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.
There are now several varieties of Nerf guns, including one, Dart Tag, that’s meant to be played as part of a structured game. (It works a bit like paintball, only with Velcro-tipped Nerf darts instead of colored paint.) Nerf also makes Super Soaker water guns and a line of close-combat hand weapons—swords, hatchets, axes and the like made of hard foam—called N-Force. But its biggest and most iconic weapons fall into two categories: the N-Strike system, which shoots foam darts, and the new, innovative Vortex system, which uses small, rubberized spinning discs. Michael Ritchie, the senior director of global brand marketing at Nerf, says the company designed the Vortex in response to consumer desire—kids wanted to shoot projectiles farther and more accurately. The Vortex discs can fly as far as 65 feet, which Ritchie described as a major technical feat. (Designers had to find a way to get each gun’s firing mechanism to shoot the spinning disc without having it wobble, which would alter its flight path.)
If you’re thinking about getting your kid a Nerf gun, you’ve likely got two questions on your mind: Is it safe? And is it “good” for him? (Or her, I suppose: Ritchie says that girls play with Nerf, and one Nerf fan site highlights “Foamme Fatales,” though Nerf’s marketing features only boys.) As for safety, you shouldn’t worry that Nerf guns will hurt your kid. N-Strike guns are recommended for kids 6 and older, and Vortex weapons—whose discs fly farther and faster, and which have an inner shell of hard plastic that causes them to deliver a slightly sharper sting—are for children 8 and older. They all include warnings to avoid aiming at your targets’ eyes and faces. In the journalistic tradition of those TV weathermen who volunteer to get Tased, I allowed my wife to shoot me with a half-dozen Nerf weapons, including the two most powerful, the N-Strike Stampede ECS and the Vortex Nitron Blaster. The Vortex hurts a bit more than the N-Strike, but neither causes any real harm. If you were to get hit in the face with either a dart or a disc, I suspect it wouldn’t leave a bruise (though I was scared enough of the speed of these projectiles that I did not volunteer my face for that test). You remember those low moments in elementary school when the playground bully would sneak up on you from behind and flick your ear? Getting hit by a Vortex disc on bare skin feels about half as bad as that.
Whether it’s good for your child is a more difficult question. For help on that question, I turned to Diane Levin, a professor of education at Wheelock College in Boston who in 1987 co-authored The War Play Dilemma, a book on the subject of kids playing with guns. Levin points out that in general, child-development experts believe that you should let kids play how they want to play, because kids use playtime as a way to work on their problems and curiosities about the world. Boys have always played “war,” and development theorists believe that they do so as a natural part of growing up. For instance, playing with guns teaches boys about power and gender dynamics (though you may not have realized it at the time). In her research, though, Levin found that as violent imagery began to saturate pop culture over the last few decades, war play became a larger and larger part of a typical boy’s childhood. The play also became more realistic and “less imaginative,” she says. “We found in talking to teachers across the country that boys were just imitating what they saw on TV—they were just blindly shooting each other, and not playing creatively or using play to construct knowledge about the world.”
Levin believes that the best way for parents to respond to the rise of realistic guns like Nerf’s isn’t to ban them. (Your ban won’t work.) Instead, she suggests imposing some limits on the play and teaching your kids lessons while they’re playing. It turns out that Nerf shares this belief: “It’s important to note that the Nerf brand encourages parents and caregivers to be involved in aspects of their children’s development, including play,” Ritchie told me in an email.
If you consider how pop culture has changed since I was growing up in the 1980s, it’s no surprise that today’s Nerf guns look so different from those of yesteryear. Nerf has to compete for a boy’s attention with so many other amazing toys, including, most importantly, video games. Compared to the world of Call of Duty, a toy like the Blast a Ball looks hopelessly rinky-dink, and only something as big and bad as the Vortex will earn a second look on the shelves at Toys R Us. Look at the bright side: If your kids play with Nerf, at least they’re running around outside.
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.