- By Jason Fagone
The challenge came from on high, communicated during an otherwise ordinary product meeting in a long brick building in the old factory town. At first, Brian Jablonski couldn’t believe what his bosses were asking him to do. But he would have to find a way.
Jablonski is tall and lanky with a goatee. In the ’90s, he worked in Detroit as a designer of automotive exhibits; before that he worked on the design of an early videoconferencing system for PCs. In 2002, when Jablonski first arrived as a product design manager at the long brick building in Pawtucket, Rhode Island—global headquarters of the Hasbro toy company—he figured he’d stick around for a couple of years, then move on to the next challenge.
But it turned out that life in Pawtucket was too good to quit. Hasbro owns many famous toy and game brands—Transformers, G.I. Joe, My Little Pony, Battleship, Monopoly, Twister, Ouija, Tonka, Play-Doh. Jablonski’s job was to focus on one of the most iconic brands of all: Nerf. Working on Nerf stuff was sort of like waking up every day and driving a Mister Softee truck; it made you a sentry, a protector of the cherished childhood memories of multiple generations of Americans. Baby boomers had grown up kicking Nerf footballs around the yard. Gen Xers had yanked Nerf flying discs from the jaws of family dogs and practiced 360-degree dunks into Nerf basketball hoops. And teenagers were devoted to Nerf’s wide array of foam-projectile-firing toy guns (“blasters,” in Nerf-speak).
Nerf’s N-Strike Barricade RV-10
The rotating cylinder on this semiautomatic holds 10 Whistler Darts (their plastic tip is designed to make a high-pitched whine as air rushes past it).
Photo: Robin Broadbent
For Jablonski, blasters are the most satisfying Nerf products to create, each one requiring the participation of about 15 Hasbro designers, engineers, marketers, product development specialists, model makers, model painters, and computer-aided design experts in both Pawtucket and Hong Kong. Over the years, Jablonski’s blaster work has made him to Nerf what Jony Ive is to Apple—an in-house guru, keeper of the brand’s look and feel. With each new blaster, he tries to surpass the one that came before. The key question, he says, is: How do you outdo yourself?
It was a fateful meeting in 2010 when Jablonski learned that he would have to outdo himself in the biggest way possible. Hasbro’s marketing people had been asking their target customers—boys ages 8 to 16—what they wanted out of a blaster, and the boys always said the same two things: more distance and more ammo capacity. Some of them were so anxious for these features that they had taken it upon themselves to modify their existing blasters, duct-taping additional clips to the stocks and fiddling with the tension of the springs. Search YouTube for “Nerf mod” and you’ll find a whole ecosystem of kids (and kids at heart) trying to one-up each other, hacking their blasters to resemble AK-47s, boosting firing rate, and claiming that their souped-up plastic blasters can shoot foam darts 60 feet and beyond.
“We don’t endorse modding in any way,” says John Tomulonis, a Nerf marketing director. Hasbro is wary of blaster hacks because its toy guns have to meet stringent federal safety regulations to be sold in the first place, and the modders complicate Nerf’s safety-based marketing message. Its products resemble cartoonish alien phasers, and some modders try to make them look like assault weapons. Yet it’s pretty clear that the modders have forced Nerf’s hand. The company’s designers are locked in an arms race against its own most passionate users. Nerf can either try to keep up or get mowed down by a foam-dart firing squad.
The executives wondered: Could Jablonski and his team double the existing range of blasters that fire darts? They had recently broken the 50-foot barrier with a new line of guns that fired little Frisbee-like discs. But could they create a standard foam dart capable of traveling an unheard-of 75 feet—about the length of a regulation tennis court? And while they were at it, could they significantly increase the dart-carrying capacity of a blaster? At the time it was 35 darts. How about 50? More? What can you give us?
Once Jablonski got over his initial surprise, he was pretty sure he could achieve the targets. “There’s always a solution,” he says. Seventy-five feet. Fifty darts. He retreated into his cavelike, red-walled office crammed with blasters in random piles and began to think.
The original 4-inch polyurethane foam ball—just dense enough to be hurled accurately but too light to cause damage—was invented in 1969 by an eccentric Minnesotan named Reyn Guyer, who had also come up with the game of Twister and would go on to produce country music in Nashville. It was licensed by Parker Brothers, who dubbed it Nerf after a kind of foam bumper used to push drag racing cars to the starting line. (How and why the bumper material came to be called Nerf remains a mystery.) Many Nerf products begin life as a foam resin poured into a mold; carbon dioxide bubbles create the material’s signature air pockets. The ball was first released in 1970 in a small black box whose packaging urged, “Throw it indoors. You can’t damage lamps or break windows. You can’t hurt babies or old people.”
By the end of that year, millions of Nerf balls had been sold, with zero babies or old people maimed, and Parker Brothers began to explore other uses for the foam, developing the now-iconic Nerf basketball hoop and the Nerf football. In 1989 came the very first Nerf blaster, the Blast-A-Ball, which used a simple air-pump action to pop 1.75-inch foam spheres out of a plastic tube. Hasbro acquired Parker Brothers’ parent company, Tonka, in 1991 and immediately began to expand the Nerf line, releasing products like the Mega Howler football (whistles in flight), the Bow ‘n’ Arrow, and the Slingshot. The first dart blaster, the Sharp Shooter, arrived in 1992, along with a series of blasters that shot Nerf Missiles—fat 5-inch darts with fins. Although the missiles were a dead end, the dart blasters continued to improve, and while the design of the foam darts became relatively standardized, the complexity and elegance of the plastic guns and firing mechanisms evolved rapidly.
Nerf’s N-Strike Elite Hail-Fire
The flagship dart blaster of Nerf’s 2012 lineup is a hulking semiautomatic with unprecedented ammo capacity and a 75-foot range.
Mouseover the numbers to view a description for each part.
WEIGHT: 2.8 lbs
Photo: Robin Broadbent
Blasters are the core of the modern Nerf business, and Nerf is crucial to Hasbro. (Nerf brought in $410 million in revenue for Hasbro in 2011; only two other brands, Beyblade and Transformers, made more than $400 million last year.) Solid foam has proven to be the perfect material for projectiles launched by air pressure or other clever mechanisms. Nerf has given every 12-year-old kid who yearns to play with guns not just the ultimate toy weapon but an entire neon arsenal. You can now buy a Nerf blaster with fully automatic firing (the Stampede ECS), a blaster with a Tommy gun-style circular ammo drum that holds 35 darts (the Raider CS-35), or even a Nerf Gatling gun with an electric belt feed that sprays three darts per second (the Vulcan EBF-25). Last year Nerf introduced a new line of Vortex blasters, which fire foam discs instead of darts. Unlike the darts, the discs can ricochet around corners and even curve, depending on how you hold the blaster.
It may seem silly to take this stuff seriously as feats of engineering, but in their own way, these toys are as well designed as a Dyson vacuum. When you pick up a blaster, when you feel the heft, when you put the stock to your shoulder and wrap your fingers around the handle, when you chamber a dart and pull the trigger and the dart comes flying out with that immensely satisfying thunk, it doesn’t feel like what you’re holding is just some cheap hunk of plastic. And every detail of that experience has been meticulously designed, engineered, and tested.
Hasbro has to meet stringent product safety requirements. Hardcore fans don’t. Search for “Nerf mods” online and you’ll find endless tips for performance-boosting upgrades, many of which require only a screwdriver and some tape.
Swapping in a single 15-volt battery for the standard half dozen 1.5-volt D batteries increases the Vulcan EBF-25′s firing rate from 3 darts per second to 5 dps.
By removing the air restrictor and sealing the air release, you can improve the firing distance of a Longshot CS6 from 35 feet to 70 feet.
Lengthening the barrel is another way to boost range. You can find guides for adding a section of PVC pipe to a Nite Finder EX-3, and modders are fond of using the plastic tube from Crayola Washable Markers as barrel material.
Hardcore Nerf-heads make their own more streamlined ammo, using foam or PVC or even brass tubing. Homebrew darts are called “stefans,” named after pioneering modder Stefan Mohr.
Mix and Match
Neon-green-and-orange weaponry just doesn’t look dangerous. If you cobble together pieces of a Longstrike CS-6, a Raider CS-35, and a Recon CS-6, then repaint this agglomeration, you’ll have a reasonable facsimile of an AK-47 assault rifle with a banana clip.
Off a hallway at Hasbro headquarters is a small conference room whose shelves are lined with Nerf swag. It’s where, on a weekday morning in May, Michael Ritchie, senior director of global marketing at Nerf, an antic 37-year-old with blue-green eyes and neatly parted brown hair, is leading a meeting of several key members of his team as they prepare for the most important day of the year in Nerf Nation: 9/9. This summer, Nerf is debuting its gnarliest series yet, a line dubbed the N-Strike Elite—the culmination of a design process begun two years ago by Jablonski’s crew. And 9/9 is when the company is rolling out the final and most gnarly weapon in the line.
Near-final versions of the N-Strike Elite blasters are arrayed on the conference table. Their stocks are a deep, lustrous blue-purple, and the triggers, barrels, and clips are blaze orange. The Rampage includes a 25-dart drum and can shoot in either rapid-fire or single-shot mode. The highly reconfigurable Retaliator comes with a removable stock, barrel, and drop-down handle. The third blaster on the table—the star of this year’s 9/9—is the Hail-Fire, the toughest-looking weapon of all; it has a battery-powered motor that provides for semi-automatic firing and a unique new design that obliterates Nerf’s previous record for ammo capacity.
Ritchie turns to Nerf brand specialist Eric Huban and asks for a status update on the N-Strike Elite line. “We started shipping from the factory,” Huban says. “So Retaliator and Rampage are on the water now,” traveling by barge from China. “We’re working through some potential issues with Hail-Fire today.”
Later this afternoon, the Nerf team will be conducting a final play test of the Hail-Fire with a focus group of young kids. The test has to go well, because it’s too late at this point to make any major changes. Jablonski is fairly confident that no problems will crop up, but he holds up a pair of crossed fingers and smiles. “When you put a toy into the hands of an 8-year-old,” he says, “sometimes they tell you things you didn’t expect.”
When Jablonski seeks inspiration for a new blaster, he doesn’t play videogames or watch movies like some of the other designers on his team. “I tend to look at mechanisms,” he says. “I had a salad spinner in here the other day. I thought that would be a cool kind of crank mechanism for something. Sometimes you have those waking dreams: You’re in bed, the alarm goes off. All of a sudden you think of something.” Once, when Jablonski was working on a small, pistol-shaped blaster, an image flashed into his head of the coin slots in a laundromat. When you load and cock the resulting blaster, it feels just like slamming a row of quarters into a washing machine.
The easiest part of meeting the new benchmark for the N-Strike Elite blasters, he says, was getting the darts to travel 75 feet. The breakthrough in distance involves a combination of a new dart and the design of the blasters themselves. Jablonski can’t reveal the exact innovations that led to the final dart design—”It has a lot to do with manufacturing tolerances,” he says—but it has a hollow stem made of soft blue foam and a rubbery orange tip concealing a mushroom-shaped thermoplastic squib of harder material. Different firing mechanisms were used with different blasters. The Retaliator and the Rampage both use a mechanism based on air pressure and a spring-powered piston; the back end of the dart compresses against the back of the barrel, creating a seal, and when the trigger activates the piston, air “forces the dart out of the barrel like the cork in a champagne bottle,” Jablonski says. The Hail-Fire, meanwhile, does not use air pressure at all; instead, the dart is squeezed between a pair of battery-powered spinning wheels that propel it down the barrel at a speed of 50 miles per hour.
The tougher task was increasing dart capacity, especially in the Hail-Fire. Jablonski looked at the Raider, which holds up to 35 darts in a drum-shaped clip, and figured he could just make a supersize Raider by building a substantially bigger drum. But the bigger the drum, the heavier the Hail-Fire prototype became. Eight-year-olds had to be able to lift this thing. The aha moment came in a meeting Jablonski had with some designers and engineers. “Why can’t you have three or four or five clips?” Jablonski thought. Their new design would feature a carousel, like the revolving tray on an old slide projector, which advances to a new clip when the old one is spent.
Mouseover the numbers for a description of Nerf’s arsenal of projectiles.
Photo: Robin Broadbent
Jablonski sat down with an engineer and made some sketches. Then they started taking apart other blasters—they needed the parts to build a “kit-bash,” a sort of Frankenstein’s monster of an initial prototype. At this point, Jablonski walked down the darkened hallway to Hasbro’s model shop, an industrial workspace permeated by the whine of computerized milling machines. The model shop has several advanced 3-D printers, machines that cost up to $800,000, but it’s also a place where Hasbro artisans—casters, painters, even a sewing technician—make models using techniques that wouldn’t have been out of place 100 years ago. Jablonski asked the folks there to machine a few basic parts out of metal, and they used these, along with some screws, rods, and hot glue, to fuse the cannibalized plastic parts from the other blasters into a completed kit-bash. It included a carousel that allowed the user to rapidly switch between nine clips. (The final version would have eight.) Using the largest clips available, it would be possible to load the Hail-Fire with 144 darts—more than four times the maximum for the previous blaster.
Jablonski showed the kit-bash to his managers, and they gave the go-ahead for him to ask the Model Shop to build a second, more refined prototype using a technology called stereolithography, which creates 3-D forms out of liquid resin. He passed the resin version around to his colleagues so they could get a tactile sense of it. Once everyone was satisfied, it was finally time for the CAD guys to send 3-D renderings of the Hail-Fire to Hasbro Far East in Hong Kong. A few weeks later, Jablonski and his team got back a “check model”—a fully functional prototype made of plastic, suitable for testing.
In the hallway outside Jablonski’s office, he marked off a series of distances with tape: 25 feet, 50 feet, 75 feet. He stood at one end of the hall and fired the check model of the Hail-Fire again and again. Each dart soared in a long, graceful arc and pinged against the carpet on the far side of the 75-foot marker. Unprecedented dart-firing distance: check. Jablonski could now shift his attention to whether the Hail-Fire’s carousel had a nice action, whether it advanced smoothly, whether the trigger was responsive enough.
It can take up to two years to develop a blaster, so right now, even as the members of the Nerf team are amping up for 9/9/12, they’re also working on new blasters for 9/9/13 and 9/9/14. Several models to be introduced next fall are nearly finished—namely the Strife, a semiautomatic pistol, and the Ruff Cut, which is only the third blaster ever that’s capable of shooting two darts at the same time. In the Nerf conference room, Jablonski picks up a supposedly functional prototype of the Ruff Cut made of white epoxy resin: “Let’s see if she works.” He points it straight up and fires a couple of darts into the 30-foot-high rafters. They touch down in another office somewhere. Jablonski calls this “the funnest thing” about his job. “Just randomly shooting. Sometimes you hear a landing. Sometimes you hear a scream.”
Late in the afternoon,it’s time for the all-important test of the Hail-Fire. Seven members of the Nerf team—two guys from quality assurance, two engineers, one designer, one marketer, and Jablonski—leave Hasbro headquarters and drive five minutes to an indoor baseball facility in Pawtucket. In a large concrete-walled room dominated by a mural of former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling, the Nerf guys lay out 12 shiny new Hail-Fires, as well as several older green-and-orange Vortex blasters.
Before the test begins, one Nerf employee marks off 75 feet with a tape measure and another shoots a series of darts from the other side of the room. A third staffer films. The darts all land past the 75-foot mark. The men talk about uploading the video to the web to quiet the skeptics.
Suddenly a side door opens and 11 kids—10 boys, one girl—come pouring through. One turns a cartwheel. Another begins climbing on a pad propped up against a wall.
“Don’t climb on that,” says a Nerf marketer. “Hey!”
“Blasters!” screams one boy, spotting the Hail-Fires.
The marketer lines up all the kids along the wall and explains how the Hail-Fire works. At his signal, the kids scoop up the blasters and burst toward the center of the room, laughing and firing with abandon as Team Nerf looks on anxiously from the perimeter. Jablonski frowns and scans the battlefield. He points to one boy who seems to be struggling with his weapon. “See how he’s holding it? By the clip? We designed it to be held like this.” Jablonski mimes holding a Hail-Fire down low, by its top handle, like a machine gun. “We’ll make sure the kid on the package is holding it like this.”
After a time, the marketer introduces nine more boys into the mix, bringing the head count to 20. He divides the kids into two teams and sets up a game of capture the flag. Pretty soon the floor is littered with blue darts and alien-green discs. As the test goes on, Jablonski seems to relax. At one point he picks up a spare Hail-Fire, aims it across the room, and fires a shower of darts at one of his colleagues. He sets down the blaster and crosses his arms contentedly. “So far it seems like normal play,” he says. In other words, kids are doing what kids everywhere do. They’re making machine-gun noises. They’re shouting “I’m out!” and moping when they realize they have to pick up the darts off the floor. They’re reloading and firing and reloading some more. And although they are the first youths in all of history capable of propelling foam darts 75 feet in the air, most of them, for now, at least, are content to walk right up to their friends, grin maniacally, and fire away at point-blank range.
Nerf over the years:
Photo: Robin Broadbent
Nerf Blasters: A History
Hasbro has released an arsenal of Nerf weaponry over the years. Here are some of the highlights.—Cameron Bird
Push the handle in and air pressure fires 1.5-inch-diameter Ballistic Balls up to 40 feet.
Bow ‘n’ Arrow, 1991
Plastic tube upgraded with bow and 11-inch-long foam “arrows.”
Sharp Shooter, 1992
The first Nerf blaster to fire darts, 1-inch-wide hollow foam tubes with plastic plunger tips.
Rip Rockets Blast Hammer, 1993
Uses a simple pull-and-release mechanism to launch streamlined projectiles called Micro Darts.
Nerf Action Ballzooka, 1994
Five rotating chambers allow this bad boy to fire 15 Ballistic Balls in less than six seconds.
Max Force Manta Ray, 1996
Part of a blaster series named and modeled after predators: Gator, Rattler, Stinging Scarab, etc.
Cyber Stryke RotoTrack, 1997
The Cyber Stryke line featured a range of gear designed to look like cyborg upgrades that merge with your body.
Hyper Sight Expand-a-Blast, 1998
Pulling the black handle extends the stock and barrel, nearly doubling the blaster’s length.
Airjet Power Plus SplitFire, 1999
Dual barrels and dual triggers allow for double firing. Clear casing reveals the sophisticated inner workings.
Power Nerf Ballzooka MP150, 2000
This update of the venerable Ballzooka was a battery-powered blaster of Ballistic Balls. 2003
Atom Blasters Cyclotron, 2003
Hand-cranked blaster fires six Ballistic Balls in a couple of seconds.
Action Blasters Big Bad Titan, 2003
Fires foot-long Mega Missiles. Later given the more militaristic name Titan AS-V.1.
N-Strike Vulcan EBF-25, 2008
Chain-fed battery-powered machine gun that fires screaming Whistler Darts. What’s not to like?
Dart Tag Furyfire, 2009
Designed for official Nerf Dart Tag League competitions. The 2011 World Championships took place at the ESPN complex in Florida; winning teams were awarded $25,000.
Vortex Proton, 2011
Uses a new type of ammo called XLRs, which are essentially 1.5-inch mini-Frisbees. XLR discs can travel 60 feet.