One late spring day in April, several years ago—one of the last breezy afternoons before the suffocating summer humidity would descend on the rolling green hills of central Virginia—I went to visit friends in Charlottesville. I was on a break from Gaza at the time, where I’d been living for a year and a half while working on a security project for an NGO and reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for the Virginia Quarterly Review. I’d grown used to the simmering sounds of war; I would hear the thump of Hamas and Islamic Jihad mortars during my afternoon runs and would wake to my windows rattling as Israeli gunboats fired at Palestinian fishermen. Still, I remained hypervigilant—ready to fight, or flee, at any second.
As I approached my friends’ doorstep, I was suddenly caught in an ambush of foam darts, and I looked down to see their seven-year-old son, Jack, grinning behind an azalea bush, aiming his Nerf blaster at my chest.
“Gotcha!” Jack shouted, before sprinting off behind the house in a flash of spindly limbs and towheaded glee.
Jack’s ambushes became a ritual we’d reenact every time I visited. Jack’s first blaster was a Nite Finder, a pistol that fired single foam darts with rubber tips, and had a mock laser sight mounted in front of the trigger assembly, mimicking the emerging fashion in tactical handguns. It was made of gray-and-yellow molded plastic, and though the blaster’s grip bore some resemblance to the sweep of a real semiautomatic pistol grip, it would’ve been more at home on the set of Lost in Space than Die Hard. A few years later, when Jack and his family moved to Nebraska, he got a Nerf rifle called the N-Strike Alpha Trooper CS-18, which featured a detachable stock and a magazine that held 18 foam darts. It had a charging handle on the barrel like a pump shotgun, allowing for rapid fire and a max range of 35 feet—which meant Jack could hide around the side of the house and get me coming down the driveway.
Last year, when Jack was 13 and I was 35, I had the honor of teaching him the fundamentals of firearms safety at a range near my home in Bozeman, Montana, using the same Marlin .22 rifle I’ve had since my 10th or 11th birthday. I remember when my dad and I first brought that rifle home: Running my hands over the smooth, dark-stained wood stock, and the fascination I felt whenever I slid it out of its khaki-colored soft case, the delightful clack of the bolt sliding home and locking down. There was no kick, and wearing earplugs, the shots sounded like bursts from an air compressor—but all the same, the rifle was not a toy. When I put the stock to my shoulder and the scope in front of my eye, I immediately felt more grown-up. Jack clearly did as well, treating the gun with respect and seriousness.
When I put the stock to my shoulder and the scope in front of my eye, I immediately felt more grown-up. Jack clearly did as well, treating the gun with respect and seriousness.
I spent years working as a war correspondent, and for a good portion of the past year I have been reporting on the National Rifle Association’s fear-mongering, gun culture, and the crisis of gun violence in America. Until recently, I had never read too far into our Nerf play, mine and Jack’s, and I had never heard people link Nerf blasters to real violence the way they did with violent video games and movies. But in an era of mass shootings, I’ve started to reconsider the banality of Nerf blasters and other toy guns.
Over the past two decades, Nerf has upped the ante on the power and functionality of its blasters. One model shoots foam balls up to 100 feet per second—fast enough to sting bare skin. Some models, such as the “Doomlands” series, are cartoonish in their appearance, taking the concept of mega firepower to gonzo levels. Others, like the N-Strike models, have become increasingly streamlined, drawing closer to the souped-up tactical firearms that now dominate the real gun market, namely the endless variations on the popular AR-15.
Do toys like these play any part in the fetishizing of guns? Do they blur the line between fantasy and reality, helping to inspire mass shooters like Nikolas Cruz and Dylann Roof? Or are they just good, clean, foam fun? I don’t know if it’s possible to answer those questions, but I know one thing unequivocally: if the kinds of blasters that Nerf offers today had existed when I was little, I would have been completely, hopelessly enthralled.
Nerf’s deep dive into imaginative gunplay began humbly in 1989, when the company introduced Blast-a-Ball, a pair of simple plastic tubes with plunger handles on one end that could launch foam balls up to 30 feet. Nerf called it the “shoot ’em, dodge ’em, catch ’em” game, and, from the very beginning, it was clear that Nerf did not intend for its new toy to be enjoyed alone—each box came with two blasters.
I was born in 1981, and I remember playing with those original ball blasters, but the Nerf products that really took my suburban Washington, D.C., neighborhood by storm were the company’s foam footballs. The Turbo was about four-fifths the size of a leather pigskin, which made it easy to throw spirals. In 1991, the same year that Nerf introduced the Vortex—a whistling football with rocket fins—the company also launched the Bow ‘n’ Arrow, a blaster in the shape of a bow that fired large foam missiles. Nerf dominated the birthday-party scene that year. Now, almost 30 years later, Nerf balls appear to have been overshadowed by its toy weapons.
Since their debut in the late 1980s, Nerf blasters have evolved into sophisticated toys capable of rapid fire, some models sporting what are known (on real guns) as high-capacity magazines, each holding a dozen rounds or more—in some cases, as many as 200. Nerf has sometimes looked to historical gun models for inspiration, like the Nerf Zombie Strike SlingFire Blaster, which uses the lever-action reload of the .30-30 Winchester Model 94 rifle, with dashes of fluorescent green and orange to diminish its verisimilitude. The overall aesthetic of Nerf’s blaster lineup remains playful and sci-fi, with wild color schemes and plenty of high-visibility orange, especially on the business end of the barrels. But anyone with a remotely trained eye can see that Nerf’s newer models are edging closer to the features of what are commonly known as assault weapons.
The expiration of the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban in 2004—along with a 2005 law that protected firearms manufacturers from lawsuits—contributed to a period of furious growth in the firearms market. Sales of handguns more than quadrupled between 1999 and 2016 (spiking in 2013 after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, in anticipation of incoming gun-control legislation). Firearms imports into the United States also increased fivefold. After ten years of restrictions, manufacturers were now free to market a seemingly limitless array of military-style semiautomatic rifles and accessories, benefiting from the free advertising of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. At gun shows and in a proliferating number of firearms publications and enthusiast websites, hunting rifles and shotguns took a backseat to variations on the AR-15, the AK-47, and the Bullpup, a close-quarters combat rifle favored by the Israeli and British militaries.
Nerf appears to have taken notice of both the marketing and design tactics of the firearms industry over the years. The most obvious parallel between Nerf’s newer blasters and their deadly cousins is their focus on modularity. A seemingly infinite spectrum of accessories have made semiautomatic “black rifles” such as the AR-15 a hit among enthusiasts of real firearms, spurring enormous growth in aftermarket products. Similarly, recent upgrades to Nerf products have allowed for the reconfiguration of the company’s rifle-style blasters into pistols, and the addition of the Picatinny rail offers users the opportunity to mount accessories such as flashlights, bipods, and red-dot sights.
The company’s Modulus series includes a lineup of accessories that are obviously toy versions of the real add-ons beloved by black-rifle enthusiasts, including foregrips that mount under barrels, faux laser sights, collapsible stocks, and long-range barrel extenders. Certain battery-operated models are even capable of automatic fire, and some kids have figured out how to “bump fire” their nonautomatic models the same way you can bump fire a semiautomatic rifle: by hooking your finger around the trigger and moving the entire rifle back and forth.
Though there were lots of toy guns on the market that looked real when I was a kid, the opposite was not true: the only real guns I ever saw or handled were unmistakably not toys. They were made of black or polished steel and smooth, stained wood. (If they had plastic on them at all, it was black.) But just as Nerf seems to have co-opted the infinite accessorizing possibilities of the actual firearms industry, owners of AR-15s are sending their guns to third-party customizers to incorporate more playful features into their design: a gun can be anodized in virtually any color, or have a custom wrap applied featuring Star Wars and Marvel themes.
Growing up, my friends and I had toy-gun arsenals that would’ve equipped us for any conflict from the Revolutionary War to Vietnam: long-barreled muskets purchased on field trips to Colonial Williamsburg, chrome six-shooters, cork popguns and rubber-band shooters, and battery-operated squirt guns that looked like exact replicas of the TEC-9 and MAC-10. A company called Zap It sold guns shaped like miniature Uzis, which shot blood-colored ink that would stain clothes briefly, then quickly fade and disappear. (An ad from the late 1980s shows a kid popping out from behind a door to shoot the mailman. A few seconds later, his dad shoots him from behind the cover of the morning paper.)
The first toy gun I remember playing with was a chrome cap gun in the shape of a .45 pistol. I was so young I don’t even remember holding it for the first time, but it stayed in my toy bin well into my middle-school years. It had been my dad’s when he was a kid in the 1950s and had plastic grips with real stippling and fired caps from a roll, which meant there was real smoke. It smelled musty and oxidized, like everything else that came out of my Nana’s basement in Missouri—a smell I associated with a grandfather and great-uncles I had never known, who’d fought in the trenches of WWI and on the seas of the North Atlantic, in the Pacific, and across Europe in WWII.
I knew boys who weren’t allowed to play with toy guns at all. Our grandparents were part of the Greatest Generation, survivors of epic struggles that earned them awe and reverence bordering on fear. But we were the children of the Baby Boomers—a generation sent to fight in Vietnam, a confusing conflict with no clear objectives that killed and maimed young draftees by the tens of thousands. Many young people came out of the 1960s committed to breaking the cycle of macho violence by emphasizing nonviolent play at home. When they had kids of their own—my generation, somewhere between Gen Xers and millennials—they forbade backyard war games and the props they thought were necessary to play them.
These attempts were futile. Whenever I was at a friend’s house who wasn’t allowed to have toy guns, we used our fingers for pistols and sticks for rifles. We made machine-gun noises and explosions with our mouths, imagining bullets kicking up dust around the enemy fortifications, smoke and splintered timber rising skyward in theatrical columns of smoke.
My first real gun was the .22 rifle I used with Jack at the Montana range. My second was a Remington 870 Express Jr. 20-gauge shotgun, which I got for my 12th birthday. Around the same time, I took a hunter-safety course in Pennsylvania, where my dad had moved in 1990 and where I spent my middle-school years and most of my summers. (I still use that little 20-gauge to this day to jump ducks near my home.)
I’d be lying if I told you that I was always supervised when I used my guns. We didn’t have a gun safe at my dad’s house in Pennsylvania. The family’s firearms collection—which included a pristine .30-30, a pair of antique 12-gauge shotguns, a couple of semiautomatic Benelli shotguns, a bolt-action WWII British Lee-Enfield rifle, and many more—was left unsecured in a closet near the front door, along with a stockpile of ammo. My dad, a heart surgeon at a nearby hospital, was at work almost all the time, and my stepmom was usually absorbed in a Lifetime movie or on the phone, working her way steadily through a pack of Virginia Slims. She was often literally out to lunch.
When no one was home (and sometimes when they were), I would take a gun or two out to the boundless woods behind the house to plink at trees, hunt squirrels, and just mess around. Though I knew enough not to point them at people—my dad had walked me through the fundamentals of firearms safety using a single-shot .22 when I was seven or eight years old—that didn’t mean I was always careful. Once, I shot my .22 into the side of the house when nobody was home, just to see what it would do. It went through the siding, through an exterior wall, through an antique armoire, and embedded deep in an interior wall. I got in a lot of trouble for that stunt, but no one bothered to lock up the guns afterward.
At my mother’s house in suburban D.C., I was limited to air guns, but I could still use them to kill. My friends and I would ride around the neighborhood bike paths, picking off squirrels and songbirds from bird feeders. I shot doves and breasted them out the way I’d learned by reading Field & Stream, leaving the meat and the carcasses to rot in the briar thickets. I shot a red-bellied woodpecker high in a tree behind our backyard. It died in the crook of a branch and stayed there—a memento mori that haunted me and confused the hell out of my mother all winter long. (Having grown into a committed conservationist and ethical hunter, I look back on that wanton killing with shame, but none of it was particularly unusual for a boy my age.)
It wasn’t long before my friends and I came up with the idea of shooting one another. With ski goggles on our faces and baggy clothes, we snuck off into the woods to hide and wait for the enemy. We made rules about how much pressure you could pump into your BB rifle—“Three pumps, maximum!”—but we never followed them. (It’s amazing we all still have our teeth and eyes.) And there was a dark edge to my childhood gunplay. Once, while playing BB-gun war when I was about 12, we conspired to gang up on a kid who’d never played with us before—one who was severely overweight and just excited to have been invited. We broke into teams, then we all pumped our rifles too many times and hunted down our prey, like we were in Lord of the Flies. The kid ran home crying, and I felt nauseous.
Today, my relationship to guns is based on intimate knowledge of what bullets do to flesh. I joined the Army National Guard in 2001 to pay for college and became a combat engineer. In 2004, my unit deployed to Iraq. In the military, I carried an M16A4 and at various times also served as my squad’s gunner, on weapons systems from the M249 Squad Automatic Weapon (a light machine gun), to the MK19 (a belt-fed 40-millimeter grenade launcher), to the Browning M2 (a .50-caliber machine gun). Our weapons were for killing, something we understood and kept in mind whether we were loading blanks in training or live rounds in Iraq. Whatever the weapon, my fellow soldiers and I were meticulously careful not to put our fingers on our triggers unless we were ready to fire, and not to let our barrels cross over anyone or anything we did not intend to shoot at. We kept the muzzles of our personal weapons pointed down at the ground at all times, and we cleared and re-cleared our weapons after every mission. Accidental discharges were formally punished, but the scorn you’d receive from your platoon for an AD was worse.
Of course, you don’t need to serve in the military to develop a responsible approach to firearms safety. In Montana, I go out with hunters who handle firearms just as safely as I do, and most of them have never served. They’ve all been through firearms-safety courses or hunter-safety courses, or both, and they all have up-close knowledge of what bullets and shotgun pellets do to living things, based on their experience butchering animals they’ve killed. A few of my best hunting buddies have children who are in the early stages of learning how to handle guns safely and hunt, and I have been impressed both watching my friends teach them and watching the kids approach firearms with a maturity beyond their years.
All the same, I wonder about the thin veil separating toys from the real thing. How does a child know that it’s okay to run around the backyard aiming a long-barreled semiautomatic-rifle-looking toy at a buddy and squeezing the trigger while screaming, “Gotcha, you’re dead!”—but not okay to do that with a real gun? After all, isn’t that what real guns are for? Somehow, the overwhelming majority of children are able to navigate the difference safely—but some 1,300 children also die in the US every year from gun accidents, and nearly 6,000 are wounded. I have to wonder, as toy guns flirt with reality and real guns take on a toyish aesthetic—identical to the guns kids use in hyperreal first-person shooter games such as Call of Duty—is it time for toymakers like Nerf to eschew reality altogether? In an age of regular school shootings and dangerous gun fetishism, the Blast-a-Ball of yore certainly seems like a more ethical toy.
On a recent trip to the Chicago suburbs, I asked my seven-year-old nephew Ted, who has an arsenal of Nerf products, what he loves so much about these particular toys. “Playing with my friends,” he said. Pretty straightforward. Ted’s answer gets to the heart of what Nerf encourages through all of its toys: interactive and imaginative play among kids—the antithesis of sitting on a couch alone, staring into the numbing glow of a smartphone.
It’s this aspect of Nerf play that I loved when I was Ted’s age and that I find most redeeming about its blasters, even as I find ample room to criticize them. In our increasingly risk-averse and technology-addicted society, play of the good, old-fashioned, run-around-till-you-fall-over-laughing variety seems terribly imperiled, and it’s that kind of play that helps kids develop both their sense of right and wrong and their identities within a group, as well as explore the consequences of their actions among peers in a safe setting. It’s that kind of play that helps most kids become caring adults in a world where there are no do-overs—where real guns hurt real people.
I asked Ted if he ever wanted to shoot a real gun, and he said sure, he’d like to learn someday. He’s recently become obsessed with soldiers and war and regularly asks me questions about what it was like when I was a soldier at war, including the ultimate question: “Did you ever kill anyone?” (Thankfully, I answer that one in the negative.) When I asked Ted if he ever wanted to go to war and shoot a gun at a person, he looked at me like I had 50 heads. “Noooooooo,” he said. A second later, he shot me with a Zombie blaster and bounded out of the room.