Water Guns: Something Bold, Something New
Remember those sweet summer days running around with friends trying to blast them with water guns? In my neighborhood, such battles usually ended with someone getting pegged in the eye and crying, but as soon as the next hot day rolled around, we’d be back … water fighting in the streets. Just in time for some hot weather and long days, we reviewed some of the top guns for 2009 – so you can get your hands on the best soaking gadgets around. All of these products were released this year. The Super Soaker 50 just hit the market this month, while the other three were released earlier in the year. The Renegade is a completely new model, while the rest are all echoes of guns you may have seen before. One thing is for sure: the water gun industry has made some pretty great leaps since the days of the dinky plastic blaster.
History of the Water Gun
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.
Types of Water Guns Tested
In honor of the birthday of the pump gun that started the water gun explosion, we reviewed four water guns: the Super Soaker Bottle Shot, the Sizzlin’ Cool Steady Stream, the Water Warriors Renegade, and the 20th anniversary rereleased Super Soaker 50. All of these guns are available in major toy stores, and all are in the range of $6-$15. Two of the guns – the Super Soaker and the Renegade – are air-pressurized pump guns, and two – the Steady Stream and the Bottle Shot – are one-pump shooters. The guns are all models that have been upgraded or improved for this summer; (something of which you may not have been aware. it’s interesting to me that toy makers actually release new water guns for almost every summer season. Although the changes may be minor, you could also say that about some other yearly releases, eh TomTom?
Super Soaker Bottle Shot: Specs and Style
The Super Soaker Bottle Shot ($7.99) is a basic pump gun with a cool trick: it can work with any plastic bottle. It comes with a small 8-ounce tank, but we immediately screwed that off and added a 67.6-ounce (2 liter) soda bottle to the sprayer. With the 4+ pounds of water in the tank, the gun can last quite some time – but sticking something that big onto the back does make it a little awkward to carry.
The mechanism for sucking water out of the tank is basically a little tail-like filter that floats around inside whatever you’re using to haul water – unfortunately, it can pull air and create a bad stream when the gun is close to empty, so don’t count on getting a good stream coherence when you’re close to needing a fillup. Also, you have to pull the handle outward to operate the pump squirter, which was a little confusing to me at first. The Bottle Shot has an advertised range of 20 feet, which is somewhat lower than the other guns (for ranges we found when testing, read on). Still, the ability to carry ammo for fillups would give you a significant boost in a long duration water battle. Just be sure to avoid using Perrier – nobody likes little CO2 bubbles in the brain.
Sizzlin’ Cool Steady Stream: Specs and Style
Sizzlin’ Cool’s Steady Stream ($5.99) is the cheapest of our four competitors. Its trick is to keep spraying a burst of water continuously while you pump the gun for more juice, making a one-pump gun behave more like a air-pressure gun – but without the skin-shearing power.
The Steady Stream holds a solid 38 ounces of water and is advertised to shoot up to 35 feet. We found that the neon orange cap that holds the water in the tank is leaky and flimsy; with enough use that cap would break from the gun’s body, necessitating some major repairs. The gun’s stream was indeed steady as advertised – but at longer distances the stream came out more like drops rather than a coherent flow. On the flip side, the look and feel of the Steady Stream is what you’d expect from a water gun and it is balanced well even when full.
Water Warriors Renegade: Specs and Style
Buzz Bee Toys’ Water Warriors Renegade ($14.99) is the heavyweight entry to our water blaster showdown. It is an air-pressured weapon with a 58-ounce water tank and an advertised blast range of 42 feet. When full, it weighs in at 5.75 pounds and definitely requires two hands to operate - so keep that in mind if you’re trying to shoot back through someone else’s onslaught! Though the box says ages 6 and up can use this blaster, it might be too tough for many tots to tote.
The Renegade has a cool nozzle with three separate settings and can be adjusted between them: water saver is a small opening, medium stream, and drenching stream is about three times the diameter of medium. We found that pumping the handle created an unpleasent plastic squeaky noise that is probably the product of plastic friction. It was also a little hard to fill the voluminous tank in the kitchen sink -- though it might be easier with a hose. We found that the pumping and pressurizing was quite easy.
Super Soaker 50: Specs and Style
Ahhhhhh, the Super Soaker. Weapon of vengance, of triumph, of history. The Super Soaker 50 ($14.99) retains the retro-look of the original SS 50, now 20 years old. The package claims it has a capacity of 25 ounces and will shoot an advertised 35 feet. One major difference from the original is that you can no longer unscrew the tank and fill it or dump it; a screw cap on the tank’s top is the only way to load up. We found this cap to be a little bit leaky and hard to screw down tight enough; half the time I screwed it and tried to pump the gun I could hear air escaping from the cap. From what I remember, this was a problem with the older model as well – so it looks like 20 years of engeineering still can’t keep that damn bottle shut.
Like the original, it took us about 40 pumps to get maximum pressure for the gun, and it still leaks like a guy at a WWII movie when you turn it upside down. Still, there is something very satisfying about holding a part of childhood again, and this blaster is still one of the best.
Tests: Volume and Refill Time
We put the guns through a battery of tests (no batteries needed, fortunately!) including measurements of tank volume, refill time, maximum range, duration of stream from one trigger pull, optimal distance for soaking and muzzle velocity. All the review tests were conducted over the course of two days. We also included price and the more subjective measurement of soakability in our review. Soakability is probably the best measure of any gun – it measures in a totally subjective way how wet a target can get in the least amount of time. For this dangerous task, we used a professional stand-in to give feedback on exactly how drenched he got; and believe me, the difference was… remarkable.
Test: Volume and Refill Time
It’s no fun to run back to the hose every few minutes to refuel for the next attack. In this test, we measured the tank volume of each gun and also the time it took to refill the tanks and screw on caps/repressurize tanks to get back into the game.
As you can see, the Bottle Shot would be a good choice if you didn’t want to refill often – especially because you can carry extra water bottles for ammunition and refill anywhere. The Renegade has a good size tank, but without a hose or sink nearby to fill up, you could miss out on most of the fight while trying to find a refilling station. The Steady Stream has a medium tank, and it doesn’t go through it too fast, but the Super Soaker’s tank might just be a wee bit small for the amount of firepower it has – plus the time needed to repressurized the Super Soaker in order to get the first shot off is significant. We actually found that each gun’s tank included space for an extra 2-5oz more water above what was advertised.
Test: Muzzle Velocity
Having a strong blast coming down the barrel of your water gun is essential if you want to shock and awe your opponents. We thought it would be fun to see exactly how fast the water is leaving the guns. Sure, this is directly related (at least on the single-pump squirters) to how hard you can pull the pump – but since I did all the tests myself, it should at least give a relatively level playing field.
For this test, we used some printed sheets with 1-inch bars on them, and a digital camera with a 30-frame-per-second movie mode. By watching the water move in 1/30 second increments, we could count the number of inches the water moves from the muzzle of the gun and then multiply the calculation out to feet per second. We did this twice for each gun. This is what we found:
As you can see, the Super Soaker’s stream is about twice as fast as the other guns’ flow. Just for comparison, most air rifles have muzzle velocities of 800 feet per second, and BB guns clock in at 200-300 feet per second. Now those two would REALLY hurt if they shot a water blast into your eye.
Everyone wants to squirt the farthest; that’s why water guns always advertise their maximum distance (or range) in GIGANTIC font on the box. For this test, we tilted the guns to a 45 degree angle and fired them three times each down the sidewalk on a hot dry day, measuring the farthest droplets from the starting place. Since it was the maximum drop distance, we also added another test to monitor optimal distance for soaking an opponent. This is what we found:
All of the guns met or outperformed their advertised ranges; in fact, the Bottle Shot reached nearly twice the distance the makers said it could – of course, it was just a few drops that reached all 39 feet, but still, that’s a good performance. Only the Renegade (on drenching stream setting) reached just the advertised distance.
In this photo, I am measuring the second half of the stream, as my tape measure was only 30 feet long! We definitely scared away some of the people walking tiny accessory dogs in the neighborhood by firing shots.
Test: Stream Duration of one Trigger Pull
We also wanted to find out how long the spray would last from one pull of the water gun’s trigger – for situations where you wanted to keep a stream up as long as possible before pulling the trigger a second time. Again, the air-pressure guns were favored in this event over the one-pump guns, but we figured it still would be useful to know for the soakability test.
The Super Soaker outperformed the others on length of stream time. This means you could hit an enemy while on the move and not pumping or pressing the trigger, or you could do something else – say, fill water balloons – with your free hand while firing.
Test: Optimal Distance
Before the final deluge of the soakability test, we wanted to find out the best distance to stand from one’s opponent to soak them. We got some fairly impressive numbers for range, but we knew that some guns only put scattered droplets on the maximum range; instead we wanted to know where the maximum amount of water would fall in the stream. For this test, we shot each gun again from shoulder level down a hot dry sidewalk and measured the farthest place that had enough stream coherence to get an opponent wet. Clearly, this is subjective – but we were also monitoring the density of drops hitting the sidewalk.
For each gun, the optimal distance for getting an opponent wet was short of the maximum range, but for the Renegade it was 20 feet shorter. This means that while an opponent can be hit at 42 feet, a shooter must move much closer to get any kind of soaking.
Our most subjective and final test was the measure of soakiness, or how wet an opponent would get in one spray. We did this test with a professional water gun volunteer, in a park. I stood about 15 feet from the victim and shot once with each gun on a different side of his body. He rated how soaked he felt, and also gave some insight on the experience.
The Gold medal of soakiness goes to: Super Soaker. Our volunteer quips: “They should have a warning on this gun like on Splash Mountain: you will get wet!” Final rating: 9/10.
Silver prize goes to the Renegade on Drencher setting. “It was like turning on a miniature hose, but it didn’t last that long.” Final rating: 7/10.
The Bronze medal in soakery goes to the Bottle Shot. “I knew I was getting wet, but I couldn’t tell from where.” Final rating: 4/10.
And where’s our fourth place trophy? Oh, that pile of aluminum cans? Okay – that goes to the Steady Stream. “I would have been dry again in a few minutes if you didn’t keep shooting me.” Final rating: 3/10.
And the Winner Is...
As you can see from the data from our quasi-rigorous testing, the Super Soaker 50 performed remarkably well after all these years. Despite having some annoying features, like a difficult screw cap that makes for longer refill times, it shot the farthest, the fastest, and soaked the best. The Water Warriors Renegade has some cool parts – like being able to change the aperture for shooting – and shot as far as it claimed, but fell a little short with the soakiness and the muzzle velocity tests. As for the Bottle Shot, it became the little squirt gun that could – with the big bottle attached, it could keep going for a long while, and the ease of use and ability to shoot remarkably far keep this inexpensive one-pump on my gift list. The Steady Stream performs fine, has a good water coherence and surpassed what we anticipated on our range tests – and the $6 pricetag is hard to beat.
We found that the Super Soaker 50 remains one of the best guns on the market, even 20 years after it was released. There are so many great water toys out there, soakiness is sure to come this summer. If you’re looking for a mighty gun with some options, the Renegade is a great find. If you’re looking for a small but mighty one-pump, the Bottle Shot shot high in our books. And the Steady Stream … well, it’s hard to argue with cheap this summer, plus it’s easy to keep a continuous water flow in a fight. Now that you have all the facts, it’s time to get out there and get sloppy and soaked this summer. Happy summer of water love!
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