    Also, this toy does not require you to “spit into a can of calcium carbide” as you so eloquently implied, but instead, you drop a small amount of water, onto a very small amount of calcium carbide, held by a wire-mesh screen, which allows excess liquid to fall through. This toy was made when a modicum of thought went into a design, and even if you were to intentionally close off the safety-port that runs through the grip there is no way that the breech is going to blow off. I probably get more stippling from my .40 than I ever have from the sparks (NOT FLAMES) that come out of the AMP, which are caused by the spark trigger, not the reaction in the chamber, and they certainly do not “scorch”.

    The Detroit Testing Laboratory (which is still in business) rigorously tested and reviewed the AMP in ‘49, using it far beyond its intended use, and after two hundred severe tests (where they tried to achieve the greatest explosion possible, under the worst conditions possible), were unable to cause splitting, exploding, or rupturing of the firing chamber or the barrel. DTL report number “5903-C-1” states in part, “It was not found possible to explode or split or otherwise damage the Austin Magic Pistol under any conditions which might normally occur in use.” The flash is simply not hot enough or long enough to even burn skin, or start a fire with normal paper.

    Lastly, as a writer myself I would simply say to you that a journalist is supposed to check his facts and information, not rely on rumor or innuendo, which you have obviously done in this case. I would contend that this calls into question every article you’ve authored, and though you’re merely writing for a small website with a readership of barely 120,000, you’re still contributing to the decay of the noble image of the fourth estate (and it can’t possibly stand up to much more decay). I find it disturbing that you believe it okay to make unfounded, libelous statements about a product whose inventor is no longer around to defend it.

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