History of airsoft
If we are to stretch it a little, we can place the beginning of airsoft around 1900, when the Daisy Manufacturing Company started producing the first BB guns that fired metal pellets propelled by a spring. These were only intended for personal defense, however, and the now famous toys that use plastic projectiles only came about in the 1930s. Given their popularity, we can imagine that American boys must have used them in mock skirmishes, reminiscent of today’s airsoft.
In its present form, airsoft first appeared in Japan in the early 1980s, following a ban on the ownership and use of firearms by regular citizens. This lead to a surge in demand for replica weapons, which were initially made by hobbyists and fired harmless plastic pallets. They had limited self-defense potential, acting only as a deterrent if they looked close enough to real weapons. However, people were quick to discover that they could provide some fun when used for target shooting.
Japanese companies caught on to the trend and started mass producing the new guns, which lead to a huge surge in their popularity. By the early 90s, airsoft guns were already common in the Philippines, Hong Kong, Korea and Taiwan, with Chinese manufacturers producing their own cheap copies of Japanese models. Airsoft was not going to be restricted to East Asia and it quickly spread to all areas of the world, especially to countries where owning a firearm for recreational and home defense purposes was illegal.
Early airsoft guns were spring driven, with a piston — which was housing the spring — expanding to push forward a plastic pallet. Unlike their American counterparts, the Japanese models usually imitated a semi-automatic pistol, with the slide being used to manually re-arm the spring between shots. Needless to say, this didn’t offer such a good rate of fire and also affected accuracy, since the operator had to take his eyes of the target to push back the slide after each shot, making it difficult to correct his aim based on where the previous palette landed.
An explosive cap was sometimes used to simulate the noise of gunfire. But overall the act of shooting an airsoft, regardless of the system used, differs significantly from firing a real gun due to the absence of recoil. However, airsoft can be effectively used to exercise aiming and training the gun on the target. It is a common mistake for beginners to move the barrel slightly before squeezing the trigger and an airsoft gun, which usually has the same weight, shape, and sights as the weapon it is trying to emulate can be used to remedy that.
Where airsoft guns shine is at team-vs-team tactical practice. The projectiles don’t put enough force to injure or even seriously inconvenience a person wearing thick clothing, so practitioners can safely fire at one another, using guns similar in design to the real thing. This is probably the biggest advantage airsoft holds over its sister sport, paintball, which requires a rather bulky implement, with a large ammo container to be played. Scoring can only be done on the honor system, however, since most of the times the only person that can accurately tell if someone scored a “hit” is the one getting hit himself.
Airsoft is also being played by military and police forces for the purposes of tactical training and determining hits in these situations becomes more important.
The guns can also imitate real weapons in regards to rate of fire, not just ergonomics. In the 80s, pressure gas was introduced to propel the pellet and an electrical re-arming system soon after, which made it possible to use semi-automatic and fully automatic fire, with cycle rates close to the ones found in military or police weapons. Modern airsoft guns use CO2 for propellant, which makes them release a blue-ish vapor when fired.
Their performance and specifications vary, but most models do tend to fall near to certain parameters. The most commonly used type of projectile in the US is the 0.6 mm, 0.22 gram BB, which gives out 1 joule of kinetic energy while traveling at 100m/s (110 yards/s). For comparison, a 5.56 Remington, the ammunition commonly fired by semi-automatic pistol grip weapons such as the Colt AR15, puts out around 1,500 joules at muzzle exit. One joule won’t cause any significant damage upon impact with a human body, but eye protection is mandatory when playing airsoft.
The common regulation velocities for sanctioned playing fields in the US are 350ft/s under general rules, 400 ft/s under Close Quarter Battle (Skirmish) rules; 450 ft/s for outdoor play with fully automatic guns; 500 ft/s for semi-auto or bolt action sniper “rifles”, all for a 0.20g standard Daisy pellet. (First dedicated airsoft guns were produced in the US by Daisy Manufacturing, followed closely by Mattel, hence the standard.)
For spring and electrically powered models, barrel length has very little impact on range and accuracy, with the bolt travel considered to be the most important factor in determining shooting performance. Gas powered replicas, however, act more like firearms and do gain significant advantages from a long barrel. The bore diameter is also important in this case, with tighter bore barrels that leave less room for air to escape around the pellet offering significantly better performance at the expense of higher maintenance requirements.