The Airsoft Advantage

An airsoft version of a SIG Sauer P226.
An airsoft version of a SIG Sauer P226. photo from pyramidair.commfg photo

Whenever my police department hired new officers, we would provide them with their initial firearms training prior to their departure for the police academy. I was Police Range Master, and found that many new police officers had never touched a firearm before they begin their training. They don’t know safe gun-handling rules and they don’t understand aiming—but their ability to retain employment as a police officer depends on their ability to pass a qualification at the end of a 12-week academy.

Add into the mix that in the back of their heads they wonder if they will ever have to shoot someone, and it’s understandable that stress and uncertainty can sometimes lead to unsafe gun-handling behaviors.

Note that I said “understandable”—not forgivable.

When I attended the police academy, an officer from another class unintentionally shot another officer in the stomach. This tragedy occurred while officers were breaking down their firearm in the cleaning area. Unfortunately, that was not the last time I witnessed an unintentional discharge.

Employing safe training methods should be paramount for anyone who wants to live a long life with the same number of holes in them with which they were born.

When my trainer first suggested to me that we incorporate airsoft guns—which shoot round plastic or biodegradable resin pellets—to our police firearms training program, I thought it was a joke. My response was that airsoft guns, as much as they can look like real guns, they didn’t offer the same mechanical moving parts as our duty weapons, and they didn’t even come close to matching the recoil of a .40 S&W, which our duty weapons were chambered for.

Reloading, clearing malfunctions, managing recoil, and marksmanship couldn’t be trained effectively with an airsoft gun…and these were areas in which our officers struggled most.

As I shared these concerns with the trainer who advocated for their use, he quickly pointed out that he never suggested that airsoft guns replace real firearms in training—only that they supplement them.

As I listened to him make the case for airsoft firearms training, I began to see the possibilities and benefits. What stood out most was that airsoft could help us develop gun-handling familiarity in new officers, allow us to evaluate the gun-handling skills of all officers, and help us to introduce more advanced and dynamic training concepts in a safe manner. We were able to do all of that.

An airsoft version of the Smith & Wesson M&P9 pistol.
An airsoft version of the Smith & Wesson M&P9 pistol. Manufacturer photos often do not show the gun with an orange muzzle tip, which is required when airsoft guns are imported or transported within the U.S. photo from manxpewpew.commfg photo

The Civilian Side

So what about non-law enforcement gun owners? Civilians will benefit from incorporating airsoft pistols into their training sessions for many of the same reasons—and more. Here’s why:

1. Teaching New Shooters

Training with airsoft guns is really the safest way to teach gun handling to first-time shooters. They allow for the evaluation of the potential shooter’s level of maturity, and his or her retention and employment of gun-handling safety rules.

For a fair and proper evaluation of a shooter, however, it must be clearly explained that he or she is expected to treat the airsoft gun as if it is a real, loaded firearm. If the shooter doesn’t take the lesson seriously, and you consistently see a finger on the trigger before the airsoft firearm is pointed at a target, or if the shooter purposely or inadvertently continues to point the firearm at others, you can hold off on promoting that person to a real firearm until that fault is corrected.

Of course, airsoft is not suitable for evaluating marksmanship skills, or gun-handling skills such as loading and unloading, exchanging magazines and clearing malfunctions, among other things. The design of airsoft pistols doesn’t allow it. (And in order to practice those skills safely, it is a good idea to employ dummy rounds with a real firearm—at least initially—until the shooter is consistently capable of carrying them out.)

A Beretta M9 pistol as an airsoft gun.
A Beretta M9 pistol as an airsoft gun. photo from airsoftmegastore.commfg photo

2. Learning New Skills

In addition to familiarizing new shooters to firearms, re-incorporating the airsoft pistol when introducing a new skill to a shooter is a good idea. This allows the shooter to focus on learning the skill while the stress of handling a loaded firearm is temporarily alleviated.

An example of a skill that can be trained on airsoft prior to introducing live ammunition would be shooting while moving. Adding physical motion to shooting can make otherwise everyday actions—like walking—complicated when shooting live ammunition. Developing the technique of shooting and moving with air soft gives the shooter a chance to work out the mechanics without accidentally shooting someone the shooter trip and fall. Once the skill is mastered using safe gun-handling skills, reintroduce the firearm using dummy rounds. When the dummy round phase is mastered, then it is safe to introduce regular ammunition under close supervision.

3. Rehearsing Self-Defense Situation

While the benefit of training new shooters with airsoft is that it provides them with familiarity before adding the lethal component of live ammunition, the same philosophy carries over to skilled shooters as well. Many times, the only skills shooters ever really train on involve marksmanship, speed, and gun-handling because so many other skills, such as weapon retention and disarming, cannot be trained with live ammunition.

An airsoft version of Glock 19 Gen 4 with interchangeable backstraps
An airsoft version of Glock 19 Gen 4 with interchangeable backstraps, just like the real gun. photo from eliteairsoftmfg photo

Even if more advanced training occurs with real firearms using dummy rounds, there’s still a critical component missing from the training session: the projectile. This is how airsoft guns can fill the training gap like few other training tools can. It allows a shooter to know if he or she actually hit the target, or a “bad guy,” while executing the skill. Even when wearing proper safety gear, it is still evident when you’re struck with airsoft rounds.

Airsoft allowed me to introduce more advanced training concepts, some of which we had tried to introduce while using paintball guns in the 1990s. We discontinued paintball because guns that mirrored the handgun models that officers carried weren’t available, meaning we couldn’t holster the paintball guns. Also, the paintballs were projected at such a high speed that officers would suffer lasting injuries on any exposed area. We tried to shield against injury by having officers wear so much protective gear that they were unable to transition from gun to hand-to-hand combat. And, the associated pain was so severe that some officers were reacting with unnatural fear and apprehension in any scenario presented. This had a negative and unnatural impact on their responses.

He's a plastic version of an M4 carbine
Airsoft certainly extends in to the rifle and shotgun world as well. He's a plastic version of an M4 carbine. photo from airsoftstationmfg photo

Airsoft corrected a lot of the downsides of paintball, with all of the benefit. Depending on the airsoft gun, being struck by an airsoft pellet can range from mild irritation to a fairly intense sting… similar to being stung by a bee. “Green gas” airsoft guns tend to have higher pressures than electric guns. I would avoid spring-loaded guns because you have to charge the gun after each round, which will develop bad habits.

Airsoft allowed us to incorporate scenario-based training or advanced tactics, such close-quarter combat. Some tactics we trained while use airsoft guns included weapon retention and disarming techniques, building and room searches and entry, drawing a secondary firearm from concealment, and use of force.

Skills that civilians can train on with airsoft include shooting and moving, drawing from concealment, and even clearing your own home if you find your front door open, but it does not appear to be forced (call the police for forced entry scenarios).

Here's an airsoft version of the SIG Sauer P320
Here's an airsoft version of the SIG Sauer P320, the pistol recently adopted by the U.S. Army as its new sidearm. photo from cybergun.com.web photo

These tactics are important to practice and teach, because a shooter won’t know his or her level of difficulty with each technique without some rehearsal. And only by realistically simulating those scenarios will any issues with carrying or drawing a concealed gun be exposed. Using an airsoft version of a particular firearm model will allow a shooter to determine in advance of purchasing that model if that firearm is a good fit. For instance, a replica of the real gun can allow a potential purchaser to see if the firearm is concealable, if external features lend themselves to snagging on clothing, and they provide a realistic and enlightened view on the shooter’s ability to draw the firearm under stress and in certain situations. Starting with an airsoft version is a cost-effective way to try out a particular gun without committing.

Next time we’ll look the types of airsoft guns you can buy that work well for training purposes, the protective gear you’ll need, and some self-defense scenarios you can set up and run through with others.