School’s out for summer, so it’s time to take a look at one of the staples of summertime fun – water guns!
Of course, I’m not talking about the ridiculous neon water guns available to the weaksauce, ninnybritches kids of today. Nosirree. Not these bulbous, multi-colored plastic Super Soakers that instantly identify a kid as a dweeb and the United States as a soft country that has fallen victim to the ideals of a bunch of left wing pantywaists.
I am talking about water guns that looked exactly like real guns. Like, to the point where people were getting shot for having them. That is a manly and independent country, my friends.
For several years now I have been afflicted with one of those memories that nobody else shared. But now, thanks to the magic of the internet my memories have been validated and I can at long last go on with my life.
Yes, Phantomaniacs, Entertech water guns were real. More than that, they’re apparently what led to the demise of toy company LJN.
As you all know by now, GI Joe was my favorite toy line when I was a kid. I collected as much of it as I possibly could and had the biggest Joe collection of anybody that I knew. I had the Terrordrome and the USS Flagg. I was that kid. I collected all the way up until just after Battleforce 2000 came out. That’s when GI Joe got a little too out there for me for a military line.
Of course, since it was still the 80s and safe for kids to run around and play in their neighborhoods unsupervised, me and my friends also did some mild LARPing (not that we knew that term) as the characters from GI Joe. I always wanted to be Snake-Eyes, but since I didn’t have a mask I couldn’t be. I think I remember my friends decreeing that I had to be Grunt, which sucked. But they were older so I had to do what they said. Plus, the oldest one of us had a tan shirt that looked just like Duke’s, so obviously he was in charge anyway.
Now that I’m thinking about it, his grandfather had been a cop, so he and his little brother – who was also older than me - had all kinds of awesome gear like holsters, goggles, and various other military-seeming implements. You’d think I would have had access to cool stuff, what with my dad being active in the Army, but he felt like his gear was strictly serious business and shouldn’t be played with by a bunch of kids. So I had to make do with other stuff and with being Grunt.
The original male Joes all had little pockets on the sides of their boots. This one time, in an attempt to emulate this, I tucked my pants legs into my socks. I can’t explain the kid logic that thought that looked like boot pockets, but whatever. My friends were absolutely merciless about it. They gave me shit for days, despite the fact that I untucked after the first jibe. I also got made fun of for running weird this one time. This was more understandable, as I was trying to run like the characters on Battle of the Planets and other Japanese cartoons that were airing in the States at the time. Say what you will about anime, but the characters run like idiots. I can’t explain it, but look it up and then picture an actual little kid trying to run that way. They should’ve kicked my ass.
Eventually I was able to convince my mom to take me to the nearest Army/Navy surplus store – a place called Old Sarge. It moved a couple of times over the years, but the original location was this incredible two story building that looked like some kind of post-apocalyptic outpost. There were all kinds of missiles and pieces of armament outside, and I think there was even a plane or a helicopter out there. I wish I had pictures of it, but people in the 80s didn’t carry cameras everywhere, much less ones with phones attached.
Once you got inside Old Sarge it was a magical place if you were into military stuff. Right up front there were cases full of old medals and rank insignia, neatly laid out on those trays that jewelry stores have. I loved standing and just staring into those cases, wondering who the medals might have belonged to and what sorts of adventures they had experienced.
There didn’t seem to be anything that Old Sarge didn’t have. Obviously they had the standards – fatigues of every design, boots from every branch, hats and helmets of all shapes. But they also had gas masks, ration kits, ammo belts, and every kind of pouch or knapsack you could ever imagine. There were web belt riggings that I didn’t even understand, but that I knew would in some way hold a ton of those little ammo pouches.
Side Note: If you’ve ever wondered why all of the 90s comic books characters had so many pouches, this is why – the military used to be celebrated and respected in America. As kids, we thought the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines were awesome. Every kid I knew was way into military stuff and this went for those several years older than me, as well. So all of those artists that started hitting big in the 90s had grown up with that fascination with the military and likely those same kinds of trips to the Army/Navy store. Those places used to be a lot more common than they are now. All of those piles and piles of pouches – for ammo and otherwise – made their way into the character designs. And you know what? They totally made sense. Where do you carry stuff around in your skintight bodysuit, exactly? You’re telling me Wolverine doesn’t even carry a wallet? I’m all for the pouches of the 90s. It’s much more absurd for comic book superheroes to have no pouches.
After one trip to Old Sarge I had some kid-sized fatigues, a web belt and canteen, and a handful of pins and badges. I remember wanting an airborne pin like Duke’s, but they didn’t have one. I do believe I used one of those old Delta pins that they used to give to kids on airplane flights:
My narrative is going to take a leap here, because I have no idea when any of this was happening other than “while I was way into GI Joe (1983 – 1989ish)”. But I do know that the first Entertech water guns came out in 1985 and I assure you I started harassing my parents about them no less than one nanosecond after I became aware of their existence.
For a time my friends and I played with lame, fake-o looking water guns or other toy pistols. It always bothered me. I have been and always will be something of a stickler for accuracy, a trait that was no doubt instilled in me by my dad, who can’t enjoy a military movie if they’re wearing the wrong boots. When I saw the first commercial for these things, I no doubt lost my shit:
It seems like a fair amount of whining and begging would have been needed for me to end up with any of these no doubt pricey water guns, but I don’t recall any kind of difficulty. I remember fighting for Madballs, Garbage Pail Kids, and Transformers, but nothing sticks out about Entertech other than the fact that I had a couple.
Side Note: Madballs and GPKs were too gross for Mom. She didn’t want me having them, but I was actually a really good kid for the most part so with the proper amount of begging I was usually able to get what I wanted. Transformers obviously weren’t gross, but they were expensive and I wasn’t into cars. Out of those three I was able to get the most Garbage Pail Kids, but every so often my mom would come to her senses and throw them in the trash, so I’d have to start over again.
The first series of Entertech guns consisted of a good assortment of water-spurting weapons – some pistols, some submachine guns, a couple of rifles, and an RPG(!). I wasn’t interested in the RPG because it was the one offering that looked too fakey. All of the rest were very slightly off in scale or design, but still looked convincing to the eyes of nine-year-olds that believed that King Kong Bundy had actually ended Hulk Hogan’s career (that happened in 1986, but it’s pretty much my favorite reference of childhood innocence and I will mention it any time I can).
The guns themselves were motorized. In addition to shooting continuous, pulsing streams of water when you held the trigger down, they produced noises that sounded kind of mildly gun-like. I honestly can’t remember if these were electronic gun sounds or just the mechanics of the firing system, but it added so much to the fake gun experience. Because of the mechanics the guns had a weight to them and were also made of a sturdier plastic than most toy guns.
I had one of the pistols and the kickass Water Hawk, which was based on a TEC-9. I cannot even begin to tell you how badass I felt carrying those things around. I think my dad even got me a holster for the pistol.
LJN even produced a Rambo tie-in:
|From the YoJoe.com forums|
This may seem like a terrible and age-inappropriate idea, until you remember that there was a Rambo cartoon and action figure line (also from LJN).
There were a lot of kids in the neighborhood I grew up in. It was a massive collection of streets and houses that, though interconnected, was actually two separate subdivisions. I didn’t even know all of the kids. I remember one afternoon this water gun war happened. I don’t know how it was organized and why it never happened again, but there were at least sixty kids involved. It started off as a fun game of hide-and-seek-and-shoot-with-water, but at some point some older kids that I didn’t know got involved. They were throwing rocks and mud and shoving the younger kids around. I got pushed down in the street at one point and landed on my Water Hawk. It broke and covered me with water.
I don’t recall what happened with the pistol, but I do know that was the end of me having Entertech water guns. Because by that time things had started to go bad.
The tragic portion of the tale is that the toys looked real enough that people were using them to commit crimes and the police had even shot a kid, only to find out that the supposed firearm was a product of LJN. This obviously led to a ton of bad publicity. The beleaguered toy company tried to turn things around on the line by offering brightly colored versions of the Entertech products, but after having the realistic versions no self-respecting kid could start carrying around a neon green and yellow Uzi with a red barrel. I couldn’t, anyway, and apparently most kids agreed because in 1990 LJN went under and was bought by Acclaim as a branch of their video game production operation.
After my Water Hawk broke I was pretty much out of the realistic gun game. The first of the incidents must have been occurring by then because my mom put her foot down in a way that she rarely did – no more Entertech guns. My pistol mysteriously disappeared shortly thereafter.
I wasn’t much of an outside kid. Even before I had any video game systems I just wasn’t a fan. But there was no denying the appeal of going out into the woods and playing GI Joe with some awesome, realistic-looking guns for a few hours.
I never did find any boots with pockets on the sides, though.