A stalwart of toy store shelves for over four decades, the soft, safe foam of Nerf has proven a huge boon to indoor active play, saving countless fragile ornaments from being smashed to bits by kids who ignore the whole "don't play ball in the house" rule.
But who came up with the squishy stuff in the first place? What's the best Nerf gun around? And just where does that strange name come from? Read on, and find out.
What does Nerf mean, anyway?
Styled in Hasbro's trademarks as "NERF," this monosyllable is actually an acronym. And tempting though it is to think up creative guesses for what the letters actually stand for, the truth is a little more prosaic. It's actually "Non-Expanding Recreational Foam," after the supple, air-bubble-filled plastic foam that gives Nerf its characteristically cushy feel.
It shares an inventor with Twister.
Inventor Reynolds Guyer struck upon Twister in 1965 while working on an ad campaign for children's shoes. It was an immediate hit. Flushed with success, he then came up with a caveman-themed game involving hiding money under rubber rocks, and throwing said rocks at other players. Predictably, players found that chucking rocks was far more fun than hiding money, and Nerf as we know it was born.
So the story goes, anyhow. The details are a little sketchy, but this much is certain: the Nerf line started with a four-inch ball marketed on its safety for indoor play, and was a massive success; four million were sold in its first year of availability. Over the last 40 years, the range expanded to include sports toys, water guns, video games, and toy swords, but these days it's all about the award-winning Nerf toy guns.
What's the best Nerf gun?
Fortunately for fans, this is one hobby where getting the best isn't all that expensive; even the fanciest of Nerf shooters stays well under $100.
But for our money the most impressive Nerf shooter is easily the Vulcan. Battery-powered, tripod-mounted, holding 25 darts, and with both single-shot and full-auto fire modes, it's every bit as potent as its butch, action-movie looks imply. Just make sure you have plenty of ammo, because it'll blow through all 25 shots in just over eight seconds. If you're standing at the pointy end of this behemoth, you'll know.
Today's Nerf gun is tomorrow's TV prop.
Nerf guns sports seriously cool looks. So much so, in fact, that they've shown up as props in at least one big-budget TV show: alongside the dinosaurs and time-traveling shenanigans in last year's Terra Nova. Both altered and unaltered Nerf weapons were used as futuristic firearms in various episodes of the show, although the production team at least went to the trouble to paint the day-glo toys black. Perhaps they didn't want to startle the dinos.
It's part of gamer slang.
In the confusing lingo of massively-multiplayer online games like World of Warcraft or Star Wars: The Old Republic, "nerf" has taken on a new meaning. Used as either a noun or a verb, it refers to a deliberate change to the gameplay that substantially weakens a powerful weapon, character type, or ability. In other words, it's been "nerfed" -- rendered as harmless as a Nerf weapon, or nearly so.
Unsurprisingly, it's a divisive practice, with opinions on whether or not a particular nerf was good or bad depending largely on whether or not you were one of the people benefiting from the imbalance in the first place.
Check out one boy's creative use of his Nerf gun: