What is airsoft? I’m asked this quite a lot when I tell people I’m going airsofting over the weekend. I normally describe it as similar to paintball, but better, so much better. The truth is, airsoft has quite a long history that spreads over almost 50 years.
Airsoft originated in Japan in the 1970s when a photographer called Ichiro Nagata came up with the idea of making model guns that shot non-lethal projectiles. The model guns also catered to shooting enthusiasts who found themselves unable to own real firearms due to the strict Japanese gun laws that banned private gun ownership from 1958 onwards. Originally referred to as “soft air” weapons, these guns were named for the type of gas they used to propel the projectiles they fired. Whilst airguns used co2, a high pressure gas, “soft air” guns used a Freon-silicone oil mixture. This was later changed to a propane-silicone oil mixture. Originally designed for target shooting, it wasn’t until the early 1990s when Tokyo Marui developed an electronic gearbox design that allowed for sustained fully automatic firing without the need to refill the gun with gas after a few shots.
The evolution of the airsoft gun has created a multitude of different types of weapons: gas powered, electric powered, spring powered, blowback, non-blowback, cheap, mid-range, expensive and ludicrously expensive guns. Some airsoft guns will set you back a few thousand, whilst a starter gun will cost just over £100. Then there’s the attachments, the gear and the clothing that you can get. Different players all have their own style. You can see everything from someone in a pair of joggers (sweatpants for my American friends) to someone in genuine military attire, like something out of a real Special Forces unit. Airsoft can be as cheap or expensive as you choose. Me personally? I really don’t want to think about how much money I’ve spent on airsoft over the years, and I’ve not even considered some of the really high end expensive guns, let alone the other gear.
There are two basic types of game days. You have what is known as a skirmish day. These are usually several types of games throughout the day with teams that are either static or can be changed throughout the day. Sometimes scores are kept, sometimes they aren’t. Skirmishes are more of a casual affair where you can turn up in any outfit and there is no restrictions on ammo limits. Think of these as the basic multiplayer style games of Call of Duty like attack and defend, capture the flag, etc. The other type of game day is called a Mil-Sim, which is short for Military Simulation. These are normally longer running games that stretch over 24 hour periods, sometimes even longer. They are more scenario based with clear objectives that have to be accomplished throughout the day. I’ve attended Mil-Sim events where as part of the day you had to gather intelligence by eavesdropping on a meeting between the “military commander” and the local “village leader.” There are more restrictions on ammo limits and even dress codes for each side.
A Personal Tale
My own personal experience with airsoft starts around 2005. Being really into action films when I was growing up, I found myself fascinated with guns. I had various books about them and lots of toy guns, even some made out of wood that I made myself (with some help). It wasn’t just real guns that I made wood versions of. I had a wooden PPG from Babylon 5, a wooden Phaser Rifle from Star Trek First Contact, and a wooden Zat gun from Stargate SG1. If I saw a film or TV series and the main character used a specific type of gun I had to have that type of gun in order to be able to play as that character. As I got older the wooden toys were binned and replaced with much more realistic looking airsoft ones. I normally just got pistols. When I got into film making they came in handy to shoot small action scenes with. I had a Beretta 92FS (Die Hard, Lethal Weapon and so many other films) and a HK USP Compact (24) airsoft pistol. I had a few other springers too which resembled other kinds of guns.
In 2007 in the UK the Violent Crimes Reduction Act came into force. This banned the sale of Realistic Imitation Firearms, and you guessed it, airsoft guns counted as a RIF. You could buy “two toned” versions of the guns, this is where 50% of the gun is painted a bright colour. However, a special dispensation was made for airsofters, they had a suitable defence for buying RIFs. The easiest defence would be a UKARA number. Over the years I kept looking at these guns that I could no longer buy and started to look into what UKARA was. This is when I found out that there was a sport where you could run around shooting these guns at people. Kind of like paintball, but more realistic. I found a local site and went to my first airsoft game.
I can remember it like it was yesterday, pulling up at what looks like a normal farm, walking down towards the “safe zone” and seeing these camouflage clad people unloading so many different types of guns. I felt right at home. As there are rules to getting UKARA registered in order to buy RIFs I rented guns for my first 3 games. The first two games were regular days and each gun I rented had a high cap magazine. I very quickly did not like the high cap magazine style. You didn’t really reload the gun, you just wound a wheel that fed more BBs into it. The third game though was a “real cap” day which meant everyone’s magazines were the equivalent to what the real gun carried. 30 round magazines for the most part. This was one of the best days I had at airsoft for a long time. The difference in style of play, the limited ammo and the different scenarios that were introduced. I can still remember the feeling of being hunted by three snipers and trying to get from one point to another and protect “El Presidente” from the snipers. A game that came about because one of the people there was talking about how he had just become the student union president. This was the great thing about that day, even though it was smaller, the ideas that were randomly thrown around and implemented into a game were fantastic. It was an incredible amount of fun.
Once I had my UKARA my bank account screamed out in pain as I went into a frenzy of buying guns. I don’t want to even try to think about how many airsoft guns I’ve bought over the years. All sorts of different rifles and pistols. The funny thing is most of the airsoft guns are pretty much the same internally, it’s just how it looks on the outside. There was one point where I had 4 different kinds of AK style rifles, their internals were all exactly the same, however, externally they were all very different. Over the years I’ve become a bit more practical in the weapons that I buy. Yes, there are some that I get for the looks, but I also don’t get loads. I want to get something that works and will last.
I gained so many friends because of airsoft, it also helped me through some really tough times in my life. I’ve suffered with mental health issues including depression. Airsoft gave me an escape, a place where I could just be myself and not have to worry about the things that were crushing me down. It’s also fantastic exercise as well. For various reasons I fell out of playing airsoft, but I kept wanting to get back into it. After close to 10 years I was finally able to do that when I met two people at work who were both into airsoft. I’ve started playing again and after nearly 10 years it was like slipping on a well-worn pair of shoes. There have been things I wanted to do that I couldn’t originally, loadouts that I wanted to put together, such as the Vietnam Era Navy SEAL one pictured. It’s so much fun.
A Day in the Life
I am going to write a bit of a diary of an airsoft day to give people an understanding of what happens at a typical skirmish day. Most skirmish days take place on a Sunday. You arrive at the site at around 08:30 to 09:00 and set up in the safe zone. There are usually benches and tables for you to put your gear on. You would then need to sign in and pay (unless you’ve paid in advance). Signing in also includes signing an insurance waiver which is basically a way to protect the site from any liability if you do something stupid and get injured. The next thing is to chrono all the guns you’re using. To make sure that the guns are safe and aren’t going to cause injury they are fired through a chronograph which measures the velocity of the gun. Guns are usually chrono’d using .2g BBs as they’re the standard weight and limits are usually 350fps for all guns except snipers which can fire 500fps, however Snipers have an engagement distance of about 20 metres, this means they cannot use their sniper rifle any closer as it could hurt a lot more than a standard airsoft gun. Once this is all finished there is the safety brief. It’s a rather standard briefing of Do’s and Don’t’s. After the safety brief the first game of the day would start. We get small briefings of the scenario whilst people are being split into teams. Most first games tend to be quick games to get you warmed up for the day.
At a site I’ve been to a few times they usually have a “capture the flag” style game. This involves several small flags being placed in a middle point and a designated flag catcher who has to get into the middle and get a flag out and back to the regen point. At the last game I was in my Navy SEAL attire with a G&P Stoner 63 Light Machine Gun. My role as a machine gunner is not necessarily to “kill” the enemy, but to put enough fire down so they cannot get a clear shot of my teammates. I spent the majority of that game moving from cover to cover throwing down hundreds of BBs. The box mag on my Stoner holds approximately 1,200 BBs. I burnt through a full box mag in about 10 minutes and had to fall back to reload. I’m sure the enemy team enjoyed the lull in the fire. Despite my intention on only keeping the enemy’s heads down whilst our flag collector got in and grabbed a flag I managed to hit five enemy players in the first couple of minutes. This was the first game I was playing with the Stoner and I fell in love with it in minutes. It’s a lot of fun to shoot and because it isn’t as hefty as other LMGs it’s easier to shoot and move. Endex was called after about 30 minutes and we had managed to get 7 flags and the enemy had only got 1.
To make it fair we switched it around and replayed the same game but coming from the other side. That ended in us getting 7 flags to the enemy’s none. What was clear in the first game was that the team I was on were working more like a team than the others. They would run off on their own or stand way to far back. The perception of airsoft is that because the gun you’re holding looks really realistic your bullets are going to act like real bullets too. In reality a bit of shrubbery can stop a BB dead, and drop will occur within at the very most 100 metres of travel, most normal airsoft guns can shoot out to about 50 metres before the BB starts to drop. Once you realise that it changes the way you think, you charge forwards more. My strategy was always to get as close to the enemy as I can before opening fire. I want my BBs to hit, not fall short.
After the warm up game we went on to an “attack and defend” style game. The site has a small village set that has several buildings, the largest of which is known as “The Castle” although I personally think Fort is more apt for the way the building looks. We started off as the attackers, so the defending team headed down into the village. The defenders had one life in any of the buildings except the castle, when they were hit they had to fall back into the castle and they had one life in the castle. The attackers had unlimited lives. It was a timed game, so whoever cleared the village the quickest won. In between the games we had gone back to reload, I usually make sure to take extra ammo out with me so I don’t have to go back to the safe zone after every game. When you don’t have that break in between it usually means that the games can be turned around really quickly. As soon as “game on” was called I set off running towards the village. I shot past several of my team mates who had taken cover behind trees quite far back. Getting right up to the cover just before the village I opened up on anything moving. Within six seconds at most I was hit by several BBs, I raised my hand, called, “HIT!” and headed off back to regen.
As I moved up on the village again I passed several other people on my team. Giving them support I tried to rally them to follow me. I’ve always seen airsoft as very team based, you’re never Rambo, you can’t walk through the field and not get shot, you have to employ a more tactical thinking, using cover to move. Anyone who turns up and think that it’s going to be like being in an action film where you can just run at the enemy shooting blindly is going to be lit up faster than a Christmas tree in December.
We kept pushing to get closer to the village, I could see players walking out with their hands up going towards the castle. There must have been a few on their last lives now. I moved to the other side of the village and pushed right up to the perimeter and opened fire with the Stoner, hitting one on the outside of a building facing away. I took fire from two people who were in the castle. Their BBs rattled off the building as I ducked behind it. I moved across to the other side of the building and let out three quick bursts from the Stoner. I got one of them but the other had got me. I headed back to regen. At this point I was getting rather tired. The rest of my teammates were pushing into the village.
Coming out of Regen I made one last push. Charging the right side with my Stoner I opened fire when I got within ten feet of the castle. Only a handful of BBs came out, the box mag was dry. I quickly ducked down and removed my pistol and flicked the safety off. As I got within five feet of the entrance to the castle I set the Stoner down and switched to a steady two handed grip. I checked the immediate entrance to the castle and seeing it was clear moved inside. There was one person in, his back was to me. I aimed at his shoulder and squeezed off a double tap, his hand went up in the air and he yelled hit. Turning to face me he smiled and said, “Sneaky bastard.” I checked the rest of the castle, it was empty. We called the village clear and the clock was stopped. We’d managed to clear it in about 15 minutes.
We switched the sides around and we set up around the village. I reloaded the box mag on my Stoner and readied myself. I waited for the enemy to get close before opening fire. Once they were in range I let loose. Firing quick bursts. I saw BBs flying towards the enemy and them ducking behind and fell back to the castle. Firing out of an open doorway at the enemy I tried to keep in as much cover as I could. I kept firing until I pulled the trigger and nothing happened. I flicked from full auto to single, pulled the trigger again, nothing. I flicked back to full auto and it fired again. I raised the Stoner and opened fire and three shots came out and then again nothing. Something wasn’t right. I gave the gun a bit of a slap and it started firing again. I noticed the rate of fire was dropping and realised the battery was dying. Not to worry, I had a spare. I took myself out of the game to change the battery.
I swapped out the battery on the Stoner and took it out to the small range they had set up and test fired it. It fired no problems. It was time for lunch at this point. We broke for an hour and all had lunch. Well, everyone who brought food did. I tend to avoid lunch at airsoft games as I don’t want to be running around with a full stomach of food. I drank plenty of water though as it was getting quite warm.
After lunch we played a game that was called “pushback.” This involved an attacking force pushing a defending force back to two different points. Defenders had one life, attackers had unlimited lives. The scenario was changed up slightly, on the last defensive point the defenders have a VIP who the enemy has to get their hands on in order to end the game. We started off as the attackers. The first point was at the very edge of the site in an area with a lot of barrels and barriers for defence. The second was up a rather steep hill and around the same area where the flag game took place. The third and final point was further up a hill in an area that was called the pyramids.
We started the attack and charged towards the enemy. Pretty much everyone on the team was now in the mindset of “close the gap” between you and the enemy. I charged in behind some tires and quickly moved up the hill to the right and took cover behind a tree and opened fire with the Stoner. BBs flew out towards the enemy and I saw a hand go in the air. I moved further forwards to the next large tree and opened up again. I then felt five BBs striking my body and I yelled out, “Hit, hit, hit,” and I walked back towards our regen. Turning around I headed down the left side this time and got into the enemy encampment and opened up with the Stoner, I hit nothing but their cover but managed to move to a better position and opened fire again. This time I caught someone’s foot that was sticking out and they put their hand in the air and moved up the hill. We cleared out the first area in about seven minutes. The clock was stopped and the enemy team set up in the next area.
The rush up that hill was not pleasant, it was very steep and you’re trying to move fast so you don’t get hit. I got up to the top and ducked in behind some cover and had to catch my breath. I raised the Stoner and fired a couple of short bursts, on the third trigger pull, nothing happened. I gave the gun a slap in several places and it fired for a single burst and stopped again. Something was not right, I had to swap to my backup gun so I ran to the safe zone and swapped to the other gun I had with me, a Krytac Trident LMG. Now this is where the nitpicky Matt comes out. The Trident is a modern gun, but I was dressed as a Vietnam era Navy SEAL. It felt wrong running around with this contemporary weapon in a period costume, but I digress. By the time I got back to the field we were attacking the final point. I charged up the hill, the Krytac weighs more than the Stoner by a few kilos so it was harder to move quickly with it. We took the final point by grabbing the VIP and they switched it around. A few people went back to re-arm, I still had almost a full box mag and the Krytac box mag holds about 5000 rounds as opposed to the Stoner’s 1200. So, I went down into the first point to get ready.
I must have been waiting there ten minutes before people came down, it turns out everyone had gone back and a couple of people were wondering where I was and were looking for me. The marshal radioed back that I was already down at the first point waiting for everyone. The rest of the team came down and we set up a defence of the first point. I positioned myself about half way in the area and when the enemy team attacked I opened up with the Krytac. BBs flew wildly in their direction and I saw three drop down behind a big stack of tires. They kept popping up to shoot but each time I opened up keeping their heads down. The aim of this was to delay the enem y team as much as possible. I kept my thumb down on the auto-feeder of the box mag to keep the BBs being fed into the gun whilst I fired it. I had been too pre-occupied with the group behind the tires I hadn’t noticed that someone had come up on my left until I felt the BBs hitting me. I called, “Hit,” and headed up the hill to the next point.
Ready for the next stage, I set up behind a pile of sticks that had been turned into a makeshift barrier, resting the Krytac on top of them as a machine gun emplacement. More of my teammates came up and joined me setting up around the area. We waited for the next stage to start. When the enemy team attacked I fired several long bursts hitting a couple of people. BBs were flying from all directions and I watched one coming towards me and in something that must have looked like it was from The Matrix, I leaned out of the way and the BB sailed passed me. However, unlike Neo from The Matrix I was then shot several times from another direction. I headed up to the final position. I checked how much ammo I had by shaking the gun. Hearing the BBs shaking around inside I realised that I should take the opportunity to reload the box mag so I popped the side off and poured BBs in and wound the mag until it started clicking.
When everyone came up to the final point I grabbed our VIP and moved them right up to the top of the hill. Having played here before and done a similar game last time I remembered a large piece of shrubbery that made for good cover. I had the VIP laid down behind me and I set up prone aiming my Krytac down the hill. Once game on was called for the final stage I kept scanning my eyes to the right of me to make sure nobody tried flanking. I noticed a group of three people moving on the right side quite far back. I slowly started to move my position so I was aiming at them. They were moving in slowly trying to be sneaky. I’m not sure if they knew if I was there or not but they didn’t seem to think I was looking at them. Once they were in range I opened up and fired a long burst from the Kryac. BBs flew towards them. One managed to duck behind a tree, the other two weren’t so lucky and I got them both. The third was popping out from behind the cover and putting a short burst but his BBs were going nowhere near me. I kept firing short bursts and the BBs were hitting the tree. All of a sudden I felt a BB skim across the top of my head. A sniper had come in somewhere and taken me down with a very very good shot. I put my hand up and yelled, “Hit.” Getting up with the Krytac was difficult. But I dragged myself up to my feet and staggered across to the safe zone.
At this point I was absolutely knackered from the day, but there was one last game. A friend of mine had a quick look at the Stoner for me and couldn’t figure out why it wasn’t firing. He put one of his batteries in and took it to test fire. It worked. So, for the last game I used the Stoner. In this last game, the two teams had 20 lives a piece in total and they just had to attack each other in a small area. I got through two lives when the Stoner stopped firing again. This time I noticed that the grip was quite hot, inside the grip was where the motor was stored. I took it apart when I got home and found out that one of the wires that connected to the motor had broken, probably from the excessive heat. But with the Stoner down again I was done for the day. By the time I got back to the safe zone and grabbed the Krytac and went back down the game would be over anyway. So I started to pack up my gear.
That day, as with most days, I had a ton of fun. And this is just a small peak into the type of game days you get at airsoft. Part of the reason I love the sport is because it’s running around in the woods playing army like when you were kids, only the guns look more real, but the other part of it is the friendships you get from it. You do get the odd dickhead, but that’s the same of any sport. They are so few and far between, however, that it never brings the experience down. I always look forward to the next airsoft game with excitement. And writing this article has made me want to go again right now.
Matt is a huge film and TV buff who studied film and moving image production at university. In his spare time he enjoys reading comics and books, the occasional gaming session and writing novels.