Airsoft primer: Part 1
by Tom Gaylord, a.k.a. B.B. Pelletier
I decided to write this for those readers who indicated they were interested in airsoft to some degree. I know this is an airgun blog, and that means pellet and BB guns — not airsoft, but there are some crossovers. For example, many airsoft companies are now entering the world of steel BB guns. I promise we’re not going to become half-and-half or even one-quarter airsoft; but since there are questions, I feel the need to address them.
History of airsoft
This will be short and sweet. Airsoft came about in the Orient in the 1970s, when the demand for realistic guns that were not firearms was first satisfied. The early designers made their guns shoot 6mm plastic balls that they have since come to call BBs.
The early guns were made to satisfy the needs of collectors to see, feel and even be able to disassemble the guns in which they were interested. So, the early thrust of airsoft guns was for collectors, only. However, the fact that the manufacturers made these guns fire their plastic BBs soon evolved into an entirely different interest. People began conducting wargames with the guns. Instead of paintball, which is very painful when the .68-caliber balls hit flesh, the 6mm plastic balls had almost no impact. Of course, the guns in those days were firing at very low velocities; because it was realism, rather than the gun’s ability to shoot, that attracted buyers.
Once the wargames began, airsoft split off into two directions. The collectors wanted highly realistic guns, and the wargamers wanted guns that were accurate at long distance and would hold up under simulated combat conditions. Some of the early collectible guns sold for thousands of dollars. Indeed, there are still a few of these collector guns being sold today. One example is a very real airsoft Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) that sells for well over $3000. But the collector market has been far surpassed by the wargamers, who now call themselves skirmishers. Airsoft guns for skirmishes are the biggest sellers in today’s market, which has grown to more than a billion dollars in sales annually.
The BB gun wars
I’ve written several articles about the BB gun wars that were conducted in the United States from the 1890s until the 1960s. The BB gun wars were literally backyard battles fought by teams of kids with BB guns. Every community had them, and each bunch of kids had their own rules. I’ve owned several BB guns with multiple dents in both the wood and metal from the impacts of BBs that are obviously survivors of the BB gun wars.
It’s my contention that the BB gun wars still rage today, but they’re now being fought with airsoft guns. Apparently, there’s a need for people to shoot at each other in mock combat, and airsoft guns seem to fill this need.
Because shooting at people is so emotionally-charged, IPSC shooting has recently become popular. IPSC stands for the International Practical Shooting Confederation. It’s the international extension of practical pistol shooting that began as law enforcement training in the U.S. in the 1960s. IPSC competitors shoot from 30,000 to over 100,000 rounds each year in training and competition, so the game is not for poor people.
Airsoft guns are a wonderful way to get into this competition without spending the kind of money that it costs to shoot firearms. For one-hundredth the cost of firearms, shooters can have the same fun under safer conditions with 6mm airsoft guns.
Airsoft history is rapidly evolving. In just 40 years, it’s gone from pure collecting to wargames and now to practical pistol shooting. Who knows what’ll happen in the next 10 years? What’s obvious, however, is that the technology of the airsoft guns is evolving as fast as the interest is. This is a burgeoning area that’s spending a lot of money to satisfy multiple needs.
Let’s examine the airsoft powerplants so we can see what exists and what’s possible. The first powerplant we’ll look at is the spring-piston.
The spring-piston airsoft powerplant is no different than a spring-piston found in any other type of airgun. A piston is powered by a coiled steel spring and moves forward rapidly to compress a column of air that then drives the airsoft BB. Most airsoft spring-piston guns are repeaters, but they must be cocked for every shot. You sometimes see these repeaters called single-shots because the people writing about them don’t understand the difference between a true single-shot that only holds one round and a repeater that holds many round but must be cocked separately to fire each one.
Spring piston guns are among the least expensive, and yet they can also be very powerful and accurate. Sniper guns are powered by spring pistons for the most part. The lowest-powered spring-piston guns cost very little and are not built to last a long time. They have a lot of plastic parts that eventually do wear out. But if you don’t abuse them, most will give you many thousands of shots that will be surprisingly accurate.
Gas airsoft guns are very similar to gas airguns, except they do employ a wider range of gasses. Besides CO2, which they’ve begun to use in the last 15 years, airsoft guns also use other industrial gasses that go by colorful trade names. Green gas and red gas are 2 of these; and green gas is, by far, the most popular. Green gas is nothing more than propane, though some suppliers do infuse some oil into the gas to help lubricate the airsoft mechanisms.
Green gas runs at a nominal pressure of 115 psi. It’s supplied in dispensing cans that have nipples that couple with the inlet valves of the guns they serve.
Someone asked me if green gas was as powerful as CO2, which is pressurized to 850 psi and higher. Well, it isn’t. But that doesn’t mean very much, however, because CO2 has to be stepped way down to safely operate an airsoft gun. The same gun can use both green gas and CO2, it just needs two different magazines — each with its own valve to handle the correct gas.
Generally speaking, gas guns tend to be faster than spring-piston guns, but that isn’t always the case. There are bolt-action spring-piston sniper guns that are very powerful. It’s impossible to make a blanket generalization.
Automatic-electric guns (AEGs)
AEGs are spring-piston guns that are powered by small high-torque electric motors. The motor cocks the piston and trips the sear. The gun usually has a selector switch that allows full-auto (the motor repeatedly cocking and releasing the piston as long as the trigger is held down) and semiauto (firing one time per trigger pull). Besides the spring-piston side of this powerplant, there’s the electric side that deals with batteries, motors and gears.
AEGs are popular because they can shoot full-auto, which gamers and collectors both enjoy. They also are among the fastest-shooting airsoft guns, although bolt-action sniper guns can be modified to be very fast, as well. AEGs allow people to experience things that most people cannot experience with firearms; and, of course, they do it at a fraction of the cost. Even law enforcement agencies are using AEGs as training simulators because they’re much safer than firearms that shoot training ammunition called Simunitions. You can make a mistake with a firearm and kill someone — it happens all the time. But you can’t possibly load a firearm cartridge into an airsoft gun, no matter how realistic it may seem.
The technology is changing rapidly. Today, there are even a few hybrid AEGs that can be used with or without electrical power. Obviously, these will appeal to people who never want to be caught without a functional gun.
What comes next?
Next time, I’ll talk about modifying airsoft guns. Not all guns can be modified, but a surprising number can be; and the manufactures do supply the parts to make the modifications.
I’ll also talk about power, which is fast becoming an important topic. As the guns become more powerful, the “soft” in airsoft is being tested to the limits.