Both airsoft guns and high-velocity air rifles are hot right now, each for different reasons.
Airsoft is a whole lot of fun to play with friends — rather than plinking at cans, you can take aim at your friends instead. Air rifles and pistols are more efficient than ever, and a lot of people are turning to them for hunting or survival.
But really, what are the differences between the two?
As a sport, airsoft became popular because it’s fast-paced and fun, with less gear and mess than paintball. It offers players the same strategic challenge and excitement without a lot of the expense.
A lot of airsoft guns are built to look like firearms but the resemblance is only skin deep. As you’ll find out, airsoft guns are built for safety, not performance.
On the other hand, air rifles have been popular for a hundred years or more. But it’s only lately that they’ve been able to deliver serious power. Instead of plinking at cans like a Daisy from the 1950’s, today’s air rifles are lethal.
If you’re an enthusiast with a big budget, you can find airguns that will take down a deer.
In general, there’s one big difference between air rifles and airsoft guns, and that’s energy.
Air rifles and pistols generate higher muzzle energy by using more propellent per shot, longer barrels, and heavier ammunition. A few small changes on the same basic design makes the difference between a lethal weapon and a fun toy.
Hardware and Barrel
Airsoft guns use more plastic than airguns do, and they tend to have shorter barrels. Weight and cost are bigger factors with airsoft guns than they are with air rifles.
Airsoft guns also use lower chamber pressures, since they don’t shoot as hard. Longer barrels are only helpful if the projectile is moving pretty fast. Otherwise, they just create drag.
Airguns are just about the complete opposite. Cost is less of a concern since people typically only own one air rifle. Airsoft is much more collectible, but I’m sure there are plenty of airgun enthusiasts who’ll argue with me.
Airguns cost more but they use better hardware and longer barrels. You can find airsoft guns that are entirely made out of metal, but you have to look for them.
That’s just not the case with airguns, where plastic parts are usually limited to trim. Also, higher operating pressures mean that you’ll see airguns with 18” barrels — airsoft tops out at around 12”.
Power and Range
I won’t get too deep into the math, but your average gas-powered airsoft gun shoots a 0.20 gram BB at 375 FPS. That translates to about 1 foot-pound of force, or 1.31 joules.
Airguns can easily run a 0.50 gram projectile at 1,000 FPS, yielding an energy of roughly 17 foot-pounds or 23 joules.
Airguns have the upper hand when it comes to power and range.
Like I mentioned, they’re operating at much higher pressures. Typically twice what airsoft guns are running. Combined with heavier ammunition, that means airguns have much higher power and range.
It’s not a stretch to say that, at any given range, airguns are 17 times more powerful than airsoft guns. And those numbers are for a low-end air rifle. The difference is even more dramatic if you step it up to .22 caliber pellets.
Naturally, with so much more energy behind every shot, air rifles have a much longer maximum range than airsoft guns. Expect your average airsoft rifle to be decently accurate out to 20 yards, while airguns can be deadly at 50 yards and accurate out to 150.
Airsoft guns are really pretty accurate for what they are, but you have to consider the facts. These guns don’t use rifling so they don’t impart spin to their ammunition.
You’ll also find that they tend to have shorter barrels than airguns. Barrel length has less of an impact on accuracy than some people think, but it’s still a factor.
On the other hand, airguns are surprisingly accurate. Shooters can get sub-MOA groupings from high-end air rifles. Their barrels are rifled, and pellets spin in flight just like bullets shot from a firearm.
Airgun barrels are even available with polygonal rifling, which creates a better gas seal and deforms the skirt of each pellet less, increasing accuracy even more. If you shop around, you can find the same sort of specialized barrels for sniper rifles.
The cheapest airgun around shoots straighter than the most expensive airsoft gun. Some people may think that statement’s controversial but it’s absolutely true. Barrel rifling is such a huge advantage that it should really go without saying.
You’ve got your pick between BBs and dozens of different types of pellets. But in general, all airgun ammo has a few things in common.
Steel BBs and lead pellets all weigh around 5 grains, while airsoft BBs weigh about half as much. Even if you put aside pellets — which travel faster and hit harder — to compare apples to apples, airgun ammo carries at least twice as much energy.
That’s not to say that all airsoft ammunition is inferior, though. There are ceramic BBs designed for airsoft guns that weigh a bit more and shoot a bit straighter.
But the upper limit is safety. And at the end of the day, airsoft guns need to use lightweight ammunition in order to make sure nobody gets hurt.
That said, airgun ammo comes in a lot more types and styles than airsoft ammunition does. There are pellets in every shape and weight, all built for different applications. You can even find hollow point pellets that expand on impact, just like their bigger cousins.
Whether you’re shooting for distance, taking down a small game or just plinking at cans, there’s an optimum pellet for your situation and airgun.
It sounds a little ridiculous, but the biggest contrast between the two is that airsoft guns should only be pointed at other people and airguns never should be.
All of the safety testing and research means that airsoft guns are built to sting, not wound. It’s cruel to take a shot at a bird or squirrel with one.
Their lightweight plastic ammunition might leave a welt. But if you’re wearing safety gear it won’t seriously hurt anyone.
Airguns, on the other hand, are perfectly capable of taking down small game. They shoot flat and accurate; using high-velocity, small-caliber rounds. Ballistically, air rifles have more in common with a .22 than they do an airsoft gun.