How Does a NERF Gun Work?

By James Holloway
Blasters like this one launch NERF darts using a plunger system.

The release of the NERF Sharpshooter in 1992 started an era of NERF dart blasters that has continued to the present. Each new generation of blasters introduces new ways for friends to launch hails of safe, soft and colorful darts at each other. Despite the many variations in design, ammunition capacity and accuracy, NERF blasters all use the same basic technology.

Dart Launching

The mechanism at the heart of most NERF dart blasters is the plunger system. A mechanism cocks back the plunger, which then shoots forward when the shooter pulls the trigger. The plunger compresses the air in the dart chamber, creating pressure that pushes the dart out of the barrel. There are two main types of plunger. Direct plungers push into the dart chamber, while reverse plungers surround the chamber, pulling back to draw the dart into the chamber and then sliding forward to push it out again. The N-Strike Elite series has reintroduced the older direct plunger design to increase range. Other blasters rely on the user to pump up air pressure in a tank; these blasters typically have AS (Air System) in their names.

Loading Mechanisms

Different blasters load darts in different ways. The simplest mechanism involves the shooter manually loading a dart into the barrel via the muzzle. Other blasters have revolving mechanisms that rotate multiple barrels into place. More complex blasters, such as the Vulcan EBF-25, use an electric motor to draw new darts into the dart chamber via an ammunition belt. The more common magazine system uses a spring to push a new round out of the magazine (also called a "clip") into the dart chamber when the previous one is fired.

Disc Blasters

The Vortex disc blaster series, unlike dart blasters, launches circular discs. Loading one of these discs winds a torsion spring. When the shooter pulls the trigger, the spring rapidly propels the firing arm into contact with the disc. The arm hits slightly to one side of the disc, making it spin forward out of the barrel. Disc blasters have a longer ranger than their dart-firing counterparts.

Applying the Principles

A thriving community of hobbyists enjoys modifying NERF weapons. Some of these changes are merely superficial, but others rely on understanding these basic functional principles. Common modifications include replacing the spring that powers the plunger in order to give it greater power and range. Other NERF enthusiasts give their guns tighter dart chamber seals to improve air pressure, expanded magazines, or accessories such as stocks and sights.

About the Author

Dr James Holloway has been writing about games, geek culture and whisky since 1995. A former editor of "Archaeological Review from Cambridge," he has also written for Fortean Times, Fantasy Flight Games and The Unspeakable Oath. A graduate of Cambridge University, Holloway runs the blog Gonzo History Gaming.