“A Christmas Story” is one of my favorite movies because it does a wonderful job of depicting small-town America as it was during my innocent youth. And just like Ralphie in the movie, at a very young age I began subtly pestering my parents for a special Christmas present. Mom never budged but Dad, possibly seeing an eventual hunting buddy in me, placed a Daisy Red Ryder carbine with my name on it beneath our tree. And what a terrific gift it proved to be.
During summers, the Red Ryder chalked up long strings of one-shot kills on huge grasshoppers that invaded our farm. Mockingbirds, robins and cardinals were off-limits, but chipmunks digging up the flower garden and pesky English sparrows were fair game.
The biggest and most fun quarry was huge rats that inhabited our four-story barn. I loved to sit quietly in the darkness and when a rascally rodent was heard rustling in the hay, a sudden beam of light from my trusty Little Beaver flashlight would cause it to freeze in place just long enough to receive a speeding BB between its beady eyes. A side-on shot through the shoulders was equally deadly.
The design of the Red Ryder was completed in 1938, but it was not given that name until 1940. To celebrate its uninterrupted production to this day, Daisy has introduced an 80th anniversary version. A metal medallion with the inscription “1940-2020, 80th Anniversary”, is inletted into the left-hand side of its stained, hardwood stock. The same inscription appears on the fore-end. Branded into the opposite side of the stock are Red Ryder and his horse Thunder with Red’s unfurled lariat spelling out his name.
From a distance, the latest Red Ryder looks the same as the 1950s rifle of my youth, but close examination reveals differences. Both have a capacity of 650 BBs and a saddle ring replete with rawhide thong. But the new rifle has a loading gate on the side of the barrel instead of the rotating steel cap of the original, and the metal cocking lever has been replaced by plastic.
Engaging a transverse safety blocks trigger movement. Sights consist of a ladder-adjustable notched leaf at the rear and a ramped blade up front, so not much change there.
I wish Daisy air rifles were not now made in China, but it’s better to see that than today’s kids missing out on the thrill of having a Red Ryder. The receiver and barrel are stamped with the usual safety warnings.
The Red Ryder is spring powered, and because it is gravity-fed-its muzzle has to be pointed upward as it is being cocked. As BBs are heard rolling to the rear, one will appear at a small port in the top of the barrel, just forward of the fore-end retention band. Begin pulling the lever and when the seventh click is heard, a large coiled spring connected to a piston is fully compressed and latched into position.
Closing the lever and pulling the trigger frees the piston to speed forward and compress air in a chamber. Forcing the compressed air to exit through a small port increases its velocity, and a BB exits the smoothbore barrel at, according to Daisy, 300 to 350 fps for a maximum distance of 195 yards.
It is not a toy, and due to the possibility of a steel BB bouncing back toward the shooter when striking a hard object, safety glasses should be worn. An occasional drop of oil through a small hole in the side of the barrel keeps spring and piston travel smooth and trouble-free.
I had never bench-tested a Red Ryder prior to discovering the 80th Anniversary rifle and a supply of BBs beneath our Christmas tree. As I gathered up my new blue-steel beauty and rushed outside to punch holes in paper, my wife smiled and jokingly quipped, “Don’t shoot your eye out.”
Five, five-shot groups at 20 feet averaged less than an inch. Even bigger surprises were a velocity spread of six fps and a two fps standard deviation. All BBs zipped clean through two back-to-back layers of 0.150-inch cardboard and then through a third layer positioned eight inches behind them.
Probably due to a shifting breeze, average group size increased to 1.8 inches at 35 feet where only two of the 25 BBs failed to completely penetrate the third layer of cardboard. I now see why those big rats dropped in their tracks. With the rifle zeroed at 20 feet, it still shot precisely to point of aim at 35 feet. Windage was dead-on at both distances.
Suggested retail price for the 80th Anniversary Red Ryder is $35, and the memories alone are well worth more than that. A savvy shopper, Santa bought mine at Walmart a couple weeks before Christmas for $24. A 2,400-count bottle of BBs was $3.57. The Red Ryder is as much fun to shoot now as it was back when.