Chris von der Gruen, a former Army counter-intelligence agent, takes up a position during a firefight at the Tacoma Tactical Airsoft indoor kill house near Fort Lewis, Wash. (JON R. ANDERSON / STAFF)
Former Ranger Keith Shores makes his way through the Tacoma Tactical Airsoft kill house near Fort Lewis, Wash., using his cell phone to peek around corners. (JON R. ANDERSON / STAFF)
Call them dead ringers. Originally imported from Japan, Airsoft guns and gear have found growing popularity in the U.S. over the past decade.
Now a catch-all for dozens of manufacturers, Airsoft offers plastic-pellet spitting images of more deadly weapons — everything from pistols and shotguns to assault rifles and machine guns — typically with the same heft and feel of the real deal.
It's a natural evolution from paintball guns — these are more affordable, more accurate, more tactical, more realistic looking and a lot cleaner.
Airsoft games range from one-on-one shoot-ups and simple target practice to force-on-force battle simulations with dozens of players decked out with more kit than a spec ops team.
Without the mess of paintball, Airsoft is a largely cheaper alternative to its run-and-gun cousin. While $30 will buy you 1,000 rounds of paintballs, the same amount will grab you as many as 10 times more Airsoft BBs.
The replicas can't match the accuracy or range of the genuine articles, but they can provide tangible training benefits.
Indeed, the military has quietly experimented with the gear for years. The Army ran a battalion-level pilot program over the summer at Fort Jackson, S.C.
"It gives them more realistic, outcome-based training," said Sgt. 1st Class Richard Hunt, a combat veteran with the 187th Ordnance Battalion, which has been conducting the exercises. "They know when they get hit."
"This has a huge impact on training realism," 1st Sgt. Chris Arnold added. "If you make a mistake during training, you know you've made a mistake."
Law-enforcement agencies have gotten in on the action, as well, double-tapping Airsoft for individual-skills training and larger scenario-driven drills, said Greg Barnes of Airsoft Atlanta, one of the oldest and largest retailers in the U.S.
"We had a police department recently use Airsoft to practice situations at a school after hours," Barnes said.
But by and large, Airsoft remains more for fun and sport.
John Guthrie wasn't so sure. After two tours in Iraq as a corpsman with the 1st Marine Division, Guthrie remembers thinking Airsoft "seemed pretty silly."
An avid paintball player before he joined the Navy, Guthrie had seen opposing-force units use Airsoft gear during training exercises but hadn't given it much thought as a recreational outlet.
"I'm not going to lie; I thought it was kind of a wannabe thing," he said. Teens decked out like Rambo didn't help, but after going to an all-day game, he was hooked. "I have to admit, I got into it. I'm not a fanatic, but I definitely got the adrenaline rush.
"Of course, it's not the same as actual combat, but it's something you can have fun with."
Now out of the Navy and in college, Guthrie even got a job this summer selling guns and gear at Airsoft Atlanta and continues to moderate an Airsoft forum online.
Guthrie says one of the things he likes most about Airsoft is that it provides a no-fuss way to hone his handling skills at home.
"My Airsoft Glock fits right in my real Glock's holster," he said. "It weighs and feels exactly the same."
It's also helped improve his shot.
"I noticed I was shooting to the left with my real firearm," Guthrie said. Working on his technique with his Airsoft version, "I finally figured out I was putting my index finger on my support too far forward. That's the beauty of it — Airsoft gives you a lot more time, while spending a lot less money, to figure out what you're doing wrong."
Suffering from mild post-traumatic stress disorder, Guthrie says he's convinced playing Airsoft games has helped him reassociate guns and the things he learned in the military with something that doesn't give him nightmares.
"It's not about killing and death anymore, but going out and having fun," he said.
A squad of Marines from the Wounded Warrior Battalion at Camp Lejeune, N.C., has been finding therapy in Airsoft, as well.
"For the wounded warriors who can play, it's great physical therapy," said Lance Cpl. Brian Densmore, a wounded warrior and enlisted adviser with the Science and Technology Dept., II Marine Expeditionary Force. "It really motivates us to get out there and do something physical, but it also serves as an awesome stress reliever."
For Gunnery Sgt. Juan Contreras, a quick game of Airsoft was a great way to connect with his old barracks mate during a visit to Seattle before heading back for his second tour in Iraq.
"It's a lot of fun and lot less painful than simunitions," said Contreras, referring to the military's version of paintball. "There's a rush to it, too. It gets the adrenaline pumping."
The weapon: The only two requirements for a fun Airsoft experience are a gun and some ammo. You can score a mini-electronic Airsoft assault rifle (like an Uzi, but with an orange-tipped barrel) for about $16 on http://www.airsoft.com">www.airsoft.com. A UK Arms pistol will run about $15 at http://www.DSCArmsInc.com">www.DSCArmsInc.com. Fancier units, like the Olympic Arms M4, also from www.Airsoft.com, will run about $380. The Classic Army M249 Para SAW Machine Gun will set you back $580 on www.airsoft.com.
The ammo: A bag of 2,000 6mm BB rounds will cost you about $5 at www.airsoft.com.
The apparel: You'll definitely want face protection — "You'll put your eye out!" — and heavy, full-cover clothing to protect you from welts. Check out the Scott mesh facemask for $35 at http://www.tomcatcompanyairsoftguns.com/">www.tomcatcompanyairsoftguns.com. You've probably got long-sleeve shirts, jeans, goggles and boots in your closet, but you can pick up a specialized Airsoft plate-carrier vest in an ACU pattern for about $65 on www.airsoft.com.
The accessories: There are limitless additions you can add to your arsenal, from bigger magazines and tactical scopes to rail mounts and laser sights. While most worthwhile additions will run you $20 to $50, you can get smaller basic upgrades for under $10.
Where to play: Your backyard works. If you want a more authentic experience, though, do a Google search for "Airsoft" in your ZIP code; many ranges will fully outfit you for a rental fee. Major metropolitan areas also have indoor and outdoor "arenas" where you can challenge strangers. A full day at one will cost you on average about $30.