Airsoft weapons may supplant paintball equipment this year as the Christmas gift of choice among gun lovers, store owners say, as generational and economic changes shift consumers toward airsoft, which uses realistic-looking guns that shoot small plastic BBs long distances.
Sales figures at Airsoft Tactical on Ringgold Road have exploded over the last two years, and participation at tactical airsoft events has doubled, store owner Mike Johnson said. Because distributors can't keep up with demand, he's had to set up a system to share inventory with a friend who owns an airsoft store in Nashville.
"Sales are up 300 percent over the last two years," Johnson said. "We went from selling 15 guns a week to selling 100 guns every week."
Meanwhile, sales at Insane Paintball off Amnicola Highway haven't fared as well, said salesman Lee Bomar.
"There are a lot of people playing paintball, but as for buying their own equipment, those sales are down," Bomar said.
The paintball peak was in 2004, when "a lot of guys that were 30 years old wanted to come out and get away from their wives for a weekend," Bomar said.
In 2005, paintball gun technology changed to allow fully automatic fire, and a younger generation entered the sport.
"It doesn't require skill to shoot your gun anymore, and it made it more athletic, which pushed a lot of the older guys out into airsoft," said Bomar, who also sells airsoft equipment.
The cost of participating in a sport at a time when job prospects are uncertain could also be driving airsoft's popularity.
Paintball players can spend between $500 and $1,000 for a competition-worthy paintball marker, while top airsoft guns cost just over $500 for the top models. Quality paintballs cost $200 for 4,000 rounds, while 4,000 airsoft pellets can be had for less than $15 online.
Accessories for both styles of play add to the cost, but airsoft rifles are far more realistic-looking, making them desirable for what Johnson calls the "Modern Warfare crowd" that grew up with a realistic video game arsenal in their living room.
Realism versus speed
Airsoft's reputation as a sport for serious competitors has grown with its adoption by law enforcement and ex-military buffs, who make up 30 to 40 percent of players, Johnson estimates.
"Operation Irene" near Fort Knox in Kentucky simulates the battle of Mogadishu made famous by Ridley Scott's 2001 film, "Black Hawk Down."
With hundreds of participants gathering for the October event, real-life soldiers Col. Danny McKnight and First Sgt. Matt Eversman faced off against Russian Airborne Sgt. Igor Dobroff in the three-day airsoft tournament considered the "Super Bowl" of tactical events.
"It's the closest you're going to get to combat without signing up," said Johnson, who has attended "Operation Irene" six times and commands his own squad. "As much as it seems like a redneck Cro-Magnon sport, it really is a thinking man's game."
It's a game realistic enough that the East Ridge Police Department purchased nine of the weapons with which to train their SWAT officers, according to Officer Erik Hopkins.
"It's actually quite extraordinary how true life these weapons are," Hopkins said. "We use them for force-on-force for training on traffic stops. It allows them to train with realistic, real-weight weapons that are extremely affordable."
The Collegedale Police Department said it also trains using the weapons.
The Highpoint Airsoft Facility in Chickamauga, Ga., claims a number of off-duty police officers and military personal among its members.
Typically around 80 players split up into teams and play objective-based games, defending themselves with their guns that spit 6 mm plastic BBs at between 380 and 550 feet per second.
The number of players is up from 30 to 40 per Saturday in 2009, and their arsenal has expanded to include grenade launchers, sniper rifles and little touches such as laser sights and tracer devices.
But participation in paintball is trending the other way, Bomar said.
Players at the Insane Paintball facility number 40 to 50 on a given weekend, though the arena, which is currently closed, has a capacity of 100.
"I just think it's the economy," Bomar noted.
Still, paintball isn't dead yet.
Airsoft equipment, while more realistic looking and less expensive, is prone to breakage and can be more dangerous if not used responsibly, Bomar said.
And since it looks real, players have to be careful to tell their neighbors what they're doing to avoid frantic calls to the police.
Paintballs explode and leave an easily visible mark on opponents during battle, making it easy to see who's hit. Airsoft depends heavily on the honor system, and a round hitting a helmet or canteen from long range may be hard to detect, though a mark on bare skin may leave a bruise.
"I just hope it doesn't get so popular that it kills the discipline and the honor," Johnson said.
Higher range and better accuracy in airsoft play also means that opponents need more space; it's not a sport that can be played in an enclosed space with inflatable barriers.
And the elaborate ghost towns and acres of forest necessary for a truly realistic experience are few and far between, as opposed to paintball arenas, which are more common.
"The people who like the faster play and the more rushed play, play paintball," Bomar said.
But Johnson has a different take.
"This is a combat sport. It's not like paintball," he said. "It's not about awards or prizes. It's about being able to look someone in the eye."
Contact staff writer Ellis Smith at email@example.com or 423-757-6315.