Refreshing the Water Gun

A surprisingly successful water pistol Kickstarter could spark innovation in a tired space.

A Super Soaker, a Spyra One, and a water gun that resembles a real 9 mm pistol.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Nerf, Spyra, stuartbur/iStock, and Patrick Boelens/iStock.

For kids, families, and the young at heart, the water gun is a summertime staple. The water pistol transformed poolside shenanigans and has proven to be a most refreshing form of hot weather warfare. More than 200 million Super Soakers alone have been sold, totaling more than $1 billion in sales over the years, according to the National Toy Hall of Fame, which inducted it in 2015. More recently, those sales have dropped, likely due to a combination of fewer brick-and-mortar stores (R.I.P. Toys R Us) and stagnant innovation in the water-gun arena. While it has undergone some transformations through the years, the idea of the water gun is well over a century old—and it could be due for a refresh.

Early mentions of water pistols date back to the late 1800s. The USA Liquid Pistol is one of the first known commercial water guns. Released in 1896, the pistol itself was made of cast iron, lending it a realistic resemblance to firearms of the day. Water squirted out from a rubber squeeze bulb (similar in concept to an eye dropper). Rather than a toy for children, though, the gadget was intended as a form of self-protection: In an advertisement, its maker, Parker, Stearns & Sutton, highlighted its usefulness in stopping “the most vicious dog (or man) without permanent injury.”

By the early 20th century, the squirt gun had become a favorite as a toy—the yellow and red Buck Rogers XZ-44 Liquid Helium Toy Water Pistol, manufactured in 1936, was modeled after the gun used by the character in the eponymous sci-fi comic strip, for example. This gun had a metal body with a leather pouch hidden inside for storing water.

In 1977, the water gun made its next big leap in the form of the Cosmic Liquidator. This epic-sounding water pistol was the first to boast an air-pressure pump—the better for shooting out a higher-pressure stream of H2O—and had a more modern-style water reservoir. Its air-pressure water pump was battery-powered, and a squeeze from its trigger could shoot water for roughly 30 seconds. By the mid-’80s, other battery-powered water guns had emerged, and as in the water gun’s early days, they mimicked the looks of real-life weaponry, complete with detachable “magazines” that stored water. One model, made by LJN Toys, could shoot water up to 30 feet.

The water gun’s breakthrough moment came with the launch of the Super Soaker in 1989. NASA engineer Lonnie Johnson first stumbled upon the idea while working on a cooling pump seven years earlier. He made a prototype out of Plexiglas, which his 6-year-old daughter and her friends thoroughly enjoyed, and began looking for partners. The Super Soaker’s genius was in the separate water chamber positioned above the barrel, which allowed for a large amount of liquid ammo, and a hand pump rather than a battery-powered pump, which allowed pressure to build up for a super strong, super accurate stream of water. One of Johnson’s last prototypes used a 2-liter soda bottle atop PVC piping, but the finished product (the Air Pressure Power Drencher) featured a bright yellow body, neon-green water reservoir, and orange spray nozzle. It could build up to 60 psi of pressure and shoot water up to 50 feet. However, it didn’t start flying off store shelves until a marketing overhaul, which included a name change to the Super Soaker and a TV ad campaign. Sales reached more than 2 million by 1991.

Since then, the Super Soaker has become synonymous with the water gun, and it has evolved into a huge array of models. The Super Soaker also moved from its original air pressure system, which only properly fired when held upright, to a constant pressure system, which used internal rubber chambers to build up water pressure and allow successful firing from any angle. According to Super Soaker enthusiast site iSoaker, many consider this constant pressure technology, which debuted in 1996, to be “the current pinnacle of stock water blaster performance.” Most recently, the now Hasbro-owned brand merged branding—and in some cases, functionality—with Nerf, but we haven’t seen any notable water gun technological leaps in a decade or more.

The Spyra One, however, offers a glimpse of what the future of the water gun could be. The Spyra One is a $133 water pistol that’s raised more than $400,000 over its funding goal on Kickstarter. It has a sleek, almost unibody appearance, but its differentiator is how it works. The water pistol charges via USB-C and, rather than shooting a water stream, emits 30-milliliter water “bullets.” “Technology-wise, shooting water bullets across long distances without letting the water break up is really, really tricky and requires a specifically designed nozzle-valve combination,” Spyra co-founder Rike Brand told Slate. Its ideal shooting distance is 15 to 25 feet, but it can hit a target up to 40 feet, according to its Kickstarter page. Since its water reservoir isn’t clearly visible, it includes a digital ammo counter to let you know how many shots you’ve got left till you need to refill. To reload it with water, you simply dunk the front end (a water filter ensures particulates don’t clog its nozzle) and press a button. The Spyra One appears to be a rare breed: not just the first USB rechargeable water gun, but the first to rethink the general functionality of the water gun in years.

Whether the Spyra One will meet its August 2019 ship date—or successfully ship at all—is unknown. It’s worth noting that Kickstarters that raise funds astronomically higher than their goals can have trouble fulfilling demand in a timely fashion, and unforeseen production challenges can also delay a project. This is the first product Spyra has produced, but the company does have an 11-person team already, including several engineers, a rocket scientist, marketers, and business staffers. It also has support beyond Kickstarter. Brand said that the team consulted partners and suppliers in Germany in establishing their production timeline and plans to manufacture in an Asian branch run by one of their partners.

The Spyra One has generated plenty of buzz and renewed interest in a toy space that’s suffered from a dearth of innovation. The Kickstarter’s huge success seems to indicate there’s still a market for absurdly powerful water weaponry. The water gun finally looks like it’s getting the 21st-century update it deserves.