My first experience with Airsoft guns wasn’t good. I wanted to use them at the 1994 World Freefall Convention to create an indoor shooting arcade to give bored skydivers something to do when it got cloudy. So I rented a booth, bought Airsoft models of an M16, a CAR15, and an MP5. Then I set up a firing range in a tent and started counting the money I was going to make at five bucks for 200 shots.
About 1,000 shots later, the M16 made a terrible whirring sound. No plastic BBs were coming out of the barrel, and a grumpy skydiver wanted his money back. Shortly thereafter, the MP5 and CAR15 followed suit. Clearly, I have not been much of a proponent of Airsoft since then.
As time marched on, several trainers wrote articles on using Airsoft during some of their training programs, and had reported some measure of success with them. Jaded by my own experiences with the concept, I turned a blind eye to their proclamations. Fools, I thought, you probably don’t have more than a couple of hundred rounds through these things yet. Just wait…you’ll see.
But there was nothing for them to see. Airsoft quality and reliability were on the rise.
Still, I was skeptical. But my attitude toward Airsoft began to change when I met Bill Mathes at last year’s ILEETA conference. Mathes, who is president of 21st Century Airsoft (www.21stcenturyairsoft.com), had shown up to try his hand at introducing Airsoft to the law enforcement community on a scale that had not yet been tried.
I spent a number of hours chatting with Mathes during the conference and discussed my earlier experience with Airsoft.
As it turns out, many of the early Automatic/Electric Guns (AEGs), which use a battery-powered motor/piston to propel the Airsoft projectiles, had been made with very cheap internal components. The gears on the motors were extremely prone to stripping, leading to that whirring sound I experienced. Although there has been a marked improvement in the quality of some of the guns, many of the manufacturers still use a cheap method of manufacturing so problems can still exist. However, the improvements made by some of the manufacturers have caused me to reevaluate the concept of Airsoft guns as a viable training tool.
There are three basic types of Airsoft weapons: spring loaded, gas powered, and AEG.
Spring-loaded guns are single shot and must be cocked each time prior to being fired. These are toys, nothing more. They come in nearly all shapes, sizes, models, and patterns, and are very inexpensive.
My recommendation is to avoid spring-loaded guns completely. Some folks might be tempted to purchase them as look-alike training weapons that provide a small measure of functionality. If all you want is a training prop, get an inert replica. It’s much safer since it can’t fire eye-damaging projectiles.
The second type of Airsoft gun is the gas-powered version, often referred to as a “gas gun.” These usually take the form of pistols, since the mechanisms of the AEGs are far too large to fit inside pistols. The recent gas gun versions function quite realistically. They even have slides that move along the top of the frame each time they fire. They are magazine fed, and the slide locks back when the magazine is empty.
There are two types of propellant for gas guns: HFC134 and Green Gas. Both are essentially a gas and silicone mixture. It is important to use the correct gas specified by your weapon manufacturer since the internal workings of the gun are specially designed for optimal reliability for its chosen gas.
I have met some folks who have tried to skimp on the price of gas by using actual propane cylinders with a special filling attachment in order to have a bulk gas supply. This can be dangerous.
According to Mathes, the projectile and slide velocities of the Airsoft guns can be much higher when fueled by straight propane. Since the standard velocities of many of the Airsoft pistols already approaches 300 feet per second you can penetrate a soda can with them. More power means more velocity and more potential for tissue damage. Excessive slide velocity coupled with cheaply made parts is also a recipe for disaster. “Slide face” is definitely a possibility if the slide should separate from the frame.
The third type of Airsoft gun is the Automatic/Electric Gun that I first used more than a decade ago. These AEGs function by means of an electrically driven piston that compresses on each trigger pull, delivering a measured amount of compressed air to launch the BB. Most Airsoft replicas of long guns and subguns are AEGs.
Magazine capacity for AEGs is often vastly larger than that of conventional weaponry. Some of the M16 magazines, for instance, can hold a couple of hundred projectiles. For bona fide training purposes, these magazines should be downloaded to operational capacity.
Sometimes Too Real
Some AEGs are extremely realistic. For instance, some come with magazines that appear to have conventional ammunition in them. This raises one of the primary safety issues involved in training with Airsoft guns: They can look real, right down to the markings on the weapon.
In order to comply with import regulations, many of the higher-end manufacturers have paid a licensing fee to the actual weapon manufacturers. As a result, markings on the Airsoft frames are identical to those of operational weapons.
Although there is a requirement to have a bright orange muzzle or flash hider on Airsoft guns imported into the United States as models/toys, many professional-quality AEGs come with an unpainted one. I’ve been around guns for many years, and without the blaze orange flash hider, it is next to impossible to tell an actual weapon from an AEG when they are side by side on a table. Even the weight is nearly identical.
It is a simple thing to confuse real gun with Airsoft guns. This is why it is essential not only to have a dedicated safety officer functioning as the focal point for training weapon distribution, but also to have a color code system for marking training weapons as a means of distinguishing training weapons from the real thing.