History

nerf ball

History of modified blasters

Why, all of a sudden, are grown men across the world shooting foam darts at each other? When did it become such an acceptable enthusiasm? And by what kind of accident did the first mod to a Nerf gun take place? If you’re new to the nerfing community you likely have these questions and some of your own. Of course I’ve been there, but on top of it all, I was embarrassed when I first heard of nerfing…for the parties involved of course. But in being here apparently you had no issue with this, or if you did it was nothing too convicting.

Regardless, I suggest you take a glance at this brief history of Nerf gun modding, how it developed into a superior “hobbyist” niche for young men, and how it will continue to sustain itself as not only a subculture, but as a market primed for emergence….

N.E.R.F. (Non Expanding Recreational Foam)?:

While Reyn Guyer, the inventor of Twister, was starting new projects he came to pitch the idea of an indoor volleyball game (using a small foam ball) to Milton Bradley.

The company passed so he moved on to Parker Brothers who ditched the concept, but kept the ball. In 1969 Nerf debuted as “The World’s First Indoor Ball” and the ball (4″ in diameter) became a hit. It’s stated that the name “Nerf” came from a slang reference to the foam padding used on off-road racing vehicles…non expanding recreational foam.

The initial success led to an array of other types of balls until 1989 when they came out with the “Blast a Ball”:

And in 1991, after Parker Brothers’ parent company, Tonka, was acquired by Hasbro, they introduced the “Bow N’ Arrow” which solidified Nerf as the new providers of ordinance to youth everywhere:

After this Nerf was (and still is today) successful in marketing their varying lineups of blasters:

  • Nerf Blaster Ballzooka
    Nerf Blaster Ballzooka

When (Nerf) Modding Started:

Surely guys in garages have been pulling apart their blasters and fiddling with the insides for as long as they’ve been around, (the term “Nerfer” has been in use since the 90’s) but sometime around 2010 Hasbro seemed to learned that there was a growing trend behind “modding” their Nerf products. It’s stated that they do not condone this. Personally I suspect that it was engineered by them in order to follow the aging generation that they first debuted blasters to……I’ll go into that in another post.

Regardless, their biggest fans now became some of their biggest competition. In response Nerf introduced higher capacity blasters, new firing mechanisms, and increased firing range/power. But the fact is they have policies, an image and corporate money involved that will never allow them to keep up with modified blasters’ performance. But whether they endorse it or not they are reaping the monetary benefits of the trend.

Essentially modding is just tampering with a gun. Typical examples are removing any airflow restriction placed by the factory within a blaster, cosmetic mods such as painting, and tweaking the darts (where physics really comes in handy) as well.

Since people have likely always done this all we can really do is pinpoint modding as an interest. According to Google trends the search “modding nerf guns” first generated interest in 2004:

After the sudden and intense traffic in September of 2004 it’s not until January of 2006 that there’s any more traffic. This may be due to what is known as “Humans Vs. Zombies”. Created by students of Goucher University in 2005, it gained widespread popularity for a time. Here’s a more recent time frame that lessens the perspective of decline in the search terms:

However this is for the word “modding” which may not have been popularized yet. I tried searches using “tweaking” “changing” and “improving” for the same time frames, but the resulting data was not large enough to be graphed.

I ran a search for “nerf gun mods” and this is what it showed from 2004 until now:

The leading region of interest was Australia. And it peaked in December of 2010. For the last 5 years (again with Australia being the most interested):

Up until 2013 there was a peak every year during the week of Christmas (for obvious reasons).

So at some point in 2006 people took an interest in working on Nerf guns and it’s still around today. In fact the graphs show that overall popularity has been decreasing from the beginning while internal popularity peaked in 2010 and started showing decline in 2013 to settle us back at the norm where are at today. Like so many other niche interests I suspect the internet played a big role in launching the community of nerfers worldwide.

The Internet Connection:

Today fringe interests have the opportunity of growing more than they ever did before. The chance to connect with peers is almost overwhelming. Like it did for other small groups and movements, the internet provided a venue for nerfers to find each other and share ideas, opinions and innovations. Chat rooms and forum became authorities and allowed people the chance to inform themselves with all aspects of nerfing. Youtube gave a platform for expertise and reviews to be showcased in an entertaining way. Also instructional videos reached a new level as you could watch step by step how a mod was performed or constructed. Guys like LordDraconical, WalcomS7, Make. Test. Battle, and Coop772 (just to name a few) have taken their knowledge to Youtube and developed substantial fan bases. The internet will remain a hub for nerfer activity, facilitating it and helping it grow, but the field will always be where it lives.

The Retro aspect:

There seems to be within the latest generation a widespread sentiment for their youth. It’s a “macrotrend” if you will. Not in a  cultural reactionary way like “things were better/simpler back then”, what did we know about it? We were kids. It’s focus is on commercialism. It’s a pattern that’s showing up in almost every 90’s product that was considered a “hit”. Sitcoms, Disney movies, and video games are producing more and more remakes. There are t shirts with “throwback” corporate/cultural logos (a few soft drink companies seem to have caught onto this too). A Kurt Cobain impersonator would achieve monumental celebrity status.

There is also a dense community for old video games from the N.E.S., Sega, and Playstation generations. And a whole crowd builds things called Raspberry Pi’s to function as emulators –which renders files of older games playable– and some nerfers are using them for mods as well. I’ve noticed that it seems to be prevalent among machinists and engineers to dress up on the weekends and combat one another playfully. However, I think it’s more of a do it yourself thing than a machinist thing, and for many D.I.Y. guys, who are often technically inclined or “nerdy” to begin with, it seems the “retro” fascination is with Nerf: It is a product from our childhood that is associated with fun; it is cool enough to shoot things at people, but not serious enough to harm them (lethally); it’s fundamental mechanics can be easily manipulated to improve performance (and fun); their appearance can be easily customized as well which can bear the imprint of the modder. The limits are up to your imagination. Upgrading anything can be fulfilling. Witnessing a transformation of quality that you, your hands and your creativity are responsible for is something that everyone enjoys. But when you combine all these aspects of modding there is present a sense of achievement that’s hard to find elsewhere.

The Future:

Nerfers have already integrated technology like 3D printing and Raspberry Pi’s into their modifications. These things only broaden the horizon, and there’s no telling what rising technologies will do for us in the future. Also Nerf itself will continue to evolve the way in which its products are built. Even without the tech service nerfing will continue to be a strong interest and the community will find new ways to shoot farther. It will only grow as a more viable alternative to things like paintball and airsoft. Both sports contain a level of danger that just isn’t possible when your projectiles are made of foam (no matter how much you upgrade). And since many Nerf guns are made from simple mechanics nerfers have a more unique opportunity for customization. Because there is the chance to paint blasters and devise your own upgrades, etc. modifying is also a more personalized endeavor than it is in other shooting sports.

Because of these things I think nerfing will continue to gain appeal and eventually expand beyond the forums and the fields to penetrate (maybe just barely) mainstream culture. It may not become a household thing, but sure is a lot more fun than laser tag…and look at how popular it’s been!

 

Become acquainted with some nerfer terminology
Referenced Articles:

How Nerf Became the World’s Best Purveyor of Big Guns for Kids

How Modding Nerf Blasters Became a 3D Printing Business