Thursday, October 04, 2007

Airsoft takes military games to new level

If you ever saw a South Carolina Airsoft Association game without knowing it was a game, you might think you’d been planted in the middle of a combat zone. The fact is, you really are � but the bullets are actually 6mm BBs.

Airsoft is a combat sport in which players use replica firearms and police or military equipment to satisfy certain missions and eliminate each other from games. BBs are used for ammunition, providing participants with an outlet to essentially shoot each other without serious, or really much injury at all.

Much like paintball, airsoft thrives on the ability to engage in live combat. According to Kyle Chanko, a representative with the S.C. Airsoft Association and Lander student, the sport got its start in Japan, where the residents are mostly unable to purchase firearms.

And while people in Japan were firing BBs, America was catching on to paintball.
But not all Americans desired a paintball gun in their hand. Some, like those in the S.C. Airsoft Association, wanted the feel of a real weapon.

The South Carolina Airsoft Association started in 2005 with only a handful of members. Today the group has between 450 and 500 active members, said representative Mark Wagner, who has prior military experience.

Chanko said the sport was mostly unknown in South Carolina until two years ago. However, after meeting with a Clemson student, Chanko and other interested persons put a game together in Woodruff in 2005.

Chanko said about 14 people showed up, which was a huge turnout for the group.

“From there it just grew,” he said of the organization that now has about two games a month. “It has grown fast. On average there’s about 40 new members a month.”

Those members come because of the nature of the game, which can be quite exhilarating.

“It’s fast paced, there is a lot of action going on,” Wagner said. “Most people come to it from having some experience from paintball. There’s a very different atmosphere, which is not as competitive, and guns that look like real weapons.”

Representative Jonathan Hamrick, who is active duty military, said the appeal for him is working with a team.

“I like the teamwork aspect. That’s probably the most unique thing about it. In airsoft it really takes a team effort.”

Sometimes that team effort can be quite a challenge. This isn’t necessarily your five-on-five game.

“It’s not unusual, if well publicized, for 125 people to show up,” Wagner said. “We need a big chunk of territory. We’re going to use the whole thing.”

Most times, that “whole thing” will consist of 40 to 60 acres, where the game can be played legally and the public won’t see a group of armed men aiming rifles at each other.

But how do you organize a game across that many acres on challenging terrain?

Chanko said an 8:30 to 9 a.m. safety and rules briefing occurs before the game begins. Depending on certain scenarios, games may last an hour, two hours or even longer. Hamrick said combat may even take all day, as it did one day when members gathered to play for 10 hours.

“It was very tiring,” he said. “We set aside 12 hours to play and called it early after 10.”

During these longer games, pellets that do make contact with players don’t necessarily end their game.

Wagner said depending on the game type, players can be healed by a medic a specified number of times or report back into the game as reinforcement.

And, because BBs are shot as ammo, players don’t need a real medic at all.

“It depends where you get hit, but on average getting hit with a paintball hurts much worse,” Chanko said. “The game is on an honor system because you are hit by a BB that doesn’t leave a mark like a paintball. It requires a more mature player base.”

And even though it might hurt less than paintball, rules are in place to ensure safety is a prime factor.

“It stings, but we have engagement distances and limits on how fast they can be shot,” Wagner said.

“A brand-new gun, upgraded shooting can be around 280 feet per second to 350 feet per second,” said Hamrick, who usually carries a rifle and a pistol during the game. “You can see where the BB is firing. At distances set for safety you can hear it rather than feel it. There are guns that are upgraded to shoot a lot harder. That gives you increased accuracy.”

Hamrick said eye goggles are mandatory in the state when playing, but a full mask is not. If anything gets hurt, Hamrick said it won’t necessarily be an injury to the body.

“I think some pride might get hurt out there,” Hamrick said.

Representatives also said players’ checkbooks won’t take as much of a hit as in paintball because BBs are cheaper than paintballs.

“The initial cost is similar, but the ongoing cost is paint, verses BBs that are dirt cheap,” Wagner said.

“The buy-in’s generally more expensive than paintball, but the overall cost is a whole lot less, which is really appealing for new players,” Chanko said.

Apparently the sport has appealed to people of all ages and vocations.

“We have players (male and female) as young as 6 playing with their fathers, two people in their 50s playing, ex-military, law enforcement, active duty military, school teachers, college students, high school students � really anyone who likes to get out there and have fun,” Chanko said.

To get more people to events, Chanko said the sport is being advertised more and more through word of mouth, as well as the Web site

“A lot of the younger kids, they see airsoft online, and they get involved and want to take that feel to a real world setting. It takes one person who has played airsoft to make that contribution,” Hamrick said.

“They’ll get on the Web site, see it’s professionally put together and that we have a good player base, they’ll come to a game and they’ll get hooked,” Chanko said.

Once hooked, players can participate in games all across the state, with four to five serious teams in the association.

Chanko said he expects the game to continue to catch on as more people engage in combat.

It’s fun; it’s mentally challenging; it’s definitely exercise; you get people out of the house, and it’s a good way to meet people that you wouldn’t normally meet. As long as that stays true and we do our job, I think it should keep growing.”

“We’re always looking for new members to come out and have fun,” Chanko said. “It doesn’t matter really how old you are. It goes by maturity level. “

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