Young boys have always been fascinated with war toys, but most were just that: toys. No matter how fancy that cap gun got, it still only shot caps.
BB guns and air rifles were a step up for kids who were allowed to play with them, but even these were mere kid-sized copies of the real thing.
Not so with the slingshot (as they are known in the US) or catapult (as they are known in the UK). This was the heir to the sling that killed Goliath, an upgrade to the very weapon used by Roman armies and other warriors all the way up until the 16th century.
The slingshot/catapult wasn’t just a war toy; it was a real man’s war machine (so play carefully, kids, or you’ll have somebody’s eye out!).
It’s difficult to pinpoint the origin of the slingshot. Surely some enterprising hunter or warrior looped a sun-dried intestine onto a forked stick long before the advent of modern elastic and industrial-strength rubber, but the idea of a slingshot as a child’s toy didn’t really arrive until the 20th century.
With the invention of the inner tube, kids found that they could make their own slingshots/catapults with a slit length of tube and a sturdy, whittled branch. Before long, the slingshot/catapult was the official icon of juvenile delinquency, responsible for nearly as many broken windows as errant baseballs or cricket balls.
By the late 1940s and early 50s, the slingshot was helping build the business of several companies. Business partners Dick Knerr and Spud Melin designed a slingshot to hurl meatballs for the falcons they were training.
When the slingshots became more profitable than falcon training, Knerr and Melin formed a company to produce the wrist rockets. They took the name of the company from the sensation of hitting something with a slingshot: Wham-O!
Meanwhile, in Columbus, Nebraska, Howard Ellenburg and his sons made the slingshot sturdier and a more accurate by fastening a metal brace and a wrist support, the better to hurl large snowballs at enemy snow forts.
Ellenburg founded Trumark to market his ‘Wrist-Locker Slingshot’, and the company remains one of the leading slingshot manufacturers today.
Today, slingshots/catapults come in several shapes and varieties, with some models firing projectiles in excess of 200 miles per hour.
Manufacturers are careful to remind youngsters that these pro-grade models are “not a toy”, but in spite of the danger (okay, let’s be honest, because of the danger), the slingshot (or catapult) remains a popular plaything for would-be warriors.