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A Wet History of Top Guns

Review: Water Gun Roundup

The oldest known water gun was patented June 30 1896 as the USA Liquid Pistol to the pistol-shaped toy would be a squeeze bulb and tubing, allowing it to shoot water. By the 1930s, trigger-pull plastic guns, which worked like a spray bottle, were popular -- and actually resembled real guns! Manufacturers looked for new ways to use the technology, like this pesticide-shooter from 1931 and this ray gun from the 1960s.

The evolution of the modern water-blaster really began in the 1980s. An aerospace engineer named Lonnie Johnson was working for the Air Force in 1982 when he came up with the idea of a heat pump that used water instead of Freon as a cooling fluid. While experimenting with some tubing in his bathroom, Johnson shot water through a high-pressure nozzle, and quickly turned his interest into making a prototype pump water gun using PVC piping, plastic bottles, and Plexiglas for his 6 year-old daughter. She soon became the envy of the neighborhood and Johnson took out several patents to protect his work. Although he began shopping the idea to toy companies soon after, it took until 1989 for the idea to gain traction. That year, the Larami Corportation (which had previously released a battery-powered water gun fashioned after the Uzi) bought the rights and began making the Power Drencher, which became the Super Soaker the following year.

The explosion of high-powered water guns in the 1990s didn’t come without controversy. In Boston, a summer 1992 water fight escalated into a real gunfight, and one teenager was shot to death, causing Boston's mayor to ask local stores to stop stocking Super Soakers. Shortly after, a water fight spun out of control in New York and left two teenagers wounded. Politicians and law enforcement personnel faulted water gun makers in the wake of these tragedies, though others argued that it was real guns that were the problem. Despite the hullabaloo, the Super Soaker was the top-selling summer toy in the world by 1998, with retail sales at over $200 million.

Today, water guns come in all shapes and sizes, including battery-powered and upscale models. Though most guns stick to the neon and purple color palette of the early 1990s, there are some fashion-forward water toys on the market as well. The most recent guns combine air-pressure technology with other gimmicks, like colored water dye or the ability to shoot in several directions at once.

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