If you came across Kurtis Hardy creeping through the woods with his fatigues, face mask and replica military gun slung over his shoulder, you might mistake him for a Special Forces operative or a member of a government-fearing militia.
But Mr. Hardy is neither. He's a 20-year-old college student from Connellsville who majors in computer science and plays the trombone for the University of Pittsburgh marching band.
Mr. Hardy also is an enthusiast of airsoft, a paintball-like game that is becoming increasingly popular in Western Pennsylvania. Participants use authentic-looking guns that fire plastic BBs. Players conduct "milsims," or military simulations, in which they dress like soldiers and pretend to be carrying out military operations in the woods or abandoned buildings.
"The adrenalin rush is great" Mr. Hardy said. "There's nothing like it."
No hard numbers are available for the number of players worldwide or airsoft weapons sold, but anecdotal information suggests an upswing in interest locally.
Popularity, though, often seems to go hand-in-hand with notoriety when it comes to airsoft guns, which are strikingly realistic in terms of appearance and even weight.
On Dec. 26, a 10-year-old boy skating at PPG Plaza, Downtown, was struck by a plastic pellet fired from a passing sport utility vehicle. Nicolas Marton was not seriously injured. That same day, three other people in the city reported being struck by pellets or BBs. The cases are unsolved.
"It just takes people like that who end up ruining the sport," Mr. Hardy said.
Mr. Hardy helps moderate the Allegheny County Airsoft League online forum and is putting the final touches on the Web site of a new group, Western Pennsylvania Airsoft, at http://www.wpairsoft.com/.
He said he participates in "scenarios" with 30 to 50 other players, most of whom are in their 20s or 30s and only one of whom is female. They usually play on private property, such as farmland owned by players, and have ranged from Butler to Kittanning, Robinson to Rostraver.
"Over the last couple of years, the popularity of airsoft guns has grown dramatically," said Jeff Hennion, senior vice president and chief marketing officer for Findlay-based Dick's Sporting Goods. Mr. Hennion declined to break out numbers of airsoft guns sold by his company.
Three Rivers Paintball in Freedom, with 65 acres of ground over which paintballers run, hide and seek, later this month is holding the first airsoft tournament in the business' 20-plus-year history.
"It's real big on the West Coast. It's just now coming here. In Pittsburgh and just our general area, we just seem to lag behind," said Ryan Krischke, Three Rivers' sales and marketing manager.
"We just put the word out we were going to be doing this here just before the Christmas holiday, and our phones have been ringing off the hook."
College student Daniel Domski, 19, of West Deer, got his first BB gun at age 6, eventually played airsoft and now administers http://www.airsoftforum.com/.
Mr. Domski believes players should educate themselves about safety and laws governing replica firearms.
"Misinformed players, who tend to be younger, pose a very real and lethal danger to themselves and the hobby," Mr. Domski said.
In his estimation, problems often start with pickup games of "backyard airsoft."
"What happens is the little old lady across the street sees this, calls the police. After this happens, the authorities confront these players and give them instructions on what to do. More often than not these younger airsoft players will try to explain that their firearms are 'just toys' and ignore the officer's instructions. What they do not realize is if they so much as point their 'toy' in the wrong direction they can end up dead," Mr. Domski said.
Some cities want bansPolice officers across the country have had a hard time telling the difference, at least at first glance, between a relatively harmless airsoft gun and the real thing.
In January 2006 a police officer shot and killed a 15-year-old boy who barricaded himself in a Florida school bathroom with an airsoft pistol. Some cities are pushing for bans on carrying replica guns in public. Late last month, Pittsburgh police cited a man in Lawrenceville for waving an airsoft pistol in public.
Mr. Hardy was aware of one incident in which a police officer stumbled onto a bunch of players while they were in their "staging area," preparing for a game with fake weapons in hand.
"That cop didn't know and he pulled a gun on some players, but there were older players there and they put their guns down, hands up, approached him, telling him what was going on," Mr. Hardy said.
Confusion among police officers could escalate into a lethal situation, warned Bethel Park police Chief John Mackey, president of the Allegheny County Chiefs of Police Association.
Although Chief Mackey said his department has not experienced problems with airsoft players, he warned about the dangers posed by police encountering look-alike guns.
"You're just seeing a gun, and if it looks real, can you really take the chance with your own life or somebody's else's life?" Chief Mackey said. "It's kind of disturbing that there are people out there who would even put this stuff on the market."
Airsoft has not been a major issue locally for law enforcement, according to the Allegheny County district attorney's office and the Pennsylvania attorney general's office.
But in December, Massachusetts fined Dick's and banned it from selling airsoft guns there online, by telephone or mail order. That state's attorney general sued the company, accusing Dick's of illegally selling the guns to a minor. In Massachusetts, as in Pennsylvania, an adult must buy the guns for those under the age of 18.
Airsoft guns use either a spring, gas or battery to fire the BBs. The velocity of the BB can be changed, and the faster it goes, the more it can hurt.
Airsoft guns, which can sell for under $20 up to hundreds of dollars, can shoot plastic BBs from 130 feet per second up to, say, the 550 feet per second favored by Mr. Hardy.
At the upcoming Three Rivers Paintball tournament, the velocity of fire for airsoft guns will be checked before games commence. Any that are firing faster than 380 feet per second will be slowed down, Mr. Krischke said.
Players will have to attend a seven-minute safety course prior to play, goggles and face masks are required, referees will police the playing field, and guns must be kept in a bag when a game is not under way.
"We get 'em safe," Mr. Krischke said. "The parents are loving it, they really are, because what happens is [the children] are gonna play anyway. These kids have 'em, they buy 'em, now parents are saying, 'Hey, they have a safe place to play.' "
Airsoft players said the BBs can cause welts if they hit exposed flesh, but usually they do little more than sting. Nevertheless, people have lost teeth from a close-range hit with a pellet. And anyone not wearing eye protection -- which usually means full goggles or a face mask -- runs the risk of losing vision from a direct hit to the eye.
In 2005, 13,400 people went to emergency rooms across the country with injuries related to BB or pellet guns, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. A breakdown was not available for how many of those injuries were from airsoft guns, but that number was up from 12,800 injuries in 2004 and 11,600 the year before that.
"We have a general safety message that any air gun or BB gun that can shoot pellets or BBs at more than 350 [feet per second] should be considered a high-powered air gun or BB gun and therefore we don't recommend anyone under 16 be using it," said Scott Wolfson, the commission's spokesman.
Mom has second thoughtsDr. James Tucker, a pediatrician from Fox Chapel, said he was driving past a patient's house over the summer when he noticed the boy playing with an airsoft gun. Curious -- his own sons had played paintball -- Dr. Tucker said he stopped for a look. He said he shot his own hand from about 18 inches to see what would happen.
"The pain was unbelievable," he said. "I thought a bone had to be broken."
Although many airsoft players have rules prohibiting shooting one another from such close range, Dr. Tucker figures a safety reminder for his patients is not a bad idea.
"There's no question," he said he tells them, "if this hits you in the face, it would take your eye out and there's no chance of recovery."
The gun used by Dr. Tucker belonged to Patrick Leech,13, of O'Hara. His mother, Susan, bought Patrick, his brother Jack, 14, and sister Beth, 16, airsoft guns last summer.
Thanks in part to the name "airsoft," Mrs. Leech, 48, said she initially thought the guns fired big Nerf-life projectiles. She said she was shocked when she found out what she had purchased looked and felt like real guns. and she was even more shocked when she sat down to read the recommended safety precautions.
Mrs. Leech, who described herself as opposed to gun-like toys, instituted strict rules about playing in the back yard and said her children must ask her for the airsoft equipment. But after letting her children play airsoft last summer, she's having second thoughts.
"I'm reconsidering even as we speak," she said. "If you need that much protective gear to remain intact, then I'm not willing to allow my kids to take the risk that they're going to follow every rule to the letter."
Airsoft hobbyists appreciate that people unfamiliar with military simulations might be fearful of a bunch of gun-toting men decked out in camouflage. But Mr. Domski insists most players are average Joes.
"It's just like any other hobby. It's something to do on the weekends or in your free time," Mr. Domski said.
"Airsoft is going mainstream, and when such a controversial hobby goes mainstream there are going to be problems," Mr. Domski added. "For one thing it's going to be widely misunderstood and looked down upon by those who do not understand it. What people do not understand is airsoft is not about violence, it's not about killing anyone. It's something no one would ever want to do in real life."