The Best Nerf Guns for Custom Painting and Modding

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Taking your first step into the world of making things is often the biggest mental hurdle; it’s easy to be overwhelmed by all the tools, techniques, and technologies available to makers when you just want to get that fully-formed idea you have in your head into an object you can touch and hold. Take crafting weapons from video games or movies, for example. Prop makers like Harrison Krix of Volpin Props practiced for years before he was able to make convincing Mass Effect rifles that are now even showing up in live action TV commercials. That’s daunting for someone who’s just starting out.

But as one growing community has found, prop makers can bypass the complicated fabrication process by using toy guns as a base for paint jobs and custom modifications. Specifically, Nerf guns. The bright-colored plastic toy guns lend themselves to gritty science-fiction or steampunk redesigns, as Hasbro wants to keep the in-store models unrealistic to stay kid-friendly. And they’re relatively cheap to boot.

Photo Credit: Brian Johnson Photo Credit: Brian Johnson

I spoke with Brian Johnson of Johnson Arms about the process of modding Nerf guns and how he’s turned this hobby into a successful side business. Brian is a banker by day, and started modifying toy guns back in the 80s (when it was popular to spray black paint over orange safety tips of fake guns). Nerf released a toy called the Maverick, which Brian says he felt compelled to paint when he saw it in 2010. The pistol had a great oversized revolver look that was a good fit for a military style–Johnson painted his in matte black and camo just as a fun project with his son. The gun still looked plastic-y, so Brian continued to add secondary colors. The finished project looked good enough that he tried selling it on eBay. Since then, he’s been painting and customizing Nerf guns in his garage and improving his techniques.

Nerf modders take their craft pretty seriously–very active forums are kept up to date with ongoing project diaries, studies of upcoming Nerf releases for modding potential, and in-depth guides to the best way to paint and mod each type of Nerf gun. Every modder has a different style and approach–some add elaborate ornamentation and accessories to completely transform the toys while others simply enjoy the practice of painting and weathering.

I asked Brian to give a rundown of some of his favorite Nerf gun toys to paint and mod, ranging from pistols that are easy to disassemble and spray paint to fully automatic rifles that cater to more advance modifications. Brian’s picks below are a great starting point for aspiring prop painters, along with the NerfRevolution and NerfHaven forums. You can find more of Brian’s awesome work at his Johnson Arms homepage.

Model: Nerf Maverick

Weapon Type: Pistol

Suitable Styles: Steampunk, Anime

Level of difficulty: Beginners+ (Disassembly photo)

Easy to disasseble and not too many internal parts to position for reassembly, along with minimum number of logos to remove. This is a great blaster to start with painting. It costs about $10 and has a great shape for many applications. Because of its retro revolver style, it’s great for things like steampunk or anywhere an over-size revolver would be appropriate (think Hellboy). Anime cartoons are known for having over-sized weapons, be they swords or guns.

Model: Nerf Longshot

Weapon Type: Rifle

Suitable Styles: Sci-Fi, Militaristic, Steampunk

Level of difficulty: Intermediate (Disassembly photo)

This is one of the best nerf guns out there. It’s old-school in that is still has the more powerful direct-plunger style system. They stopped selling them in the US in early 2011 so they’re becomming harder to find. A somewhat easy spring replacement can yield close to 100ft ranges. I love this model for it’s beefy appearance that lends itself well to a lot of styles. This is the one you see being used the most in a lot of indie sci-fi films.

Model: Nerf Vulcan

Weapon Type: Belt-fed Automatic Machine Gun

Suitable Styles: Sci-Fi, Militaristic, Modern, Steampunk

Level of difficulty: Advanced internals, tons of screws to remove. Great gun, but beginners beware! (Disassembly photo)

This is the beast of the nerf lineup. It’s belt-fed and full-auto. It’s an awesome looking gun by itself, and when customized it just looks like a monster. Most modders bump up the voltage to increase the power and rate of fire. Although I think this is a great gun, anyone new to modifying should be very careful of the internal components.

Model: Nerf Nite Finder

Weapon Type: Pistol

Suitable Styles: Steampunk

Level of difficulty: Very good for beginners and it introduces battery power for the “red dot target” (Disassembly photo)

This is another great blaster to start with in modding. Fairly simple internals, but it has batteries to power the red LED that projects a red “targeting recticle.” Having the (2) AA batteries really opens the doors to adding LEDs to the gun. It’s an easy one to do an air-restrictor removal modification on, which increases the distace of the dart by about 10 feet or so, especially with the streamline darts.

Model: Nerf Scout

Weapon Type: Pistol

Suitable Styles: Sci-Fi, Modern, Space Marines, Steampunk

Level of difficulty: Excellent gun for beginners+ (Disassembly photo)

Photo Credit: Photo Credit:

This was once a very difficult blaster to obtain as it was only sold in a set that included the nerf Titan (the one that shoots a foot-long, giant nerf dart.) It’s one of the only Nerf designs to have a slide that resembles a modern semi-auto pistol. I really like this one for cosmetic mods and it’s pretty easy to remove the air-restrictor for added dart distance.

Model: Nerf Rayven

Weapon Type: Bullpup

Suitable Styles: Sci-Fi, Modern, Space Marines

Level of difficulty: Battery swap is excellent for beginners

I really like this new Nerf gun. It has a fantastic shape that lends itself well to sci-fi or modern weapon designs. It’s also a semi-auto gun so it can fire as fast as you can pull the trigger. The thing I like the most about this model is that because it’s battery powered (darts are propelled with two spinning wheels), you can install unprotected lithium-ion batteries to bump up the voltage to about 12.7 without stressing the motors too much. This gives the gun an increased range of about 60-70 feet before the stock darts start to veer off target. Here’s a detailed guide on how to do the battery upgrade.

Model: Nerf Stampede

Weapon Type: Full-auto rifle

Suitable Styles: Sci-Fi, Modern, Space Marines

Level of difficulty: Advanced internals, moderate for voltage modders (Internal photos)

This is the rifle that I use for a lot of tactical-style rifles. It has a great shape and lends itself to a lot of modern designs as well as futuristic weapons. Being that it’s full-auto, when you increase the voltage, this thing can shoot a stream of darts. Paired up with the 35-round drum of the Nerf raider, it’s a very formidable gun in a nerf war 🙂

All custom Nerf photos courtesy Brian Johnson. Visit the Johnson Arms website for more information about custom Nerf. Correction: Replaced incorrect photo of the Nerf Longshot rifle.

Cardboard Man, 1981

I built the Cardboard Man in 1981 for no reason at all. I think I was 12 or 13 (could’ve been even earlier) and there was a lot of cardboard lying around in the form of some discarded refrigerator boxes. These corrugated behemoths provided awesomely wide swaths of virgin cardboard and I dragged many of them home over my childhood. Once, I was actually willing to fight a local kid for a box when he decided to see if he could intimidate me into giving up large one I was pushing home. He told me it was his box. He was a thug. He failed. I was three blocks from home and I’d already pushed it four blocks, and it was bigger than me. He wasn’t, and I wasn’t about to waste the effort. I pushed him right back in the chest and he went away. It was one of three fights I’ve ever had. And it was over one of the best gateway materials ever known: Brown Corrugated Cardboard.

Previous to this I’d made a cockpit for a spaceship out of the stuff for a short 8mm film that the Caro twins were making. This spaceship was eventually repurposed and adapted to my mom’s bedroom closet–which was actually quite roomy–and I spent several weeks taking trips in my spaceship set. It had a starfield out the window (lit) and an underlit dashboard.

Then came the sitting man. I wanted to make a man sitting down. I had a driving need to see this idea made manifest and I set out to do it. The idea, the shape, the execution, all of it was quite clear in my mind at the onset. It was assembled solely from corrugated cardboard and masking tape and painted with blue housepaint for the suit. The other colors were borrowed from my dad’s studio. This is a notable build for two reasons.

It’s possibly the earliest complex build I have any pictures of in my history of making things, and it’s also probably the most self-realized, no-assignment project I undertook at that age, all by myself. Nothing motivated his creation but desire.

At one point during this build, I was overtaken by a powerfully intense feeling of joy. I felt no needs, no deficit. I felt incredibly at peace. I went and found my mom in the kitchen, and told her: “mom, at this very moment, 5:14 on November the 4th, 1981(ish), I am truly happy.” That was the best I could do to communicate to her that a) this was in fact the case, but also b) that I was clear that this was a temporary state. I don’t know how I knew that. I can still remember that feeling today, over 30 years later.

I’ve come across the feeling a few times since then. I suspect that it was the earliest occurrence in me of the pleasure of being on the home stretch of a project in which the subject of the build is completely in my head. Past all of its technical hurdles, I’m completely inside the thing and it’s inside of me. And it’s (likely) going to turn out somewhat different but better than I thought it would.

Cardboard Man sat on our front porch for several years until the elements finally took their toll and he had to be retired. One of my neighbors wondered who the hell was sitting so long and still over at our house. For years I thought that no picture existed, but my mom unearthed this in 2010 and sent it to me. I love his big monkey face. His jug ears and beard are my subconscious vision of a sort of “universal adult male” to me. He’s wearing a suit because in some weird way, that was my idea of what adults did back then. It’s strange because my dad never wore a suit unless it was his tux on New Year’s Day. My dad was precisely the antithesis of a suit-wearing adult, and I worshipped him. He was a painter who devoted hours each day to painting and he structured his life very carefully to allow himself to be able to do that.

Cardboard Man gave me a peek into what he was working for.

[Read about Adam’s other past projects, such as the first sculpture he ever sold, here]

Episode 123 – Adam Savage Edition – 5/27/2012

On this week’s show, Will doesn’t connect his non sequiter, Norm gets excited about bridges, and Adam has a dangerous book. All that, plus our favorite Maker Faire 2012 projects, SpaceX’s Dragon, the Golden Gate Bridge’s 75th birthday, and Towel Day. Enjoy!