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Airsoft vs Paintball
To the outsider, there may not seem to be a whole lot of difference between these two extreme sports. They’re both modeled on military combat, all the players use firearms, and there’s a lot of running, shooting and getting hit. One has something to do with paint and the other doesn’t, but otherwise, who can tell the difference?
Anyone who has ever played, that’s who! The games may appear to have evolved in tandem, but there are many differences between the style of play and the gear used in each one.
Airsoft was invented in Japan in the early 1980s after the government outlawed the ownership of guns. The clamor for replica weapons grew, and airsoft developed as a way of getting some satisfying use out of them. By pure coincidence, paintball started up at about the same time but in completely different circumstances. Paintball markers already existed as a long-distance solution to cattle marking, but the invention was a flop until it was appropriated for use in this new extreme sport.
Although the aim of both sports is the elimination of opponents, paintball games tend to be shorter and faster. Airsoft is usually played over larger areas, and because the guns used are designed for accuracy, there is more precision involved and more slowly executed strategies. Paintball, by comparison, is a high-octane sport based on speed. If airsoft is a campaign, paintball is a commando raid.
A major disparity is in the verification of hits. When you’ve been splattered by an exploding paintball, there really isn’t any argument to be made. In airsoft, players are entirely reliant on the honor and honesty of opponents to admit that they have been hit since there is nothing to mark it. On the whole, this is an accepted part of the sportsmanship of the game, but it’s easy to imagine some situations, particularly at crucial points, when it can be tempting not to concede. Whichever way you look at it, denying you’ve been hit is cheating and that’s heavily frowned on. However, occasionally a player may genuinely not realize they’ve been tagged and that can cause an unsatisfactory dispute.
Airsoft aims to imitate military action more closely than paintball. For that reason, the equipment and clothing tend to be accurate facsimiles of real hardware, while paintball has seen a much freer approach to design and construction, giving the game a highly individual character.
The magazines of airsoft guns generally have significantly greater capacity, mainly because the paintballs themselves are much larger than the BBs used in airsoft. Another notable difference is that paintball markers use hoppers to feed the paintballs, often via gravity, into the firing mechanism; in airsoft - again in the service of authenticity - the BBs are held in the magazine and spring-fed.
The ammunition is entirely different, not just because you’re unmistakably marked when you get hit in paintball. In both sports, the muzzle velocity is limited. In paintball, it's limited to 300 feet per second (fps); in airsoft, it's usually between 300 and 500 fps. However, when you’re hit by a paintball, you know it. They are bigger, harder, and fired with more energy than the softer BBs in airsoft.
The markers and ammunition for paintball tend to be more expensive than airsoft weaponry, but airsoft guns are generally less durable and benefit from upgrades and regular maintenance. They break more easily, so any short-term savings can be eroded by the cost of replacement. Paintball markers, looked after properly, will last longer.
That last point is relevant to the clothing worn by the players. In paintball, the outfits are geared much more toward protection, not just with padded jackets to absorb the worst of the impact but also in the use of helmets and goggles, such as these Dye 14 Thermal Paintball Goggles. A hard blow or a huge splash of paint are not things you want to face without some kind of defence. Airsoft players will often wear safety glasses but reserve heavy protection for close quarters combat. A BB in the face at point-blank range is no fun, but generally the physical risks of airsoft are lower.
Which is Best?
It’s not a simple question and it isn’t really relevant. Paintball and Airsoft are very different games that were originally inspired by the thrill of combat without consequences but have developed along very different lines, requiring distinct skills and different gear. The rewards and expectations of the two sports may differ, but they both remain tremendously enjoyable.