You ever get the feeling that a toy might have started as an inside joke…?
In 1985, Hasbro released the Cobra Rifle Range, a set that allowed the inept cadre of soldiers Cobra Commander had assembled to practice the skill they seemed to lack more than anything: hitting a target with their rifles.
In both the GI Joe comic book and especially the cartoon, you would be hard-pressed to find examples of shots from Cobra soldiers hitting a GI Joe target. (Apart from that POS Saw Viper.)
I can picture the Hasbro guys sitting around, patting themselves on the back about how they were promoting their military toys through a cartoon where no one ever got hit with a bullet.
(By the way, I picture Hasbro’s team being like the writers’ room from 30 Rock, with a Frank, a Toofer and a few Lutzes.)
“Okay, so we’ve got the Ammo Dump and Forward Observer Unit for GI Joe. What about Cobra?”
“How about a playset where they do some damn target practice?”
And the next day someone puts together a prototype rifle range made with modeling clay.
It’s also possible that Hasbro backed into it, with some designer making a rifle range for the Joes, with their teammate making a joke that Cobra needed the practice more. So the next day, the bullseyes, the weapons rack and the figure stands were being mocked up in Cobra blue.
The guns were from Grunt, Airborne and Snow Job, after all, so the latter story is likely closer to the truth.
One of the things that set GI Joe apart was the amount of world-building.
Star Wars had set the bar. For example, they created a simple cantina with no action features. Although Kenner stopped short of including a toilet in their Death Star or Millennium Falcon playsets. And it’s that lack of facilities in the X-Wing that is sometimes intriguing… Did Luke take Immodium before flying to Dagobah?
And in pop culture, the only gunner with less skill than Cobra’s soldiers is poor, dead Greedo, from the much maligned Star Wars Special Edition. Maybe the Stormtroopers, too, actually, so Kenner should have made a Star Wars equivalent rifle range playset for the Empire’s main troopers.
GI Joe took the world-building mantle from Star Wars in a way that few other toylines had the audacity to embrace. GI Joe straight-up had everything, including storage and disposal facilities, jail cells, beds, tents, axes, shovels, a water bottle. They lacked neutral characters and real-world locales, but otherwise they had a fully realized world within the science fiction-to-military spectrum, and the Cobra Rifle Range was a great example.
As a toy, the Cobra Rifle Range looks slick. Having a practice facility allowed kids to pretend that their Cobra soldiers were less inept than those featured in the cartoon and comic book. I know mine were treated as talented fighters who posed a real threat. Otherwise, my high ratios of GI Joes to Cobras put me in the realm of cheering for Goliath against David.
I didn’t own the Cobra Rifle Range, but still, if I had, it would have explained how my Cobras had become formidable adversaries. The Cobras were always outnumbered, so for the action to be interesting they needed to be more resourceful, more determined, more ruthless, better fighters and better marksman. Every Cobra was responsible for taking out 3-to-4 Joes, so that by the end of the battle there could be a one-on-one showdown of my favourite Joe vs. Cobra’s top agent.
The set-up is nice, with a sign, two targets weighed down by sandbags, a rifle rack with three weapons to choose from, two figure stands and a firing embankment. It’s simple, but effective.
But there are a few things that stick out to me.
It’s neat to see the figure stands in Cobra blue for the first time, which matches well with some Cobra soldiers. But I will admit that I didn’t really use figure stands as a child. I didn’t put my figures on display often, since I was always playing with them, and in the heat of action I always seemed able to stand my figures in one way or another, without a stand. I don’t play with my toys anymore, and I don’t have the same patience as an adult, so figure stands are mandatory now. But I remember some older kids around me who were simply collecting the figures, even back then, and the stands would have been a nice get for them.
Apart from the targets, everything seems to be designed at a lower profile. The “Firing Range” sign sits on the ground, the rifle rack seems short compared to the Bivouac’s, and the embankment isn’t anything you could hide behind. The moulding on it is decent enough, but it’s really just a kneeler, and that is unfortunate because it could be leveraged away from the rifle range, if it provided even a hint of cover. I realize that if it was much bigger it wouldn’t fit in the box, and the battlefield accessories all needed to fit in the same size box for marketing purposes. But, still… Find a way.
The rifle choices seem inappropriate for a Cobra playset, with the Cobra Soldier, Cobra Officer, Crimson Guard and Snow Serpent rifles being more obvious choices than Grunt, Snow Job and Airborne. Generally, named Cobras came with pistols, not rifles, with Baroness and Firefly being exceptions, so that hampered choices. And, of course, Hasbro was re-releasing various rifles in the accessory packs along the way, and needed to manage their moulds as they shipped things around. It’s likely they knew in 1985 they would be re-releasing many of the key Cobra rifles in Accessory Pack #5, in 1986, and maybe didn’t want to cross streams.
Including three Joe rifles tips their hand that they probably had intended this to be a GI Joe playset. But it is interesting that the same three rifles were among the five included with the Transportable Tactical Battle Platform, which was also released in 1985.
Another knock is the tipsiness factor. I toppled the rifle rack three times mounting the three rifles for one photo. And the targets rest against the sandbag bases in a shaky manner, as well. Maybe the theory was that you could flick them over to represent a target being hit, but they do just fall over if you bump them in anyway. It’s all a little frustrating for me, now, although my tolerance for small annoyances might have been higher as a kid. I did grow up with two sisters, after all.
As a toy, the Rifle Range might be better suited for display than play, as it really helps flush out a makeshift Cobra base, and might be boring to play with as a simple rifle range. But it also makes an interesting location for the Joes to ambush unsuspecting Cobras…
Had I owned this playset, I envision a few scenarios playing out:
First, it was the kind of place where two alpha Cobras with beef would challenge each other. I’m thinking of Cobra Commander vs. Destro, Destro vs. Zartan, or Zartan vs. Baroness, with the rest of the Cobras watching and taking bets as the targets got moved further and further away.
Or it could have been a place the Dreadnoks would hang out, giving each other shit about how they couldn’t hit the target if their monthly ration of doughnuts and grape soda depended on it. And in that scenario one of the Dreadnoks would continually miss and get so frustrated while being chirped that he would simply attack the targets, Buzzer with his chainsaw, Torch with his blowtorch, Thrasher with his lacrosse stick… I might have even had them compete for a kiss from Zarana, but when the winner tries to collect she simply kicks his ass.
Or it might just be a proving ground where Crimson Guards, Snow Serpents and Vipers test their mettle.
And sometimes I would have flipped the script entirely, making the Rifle Range part of the Joe base and having everyone competing to knock off the resident sharpshooters: Snow Job and Low-Light. (Spoiler alert: from my Joes, Lady Jaye would have been the victor.)
As an adult, I appreciate how the battlefield accessory sets fit into the GI Joe universe. But I also wish that Cobra simply had more of them, with more tactical locations, like the Bivouac, Forward Observer Unit and Outpost Defender, places from which they could set ambushes on unsuspecting Joes. But the Rifle Range was a nice little set that would have helped beef up Cobra’s skills, or would have simply provided a location for comedic refrain from all the hard-fought battles, laughing with the Dreadnoks as Monkeywrench fails repeatedly to hit the target with his harpoon gun.
Stupid, second generation, wannabe Dreadnok.
And then he throws his whole belt of grenades at the targets! And he still misses.