Saturday, May 2, 2015

The First Light Gun Game

I suspect that most readers of this blog have played an arcade light gun game – those rifle games that used a beam of light instead of bullets or wiper blades and contacts to determine when a target was hit. But do you know when the first light gun game was created? Some of you might guess the 1980s, when Nintendo produced the NES Zapper for the home and games like Duck Hunt and Hogan’s Alley for its arcade Vs. system. Others might opt for the 1970s, when arcade games like Nintendo’s Wild Gunman and Atari’s Qwak! Still others might say the 1960s when Ralph Baer, Bill Rusch, and Bill Harrison created a light gun game for their Brown Box and Nintendo produced its Beam Gun series.

All of those guesses are wrong. The first light gun game was not created in the 1960s, or the 1950s, or the 1940s. No, to find the first known light gun game, you have to go all the way back to the early 1930s, and perhaps earlier.

Before we get to that, however, let’s talk briefly about arcade gun games in general and the most common claimant to the “first light gun game” title – Seeburg’s 1936 Ray-O-Lite Rifle Range. Coin-operated gun games go back almost as far as coin-operated game themselves. According to Nic Costa’s Automatic Pleasures, the first coin-op gun game patent was filed (or perhaps granted) in 1887 by William Reynolds for his “Automatic Shooter.” I have not seen the patent myself, but from Costa’s description it appears that Reynolds merely attached a coin mechanism to an existing air rifle and his device did not include targets – though without seeing the patent it’s hard to say. In 1889, David Johnston patented another Automatic Shooter. According to Costa, this one was a mounted on a pedestal and was later made in Germany as the Electra Automatic Shooting Machine.

Like a number of early gun games, it was a “trade stimulator” – a type of machine that dispensed prizes like gum or cigars for certain winning combinations of high scores (though many of these were gun games, there was generally no skill involved and hitting targets was often a matter of luck). That same year, Coyle and Rogers of Washington DC produced its Shooting Gallery.
Interestingly, the first known electric gun game was patented by J.L. McCullough in 1896. The game used a wiper blade that brushed across a series of contacts when the gun was turned, creating a closed circuit when the bullet was pressed if the gun was aligned with the target. This style of game later became known as the “Dale Gun” after Eldon Dale of Dale Engineering, who created a popular variant called that he sold to the Exhibit Supply Company. Exhibit Supply released the first model in 1947 under the name “Deal Gun” and some mistakenly credit Dale with inventing the method, but it actually predated his creation by over half a century.

What about the light gun game? Most sources (including Wikipedia) claim that the first light gun game was Ray-O-Lite Rifle, a duck hunting game produced by Seeburg in 1936.
Above photos taken from
The first patent for the game was filed on April 12, 1934 by Charles W. Griffith of Tulsa Oklahoma for the Rayolite Rifle Range Company, which was incorporated in Tulsa on August 17, 1934.

The claim, however, may not be entirely accurate. It appears that the game may have been produced prior to 1936 and not by Seeburg. Aside from several patent claims filed in the 1930s and the company, however, I found almost no information on Griffith or the Rayolite Rifle Range Company other than a few brief mentions in trade magazines and a record of the company’s incorporation. I did find an article in the January 1937 Automatic Age titled "The Story Behind the Ray-O-Lite" rifle range. At first, I was very excited. Until I read it. As it turns out, it is nothing more than an ad for Seeburg in the form of an "article" (written by N. Marshall Seeburg) and makes no mention of Griffith or the Rayolite Rifle Range Company or any company besides Seeburg.

What I did find, however, seems to conflict with some of the details in the story above. The first trade mention I found of the company was in the February 1935 issue of Automatic Age. The issue includes a listing of exhibitors for the upcoming Coin Machine Exposition. In Booth 76, the Phoebus Amusement Company of Chicago was planning to show the “Rayolite Rifle Range.”
If true, it seems that Rayolite may have sold its game to Phoebus then later he may have either struck a deal with Seeburg, or perhaps Phoebus licensed it to Seeburg. According to this video, Seeburg's Shoot the Chutes (a 1939 rayolite game) was "manufactured by Phoebius [sic? - I assume he meant Phoebus] and licensed to Seeburg" and this may have been the same case with the original duck game.

Unfortunately, I found no other information on the Phoebus Amusement Company. I did, however, find an earlier mention of the Rayolite Rifle Range. This article from the January 24, 1935 edition of the Atchison (KS) Daily Globe offers a $100 reward “for the return of a rayolite rifle range which was stolen from a post on Cermak Road, Cicero IL.”
It further notes that “instead of a bullet, a ray of light is shot from the gun or revolver barrel at a moving target” and that the game “may be related to the Chicago district.” This seems to indicate that a Rayolte game was on location by January 1935 (though perhaps it was made, or was being tested by, Seeburg).

How did the Rayolite work? In his How the Ray Gun Got Its Zap, Stephen Wilk describes its operation as follows: “A device shaped like a rifle fired a beam of light at a target that bore a corner cube reflector. The ‘rifle’ barrel also hosted a photocell receptor that registered a voltage when the light reflected from the corner cube back in the barrel.” This seems to indicate that the light beam was reflected back from the target to a receptor in the barrel. From reading the patent description, however, it seems that the receptor was actually in the target (as was standard with many light gun games).

After Griffith’s first patent, a number of others were filed improving on the device, as detailed here. Alvin Carter improved on the trigger mechanism and William Falkenberg, a Los Angeles operator, added improved targets. Seeburg made a number of Ray-o-lite games over the years, the most popular of which by far was 1947s’ Shoot the Bear, which was redone in video form in Atari’s Triple Hunt (though Triple Hunt did not use a light gun) .

While most sources seem to agree that Rayolite was the first light gun game, Nic Costa claims that a light gun game was patented in 1920 by W.G. Patterson, though there seems to be no record that it was ever produced. Costa also claims that a light gun game called Radio Rifle went into production in 1929, (according to this was in December) - though it did not take off until after 1931.  Once again, however, I an international patent search did not turn up the original patent and I found no other information on Patterson. I did, however, find an ad for the game in the February 1930 issue of Automatic Age.

From  videos of the unit on YouTube, however, it does not appear to have been a light gun game. Instead, it projected an image onto a screen or wall and they used another method  to detect hits (and given the video's claim that it was entirely mechanical other than the projector, it does not appear to have been a Dale Gun mechanism). Still, however, Costa may be correct about the Patterson patent but without more information, the jury is still out and even if it was a light gun game, it may never have been produced. So for now, it looks like the Rayolite may indeed have been the first light gun game - until someone finds an unambiguous reference to an earlier one.  
What about light gun video games? Here too, I do not know for sure which was first. Some sources claim it was Atari’s Qwak! Released in November 1974. Qwak! had some similarities to Nintendo’s Duck Hunt, including the duck hunting theme and a hunting dog that retrieved downed birds. Ironically, in 1986 Nintendo itself cited Qwak! in an attempt to invalidate one of Magnavox's video game patents by claiming that Ralph Baer (who had seen the game at the 1974 MOA show) had merely copied it to create the Odyssey rifle games – though the claim was clearly false since their rifle game was conceived in the late 1960s. Another candidate for first light gun video game is Sega's Balloon Gun, which used pistols rather than rifles. According to some sources, the game was released in August 1974 while others list it as a 1975 game. I don’t have any hard information on a release date. I’m not even sure if it used a light gun. The only information I have is a flyer, and from that, the graphics appear too advanced to me for a 1974 or 1976 game - though it could have used computer imagery superimposed on a filmed or physical background.





  1. Its funny you should post this now, because I am right in the middle of a blog post that covers the early light gun games (among other things) for my own blog. A couple of thoughts:

    I am not sure Costa actually claims the Patterson invention and Radio Rifle are the same thing. The way the paragraph reads to me, he says that Patterson invented the first light gun, but no light gun games appeared until Radio Rifle in 1929. I don't see an explicit link between the two concepts.

    Second, I wonder if Radio Rifle uses different technology than Rayolite. There are, of course two basic ways to make a light gun game: either have the gun shoot a beam of light at a solar cell, like in the Nintendo Beam Gun toys of the 1970s, or have the gun react to a light source on a screen, which is of course how all the video games using a light gun work. From the flyer for Radio Rifle, it feels like it may use the latter technique, while Rayolite definitely uses the former. That would still, of course, make Radio Rifle the first light gun game.

  2. So, I just watched a video of Radio Rifle on YouTube, and now I am not so sure it is a light gun game after all. The game consists of a box with the rifle mounted on top. Inside the box is a roll of film containing individual pictures to use as targets. These still pictures are then projected onto a surface for the player to shoot at. When the player fires the gun, a needle makes a puncture in the film, which looks like a bullet hole on the projected image. Presumably, the game works by tracking the position of the rifle inside the box rather than using any light sensing technology. I think Raoylite may have created the first light gun game after all.

  3. Thanks. I updated the article to reflect the new info. Don't know why I didn't look for a video myself but after watching it I agree that it isn't a light gun game. It does seem pretty ingenious, however. And the various targets are quite interesting. Aside from the risqué one in the video posted above, there are two more videos featuring World War II propaganda targets with racist images. This was actually quite common with gun games during World War II, which often had names like "Smash the Japs", "Kill the Jap", or "Shoot Hitler".

    If we could find the Patterson patent, it would clear things up a bit.

    It's too bad Dick Bueschel never finished his Arcade series or he probably would have provided more information.

  4. OK. I found another tidbit of information and added it to the article. Another YouTube video claims that Phoebus (mispronounced fee-bee-us) licensed a later rayolite game to Seeburg so I'm guessing they did the same with this one.
    They may not have even sold games to distributors themselves and may have just licensed to other companies, but I don't know.

  5. I had no idea that the first electronic game came out before the first computer. For some reason, I had always thought that the invention of the computer was what brought around such games. However, how exactly did the fun games work without having a computer to support it?