The hobby of collecting realistic, non-lethal, shooting replicas of actual firearms either for display or for the purposes of skirmishing in friendly competition.
The sport of Airsoft started in Japan during the early 1980s. It was illegal to own firearms in Japan but there was a significant interest in them, so a company started producing spring-powered replicas of firearms that fired 6mm, plastic BBs. There are some people who insist that Airsoft originated from the early days of paintball, when there were paintball guns that fired .22 caliber paintballs, but we will not delve into that subject. During the latter part of the 1980s the sport migrated to neighboring countries such as Hong Kong, Korea, Taiwan, and the Philippines. Airsoft started appearing in North America and Europe during the middle of the 1990s but it is only during the last 2-3 years that the sport started thriving in these venues.
This is essentially what attracts players into the sport. Airsoft guns are 1:1 scale replicas of actual firearms that fire 6mm, round, plastic pellets commonly called as "BBs" which are propelled out of the guns by compressed air. In most cases, Airsoft guns mimic the looks and functionality of it's real-steel counterpart. By that, I mean Airsoft guns look, feel, weigh, and functions similar to the actual firearm. Often, the only way you can tell apart a "real steel" firearm and an airsoft gun is when you pull that trigger.
There are 3 major types of Airsoft guns: Automatic Electric Guns (AEGs), Gas-Powered, and Spring-Powered.
The most popular of the 3 types is the Automatic Electric Gun. The creation of the AEG is partly responsible for Airsoft's "boom" during the late 1990s. Basically, an AEG is powered by an on-board Ni-Cad battery (similar to hobby R/C Cars), which operates a motor that turns gears inside the gun to compress and release a piston, which in turn creates the blast of air needed to propel the 6mm BB through the barrel of the gun.
This system allows the gun to efficiently generate the power needed to support the fully-automatic features of most AEGs and the result is a realistic Rate-Of-Fire (ROF) of anywhere from 600 - 900 Rounds-Per-Minute (RPM), once again mimicking the capabilities of real steel firearms. This is the airsoft gun of choice for most skirmish veterans. The reigning king of the AEG manufacturers is, undisputedly, Tokyo Marui of Japan, due to it's high-quality construction and an immense number of after-market support and upgrades for it's guns. Though, at an average price of $300 for an AEG, it is far from being cheap, but is worth every penny that you invest on it.
Another popular type of an Airsoft gun is the gas-powered. While there are several types of gas-powered airsoft guns, the most popular are the Gas-Blowback guns (GBBs). The GBB allows a realistic, semi-automatic firing of the gun by employing either an on-board, or magazine-stored gas storage system. Basically, the same compressed air that propels the BB out of the bore is harnessed to cycle the slide back (hence: blowback). This creates the realistic "recoil" by cycling the slide/upper receiver back-and-forth while firing the gun. This system gives the hand-held gun the capability to empty a magazine as fast as you can pull the trigger, and just as easily reload the gun by inserting a fresh magazine. Needless to say, this feature holds tremendous appeal for the "simulationist".
And finally the spring-powered Airsoft gun. Spring-cocking guns are true to their name in that you cock the spring first, and then fire. Cock spring, fire, cock, fire, cock, fire, etc. These guns are usually magazine fed and semi-automatic, but they must be hand-cocked after every shot. This system is very cost-effective, and the guns are surprisingly sturdy. Every Airsofter, in his lifetime, has owned at least one spring-powered gun, either a pistol or a rifle. Due to it's relatively cheap price-range, this is usually the gun of choice for the person just starting to play airsoft. A spring-powered handgun can be purchased for as little as $20.
Airsoft gives people the ability to own a shooting version of their dream gun. Due to the law and the cost, people cannot always own their dream gun, and Airsoft provides you with a realistic replica, and on top of that allows you to be able to shoot that replica (albeit: non-lethal).
Often, people would watch movies and TV and say, "Wow, that gun is awesome, I'd like to get me one of those". Actually, what you may be seeing in those movies and TV shows, ARE, in fact, Airsoft guns. Due to their relatively cheap price tags and precise realism, movie studios often employ Airsoft guns for it's production work. They simply digitally alter the images to incorporate the muzzle flash, sound and effects to mimic the real firearms.
Generally speaking, most of the more popular real-steel firearms has an Airsoft gun counterpart. The Heckler & Koch MP5 series, to include MP5A4, MP5 SD5, MP5 PDW. The venerable H&K G3 Battle Rifle series. Colt M16s. Steyr AUGs. SIG 550s. FAMAS. AK-47s. Machine Guns like the M60. Sub-machine guns such as the IMI Uzis and Ingrams. Pistols such as the famed Berettas, Colts, SIGs, and Glocks. Shotguns such as the Benelli M2 and Remington 870. Sniping rifles such as the PSG-1, M40A1, Blaser 93R. Even the "Hollywood" guns like the RoboCop auto-pistol and the M134 Vulcan (6-barrel gatling gun) made famous by the Predator and Terminator movies. The list of Airsoft guns is quite sizeable, and growing with each passing month.
The ability to own and play with these "dreamguns" are in and of itself appealing enough to enthusiasts. The added advantage of being able to take these guns out to a local playing field and "shooting" your best friends with it in friendly competition is a cincher.
Another appeal with Airsoft is the ability to "role-play" with them. There are countless clubs, teams and organizations devoted to the sport of "waging war" with airsoft guns. Known throughout the world as Skirmishing. In essence, role-playing allows people to fulfill their fantasies, which (due to physical disabilities or circumstances) they never got the chance to. These people may be bankers, insurance brokers, secretaries, students, computer programmers by profession, but for 1 day a week they can be Green Berets, Assassins, SWAT members, Navy SEALs, whatever. Their mind is the only limit. This role-playing ability is enhanced by the fact that Airsoft guns are extremely realistic. I mean, after all, it's rather difficult to play the part of a Navy SEAL when you're holding a neon, orange-yellow-colored, Super-Soaker squirt gun.
Unfortunately, Airsoft's most appealing feature is also it's most controversial aspect. Needless to say, there are people out there who are against any hobby that, in their words, "glorify violence". We are sensitive to that fact and as a result, Airsoft became more of an insider sport. Information about Airsoft is readily available on the internet but that is only if people know what they are looking for.
Airsoft will never be a sport that can be made palatable to the mass-media. Regardless of how mature airsofters are, we will always be portrayed as gun-wielding psychopaths to those who are uninitiated. Paintball initially began to cater to those weekend warriors who enjoyed sneaking around the outdoors in friendly competition. However, in order to make the sport acceptable to the general public, it became commercialized. Thus, paintball went "mainstream", sporting neon "camouflage", football cleats, paintguns that cost up to $1200 stock, and became more of an arena-based, spectator sport. In doing so, it alienated a lot of people who were more into the military-simulation aspect of the sport. Those people eventually turned to Airsoft.
Thankfully, partly because of our anonymity, airsoft has continued to thrive in North America without the general public's knowledge. This is not to say that airsofting is an illegal hobby, as owning and skirmishing with these guns is perfectly legal in most states. It's just that due to the nature of our sport, we must be discreet about it. The relatively high-cost of these guns discourages minors from purchasing them, and our anonymity limits the number of unstable people from knowing about it.
Airsoft is a thriving hobby supported by law-abiding enthusiasts. It will continue to grow, and it will strive to maintain it's anonymity. Those who are fortunate enough to participate in a well-organized skirmish will be quickly impressed by the quality and maturity of the players, and, more often than not, becomes hooked in the game. The camaraderie that can be found amongst airsofters can not be found in any other sport.