What’s The Difference Between a BB Gun and an Airsoft Gun?

I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve been asked this. It’s actually an important question for a parent to answer as there are some significant differences between a BB gun and an Airsoft gun. If you make an ill-informed choice then are you providing your child with a dangerous weapon? Or should neither of them be regarded in this manner? Are there any legal differences between the two?

The difference between an airsoft gun and a BB gun is primarily in their designed purpose and the ammunition that they use. An airsoft gun uses spherical plastic projectiles whilst a BB gun uses spherical metallic projectiles. Find out more about other differences below.

What is a BB Gun?

A BB gun is a type of airgun that shoots projectiles that are usually made of steel. A BB gun is usually powered either by an internal spring-piston or via a carbon dioxide (CO2) canister that is inserted into the gun. Its primary purpose is for recreational shooting such as plinking (shooting tin cans in the backyard etc.) and short-range target shooting. It should not be used for hunting nor to shoot at other people.

What is an Airsoft Gun?

An Airsoft gun is a replica weapon that shoots nonmetalic spherical projectiles (also, rather confusingly sometimes referred to as BBs). Similar to a BB gun they can be powered by a spring-piston or compressed gas. They can also be battery powered, this power is used to compress the internal spring, so you don’t have to. The Airsoft gun’s primary purpose is for recreational competitive shooting (at other people) and for backyard plinking. It can not be used for long-distance shooting or hunting.

What are the physical differences between them?

Airsoft guns are designed to look like real weapons, however, they all have an orange tip on the muzzle which sets them apart in this regard. An airsoft gun may also be constructed from plastic. A BB gun does not have any such tell-tale muzzle tip and will not be made from plastic. It should be noted that this coloured muzzle on an airsoft gun can vary, depending on where you live. 

How does the ammunition differ?

The ammunition type is one area where these types of gun vary quite a bit. Let’s look at Airsoft ammo for a second. 

Airsoft Ammunition

The ammunition in Airsoft guns are most typically 6mm in diameter and are nonmetalic so they are a lot softer than the ammunition used in a BB gun. They are usually made out of plastic and can come in different weights. It should be noted though that they can use other materials:

  • Metallic – these (typically aluminium) BBs are heavier than the standard pellet and can cause an injury on impact. Some people like them as they are considered more accurate as they are less affected by the wind (due to their increased mass) than others.
  • Synthetic materials that are more environmentally friendly than the standard plastic. In many outdoor events, these type of pellets are mandatory for use when sweeping isn’t possible.
  • ‘Tracer’ style –  BBs that glow in the dark. These are used with a device that ‘charges’ them before being expelled. Basically, it shines a bright light on them whilst they are still in the gun.
  • Paintball BBs – used in some adapted airsoft guns and are similar to those used in the proper paintball guns. 
  • Markers – these pellets will leave a coloured mark where they strike and are made from silica.
  • Ceramic – designed for target shooting as these, rather expensive BBs can penetrate safety equipment.

BB Gun Ammuntion

The ammunition used in a BB gun is different from that used in an Airsoft gun. Typically, the BBs are made of steel which is plated in either copper or zinc which helps to prevent corrosion. They typically measure around 0.172 inches in diameter (about 4.3 mm) and are around 0.34 g in weight. Sometimes you will see heavier lead balls being used which are a bit heavier than this.

What velocity do they both shoot at?

An Airsoft gun shoots at a lower velocity than a BB gun. Let’s look at BB guns in a bit more details. Firstly, remember the BB gun uses an ammunition that is heavier than an Airsoft plastic projectile. As it’s heavier it should leave the barrel slower, right? Well, yes – this would be true if both types of gun delivered the round with the same power. However, they don’t deliver with the same power! A BB gun typically shoots at somewhere between 390 to 590 Feet Per Second (FPS).  How fast is that exactly? Well, that upper limit is around 400 mph! Speedy, right?

So, let’s now compare this with an Airsoft gun. This will shoot from around 200 FPS to an upper limit of 410 FPS. As you can see, an Airsoft will shoot a softer pellet at a lower power than a BB gun.

What harm can they both do?

They can both do harm, for sure. But you can probably gather from the information you now have that a BB gun has the capability of doing more damage than an Airsoft gun.

Assuming a BB gun has been shot with an FPS velocity of around 500 FPS, then if you’re anywhere within 60 feet and were struck by a BB it could penetrate your skin. The maximum range of a BB gun is around 300 yards, approximately, but this depends on a lot of variables such as the type of ammunition, power plant used and of course weather conditions.

An Airsoft gun will only shoot up to around 100 yards but usually, it will be a lot less than this. Also, not only that but the airsoft ammunition is not made of metal! 

Another thing to remember. Airsoft sports are all about shooting at each other. You’re meant to aim at someone and hit them! Obviously, you’re wearing protective clothing but this is the whole point, right? With a BB gun, you are absolutely not meant to be firing at someone, ever.

Can Either Gun be Fatal?

It is unlikely that either gun will inflict a fatal injury. However, a BB gun shooting at a high muzzle velocity (500 FPS or more) at close range, wouldn’t have a great outcome. Another factor why fatalities are rare (at least rarer than an airgun) is the fact that the projectiles are spheres and are unlikely to penetrate as much as pointed pellets, for instance.

Eye injuries are possible though, easily, and with either type of gun. I touch on safety in a bit but special care must be taken with protecting eyes, at all ranges.

Do the same safety rules apply to both?

The safety requirements differ for both. This is primarily because in Airsoft you are shooting at each other (most of the time) so the object is to hit someone. With a BB gun, typically you will be shooting at targets but most definitely not at each other.

With Airsoft, you should wear protective clothing that covers any exposed areas, particular your head and eyes.

With a BB gun, eye protection should be worn at all times. This goes not only for the shooter but for anyone in the same area. Typically, eye protection is the only safety gear worn – primarily as the BB shooter is not shooting at another individual. 

How do they differ in price?

Both types of gun vary in price widely however you’ll be able to find a cheaper airsoft pistol than you will a BB gun. So, although the airsoft guns start at a cheaper price, you can really pay anything up to around $1000 if you really wanted to go silly. 

What legal restrictions do they both have?

Now, I’ve tried to answer this question before and it’s difficult. But why is that? Surely it should be black and white, a minimum age to firstly buy and then secondly to use each type of gun is all we’re after. I have no idea why everyone has made it so complex but it is. The problem is, it depends on where you live. I don’t mean just the country, but if you’re in the US then the State. Not also just the state, but the City. They can all have different rules and regulations and it drives me bonkers. 

Let’s take Minnesota, the latest Airsoft gun laws appear to state that it is illegal for any child under the age of 14 to use. In Chicago, all replica guns are illegal (that includes airsoft). In Texas, you can buy them but can only use them outside the city limits. In the UK, you have to be over 18 to purchase and there is no minimum age for airsoft guns but adult supervision is recommended.

So, you see – there’s no one answer that covers everywhere. If you’re lucky enough to have an airsoft or BB gun store nearby, have a word with them as to the laws – it would be so much easier.

Summary – Table of Differences

AirsoftBB Gun
Primary UseRecreational Competitive people-vs-people shooting.Recreational plinking and short-range targets.
Physical FeaturesReplica gun with typically an orange tip to its muzzle.No features to distinguish it from a real firearm.
PowerLowMedium
DistanceLowMedium
Can They Injur?Typically no if protective clothing is worn. High risk of eye damage if hit.Yes, if shot from close range – skin penetration is possible. Eye injury a certainty if hit from near to medium range.
PriceStarting very low, goes up to high (around $800)Doesn’t start as cheap as an Airsoft but still won’t break the bank. Wide price variation.

Final Thoughts

So, there you have it. There’s actually quite a few differences between an airsoft gun and a BB gun. Totally depends on what you want to do with the thing. If it’s getting together with a group of friends in a wood then maybe Airsoft is the way to go. If, however, you’re more interested in knocking down tin cans, then perpahs a BB gun would be best for you.

If you’re after a BB gun, by the way, I can definitely recommend a couple. Check out my article here (opens in a new tab) to find out which one I’d suggest you look at first.

Finally, if you’re also interested in the differences between an airgun and an airsoft gun, then take a look here.

Interested In Buying Something New?

If you’re in the market for a new gun, be it a BB, Air Rifle or Pistol, check out my totally unbiased reviews on what’s best out there right now. These have all been tried and tested so you don’t have to worry about buying something that isn’t up to the job: