It’s the summer of 1987. Times are hard. In the hot weather, the kids of Suburbia are desperate for cold snacks and air conditioning, both of which are kept in short supply by parents who are insistent that they go outside. But outside has become a land of boredom–there are only so many places to ride, the playground is overrun by little kids, and the huge tree in the backyard at the latest wiffle ball. The situation seems desperate and there is nothing left to do but fight.
All right, so the summer boredom sometimes suffered by suburban children is not a good premise for a 1980s action movie, but there was a time about 30 years ago where my friends and I took our interest in GI Joe and extended it to our yards and the streets surrounding them. Granted, we had been playing pretend for years, reenacting superheroes, Voltron, and Star Wars on playgrounds, but that was fantasy, before we had seen Red Dawn and realized that we had to be ready to fight real-life villains like Mummar Gaddafi. And so, for our birthdays, we got Entertech water guns.
Now, we’d had water pistols before, usually the plastic-colored kind that came in multi-packs or that you fished out of a bin at Ben Franklin for $1.00. But Entertech was a whole new dimension of water warfare. These were battery-operated automatic guns which meant that all you had to do was fill the clip with water, slap it into the gun, and press the trigger. Once you did, you heard the noise of a small motor and saw the water come out in steady bursts until you ran out and either threw in another clip (you could buy extra clips) or went and got a refill. It was leaps and bounds beyond anything else we had seen until then and more importantly, they looked cooler than anything else we had seen.
Entertech guns looked like real guns. LJN, who manufactured the guns, from 1985 until 1990, gave them fully automatic rounds of 60 RPMs and a range of 30 feet and “realistic” looks. To an extent, anyway. I mean, nobody was going to mistake a kid with an Entertech RPG for a terrorist. But the realistic look and the fact that we were seeing moveist hat had guns just like it, such as Rambo (which Entertech would license at one point), made them incredibly appealing. My friends and I had the Water Hawk, which I believe was a reproduction of a TEC-22 semiautomatic Intratec or “Scorpion,” which is why my friends and I referred to them as “Scorpion UZIs.” And the advertising wasn’t false–they shot far and fired fast.
Unfortunately, without carrying around several clips of water, playing with all the functionality of the gun proved tedious, so what we often did was kept firing and pretending we were shooting bad guys or one another. The motor still worked as long as the batteries weren’t dead, so we could get sound effects going. And long after the batteries had died, rusted, and corroded because I’d stored the gun in the garage, it was still a prop for whatever adventures we devised.
My friend Tom’s backyard, which was huge, was usually the setting for those adventures. We would put on the military camo pants that we’d gotten from Thunder Ride–our local army surplus store–and would run around dodging enemy fire, or army crawling through the grass to find and ambush someone, or climb into the huge tree in his backyard to get into sniper positions or to jump out of the tree like we were Rangers, the best of the best. When we weren’t playing, we were at the local library looking up the various ranks and insignia in the World Book Encyclopedia or were photocopying pages out of books like Weapons of World War II by C.B. Colby. Like I said, we weren’t just pretending; we were training.
Unfortunately, this commitment to realism resulted in its fair share of controversy in 1987 and 1988. There is a line in Die Hard where Reginald Vel Johnson’s character talks a bout how he’s riding a desk because he shot a kid who was carrying a toy pistol. While this served to give some background to his character, it was also a rather timely reference. While this didn’t become a widespread phenomenon in the mid-1980s, toy guns being the cause of shootings or being used in crimes came to national attention.
In 1987, it literally spilled onto the airwaves when Gary Stollman managed to make his way into the studio of KNBC in Los Angeles and put a toy gun to the back of consumer reporter David Horowitz while forcing him to read what the Los Angeles Times called ” a rambling statement on the air about the CIA and space aliens.” Stollman was the son of a former KNBC pharmaceutical reporter and had managed to find a legitimate way into the building–according to 4:00 p.m. newscast co-anchor Kristie Wilde, he had obtained a security badge and had made himself inconspicuous on the set prior to walking up to Horowitz. The news director, Tom Capra, cut the feed, but not before viewers saw Stollman, Horowitz, and the gun:
The incident, which you can read about in the archives of the Los Angeles Times (“Intruder With Toy Gun Puts KNBC Off Air” and “Risk at NBC: Integrity of Newscast vs. a Man’s Life”), was probably the most high-profile incident and by 1988, legislation was being introduced in various states as well as at the federal level to better regulate the manufacture and sale of toy guns. According to a June 16, 1988 article in the New York Times (“After 3 Deaths, Realistic Toy Guns are Under Fire”), after a few deaths and crimes, several major cities–San Francisco, Memphis, Chicago, and Detroit–as well as states such as Connecticut, Michigan, California, Florida, and Massachusetts had begun banning the sale and manufacture of realistic toy guns (they also point out that black, blue, and silver guns had been banned in New York City since 1955). At the time the article was published, the Senate had passed a bill that was sponsored by Bob Dole that required toy guns to have bright orange markings and barrel plugs.
While the article quotes Gerald Upholt, who was the director of Gun Owners of California, as saying, ”Anti-gun types are trying to play on the emotional appeal of a few incidents. The real problem is that police officers may need a little more training,” the incidents and legislation were enough to spell the end of realistic toy guns on the shelves. Toys R Us said they wouldn’t be selling the guns and companies, including Entertech, changed their designs to be more colorful and fake-looking.
So the Entertech era didn’t last very long, and in the 1990s, Acclaim bought LJN and discontinued all of its toys, choosing to focus on the video game side of the company (probably because Nintendo would only license so many games per company per year and having two separate companies under one umbrella meant more games/more revenue). Autofire guns weren’t as in vogue by that time anyway because in 1990, Larami released a game-changing water gun, the Super Soaker (which is now manufactured by Nerf), a gun that had a huge water tank and used pressure to shoot incredibly far and with a more powerful stream than other water pistols.
My friends and I had stopped fighting the war by then, anyway. Our interest in G.I. Joe had faded, and while we were still watching our fair share of action movies, we were more in tune to what was happening in the world of the WWF. Today, kids still can buy Super Soakers but can also arm themselves to the teeth with Nerf darts, which are really good for shooting cups off of a picnic table but maybe not so much for a real-life Red Dawn.