One of my sheepdog goals this year is to become proficient with a handgun and to get my carry license.
I bought my first handgun a few months ago – a Smith & Wesson M&P 9mm – and have been taking defensive handgun classes at the U.S. Shooting Academy. One thing I quickly discovered is that firearm training gets really expensive, really fast. First there’s the range time you need to pay for, but what really kills you is the ammo. Holy smokes, that stuff was like gold for awhile. I saw places selling 9mm ammo for $1.50 a round. Sheesh. While ammo prices are beginning to drop as producers catch up with the demand, you’ll still need to fork over a pretty penny for a day at the range.
At one of my classes I overheard some guys talking about how they were using airsoft guns in addition to their live and dry fire training.
“Airsoft guns? Isn’t that what little kids play with?” I asked with some skepticism.
You see, up until that point my only experience with airsoft guns was watching neighborhood kids run around with their neon orange space ray toy guns and plink each other with plastic BBs.
One of the crusty old-timers responded, “Hell yeah, partner. They’ve gotten real sophisticated in recent years – to the point they have exact replicas of almost every real firearm on the market. I’ve got an airsoft version of my Glock. It even simulates recoil when you fire it. Shooting plastic BBs is a hell of a lot cheaper than shooting live ammo. Plus, I can fire it at my house in my garage. It’s been an invaluable tool in improving my gun manipulation.”
He went on to explain that police departments and even the military are using what used to be a kid’s toy as part of their firearm training. Still dubious, I started doing some research, and I’ll be darned if the old guy wasn’t right. Airsoft guns have gotten incredibly realistic in recent years. If it weren’t for the orange tip that’s required on them, you couldn’t tell the difference between a real gun and the airsoft version of it. He was also right about how military and police forces around the world are using airsoft guns to train recruits. What’s more, many of the top gun instructors across the country are encouraging their students to include airsoft training along with live fire and dry fire training. I also discovered there’s a HUGE airsoft community offline and online. Instead of shooting each other with paintball guns, people are getting together for massive airsoft matches that pretty much replicate real-life military scenarios.
Intrigued by what I read, I went online to some Asian website and bought the airsoft version of my Smith and Wesson M&P 9mm so I could give it a try. I also started researching as much as I could and talking to experts about airsoft and how you can use airsoft guns in tactical training. Below I share what I’ve learned.
Types of Airsoft Guns
There are three types of airsoft guns, each with their pros and cons. The type of airsoft gun you get depends on how you plan on using it.
These are the airsoft guns that I was familiar with before my conversation at the gun range. You can find spring action airsoft guns in the toy section of nearly every big box store. To fire the gun, you simply pull the spring back with a lever until it locks in place. When you pull the trigger, the spring releases and pushes a piston forward in an enclosed cylinder in the gun. The piston pushes air out at a high speed which causes the BB to fire out of the barrel.
Spring action guns are cheap (starting prices are $12, although high-end spring action guns can cost upwards of $80), but they have considerable drawbacks. The big one is a slow rate of fire. Every time you want to fire the gun, you have to pull back and cock the spring. I guess that’s not a problem if you’re training to use a bolt-action rifle or a shotgun, but if your real-life gun is a semi-automatic weapon, having to cock every time you fire ruins the simulation. Another drawback is the quality of the guns. Most spring action guns are poorly made with chintzy plastic and feel like toys in your hands. No good if you’re wanting to simulate your real gun.
Automatic Electric Guns (AEGs)
A more suitable type of airsoft gun for tactical training is the automatic electric gun, or AEG. AEGs have a rechargeable battery that powers a small motor that turns a bunch of gears. These gears pull back and release a piston which causes air to be blasted out at a high-rate. The air propels the pellet out of the gun and towards the target.
Most airsoft semi-automatic rifles and machine guns are AEGs, though you can find AEG handguns as well. AEGs are the most popular airsoft gun among folks taking part in organized airsoft skirmishes.
The biggest advantage AEGs have over spring action airsoft guns is that you can achieve automatic or semi-automatic firing rates with them. You don’t have to cock anything to fire. Just pull the trigger and PEW! a 6mm plastic pellet leaves your gun. Higher-end AEGs are typically exact replicas of their real-life counterparts and are made of both plastic and metal parts. You can even add tactical accessories from your real gun to your airsoft version. Some AEG rifles even provide simulated recoil. Because of the 1:1 realism of high-end AEGs, they’re a great tool to practice weapon manipulation. Many police and military units are using AEG rifles for training.
From a tactical training standpoint, the biggest disadvantage of AEGs is the trigger pull. With most AEGs, the trigger doesn’t break. Instead, the trigger on an AEG acts like a switch that completes a circuit. Thus, you don’t experience that “wall” like you would with a real gun. Depending on the type of AEG, you might also miss out on the simulated recoil.
Gas airsoft guns use some sort of compressed gas to propel the pellet out of the gun. You’ll usually find gas-firing mechanisms on pistols and sidearms, though you can find gas-powered rifles too. Many gas-powered airsoft pistols have a blow-back feature which causes the slide on your pistol to reciprocate when you fire it – just like a real gun. You even get a bit of recoil.
Gas blow-back airsoft pistols can be an invaluable tool in your handgun training as they provide a nearly identical experience to using your real gun. They’re typically 1:1 replicas of your sidearm. You can even put real handgun parts like sights or tactical lights onto your airsoft version. I was amazed that my airsoft Smith & Wesson weighed about the same as my real S&W. Granted, it’s not exactly the same as live fire training, but it’s pretty darn close. One thing I’ve noticed on my gas blow-back M&P is that there isn’t much slack in the trigger. I hardly have to squeeze the trigger for the gun to fire. I’m sure I could tweak the trigger a bit so it pulls more like my real gun.
If you’re wanting to use airsoft to supplement your handgun training, definitely get a gas blow-back (GBB) version. They’re pricier than non-GBB, but the added simulation is worth it in my opinion. To find where to buy an airsoft version of your real handgun, just Google “Glock 17 airsoft” or “Smith & Wesson MP airsoft.” You’ll find plenty of online stores that sell an airsoft version of your gun. I bought mine from this site. It was the only place I could find it. They’re based in Hong Kong (airsoft is huge in Asia) so I had to pay global shipping.