Many airsoft guns (like the one pictured) have the appearance of a lethal firearm.
Airsoft guns were developed after Japan passed legislation in the 1980s that restricted anything but shotguns and single-shot rifles to military and law enforcement personnel. As a response to such legislation, gun manufacturers began producing replicas of actual firearms. These replica firearms have the appearance and mechanical function of their lethal counterparts, but utilize springs and/or compressed air to propel a plastic BB toward a target.
Airsoft guns were initially made to be gas-powered, which means that they either use an internal tank or an external compressed air source (similar to a paintball gun). Some of these models include features that allow the simulation of recoil, and their gas-powered propulsion allows them to fire at more powerful velocities. Despite the availability of other propulsion systems as of 2010, gas-powered guns are still available (even for modern replicas).
Automatic Electric Pistols (otherwise known as AEPs) utilize a battery and gearbox to propel the plastic ammunition. Such weapons work better in cold weather, since gas propulsion systems are more susceptible to frigid temperatures. The velocity of an AEP is generally lower than a gas-powered airsoft gun and ranges from 200 to 280 feet per second (or about 136 to 190 miles per hour). Some AEPs are more correctly known as EBBs (Electric Blow-Backs), because they simulate the movement of a pistol’s slide when the pistol is fired.
Not all airsoft guns are pistols. Airsoft versions of other weapons, like the Colt Commando automatic rifle, Steyr AUG submachine gun and even the HK MP5 submachine gun are all available.
Some airsoft weapons, like their ballistic partners, have the ability to use a scope. The airsoft industry has developed telescopic scopes specifically for airsoft rifles, though some players prefer to use actual firearm scopes. Other sighting systems include a red-dot sight (typically for short range). Notable sights for airsoft include a replica of the M68 Aimpoint sight, which is used for the M16 and M4 by the United States military.
Despite the realistic nature of many airsoft weapons, the nature of airsoft ammunition makes the use of real magazines impossible. The standard size of a plastic BB ranges from around six millimeters to eight millimeters, and thus specific magazines are required. They are broken down into categories: standard-capacity, low-capacity, medium-capacity and high-capacity. These are often abbreviated to “x-cap” by players and manufacturers. Additionally, drum magazines and “real-cap” magazines are also available for some weapons.
Standard-cap magazines typically hold the same amount (or approximately the same) as the firearm the airsoft gun simulates. Low-cap magazines hold no more than one hundred rounds, while mid-cap mags hold up to twice that much. High-cap magazines hold up to 1,000 rounds, though they require a wheel to be turned after 50 to 70 shots. Drum magazines are made to simulate the belt-feed systems of machine guns like the M60, and can hold up to 5,000 rounds. In stark contrast to a drum, real-cap mags provide the exact amount of ammunition the real life weapon holds.
Performance and Legal Problems
A low-end airsoft gun fires at roughly 100 feet per second (about 68 miles per hour), though customized sniper rifles can fire at over 500 feet per second (about 340 miles per hour). Thus, while airsoft is not intended to be lethal, it has that potential. Due to that potential, many airsoft events have banned customized weapons that are able to fire metal BBs, and some require an orange marker to be placed on the end of the weapon (similar to a toy pistol). As of 2010, airsoft guns are not classified as firearms under federal law, and state laws vary for airsoft guns and other products.
Airsoft guns are sold as toys in many stores, but their appearance and capability makes them a dangerous item that can at least cause injury. Always use airsoft guns responsibly and wear proper protective gear when playing airsoft games. Treat airsoft guns as live firearms, and never leave a child unsupervised with an airsoft gun.