A brass ring is a small grabbable ring that a dispenser presents to a carousel rider during the course of a ride. Usually there are a large number of iron rings and one brass one, or just a few. It takes some dexterity to grab a ring from the dispenser as the carousel rotates. The iron rings can be tossed at a target as an amusement. Typically, getting the brass ring gets the rider some sort of prize when presented to the operator. The prize often is a free repeat ride.
The phrase to grab the brass ring, sometimes used figuratively, is derived from this device.
Brass ring devices were developed during the heyday of the carousel in the U.S.—about 1880 to 1921. At one time, the riders on the outside row of horses were often given a little challenge, perhaps as a way to draw interest or build excitement, more often as an enticement to sit on the outside row of horses which frequently did not move up and down and were therefore less enticing by themselves. Most rings were iron, but one or two per ride were made of brass; if a rider managed to grab a brass ring, it could be redeemed for a free ride. References to a literal brass ring go back into the 1890s.
As the carousel began to turn, rings were fed to one end of a wooden arm that was suspended above the riders. Riders hoped that the timing of the carousel rotation (and the rise-and-fall motion of their seat, when movable seats were included in the outer circle of the carousel) would place them within reach of the dispenser when a ring (and preferably a brass ring) was available.
Another system had mostly steel rings of no value and one brass ring, and a target into which the rings were to be thrown (for example the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk Looff Carousel uses a clown target shown in the photo above, and the Knoebel's Amusement Resort Grand Carousel uses a lion target), discouraging retention of the rings as souvenirs.
"Grabbing the brass ring" or getting a "shot at the brass ring" also means striving for the highest prize, or living life to the fullest. It is not clear when the phrase came into wide use but has been found in dictionaries as far back as the late 19th century.
The final scene of The Catcher in the Rye features a carousel with a brass ring, which Holden Caulfield's sister Phoebe reaches for. The brass ring is symbolic of adulthood, the transition to which is a preoccupation of Holden throughout the book.
The Barenaked Ladies song "Get Back Up" references "getting fitted for a new brass ring", in reference to continuing to strive for success.
At the climax of the film Sneakers, all of the main characters have the opportunity to receive anything they want in exchange for handing over a crucial piece of technology to the NSA. When River Phoenix's character requests something with no monetary value, he is admonished by Robert Redford's character to think bigger, as "this is the brass ring."
The International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA) presents "Brass Ring Awards" annually, to recognize achievement in the global attractions industry and to "honor excellence in food and beverage, games and retail, human resources, live entertainment, marketing, new products, and exhibits." 
Brass ring carousels today
Although there are a lot of carousels extant, only a handful of carousels still have brass rings. The following pre-1960 vintage carousels in North America have operating brass ring dispensers/targets:
|San Diego, CA||Balboa Park||Balboa Park Carousel||Herschell-Spillman menagerie||1910|
|Logansport, IN||Riverside Park||Cass County Dentzel Carousel||Dentzel||c.1902||Also known as the Spencer Park Dentzel Carousel.|
|East Providence, RI||Carousel Park||Crescent Park Looff Carousel||Looff||1895|
|Elmira, NY||Eldridge Park||Eldridge Park Carousel||Looff||1924 (2006)||Original carousel mechanism was built in the 1890s and installed in Elmira in 1924. The original animals were auctioned in 1989, and replacement antique horses were acquired starting in 2003.|
|Watch Hill, RI||Watch Hill Park||The Flying Horse Carousel||Dare||c.1884|
|Oak Bluffs, MA||Martha's Vineyard||Flying Horses||Dare||1876|
|Kennewick, WA||Southridge Sports Complex||The Gesa Carousel of Dreams||Fred Dolle Company-Charles Carmel||1910||Formerly located in St. Joseph, MI at the Silver Beach Amusement Park.|
|Ocean City, NJ||Gillians Wonderland Pier||Gillian's Wonderland Pier Carousel||PTC #75||1926|
|Elysburg, PA||Knoebels Amusement Park & Resort||Grand Carousel||Kremers Carousel Works-Carmel||1913|
|Greenport, NY||Mitchell Park||Northrop-Grumman Carousel||Herschell-Spillman||1920|
|Garden City, NY||Museum Row||Nunley's Carousel||Stein and Goldstein Artistic Carousell Co.||1912||Nunley's, formerly in Baldwin, N.Y., is out of business; its classic carousel is now running at Museum Row.|
|Spokane, WA||Riverfront Park||Riverfront Park Carousel||Looff||1909|
|Roseneath, ON (Canada)||Roseneath Fairgrounds||Roseneath Carousel||Parker/Herschell Spillman||1906|
|Santa Cruz, CA||Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk||Santa Cruz Looff Carousel||Looff||1911|
The following carousels are no longer running rings:
|Brooklyn, NY||Coney Island||B&B Carousell||Mangels (frame), Carmel (horses)||frame: 1906, horses: early 1920s||The B&B Carousell on Coney Island is now city-owned in a new location and is not running rings.|
|Easton, PA||Bushkill Park||Bushkill Park Carousel||Dentzel||1907||Bushkill Park was closed in 2007 after being flooded in 2004, 2005, and 2006; the carousel building collapsed in 2014. Two carousels have operated at Bushkill: the first was built in 1903, installed in the 1930s, but closed in 1989 and sold in 1991. A replacement carousel built in 1915 was installed in 1993. Other sources indicate the original Dentzel carousel was sold to the Centreville Amusement Park in Toronto Islands in 1966.|
|Allan Herschell||1915 (1993)|
|Conneaut Lake, PA||Conneaut Lake Park||The Carousel||D.C. Muller/T.M. Harton||1910|
|Angola, IN||Fun Spot||Allan Herschell||1929||Fun Spot closed in 2008.|
|Auburndale, FL||International Market World||Lakeside Carousel||Mangels-Looff/S&G/Carmel||1909||The carousel, owned by the Wintersteen family and known as the "Wintersteen Menagerie Machine", was up for auction in 2008 and is closed. It was originally installed at Hanson's Amusement Park in Harveys Lake, PA.|
|Pen Argyl, PA||Weona Park||Weona Park Carousel||Dentzel||1923|
- Information from "Carousel Info Page". National Park Service. Retrieved 10 October 2006.
- From the Brooklyn Daily Eagle of 24 September 1899 about the famous Coney Island amusement park:
- "This big place has been the rendezvous for thousands of children who have spent their nickels and have enjoyed a ride on the ponies, besides trying their best to capture the brass ring, which the boy drops in the big iron arm that is swung out at the side of the merry-go-round."
- Adam Sandy. "The Grand Carousel Knoebels Grove- Elysburg, Pennsylvania". Archived from the original on 30 June 2008. Retrieved 10 October 2006.. Images from that site: grabbing the ring and the target
- From "The Mavens' Word of the Day - Brass ring". WORDS@RANDOM, Random House, Inc. Retrieved 10 October 2006.:
- "Merriam-Webster's 10th Collegiate defines the metaphor and dates it to 1950. Christine Ammer's The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms says it's from the late 1800s."
- World Wide Words: Brass ring
- For example: "Grab the Brass Ring". Amazon.com. Retrieved 10 October 2006.
- For example: "The Brass Ring". Amazon.com. Retrieved 14 April 2008.
- "IAAPA Brass Ring Awards". www.iaapa.org. Retrieved 2018-11-24.
- "Classic Carousels with Operating Ring Machines". National Carousel Association. Retrieved 26 September 2006.
- Rhodin, Tony (17 July 2015). "Bushkill Park has a future - but it won't look like the past, owner says". The Express-Times. Lehigh Valley Live. Retrieved 29 September 2017.
- Sieger, Edward (17 February 2014). "Bushkill Park carousel building collapses due to heavy snow". The Express-Times. Lehigh Valley Live. Retrieved 29 September 2017.
- Miller, Tad (1 July 2001). "Whatever became of ... the old Bushkill Park carousel? It remains in storage". The Morning Call. Retrieved 29 September 2017.
- Jackson, Kirk Beldon (4 March 1993). "Bushkill Park Purchases 1915 Carousel". The Morning Call. Retrieved 29 September 2017.
- Syed, Fatima (19 July 2017). "Toronto's 110-year old carousel on Centre Island sold for $3 million". Toronto Star. Retrieved 29 September 2017.
- Oberlin, Amy (24 March 2010). "Fun Spot insurance pays rollercoaster victims". kpc News. Retrieved 29 September 2017.
- Mitchell, Dawn (21 April 2015). "Willie the Whale has been saved". Indianapolis Star. Retrieved 29 September 2017.
- Seder, Andrew M. (3 May 2008). "Locals try to bring carousel full circle". Times-Leader. Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Retrieved 29 September 2017.
- Hamill, Jim (15 November 2014). "Former Amusement Park Torn Down". WNEP. Retrieved 29 September 2017.