The History of Airsoft: How Brands Have Shaped The Game

Although still a relatively niche hobby, the history, and future of airsoft are worth exploring, as it provides some interesting insight into the creation, development, and evolution of an extremely diverse and nuanced hobby.

While airsoft originated in Japan, we will explore why it arose in Japan and answer some common questions regarding the hobby:

  • When And Where Was Airsoft Invented?
  • How Did Airsoft Change And Evolve After The 1970s?
  • How Did Airsoft Become Popular In The West?
  • What Is The Future Of Airsoft?

From its humble beginnings as one firearm enthusiast’s way of enjoying his hobby to a global sensation that continues to evolve throughout the 21st century, let’s explore the how the sport has grown and how airsoft gun companies are shaping the future of airsoft.

When And Where Was Airsoft Invented?

The end of World War Two in the 1940s in Japan saw a political, cultural, social, and economic shift in Japan, that being a move away from imperialist, militarist ideology to one of democracy, diplomacy, and sustained economic growth.

Consequently, legislation regarding private gun ownership in Japan became very strict, meaning that save for select military personnel, police officers, and registered collectors, the vast majority of Japanese citizens could not legally own firearms.

Due to the inability to legally acquire firearms, a lot of gun enthusiasts turned to imitation firearms such as pellet guns or BB guns to practice their shooting at ranges.

In the early 1970s, photographer Ichiro Nagata as an avid shooter himself capitalized on this gap in the market and desire for imitation firearms through the development of what he termed “soft air guns,” which later became known as airsoft. 

Airsoft is the collective term for imitation firearms and the sport which later accompanied them (see below for more details.)

To comply with Japan’s strict Firearm and Sword Possession Control Law, whereby a key factor includes the potential for harm arising from the possession of a particular “weapon” or “imitation weapon,” airsoft was designed to cause minimal damage.

To minimize the potential of airsoft firearms to cause harm and to allow private individuals to legally own them, the first airsoft rifles used compressed gas/a compressed Freon-silicone oil mixture to propel “bullets.”

This method of propelling bullets resulted in significantly less velocity than real firearms and even less velocity than other imitation weapons such as pellet guns and BB guns that used compressed CO2 as propellant gas.

The bullets fired were plastic balls between 6mm or 8mm in diameter, depending on the model used, which had a slow rate of firing, meaning that the first use of airsoft firearms was target shooting.

How Did Airsoft Change And Evolve After The 1970s?

While the popularity of airsoft firearms grew in the 1970s, the limitations on the rate of fire and the basic build of early airsoft firearms restricted their usage to target shooting.

However, with the replacement of a compressed Freon-silicone oil mixture as propellant gas with a propane-silicone oil mixture known as Green Gas, airsoft guns could be fired without causing injury, all the while sustaining their velocity and accuracy. 

Another innovation in airsoft was the development of an electric motor-gear box design by Tokyo Marui. This design meant that airsoft firearms were fitted with a rechargeable battery that spring-loaded bullets.

Consequently, airsoft firearms in the early 1980s were classified as a result of their operating systems (see below for later advancements):

  1. Airsoft Electric Guns: spring-loaded, electric guns powered by batteries, and
  2. Gas-powered Guns: powered by Green Gas and further termed GBBs in the event that they have a blowback feature installed.  

The advancement of airsoft firearms’ increased accuracy and rate of fire led to the rise of casual war games in Japan and across other Asian countries.

While these first war games would have been casual in nature and in many ways a precursor to the popularity of similar war games such as paintball in the 1980s, continued advancements in airsoft would change the airsoft market significantly.

How Did Airsoft Become Popular In The West?

As mentioned above, while airsoft was a popular war game in Eastern Countries through the 1980s, airsoft was a direct competitor with paintball, which was a similar and more popular war game, played globally in the 1980s.

However, while paintball sought to focus its target market and development on casual wargaming and professional paintball tournaments, which leaned heavily into paintball as its own sport, airsoft focused more on improving weapon imitation.

Throughout the 1990s and into the 21st-century, airsoft companies, particularly those in China and Taiwan, started to develop airsoft firearms that were significantly more accurate and akin to their real-world counterparts.

Some key innovations include, among others:

•The development of airsoft firearms powered by high-pressured air tanks resulting in increased rates of fire that are adjustable (thus mimicking real-world firearms with adjustable rates of fire)

•The introduction of advanced technology such as fire control units computer boards which further simulate real-world rates of fire and adjustability,

•The development of niche airsoft weaponry, such as replicas of 203 grenade launchers that fire a spray of 6mm foam bullets through gas or mechanical propellant mechanisms,

•The inclusion of weights or metallic components to replicate the feel, weight, balance, and finishing of airsoft’s real-world counterparts,

•The development of larger, accurate magazines, including but not limited to drum magazines in combination with light machine gun replicas,

•The development of the hop-up system uses the Magnus effect to add lift and backspin to airsoft bullets. This further improves the accuracy, range, and velocity of airsoft firearms.

Further to the above innovations that have become standard for a lot of airsoft firearms is the inclusion of aftermarket stock, both official and personalized:

•The airsoft community encourages realism in the design and paint scheme of airsoft firearms to better imitate their real-life counterparts,

•The installation of noise amplifiers, smoke caps, silencers, tracer rounds, lasers, scopes, fore-grips, flashlights, and red dots sights, among others (while most of these modifications are purely aesthetic, some are heavily regulated and affect licensing requirements).

The increased accuracy and replication of real-life firearms meant that it distinguished itself from more casual war games such as paintball and attracted more serious weapon enthusiasts across the globe, thus attracting Western attention.

Therefore, unlike paintball, which relies on skills unique to paintball as an experience in and of itself (quick reflexes, high fitness levels, etc.), airsoft is considered a slower, more tactical war game, as it seeks to replicate real-world combat scenarios.

This added realism has also seen airsoft become a viable method for military and police training. This is because airsoft is a far cheaper alternative than using blank rounds in weapons while providing the simulation needed to train personnel.

Furthermore, airsoft companies and event organizers have developed specific events and venues that can be hired out by military and police personnel during training.

These events allow for very accurate airsoft weaponry to be hired out, with real-world locales becoming customizable depending on the training needed, such as the replication of civilian spaces such as shopping malls or prisons.

Some airsoft innovations specifically for the training of military and police personnel include the following:

  • Marking rounds that break on impact, marking targets with luminescent liquid. Unlike regular airsoft rounds, this allows trainees to critically evaluate their aim and decision making, and to improve upon them,
  • Reusable grenades, which often include marking rounds to better understand the way shrapnel from grenades, would work in real-life scenarios.
  • Along with training new recruits, airsoft has also been proven as an effective method of treating and managing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in military and police veterans, as well as citizens who may be suffering from PTSD due to combat situations.

    While it is not entirely known why airsoft gaming and target shooting are effective in treating PTSD in controlled environments, the generally held belief is that it demystifies and grounds the role of firearms as simple tools rather than a trigger for past traumatic events.

    It would appear that airsoft as a method of treatment for PTSD is particularly effective for military veterans who may have been firearm enthusiasts prior to developing PTSD and would like to continue their hobby in a safer, controlled, and purely imitated environment.

    What Is The Future Of Airsoft?

    Despite the drive for realism and accurate imitation, recent safety concerns regarding a notable rise in gun violence and travel concerns across the globe have meant that certain realistic airsoft innovations are being closely regulated.

    In the United States of America, some states and cities do not allow the carrying of airsoft firearms in public, nor do they allow color schemes that replicate the look of real-life firearms.

    Furthermore, the storage, travel, and distribution usually require special orange-tipped muzzles on airsoft firearms as legislated by the Customs and Border Protection Act so that they can be easily distinguished from real firearms.

    The Republic of Ireland has lenient airsoft laws in comparison to most other European countries, although the carrying of airsoft firearms in public without a license to carry a legitimate firearm (usually reserved for law enforcement personnel) is strictly prohibited.

    Some countries, such as the United Kingdom, have airsoft associations, such as the United Kingdom Airsoft Retailer Association, which further govern the use of airsoft firearms along with legislation.

    These associations typically require membership and competency in order to own an airsoft rifle, whereby particular laws for the use and storage of airsoft rifles are typically designated to airsoft ranges rather than in private dwellings.

    Although the above regulations have been sighted as a reason for the drop of airsoft’s popularity in the mid to late 2010s, especially given the stagnation of airsoft developments in the private market, there has been a notable increase in airsoft’s popularity from 2020.

    One of the reasons why airsoft is believed to see a resurgence in popularity is the way in which airsoft brands are now engaging with their customers through social media and by hosting events that capitalize on airsoft’s dedicated community.

    Consequently, while past airsoft brands were purely focused on the development and innovation of more realistic airsoft firearms, modern brands such as Redwolf Airsoft are looking to host conventions and events both online and in-person.

    Most of these events are aimed at teenage to college-aged students, either through in-person events on campuses or via the use of social media platforms such as Twitch and YouTube.

    In contrast to this static rule set, airsoft promotes dynamic gameplay that uses weaponry to imitate real-world or fantastical scenarios. This wide appeal can appeal to both fans of historical, modern, and fantasy wargaming through airsoft.

    Whether it be intense, accurate hostage situations or over-the-top campaigns (zombie apocalypse with World War 2 weaponry anyone?), the possibilities of airsoft LARPing are limitless and are being actively developed and promoted by individuals and brands.

    To illustrate the commitment brands have to enticing new players through these different channels, the following link provides access to these discussions on RedWolf Airsoft’s official YouTube channel:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q2L8pry8dTc

    Conclusion

    Despite the rise of other war games such as paintball and the crackdown on some airsoft innovations through strict gun and safety laws, airsoft continues to be enjoyed around the world by firearm enthusiasts.

    Furthermore, airsoft continues to distinguish itself from its war-game competitors by improving upon its accuracy and simulation to better train military/police recruits in a safe environment while also providing support to sufferers of PTSD. 

    Related Reads:
    1) Is Tokyo Marui a Good Airsoft Brand?

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