The History of Airsoft in the US

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History of Airsoft; How it all Started

The history of Airsoft is an interesting one. For those that don’t know what Airsoft is or are just getting into it; Airsoft is a very popular and competitive sport played by people around the world in which participants eliminate opposing players with spherical plastic projectiles called BBs, launched via replica air weapons called airsoft guns. Forums and social networks are flooded with users asking questions daily getting ready to make their first airsoft related purchase. What very few players know is that the earliest air gun dates back to as early as the 1500’s. And even thought the sport we know today started around the 1970s in Japan. The air gun itself has played a large roll revolutionizing history. 

The First Earliest Known Air Gun.

As per Wiki, the oldest existing mechanical air gun, a bellows air gun dating back to about 1580, is in the Livrustkammaren Museum in Stockholm. This is the time most historians recognize as the beginning of the modern air gun.

Throughout 17th to 19th century, air guns in calibers .30–.51, were used to hunt big-game deer and wild boar. These air rifles were charged using a pump to fill an air reservoir and gave velocities from 650 to 1,000 feet per second (200–300 m/s). They were also used in warfare, the most recognized example being the Girandoni air rifle.

Kunitomo air gun developed by the Japanese inventor Kunitomo Ikkansai, circa 1820–1830
Kunitomo air gun developed by the Japanese inventor Kunitomo Ikkansai, circa 1820–1830

At that time, they had compelling advantages over the primitive firearms of the day. For example, air guns could be discharged in wet weather and rain (unlike both matchlock and flintlock muskets), and discharged much faster than muzzle-loading guns.[1] Moreover, they were quieter than a firearm of similar caliber, had no muzzle flash, and were smokeless. Thus, they did not disclose the shooter’s position or obscure the shooter’s view, unlike the black powder muskets of the 18th and 19th centuries. That’s pretty darn impressive and some large advantages. 

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In the hands of skilled soldiers, they gave the military a distinct advantage. France, Austria and other nations had special sniper detachments using air rifles. The Austrian 1770 model was named Windbüchse (literally “wind rifle” in German). The gun was developed in 1768 or 1769[2] by the Tyrolean watchmaker, mechanic and gunsmith Bartholomäus Girandoni (1744–1799) and is sometimes referred to as the Girandoni air rifle or Girandoni air gun in literature (the name is also spelled “Girandony,” “Giradoni”[3] or “Girardoni”.[4]) The Windbüchse was about 4 ft (1.2 m) long and weighed 10 pounds (4.5 kg), about the same size and mass as a conventional musket. The air reservoir was a removable, club-shaped, butt. The Windbüchse carried twenty-two .51 caliber (13 mm) lead balls in a tubular magazine. A skilled shooter could fire off one magazine in about thirty seconds. A shot from this air gun could penetrate an inch thick wooden board at a hundred paces, an effect roughly equal to that of a modern 9×19mm or .45 ACP caliber pistol.

A Girandoni System Austrian Repeating Air Rifle, Circa 1795, believed to have been taken on the Lewis & Clark Army Corps of Discovery Expedition 1803-1806.

Air Guns in the Europe​

During the 1890s, air rifles were used in Birmingham, England, for competitive target shooting. Technically making it the first recorded sport with an air gun. Matches were held in public houses, which sponsored shooting teams. Prizes, such as a leg of mutton for the winning team, were paid for by the losing team. The sport became so popular that in 1899, the National Smallbore Rifle Association was created. During this time, over 4,000 air rifle clubs and associations existed across Great Britain, many of them in Birmingham. During this time, the air gun was associated with poaching because it could deliver a shot without a significant report.

Earliest Air Guns in the US

Markham Chicago (1886-1910) was a BB gun made of wood!
Markham Chicago (1886-1910) was a BB gun made of wood!

One of the first commercially successful and mass-produced air guns was manufactured by the William F. Markham’s Markham Air Rifle Company in Plymouth, Michigan, US. Their first model air gun was the wooden Challenger, marketed in 1886. In response, Clarence Hamilton from the neighboring Plymouth Air Rifle Company (later renamed to Daisy Manufacturing Company in 1895) marketed their all-metal Daisy BB Gun in early 1888, which prompted Markham to respond with their Chicago model in 1888 followed by the King model in 1890. The Chicago model was sold by Sears, Roebuck for 73 cents in its catalog. In 1928 the name of the Markham company was changed to King Air Rifle Company after the company was purchased by Daisy in 1916 after decades of intense competition,[5] and continued to manufacture the “King” model air rifle until 1935 before ceasing operation altogether in the 1940s.

“BB” stands for ball bearing, which is what the metal pellets resembled. Daisy Manufacturing produced similar products beginning in the 1930s, such as the Buck Rogers ray guns and Red Ryder guns, based on comic strip heroes. The much acclaimed 1983 film “A Christmas Story” told a heartwarming tale of the boy Ralphie growing up in the 1940s who finally received the object of his desire – A Red Ryder air gun. In 1957, Daisy Manufacturing moved to Rogers, Arkansas and remains the world’s and largest manufacture of the less-than-lethal but still potential hazardous weapons. 

Daisy's 1938 Red Ryder made famous in The Christmas Story
Daisy's 1938 Red Ryder made famous in the 1983 movie "A Christmas Story"
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Airsoft Beginnings

Even though the US was producing air guns for backyard plinking and such. The early 1970s witnessed the introduction of Airsoft Pistols, which use light rubber BBs instead of metal pellets. Airsoft itself, originated from Japan in the early 1970s, where a man named, Ichiro Nagata thought about making model guns, or guns that shoot real projectiles which in-turn could not kill. These model guns were trademarked as “soft air” guns, and then tailored to the needs of shooting enthusiasts while conforming to Japan’s strict gun control. The term “soft air” as per Wiki, refers to the compressed Freonsilicone oil mixture (later replaced by a propane-silicone oil mixture or better known as “Green Gas”) that was used as a propellant, which was significantly weaker than the carbon dioxide used in proper airguns (Introduced in the 1980s)

Vintage Toy Gun Rare Vintage 70s Japan Mgc Ingram M-11 Model Gun Cap Gun Courtesy of eBay

The early Japanese air driven pellet guns were based on semi-automatic pistols. They were spring powered. The plastic BB was propelled by air when the spring piston was released. In the cap-type guns, powerful an explosive cap was used to make the sound of gunfire and to eject the spent cartridge. In spring driven pellet guns, a spring was used to propel the pellet held between two small locks and released when the gun was fired. Soft Air gained popularity quickly for casual wargames, which the Japanese called survival games back then. These non-lethal replicas became more and more popular, and soon Japanese companies began producing them in larger quantities. The guns then spread to China, Hong Kong, Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines and became very popular solely because of stringent firearm restrictions.

Marksman Model 1936 LS-10 Spring Airsoft Rifle
Marksman Model 1936 LS-10 Spring Airsoft Rifle

Airsoft guns spread just as quickly into the UK in the late 80s and then early 90s with the help of a little company called LS. Airsoft guns back then were sold in pieces and had to be assembled before they were capable of shooting. Thankfully, this has changed in modern times, and the guns come with the majority of parts already assembled for you. One of the biggest developments to come out of the 90s for Airsoft was when Tokyo Marui developed the first automatic electric gun, or AEG as we commonly know them today. TM had previously focused on building radio-controlled toy cars, so adapted the motors to build the internal gearbox system used in electric airsoft guns.

The AEG gearbox brought with it a rapid-fire element which helped to add a realistic rate of fire to accompany the look of the guns. This added element boosted Airsoft to another level. Since many manufacturers have now replicated the Tokyo Mauri original gearbox to create AEGs of their very own.

Throughout the 90s, Tokyo Mauri continued to develop and lead the way to improve range and accuracy in their airsoft guns. It was during this time that the hop-up system that is common in modern airsoft guns was developed.

TM AEG Gear box and its inner workings
TM AEG Gear box and its inner workings

Fuel to the Fire

Many of the original fans of airsoft were young males who, for the first time, could replicate their favourite action heroes in a more realistic way. Other influences such as pop culture, strategy games and, of course, military history played their part in the development of this new game. This led to different variations, or game modes, being thought up to incorporate a more strategical element.

There are those out there who say that the acceptance of airsoft was fuelled by the popularity of paintballing. While this may be true in some instances, airsoft is seen as more of a strategical form of gaming in comparison to paintballing; which isn’t to say that paintballing isn’t hell of a lot of fun! It is just that airsoft can offer a more realistic military simulation experience, which is probably why it is used in military and police training, and in the rehabilitation of soldiers suffering from PTSD.

Airsoft continues to grow in popularity as mentioned earlier and has formed quite a large and tight-nit community. Thanks to the internet, forums, discussions, influences and social media, these outlets are all used by fans to organize new events and just share their common love and passion for the sport. Airsoft guns have also continued to develop and become more sophisticated. Gone are the days where they were seen as mere replica toys; they’re so much more than that, and with airsoft showing no signs of slowing down anytime soon, expect to see the sport continuing grow in strength for years to come. 

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