The Origin of NERF
The iconic brand begun by Parker Brothers in 1970 with a four-inch ball of foam has quickly grown into one of the top most recognizable toy producers of the last century. In 1969 a man by the name of Reyn Guyer, the inventor of “Twister”, approached Parker Brothers, who were known best for board games like Clue and Monopoly. Guyer gave his pitch for an indoor volleyball game. The game was scrapped but the ball was not, and after some development it was released to the world. (Guyer’s family in still in possession of the original prototype. They hang in on their tree every Christmas).
Advertised as the “world’s first official indoor ball”, the product quickly gained popularity due to it’s promise of zero indoor damage and zero injury. In fact, it was advertised with the line “Throw it indoors; you can’t damage lamps or break windows. You can’t hurt babies or old people.” Even the word “nerf” itself was already connected to safety- the trucks that pushed drag racers to the start line attached foam-covered bars, or “nerf bars” to the head of the vehicle to prevent damaging the car. The material held up to its name, and by the year’s end more than 4 million Nerf balls were sold.
From a single 4-inch ball, line of products increased to athletic toys that included discs, basketball hoops (or “Nerfoops”), and footballs. It wasn’t until twenty years later in 1991 that Nerf introduced their most iconic toy- the blaster.
The First NERF Gun
The original gun- or “blaster”- was a 2.5ft hollow plastic tube with a handle that used a basic air pump to shoot 1.75in yellow foam balls. Called the “Blast-a-Ball”, it shot one ball at a time to distances up to 40 feet and was only sold as a two-pack product. It was soon replaced by the “Blast-o-Matic” the following year, which had increased distance and more rapid reloading time. This began a long tradition that would soon become the core product of the Nerf brand, and in the 21st century the line would rake in more than a hundred million dollars every year.
In 1987 Tonka purchased Park Brothers, and in early 1991 Tonka, was bought by Hasbro for a reported $516 million. The buyout was rumored to have been spurred by Tonka’s disastrous Christmas sales the previous year. At the time the Tonka Corporation was the third-largest toy company. The lack of sales was supposedly caused by a series of dud products coupled with the rise of video-game makers, especially Nintendo. The New York Times reported that from January to September of 1990, Tonka “lost $25.4 million on sales”.
Hasbro owns multiple popular toys and games like Battleship, Play-Doh, and My Little Pony. Much of the company’s diversity can be credited to its buyouts. Hasbro is no stranger to buying out other toy companies. The company has a history of acquiring new or failing toy companies, including the Milton Bradley Company, Coleco Industries, and Cranium Inc.
As new management of the NERF brand, Hasbro immediately expanded the Nerf product line, releasing crossbows, slingshots, and the first ever missile blaster. Called the Sharp Shooter, it debuted in 1992 in a line of new products designed to integrate the brand new Nerf Missiles and Nerf Darts. The missiles were 5-inch long foam tubes with fins that could be propelled at greater speeds and distance.
NERF Gun Expansion
Under Hasbro, Nerf had all of the design and resources it needed to expand rapidly. During the 90’s kids could buy an array of blasters that fired darts, missiles, balls, and even suction-cupped darts. A catchy new slogan, “It’s Nerf or Nothin’!” helped drive up sales and keep consumers away from competing products.
In the 90’s Hasbro also launched the most diverse blaster line yet. It included the first blaster with a rotating chamber, the 1994 Nerf Action Ballzooka, the one-handed 1996 Max Force Manta Ray, and the 1998 Hyper Sight Expand-a-Blast, which featured an extendable stock and barrel that doubled the blaster’s length.
Nerf’s edge was its innovation in foam-based weaponry. The idea was so innovative that both parents and their children flocked to the toys. Parents enjoyed the fact that the darts couldn’t do any damage inside, even if accidentally trod underfoot. Kids loved that they could shoot at their friends without either party getting injured, and that their darts could be easily rounded up and used again.
The NERF “Mod Market”
In 2002 Brian Jablonski was hired as a product design manager for Nerf. He saw himself as a sentry of childhood memories for generations of America. According to Jablonski, the most satisfying products to create were the blasters. Each design required about 15 designers, developers, artists, and engineers. Through the years Jablonski’s work has sculpted him into a guardian of the brand’s iconic look.
In 2010 he was met with his biggest challenge yet. For years Nerf customers had been begging for two things: more distance and more ammo capacity. In fact, the demand was so high that there was a booming “mod market” of innovative teenage boys creating home attachments and adjusting the spring-loading system. A simple YouTube search displays the magnanimity of the “Nerf mod” market. Jablonski and his design team were suddenly “locked in an arms race against its own most passionate users”. Hasbro had to balance strict federal safety regulations with the demand of its markets.
Jabslonski’s tasks were these: doubling existing range of blasters and dramatically increasing the dart capacity. That means firing darts to distances of 75 feet (25 feet more than the record they already held), and increasing capacity from 35 to 50.
The New NERF N-Strike Elite
Jablonski started looking at mechanisms, from the crank in a salad spinner to the coin slots you see in a laundromat. But the musings paid off, and three years later Nerf debuted their new line: the N-Strike Elite. The new and improved line included the Stockade, the Stryfe, the Rayven CS-18, the Strongarm, the Retaliator, the Rampage, the Firestrike, and the Triad EX-3. Almost every new blaster can fire up to 75 feet, which, Jablonski said, was the easy part.
The more difficult benchmark was dart capacity. He could increase the drum, but it had to be light enough for seven and eight year old kids to life and aim. Instead, inspiration came to him in a meeting and he added multiple clips. They would rotate on a revolving tray, and each clip would replace the spent one. Jablonski’s design got the green light. Jablonski’s all-new design, the Hail Fire, was tested by a group of 20 girls and boys. And it worked.