April 11, 2021

RDB-Design

Specialists in home design

The engineers building ridiculous dart blasters that Nerf won’t touch

It was a beautiful summer day in San Jose, California, perfect for pegging people with...

It was a beautiful summer day in San Jose, California, perfect for pegging people with foam. My brother was particularly proud: he’d already been getting some great tags with his Nerf revolver, and now some guy had sold him a nifty 3D-printed cylinder so it could hold seven darts instead of five. I wanted one, too.

It turned out the guy who sold him the cylinder, Luke, was mostly just there to say his goodbyes to the local Nerf group, before leaving the Bay Area for good. I didn’t think much of it at the time. I certainly didn’t know Luke Goodman was about to quit his day job to become the foam-slinging equivalent of James Bond’s gadget armorer Q.

Luke, better known as Out of Darts, went viral in 2015 when he figured out how to turn Nerf’s 12-round Zeus blaster into a 108-round ball-blasting contraption a little more worthy of the Greek god’s name. As many as 15 million people have watched PDK Films blow away an entire wall of Solo cups with Luke’s creation, after it got featured at Gizmodo and by popular Nerf YouTube star Drac (aka LordDraconical).

He wasn’t yet out to build a better Nerf blaster; Luke was simply doing some irrigation work in his backyard when he realized the pipe he was holding might fit inside the Zeus. “I put a piece of it in there, pulled the trigger and just cackled,” he tells me. When he saw the YouTube numbers, he couldn’t believe his eyes. Then the emails started pouring in. Hundreds of people had tracked him down, asking to buy his “HIRricane” blaster. He whipped up a quick Etsy shop and got to work. But even at $160 per kit or $325 for an assembled blaster — an “absurd price” he set to see if it was worth his time — he still couldn’t keep up with the demand.

Now, Out of Darts is at the forefront of a cottage industry selling original blasters and parts that can leave the official Nerf brand (owned by Transformers, G.I. Joe, and Magic: The Gathering giant Hasbro) in the dust. It’s almost something of an arms race, where the Nerf internet community one-ups each other by making their toy blasters shoot more foam faster, farther, and more accurately, whether to show off or to perform that much better in an actual game of Nerf. And while Hasbro is clearly taking some notes from the upstart maker community, 3D printers in particular are giving makers an edge they’ve never had before.

Originally, Luke took the cottage industry part literally, selling blasters and parts out of his own house with just a few 3D printers to start. But today, he’s the proud proprietor of a 3,800-square-foot warehouse with eight employees, running a 97-printer factory that consumes over 300 pounds of filament each month. They ship nearly 100 orders a day to an army of hobbyists eager to build epic blasters of their own, customers who can now select from 1,500 different products including individual batteries, motors, and original 3D-printed parts. It’s gotten to the point that they needed to build a custom inventory picking program just to keep it all organized and let workers box up multiple orders at once.

He now makes more money than he ever did behind the camera; enough to pay his shop employees an average of $20 an hour, too. He’s the first person I’d heard of to make a comfortable living from the Nerf cottage industry. But he’s far from the only one reshaping what a Nerf blaster can be.

The Little Rocket blaster with modular barrels.

Twenty-four colors of filament are stacked and ready to use in the 3D printers at Out of Darts. They go through over 300 pounds a month.

Blaster barrels produced in-house with 3D printers are organized by size and color at the Out of Darts warehouse and factory.

A 3D printer produces original parts at Out of Darts. Out of Darts runs 97 3D printers to produce their original blasters and modification parts.

In the ’90s, Nerf was a simple game of tag you could play at a distance with your siblings, friends, maybe the neighbor kid down the street. You’d be lucky if you could afford a blaster that could shoot a single dart more than 50 feet, and that was only if you fired up at an angle praying it would land on target. There’s a reason the word “nerfing” means to weaken something — Nerf blasters were supposed to be safe for kids — but kids got wise. They’d cut off the tip of an arrow-firing blaster to make it shoot darts, plug safety holes with hot glue, and add rubber bands or bungies to make them shoot farther. Modding was part of the excitement of Nerf; you could bring anything you liked to the park as long as it wouldn’t put someone’s eye out.

Around the world, hotspots began to form — groups of Nerfers who pooled their knowledge and resources to host giant Nerf wars that could last days at a time. The internet brought them online, and the sophistication level of modders crept up from trial and error to actual science, discussing the optimal winding of an electric motor, the length of a barrel. Engineers who used to fling a few darts as children have realized there’s now an entire online community waiting for them to demonstrate what they can make foam projectiles do.

Steven Lawver was one of those kids who returned to the hobby as a science pro. Known as Captain Slug, he’s a modder who has, arguably, single-handedly transformed the Nerf scene twice: once in 2007 with his “Plusbow,” a DIY re-creation of Nerf’s legendary 1995 Crossbow (once considered one of the most powerful blasters in the sport), and more recently in 2016 with the Caliburn, a 3D-printed marvel.

Properly tuned, the Caliburn was one of the first magazine-fed blasters that could reliably and repeatedly hit things at a distance, with a beefy 11-inch spring and a robust pump-action mechanism. It used to be you could simply run toward your foes in Nerf, dodging darts on the way; the first few times I faced off against a Caliburn, I got pegged in the head and torso multiple times before I even got within range.

But perhaps the real genius of the Caliburn was that Slug gave the files away for free, letting anyone print and remix the open-source plastic pieces themselves. He’ll build you a turnkey blaster if you’ve got the cash, sure, but he primarily sells packs of the metal hardware to folks who enjoy the mild challenge of assembling one at home. I certainly did:

A traditional full-length Caliburn blaster, designed by Captain Slug.
Photo by Sean Hollister / The Verge

A closer look at the Caliburn blaster, a long rifle with 3D printed parts.

I bought the metal parts from Slug’s online shop, but a friend printed the plastic ones locally.
Photo by Sean Hollister / The Verge

No readymade blaster ever offered that kind of performance until Slug showed the way. Now, they’re set to become a mainstay of sporting-grade Nerf, with companies like Jet Blaster and Dart Zone selling powerful, accurate rifle-shaped blasters for as little as $50 at Walmart. He’s even licensed his blaster designs to other shops; Worker, a quality Chinese aftermarket Nerf parts brand that increasingly sells blasters as well, cut a deal to mass-produce a “Worker Caliburn.” You can’t go to a modern Nerf war without seeing at least a handful of Caliburns, and forks off of the idea.

There have been strong signs that Hasbro is paying attention and might want a piece of the action. In 2015, it launched Rival, a line of blasters targeting older players, advertising “high-impact rounds” that would travel at “70 miles per hour.” After Luke’s 108-round “HIRricane” went viral, Hasbro released two $100-and-up blasters with 100-plus round capacities, too. But the official Nerf brand has yet to release anything anywhere near as powerful and accurate as Captain Slug’s Caliburn.

Last month, Slug decided to quit his day job, too. He tells me he was already spending nearly as much time on his expanding array of designs as he did working at a material science lab, but blasters have become the bigger breadwinner by far: after producing over 1,500 Caliburn kits, 4,500 metal hardware sets and inking eight licensing deals over the past few years, he now makes over $100,000 a year from custom Nerf blasters alone.

The Out of Darts Jupiter blaster.

Meanwhile, Out of Darts is nearly ready to bring a long-awaited invention to the world. It’s a next-gen version of the blaster that brought Luke his original 15 minutes of fame: the Out of Darts Rival Jupiter — designed in large part by his friend Tarik Crnovrsanin — and its companion Proton Pack, a device that can continually feed an incredible amount of ammo to a blaster through its swiveling tube.

Even by itself, the $99 Jupiter is an impressive sidearm, able to unleash a 12-ball blitz so fast foes don’t know what hit them. (That’s also partly because it’s so small.) I took it to a Nerf war before the pandemic hit, and I could tag out entire groups of foes at close range so long as I was willing to sacrifice myself — or lucky enough to find some cover for a rapid reload. But with the Proton Pack, it can live up to its Ghostbusters namesake: a nonstop stream of balls, only limited by the size of the ammo drum you’re willing to haul around.

I cram the entry-level 430-round hopper into my backpack, fill it to the brim with foam spheres, and seal it tight so the pressure from its brushless blower fan (and jam-busting auger) can feed them into the tube. And then, yes, I cackle too — as every single one of those 430 balls blast across my backyard from a veritable firehose I can hold in a single hand. Which in turn invites an obvious question: why not wield two?

Luke Goodman with the Out of Darts Proton Pack and Jupiter, which can fire 20 rounds a second. He says he’s blasted tens of thousands of rounds through the system without jamming.

The answer might be the price: when Luke’s Proton Pack finally goes on sale later today (after teasing his customers for years), it’ll cost $165 for the DIY kit alone, not including a blaster or battery. If you want to pair it with a Jupiter, that’ll be an additional $99, though you’ll also be able to buy an adapter for some of the most popular blasters Hasbro sells — including the Perses, Zeus, Khaos, and Hera — just so long as you’ve got the basic soldering skills to rewire them. One financial consolation prize is you’ll only need one battery to power both: the Proton Pack doubles as a power source for your blaster, even sensing the current draw from your flywheels before it spins up its own motors to feed balls through the flexible swiveling tube.

Loads of small yellow foam balls pour into a canister, then blast out a pistol-sized blaster.

What the Jupiter and Proton Pack can do.

Overpowered? Perhaps, but that’s the state of the Nerf hobby in 2021, where I see incredible original blasters appear at the r/Nerf and r/NerfHomemades subreddits on what feels like a weekly basis these days. The wide availability of 3D printers, powerful miniature motors, and high-power LiPo batteries has transformed the hobby over the past few years, to the point that seemingly unbeatable blasters are foiled by new inventions before long. “The first two games I just hammered people,” says Luke of his early Proton Pack prototypes, but his advantage didn’t last. “Two or three games later, everyone had Caliburns, and I’d get [tagged] before I stepped out from behind the tree.”

It’s the next expansion that might be Out of Darts’ most ambitious yet. Though he hasn’t been able to visit China for over a year, Luke managed to find a genuine factory to start mass-producing his original products with actual injection-molded plastic. He’s starting small with a new dart magazine for existing blasters, but says that it might make more sense to invest in tooling than 3D printing for anything they’re likely to sell a few thousand of — for instance, their popular Rival Perses hopper, which expands the 50-round capacity of Nerf’s fastest blaster to 160 rounds while making it far, far easier to reload. (It also helps that it’s a large, difficult part to 3D print, but comparatively easy to mold.)

The Nerf Rival Perses, with Out of Darts’ 3D-printed hopper.

Luke admits that it’s a nerve-wracking experience, waiting to find out if the first production run from a factory he’s never actually managed to visit will be good enough — each set of tooling can cost tens of thousands of dollars. “That’s why we hadn’t gotten into it yet; I wasn’t going to risk my whole business on a design,” he tells me.

The not-so-dirty, not-so-secret dirty little secret of the Nerf cottage industry is that 3D-printed plastic isn’t very profitable, so injection molding is one way forward. Otherwise, metal’s where the money’s at; threaded rods, screws, and springs are the bulk of Slug’s business, and one-fifth of Out of Darts’ sales come from motors alone. With few exceptions, you could buy them from anywhere.

But each business has amazing goodwill in the community, and it’s not hard to see why: they show up, time and again, with something new and exciting to contribute. Speak CaptainSlug’s name on Reddit, and he’ll often magically appear — sometimes to share progress on a brand-new design, sometimes just to shoot the shit or comment on your build. Another community example: FoamBlast, a rival parts business that also collaborates with Out of Darts, hosts a weekly Nerf news show.

When Luke’s not running the shop or answering customer email, he also spends much of his time on YouTube, filming remarkably high-quality video reviews and mod guides for Nerf’s latest blasters, often with parts he created specifically to make modding more accessible.

In January 2019, I decided to try a high-power rapid-fire blaster mod with his custom parts instead of fiddling with hot glue, and was pleasantly surprised by how easy it was. For under $25, I bought some excellent hobby wire, a couple high-amperage Omron switches, and four 3D printed parts designed to perfectly mate those switches with a Nerf blaster’s triggers. A few hours later, guided by this step-by-step Out of Darts video, I’d turned my Nerf Rival Nemesis, already one of Hasbro’s more powerful designs, into a beast kicking out 9 balls a second.

Tarik Crnovrsanin (at right) holds two of his designs: a Proud Papa mounted atop a Jupiter. He’s a data scientist who also built the website and picker software for Out of Darts.

And last November, Out of Darts collaborator Tarik surprised me with the accessory I’ve been secretly begging Nerf to make for years: a bolt-on blaster for your blaster, so you can shoot while you reload. He calls his $20 Little Rocket / $22 mountable Proud Papa the world’s smallest 3D-printed blaster, but it also packs quite a punch, firing standard Nerf darts with more power than many of Nerf’s own blasters at a fraction of the size. Better still, it’s got modular twist ’n’ lock barrels to quickly swap out a single long-range dart for a three-round spread or a shield-busting Mega. (Shields are a thing in some Nerf games, and the big red Mega darts are traditionally what you need to take them out of commission.)

It’s exactly the kind of product that Out of Darts wants to be known for, Luke says: something the community wants, and that nobody had thought to create and sell quite yet.

These days, Luke tells me, he buys every single blaster from every brand as soon as he possibly can, to test it, figure out whether it’s going to be popular, and — if so — where he sees room for improvements he can make and sell. That’s where the easy-to-reload Perses hopper idea came from, and more recently, a mod for that powerful $50 Walmart blaster, the 125-feet-per-second Dart Zone Nexus Pro. “We have games that don’t allow blasters to shoot that hard, and some where we’d like to shoot harder,” says Luke, who started selling an incredibly elegant solution in no time flat: a “tuning cap” you can install in seconds to reduce or increase compression on the spring that powers your blaster.

“It was probably two or three weeks from the second I got the blaster to us having a product out,” says Luke, who credits the low prototyping costs of 3D printing with the fast turnaround. It wouldn’t have been possible with injection molding alone.

There are risks to building your entire livelihood on a hobby predominantly controlled by a single company, of course. Nerf brand owner Hasbro discourages modding as a general rule, and when its entire 2020 lineup of “Elite 2.0” blasters turned out to be a cut-rate selection of poor performers that were hard for modders to open, he wound up with nothing to sell.

Ninety-seven 3D printers produce modification parts and complete blasters at Out of Darts.

A few days after we spoke, Hasbro revealed its biggest Nerf news in years — a successor to Rival that seems likely to replace it entirely, and, I imagine, make some of Luke’s planned products obsolete. I hopped back on the phone with Luke, to ask him what he’ll do. To my surprise, he didn’t seem even a little bit worried. If anything, he seemed giddy — already full of ideas for the new Hyper lineup.

Sure, he probably won’t make any more hoppers for the discontinued Perses, but he thinks a hopper might fit perfectly atop the similar Mach-100… should the community embrace the smaller (and likely easier to lose) Hyper ammo, of course. He thinks there’s more than enough Rival blasters already out in the world to sell the 1,000 Proton Packs he’s building, too. They’re out of Hasbro’s hands now.

It makes me think back to the last big Nerf war I attended, where I saw more than a handful of Nerfers go into battle without a single scrap of actual Nerf-branded gear. The community has its own magazines, its own ammo, and is now regularly building blasters more powerful than anything Hasbro has ever put on shelves. “It’s Nerf or nothing” hasn’t been true for a while.

When I ask Luke what does keep him up at night, he says there isn’t much; perhaps just that he’s got seven employees whose livelihoods now depend on his business, too. There was a moment at the beginning of the pandemic where it seemed like everything would fall apart, the shop would be forced to close, and that would have been the end; he would have had to go back to shooting weddings and tech company videos. Instead, he closed for a couple days, switched most of the printers over to medical face shields for a few weeks, and that was it. The orders kept coming in.