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The stupid history of water guns

For decades, water guns were benignly stupid things. Grown-ups still found a way to ruin them, because we ruin everything.

The water gun followed the chronological arc of the sports card and the comic book: it existed for decades upon decades, largely unchanged, and then the 1990s -- the decade that paved over everything, and has since itself been paved over like the cut-rate, busted-up Quikrete it was -- got its hands on it. These things mutated into garish, sardonic commentaries of themselves. They glued baseball cards to pieces of Omar Vizquel's sliced-up glove, and charged four bucks a pack for the privilege of finding it. They killed Superman, drew Hillary Clinton into his funeral scene, and expertly used the plot device of "nevermind y'all" to bring him back.

I am ten years old and walking up a hill in 1993 and wearing the water gun's analogue. See this thing Race Bannon is wearing in the closing credits of Jonny Quest?

That's what it looks like. I'm wearing this giant plastic tank of water like a backpack; I probably weigh 75 pounds, and this sucker has to weigh at least 20. A tube connects the tank to a giant, three-foot-long cannon. It shoots when you pump it, and it requires such strength to operate that I have to set it against the ground like a trench mortar and push down on it with both hands. I'm staggering up this hill, and I've lost the screw-on cap at the top of the tank, so water sloshes all over my back with every step. I'm drenching myself far more than I could ever drench anyone else.

That right there is the most useless moment of my life. Water-gunning is already a fundamentally useless institution: there isn't the evidence left by the paintball gun, or the finite ammunition of the Nerf gun, or the scorekeeping of the laser tag gun. There's no such thing as being a good shot, or avoiding being shot. The water gun is the simple joy of running through a sprinkler, repurposed and weaponized into a portable hurter of feelings. It's fucking dumb.


That, more or less, is the water pistol that remained almost entirely changed for generations. It was a useless instrument in the service of a useless thing, and as such, it was entirely appropriate. On average, it probably shot a foot and a half.

The thing that bridged the gap between this and my giant, weird-ass, Rob Liefeld-doodled dorkus-malorkus-ass too-big water cannon that I hunched and skulked under like a little-ass dipshit was the original Super Soaker 50.


It was a borderline miracle: a water gun that actually worked. After 50 or so years of nonsense, someone finally bothered to invent an actual decent gun. That someone is Lonnie Johnson, who helped invent the stealth bomber and later joined NASA to help send a probe to Jupiter, but all that junk comes after the table of contents in his Wikipedia entry. The lede is all about the Super Soaker.

Johnson teamed up with a businessman, Alvin Davis, who passed away Friday. They sold millions, and the Super Soaker became one of the most ubiquitous toys of all time. Being a water gun, it was a useless thing, but it was the best useless thing. God bless those guys for that.


The success of the 50 inspired an arsenal of increasingly weird and even-less-necessary water guns. If a gun is so heavy that it necessitates a guitar strap, it might be worth considering who or what this thing is even for, but introspection hasn't and won't ever halt the march of progress, and we ended up with a thing that resembled a cow's digestive tract as much as anything else.

Since the arc of the water gun was yoked to that of the sports card, they were inevitably adult-ified. Grown adults set up card shows, fretted over mint condition, monitored issues of Beckett like stock tickers, and used words like "investment" when talking about a hologram of Don Mattingly standing around in the batting circle with a bat with donuts on it sitting on his shoulder (action-packed!!!). The man-baby slouched in his folding chair, sneered at any kid who dared to look around, tilted his ass, farted, and ruined the baseball card.

The same was not quite true of the water gun, but dang if Laramie didn't evolve into a defense contractor. There were spring-powered guns, motorized pumps, and eventually the Constant Pressure System, which was important enough to achieve its own acronym. Super Soakers with the CPS carry the label:



They cannot push the envelope any further than this unless they roll out Super Soaker: An Actual Gun.

Have you ever heard older folks sit around an AMVETS lodge? They love talking about the specifics of the instruments they used in their military days: the make and model of their chopper, the caliber of their rifle, the treads on their halftrack, all that. The Super Soaker is for those of us who were too chickenshit to join the military but still want to have those conversations. It is adult people like us who bother to populate the Super Soaker Wikipedia entry with things like:

The original version of the CPS 2000 was released in spring of 1996. Being the first water gun to ever sport a Constant Pressure System (CPS), it began what many refer to as the "third age of water wars" (the first beginning upon the release of the Super Soaker 50 in 1991 and the second after the Super Soaker 300 was released in 1993). The most powerful blaster of its time and still currently unmatched except by homemade water guns, it sports a 25X water output (1X equals 1.2 oz/second).

Don't read all that, just know that adults took the water gun -- something that was already completely stupid and pre-ruined -- and somehow re-ruined it.

I have only one pleasant memory of the water gun to share.

There was a kid in my neighborhood who got pretty much every toy he wanted. Among them were a pair of street hockey goals, which he'd drag away with him in pouty disgust in the middle of a game without letting us finish. Another was an awesome bicycle. When he received it on Christmas morning, he screamed and cried at his mom because it wasn't the color he wanted, and then he went outside and kicked his dog. He was a little shit.

Another of those toys was this ridiculous water gun headset. Like, you put it on like a pair of headphones, and flipped down this little plastic reticle over your eye like the world's dumbest monocle, and there was this little water gun mounted to the side. It was voice-activated. Whenever you shouted into the mic, the gun fired. It cost a lot of money, so he thought it was awesome and that he did not look like an enormous tool.

This headset-gun didn't care what you said.

This headset-gun didn't care what you said, just that you made noise. Naturally, he decided to go with, "FIRE!", only he affected a sort of Cobra Commander-like accent. The cannon didn't have a lot of range, either, so he just frantically ran around, getting soaked by everyone, endlessly yelling, "FI-YAAAH! FI-YAAAH! FI-YAAAAAAH!"

Ten minutes into it, he's exhausted. He's breathing heavy and just kind of stomping around fatigued circles. He's been drenched several times over by everyone else, and he's not hitting anybody, because his gun sucks. He stopped saying, "FI-YAAAAH!" minutes ago. He's just offering this ceaseless sort of groan: "aaaaaahhhhhhhhhhh." It's enough for the gun to keep firing, but the gun itself is running low on batteries, and there's nothing left but this pitiful little trickle of water. "aaaaaaaaaahhhhhh." It almost sounds like wailing.

If that isn't the funniest story you have ever heard, it's my fault for not telling it right.