The terrifying awesomeness of Nerf guns, darts, swords, and axes.
The Nerf N-Strike Barricade RV-10 is a marvel of toy engineering. At just more than a foot long, it’s one of the smaller weapons in the Nerf armory, small enough that you can buy two and hold one in each hand, as the commercial suggests you do. Despite its size, the Barricade—which Nerf is positioning as its main entry-level gun this season—is one of the most powerful toy weapons ever built, capable of sending a 3-inch foam dart hurtling 30 feet through the air, and then doing it again and again every half second.
Aesthetically, the Barricade is meant to resemble a real revolver in the same way that a Real Housewife of New Jersey resembles a real housewife of New Jersey—the general outline is there, but designers have deliberately added disproportionate bulges and textures to heighten reality. The Barricade is what a gun expert would call a “semiautomatic,” or what a neophyte like me would call crazy fast. When you pull the trigger, a dart slips into the barrel, where two battery-powered spinning drums grab it and send it off toward your enemy. At the same time, the trigger turns the revolving chamber, readying the next dart for firing. I picked up a stopwatch and timed how long it took me to empty all 10 darts in the Barricade’s chamber—the kind of last-ditch maneuver I’d have to perform were I to find myself cornered in a no-win Nerf war. It was just 6 seconds. Maybe Dirty Harry could shoot faster, but I doubt it.
The Barricade is a pretty scary toy, and it’s not even close to being the scariest Nerf gun. (Nerf doesn’t use the g-word; it calls its guns “blasters.”) Indeed, Nerf has become a lot more frightening since I was a kid. In addition to semiautos like the Barricade, today’s arsenal also includes several single-action weapons—guns that don’t use batteries and require you to cock the firing mechanism each time you pull the trigger—and, at the high end, a few full autos, which allow you to keep the trigger depressed while they spew out all their ammo. Nerf weapons feature many other accoutrements, including a variety of ammo-feed mechanisms (Uzi-style replaceable clips, drum magazines, Rambo-like bandoliers); tactical rails, aka places on the gun to mount accessories like the red-dot sight you’ve seen in first-person-shooter video games; and barrel extensions a la James Bond.
Over the past few weeks I’ve been playing with some of the new Nerf guns, and I’ve tied myself in knots thinking about whether ultrarealistic weapons are just harmless fun or whether they reveal something terribly wrong with modern American boyhood. I’ll admit it: As a father of a 1-year-old son, Nerf’s weaponry worries me. And it worries me mainly because these guns seem irresistible. Before I played with them, I’d suspected I’d be the sort of blue-state parent who’d try to subtly, high-mindedly discourage my kid from playing with guns. After getting my hands on today’s Nerf, I see that’ll never work. If they’re so appealing to me, what hope would a 7-year-old have against these insanely awesome toys?
Nerf, which is now owned by the toy giant Hasbro, was founded in 1970 as a maker of indoor athletic gear. Two decades later, the company released its first weapon, the Nerf Blast a Ball. If today’s Nerf arsenal is modeled on the gear Rambo might carry, the Blast a Ball was a take on something Tarzan might use—a pea shooter. You inserted a ping-ping-sized ball into a long plastic tube, pulled back the handle, and then slammed on it with all your might, forcing the ball out with air pressure. A year later (according to the comprehensive history compiled by NerfGuns.org), Nerf put out a bow and arrow, then a slingshot. In 1992, it began releasing the first toys that resembled real guns. One of them was the Nerf Sharpshooter, shaped like a handgun. It was a paragon of minimalism: You popped a dart into the chamber, pulled back the spring-loaded lever, and then pressed the trigger. After you’d blown your dart, you had to reload.
Farhad Manjoo is Slate's technology columnist and the author of True Enough: Learning To Live in a Post-Fact Society. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter.