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The Remarkable History of Nerf Guns & Blasters

history of nerf and nerf guns
Updated on 02/07/23

The unparalleled power from standing your ground with a foam shooting toy guns has thrilled many a ten-year-old over the years.

Any post-boomer kid might take this rite of passage for granted, but behind the colorful soft ammo is an intriguing story of humble beginnings.

Nerf started in the early 1970s as a football safe for indoor play. Subsequently, it was developed into a suite of safe toys, most famously a suit of weapons, including guns and darts. The company was wholly acquired by Hasbro and continues to develop its foam-based product offering.

On this note, let’s sketch the evolution of this iconic toy. Onward!

What Is Nerf?

Non-Expandable-Recreational-Foam (NERF) is an acronym that’s come into its own as a noun—and in gaming contexts, the stem of the verb. “Nerfing” – the downgrading of a gamer weapon, falls outside the scope of this article, which will focus only on the noun.

Originally a name for the foam padding used to protect offroad vehicles, the term today refers to a category of foam toys sold by the Hasbro toy company.

While the toys originated for indoor sports, they are best known as safe weapons for indoor use. In this context, Nerf is a common noun referring to a brand of toys.

Nerf is made from polyurethane, the product of a reaction of polyester and diisocyanate. This reaction is catalyzed by carbon dioxide and generates a light polymer that does not generate fatal pressure on impact and will not tear the skin. A variety of safe toys are made with the material.

How Was Nerf Commercialized?

Nerf began its commercial life with a single polyurethane foam ball introduced by the toy maker Parker Brothers. Parker was a successful toy maker started in 1883 by George Parker of Salem, Massachusetts.

The company introduced several successful games, including Monopoly, Clue, Risk, and Trivial Pursuit.

The Nerf story began with a game idea for indoor football, attributed to Reyn Guyer of Minnesota. Reyn introduced his idea for a safe indoor soccer game to Parker, who decided to shrink down the concept to the foam ball at its center. The promise was that this ball could be used safely indoors without risk of injury or collateral damage.

The ball found instant commercial success on the back of creative advertising campaigns. Some of this was through joint promotion, with brands like Kool-Aid and the rock group The Monkees showing off the balls.

Nerf sold close to five million balls in its first year. On the back of this success, the company looked for ways to expand the product line beyond foam footballs.

The first expansion was a larger ball called the “Super Nerf Ball,” which formed the basis for a nerf-based basketball named “Nerfoop.” The Nerf football was developed, marketed by Fred Cox of the National Football League, and soon became the most sought-after of the Nerf balls.

What Was The First NERF Gun?

After nineteen years of ball-based games, Nerf introduced launchable projectiles with its Original Nerf Series in 1989. First in the series was Blast-a-Ball. It did not have the shape of a gun and was not as maritime as the blasters of today, but this may qualify as the first Nerf gun, as it was the first toy to provide blasting of the balls.

An early canon design, the Blast-a-Balls provided a plastic tube into which the balls could be loaded. A pump handle at one end allowed air to be pumped into a pressure chamber, creating pressure to shoot the balls out at high force at the tube’s other end.

Despite its rudimentary design, the Blast-a-Ball was able to propel the 1.5mm diameter balls a distance of up to 40 feet, creating a foam arms race leading to the distances with which we’re familiar today. A successor was the Blast-a-Matic, adding semi-automatic flavor by allowing several balls to be fired before reloading.

What Was The First Nerf Dart Blaster?

The Sharpshooter was a novel gun introduced by Nerf, which shoots a special nerf dart called the Sharpshooter Dart. On top of the BlasterBlaster is an area to rest one’s hand, which bears much resemblance to a priming slide. A pair of integrated dart holders also provide an improvised sight if you stare down the space between them.

Sharpshooter uses spring power for propulsion. Its features were novel at the time but are now considered standard. These include the ring-pull slide, plunger system, and a firing trigger. This product was the beginning of a line of dart-propellers. Nerf has since discontinued the Sharpshooter.

How Did Nerf Evolve Over The Years?

Developments over the decades summarise the growth of the Nerf product suit:

  • The 1960s: Right at the end of the decade, the company introduced the first nerf projectile on a standalone basis. The nerf ball was marketed as safe to throw indoors with no artificial projector.
  • The 1970s: Nerfoop introduced the sports segment, with football following the basketball derivative. This move presented an ironic return-to-origin, as the original nerf concept was for indoor football before Parker Brothers pared it down to a ball-only toy.
  • The 1980s: The eighties saw two great moments in nerf history. 1983 launched Nerf Baseball, allowing the popular pitching and catching game to move to the small indoors. In 1989 water made its Nerf debut with the Power Drencher (see below).
  • The 1990s: The company received a corporate facelift when Tonka Corporation (who had bought Parker Brothers) was bought by Hasbro, putting nerf in a stable with other legendary game titles, in a stable where the managers directed considerable resources to the ongoing innovation of toys.
  • The 2000s: 2004 saw the introduction of the N-Strike BlasterBlaster, which set the evolution of the N-Strike movement in motion. This gun featured three blasters in the novel Unity Power System. The three could be fired individually or as a single triple-action unit. N-Strike was modularised to allow multiple configurations of the gun.
  • The 2010s: 2011 saw the introduction of Nerf Vortex. Here discs were introduced as the projectile of reference. The Vortex also had an enhanced force system, allowing longer-distance projection of the discs.
  • The 2020s: Nerf introduced the Hyper system, optimized for speed and power. A line of toys for adult users has also been announced.

What Nerf Toys Exist Today?

Since its inception, Nerf’s success lay in co-branding. This strategy continues today with products that take off on independently successful brands. These include:

  • Minecraft: Nerf includes tools like the Pillager’s Crossbow, Stormlander, and Ender Dragon. Their pixelated design reprises the look and feel of the online simulacrum.
  •  Star Wars: Nerf dart-firing blasters include the Han Solo Blaster, Chewbacca Blaster, and Mandalorian Rocket. These are true to the overall philosophy of bringing a safe way to live out the action of the underlying theme – in this case, Jedi-powered intergalactic shootouts.
  • Fortnite: With the cult following of the online game, Nerf has provided dedicated blasters with scopes and bolt action. These are not light blasters but designed to recreate the heavy-duty feel of Fortnight engagements.
  • Nerf Sports: Old classics life Nerfoop persist alongside newer flavors like the Freestyle Soccer Ball, Ultra Grip Football, and Vertex Howler. The Weather Blitz brings grid ball indoors and may also appeal to rugby fans.

Who Was Lonnie Johnson

Lonnie Johnson is an aerospace engineer and entrepreneur from Mobile, Alabama. A veteran of the U.S Air Force and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Johnson is best known as the inventor of the Nerf Super Soaker, a water gun that has racked up more than $1bn in sales.

The idea arose during Johnson’s work at the U.S Air Force. An early version known as the Power Drencher underwent a series of improvements leading to the Super Soaker. Johnson modified the gun’s design to replace the water with nerf projectiles.

Following a dispute with the company over unpaid royalties, Johnson sued Hasbro in 2013, leading to the award of more than $70m in arbitration.

What Is The Dark Side Of Nerf?

As product improvements have led to higher speeds, the safety of nerf guns has come under reevaluation. Doctors in London, England, have reported increasing incidents of eye injuries arising from nerf guns, and Hasbro has issued cautionary notices not to aim the guns at the eyes or face.

The unlabelled bullet heads that form part of the Nerf arsenal are of particular concern. Casualties have included adults as well as children. Symptoms included reduced vision, swelling of the cornea (the eye’s outer layer), and retina (the inner layer.) Some sufferers complained of blurred vision and pain.

In all cases, treatment with eyedrops resulted in a return to full vision and complete cessation of inflammation. Despite the success in the reported cases, concerns remain about future casualties. This worry is fuelled by online enthusiasts showing how to modify the guns for greater force and speed. The use of protective eyewear has been advised.

Final Thoughts

Nerf is a cult toy that keeps enthralling generations of children and adults alike. Despite competition from digital rivals, the simple polyurethane foam has left an enduring legacy.

The history of constant evolution holds the promise of continued appeal in years to come. The recent announcement of nerf toys for grownups shows that this is a hard play item to outgrow.