Friday, January 29, 2010

[Review] Nerf N-Force Swords

Bring the glory and majesty of foam gladiatorial combat into YOUR home

Kids love to sword-fight. If they can get swords, so much the better. If not, sticks will do, or pretty much anything that even vaguely resembles a stiff, straight, 2’ to 3’ long object. And by kids, in this case, I really mean boys. My daughter couldn’t care less, despite having two perfectly good targets running around. Joan d’Arc was the exception and Xena, Warrior Princess is fictional. The way of the blade definitely appeals more to the Y chromosome.

Now, my sons already have an arsenal of swords that would make a feudal lord envious. They have pirate swords and broadswords and a really long foam claymore and several lightsabers. But for whatever reason, my wife picked up a Nerf N-Force sword for one of the boys as a Christmas gift. This was followed almost immediately by having to buy a second sword for the intensely envious other son.

To digress for a moment, these Nerf swords remind me of my second job ever – as a clerk in the toy department of the (now-extinct) Hill’s department store. Most nights of the week it was pretty slow and dull, with not much to do. One spring, we got in a shipment of heaven. They were baseball bats made of soft, dense foam wrapped around a core of hollow plastic tubing. And they slipped very easily in and out of their plastic packaging. There were two different lengths, which soon came to be known as “longswords” and “shortswords” to me and some of the other employees. There was one guy down in housewares, my friend Bill who worked security, and a couple of other security guards. Each night, when we were sure there was nobody from management around, we would use these “swords” to beat the crap out of each other there in the hallowed halls of Hills. It was awesome!

Most of the guys went for the pure power of a two-handed longsword grip. Personally, I preferred the speed and elegance of twin shortswords. I almost never lost, but valiantly drove my nefarious enemies from my domain (again, the toy department).

Now, one major disadvantage of the two-handed longsword approach was that these bats were meant to be used by kids to hit soft foam balls. They were not meant to be used by adults trying to cleave each other in half. I have to confess, quite a few of these bats went back to the manufacturer as “damaged” because we got a little too carried away. I probably broke a couple myself, though it usually seemed to be somebody else breaking theirs over my blade as I parried.

Still, it was amazingly good fun and I’m a little surprised that it took somebody this long to recreate the magic of that experience with toys that are expressly designed for mock swordfighting.

These swords also appear to have hollow plastic cores that are then wrapped in just enough smooth foam to pad them. They’re wonderfully decorated, reasonably well-balanced, and light. The lightness actually helps a lot, because you just can’t swing them all that hard, even if you try to. They even have foam hilts. On my sons’ swords, I found that one hilt, which swept up toward the “blade,” was actually useful in combat for catching or deflecting your opponent’s blade. The other sword has a hilt that sweeps back toward the hilt and I found it to be basically useless.

I had an all-out swordfight with my boys the other day and I was pretty impressed with these swords. They’re sturdy enough that we didn’t break them, even with a considerable amount of blocking, parrying and striking. At the same time, they didn’t leave any welts or bruises on anybody. They had a good feel to them – not so heavy that my kids’ arms got tired, but not so light that I felt like I was swinging a balloon around. All in all, I found them to be just about the perfect combat experience when playing around with my sons.

Technically, it seemed to me that the swords would have to be swung really and deliberately hard in order to leave a welt. If that were to happen, I suspect that the sword would break. This is good (if true – I didn’t test it) for several reasons. First, the breaking of the sword should release some of the kinetic energy and reduce the harm to the victim (in theory, anyway). Second, the broken sword ensures that Dad’s going to find out about the attack and investigate. And third, the broken sword ensures that the attacker must cease their attack (hopefully) before serious damage is done. All of these are good things.

Now a couple of caveats. I visited the local Society for Creative Anachronism group a bunch of times back around 1989 when I was in college. At one meeting, I got an introduction to the armored combat they did in which they used rattan shinai, a bamboo practice sword most notably used in Japanese Kendo martial arts. I remember clearly that the swordsmaster there gave a lecture about the force of the blow you could strike if you used one hand on the hilt as a fulcrum, and used the other to lever the sword blade rapidly down on your opponent’s head or shoulder. It was a significant impact, though I forget exactly how many foot-pounds of force it generated. But it was easily enough to smash a clavicle and he strongly warned never to let such a thing happen.

So the caveat is that while I haven’t tested that same move with an N-force sword, I can envision a scenario where it could leave quite a mark on the victim, though, as above, I suspect it would destroy the sword in the process. My other caveat has to do with thrusting or jabbing. The tubing in the middle of the sword is much more likely, I suspect, to shatter if struck along its length, rather than from the end. Therefore, a thrust with one of these toys could conceivably cause quite a bit of damage to soft tissue, say the groin, abdomen, throat, eyes or nose. I suspect that any of these tissues would give long before a plastic tube would.

Luckily, the likelihood of that being an issue is somewhat mitigated. For one thing, the swords are quite long, and whomever you’re fighting with is likely to be standing too close to you for an effective thrust. Again, this assumes you’re a little kid with minimal combat training. The other factor that mitigates this danger is just the nature of boys who sword-fight. Unless it’s really convenient to do so, they just don’t usually jab all that much in my experience. Swinging is so much more dramatic and satisfying. So, again, leaving aside any junior Spartacuses, this probably won’t be an issue for most kids. Still, it’s something to be aware of – the tips of the swords are padded, too, but I think a good solid thrust in the wrong place would probably cause some harm.

Bottom line: if used with appropriate caution, I think these are great toys. My sons are loving them and I had a lot of fun with them as well. As with any contact combat-like play, there’s an element of risk, but I think the manufacturer did a pretty good job of balancing risk factors against making the toy fun to use. If one of my kids manages to cripple the other one in some way I didn’t fully predict, I reserve the right to come back and lower the final grade, but in the meantime I’m giving the Nerf N-Force Sword an A.

Note: as always, until somebody offers, my reviews are uncompensated. Yeah, it sucks. What can you do?

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