n example of tried-and-true technology, this neat little soaker features an air-pump–pressurized chamber like those found in Super Soakers from the ’90s, allowing continuous fire.
*At the time of publishing, the price was $7.
Nerf isn’t the only company to offer water guns that stick with the classic air-pump design popularized by the earliest Super Soakers, but the Nerf Squall Surge was the sturdiest, most reliable version we tested. This gun is affordable and easy for our youngest testers to fill and operate. While it doesn’t boast the massive drenching ability achievable by those first Super Soakers, it’s still a lot of fun. Nerf’s heavy-gauge plastic armament has proven tough and reliable over the past couple of years, since our first soaker review in 2015, and the Squall Surge should deliver many months of intense water battles.
*At the time of publishing, the price was $14.
Pump-to-fire is another popular design seen in tons of water guns from Nerf and other companies. We tested several guns with this design and liked the Super Soaker Scatterstrike the best. Its unique five-stream firing pattern makes it easier to hit your targets (even if you don’t have the best aim), and the smaller reservoir is easy for young kids to fill and carry. Since the Scatterstrike is built with the same high-quality materials as other modern Super Soakers, we expect it to be a durable and reliable battle companion despite its affordable price tag.
At the time of publishing, the price was $10.
This not-quite-pint-size soaker powered by air pressure is fun and just plain works.
In our last review, we singled out the Mizumi Shubi as the water gun for people who prefer to shoot one-handed (after pumping up with two). Two years on, the trigger-activated, pressurized-air-pump pistol still reliably delivers a 30-foot stream of water and offers a defensive edge in battle thanks to the detachable mini-shield.
Stream Machine TL-750
As long as you have access to an endless and immediate ammo supply, these long shots are tough to beat.
Although the Stream Machine 22-inch-long TL-750 might be unwieldy for the littlest kids, it worked like a charm for big kids and adults who loved it for its long range (we managed up to 55 feet). However, as the Stream Machine doesn’t have any kind of reservoir and empties in a matter of seconds, they’re best used in a pool setting—or with a big reservoir nearby. If the 750’s almost 1-liter capacity seems too heavy, opt for Stream Machine’s 12-inch TL-500 or 17-inch TL-600.
Why you should trust us
Chris Dixon lives in Charleston, South Carolina, where he’s the father of a merman son and a mermaid daughter. He’s been covering watery outdoor goods for The Wirecutter since 2015. His writing has appeared in Outside, Men’s Journal,and (perhaps appropriately) Garden & Gun magazines, and he’s the author of Ghost Wave, a co-author of Surfing: 1778–Present, and an ocean-handbook project due from Chronicle Books in 2018. His reporting also appears in The New York Times. Writing about outdoor gear, and testing it with his kids, can be preferable to following a politician or sitting in a courtroom.
Chris wrote the first Wirecutter water gun/soaker guide early in the summer of 2015 and has been keeping notes through two years of yard battles with the neighborhood kids since then. This review is the result of nearly three summers of watery combat with soakers that have survived probably 40 or 50 water gun fights. Thankfully, the survival of our choices has reflected that our 2015 research was fairly sound.
Two years of hard combat and exposure to the elements and even the mud of our Carolina marshes have shown us that Nerf’s plastic is heavier gauge, its pumps are better built, and its ergonomics are well thought out.
Jack Smith helped research and write the summer 2017 update to this guide, building off Chris’s previous work and testing. Raised in the unforgiving heat of Atlanta, where water gun fights are a way of life, Jack is a grizzled veteran with countless summer battles under his belt. Even today, as an adult living in Los Angeles, he still wrestles with the urge to break out the soakers whenever temperatures start to climb.
Disclaimer: You may note that this review seems skewed toward Nerf, and thus, its parent company, Hasbro. (Hasbro bought the Super Soaker brand from its parent company, Larami, in 1995, and today uses the moniker for its Nerf line of water guns, though a lot of people use it for the whole genre of toys.) The reason is simple. Most soakers on toy shelves today are thin-gauge crap, and Nerf’s products in this category are simply better. Two years of hard combat and exposure to the elements and even the mud of the Carolina marshes have shown us that Nerf’s plastic is heavier gauge, its pumps are better built, and its ergonomics are well thought out. Studious engineering clearly goes into actually designing a soaker that kids want to use and—of equal importance—a soaker that won’t end up in the garbage in a week’s time. (A few of our test soakers did just that.) We spoke with Christine Osborne, who owns a chain of four toy stores called Wonder Works in the Charleston area. She’s been buying toys since 1990 and concurs with the judgment on Nerf quality. During the summer, “they’re gone whenever I put them out on the shelves,” she said.
Who this is for
While this guide might be “officially” for kids, it’s really for kids of all ages—and their parents—who live where the weather gets hot enough for a fun aquatic battle, whether or not there’s access to a pool. The soakers in this review are of a higher caliber—and quality—than discount models that sell at your local Walmart or beachwear store. They’re a great way for parents to chase their kids out of the house and away from the computer screen. The guns we’ve reviewed can be wielded by kids as young as 4 in suburban warfare anytime the thermometer begins ticking into the 80s. A few battle tactics and other uses are also listed at the end of this review.
How we picked and tested
Today’s “super soakers” flow from an idea patented by Super Soaker inventor Lonnie Johnson in 1986; some 30 years later, soakers fall into three broad categories. (For more on the tangled history of water guns, see below.)
Water guns in the first of these three categories use variations of Johnson’s original pump to pressurize their inner chambers. A squeeze of the trigger releases a long flow of water that stops only when the trigger is released or the pressure is depleted—but fast pumping can keep the soaker soaking. Our top pick, Nerf’s Squall Surge Soaker, falls into this pressurized category.
The second category is pump-action soakers, such as our runner-up. These do not have a trigger and simply fire every time a piston-driven pump is activated in a motion that resembles cocking a pump-action shotgun. These guns are very simple to operate. While most pressurized guns must have their caps tightly secured and many must be filled two-thirds to three-quarters full to pressurize properly (though this doesn’t seem to be the case with the Squall Surge), with simple pump-action guns it’s as easy as “fill and fire.” The downside is that pump-action guns fire only if the pump is in motion.
The third are plunger-style soakers. These hold a large quantity of water that you simply suck out of a larger reservoir, like a bucket or a pool. Then, when the plunger rod is forced back in, a short-lived torrent is unleashed. One of our other picks, the 22-inch Stream Machine TL-750, could blast 28 ounces (0.8 liter) as far as 55 feet in about two seconds.
In the “shrink it and pink it” vein, Nerf also makes the Rebelle line, which it markets to girls. If your kid likes the look of them, they are generally available in versions similar to our choices and are of similar construction. They’re worth a look, but we don’t think girls should be consigned to a weaker product or specific color, so we’re sticking with unisex choices here.
Nerf also makes a number of Super Soakers with ties to pop culture, such as the Zombie Strike and Star Wars lines. While these soakers, like the Chewbacca Crossbow soaker we tested, are sure to work fine (and are definitely popular), we chose to leave them out of this guide for two reasons. First, Nerf sells generic versions of many of these guns that are similar but tend to cost less, perhaps due to the licensing costs. Second, we’re concerned about the longevity of these lines–as new Star Wars movies come out and the zombie craze dies out, Nerf is more likely to replace these models than the generic soakers.
Our neighborhood beachwear store carried an arsenal of different Chinese-made soakers of no discernable brand name—unless “Water Gun” is an actual brand name.
To find this year’s soakers, we first spent a couple of hours perusing the aisles of the local Target and Walmart, and a neighborhood beachwear store. The beachwear store in particular was an interesting study. Walmart offered mostly junk pump-action soakers under its Adventure Force line and no Nerf products (the store did have plenty of Nerf’s dart guns). Target was mostly Nerf, and Toys R’ Us was entirely Nerf and its store brand, Sizzlin’ Cool.
The beachwear store, on the other hand, carried an arsenal of different Chinese-made soakers of no discernable brand name—unless “Water Gun” is an actual brand name. These guns were universally pieces of cheap junk formed of thin, fragile plastic with rickety pumps and loose-fitting triggers.
We then spent several more hours obsessing over soakers and their reviews on Amazon and ToysRUs.com and iSoaker.com. We also had the great benefit of having held onto an assortment of pump-action shooters, plunger soakers, and more traditional trigger-activated water guns from our Wirecutter review of two years ago. Anything that stood the test of time—and was still broadly available—was fair game, and a long-term retest was simply a matter of waiting for the weather to be warm enough for the kids to lock and load.
We realized that a water gun needs to be a manageable size and weight when loaded. This last point is important for smaller kids, who will struggle lugging around more than 16 ounces at a time.
After the soakers were lined up, we held a few large-scale water battles with kids in the neighborhood and interviewed them afterwards. We’ve since kept the soakers on our deck in a big bin, ready for battle, so there are regular pickup water battles when the kids are looking to have a literal blast and cool off.
To reach our conclusions, we not only turned back to our soakers from 2015 (after checking that they were still available for purchase) but also bought several new ones.
Our basic criteria for the new guns were: affordability, relative simplicity (nothing with electric pumps or add-on geegaws or that doubled as foam-dart shooters), proven technology, positive reviews, coolness/appeal to our kids coupled with ease of function, ease of refills, and manageable size and weight when loaded. This last point is important for the smaller kids in our crew, who struggled lugging around more than 16 ounces (a pound of water) at a time. Because we wanted to recommend water guns that work for kids of all ages, we opted not to include enormous blasters like Nerf’s Barrage in our tests. There’s no denying how awesome these gargantuan guns are, but if your 6-year-old can barely lift her gun after a few minutes of action, she’s not going to have a very good time.
Our picks reflect the soakers the kids reach for most often and represent our judgment, and theirs, for solid fun, reliability, and value. The guns also have to be widely available and still in production. While researching for this guide, we learned that some water guns have temperamental product cycles, and it doesn’t take long for today’s models to become unavailable or replaced by new products. Because of this, availability played a huge role in selecting our picks. There were several guns, such as Nerf’s Switch Shot Blaster and Shotwave Blaster, that actually performed better than our picks, but weren’t widely available at a low enough price for us to feel comfortable recommending them.
*At the time of publishing, the price was $7.
Nerf Super Soaker Squall Surge
An example of tried-and-true technology, this neat little soaker features an air-pump–pressurized chamber like those found in Super Soakers from the ’90s, allowing continuous fire.
Reflecting the fact that the old ways are sometimes best, we’re recommending the affordable and fun Nerf Super Soaker Squall Surge. This is one of Nerf’s few offerings that actually function like a Super Soaker of yore. Rather than pumping to fire, you pump to pressurize the soaker’s air chamber. After 10 or so easy pumps, a squeeze of the trigger releases a continuous stream of water. There are other blasters on the market that work this way, notably a number of models in Buzz Bee’s Water Warriors line. But we had quality-control issues with one of our Buzz Bee models that we simply didn’t find with the more solidly built Nerf products.
The Squall Surge’s cap must be closed tightly for the gun to pressurize and function properly, and Nerf did an excellent job making this an easy proposition even for little kids. The 16-ounce reservoir is not too big and not too little, and the soaker fired a solid, if fairly thin, stream of water farther than 35 feet.
Flaws but not dealbreakers
One minor complaint that the meticulous iSoaker.com review noted is that the Squall Surge is poorly balanced because of its rearward reservoir. This didn’t seem to pose a problem for our young test crew, though. We will also be noting whether this soaker’s ability to hold pressure degrades over time, but so far so good.
*At the time of publishing, the price was $14.
If the Squall Surge is unavailable, or you simply prefer a pump-action design, we recommend the Nerf Super Soaker Scatterstrike. This soaker’s defining feature is the five-way spray nozzle, which splits the water into five smaller, somewhat parallel streams. Although these streams tend to converge by the time they’ve reached their target, they do create a bigger spray than our other picks, making this gun a good choice for bypassing defensive measures (such as the detachable shield found on our water-pistol pick) or in any other situation where accuracy isn’t important.
Apart from its five-stream nozzle, the Scatterstrike is a pretty basic water gun. It’s made from the same high-gauge plastic as other Super Soaker models, and it has few moving parts that could break in a summer’s worth of battles. The Scatterstrike has a 20-ounce capacity, generally small enough for our youngest testers to handle but big enough to not require constant refilling. We measured a range of 32 feet, 4 inches, which is a little bit shy of the advertised 34 feet, but the missing inches could be due to user error and shouldn’t be a dealbeaker for most people.
A great little water pistol
*At the time of publishing, the price was $10.
This not-quite-pint-size soaker powered by air pressure is fun and just plain works.
For our pistol-sized water-gun pick, we’re sticking with the unique little Mizumi Shubi from our previous review. This trigger-activated, pressurized-air-pump gun won’t win any volume battles, but after two years it still delivers a 30-foot stream from its 13-ounce reservoir. It’s not much bigger than the traditional pump-trigger Nerf Alphafire Blaster that we tested two years ago and still have in our arsenal, but it’s just so much better at delivering water—and fun—than any old-school trigger pump gun. The Shubi comes with a neat-o detachable mini-shield to protect its owner from sneak attacks, which is a unique feature even if the shield is prone to being lost.
For in-water aquatic battles
As long as you have access to an endless and immediate ammo supply, these long shots are tough to beat.
In 2015, we chose the Poolmaster Hot Shots Power Launchers as our top overall pick. Though we’re still big fans of this gun, its availability seems to be rapidly declining, so we’ve swapped our recommendation for a similar plunger-style soaker, the Stream Machine TL-750. Measuring 22 inches when contracted and 36 inches at full expansion, this tough gun was a bit large for the younger kids in our test panel, but was a big hit among older kids and grown-ups. That said, Stream Machine makes smaller models, too—the TL-600 (with a 17-inch barrel) and TL-500 (with a 12-inch barrel), which work better for the smaller armed set.
We were most impressed with the Stream Machine’s range and firing power. Although our tests fell short of the company’s claim of 70 feet, our adult testers still managed to fire a stream of 55 feet, and averaged about 37 feet. That’s farther than any of the pump-action or pressurized-air guns we tried, and you’ll be delivering more water, too–the Stream Machine shoots wider, more powerful blasts of water than the smaller, more accurate streams of our other picks.
The kids have decided that this type of shooter is generally best with an unlimited water source—like a pool—instantly available. Since there’s no reservoir, these guns empty in a matter of seconds; to refill them, you need to submerge them in standing water.
Over the past few years, the foam handles on our Poolmaster Hot Shots Power Launchers have become a bit slide-y. We’ll keep an eye on the foam handle of the Stream Machine to see if it develops similar problems. We’ve also noticed that water tends to dribble out of the barrel of both guns–a bit annoying, but not a huge problem.
An accessory you’ll need—or at least wan
If you can find one on eBay or Amazon, the best upgrade for any Nerf gun is the Super Soaker Hydro Pack hooked up to a Nerf Super Soaker Switch Shot Blaster or any Nerf blaster that accepts Nerf’s ammo-cartridge system. This 100-ounce water backpack, which was introduced in 2013, saw its genesis in 1998’s Super Soaker CPS 3000, the first Super Soaker backpack based on soft fabric and a bladder. href=”http://www.isoaker.com/Armoury/Analysis/1998/super_soaker_cps3000.php”>Super Soaker CPS 3000, the first Super Soaker backpack. Today’s Nerf iteration has recently ceased production—why, the Nerf people weren’t willing to say—but it still seems to be quite in demand. When we first did our scouting a couple of months ago, the pack cost $65 on Amazon and was widely available. As the weather warmed, we noted supplies dwindling, and then after several days of being sold out, it returned with a price jump to $86, and as of late June, it was $96 (after a brief leap to $160 earlier in the month). If you consider the 4.5-star reviews, and the skyrocketing prices, it’s clear that many enthusiasts believe it to be a worthy ammo source. Hooked up to a Switch Shot or Shotwave Soaker, our posse of kids consider the Hydro Pack a game changer. It’s sturdily constructed, yet even the little kids were able to lug its weight around easily. Over the past few weeks, the hose on ours has kinked a bit around the attachment point to the cartridge, but this has not yet affected its operation.
Battle tactics, other uses, and a couple of cautions
A few things we’ve learned.
- Have a good hose nozzle for refilling your soakers. We recommend a pistol grip so that the kids don’t have to remember to turn it off and bother with screwing and unscrewing it. Best, too, if it can be locked open for low-flow refilling if you’re leaving it in a cooler. (Check our review of hose nozzles.)
- Have two garden hoses slowly feeding two different coolers or big plastic bins on opposite sides of the house—especially if you’re using plunger-type soakers. The bins should be big enough to dunk the guns or cartridges for fast filling. This allows the kids to sneak around and not have to all collect at the same “ammo depot” when their soakers need water.
- Our kids enjoyed the “Tree House Siege” soaker battle—defending our backyard play fort from watery invasion. Another fun game is what we call “flying and firing.” Have one kid run and jump in the water—preferably from a height—and have another try to soak the leaping target. For other tactics, check iSoaker’s recommendations.
- As a rule, you shouldn’t use a soaker on an animal. That said, we’ve deployed them, carefully and gently, as a hose replacement for the following: discouraging birds from eating the fruit from our mulberry tree, breaking up a cat fight, and getting rid of noisy pigeons roosting in Grandma’s roof in the middle of the night (highly effective).
- Though it may seem obvious to bring your soakers to the beach, Christine Osborne of Wonder Works recommended against this. Abrasive sand will ruin even the best pump mechanisms.
- This should go without saying, but warn kids against shooting in the face, and particularly the eye, at point-blank range—especially with a plunger-style soaker. They pack a wallop.
The Super Soaker’s litigious history
Lonnie Johnson is a fascinating study. An African-American who grew up in segregated Mobile, Alabama, during the height of the Civil Rights era, Johnson would go on to become a brilliant NASA engineer who worked on programs ranging from the Galileo and Cassini projects to the stealth bomber. One day, while experimenting with a refrigeration technology that relied on high-pressure water, a light bulb went off. Johnson sketched out a powerful water gun that relied on a pump, a plastic bottle, and a series of valves to pressurize the contained air and water. After hand-machining plastic into a crude gun in his spare time, he took his invention to an Air Force picnic, where it piqued the attention of a superior officer. As he told the story in a BBC interview, the major “saw it and said, ‘What is that you got, Johnson?’ I said, ‘This is my water gun, sir.’ And he said, ‘It looks really strange—does it work?’ So I turned to him and shot him right between the eyes. After that, the picnic was over. Everybody was throwing cups of water, cups of beer, and it just turned into a big free-for-all.”
Johnson’s idea was eventually picked up by the Larami Corporation, and its first soaker, the Power Drencher, was released in 1990. It claimed an astonishing 60 pounds per square inch of internal pressure, when fully pumped up—that’s more pressure than the faucets in some houses have. The name was changed to Super Soaker in 1991.
True aficionados of Super Soakers consider the ’90s to be the golden age of the soaker. Two excellent sources for this history are iSoaker.com, an incredibly deep website run by a meticulous and anonymous soaker fanatic who asked not to be identified for this guide. The other is Ben Trettel, an admin on the site WaterWar.net and editor of Super Soaker Central, a website that offers advice on repairing and modifying old soakers, and even building your own. Both iSoaker and Trettel call these early soakers wickedly powerful and tons of fun. “When you got hit, they actually stung,” Trettel said.
Within two years, soaker sales exploded to $200 million. Every year, it seemed, Larami, which became a subsidiary of Hasbro in 1995, updated technology, capacity, volume, and pressure in its own soaker arms race. In 1996, the CPS, or constant pressure system, was introduced, which was so powerful that it actually had a kick like a high-caliber rifle. Sales would top $1 billion. “The peak was the 1998 CPS line, the legendary ’98,” Trettel said.
That ’98 line included the CPS 3000, a mammoth drench machine fed by a tube-linked backpack that could hold 2 gallons of water. “Really, all the guns from this time are good,” Trettel said. “But from what I’m told, they just didn’t sell as well as people expected. They were so powerful that a lot of children weren’t able to pressurize them. And they took up a lot of valuable shelf space in toy stores. They’d fill up an entire aisle, but you didn’t get to sell that many units for the space they took up.”
Through these years, Lonnie Johnson would expand his portfolio to what is today more than 100 patents. His work for Hasbro came to include the development of wildly popular Nerf foam dart shooters. In 2002, Hasbro took over Larami entirely, and several of Larami’s soaker engineers went on to found a competitor, Water Warriors. To hear Trettel and iSoaker tell it, Super Soaker quality and power began to suffer, a slide that coincided with a lawsuit filed by Lonnie Johnson against Hasbro for royalties on soakers and dart sales. The suit dragged on until 2013, when Johnson was awarded a stunning $72.9 million. Today, Johnson owns and operates an engineering lab in Atlanta and has founded the nonprofit Johnson STEM Activity Center, which aims to teach robotics to groups of high school–age kids, including young refugees from war-torn countries.
Featuring an innovative, removable, and upgradable water cartridge/ammo system, a strong 30-foot pump-driven stream, sturdy design, and comfortable carrying size, the Nerf Super Soaker Shotwave Blaster would have been our top pick, but it has been discontinued and is quickly vanishing from online retailers. If you can find it, though, buy it: It’s an affordable handheld soaker that’s tons of watery fun.
Its availability also seems to be rapidly declining, but the Nerf Super Soaker Scatterblast Blaster was a top pick from our 2015 review, and it’s still simple and fun. It’s an internal-reservoir model that packs a solid blast from its five stream ports. Because it spreads its shot through multiple ports, we managed only around 25 feet of distance, but the streams do soak. Our own Scatterblast has blasted for more than two years. It features a 22-ounce, easy-to-fill reservoir, which makes it just light enough for kids. It’s a well-reviewed gun (4.5 stars and over 400 reviews) and a solid value if you can find one.
Like the Scatterblast, the Poolmaster Hot Shots Power Launcher is another former top pick that we can no longer recommend due to some problems with availability. We still think this is one of the best choices for long-distance artillery needs, shooting water as far as 55 feet, and because it empties in a matter of seconds, it’s best used in a pool setting. If you can get your hands on a pair of these power launchers, they’re a lot of fun, but unless they become more widely available, we’d recommend the Stream Machine TL-750 or its smaller siblings instead.
Nerf’s Super Soaker Switch Shot Blaster is a pump-action soaker that includes four different “stream settings” and a removable stock, which lets you change it from a rifle-style gun to a pistol. The Switch Shot is wildly popular online and was a definite favorite of our testers, but its hefty price tag and increasingly scant availability as spring begat summer kept us from making it a pick.
The Nerf Freezefire is another gun we tested and enjoyed using, but we can’t recommend it due to issues with availability. If you can get your hands on one (or on the new Freezefire 2.0, which also seems to have availability problems as of late June 2017), this pump-action gun is a lot of fun. It has a decent-size reservoir with a very large hole for refills. Although this design is supposed to allow you to put ice in the chamber for a chilly surprise, we found that even without the ice, the large filling hole made it much easier to replenish the Freezefire when your ammo runs dry.
We also tested Nerf’s mighty 40-foot-stream Tri-Strike Crossbow, which has a huge 40-ounce capacity and an innovative “three stream” design when the crossbow arms are engaged. Chris’s 8-year-old son really liked this gun and its design, which allows you to shoot three people at once, but he grew fatigued running around with it. (How about a shoulder strap, Nerf?)
We’ve also had long-running operation out of Nerf’s Super Soaker Tidal Tube Blasters (they come in a two-pack). This plunger-operated gun has become more difficult to operate over time and is a bit leaky around the barrel, but with only a 10-ounce capacity and a gun-style grip, it’s easy for smaller kids to wield and they’ll get a lot of use out of it in the pool.
We tested the Mizumi Shubi against the Buzz Bee Toys Water Warriors Goblin Water Blaster, which was fairly well-reviewed several years ago by iSoaker. Some of the Water Warriors team worked on the original Larami Super Soakers, and we were anxious to test the Goblin as it’s one of the few small air-pressure pump guns available. Chris’s son really liked its design, while we liked its affordability. The Goblin managed a thin, but long, 40-foot stream, but unfortunately the pump handle on one of our two Goblins literally broke off when we first tried to pressurize the gun. Its twin broke a couple of weeks later under normal use. After the failure, iSoaker suggested that we would get our money’s worth from at least two other Water Warriors soakers. The Stingray is an affordable old-school air pressure shooter with a higher spray volume and range than the Nerf Squall Surge. Although its 42-ounce tank probably makes it too big and heavy for little kids—even when filled only to the recommended two-thirds level of 27 ounces, Chris’s 8-year-old has been digging it. The Steady Stream is a 25-ounce pump-action gun that is unique in that it can fire continuously. We will continue testing them throughout the summer. So far, they’re working really well and seem as solidly built as their Nerf counterparts, and we’ve had no issues with them. If they fail early or unexpectedly, we’ll update this guide, and if they don’t they may earn a top spot during our next soaker review.