DORRANCE TWP. – The soft crackling throughout the woods only vaguely implies combat, like hearing exchanges of gunfire muffled by earplugs – or maybe just nuts falling in the autumn.
But that’s Airsoft: as real as possible without being lethal.
Simulation though it might be, Airsoft seems anything but for the battle gear-clad participants in the field, who refer to each other using call signs, engage in tactical maneuvers and geek out about their gear.
“For people who are into it, you can easily spend $3,000,” said Jon Rizzo, whose family owns the 50-acre home field of Saints Airsoft, a Christian-based group based in the township.
On a clear blue Saturday morning earlier this month, bright white snow contrasted sharply with bleak, bare trees – an intriguing area of operations for the day of loosely structured “open play” the Saints were hosting.
Northeastern Pennsylvania is surprisingly replete with Airsoft teams; all but one of the teams there were from the region: Mountain Top-based Ghost Recon Assault Team, the Deathdealers from Honesdale and Carbondale, Dead Man’s Hands from Hanover Township and Ashley and Wilkes-Barre’s two squads – the Rebels and the Patriots.
While its members consider it a sport, Airsoft is probably more akin to a live-action version of warfare video games such as “Call of Duty” and “Medal of Honor.” Players usually sort into two sides – outfitted with guns, ammunition and other equipment, such as canteens, radios and flash grenades – and take to the field in an attempt to outflank and outwit the opposition. There’s even an injury and medic system for role-playing non-lethal hits, and players who have “died” can “respawn” by returning to a certain spot on the field.
“That’s where most of us started out, with a game like that,” said Don “Keeper” Swelgin, who’s turned his Shavertown property into a close-quarters training ground for his Patriots teammates.
“I only have 4.6 acres, so I actually made it more busy by adding more buildings,” he said.
While it might seem unpublicized, the community is robust enough that a player usually can find a game on any given weekend.
Unlike paintball, the guns shoot biodegradable plastic airsoft BBs at speeds up to 500 feet per second, which players say can be painful depending on the location of the hit. But the cleanup is easier.
“I don’t have to change my clothes before getting in the car,” said Ryan “Dizzy” Dziak, a Patriots airsoft team member.
Even women get involved – sort of. Lisa Pritchard humors her boyfriend, Patriots co-founder Kevin “Chips” Chlipala, by capturing the squad in action. “I take pictures,” she said. “I don’t shoot guns.”
Many military aspects crop up during games. “We have these call signs, and after a while you forget people’s real names,” said James “Dublin” Holland, a Moosic native and Patriots co-founder.
Bo Stobodzian, of Hanover Township, was in the Marines before he found paintball and then Airsoft. Rizzo, who’s been playing since he was 12, hopes to parlay his six years of experience into a commission at the U.S. Naval Academy. He said it’s been helpful for initial interviews.
“They love it,” the Crestwood graduate said. “Some of the guys were able to relate.”
Chlipala didn’t get that far, but Airsoft helped him find what he was looking for.
“When I was 18, I wanted to join the military, but an illness held me back. I figured this was the next best thing, kind of simulate the real-world army,” he said. “When I started this, I found a community with it. If I wanted to explain our community in one word it would be a brotherhood.”