Sunday, October 09, 2011

"War Games": Airsoft Growing in Popularity

David Higgins II stood authoritatively, clipboard in hand, one foot resting on a bench, and shouted out a list of rules to the large group gathered around him — many in camouflage, most bumping up against either side of puberty, all but one male.

"Call your hits… no grenades of any kind, this is all [airsoft] guns… if you use auto, you get one warning, then your team dies."

Shifting their airsoft firearms and their feet, energy drinks surging through their bodies, the youths nodded, eager to start the airsoft OPS Team Shootout. It was 4:15 p.m. and a long night of airsoft was about to begin.

In the last 10 years, airsoft — a recreational activity that involves shooting plastic airsoft pellets from battery or gas-powered replica firearms — has built a steady following in Connecticut (many airsoft fans are young and male, but it's neither exclusively young nor male). A cousin to paintball, airsoft games are structured around team objectives like taking a village, rescuing a hostage or locating and diffusing a fake bomb, achieved with basic military techniques like flanking and diversion. Although many of airsoft's early fans were culled from the ranks of paintball, airsoft is now flourishing in its own right.

"There were about 1,400 people on the Airsoft CT site [the major online forum for Connecticut players] about 1 year ago. Now it's up to 1,600." said Higgins, a 32-year-old stay-at-home dad who started playing airsoft after reading about it online and kept on playing because he fell in love with the airsoft community.

"The older [airsoft] players help younger players," he said. "It's built off the honor system [as opposed to paintball, where hits are obvious]. The people that you're playing [airsoft] with, you have to trust them."

"I just liked the idea of going out and trying to outsmart other people trying to do the same thing," said Jason DeConti, who has run the Airsoft CT site since 2005. "Like being able to make a plan to protect what we have, then get it back without losing."

The number of indoor airsoft facilities, outdoor fields and stores is increasing around Connecticut — the East Windsor Airsoft Academy, an airsoft store with plans for a future playing field, opened this summer, joining, among other airsoft venues, Ground Zero in Wolcott, Strategy Plus in East Hampton, and Cromwell CQB, where Higgins led the airsoft OPS Team Shootout this September. Now, low-end airsoft guns can even be purchased at Dick's and Walmart (prices can range anywhere from $20 to over $1,000).

Many airsoft players belong to teams — groups that prefer similar styles of play and meet for practice on a regular basis, including one at the University of Connecticut that plays other college teams around the country. Airsoft games can last anywhere from a few hours to more than 20.

"From 2000, growth has been exponential — at least tenfold, massive growth," said Ground Zero owner Lester Bastenbeck, who started carrying airsoft equipment at his die-cast car and hobby shop about 11 years ago, after seeing the airsoft guns on a trip to Florida. Bastenbeck turned the shop into a full-time airsoft venture in 2005, opening the airsoft playing field around the same time.

Airsoft began in Japan in the 1970s, gained popularity on the U.S. West Coast in the 1980s, according to Bastenbeck, then spread slowly across the country during the 1990s.

Now Bastenbeck is trying to open an indoor airsoft facility in Waterbury and working with others to start a national association that would offer airsoft rules, regulations and maybe some additional recognition for players tired of telling the uninitiated that it's "like paintball with plastic [airsoft] pellets."

"Paintball is messy," said William Rodriguez, co-owner of the Airsoft Academy in East Windsor. "People who play airsoft spend a lot of money on their gear… they like it because it's more authentic. People like realism."

It's hard to overstate the importance of realism in airsoft, with players seeking verisimilitude in everything from games to clothing (which ranges from historical to military simulation, aka milsim) and most especially, guns. With the exception of an orange tip for safety purposes, airsoft weapons look, feel and sound like the guns after which they're modeled, with identical weights and sometimes recoils. Variety is also increasing rapidly, with players requesting new airsoft models, especially historic ones, from manufacturers — who typically license production specifications and logo from gunmakers.

At New Britain-based Stag Arms, which licenses its guns to an airsoft manufacturer called Mad Bull, president Mark Malkowski said that sales of airsoft guns have gone up about 10 percent each year, although they remain very small compared to sales of actual firearms.

"It's not a major part of our business… but we've seen an increase in sales [of airsoft items] year after year," he said. "It's a good way for younger enthusiasts to get familiar with the brand."

The Cromwell CQB is located in a quiet strip mall on Main Street, and though open every day, sees the most airsoft action on weekends, when airsoft players arrive in the late morning and stay into the night — fueling up with snack bar foods, power bars and the contents of the vending machines (sample quote: "Do I need a third candy bar?"). Cans of propane litter the tables, plastic airsoft pellets are always underfoot, and a sign hanging over the scene reads "Your mother doesn't live here. CLEAN UP!!! after yourselves."

During the airsoft OPS shootout in September, some 45 people followed Higgins' rules as they "killed" opposing teams stationed around the shooting area — a kind of makeshift village with structures, piles of debris and alleyways — during timed trials, a fake bomb retrieval and a hostage situation.

Some airsoft teams were quiet and calm, efficiently eliminating their opponents as, fittingly, the theme from Mission Impossible sounded faintly through the wall. Others were less expert — spraying airsoft pellets blindly or not at all, reluctant to leave the safety of the entrance area.

One of the airsoft teams took so long that enemy's lone surviving player finally stepped into the open and asked "Do you want to just kill me already?" He was swiftly dispatched.

Standing outside after the first round of play, 12-year-old James Mazzarella talked about the difficulty of facing the "major league [airsoft] players," in their late teens and early 20s. "It's scary when they all charge at you," he said.

"I like the thrill," said his 13-year-old airsoft teammate, Sam Lindblom.

Higgins also credited the thrill, the adrenaline rush with keeping him interested — that, the teamwork and the satisfaction of improving.

"At first, I used to go straight into firefights," said Higgins. "Now I try to find ways to sneak up on people, be very tactical. It's a big release from the everyday."

Maritza Lebron, the sole woman playing at the Cromwell airsoft game, said that stress relief is a big part of airsoft — she does clerical work for four attorneys in her real life.

"You don't think about work when you're here," she said, laughing as she hoisted up her airsoft M-4 and prepared to re-enter the war zone.

1 comment:

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