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Super squirt guns soak up $215-million market

With water weapons that can drench targets almost 40 feet away, Larami Ltd. has cornered a must-have market.

Anyone unclear on the biggest breakthrough in weapons technology over the last decade has not looked down the barrel of a modern squirt gun.

This year's biggest model is nearly 3 feet long, connects to a backpack that carries two gallons of water, expels 20 ounces of fluid per second and is capable of drenching targets almost 40 feet away. It is the Super Soaker CPS 3000 by Larami Ltd. The CPS is short for constant pressure system. There's also the XP line, which stands for extra power, and the SC series, which connects to a "Super Charger" for quick refills.

These water weapons are the latest in a line of high-tech squirt guns that began with the tinkerings of an engineer at Pasadena's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and have transformed the toy industry as much as they have transformed neighborhood water fights.

Ten years ago, the squirt gun market was still largely the province of 29-cent plastic pistols that could barely douse an insect. Squirt guns weren't even tracked as a separate category by toy industry analysts. Today that category is a $215-million-a-year business in the United States, and Larami owns 90 percent of it.

"Super Soakers have joined the ranks of Tonka Trucks and Matchbox cars _ products that are perennial," said Dave Brewi, vice president of merchandise for Toys "R" Us. "They have dominated the market as much as you can."

Getting consumers to keep trading up for more powerful guns is a key component to Larami's strategy. The New Jersey company covers nearly every price point, from a few dollars for the cheapest model to the $39.95 price tag on the CPS 3000.

But Larami, which was acquired by toy giant Hasbro Inc. for about $100-million five years ago, has maintained its stranglehold through innovation, gaining nearly 20 patents over the last decade and suing every toy maker that comes near its designs.

"We have an engineering staff that works on developing new guns all the time," said Al Davis, a co-founder and executive vice president of Larami. "If other companies step on our patents, we don't hesitate going after them."

Super Soakers are an assemblage of chambers, pumps and levers. Most of the guns have bulbous plastic tanks mounted on top for holding water. Underneath the gun's barrel is a sliding handle used to fill the gun with air pressurized up to 35 pounds a square inch.

When the gun's trigger is pulled, it opens a seal at the tip of the barrel and the water _ pushed by all that pressurized air _ rushes out in a tight stream.

The mechanism isn't all that different from that used in air rifles, garden sprayers and other things that have been around for decades. But no one had bothered to apply this technology to squirt guns until 1982, when Lonnie Johnson, a Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineer responsible for power subsystems on the Galileo spacecraft, was tinkering with a way to make a heat pump that used water instead of Freon as a coolant.

"I had hooked up the pump to the water faucet and shot a stream of water across the bathroom into the tub," said Johnson, now 49 and running his own research lab in Atlanta. "The pressure was so great that the curtains were swaying. I told myself that it would be a great water gun."

It was seven years before anyone else saw that same potential. Daisy Manufacturing Co., maker of BB guns, passed on the idea after two years of discussions with Johnson. Another company licensed the design but never made the gun and subsequently went out of business.

In 1989, Johnson came to a meeting with Larami engineers armed with a prototype he had made from a soda bottle and PVC pipe. He left with a $30,000 check and has since made millions of dollars from royalties on every gun sold.

Many toy retailers did not think consumers would spend $10 on a squirt gun. But Toys "R" Us decided to carry it, and Larami got a huge break in November 1990 when Johnny Carson featured the Super Soaker on his annual toy review.

The next 12 months stunned the industry. In 1990, sales of all toy guns, including squirt guns, totaled about $89-million. A year later, toy gun sales soared to $232-million, according to the Toy Manufacturers of America, and the Super Soaker accounted for most of the difference.

The guns are so powerful that they come with warnings: They are not to be aimed at people's faces. The company has also made a point of giving the guns fluorescent colors and playful designs to minimize any association _ in the minds of children or their parents _ between these high-powered squirt guns and real weapons.

The guns have evolved considerably over the last eight years, adding multiple nozzles, larger water tanks, more reliable pumps and quicker loading systems.

But there is one performance category that hasn't changed: firing range. Almost every Super Soaker, from the first gun through the CPS 3000, has a maximum range of 37.5 feet, which, it turns out, is something of a technological limit.

Larami's main rival is Yes Entertainment of Pleasanton, Calif., the only other company supplying high-powered squirt guns to Toys "R" Us, Wal-Mart and others.

Yes has had a modest hit this year with its "Doublecross" gun, which uses a bladder system instead of a pump, loads under pressure straight from the hose, and has two pistol-like attachments that can be aimed and fired independently.

Meanwhile, Larami is setting its sights ever higher. Next year, the company plans to roll out its first line of guns aimed at the college-age market.

Company executives are circumspect. But Davis said the centerpiece of the new line "is much bigger, much more powerful. Eleven-year-olds may not be able to pick it up."