To many people, Airsoft is just a toy gun that annoying 12-year olds spray at each other with plastic pellets in the back yard. But to the military and creative survivalists, it’s a training tool that saves lives.
The Japanese invented Airsoft in the 1990s and militaries worldwide soon discovered that the inexpensive, safe Airsoft guns are a realistic method for training tactical movement, magazine change drills, building clearing, and much more.
What is Airsoft?
There are a myriad of different types and styles of Airsoft guns, but the common attractive feature is that they are modeled in size and appearance on real handguns, shotguns, battle rifles, and sniper rifles. While most are lightweight but sturdy ABS plastic, the higher end models use the same wood and metal construction and approximate the true weight and feel of their real-life counterparts.
Airsoft guns shoot 6mm hollow plastic pellets anywhere from 200 to 500 feet per second (FPS). This is fast enough to project a level shot for up to 40-50 yards, but slow enough with a very light projectile to avoid injury. Still, face and eye protection are a must.
The beauty of Airsoft training is that it’s easy to acquire used or new guns, no matter how remote your location. Craigslist, eBay, and sporting goods stores have a wide variety of Airsoft guns and accessories. If you have an AK-47 or AR-15 as your weapon platform, you can find any variety of Airsoft to closely match your bang gun’s configuration: tactical lights, scopes, and collapsible or folding stocks. Airsoft guns are made to function exactly as the weapon it’s modeled after; this means the magazine release, accessory rails, and fixed sights are exactly the same. In fact, many Airsoft components such as optics and handguards are interchangeable with their parent weapon.
Types of Airsoft Guns
Airsoft comes in many shooting styles – spring loaded, battery powered “automatic electric gun” (AEG), or gas blowback (GBB). Typically, spring guns are the least expensive, as they require the spring to be cocked back with each shot. This is fine for smaller children, as the velocity is quite slow, at 200 FPS or less and unlikely to cause damage at close range.
But for older children and adults, AEG or GBB are the ways to go. AEG has the advantage of a lower cost to shoot, as long as the battery holds out. Happily, battery chargers are inexpensive and readily available. The disadvantage is the lack of felt recoil, reducing realism.
GBB uses either the inexpensive hand-held propane canisters which charge the magazines, or the small CO2 cartridges you can get at any sporting goods or department store. Different GBB guns require different gas, and they are generally more expensive than AEG both for the weapon and cost to shoot. The advantages to GBB are that the gas systems work similar to real guns, working the bolt or slide, and simulating real action with each shot. This adds realism to firearms training, but without as much felt recoil as the real thing.
GBB is very effective for marksmanship training, especially with folks who have a difficult time or are intimidated by the report and recoil of real firearms. GBB Airsoft allows the trainee to feel the weight of the real weapon, and shoot in the comfort of their own home or back yard without the noise, recoil, or ammo expense. This is especially useful for handgun accuracy. A simple cardboard box with a target in front and curtain or rags at the back to catch and drop the pellets and you can practice any dry-fire exercise with real shots and not make a mess of your house. Just be sure to discard all spent ammo, as re-firing Airsoft pellets can damage your gun. Your child, spouse, and even you will be a deadeye shot before you know it.
How to Purchase
Now that you know the value of Airsoft, how do you go about acquiring the guns? Wal-Mart and many other sporting goods stores carry all varieties – from $29 el cheapos to $500 for tricked out, souped-up models. For training in firearm handling, familiarity, and drills, you don’t need the baddest, fastest thing out there that lets you spray pellets all over. You would never be doing that in a real-life situation anyway. You also don’t want the cheap plastic lightweight spring guns where the pellets drop out of the air after 30 feet. You want something in between, like the $125-to-$250 range if you buy brand new.
Our group decided to shop the models that were closest in weight and feel to whatever we would be carrying in the field. For most of us, that meant AK-47 and AR-15 rifles. Some prefer shotguns, so they looked for units modeled on Mossberg or Remington. Most of us are on limited budgets, so we looked on Craigslist and eBay, the two most prolific classified ad and auction sites on the internet. And we weren’t disappointed! Larger cities and environs have more used equipment to choose from, so if you find someone who is selling their guns, face masks, pellets, slings and assorted other gear all at once, that can be a great deal and worth the drive.
Horse trading for Airsoft can be a real hair-pulling experience. Remember that most sellers will be teenagers and very young adult males who need money for other interests. They will inadvertently give you wrong or incomplete information about the guns, unless you ask very specific questions and even guide them along. Many don’t know what make or model they have, even when serial or other identifying numbers are clearly marked on the side of the gun. Get this info before you make a drive to see it so you can estimate value and see user reviews on the internet. Just punch the numbers into an internet search and you will get more data than you can handle.
If you go anywhere but the seller’s home –meeting at a halfway point or a neutral location – be careful! These guns look absolutely real and gun haters and other uninformed rabbits may call the police on you. Nothing will happen to you since they’re perfectly legal and considered toys by many, but it could be inconvenient and embarrassing. All Airsoft guns are required to be equipped with a bright orange tip when sold brand new in order to identify them as Airsoft. Since many people paint or remove these tips, just be aware that since Airsoft guns look so real, to be discreet in a public setting – the same as you would be with any firearm.
Next is ammo, which typically is 6 millimeters in diameter. While many of the cheaper guns use the lightweight .12 gram pellets, they are so light that inaccuracy after a few yards becomes an issue. Also, in better guns with more power and higher FPS velocity, these fragile pellets can sometimes break into pieces inside the gun and damage or ruin it.
Your best bet is to select the heavier, more stable and accurate .20 gram and heavier pellets. The heavier they are (.25, .28 grams and more), the farther they will travel in a flat line, increasing realistic accuracy out to 40-50 yards or so. However, the advertised FPS ratings for Airsoft guns is almost always for the lighter .12 gram ammo. For example, a rifle rated at 375 FPS will likely get 330-350 FPS with .20 gram pellets and less with the heavier ones. While this is plenty of velocity for realistic training, you don’t want to go much below 325 FPS for open field or woods training. But for close quarters combat (CQB) training or home defense and building clearing practice, less FPS is better for safety.
Where to Train
The last thing you need before you can open fire is a place to train. You will need more than a back yard, so some acreage is optimum – the more land, the better. This will give you varied terrain, opportunities to use your land navigation and patrol skills, and the ability to train in multiple “what if” scenarios. If you want to train in buildings and rooms, they can be quickly simulated with cardboard, large canvas or plastic drop cloth walls, etc.
Another bonus to Airsoft training is that finding acreage will be easier than locating friendly live fire practice grounds. Airsoft is very quiet and you can even wear your camouflage gear. While our group plans to do their bugouts in subdued civilian clothing to blend in and not attract attention (but packing our camos so we have them when needed), Airsofters are almost always in camo when they play, and folks are accustomed to seeing that. If anyone asks what the heck you’re doing, just say you’re playing Airsoft with the kids to get them out of the house for some exercise. Everyone, including leftists, can relate to that.
If you or the friendly landowner whose property you’re training on asks what will happen with all those spent plastic pellets all over the place, you’re in luck. With the rapidly growing popularity of Airsoft, commercial Airsoft parks especially have addressed this concern by using biodegradable pellets. Usually only available in .20 grams and heavier, they are about 25% more expensive than their non-green counterparts. But they promise to dissolve and go away completely in 6-9 months, making environmentalists and landowners alike very happy.
Okay, now you and your clan have Airsoft rifles and ideally, decent pistols as backup just as you would have in a real-life survival situation. You have some training acreage, ammo, and your gear. Now the fun begins. You can create simple scenarios such as a family attempting to move through an area, avoiding simulated road blocks, ambushes, and confrontations.
Even before the shooting fun starts, it’s notable how someone who has never hoisted any kind of gun before feels completely clumsy and awkward with it. Carrying harmless but realistic Airsoft rifles with some heft to them is a great way to learn shooting positions, how to fall quickly to the ground without discharging the weapon or impaling yourself, crawling, and all those other enjoyable activities. Last but not least, perfecting muzzle discipline where the most serious incident will be an annoying shot to the butt of the person in front of you will make everyone more at ease and ready to learn.
Bring in the Kids
Children, especially, take to Airsoft like ducks to water. If the child is sufficiently mature and follows direction, eight years old is not too young to train them in firearm use, patrolling, security, etc. Even if their real gun is a lightweight .22 carbine or if they have no gun at all, this training will make them competent and safe with firearms, and a valuable asset to any family or group.
When children see they get to have fun, run around, sneak and peek, and shoot stuff, even the most difficult of them become amazingly attentive. After all, they want to be like the “big kids” and they don’t want to miss out on the action. And kids are knowledge sponges anyway, so go ahead and load them with information and tasks. If they falter, dial them back a bit to their last level of competence. They will rise again quickly.
Don’t be surprised if children in your group study and practice diligently and become more skilled than some of the adults. Even children who are shy or uninterested at the beginning will see how much fun their siblings and friends are having and will soon want to join in. Kids gobble up responsibility to their highest ability and will pleasantly surprise you with their eagerness to please and to be useful.
Ready, Set, Train!
Once your group is comfortable with the Airsoft guns and demonstrate safe practices (same rules of firearms safety as with real guns should be practiced rigorously until it’s second nature), it’s time to work on those group movement, recon, communications, and other skills in either staged scenarios or spontaneous reactive drills. Useful exercises include taking cover under fire (with real Airsoft pellets zinging around), combat medical response when someone is hit, covered retreat (can you move and find cover without being shot?), intelligence gathering, find the sniper, etc.
Snipers, Stealth, and Vehicles
Speaking of snipers, Airsoft is a great training vehicle for those budding long-range shooters in your group. From developing effective camouflage, preparing hides, learning patience, sighting through a scope, to scooting to safety after making the shot, they can efficiently practice these basic skills.
Sniper Airsoft rifles are bolt-action, just like the real ones. They are also the only quality Airsoft rifles where spring operation is optimal. Airsoft sniper rifles use powerful springs designed for one long distance shot at a time and often require a bit of muscle (usually teenagers and adults only) to pull back the bolt. Sniper rifles fire at 450-550 FPS, so they can be dangerous at closer than 100 feet. They fire straight line for up to 100 yards, depending upon the quality of rifle and spring. For safety, shoot these at long distance only, please.
Conversely, “man down” drills for the team under sniper attack, along with searching out the sniper so the group can continue movement, are also valuable training.
These skills can also be utilized in group vehicle movement, something sorely lacking in many prepper training regimens. What happens if your convoy comes under fire? What if the lead vehicle is disabled and you need to evacuate everyone safely to another vehicle? What about the rear vehicle? For many, just rapidly exiting a vehicle without getting their weapon tangled in their gear and dropping magazines is a challenge in itself. Better to practice and find out your capabilities in a safe environment before it really counts.
While many Airsoft guns are capable of auto fire at 10-13 pellets per second, our group works to “keep it real” by using semi-auto only, just like our regular firearms. And while most Airsoft magazines hold 100-500 pellets, we use the honor system to limit ourselves to 30 shots or so before we are required to reload the magazine or exchange for another. This forces shot discipline and marksmanship. But at the end of training, we usually do something with full auto just for kicks, because it’s really fun and fast. This is the part the kids love the most, too.
There are even groups out there that have, as instructors, former military personnel who are Airsoft enthusiasts. They practice and train real-world military maneuvers and tactics. Look up “Airsoft milsim” (military simulations) in your search engine for all sorts of info and links. There are good youtube videos, too. Check your local area for this fascinating aspect of Airsoft. If you’re starting from scratch, this could be a great way to get basic training from guys who have been there and done that.
The Best of Airsoft
Now that you see the value of Airsoft, let’s review the advantages and versatility added to your training:
- Economical – shoot plastic pellets instead of scarce ammo
- Safe – accidentally shot by a hollow plastic ball beats a .223 any day
- Realistic – simulate your carry weapon in form and function
- Discreet – quiet without attracting attention
- Family Friendly – the kids are all right
- Tactical training from experts
There are infinite situations and scenarios you can practice as a group without the inconvenience, danger, and expense of live fire training. Use your imagination and the possibilities are endless. Happy Airsoft!
JWR Adds: As I’ve previously mentioned, Airsoft and paintball are fine for learning some aspects of camouflage and small team tactics. The fatal flaws of both, however, are that:
1.) Since paint balls and Airsoft pellets have hardly any penetration, players start to subconsciously equate concealment with cover.
2.) Because Airsoft pellets and paint balls only have limited range, people start to subconsciously think of anything beyond that range as “safely out of range” (for maneuver in the open.)
If you can regularly remind yourself about those shortcomings and adjust your training regimen accordingly, then you’ll find that they provide somewhat worthwhile training. But it is essential that you integrate high velocity ballistic realism. This means perfunctorily declaring anyone who stands up in the open at 50+ yards “dead meat.” Ditto for anyone who mistakenly takes “cover” behind bushes or small trees. Always remember: concealment is not cover!