Zero Blaster smoke ring gunReview date: 10 August 2003. Last modified 18-Jul-2015.
Zero Toys is the kind of company that advertises on the backs of comic books. They're right there in the middle of the Sea Monkeys and X-Ray Spex market segment. Ads for toys like these shared publication real estate with, in days of yore at least, Charles Atlas ads.
This is not a particularly good category to be in. Stuff advertised in comic book ads was the pre-1980 equivalent of stuff that's sold via spam today (except there was less sex then).
Sure, some Johnson Smith Company-type products were on the level. But an awful lot of this pocket-money-sucking gear was and is disappointing, to say the least.
So when first I heard about the Zero Blaster smoke ring gun and simpler Zero Launcher (which does the same thing, but without a fancy trigger setup), I was not impressed.
Yeah, right. It shoots smoke rings, eh? And I have a dragon in my garage.
On reflection, though, it struck me that such a gadget could actually be made. Smoke ring generators aren't that hard to create; you can make one out of your mouth, if your habits include filling said cavity with smoke. If you want a less organic smoke ring "cannon", you can make one inexpensively and easily (or fairly inexpensively and not that easily, if you want a gigantic one). There are even other, less toy-like commercial smoke ring generators out there.
So a handheld ray-gun-shaped one didn't, when I thought about it, sound all that implausible.
So, after my attempts to
scam one for free obtain review product
through the usual channels failed, I bought a Blaster on eBay (Your
donation dollars hard at work! Thanks, everyone!) for $US17.99,
plus substantial shipping to me here in Australia. The usual retail price is $US19.95,
ex shipping. [It's easy to find a Zero Blaster on
eBay, even though this review is more than a decade old now! The price has
gone up a little, but not a lot.]
The Zero Blaster is a great-looking toy. Swoopy styling, a grip big enough for adult hands, and lots of transparent plastic. There's a non-transparent silver model as well as trans-red, trans-blue and the trans-purple that I bought. But why wouldn't you want to see the works?
This side view shows you most of the mechanism. The big yellow trigger works a simple squeeze-bulb pump, which delivers smoke fluid to the heating element; the element fills the Blaster's front chamber with smoke. More on that later.
The smaller index-finger trigger pulls back and then releases a plunger that whacks a rubber membrane on the back of the chamber.
The on/off switch below the big trigger does what you'd expect - but if the smoke chamber's full, you can turn the gun off and still shoot rings.
The Blaster runs from six AA batteries, and works them fairly hard. They have to run both the smoke generating heater element and a little light bulb in the top of the smoke chamber. The bulb is a nice touch - it makes it obvious when you've got smoke to use, and it also lets you see the state of the batteries. Plus, it lets you use the Blaster as a better-than-nothing flashlight. Actually shooting smoke rings in the dark is a waste of time, though.
The Blaster's designers have also, thoughtfully, provided a 1/8th inch socket for an optional six volt AC adapter, for industrial-level smoke ring production without a backpack full of batteries.
You can see the AC adapter socket towards the left edge of the above photo. The socket should be more obvious, and prettier, than it is in the picture; only after taking the photos did I notice that a screw-on ring for the outside of the socket had fallen off in transit, and was rattling around in the Blaster's packaging.
Here's the front of the plunger, resting against the green rubber membrane. It's a simple mechanism, and a good one. The Blaster doesn't feel as if it's at all likely to suffer mechanical failure.
This speed control lever, at the back of the Blaster, adjusts the preload of the plunger spring. The plunger hits the rubber membrane hardest when the lever's all the way down.
Minimum power gives a hollow bopping sound and smoke rings that fly at less than a metre per second; maximum power gives a twangy, higher-pitched tap and smoke rings that proceed roughly twice as fast, but aren't as well defined. The full power impact seems to cause the membrane to bounce a bit, which slightly messes up the air pulse.
The Blaster has two little smoke fluid reservoirs. One of them you fill with the supplied fluid. The other one's for overflow, from overenthusiastic use of the pump-trigger.
You get one three ounce (85ml) bottle of smoke fluid with the Blaster. The fluid comes with an eyedropper that lets you fairly neatly, but rather slowly, fill the input reservoir. You can also use the dropper to recycle fluid that ends up in the overflow reservoir.
The mildly laborious filling process is mitigated by the fact that the Blaster needs surprisingly little fluid to make a lot of smoke. Zero Toys say the provided bottle contains enough fluid for "more than 25,000" rings, and I wouldn't be surprised if they're right.
The Blaster uses glycol smoke fluid, with added cherry scent for... um... for some reason. Glycol smoke fluid has a faint, vaguely sweet smell of its own, and that smell doesn't need to be covered up, if you ask me. But the cheap consumer smoke machines that the kids are all buying these days always seem to come with scented fluid. Oh well; the cherry scent isn't revolting.
The fluid has the distinctive sticky-slippery feel of all glycol fog juice. It evaporates very slowly, so if you spill it on the carpet you'll have a damp spot there for a long time. It's clear, though, so at least it doesn't stain.
Zero Toys warn against using any fluid but their own with the Blaster, but it should work fine with any quality glycol smoke fluid. Just don't try using oil, or something.
One of the hard-to-carry spigot-equipped monster fluid packs I buy every several years to feed my Le Maitre Red Devil (a low volume mains powered smoke machine, which means it has a rating of only 180 cubic metres of smoke per minute...) ought to be good for around 15 million Zero Blaster smoke rings. Heh.
At the business end of the Blaster is the heater element, surrounded by a perforated tube that protects the heater from fingers, and fingers from the heater.
This coil is one millimetre wide, at most.
My only real worry about the Blaster's durability centres on the heater; I don't know whether it'll corrode, or get clogged up with (cherry scented) deposits, or otherwise drop dead. If it does, then it'd take a pretty dedicated geek to replace it with a thread of nichrome wire.
The rest of the Blaster seems to be built to last, though - well, as long as you can reasonably expect a $US20 toy to last, anyway - so I'm quite hopeful about the heater's lifespan.
When you turn the Blaster on, peer into its smoke chamber and give the pump trigger a gentle squeeze (the heater only takes a few seconds to warm up), it's hard to see where the smoke's actually coming from. It just seems to materialise at the top of the chamber, by the little light bulb.
This is because the vaporised fluid is a hot, invisible gas when it shoots out of the top of the tube around the heater element. It only becomes visible when it cools and condenses.
The Blaster's chamber, filled with smoke and ready to go.
At this point, I was glumly contemplating the task of trying to take pictures smoke rings while shooting them. Smoke rings are not easy photographic subjects.
Fortunately, Zero Toys have done the job for me, with a couple of excellent promotional video clips that you can see here. The clips are of people using the Blaster (and/or the cheaper Launcher) with ideal lighting, a dead black background and camerawork calculated to maximise the apparent size of the smoke rings. But they're still indicative of what the toys actually do.
ThinkGeek also have a couple of decent action shots of the Blaster.
In my playing, I found that still air was a must for decent smoke ring range and stability (not a big surprise); forget about using a Zero Blaster outdoors, unless the air's dead still.
I also found that the "up to 14 foot" range that Zero Toys claim is possible with the Blaster is deuced difficult to achieve. For maximum range, you're meant to gently push the Blaster forward as you fire, and follow through a bit afterwards. The best I managed by doing that was about eight feet. Perhaps I just need more practice.
If you don't expect enormous range, and if you've got a nice unventilated room to play in, the Zero Blaster is great fun. You can shoot a slow ring, then shoot fast rings through it (through the middle or through the sides - the vortices interact fairly non-destructively either way). You can create a constellation of stationary, slowly dissipating rings that've run out of forward motion. You can shoot for distance and for accuracy. And you can, in time, make the place look like a Rastafarian rumpus room and smell like Strawberry Shortcake's sock drawer.
The Zero Blaster sucked six reasonably fresh AA alkalines, totalling 9.29 volts open circuit, down to 8.43 volts when I turned it on. It drew about half an amp when freshly turned on, which dropped to about 420 milliamps after the heater warmed up.
This is a pretty hefty load for AA cells. It'd mean a battery life of only about an hour, if the Blaster were a gadget that stopped working when its batteries drop to 1.2 volts per cell.
Fortunately, the Blaster is not nearly that fussy. When I tried it out with low input voltages, it performed very well. Its little light gets dim and yellow as the input voltage falls, but the heater was still smoking perfectly well from five volts.
This means you'll be able to use pretty much every last milliamp-hour of a set of AAs in this thing. The Blaster's battery life with quality alkalines should actually be better than four hours. I wouldn't try to save money and use carbon-zinc AAs, though; they'd probably crap out in little more than an hour.
The Blaster will also work fine from rechargeable AAs, which have lower open-circuit voltage than non-rechargeables but are much less bothered about high drain operation. A set of cheap 1.5 amp-hour NiMH rechargeables will give you the thick end of three and a half hours of Blaster run time - and rather more actual smoke-shooting time, if you frugally turn the Blaster off when it's got up a head of smoke.
The Zero Blaster's name is an overstatement. This thing doesn't blast anything. My cat's scared of the Blaster, but that's because it makes a weird noise and smells funny, not because it can blow him off the couch.
The "blast" from this Blaster is actually a very gentle puff of air, adequate to extinguish a candle right next to the Blaster's muzzle, but no good for anything more.
If you want something that shoots an air projectile like unto that fired by Wham-O's late lamented Air Blaster (no longer on the Wham-O product list, possibly because it was pump-based and could damage an eardrum at close range, not to mention accept projectiles), then Zero Toys can oblige, because they also sell the excellent Airzooka, one of which I have now reviewed here.
The Zero Blaster, though, is a darn good toy. It does what it sets out to do, it looks great while it's doing it, it doesn't cost a fortune, and it's a ton of fun.
Backyard Artillery stock the Zero Blaster, and also happen to be cool dudes.
When you absolutely positively gotta mess up the hair of every... person... in the room.
Accept no substitutes.
Also, this is about as cool as it looks.