Airsoft guns are guns; just like those that fire cordite-powered lead bullets. The big difference between a real firearm and an airsoft gun is the propellant that they use. A gas such as air is compressed in the gun. This stores up energy, which is then released to propel the ammunition down the barrel and at the target. Paintball markers work in a similar way, but airsoft guns have much more in common with the real firearms they are modeled on than they do with paintball markers.
It’s important to know the difference between airsoft guns and other air-powered guns. Airsoft specifically uses the common 6mm plastic BB rounds. These are basically safe, although you should wear protective eyewear. There are, however, air rifles that fire lead pellets and have enough penetrating power to kill small animals like squirrels and rats. These are air-powered, but not part of the airsoft game. These are dangerous and not toys. In fact, I have a relative who died as a result of an air-rifle accident.
For the purposes of this article I am going to focus on airsoft guns and not other types of air-powered guns. Please keep that in mind.
Appearance is Everything
Paintball markers have the general shape of a firearm, but no one is going to mistake one for a real gun. They have a large gas tank attached as well as a voluminous hopper. No real firearm looks like this. Airsoft guns, on the other hand, are explicitly designed to exactly model a real type of gun. This means that many parts of the airsoft gun look and work just like the gun it is modeled after.
The gun is usually lighter, unless it is deliberately made heavier to simulate what the real firearm feels like. Airsoft pistols are operated just like a real pistol, for example. They are magazine-fed and the firing assembly looks similar. The big difference is that there is no casing to eject.
Because airsoft guns are so realistic, you need to take care where and how you produce them. Law enforcement can easily mistake an airsoft gun for the real thing, as can members of the public. Orange tips are a requirement in the US for this reason.
As I mentioned above, all air-powered guns use air compression to propel the BB round. This works by pushing a piston forward at speed to compress air. Gas-powered airsoft guns are an exception to this, but I will get to that in a moment.
Electric, Gas, or Manual
Within the realm of airsoft guns, there are a few different approaches to flinging that BB out of the business end of the barrel. The most basic airsoft design is the manual action spring gun. Basically, you use good old muscle power to push the piston back onto a spring, storing the energy that will fire the piston forward again.
Obviously, you have to manually push the spring back after every shot, which means semi-auto and auto firing modes are a no-no. Cheap airsoft guns are usually this sort of manual spring system, but big bolt-action sniper rifles use this method as well. It’s a good simulation of real bolt-action rifles.
Electric spring-powered guns work in exactly the same way, but use an electrical motor and gearbox to repeatedly compress the spring. Battery power replaces muscle power and that means you can have semi-auto and fully automatic firing modes. These are popular guns, but they do need a lot of maintenance, and, of course, you need to keep the batteries charged.
The last type of gun is almost like a paintball and airsoft hybrid. Gas-powered airsoft guns have a gas reservoir just like a paintball marker. However, the gas reservoir is usually hidden so as to not spoil the look of the gun. When you pull the trigger a blast of gas propels the BB directly. “Blowback” versions of gas-powered guns use some of the gas to simulate recoil. Which is very cool, but not very efficient. These guns have the highest maintenance needs of the lot, but are perhaps the most realistic to use.
There you have it! The basics of how airsoft guns work. Remember those orange tips, folks!