ALONE IN HOSTILE TERRITORY, the scout thankfully hefted his Atomic Disintegrator. When going up against an unknown number of enemy troops, the weapon provided a nice handicap for whoever used it. More a hand cannon than a pistol, the Atomic Disintegrator could take apart an enemy hover tank as effectively as an army of mechanics working for overtime pay. Only with much more noise, chaos, and (the scout would admit to himself) fun.

And any minute, he expected to put the gun to the test. The rock behind which he set up his base camp would soon be compromised as the enemy legions called in air support. His moment of respite had come to an end; it was time to fight his way home.

The scout counted to three, kissed his Atomic Disintegrator for luck, and then leapt out from behind the boulder. Without wasting another moment, he let loose with a barrage of fire designed to scatter any soldiers lying in wait. Then, hitting the ground with a roll, he fired off another volley, keeping his enemy off balance and on their toes.

Too bad no one was actually there waiting for him. The scout looked around, confusion clouding his brash features. It's true, he was surrounded. But his enemy lay scattered about the field of battle, lifeless. None of their burn marks matched the pattern of the Atomic Disintegrator.

He scratched his head, then flipped an errant strand of hair out of his eyes. Odd. That's when he heard a twig snap behind him. Spinning, weapon raised against a possible attack, the scout's gaze leveled on a beautiful woman stepping from the forest just beyond his camp. She held an Atomic Rifle in her arms, its tip glowing red and blowing smoke. The woman looked right into the scout's eyes.

"Mine's bigger than yours," she said, cocking her hip out to the side. The scout couldn't help but notice that her silver mini-skirt didn't quite make it halfway down her thigh.

"But mine packs quite the punch," he replied. He flashed a smile.

She ignored it. "Only if you get to use it."

Oh yeah, thought the scout, as the two of them prepared to flag down a Consortium rescue flyer. The next few hours would be fun... If they didn't kill each other first.

THERE'S NOTHING LIKE A GOOD SPACE GUN to call up visions of yesterday's play time. Ray guns, whether tin, steel, or plastic, were the tools of a childhood fraught with imagination. They opened doors into the future, where all that stood between the onset of humanity's worst nightmare was a good old fashioned blast of hot atomic energy.

Like toy robots and rockets, ray guns clearly depict how people from the past viewed the possibilities of tomorrow. They hearken back to a long-gone era while at the same time hint at the unknown worlds of tomorrow. The toys are also reminders of a time where people were convinced the next invasion was as likely to come from Mars as it was to come from Russia, when the future of space exploration included its militarization. Space wasn't merely an uncharted frontier, it was a potentially dangerous one.

Not very PC by today's standards, but for children living in the shadow of the cold war's silent hostilities, it was the status quo. The bomb had been dropped, the Communists were at our doorstep (and if Joseph McCarthy were to believed, actually inside our houses!), and a potential enemy of unimagined strength loomed a few million miles away on the Red Planet ("Red"... get it?...). Grab up your arms now or else get caught with your pants down.

PICKING UP WHERE MORE TRADITIONAL CHILDHOOD ARMS -- like cowboy guns and police pistols -- left off, the earliest space guns appeared in the 1930s. One of the greatest of these toys was the Buck Rogers XZ-31. When it first came out in 1936, Buck Rogers was just peaking as the ultimate space-based adventurer. The toy, made my Daisy Manufacturing, was so desired in its first two weeks on sale that it caused a pricing war between Macy's and their competitor Gimbels, one which often found the cost of the gun fluctuating by the hour. At times, it dipped so low that the department stores would lose money. Daisy representatives would buy the toys back at these reduced prices and then sell them to the stores again at their real value. Chaos.

The XZ-31 was followed the next year by the XZ-35, or the Wilma Gun. Smaller than the 31, it nonetheless proved a popular seller. Daisy then put out the XZ-38 Disintegrator, a radical redesign that featured prominent fluting on the barrel and a large red window behind which a spark would flash when the trigger was pulled. Daisy also released the XZ-44 Liquid Helium gun. This red and yellow steel water pistol was an art deco tour de force, and is now considered one of the most beautiful space guns ever designed (and, due to somewhat lackluster sales, a rare find). Daisy rounded out their Buck Rogers ray gun line with the U-235 Atomic pistol in 1947. Essentially the same as the XZ-38, the gun took advantage of America's newfound fascination with atomic energy following WWII.

While it might seem otherwise, the ray gun market of the 1930s wasn't comprised of only Buck Rogers merchandise. Louis Marx Co. created the Flash Gordon Radio Repeater. A simpler pressing than the Buck guns, the toy made up for it with colorful lithography. The ZZ Pop Ray Gun, by Wyandotte manufacturing, was a pug-nosed weapon whose subtle simplicity makes it popular today. And the Nu-Matic Paper Popper, by Langson Manufacturing, featured an industrial design whose form follows its function. Large spools at the head of the barrel house rolls of paper caps, while a full-handled trigger causes the gun to give off loud bangs. This gun means business, and it never lets you forget it.

Pressed steel weapons continued to dominate the market into the 1940s, with companies like Daisy recycling old Buck Rogers molds and covering them with intricate, fanciful litho detailing. Flyrite Products released Atom Bubble and Water Gun, a simple affair of fluted tubes and a boxy handle. Two of the greatest guns to came out during this decade were the Hiller Atom Ray Gun and the Armstrong and Brewer Spinray Blast Pistol. Hiller (who also made weapons and vehicles for the military) used cast aluminum to fashion a stunning work of art, with thin, minimalistic lines accenting an oversized water canister. The Spinray, on the otherhand, was an ornate, surreal piece of artillery that features a spinning propeller at the front of its barrel. Both are extremely rare and valuable today.

The Forties also saw the first early plastic space guns. One of the most striking is the Playcraft Co.'s Atom-Matic Water Rocket Gun, a weapon who's imaginative name was matched only by it's imaginative design. A small red handle supported a thin, nearly invisible blue barrel with three concentric rings at its end. Minimalism taken to the extreme, and a perfect example of the emerging art movements of the day. But use of plastic would reach its peak in both creativity and prevalence in the 1950s.

But metal construction was still holding on as space gun manufacturing entered the Fifties. First, Marx recast their Flash Gordon Radio Repeater as both the Flash Gordon Click Ray and Tom Corbett Space Cadet Clicker, thanks to new and exciting lithography. Then there was the Hubley Atomic Disintegrator, arguably one of the greatest designed ray guns of all time. Featuring intricate detailing--knobs, dials, fluting, vents--and a bright red molded plastic handle, the gun is 2 pounds of interstellar excitement.

But the real magic of 1950s space gun manufacturing could be found in plastic weapons. Toys like U.S. Plastic's Space Clicker featured spines, fins, and cut-outs, as well as embossed images of planets and stars. Other toys, like the Mercury Plastic Corporation's Martian "Guided Whistle" Bloon-Rocket With Jet-Blast Bloon-Gun (yeah, that's its real name) stand out as much for their use of negative space as they do for their actual physical representations--with holes and vents, they seem too light to do any damage, adding to their futuristic feel. Finally, perhaps the rarest and most beautiful gun produced during this era was Pyro Plastics Pyrotomic Disintegrator Pistol and the Pyrotomic Disintegrator Rifle. Sleak lines, multi-layered molding, fluted barrels, and bright colors, these are the ingredients that make for one excellent space toy. And the rifle, it's even cooler.

Then there were the premiums: Tom Corbett Space Cadet, Space Patrol, Buck Rogers--each of these televised space operas released a slew of toy guns designed to promote their shows. Actually, many people argue that the shows were nothing more than extended ads for the premiums themselves. Either way, that some of these toys are fantastic pieces of space memorabilia can not be denied.

One of the greatest was the Tom Corbett Space Cadet Atomic Rifle. Long, thin, looking like nothing less than extruded taffy, this fluted space gun is as different from a cowboy's rifle as a Martian is from a Venusian. Clearly, such a toy must have inspired wonderful hours of play. Today, it stands as a prime piece of space-age art. Other key weapons inspired by television shows included the U.S. Plastics Space Patrol Smoke gun, which fired a burst of talc, and the Buck Rogers Sonic Ray Gun, with its flash of light and loud buzzing noise.

There were other rifles as well, like the Captain Space Solar Scout rifle, which featured a multi-colored flash beam, as well as the Ideal Toy Corp Cap Firing Sub-Machine gun, which had a unique crank-handled design and long fluted barrel.

Plenty of other plastic space weapons appeared during the Fifties, guns that fired darts, smoke, propellers, paperYŤthe ammunition was only limited by manufacturers' imaginations.

America wasn't alone in producing space guns. England had a slew of weapons based on their own television series, Dan Dare, and the Japanese released an endless line of tin sparking guns that featured a wide variety of colorful, complicated, finely detailed lithography. Space scenes, aliens, rockets, robotsYŤany and all were portrayed in miniature on these toy guns.

TODAY, THESE TOYS don't seem too threatening, with their bright colors and unlikely designs. Rather, they're appreciated as works of art, or at least memorabilia with both historical and aesthetic significance. One way or the other, it's hard to deny their beauty.

The truth is, there isn't anything I can say on the subject that isn't better said on the Toy Ray Gun site. Alternately, you can read Eugene Metcalf's excellent book, Ray Gun. And if you're still looking for even more info, Leslie Singer's Zap! won't do you wrong. Between these three sources, you'll be able to find pictures of every gun mentioned above.