Airsoft: Toy or Training Tool?

Can a gun that fires plastic BBs really serve as a viable training tool for law enforcement?

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 (, 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.

Airsoft 101

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.
Choosing Training Weapons

The primary considerations when looking for an Airsoft weapon for actual training purposes are durability and reliability. If it is durable but not reliable, an Airsoft gun’s training value is limited. If it’s reliable but not durable, it’s junk.

With more than 20 different major manufacturers of Airsoft weapons, it is extremely difficult to choose which weapon is best for you. Price is usually the driving consideration for many people and, when it comes to Airsoft weapons, the more expensive it is will often (although not always) dictate both the durability and reliability.

But let’s get real here. No matter who the manufacturer is or how much you spend, you cannot expect these things to run as trouble free as a functional weapon. Moving parts in Airsoft guns are usually made from plastic, pot metal, or low-grade aluminum.

Another consideration is the quality of the BB. The difference in price between the best and the worst is about a half cent per shot. Spend the money, Scotty. The value in the long run in terms of accuracy and reliability far outweighs the cost.

There are a couple of excellent sources for good quality Airsoft guns. Systema (, the manufacturer of the most realistic and reliable M16 version, is one. The Systema guns aren’t cheap; they run over a thousand dollars each. But they are extremely well made.
Bill Mathes’ company, 21st Century Airsoft, is another source. This company does not make its own guns. However, it does customize some of the existing guns, and coats slides and colors grips to make them conform to safe standards for law enforcement training.

Training with Airsoft

OK. Let’s assume that you’ve spent the money and bought good quality Airsoft guns. How do you train with them?

Airsoft guns definitely have a place in the training continuum, but don’t go selling off your Simunition, ATK/PDT, or UTM conversion kits just yet.

The major advantage of Airsoft over cartridge-based training technologies is price. There’s no competition. Airsoft costs approximately a penny a shot. The top three marking cartridges on the market are between 40 and 60 cents per shot.

So why not just migrate to Airsoft? First, Airsoft guns do not have the structural integrity of real guns. If you were to run Airsoft guns side by side in all of the different training venues in which marking cartridges are being used, you’d have a lot of down time.

So what is the role of Airsoft guns in law enforcement training? I think they are amazing for skill enhancement within relatively controlled settings.

The main reason officers miss their targets in a gunfight is that they don’t have the trigger time to get their minds and bodies dialed into where their guns need to be in space at the time the trigger is pulled so that a bullet reliably intersects with the bodies of their adversaries. Shooting accurately is little more than an eye/hand coordination skill. And placing the firearm in alignment with a bad guy is a piece of cake if you have had a sufficient amount of practice in using your firearm as an extension of your body and your will.

But there isn’t enough time, money, or organizational will available in most law enforcement agencies to ensure that you receive enough practice time. Beyond these three factors is the limitation of most of the conventional firearms training occuring on a range.
The skills ingrained during conventional range training are often counterproductive to winning gunfights. They might even program failure. (I’ll be writing on this topic rather extensively over the next few years with the goal being to completely revisit how firearms training is conducted in law enforcement.)

Airsoft provides a means for safely and inexpensively practicing the coordination skills necessary for delivering accurate fire from a variety of positions in realistic settings without the danger of live fire. True, there is no recoil or report to contend with, but these are secondary considerations. The first necessity for accurate fire is to be able to line up a pistol with a target and fire.

Because the human body and brain have an extremely sophisticated learning feedback model for improving eye/hand coordination skills, teaching the body and brain to know where a pistol needs to be in space during a gunfight is relative child’s play. It is my contention that if police officers spent 10 minutes a day—heck, 10 minutes a week—with an Airsoft pistol and some cardboard targets placed around a room at various distances, and practiced hitting those targets from the draw, while moving and from unconventional positions, they would be technically undefeatable in a gunfight. (Psychologically undefeatable is a whole other matter.)

This is where Airsoft training weapons shine the brightest: skill development. In fact, I believe that a recruit’s first experience with firearms should be with Airsoft weapons. Let’s teach them how to shoot first. Build up some successes and program the midbrain with the eye/hand coordination skills of shooting accurately. Once they have this base, we can add the complexities of report and recoil.

Force on Force

While Airsoft guns are best used for teaching basic shooting skills, they can also be useful for isolation drills, where participants team up in pairs and demonstrate some behavior consistent with the necessity to deliver lethal force. This provides some stress inoculation and real world experience with pointing and firing a gun at another human being. And because there is a measure of pain penalty for tactical error, there is a real incentive to not get shot.

In my opinion, Airsoft guns should not be used during high-level scenarios where there is a story line and a motivated role player.

Low-level scenarios are those used to teach basic skills or combinations of skills. There can be a human counterpart or target, and there is an element of realism to the training by virtue of the fact that the target isn’t a piece of paper.

High-level scenarios are where all of the skills taught in the low-level environment are tested under realistic, dynamically developing conditions. This is where, to my mind, a cartridge-based technology must be used.

Cartridge-based marking rounds require the use of actual weapons that have been converted for use with their associated ammunition. This means that the officer uses a real weapon when training with these rounds.

More importantly, the officer learns a very important lesson about shooting a real gun in combat: They don’t always work when you want them to. The main reason for using a cartridge-based technology in high-level training scenarios is their inherent unreliability! Due to the reduced amount of energy that is imparted into the blowback system, trainers are likely to see a greater number of malfunctions with marking cartridges than they would with conventional ammunition.

Poor weapon handling skills will often induce malfunctions, for instance. During a scenario when things are getting hairy, trainers have an exquisite opportunity to observe a student’s weaknesses. This is lifesaving stuff. Not being able to get your pistol back into action or burying your head in a malfunction-clearing procedure in the middle of a gunfight can get you killed.

Ingraining malfunction-clearing skills under stressful conditions is what combat experience is all about. Using Airsoft guns, because they either don’t malfunction or because clearing procedures can be different than those of actual firearms, robs a student of the experience of making it through such traumatic experiences.

Finally, cartridge-based marking rounds also offer some measure of recoil, report, and even the smell of gunpowder. This helps to engage all of the senses during these stressful training sessions, thereby helping to ingrain the experience at a deeper level.

One additional current limitation of Airsoft guns over cartridge-based training systems is the velocity of the projectile. The bright white projectile that is commonly used in Airsoft guns often travels at less than 300 fps. It’s big enough and slow enough that you can see it in flight. In other words, you can watch the rounds head for your target as with tracer ammo and adjust your aim, walking your shots into your adversary. Using darker BBs may help to reduce this problem.

Airsoft can be an amazing training technology if used properly and within its limitations. It is not the end-all be-all for training, but it does provide an extremely cost-effective manner for ingraining skill-at-arms and working through some isolation drills prior to running more advanced scenarios. I was a hard sell on this one given my negative and costly introduction to the technology, but now I give it high marks.

Kenneth R. Murray is the co-founder of Simunition and director of training for the Armiger Police Training Institute in Orlando, Fla.  He is one of the leading proponents of reality-based training and the author of “Training at the Speed of Life.”

Airsoft Safety

As with all other forms of reality-based training, specialized safety procedures must be in place in order to maintain a safe and effective training environment. Because unmarked Airsoft guns look so much like conventional weapons, it is extremely possible to mix live weapons into an Airsoft training environment.
Make sure that stringent safety standards are in place, especially where participants might begin to exhibit lax safety practices, believing that they are “only using Airsoft.” It is this lowering of the bar that leads to people getting shot during training sessions. No trainer who has killed one of his students intended to do it. In fact in many instances it was thought that the weapon was either unloaded, inert, or loaded with training ammunition designed to be shot at people.

Frivolous activities are another rocket-sled ride to the hospital or the morgue. There is an officer with a limp right now who is scratching his head over why he told another officer to shoot him in the foot. He, of course, believed the weapon his colleague had was loaded with training cartridges or was an Airsoft gun. Obviously, so did the guy who pulled the trigger. Imagine what would have happened if they had done like a couple of other officers, where one asked the other to shoot a can off the top of his head.

Hey, folks, would you do this if you knew the guns and ammunition were real? Of course not. Knock that crap off! I’m tired of reading the obituaries.

Airsoft Training Tips

•Buy good quality guns.
•Use proper protective gear. Face, gloves, groin, throat, no exposed skin for force on force. Sealed eye protection for target shooting
•Take an Airsoft instructor class as well as a class on how to build a safe and effective reality-based training program.
•Use Airsoft to build essential shooting skills.
•Buy the proper gas and supplies for your gun.
•Learn how to maintain your Airsoft gun and maintain it regularly.
•Mark your Airsoft guns in an obvious fashion with coloring substances   (I use blue electrical tape) to distinguish them from actual firearms.
•Have a properly trained dedicated safety officer overseeing the training site and search all participants and their gear, securing any weapons and ammunition that is discovered.
•Treat all Airsoft guns as you would real guns during training sessions.

Don’t Make These Mistakes

•Don’t buy an Airsoft gun based on price alone.
•Don’t skimp on the BBs. Buy the highest quality available in the .20- to .25-gram range.
•Don’t screw around. Airsoft guns can cause serious injury and can be confused with real guns.
•Don’t use propane as a green gas substitute.
•Don’t believe people who tell you that eye protection is all you need for force-on-force training with Airsoft.
•Don’t use Airsoft guns for high-level scenarios. Despite the expense,  cartridge-based technologies still provide the highest training value.
•Don’t think that just because it’s a small, plastic BB it is harmless. It will penetrate a soda can, break a beer bottle, destroy light switches, and leave terrible welts.
•Don’t use Airsoft guns as “dummy” guns since you’ll be tempted to not wear eye protection. That’s the day somebody loses an eye, which brings us to…
•Don’t shoot your eye out! (Your mother made me slip that one in.)

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