Sunday, February 08, 2009

Combat fans fall hard for airsoft's almost-real war games

Underneath a full, black face mask, your hot breath causes sweat beads to build upon your brow and drip onto your eyelashes. Your shoulders and back are tense. The gun you carry is heavy and your arm tires quickly, but your discomfort is secondary to the mission.

Right now, this is anything but a game.

While it may resemble the similar combat sport paintball, airsoft is often built around such high-concept scenarios like hostage rescues and insurgent takeovers. Instead of paintballs as ammunition, airsoft guns make use of pellets that produce a wound only as severe as a rigorously scratched mosquito bite. Shots to the eyes or mouth can be worse, but that's what the Army-grade protective gear is meant to protect against.

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The place they call The Freeze is more like a furnace on this smoldering Sunday afternoon.

Some members of Gunz 4 Hire, one of the Valley's four notable airsoft teams, is preparing to play three-on-three games at the abandoned warehouse, one of two secret battlegrounds the team tries to keep on the down low.

Not that they're elitists - they invite outsiders to play with them, but joining the team comes with special privileges, like training and mentorship.

Gunz 4 Hire member Chris Jackson, whose experience includes nine years in the military, started playing airsoft in 2003. He said that after years in the Marines and National Guard, he enjoys the tactical aspects of airsoft and sometimes teaches his teammates methods that help them work as a group.

"The stuff they learn, they're not going to go out and rob a bank. It's not possible," he said.

He focuses more on teaching them how to play as a team.

"If a retired military man is looking for something fun and enjoyable to break out of the monotony of every day things, this is something for them," he said.

At the Green Beret in McAllen, owner Marcus Silva remembers when he put his first airsoft gun on the shelf several years ago. He had found it at a convention in Nevada, where airsoft was touted as the next big hobby.

The sport took about two years to find a following in the Valley, but Silva said even the larger guns have no problems selling now, despite their $189 to $3,500 price tags.

"When I talk to paintball reps, I tell them airsoft is beating them up," he said.

Jackson said the reason might be the effects of airsoft. Among his friends, he has seen the benefits of physical activity and the team mentality.

"The more you play, the more your self-esteem lifts up. You feel better about yourself," he said.


Though airsoft teams get permission from landowners to carry out these fictional scenarios on their property, their hyper-realistic battles can appear frighteningly real to those who might happen to come upon them. The police have been called on them three or four times and "it gets kind of scary," said Ono Zarate, an 18-year-old member of Gunz 4 Hire.

They've developed a procedure: Drop the guns, remove the masks and approach with caution. One time, six police cars responded.

"Usually most cops are cool," said Samuel Manzewitsch, 20. "And when they realize (we're only playing), it's always like ‘That's cool, no harm no foul.'"


Gunz 4 Hire team member Samuel Manzewitsch said airsoft has been growing slowly but surely in South Texas. Overseas, and to a lesser degree in other parts of the Unites States, the sport is a lifestyle, he said.

In Scotland, for example, the games are massive events for which teams fly in for from across the globe. Today, Gunz 4 Hire will be in Harwood, Texas, for "Operation: Desert Vanguard II," a match that will attract teams from all over.

Despite its worldwide popularity, regulation by the government varies significantly from place to place.

In Texas, airsoft guns are considered toys, not firearms. The United Kingdom, however, requires that at least half of an airsoft gun be painted in a bright color, like neon orange or yellow.

"We don't want to abuse that privilege," Manzewitsch said. "We try and keep it safe ... so we don't have a PR (public relations) issue."

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