Community Education

Inside Gig Harbor’s (Nerf) War zone

Posted on April 27th, 2022 By:

Ryan Pickles and Isaac Gary got lucky on opening day of Nerf Wars 2022.

“The very first night, me and Ryan, we were hunting this one team called Moctezuma’s Revenge. So, we know where one of them lives,” Gary said.

The team member has a twin sibling also playing the game — a long-standing tradition among graduating seniors in Gig Harbor — so there was lots of activity around their property.

Pickles and Gary waited in their car and watched as people from multiple teams lurked about, left, then returned.

Two members of the target team exited a car together. The attackers from SEAL Team – Sex jumped out, leveled their Nerf guns and took aim.

“We got both of them,” Gary said. “They didn’t notice us come up behind them. So that’s how we got the quota so fast.”

Members of a Nerf Wars 2022 team — they call themselves SEAL Team-Sex — are participating in an annual tradition among graduating seniors from Gig Harbor High School that’s been going on for more than a decade. The game is not connected in any way with Peninsula School District. From left: Ryan Pickles, Gavin Robinson, Luke Miller, Isaac Gary, Jak McLellan and Matt Brown. Christina T Henry

The “quota” being two direct hits listed as “kills” on the game’s website. Only soft foam darts are allowed, either Nerf brand or knock-offs. Single-shot weapons only; no automatics.

Teams that don’t meet their quota of kills by the end of the week must “sacrifice” one of their own players, and so it goes until there’s just one team left standing. That team shares a pot of winnings from a $20-per-person entry fee, which this year totals around $2,500.

Safety issues cited

Like Senior Skip Day and prom, Nerf Wars has become a cherished rite of spring among soon-to-be-grads in Gig Harbor and across the nation.

The appeal, says Pickles, a Gig Harbor High senior, is “just kind of, like, the adrenaline that you feel when you’re chasing someone.”

But just as reliably, businesses and neighborhoods gird themselves against the potential annoyances and disruptions that come with scores of near-adults stalking one another with toy guns.

Around Gig Harbor, fliers have gone up in shop windows declaring “Nerf Free” zones. Homeowners’ associations have made their streets and sidewalks off-limits.

Gig Harbor Police Chief Kelly Busey said the biggest concerns include reckless driving and the possibility a Nerf gun could be mistaken for a real gun.

“We understand that it’s kids being kids and having fun. Our concern is the safety aspect of it,” Busey said. “We encourage kids to have fun, and this seems to be a fairly healthy game. As long as they can just do it safely and use some common sense, not be jumping on top of cars, chasing each other around our streets and putting themselves in bad positions prowling around somebody’s house.”

Busey said his department gets maybe one or two prowler complaints a year related to the game. As for vehicle accidents, “we would probably get one every two or three years. Collisions usually coming out of the high school parking lot. Stuff like that,” he said.

A business in downtown Gig Harbor displays a “Nerf Free Zone” sign notifying participants in the annual Nerf Wars game that the property is off limits for play. Christina T Henry

Policing the players

Students from both Peninsula and Gig Harbor high schools have participated in recent years. The Nerf Wars tradition has been ongoing for at least a decade among Gig Harbor High seniors, according to Nora Poulton, a co-organizer of this year’s games for that school.

Poulton is quick to add that Nerf Wars is not connected in any way with Peninsula School District. School properties are off limits, and student-athletes at away games are protected from attack, under rules listed on the Gig Harbor High Nerf Wars 2022 website.

School officials weighed in, as they have in the past, on the side of safety.

“This activity is not a school-sponsored event and is not endorsed by the school district,” said Aimee Gordon, spokeswoman for Peninsula School District. “Keeping our students safe is our top priority and we care for them even when they are involved in something outside of school. We know the kids think the Nerf War is fun but it could lead to a dangerous situation.”

Nerf free zones

On the Gig Harbor Nerf Wars 2022 website, players are admonished to observe Nerf-free zones and respect private property. Poulton and her co-organizer Ava Moran do their best to police the players. If anyone crosses the line, for example by destroying or damaging property, their team is automatically eliminated. The organizers’ word is final.

Anyone whose transgressions lead to an encounter with the police is on their own.

Gavin Robinson of SEAL Team – Sex understands safety concerns but thinks most players know how to keep things in check.

“I think if you’re playing this game in good faith, and you’re not, like, deliberately going out of your way to really trap someone or, you know, doing something that’s obviously a bad thing to do, I feel like nothing bad is going to happen,” he said.

Poulton and Moran also serve as referees when there are disputes over kills or people bending the rules.

“I can put my phone down for 30 minutes, lift it up and my phone has just blown up,” Moran said. “I’m, like, on my phone 24/7.”

Invoking the ‘Naked Rule’

Nerf Wars took a hit like everything else during the pandemic and was suspended in 2020. Last year saw a meager return, but this year, the game is back with a vengeance. More than half the senior class has signed up; the competition is co-ed. There are 22 teams with names like Projectile Dysfunction, The Exalted Zebras and $exy $hooter$.

The games started April 18. By the end of week one, The Exalted Zebras weren’t looking good, with one of their four members killed and one sacrificed. Eliminated was the six-member team Armed & Hammered.

SEAL Team – Sex was one of five teams left with all of its members, and the only one with a seven-member advantage. Seven is the maximum number of players per team.

Players can make a kill as lone wolves, but more often, one gets a tip and a flurry of texts leads to a swarm on the victim.

The “Naked Rule” gives players who strip down immunity from being shot. How often does this happen?

“A lot more often than you would think,” said Moran.

Matt Brown of SEAL Team – Sex recounted when a teammate, Cole Rushforth, invoked the Naked Rule.

“He didn’t know if there were people outside of his house, so he just walked out naked. And then there was no one there. So, it was pointless,” Brown said, clearly amused.

Narrow escapes and near misses

Rushforth and Brown are neighbors. One day, Brown was bombarded with texts to go see what was up with Cole. Turns out he was hiding in the woods, on foot with a Nerf gun but no cell phone, which he’d left in a car.

Brown, in his mom’s car, ended up blocked in a cul-de-sac by the enemy’s team. He spied a small dirt road, an escape route. “So as soon as they moved out from my car, I just kind of gunned it and went around their car. That’s how I got away,” he said.

Rushforth, too, lived to fight another day.

Robinson said is can be exhausting always being on alert for an ambush. He was out of town for the first day of the games. On the second day, “I woke up for school, there were two different teams outside my house before school. Someone shot me a text, he’s like, ‘They’re coming for you.’ So that was kind of my good morning texts.”

There’s a 10-minute grace rule that lets people get to school or work. Robinson said leaving home is one of the riskiest times.

The Tom Taylor Family YMCA in Gig Harbor displays a “Nerf Free Zone” sign notifying participants in the annual Nerf Wars game that the property is off limits for play. Date: April 23, 2022. Christina T Henry

I’d say when you’re about to go somewhere or when you’re just trying to, like, take out the garbage,” he said. “Man, for me, that felt like a bank heist when I took out the garbage that day. I mean, it’s just those small gaps. That’s when they’re gonna get you.”

Ending the year on a high note

Participants say anticipation to take part in the Nerf Wars tradition starts among freshmen and sophomores. The game brings a welcome release from the pressures of senior year and one last chance to bond as a class.

“A lot of us just really want to do something fun at the end of the year. I mean, all of us are so burnt out,” said Poulton. “We’ve finally almost completed four years of high school. And I think it’s just something fun for us to do to kind of like come together one more time.”

The robust return of Nerf Wars this year following two years of pandemic isolation and precautions makes this year’s games even more satisfying.

“For me and, I think, for the other guys, too, it’s just kind of like a fun senior activity,” said Jak McLellan. “You know, with the whole COVID stuff, we’ve had kind of a rough couple of years of just being at home and not getting to experience all the school stuff. So, I think this is a great opportunity just to end our senior year on a high note.”