How to Play Airsoft - What You Need to Know

Airsoft is an interesting alternative to Paintball that has become more and more popular over the last few years. There are more and more people who find the realistic aesthetics of airsoft guns and more tactical nature of the games irresistible. Of course, you could never say that Airsoft or Paintball was superior. Both games involve simulated combat with projectile weapons, but Airsoft has a different texture altogether.

Choosing Your Weapon

All airsoft guns fire BBs and look like realistic replicas of a real firearm. However, in my article on how Airsoft guns work, I explain that there are three main types of Airsoft gun: manual action, electric, and gas.

I suggest you check out that article for more information on the pros and cons each mechanism type brings to the table. For the purposes of choosing a weapon as a gameplay decision, there are some additional things to think about.

What sort of role are you going to play in the team? Snipers, for example, almost always use a powerful manual spring action rifle. The loadout here might be something like the rifle itself and a gas-powered pistol as a sidearm when an enemy is closer than they should be. If you are going to play a support-fire role you’ll want an electric rapid fire gun. The idea is to pick weapons that fit both the way that you want to play and your job in the team. Since airsoft guns can be quite expensive, the choice of what you’ll buy at first will be quite important to your enjoyment. Do check out my Airsoft Buyer’s Guide for more details.

silverback airsoft

Going Radio Gaga

It’s become quite common for Airsoft teams to make use of tactical radio headsets. This is one of the biggest differences to Paintball that you’ll find in this game. Bringing radios into the mix has a profound effect on teamwork and tactics. It means that team members can perform recon and coordinate themselves to devastating effect. While you don’t need radios to play, once you have, it’s hard to go back. You also don’t want to face a team using headsets if you don’t have them.

The Right Safety Gear

While Airsoft guns fire relatively harmless BB rounds, you still need protection in order to play safely. An Airsoft mask is highly recommended. At the very least you should wear safety goggles to protect your eyes.

Unlike Paintball, there is no need to wear jumpsuits, since of course the BBs don’t actually mark you with paint. This means you can wear realistic combat attire. Clothing doesn’t have to be particularly thick, and you actually need to feel the BB hits. It’s also important that the clothes cover your skin as much as possible, since BBs can bruise the skin. They fire at a much higher speed than paintballs, but have much less size and mass. It is possible for a little bleeding. Moreover, BBs can burst into fragments that are especially dangerous to the eyes.

You can buy specialized Airsoft clothing online or at hobby shops easily. Pay attention to practical things such as the type of camo and how many pouches or pockets there are.

Picking a Location, Legalities, and Permission

Having the right equipment is literally only half the battle. Another equally important decision is where you’ll be playing. For example, if you are going to play in the woods, that makes for a very different tactical experience than playing on an open field with bunkers.

Is the area big enough for a field battle? Will people be firing at long range? Is it better suited to smaller urban skirmishes? Your location will directly influence the types of matches you can play.

Because Airsoft guns are so realistic, there’s a lot of potential for confusion if someone sees you playing, so it is incredibly important that you play somewhere that is not in view of the general public. You should have permission to play in that area and not just assume that every spot that doesn’t have people or fences is fair game. Especially bad is to get mistaken for people with real guns.

In the Airsoft community it’s heavily frowned upon when people play in public parks, since this gives Airsoft a bad reputation and can even lead to general local bans on the game. Obviously, the safest place to play is a formal airsoft arena. Just as with Paintball, going to a formal venue saves you the hassle of making sure it’s safe and permissible to play. The downside is, of course, that you have to pay a fee, but the amenities are usually worth the price.

airsoft team

Forming a Team

Airsoft is a team game, which means you need to find some people to play with. If you already have some friends then you can try and convince them to try Airsoft with you, but joining a club can help if you don’t know any willing people from your own social circles. It can also be helpful to join an online forum, where you might find people in your area and also get some advice in general.

There’s no hard rule on team sizes, but it seems that a number between two and six is typical. It makes sense to form a team with people who are more or less on your level, but having more experienced members that you can learn from isn’t a bad idea. In fact, before forming your own team it may be a good idea to try and join an established team to learn the game. You can always do your own thing later.

While you can form a team consisting of just normal riflemen, there are a number of typical roles in Airsoft that each team member can adopt. The best practice is to have specific people always take on certain roles, so that they become very good at that job. When they practice, they should pour time into perfecting the specialized skills and tactics of that role.

So what are these roles? Let’s go over them now.

Common Airsoft Team Roles

The most common Airsoft role is the Rifleman. This is a versatile, generalist role and forms the backbone of most Airsoft teams. The Rifleman pushes against the enemy, moving the line forward. This is the grunt that gets their hands dirty to finish mission objectives. Riflemen favor the assault rifle for short- to medium-range engagements. If you want to be a Rifleman you’d better be ready for some intense, physical gameplay. Cardio strength is essential.

Snipers are some of the most specialized players out there. If you like a much more tactical experience, and not the frantic running about and ducking for cover, then perhaps the sniper role is an option. Snipers fill a recon role, since they use a scoped rifle along with a pistol sidearm. Combined with a radio, this makes for a powerful battlefield resource. Snipers don’t just fire at will. They may take orders from the team leader or work with other team members to entice enemy players out of hiding.

Snipers also concentrate on remaining undetected, with some players even using elaborate “ghillie” suits that make them look like piles of plant matter. Patient, methodical, and tactically-minded players are best suited for the sniper role.

Next we have the Scout. Scouts actively try to avoid engagement if they can help it. Their main role is to get eyes on the enemy, figure out what they are doing, and report back to the team. The best scouts are players who can sprint a lot and move quietly if they have to. Scouts are as unencumbered as possible, so they usually opt for a pistol or small submachine type of weapon.

Support gunners are more heavily armed than Riflemen. They use replicas of light machine guns to lay a lot of fire downrange. However, they aren’t trying to hit anyone. Instead the idea is to keep enemy players in cover so that Riflemen can advance. Just like real life LMGs, Airsoft replicas are heavier, but not that heavy in absolute terms. Someone who wants to play this role has to be comfortable lugging a big awkward weapon along all day.

There’s a specialized rifle in Airsoft known as the “DMR” or “designated marksman rifle”. This is such an important rifle that it belongs to its own role of the same name. If you play as the designated marksman, you have to hit targets that are outside of Rifleman range but too close for a sniper to lose cover over. DMR carriers are on the move constantly and don’t try to conceal themselves in the ways that snipers do.

Finally there’s the Grenadier. This is a team member who specialized in explosives. Yes, Airsoft grenades are a thing and they are awesome. You get flashbang grenades, smoke grenades, and then regular grenades that spit out a swarm of BBs. Perfect for taking out enemy team members hiding in cover.

There are other roles as well, but these are the common ones everyone knows about. Nothing stops you from creating custom roles to suit the tactics of your team, of course!

airsoft match

Basic Rules

If you know something about Paintball, some of the rules that are almost universal to Airsoft will feel familiar. However, that resemblance is only skin deep. Perhaps the most important difference is in determining hits. In Paintball you are marked with a big solid splat; most of the time it’s not hard to figure out. In Airsoft things are different – it operates on an “honor system”. This means if you are hit, you immediately call yourself out. If you get hit and don’t notice it, the opponent will just keep shooting you.

The game is only fun if everyone is as honest as possible. Calling your hit will quickly become second nature to you and if you try to cheat you’ll soon find yourself without anyone to play with. Also remember that once you are hit, raise your weapon and immediately head for the safe zone. Don’t talk to any players that are still in play. This counts as outside interference and you could be banned or suspended for it. The tradition is to use something like a red bandanna held in your hand to show that you’ve been hit.

Getting that main, all-important rule out of the way, there are some other important rules you should know.

First of all, if there are BBs being fired, you should have eye protection. If you need to take your mask or goggles off for any reason whatsoever, then you’ll have to call out the agreed phrase. Usually this will be something like “blind player!” or the like. Then everyone will know to suspend play until you can either fix the issue or leave for the safe zone.

The next important rule to know is that you aren’t allowed to physically fight. Many games have a substitute for melee kills, such as pressing the barrel of your gun into the back of an unsuspecting player. This is a silent kill and is useful to scouts and the like. Verbal abuse is also a no-no. Act like a professional and don’t hurl verbal taunts. This isn’t Call of Duty.

This rule goes along with minimum distance rules. While the exact terms vary, players facing each other are not allowed to come within a certain distance or fire at one another while within that range. Some clubs will rule that as a double KO; others will allows players to back off and keep playing. Make sure you know where the house rules stand.

Just as with Paintball, referees are god. Don’t argue on the field. Raise your objections later if you have them. Also like Paintball, you are not allowed to use blind fire, where you fire your weapon without exposing your face to aim. Finally, always have your safety on when not actively playing, especially in areas where people are no longer wearing their masks.

Basic Tactics

One of the things that really sets Airsoft apart from Paintball is its focus on tactics. At its best, Airsoft provides a simulated experience good enough to work as training for real tactical combat situations.

The number and types of tactics that are available for Airsoft teams to use is, as you might expect, as extensive as those used by real military or law enforcement teams. Many books have been written on different squad tactics, and seasoned Airsoft players will have read at least some good titles on the subject.

In general you’ll want to learn how to use cover and move as a squad. Squads need a leadership structure as well, so that each person doesn’t just do whatever they want. There are plenty of squad maneuvers you can learn and practice. For example, the “center peel” is a common retreat tactic where the unit can break contact and retreat while always having cover fire. If your team can practice and apply basic squad tactics, you’ll be a force to reckon with.

airsoft practice

Target Practice

While knowing and practicing your tactics are important to getting an edge, the fanciest footwork won’t get you anywhere if you can’t actually hit anything! Team members should take time between games to actually practice shooting a target.

Compared to real firearms, Airsoft guns fire at a pretty low velocity. On top of this, there is no rifling and BB pellets are not the most aerodynamic things out there. This means you have to learn how to deal with arcing, curving, and relatively quick drops in projectile height.

Moving targets or shooting at a target while you are on the move should also make up part of your advanced marksmanship training. Being able to shoot and hit targets reliably is FUNDAMENTAL if you want to be a good Airsoft team. Everything else is secondary.

Game Types

Just as with Paintball, there are various game types in Airsoft. In fact, thanks to the realistic nature of Airsoft there are many more game types than you’ll find in Paintball. At least, scenarios have a more natural home in Airsoft than they do in Paintball, if you ask me. While I can’t mention every single game variant, there are some that will give you a good idea of what Airsoft is all about.

First of all, many game types can be categorized according to what sort of simulation attempt is happening. Is it law enforcement? Military? Special tactics? There are many types of firearm combat, each with their own rules and approaches. Within those broad categories you will find game types that fit the spirit of the combat groups they are trying to emulate.

First, we have classic game types like Team Deathmatch and King of the Hill. Basically, anything you can play in the Paintball world will also work when it comes to Airsoft. In case you didn’t know, Team Deathmatch is a match where kills matter. Members who are hit respawn at the starting area. At the end of the time limit, the team with the most combined kills wins. This is essentially “vanilla” Airsoft.

It gets interesting when you bring scenarios and special restrictions to the game. For example, with “cops and robbers” only the cops get to use pistols. This sort of asymmetric match is meant to let you feel what combat feels like for law enforcement.

There’s seemingly infinite variety and it’s unlikely anyone will ever get bored, because there’s always a new scenario to try out.

Good Sportsmanship

Airsoft is, first and foremost, about having fun. However, some people start to take the game so seriously that they become jerks in the process. Airsoft isn’t real. It’s not a life or death situation, at least not when played as a game. So whatever you do, try not to be unpleasant. Winning is not so important that it’s worth ruining friendships or making things unpleasant for the opposing team. Play hard, but always be a sportsmanlike player. Respect the rules and other players. Above all, if you do end up being a jerk, be sure to admit your mistake and apologize. Other players can relate to getting caught up in the heat of an exciting game, but they won’t take kindly to a career jerk sharing the field with them.

At the same time, don’t be too sensitive yourself. Airsoft is an intense game and sometimes people get swept up in the sheer excitement and tension of it all. We’re all human, so try to apply the principle of charity and don’t assume someone is a bad player just because of one or two slip-ups. It’s the people that offer a persistent pattern of bad behavior that need to be dealt with.

The Airsoft Army

Airsoft is a sport with so much depth and such an engaging community that it can all feel very overwhelming at first. While I am mainly a Paintball guy, I have always been a bit jealous of people who REALLY get into Airsoft. Airsoft looks and feels cool to play, but it doesn’t really lend itself to casual play in the same way that Paintball does.

That’s not to say that you can’t try before you buy. Just as with Paintball, you can rent Airsoft equipment and try your hand at playing a few games before deciding to invest in this hobby. If it does turn out that this is the sport for you, then the rabbit hole goes much, much deeper than I have managed to describe here. Once you enter the Airsoft army, there’s no turning back!