Saturday, July 12, 2008

Airsoft guns pack a wallop

As misnomers go, airsoft is a whopper. I should know. I was shot recently from close range with one of the large plastic BBs fired by one of the imported air guns, which are the latest backyard sensation among kids in many Canadian communities like this one.

Even through blue jeans, the 6-mm BB, which is roughly twice the size of a standard metal BB and half as big as a paintball projectile inflicted a sting similar to an elastic band being snapped hard against bare skin.

In other words, it hurt like hell. And it gave me an immediate appreciation for the potential danger of these unregulated weapons in the hands of thrill-seeking youngsters with little or no understanding of basic gun safety.

While there are no hard numbers about the prevalence or severity of injuries caused by airsoft guns in Canada, the director of the trauma programs at Montreal's Children's Hospital says they are starting to become a cause for concern in Quebec. "So far we've been lucky in that we haven't seen the numbers and kinds of severe injuries we see that are caused by BBs and paintballs," said Debbie Friedman. "But we're beginning to see more and more cases."

According to Friedman, the Children's has only treated about a half-dozen airsoft injuries annually over the past few years. Thankfully, she added, those injuries have all involved welts to limbs and necks.

"Our greatest fear is that we're going to start getting kids in here with life-altering injuries to their eyes," she said. "It just takes a split second to happen."

And when it comes to playing with airsoft guns, pain and danger are the name of the game.

"Sure it hurts when you get shot," says my oldest son, William, 12, who owns three airsoft guns. "But trying not to get shot - and shooting other people - is what makes it so much fun."

Like the dozen or so 11- to 15-year olds who get together regularly after supper to wage simulated warfare around the Maison des jeunes in the centre of our village, he'd never even heard of an airsoft gun until a few weeks ago.

Neither had I, despite the fact that I'm a gun owner who grew up using compressed-air weapons like pellet and BB guns.

Then, like now, the golden rule of responsible gun handling was to never aim or fire a gun - any gun - at another person.

But the very nature of airsoft tag - and how the guns are marketed, particularly to kids - runs counter to that principle.

Originally produced as toys in Japan, where individual ownership of real guns is illegal, in the 1970s with a name - Air Soft - that differentiated their larger (and therefore slower) plastic ammunition from the smaller, faster copper and steel shot fired by standard BB guns, the clear plastic-barreled pistols and rifles are so real looking they are widely used as a non-lethal, live-fire training tool for police and military forces in the United States.

Still popular in Japan, where the number of "airsoft hobbyists" is believed to be in the hundreds of thousands, the guns are also becoming increasingly popular among many American sport shooting and close-combat enthusiasts. "The whole idea and beauty of airsoft," reads the website of one Kentucky-based weapons retailer who sells the guns, "is the fact that it is relatively safe and useable (indoors) where conventional BB guns or paintball guns cannot be used."

Unlike paintball, which has been popular across North America for two decades, airsoft guns started showing up in Canada just a few years ago, first in small sporting goods stores and, now, on the shelves of the country's biggest retailers, including Wal-Mart.

Because airsoft bullets fire at a velocity of less than 152 metres per second, they are not regulated by federal gun-control laws in Canada.

While some provinces and municipalities have laws regulating such non-powder firearms (Ontario, for example, requires a minimum age of 18 to buy the ammunition for air guns and BB guns, while Halifax forbids their firing within municipal limits), there are no restrictions on their sale or use in Quebec.

Airsoft manufacturers, however, most of them located in the U.S., caution retailers against selling the weapons to minors.

Most models also come with safety glasses - the only protective gear that the manufacturers "strongly recommended" users wear.

Steve DeschĂȘnes, owner of Passion Chasse & PĂȘche, a store in the Quebec City suburb of Beauport that caters to hunters and anglers - and the only one of the half-dozen hunting shops in the region to carry airsoft guns - says most of his airsoft sales have been to boys age 14 to 18, who come into the store with fathers who are there to look at firearms.

DeschĂȘnes said he and his staff try to adhere to a policy of refusing to sell the guns to kids under 16 who aren't accompanied by their parents, "but it's not always easy. It comes down to using your common sense."

He has enjoyed brisk sales of the weapons since he began stocking Crossman products for the first time in March. "I'm happy with how they're selling," he said, noting that sales of airsoft guns at his store now rival pellet gun sales. "It's really good when you consider that I've never even advertised that I carry them."

According to Roy Stefanko, U.S. national sales manager for Crossman, which controls as much as 80 per cent of the air-gun market in North America, the guns are intended for shooting targets, not other people. "I've heard anecdotally that (airsoft guns) are being used to play (war simulation games)," he said this week. "But that's not what they are intended for. They're intended for practising shooting in a safe way."

He said Crossman goes "over the top" when it comes to safety concerning airsoft guns in Canada, like adding the orange tips to the barrel ends of the guns for sale in Canada, where customs regulations require the replicate guns be made of clear plastic, so as not to cause confusion with real guns.

"Our goal with airsoft guns is to help families rediscover the fun of shooting," said Stefanko. "We don't condone their use for shooting other people at all. It ultimately comes down to the responsibility of parents and adults to make sure the guns are used properly."

Wal-Mart Canada did not return calls to discuss its airsoft sales, but an official with an Alberta company that sells the weapons via the Internet did.

"There has not been an organized push to bring airsoft into the country, it has mostly been private efforts through small stores," said the official with, who asked not to be identified.

The company, which was founded just two years ago, now sells a wide range of airsoft guns - replicas of everything from an Ultimate Bolt Action Sniper Rifle and M16 rifles to the Desert Eagle .44 Magnum - to people of all ages "from Salt Spring Island, B.C., to Stittsville, Newfoundland. Obviously we sell more guns to larger cities such as Montreal and Calgary. However, per capita, we probably sell the most to small towns."

She noted, too, that sales tend to follow a pattern - one that I witnessed here in this rural village, a half-hour's drive east of Quebec City.

"We find that when we start selling product to one small town for the first time, we have multiple orders from the same town over the next few weeks," she said. "Airsoft is addictive and very quick to be picked up once people have seen the product or a game being played."

That was evident watching my son and his friends in battle.

Divided in schoolyard fashion into two teams of about 10 players each - half with guns, half without; all wearing a variety of protective eyewear ranging from the safety glasses supplied by the gun-maker to ski goggles and sunglasses - they ran around on the grass inside the village's outdoor rink, shooting each other to screams of pain and laughter in an ad hoc game that resembled tag.

"This is the best game I've ever played," says Alexandre Couture, a tall and lanky 13-year-old who recently bought an airsoft pump shotgun - one of a half-dozen being used that night. "It's really good exercise and it's a blast shooting other people."

"It's awesome," adds Alexis Herrmann, a 12-year-old with an infectious smile who has also participated in airsoft battles with kids his age in other nearby villages - and who proudly shows off a half-dozen angry red welts on his back at the break. "It hurts to get shot but you have to to get close enough to shoot somebody."

All the kids said they recognized the danger of being shot in the eye. But they said those risks were diminished by the rules they set, like no shooting after a time out is called and no shooting of those who aren't wearing protective glasses.

Those crimes are supposedly punishable by the mass shooting of the perpetrator by all the participants. But in the half-hour I watched the kids wage simulated warfare, I saw numerous infractions that went unpunished - one of which resulted in a welt on the face of a non-combatant.

I also saw many cases of dangerous handling of firearms, like the pointing of a weapon - with finger on trigger - at unprotected faces. Loaded guns were passed around freely, their barrels waving in every direction, instead of pointing down to the ground and away from others.

According to the Montreal Children's Friedman, most injuries that occur in simulated battles happen when the participants think the game is over and remove their protective gear.

The use of weapons by unsupervised minors is also a recipe for disaster.

"These guns are not toys (and) things can get out of control very quickly," she said. "They have the potential to cause serious injury at any moment (so) kids should not be let loose with them."

She added that, like any activity in which risks are involved - everything from skiing and cycling to the use of airsoft guns and backyard trampolines - it's up to parents to assess those risks.

"A great day outdoors filled with laughter and fun should not end in a visit to hospital."

Much to William's chagrin, this dad has decided the shootouts at the outdoor rink are a little too far on the wild side. And I'm not alone, since the young adults in charge of the Maison des jeunes next to the rink have asked both their administrative council and the village to ban the guns from the municipally-owned facility, which is designed as a safe place for teens and pre-teens to hang out.

Not wanting to be a stick-in-the-mud, however, I have offered to supervise airsoft battles between my son and his friends in a nearby sandpit or another suitably isolated location. That way I can make sure the guns are being used safely, safety glasses are being worn properly, and fights are fair.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Police officers train for shootings at Ball State with airsoft guns

Four Kokomo Police Department officers ready to storm the building. Equipped with masks and airsoft guns, they rush into the Johnson Residence Hall at Ball State University .
As the officers rush in with an instructor following them in a neon vest, they find a disheveled room with chairs and mattresses festooned along the floor.

They keep moving through the room, patrolling for any shooters, and they pass through a door. As they enter, the lead officer trips over a string that is attached to a chair.
“It’s a booby-trap,” one of the Kokomo officers says.

“All right, the first officer is dead,” the training guide says.
The first officer – the one who tripped the trap – drops to the ground. The others proceed with their emergency response exercises. In this case, the emergency is a shooter.

Gene Burton, Ball State University director of public safety, said the training sessions combine classroom work and a realistic simulation to teach about 70 officers how to combat an active shooter.
“I think they are vitally important,” Burton said.

Plans on paper are important to have, he said, but plans lose value if officers don’t have hands-on training in those situations. Also, campus incidents such as the deadly shooting at Virginia Tech in April 2007, emphasize the importance of these exercises. Tech student Cho Seung-Hui killed 32 before taking his own life.
Ball State held a similar training session five or six years ago in the Burris Laboratory School , and it was Ball State ’s turn to hold the training event. Training events occur throughout the state at various locations.

“We try to do something to this effect yearly,” Burton said.

The cost of the exercises would be minimal, Burton said, but most of the costs would be labor costs where departments would pay officers and instructors overtime for the training. Airsoft guns are cheap, especially compared to simunitions.
Russ Tussey, a Peru Police Department police officer, said training sessions such as these offer the most realistic experience for an officer trying to learn what to do with an active shooter. Tussey went to Ball State ’s training instead of other police training sessions elsewhere because of the realism its course would offer.

“As a law enforcement officer, our job is to move toward that target,” he said. “That’s the most difficult part. That’s why we train like this.”
Tussey said the training offers applicable knowledge because there is always a potential to have a shooting happen at the local high school or an office building in town.

Jeff Whitesell, a Yorktown police officer, said he’s attending the training sessions because of the importance of knowing what to do if a shooting ever happens.
“I don’t think you can put a value on this training,” he said.

Whitesell went to Ball State ’s training because it was local, and if a shooting ever happens at a local school, he would probably get the call. If a shooting ever did happen, he said, a police department could never get enough help.

The practice sessions continue Tuesday and Friday. Officers go through one, four-hour session to complete the training.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Airsoft: Bang-up good time

A hostage is being held at gunpoint in a windowless room. Do you kick the door down? Do you go in shooting, hoping you’ll hit the bad guy before he gets you or his captive? Remember that the game ends if the hostage dies.
Decisions, decisions.

And, ohhhh, dude, the adrenaline rush!

Scenarios such as this, enhanced by disorienting laser beams, strobe lights, smoke machines, booming music and other special effects, are enacted five days a week in the spirit of good, safe fun at Airsoft CQB (for “close-quarter battle”) Playground, a 20,200-square-foot converted warehouse in the southwest made to look like an urban airsoft combat zone.

“I’m trying to create a place where people come and respect the gun and have a safe place to play,” said owner Samsom.

Similar in size and weight to real guns, airsoft guns use motorized gear boxes with pressurized springs to shoot BBs. The models allowed at Samson's venue shoot pellets at no more than 350 FPS (Feet per second).

Samson claims the game is safer than paintball. “If you’re looking for injuries, it has a very low injury rate,” he said.

“Airsoft BBs are like an extension of your hand. It’s like playing tag.”

Albeit with a welt-raising punch: Goggles are a must and gloves are optional but highly advisable, as are vests.

Even Jarad Mann, host of the who wears a size 15 shoe, stands 6 feet 5 and weighs “370 on a good day” — “I’m a whole lot of man,” he likes to say — had an anthill-sized bump on his impressive belly after his first round of airsoft antics recently.

The stinging mishap, par for the course for both beginning and more experienced players, did not deter him: “I live three miles down the road, down in Silver Creek, so I’ll be here a lot,” he said.


Some might wonder whether those — especially kids — who play airsoft and other war-inspired games are being socialized to be violent.

“It’s not my place to say it’s right or wrong, but there would be competing arguments,” said CSUB sociology professor Rhonda Dugan.

“People on one side would say that this is socializing kids to solve problems through violent means instead of talking.”

The other side, she said, might say these games teach such positive values as respect for weapons, patriotism and competition — as well as teamwork, as games usually consist of teams fighting each other. A pellet hits you and you’re out.

Dugan said kids are exposed to various “agents of socialization”: family, school, peers, the mass media and other influences like video games or reality scenario re-enactments.

Ultimately, families that allow their children to participate in battle games should teach them that they are just games, she said. Which is why the idea of having kids shoot pellets at one another did not cause Dugan as much concern as the re-enactment of a hostage-taking. That made her “a little uncomfortable,” she said.


“We always treated guns like they were loaded,” he said. “We grew up that way. That’s how we were taught. We never messed around when our parents weren’t around.”

He used to run a local paintball field called Target Zone, he said, but closed it down about three years ago.

He opened his airsoft playground at the beginning of the year because he wanted to have “a controlled environment” where kids and other enthusiasts of simulated battle games could come and vent some energy, hone their skills or just plain have fun.

“Usually most of my customers are probably in their late teens up to 50,” he said.

One such customer is Donny Breedlove, 41. He’s been at Bakersfield Airsoft a few times, he said.

“Everyone really, really thinks about what it would be like to be on a SWAT team or police,” he said. “You get to play army like when we were kids. Everyone comes out laughing and saying how much fun we had.”

Dugan said reality games can create what sociologists call a “hyperreality.”

“It’s as real as you can get but it’s even better than reality because there is no risk involved.”

Kaytlin had not yet played airsoft. Her dad was just showing her the place.

“I would not let her go in by herself unless I went,” her father said. Watkins wouldn’t have it any other way when younger teens are involved.


“Just set up and let them do their own training,” he said. “It’s a safe and inexpensive way for law enforcement to train” using SWAT-like realistic scenarios.

And he’s not at all concerned that the war game experiences he sells might inspire real-life violence in the minds of his clients, either. He said he caters to “upstanding members of the community.”

“I want to have moms or dads, or both, bring their kids to come to a place where they’ll be safe and enjoy ‘family-oriented fun.’”

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

The Sport Of Airsoft vs. The Sport Of Paintball

In the previous article of The Sport of Airsoft vs. The Sport of Paintball, we established one of the major differences between the two sports is the actual guns, and not necessarily the cost. I would now like to turn to the conditions of each sport and what they entail.

I have recently seen more and more professional Paintball games being played and broadcasted on Television. I watch the teams compete and the strategy they import to the playing fields. With no offense towards these Paintball teams, I have to say I don’t see much strategy used, especially in “SpeedBall.”

It always seems to come down to the same thing and same strategy for every team. Get your sprinters to get in close, making sure the first line is spread out while the back field players shoot as much and as fast as they can. Now, I know that most people think that this is strategy, but in my experience any Joe Blow who can move their index and middle finger fast enough can get into the sport.

When I first started participating in Paintball games I had a rental gun that wasn’t so accurate or effective from a long distance. I remember that a guy on the other team had a great gun with a double tap trigger and stood in the very back of the field shooting tons of paint towards our team. I understand that he was using the only strategy that he knew to work, but to me that contradicts the game.

In that specific case there is no sport involved, it has everything to do with equipment. I could only imagine if they had five other people standing back there doing the same thing. How much fun would that be?

So is strategy involved in Airsoft, or a better strategy that involves more than just equipment? I want to make a note that better equipment will definitely optimize your sport experience, but I don’t think a sport should solely rely on having the best equipment. It takes the fun out of the game and sooner or later it takes the strategy out as well.

Personally, I would much rather be holding a airsoft sniper rifle with a long range scope, backing my team up from an elevated level several hundred feet behind them and making sure that their every move is safe. Or posted on the flank while skirmishing through a thick set of woods holding an Airsoft M16 AEG fully-automatic machine gun, backed up with a 9milimeeter strapped to my ankle incase I needed it for some close combat.

Gaming can take place in an open field with no barriers or a 100-yard field full of trees, brush, and bushes. This all happens while talking on the radio, knowing every location my team is in. This makes for some extreme planning and strategy, not to mention some extreme fun.

So what sport is emerging and what sport is becoming the ‘equipment war’ rather than a sport? When it comes to The Sport of Airsoft versus The Sport of Paintball I would have to choose Airsoft, and not just because of the costs or the clean up, but simply because of the realistic features and adventures involved. From the guns to the gaming it makes more sense to have fun in a realistic game of warfare without the death part.

In any case, when it comes to sport, I would have to say crawling on the ground under brush or posting yourself 35 feet in the air decked out in camouflage sniping people from an elevated position is more sport than standing in the back of a field loading and shooting, loading and shooting as fast as you can. In other words I think it is evident which sport is actually emerging and unfortunately which equipment race is on its way out.
About the Author
PJ Ace is a writer a site that specializes in airsoft and paintball.