Many of us carry our childhood passions with us throughout our lives – whether it’s a sport we discovered at an early age and still love, or a collection that was started as a kid and still isn’t finished. Young obsession is a difficult thing to shake off.
However, Alex Cooke, 26, and a camera salesperson by day, discovered a childhood passion when he reached adulthood. It wasn’t until a few years ago that Alex found Nerf – the foam-dart shooting guns that have been popular with kids around the world since the late 1980s.
Be honest, you know them. And you’ve fired them. And they’re pretty bloody cool.
Though it’s commonplace to see Nerf blasters adorning the shelves of toy shops and department stores, the game also has a devoted adult following that you may not know about.
This adaptation of the hobby might not be completely suitable for kids either. Alex and his mates modify Nerf blasters to enhance their performance and increase their power. He houses all of his blasters in his dedicated Nerf armoury – a backyard shed that is full of blasters of different shapes and sizes and works alongside the Hobart Nerf Squadron to organise war games with fellow aficionados.
Alex says his obsession with the foam-based weaponry was instigated in 2010 at his half-brother’s Christmas party.
“I was getting a bit bored while waiting for lunch, so I went to see what the kids were making so much noise about. It turns out my nephew had been spoilt rotten with some Nerf blasters, including a particularly large yellow and orange monster. I later discovered this was a ‘Vulcan’ EBF-25,” he recalls.
“As I walked nearer to this beast of plastic, I assumed that it was one of those toy guns that just made noise and flashed its lights. Prior to this my only experience with toy guns was with cap guns or laser tag, but this thing was huge!”
It turns out that Alex underestimated what he was getting himself in to – he soon found that he had walked into an all-out foam war zone. He wanted to arm himself with a blaster of his own… but it was already too late. Before he knew it, he was bombarded by a troop of little brats, armed with an assortment of Nerf blasters, firing off rubber-tipped foam projectiles of mayhem anywhere and everywhere.
“I finally picked up a blaster to defend myself and my brother Tom joined in to back me up. Eventually we decided to surprise the current Vulcan wielder. Tom jumped out from the garden shed and was promptly struck with a rapid barrage of foam darts. I then strafed out from the BBQ shelter, took aim at the kid and fired. The Vulcan motors whirred into life with the barrel pointed towards me and began to fire.
“I then heard an odd clicking sound and the Vulcan stopped spinning. Not a single dart exited its barrel. Upon closer inspection, I could see that my dart had dived right down the gullet of the Vulcan barrel and jammed the belt feed! It was such a hilarious, yet exciting and victorious moment for me.”
Although war is never a pretty thing, it always changes the lives of those involved. It seems that the same can be said for Nerf war. Within a matter of days, he and a bunch of mates had raided a local toy store for some brand new Nerf gear.
Alex was already hooked and the, rest, as they say, is history.
Now, with over 80 working Nerf blasters and another 40 that are the remnants of attempted experiments or simply used for spare parts, Alex has come to the conclusion that he’s completely obsessed. It has even got to the point where he needs a dedicated space to house his massive collection and carry out his maintenance and modifications.
“It got to the point where I had transformed our drive-in garage below our unit into a Nerf-modding laboratory; complete with an extension cord to the garage that hung out of a window three floors above to provide an outlet for power tools. That’s when I realised this hobby was seriously stepping up its game,” Alex says.
When it comes to modifying Nerf blasters, Alex says that the sky is the limit – it really boils down to how creative you want to be.
“Customising blasters with paint jobs and adding external components is common, and it’s a great way to personalise your artillery, making it unique from what you bought off the shelf or what other Nerf buddies have,” he explains.
“For performance, the aim is to make the blaster fire further, more accurately and at a faster rate. You can also make them fire multiple darts, or even integrate multiple blasters together to increase functionality. Some blasters are pretty restrictive by design on how much can be improved, while others are actually recommended to be modified to make them more reliable or more durable before seeing any serious mods or Nerf war action.
“My modding focuses more on performance; to get the best balance of reliability and distance as I can. Sometimes I will reshape the exterior shell of a blaster to make it unique and more comfortable to use. I am yet to attempt paint jobs but it is on my to-do list.”
Alex admits that he has not only learned more than he thought he ever would about the inner-workings of Nerf blasters, but he has also picked up some valuable tool skills along the way.
“Depending on the particular blaster, you can be faced with electronics, motors, gears, air tanks, plunger tubes, springs, and more. Some blasters will have very minimalist and simplistic internals, while others can be so complex you need a guide to learn how to take it apart, what each part does and where each wire or tube belongs. Luckily there are multiple forums, blogs, YouTubers and Facebook groups that act like databases dedicated solely to Nerf information and modifications.
“A little bit of knowledge on how these systems work and how to use specific tools correctly is required to do a successful Nerf mod or repair without ruining it. A bit of common sense and safety consideration goes a long way too.
“I don’t consider myself to be a highly skilled modder, but when I have a goal in mind for a particular modding project, I push myself to learn what I can and acquire whatever tools and techniques I need in order to reach that goal. I’ve learned quite a bit just from Nerf modding, including how certain mechanics work, how to solder and how to use certain power tools I’ve never touched before.”
Because these blasters are aimed at children first and foremost, they often require a high level of safety, and can therefore be difficult to disassemble and modify.
“There can be DIY detours for some blasters, but others can be so strictly designed that it is not worth the effort for very minimal improvement,” Alex says.
“There are also businesses and individuals in Australia and internationally who custom-fabricate certain Nerf parts, or complete overhaul kits to replace most of the internals to a specific blaster. The rise in 3D printing has also provided a great way to create replacement parts and custom accessories.”
The first Nerf blaster Alex significantly modified also happens to be his favourite. This, the ‘Longunov’, resembles a sniper rifle in appearance and function – it is slow to fire, has great range and superb accuracy.
“I essentially merged two blaster shells into one. In my early Nerf warrior career it would almost always be my main blaster of choice and has won me many battles,” Alex says.
“Then as my modding skills increased, along came the ‘Iron Kurtain’ – an electronic, full-auto, belt-fed minigun style blaster that rapidly fires darts and can hold an exorbitant amount of ammo at 100 darts in a single belt! It certainly wows and intimidates in Nerf wars – the minute it starts firing, every enemy runs for cover.”
As much as Alex enjoys modifying blasters and engaging with the Nerf community, everything leads to these Nerf wars at the end of the day.
“It’s a thrill to play either allied or against your friends and there are many laughs and surprises. It’s a good exercise and unlike paintball there is very little, if any, pain involved, so even the kids can join in,” he says.
“But it is also relaxing to spend time with other people and to be a part of a community which understands and shares your interest in Nerf. It’s a place where you not only feel like you belong, but also where you will not be judged for having what others may consider an odd hobby.”
When it’s time for battle to commence, Nerf wars aren’t simply a free-for-all with players shooting aimlessly. In fact, there are a number of different games, such as Team Deathmatch, where two or more teams compete to be the last team standing; Capture the Flag, where one team defends a device while the opposing team attempts to steal it; and Rescue the VIP, where one player is the VIP and being held captive by one team, while the other team has to save them and bring them back to a safe zone to win before the timer runs out. Another of the more speciality games, and a popular one with various Nerf groups, is Humans versus Zombies. Here, most players start out as humans that use Nerf blasters, while zombies run and use stealth to hand-tag the humans to turn them into zombies.
“Games that have a time limit can be extremely adrenaline fuelled when you have to try and accomplish a goal before the time runs out, while other games without a deadline can be pretty relaxed. But there is always that element of surprise; a foe jumping out of a bush or sneaking up behind you through the trees, or suddenly getting rushed by a swarm of enemies. It’s always enough to keep you on your toes,” Alex says.
“Ending up in a duel or stand-off can be pretty tense. The tension really mounts when the odds are against you and you’re out-numbered, out-gunned or on the run. There are certainly lots of highs and sportsmanlike lows in Nerf battles, but win or lose it is the fun in the middle that always makes it worthwhile.”
The number of Nerf gamers and modders is growing in Australia, with the Canberra & Southern NSW Dart Tag being the major group leading the charge. Alex says that one day he hopes to travel around Australia and participate alongside different Nerf groups, with an ultimate dream of organising a nationwide tournament.
For any blokes out there who have considered getting into the world of Nerf, Alex says that the first stage is to stop worrying about what people around you think.
“Joining online social groups like Facebook or Nerf forums is a great way to meet new people both locally and internationally, and learn more about Nerf. If you want to take up Nerf modding, one part is researching, the other part is experimenting. The key is to never be afraid of failure because at the end of the day, you always learn from your mistakes,” Alex says.
“I think people should just follow what they love doing. If you enjoy Nerf, go with it and don’t feel embarrassed by it. One of the most daunting things for me was how I felt to be playing with toys designed for children. I found myself worrying about what others may think, but at the end of the day if you’re having fun and not doing any harm, then that is what matters most.”