by Clive Thompson

With a soft "snick" of precision machinery, I expertly cock my massive, five-barreled gun and tiptoe through the living room. Hefting the carbine in both hands, I sneak up behind my roommate, who is obliviously watching a bad episode of "Seinfeld."

The fool.

Squinting with military accuracy, I aim the engine of destruction at the center of his head—and ram the firing hammer home.

There is a sharp pop of exploding air, and my roommate looks up in surprise—a millisecond before the foam ball bounces off his forehead.

Bulls-eye. The mighty Nerf "Ballzooka" strikes again.

"You bastard!" my roommate hollers, reaching for his own weapon—the equally monstrous Nerf Razorbeast. Cranking the gun to life, he lets a rapid-fire clip of fifteen sucker-darts fly at my stomach. Things accelerate quickly, and within minutes we have unloaded several fuselages of ammo at each other's heads, transforming the living room into a gruesome, Nerf-foam version of RESERVOIR DOGS.

Welcome to the land of Nerf tactical assault weapons—the latest (and possibly weirdest) evolution in the history of America's strangest toy. After making plush footballs, soft gliders, and harmless foam bats for 25 years, the engineers at Nerf have recently turned to the final frontier: plush guns.

"The action toys have been really popular," said Nerf P.R. official Linda Baker, who kindly shipped me a handful of the guns. "They're loads of fun—classic Nerf stuff."

That's true, but the first time I saw the packaging on these babies, I have to admit I was a tad freaked. Forget about putting out an eye: you could hold up a corner store with some of these suckers. "Nerf to the Next Power!" crows the promotional copy. "Pull Trigger and Let Loose the Ammo of Your Choice! A Belt-fed Barrage of 15 Suction Cup Darts! Wind-up Roar Lets 'Em Know Who's Boss!"

Now, anyone who grew up in the 1970s will remember Nerf's original cultural niche. It was the ultimate pacifist toy—the ball your parents let you play with indoors, because it couldn't pnssibly knock over anything. Devoid of mass, it was quintessentially inoffensive: you couldn't hurt anyone with a Nerf ball, no matter how hard you tried (and, believe me, I tried). At the time, Nerf capitalized on its image by producing a series of soft, plush animals on wheels. You melted at the sight of them. They were the dream toys of the boomer, hippie generation.

Times change, obviously. And how. In the last two decades, boomers have transformed from idealistic pacifists to yuppie corporate types, with a house in the suburbs, a minivan, and a lot of premillenial urban dread. Maybe Nerf toys have gone paranoid, but they do perfectly parallel larger boomer trends. With their FULL METAL JACKET stylings, these Nerf guns are a sociological barometer of America as it lurches towards full collapse.

Not that I'm completely dissing these guns, mind you. In fact, I've barely been able to stop playing with mine long enough to write this article. Their built-in irony actually makes them considerably more fun to use, and indeed they sell extremely well amongst arch-ironic twenty-somethings. When I brought the guns into the STIM offices, all work ground to a halt while we merrily shot each other in the face. "These things rock!" screamed Georgia, the art director, as she blasted her screen full of darts.

Peace activists, however, go ballistic with this stuff. Experimentally, I hauled the Ballzooka and the RazorBeast over to the War Resisters' League, the home of America's biggest campaign against war toys, and fired off a few rounds of foam balls. After she picked her jaw off the ground, Malkia M'Buzi Moore—a youth peace coordinator—checked out the Ballzooka closely. "You'd expect something like this from G.I. Joe toys, maybe," she said. "But from Nerf? It's like finding Barney the Purple Dinosaur carrying a machine gun."

For the record, my personal favorites are:

The Warthog: "Go Hog-Wild with a 1 or 2 Dart Rampage!" urges the Warthog packaging (recommended for kids six and up). "Tough Warthog design for MAXimum intimidation." With gruesome fangs and Warthog© eyes, this little handgun lacks accuracy, but more than makes up for it in range: I've whacked perps on the head from twenty feet away.

The Ballzooka: Nerf bills the Ballzooka as "The Ultimate in Ball-Blastin' Action!" and I can find no way to disagree. Able to fire up to fifteen foam balls without reloading, the Ballzooka's endurance often provides the winning edge in, say, problematic workplace disputes. ("Ballzooka's rotating barrel blasts up to 15 balls that rain down on targets in rapid-fire succession!") Kudos also go to the ratcheting firing-action and rotating carbine, very reminiscent of Arnold Schwarzenegger's main gun in TERMINATOR 2.

The RazorBeast: Possibly the most terrifying of all Nerf toys, the RazorBeast would not have seemed out of place in APOCALYPSE NOW. With a large machine-gun body and a rotating clip of sucker-darts, the RazorBeast has virtually no Nerf foam in it at all—it's composed entirely of hard plastic and Freudian symbolism: "Rest the stock against your hip as you pump out the power! Turn the crank as fast as you can to fire off a belt-fed barrage of darts!" (Somehow, this toy passes the Safety Standard ASTM F963-92 test.)

Granted, the Razorbeast is arguably a natural outgrowth of the original Nerf aesthetic. As Reyn Guyer—the inventor of Nerf—pointed out to me, Nerf was paradigm-busting precisely because it allowed kids to whip things at each other. "One of the essential requirements of a successful toy is that, initially at least, it breaks some sort of rule," he said from his home in Minnesota. "In the case of Nerf, we allowed children to propel a ball—or whatever—inside the house." And although he's no longer involved with Nerf, Guyer says he's all in favor of the guns: "It's all good, safe fun!"

By this time, I needed some cold, hard facts about these toys. Could anyone actually get injured playing with these things, I wondered? To find out, I went back to STIM and organized a test. I asked Dame Darcy, who was visiting the STIM offices, to shoot me point-blank with the Ballzooka. "Anything for science," she said cheerily, and proceeded to unload the entire carbine in my face.

Fifteen smacks to the face later, I concluded that, yes, it hurt like hell.

Surprisingly, that experience hasn't entirely turned me off of Nerf guns. These days, though, I reserve them solely for attacking things that are both inanimate and truly offensive, such as televisions. My roommate is just as happy—and we've even gone back to resolving disputes in a fully nonaggressive way. We play Mortal Kombat.

Clive Thompson is the editor of This Magazine, an alternative political and cultural journal. He lives in Toronto.

Photos by Clive, Georgia, and Greg.
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