Paintball and Airsoft are both great hobbies. They are exciting, build good communities, and get people out into the world to get some exercise. However, neither of these hobbies are as popular as they could be. There are many possible reasons for this, but I think there are a few that stand front and center.
The most obvious one is that both paintball and Airsoft hurt! Paintball is probably the bigger offender here, but BB pellets fired at 400 feet per second can also leave quite a mark. While the pain level in both these hobbies are not what I would consider particularly high, I can easily imagine the average person being put off by the idea.
The second issue is cost. Both paintball and Airsoft can be very expensive. Even entry level guns, markers, and safety gear can run into hundreds of dollars. Not to mention that you have to spend money to book safe venues to play.
So what do you do if you’re intrigued by the idea of simulated combat, but are too intimidated by the learning curve and cost of entry for paintball and Airsoft? I’m going to argue that NERF might be just the stepping stone you (or someone you know) needs on the way to more hardcore simulated combat hobbies. We’ll talk about what NERF is and why it’s a good alternative to jumping headfirst into paintball or Airsoft.
What Is NERF?
“NERF” is a brand name that was first attached to soft sports equipment (like NERF footballs) that were safe to play with inside. In the late 80s the company released the first Nerf Blasters. These toys fire rubber-tipped darts made from Nerf foam.
While getting hit in the eye with a Nerf dart may be a little unpleasant, it’s unlikely to do any real harm. Anywhere else on the body? Perfectly safe. While you’ll feel a Nerf hit, it won’t hurt you. So that’s one major issue people may have that has been dealt with neatly.
Since launching the first basic blasters in the late 80s, the range and types of blasters have increased by an insane degree. There are all sorts of blaster types that use different firing mechanisms.
There are basic blasters that can fire one dart at a time and have to be reloaded; they’re mostly used as office toys, if I have to be honest. Then you get blasters that can hold multiple darts, but have to be primed every time. Some Nerf revolvers work like this, but if you know what you’re doing you can get a decent rate of fire.
Most blasters used in play are fed by a magazine, although belt-fed blasters also exist. In terms of how the darts are propelled, there are basically two core ways they work. The first is air pressure. Air is pushed against the Nerf dart, flinging it out the barrel at a fair clip. A range of 20 feet for a sidearm is not out of the question. The second mechanism uses an electric motor spinning two wheels with precisely a dart-sized gap between them. Another mechanism pushes the dart between the two wheels, which flings it into play.
There’s also the disc-firing Vortex system and many other variants on this idea. Speaking of which, there are a lot of blaster designs too. You can have sidearms, rifles, big old vulcan cannons, and even bows. The magazine-fed blasters with high firing rates are usually battery-powered and there are also Air System blasters that use a compressed air tank to rapidly fire darts. The bottom line is there are plenty of blaster styles to choose from. There are even bolt-action Nerf sniper rifles!
The designs of Nerf blasters are usually creative and very cool. It’s become quite common for movies to paint and modify Nerf weapons as props for Sci-Fi movies. The Nerf Longshot in particular seems to get a lot of screen time.
There are many different Nerf dart types, usually attached to a particular series of range of blasters. For example, the current Elite Strike blasters come with similarly-branded darts. Elite darts are the standard these days as they are the most widely compatible with older Nerf systems. They also tend to perform the best, with older dart design being less accurate and/or lacking the range. That shouldn’t stop you from taking a good deal on used darts, though.
Just about any game type you can play with paintball or Airsoft will work with Nerf, as long as everyone honors the hits they take, just as in Airsoft. So deathmatch, capture the flag, and all the rest are possible. In fact, it’s made interesting by the fact that you can play in all sorts of real-world locations.
Paying the Piper
Getting into Nerf is MUCH cheaper than putting down the minimum amount to get into either paintball or Airsoft. Most Nerf blasters that can be used as a main weapon are somewhere around the fifty dollar mark. There are plenty to choose from below and above this price point, but even twenty bucks will net you something decent, while a cool sidearm may be around ten bucks.
Take into account that you don’t really need to buy any safety gear. At most, a pair of clear safety glasses from the hardware store will be enough to keep you perfectly safe.
You can also play Nerf battles just about anywhere – in a park or backyard for example. No one is going to be hurt if a dart accidentally hits them. Although, of course, you should have permission and not irritate people who aren’t part of your game.
As you can imagine, there are plenty of Nerf competitors. The only one I’ll bother mentioning is BoomCo. They make guns of comparable quality and there’s no reason the products can’t be mixed, other than ammo compatibility, that is. If you go with an off-brand Nerf replica you may save even more money and still get just as much joy from a very fun game.
A Few Suggestions
This article isn’t meant to be a comprehensive guide to Nerf or anything, but I thought it would be a good idea to come up with some actual suggested blasters. I have owned or played with quite a few of these, though not all. Nerf blasters are cheap enough that most people can afford to experiment until they find those that really work for them.
Nerf N-Strike Elite Strongarm Blaster
I have actually owned several Strongarm Blasters and have a real soft spot for this particular blaster. It’s a revolver type, and if you’ve read any of my Airsoft content you’ll know I have a thing for the revolver design.
As a primary weapon the Strongarm is good for small battles with other people also armed with similar blasters. It’s compact and holds six darts before needing a reload. If you’re playing by rules where one hit takes you out, then that’s plenty. The Strongarm uses the traditional plunger system, so you have to manually pull the slide back to cock it. Despite this, you can empty all six darts in just a few seconds with some practice.
As a Nerf sidearm it’s not as good. Since it needs two hands to operate, that means dropping your Nerf rifle, which may be fine if you’re using a sling. I have reloaded one-handed with some success, though, by pushing the sling against my leg. It will work in a pinch, but I would not recommend it. Since the Strongarm is so cheap, it’s great as a first taste of Nerf and it needs no batteries. Buy two and give one to a friend!
Nerf N-Strike Elite SurgeFire
OK, here we have another blaster that uses a revolving drum to hold ammo. This design is more like a pump-action shotgun. You pump it once to prime it and then pull the trigger to fire. Once again, you can get a pretty decent rate of fire with this and it doesn’t need batteries. This blaster supports “slam firing” – if you hold down the trigger each pump will actually fire the dart. Not only does this let you fire more rapidly, you can vary how much power is put into each shot, making a range of up to 90 feet possible!
The main downside is that reloading takes some time, so this may combine well with a sidearm that uses a magazine.
Nerf N-Strike Elite Rapidstrike CS-18
The Elite Rapidstrike uses a motorized launch system with two triggers to operate it. You hold in one trigger to spin up the motor and then another to launch the darts. It has one of those long Nerf magazines, holding 18 darts in all. Thanks to this, you can quickly change magazines during play, so ammo should not be a problem.
The Rapidstrike CS-18 is a little on the pricey side for a Nerf blaster, but it is one of the better main blasters and should be versatile enough to use in most situations. You can empty the magazine about as quickly as you can pull the trigger, although I have found that waiting for the motor to reach full speed after every shot maximizes range. In the case of the Rapidstrike, you can expect as much as 75 feet under good conditions.
Nerf Rival Nemesis MXVII-10K
To end the Nerf blaster showcase, here is something a little more crazy. The Rival nemesis doesn’t fire darts. Instead it fires foam balls from a hopper. That might sound familiar, and you’d be right. This is basically a Nerf take on paintball, with the Rival blasters being pitched as a bit more hardcore. Heck, they even show the players using protective face masks.
However, paintball this ain’t. It only fires these foam balls at 100 feet per second, or only about a third of typical paintball markers. Add to that the low mass of the foam balls and this is still a safe and painless way to play. What I like about this Nerf product is that it’s the closest Nerf gets to paintball, albeit with some unique quirks. For one thing, this is not a Nerf Air System product, but uses a motor to fling the balls. Convince a few friends to get these and you could be playing more often than paintball allows.
We’re Not Nerfing Paintball and Airsoft
The word “Nerf” has taken on the meaning of taking the sting out of something. Ironically, my argument here is not that paintball or Airsoft should be nerfed, but that Nerf and its clones offer a supplemental way of playing a similar game, and there’s nothing wrong with that!