As ammunition prices have bounced all over the place and the threat/promise of increased firearms and ammunition legislation has increased, I have started doing more and more of my training with airsoft police tactical pistols or trainers. They have allowed me to train with my wife more often than we could if live fire were our only option. As an added benefit, I know that if it becomes illegal or a serious liability to train with firearms in the future, I have a backup plan in place to stay proficient as well as get new shooters up to speed with firearms.
These are a class of airsoft guns that are made of metal. They are the same size and weight as their real counterparts and have the same controls, including safeties, slide locks and magazine releases. They even break down the same way. In other words, these are not the clear-plastic toys you buy at Target.
Here’s a picture of a real Glock next to an airsoft Glock. (As a note, I didn’t choose the paint job. It came that way.)
The bottom one is a Glock subcompact frame and the top is an airsoft compact frame.
If you have ever picked up a $20-$50 battery-powered airsoft pistol from a gun show, you have probably been disappointed that it didn’t fit in your real holsters, that the magazines were toy-like, and that it wouldn’t shoot accurately past about 12 inches.
Airsoft trainers are a completely different animal. They fit in leather and Kydex® formfitted holsters, the magazines fit in your real magazine holders, and they shoot quarter-sized or smaller groups at 20 feet.
Beyond the look, here are some of the big pluses and drawbacks of using airsoft trainers:
Pluses: (Just The Basics)
Dry fire on steroids: It’s important to note that airsoft training is not a replacement for real shooting. You need to feel the recoil, hear the boom, know the feel of taking up slack on your trigger and the feel of trigger reset on your real firearms. A healthier and more accurate way to look at airsoft training is as dry-fire training on steroids that happens to be a lot of fun.
Cost: High-quality BB’s cost less than $20 for 4,000 rounds. You have to add the cost of gas since airsoft trainer magazines have gas cylinders in them, but it still costs less than a penny per round. Trainer Glocks, 1911s, etc., cost about $150 apiece and extra mags are $30 to $40 apiece.
Frequency of training: I am able to shoot 100 to 200 rounds of airsoft every day because the time/cost barrier of training is so low. I still shoot quite a bit of real lead, but I don’t have the time to shoot every day with my real firearms. Normally, when I go shooting, I shoot more rounds at one time to justify the travel time and range fees, but the frequency that I am able to train with airsoft allows me to build up and retain muscle memory much faster than shooting lead alone.
Variety of training: I practice my grip, presentation, sight acquisition, transitioning between targets, reloads, movement, odd angles, one-handed, off-hand, cornering, drawing-form concealment while seated and more… some of which just aren’t possible at most ranges.
Simplicity of training: I don’t have to drive to a range, pay for time, drive home or clean my guns… I just get up from my desk and take push-up/shooting breaks throughout the day. That’s not possible for most people, but you can shoot down a hallway in your house or in your garage.
Fun: I could do most of what I do with airsoft with snap caps and dry-fire drills… but I never did dry-fire training as much as I do airsoft training because airsoft training is fun. It’s fun to hit targets, make holes and knock things over, even if it is on a smaller scale than with a real gun.
Size and weight: Since the airsoft trainers are the same size and weight of their real counterparts, you can use the same holsters you normally use.
Social proof: The Japanese steel target team trains on airsoft all year, comes to the U.S. and shoots lead for just two weeks before meets, and the team places well each year. Several U.S. military units and police departments are training with airsoft as well.
Recoil/Flinch: Shooting airsoft will expose and cure you of anticipating trigger break and recoil. While big dips of the barrel may be hidden with real recoil, it shows up immediately with airsoft. There’s no need for it with airsoft, and you can train your mind to not flinch with a few hundred rounds of airsoft.
Training wives/kids/newbies to shooting: Since it’s fun and there is no boom, smell or recoil, airsoft is a great way to introduce people to shooting or to start teaching advanced techniques to current shooters. Without the recoil and the boom, you can focus on fundamentals until they are learned and then transition to low-caliber and defensive-caliber firearms.
It’s a toy: Face it… airsoft is a way to compensate for not having enough time or money to shoot the real thing as much as you would like. It will never be as good as a real firearm. I resisted airsoft, tried it, and now have embraced it as a way to get a lot more trigger time. That being said, it’s better to get a lot of trigger time with an airsoft trainer than no trigger time with the gun you cannot afford or find the time to shoot.
Lack of recoil: The airsoft trainers do have recoil, but it’s nothing like a real firearm. This means that you cannot really practice multiple shots because it’s much easier to reacquire your site picture after each shot. What you can do is transition between targets, shooting each one once, or use airsoft training to develop your speed and focusing on follow-through (reacquiring your site picture) after each shot.
Dropping magazines: Airsoft trainer magazines have gas cylinders in them, which makes them heavy and causes them to break when you drop them on hard surfaces. You basically need padded carpet wherever you intend on dropping magazines during reloads. To clarify, picture a real magazine… it’s heavy when it’s full and light when it’s empty because most of the weight comes from the bullets. With airsoft, the little plastic BB’s weigh .2 grams, so the weight changes very little as it goes from full to empty. What I do is train with a drop pouch.
Authentic trigger feel: While the double-action triggers and single-action triggers work as they should, they just don’t feel like real triggers. The tension builds up different, the break isn’t as precise as with a real firearm, and the reset isn’t quite as pronounced. That being said, the double-actions I have are good enough to practice drawing up the slack during the extension phase of my presentation, and all the airsoft trainers I have shot can be used to do trigger-reset drills.
Precision: With airsoft trainer handguns, you won’t have much precision. My We Tech 1911 will shoot 1-inch to 3-inch groups at 25 feet out of the box. My KJ Glock is slightly less accurate. Both can be modified to shoot more accurately, but that hasn’t been a concern for me. Airsoft trainer rifles are another matter entirely. My Top Tech M4 will hold 8-inch groups out to 80 to 100 yards when there is no wind.
Safety: There is a distinct possibility that you will learn bad safety habits with airsoft. Don’t. You must treat airsoft guns like the real firearms they represent. Never point an airsoft trainer at an object you don’t want to destroy (unless you are doing force-on-force training, which is beyond the scope of this article). Always use proper muzzle/safety discipline so that when you are handling real firearms you won’t have any bad habits creep in.
Another issue that you will run into with high-quality airsoft trainers is what to use for targets. Cheap airsoft targets won’t take the abuse, and BB traps are loud and overbuilt for airsoft.
I have solved this problem by making my own target frame/backstop for under $30 and using full-size targets that are 2 feet by 4 feet. Granted, this isn’t original or rocket science, but it is a great solution for airsoft training.
This is the entire frame/backstop with a target attached.
Basically, I made the target frame out of two 10-feet sections of 1.5-inch PVC pipe. The four vertical sections are 3 feet long, the two horizontal crosspieces are 2 feet long, and the 4 legs are 1 foot long, for a total of 20 feet of pipe with absolutely no waste. I connected all the pieces with two elbows and 4 Ts and capped the legs with four caps. All of the PVC parts cost me about $20.
Here is just the frame. As you can see, it’s very simple and fast to put together.
Home Depot will let you cut PVC in the store with its saws, so you don’t even need to buy a saw.
There’s enough friction on the fittings to keep everything together, and it’s easy to break everything down as much as you want for storage.
As a bonus, 2-feet and 3-feet sections of PVC make great improvised weapons.
For the backdrop, I started out with a $7 tarp folded and draped over the top. It was louder than I liked, so I threw a $7 moving blanket from U-Haul over it. It’s absorbed thousands of focused hits so far without giving out; but when it starts to, all I need to do is slide the blanket up or down so my impact area is different.
When I triple-fold the moving blanket I have, it is just slightly narrower than my target. Two clothespins are all I need to secure targets in place.
I keep a box underneath the target/blanket and it catches 90 to 95 percent of the airsoft BB’s, making cleanup a breeze.
Of course, you could also accomplish the same thing by draping a blanket over a door at the end of a hallway or over a doorway chin-up bar, but the PVC frame will allow you to practice entering a room and engaging a target, engaging the target behind partial cover, or hundreds of other scenarios that most people don’t have the facilities to practice regularly.
What are your thoughts on airsoft training and/or about transitioning from 100 percent live-fire training to including some airsoft training? How about increased ammunition prices and regulations and their impact on how often you train? Let me know by commenting below.