Earlier this year, we introduced you to the world of Nerf blasters so powerful they leave your childhood in the dust, designed by a community of makers who no longer need the official Nerf brand to advance the state of the art. But makers and hobbyists aren’t the only ones pushing the foam-flinging sport forward — there’s also Dart Zone, a toymaker whose 2020 Walmart-exclusive $50 Nexus Pro and $25 Aeon Pro brought a never-before-seen level of range and accuracy to blasters you could just buy off the shelf.
For the past several days, I’ve been testing the brand’s new flagship blaster, the hotly anticipated $130 Dart Zone Pro MK-3, which pitches itself as the first fully automatic blaster designed for sporting-grade Nerf, accurately firing at up to 150 feet per second. And while I’ll have to wait for the next local Nerf war to really tell you if it can compete (I do have one important doubt), this company seems to get the Nerf community in a way I’ve never seen before.
While Hasbro is trying to sell us on a new rubbery little ball to get any sort of range at all, the second such attempt at new ammo in recent memory, the MK-3 manages to deliver modded-blaster grade performance from the standard long and short darts that the community’s been using for years. That 150 feet-per-second promise is on the money: plug in eight regular AA batteries, and it’s nearly as powerful (yet quieter!) than the LiPo-powered Demolisher I modded a few years back. I can easily hit targets 80 feet away, dart after dart after dart, and blast up to 130 feet away when I angle the MK-3 up into the air.
But wonder of wonders, you don’t need to use AAs at all. A single Philips-head screw is the only thing keeping you from lifting out the entire battery tray — where you’ll find a genuine XT-60 connector to plug in your very own LiPo battery. Swap in a two-cell (2S) 7.4V LiPo, and you’ll get roughly the same performance while shedding nearly half a pound of weight. Swap in a three-cell (3S) 11.1V LiPo, and your darts can instantly go 20 feet per second faster, plus I saw my full auto rate-of-fire jump from three-plus darts per second to four-plus darts per second. It also spins up notably faster, meaning you don’t need to hold the rev trigger as long before you can blast!
It’s the easiest mod ever, and it’s completely different from the way Nerf brand owner Hasbro operates. Nerf has frowned on modding for years, presumably for safety reasons, and has even sealed its blasters with epoxy from time to time. And while Dart Zone creative director Bryan Sturtevant tells me his company isn’t exactly encouraging you to mod this one — “if you put the wrong LiPo in it, you can blow up the blaster” — the company’s also not remotely worried about three-cell battery packs. The specially chosen 36,000RPM motors and larger-gauge wire are designed for 12 volts, and they’re LiPo-tested and ready.
I’m a little less sure about the health of your darts while using it. For the MK-3, Dart Zone’s using serrated flywheels that appear to be slightly shredding every dart I fire out the end. I’ve been firing off magazine after magazine in my backyard and a nearby park, and I’ve never seen quite so much foam dust settle in my barrel. Heck, I had a hard time measuring dart speed with one of my ballistic chronographs because tiny specks of foam were shooting out the end. Almost every dart I’ve fired shows signs of wear, some have missing chunks of foam, and I have five completely busted darts because this blaster yanked off their tips. And that’s with AAs, not an upgraded LiPo battery.
I don’t know if there’s a defect or if, say, my flywheels were just misaligned at the factory — update, I think that’s the case — but the company says it’s never seen this and will send me another unit. I wouldn’t personally buy one until this gets figured out. Modern Nerf wars typically use a shared pool of community darts (so there are no arguments about who owns which ones) and the community tends to frown on people who shred them. Plus, each dart can easily cost 10 cents even if you purchase in bulk.
Update, July 2022: Dart Zone never did send me another unit, but I bought one myself and it’s a bit better. Darts I fire through it still do show signs of wear, but they aren’t being bitten as badly as my original review unit.
Still, other reviewers haven’t mentioned the issue so far and I’m hoping it’s a fluke, because this blaster plays nice with practically every kind of dart on the market — and I’m including Nerf’s own pitifully inaccurate Elite darts in that. While it’s way too powerful to fire Elite darts in its semi-auto mode, which fly wildly off target like they do in most high-power blasters, the MK-3 loses enough velocity in full auto that Elites start working again. This is a blaster where you can literally flip a switch to play a lower-stakes game of Nerf with friends who don’t have a high-power kit.
The MK-3 seems like a well-designed blaster in other ways as well. Every switch and lever has a satisfying and confident pull, there’s comfy rubber on the four-position stock and pistol grip, and you’ll find two built-in foregrip positions and an underslung rail to add your own — all while still looking like a sci-fi toy rather than a gun, which I appreciate. It comes with two 15-round magazines for long and short darts, a short magazine adapter, and a removable red-dot sight that looks cool but sadly has no windage adjustment and doesn’t line up with where my darts actually go.
Dart Zone says it’s upgraded its green “bamboo” darts alongside this blaster’s release, moving to a lighter green that’s easier to spot in grass. They’re also adopting the narrower dart head that helped improve the range and accuracy of the black darts that Dart Zone sells at Walmart alongside its Nexus Pro blaster. I don’t have enough of them to properly test, but so far I prefer the black darts’ performance.
The Dart Zone Pro MK-3 should go on sale this Friday, October 1st at Target.com (not in retail stores), and Dart Zone estimates it should arrive a week later at Amazon Canada. The company also plans to sell three-packs of the new 15-round magazines for roughly $30 at its own website closer to Christmas.
After the Nexus Pro, Aeon Pro, Conquest Pro, the MK-3, and other ways Dart Zone has undercut Hasbro like building a better dart, I can’t wait to see what the company does next. And what, if anything, it might take to get the official Nerf brand to react.
Update, 12:45PM ET: Want to see it in motion? You can find video impressions of the new blaster (and footage of its internals) at Out of Darts, Foamblast, LordDraconical and WalcomS7 on YouTube. Two of them noticed an issue with some Talon-style magazines, but Foamblast found a possible solution.