Airsoft is a mock combat sport, similar to paintball, except that competitors shoot at one another with plastic pellets fired from realistic replicas of actual firearms.
In a sense, the sport had its origins in the early 1970s, when the Daisy Manufacturing Company began making an air rifle that shot plastic pellets to supplement its traditional line of BB guns. Called a soft air gun, it didn't really catch on in the United States.
The soft air gun did win some popularity in Japan, though. Because the country prohibited private ownership of firearms, many Japanese collected highly-detailed dummy replicas of real guns, as well as cap pistols designed to look like the real thing. Several Japanese companies began incorporating the Daisy low-power firing system into their realistic replicas. They were known as soft-air or air-soft guns.
The original Daisy system used a simple spring-powered air piston. During the 1980s, gas-powered airsoft guns were developed, usually using carbon dioxide or freon from an external. However, the Japanese government banned the release of carbon dioxide and fluorocarbons into the atmosphere, effectively making the use of such guns illegal.
A company called Tokyo Marui then developed the automatic electric gun (AEG), which is powered by batteries and an electric motor. The motor cycles an internal piston/spring assembly that launches the pellet. That system is still commonly used in almost all long airsoft weapons, but the mechanism is too large to fit into a pistol. Most pistols, therefore, are gas-powered using an internal gas chamber.
Like the weapons, the combat sport itself was developed in Japan and spread to other Asian countries and then to Europe, especially Italy and the United Kingdom, in the early 1990s. Airsoft arrived in North America about 1995. The early players were mostly paintballers who switched to airsoft because the weapons are so much more realistic. Most airsoft competition still takes place on paintball fields, although the number of fields dedicated to airsoft is increasing.
The sport involves teams of players working through a military scenario. For example, one team is trying to rescue a downed pilot before he's captured by the other team. A common scenario is based on the children's game, capture the flag: teams compete to gain and hold control of a flag somewhere in the battle area and the team that has control when time expires is the winner.
Airsoft uses an honor system, since hits aren't visible as they are in paintball. A player who is hit is supposed to raise an arm and call "Hit" or "Out." Some clubs use medic cards. Each player is given a supply of medic cards. When hit, the player can call for a medic, give him or her a medic card, and then get back into the game. When the supply of medic cards runs out, the player is dead.
Generally, a dead player is out of the game for good. But in some games a dead player goes into a "respawn area" and can return to the game after a certain amount of time has elapsed. The weapons used are very authentic plastic replicas of real military weapons. They shoot 6mm plastic pellets with a muzzle velocity of 200-450 feet per second.
An airsoft player wears a battle dress uniforms (BDU), a tactical or load-bearing vest to hold gear, including clips, batteries and a canteen, and usually combat boots. Eye protection is required. Radios are used by serious players to allow members of a team to stay in contact throughout a game.
It's impossible to make a good estimate of how many airsoft players there are, mainly because there's no central governing body but also because the sport's adherents tend to keep a low profile. Airsoft weapons fall into a gray legal area between children's toys and real firearms. They're banned in Connecticut, New Jersey and New York at this writing (May 2004) and in some municipalities. As airsoft proliferates, the weapons may be banned in other areas because of the concerns of law enforcement officers.
Federal law requires that replicas (and toy guns in general) must have blaze-orange plugs or markings on the ends of their barrels to distinguish them from real weapons. However, it's fairly easy to remove, scrape off or paint over such markings. Airsoft guns have frequently been used to commit robberies and several would-be perpetrators using them have been shot by the police.
Another complicating factor is that many of the airsoft guns produced in Japan and other Asian countries are so realistic that they violate U. S. trademark laws, since they carry manufacturers' logos. They may, therefore, be confiscated by customs authorities. Many distributors now market "clean" airsoft guns devoid of trademarks.
Despite the problems, airsoft is definitely a growing sport. Daisy, which started the whole thing, in 2003 returned to marketing airsoft guns under the "Powerline" brand name. Previously, most airsoft guns were bought by mail order or on the Internet, but the Daisy weapons are available in retail outlets such as Walmart and TruServ hardware stores, as well as in many sporting goods outlets.
There are undoubtedly hundreds, probably thousands, of airsoft clubs throughout the United States and Canada. In some cases, a club is simply one team; in others, it's made up of two or more teams that compete against one another regularly.
A few states have state-wide organizations and there are also a number of regional organizations that stage events for member clubs and more or less standardize rules. As already, noted, there is no national governing body and, therefore, no standardized rules for the sport.
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