What’s the Difference Between an Airgun and Airsoft?

My son is a bit gun crazy. My wife would rather he wasn’t. But I was when I was a kid. The difference between then and now is that there’s so much more choice of guns! Not only can you have a replica, but you have some fantastic Nerf guns, Airsoft guns and of course Airguns. He owns over a hundred Nerf guns and I know, that’s crazy. We kind of skipped the airsoft bit and went straight to airguns, but what is the difference between airsoft guns and airguns?

The difference between airsoft guns and airguns is primarily that airguns deliver a more massive projectile at a higher velocity over a greater distance.

The Basics

What is Airsoft?

An airsoft gun is a real-looking weapon that can be used for sport. They have quite a low power output and shoot non-metallic balls bearings (BBs) through a smooth bore. These BBs are usually made of plastic, but some other materials can be used. They are considered generally safe for use by the general public, assuming protective gear is worn.

Although airsoft guns can be made to look like real weapons they are always identified by an orange tip which is a requirement in most areas. It is not possible to modify an airsoft gun to shoot lethal ammunition.

What is an Airgun?

An airgun is also a real-looking weapon that can be used for sport and recreational use. They have a lower power-output than lethal weapons but a higher output than airsoft guns. Airguns have been around for over 500 years, it is not a new invention. 

An airgun typically fires pellets or BBs using compressed air (or carbon dioxide) that is pressurised without a chemical reaction, this is one way that airguns differ from firearms.

What Age Can You Own and Use Them?

Airsoft

This is not a question that can be answered easily as it depends totally on where you are. Looking at the US though, you need to be 18 years of age to purchase an airsoft gun although again, this depends on where you are as laws vary between states. Note that an airsoft gun is considered a replica gun. I mentioned the laws vary, for instance:

  • New York City – all guns that are made to look like the real thing must be marked clearly with a bright colour on the muzzle. 
  • Chicago – Replica guns are illegal
  • Washington DC – Replica guns are illegal
  • Arkansas – Airsoft guns cannot be sold or transported without the orange tip. If the gun is translucent or clear though, it can.

So, you can see how complicated the laws can be. Generally, in the US you need to be over 18 to purchase an airsoft gun however a person of any age can use one, assuming they have permission from their parents (if they’re under 18).

Airguns

Unsurprisingly, the laws on airguns are about as straightforward as those for an airsoft gun (somewhat complex). Looking at the US again, the laws vary depending what state you’re in, some examples:

  • California – Can’t be sold to people under 18. You can use one if you’re younger as long as you have your parent’s permission.
  • Arizona – no laws relating to non-powder guns
  • Washington – No regulation on non-powder guns

Legal Comparison Summary

So, as you can see from the above. The laws relating to either airsoft or airguns is far from clear. It’s difficult to get definitive information and the laws seem somewhat fluid. This is a good resource site that you can look at if you’d like a bit more detail (opens in a new tab).

Personally, I would have a chat to your local police department regarding your local laws. Not only can they vary between countries. Within the United States they vary between states and also between cities. It’s excrutiatingly frustrating!

What Ammunition Do They Use?

Airsoft

Although both airsoft and airguns use BBs, they are not the same. Airsoft BBs are 6mm in diameter (with one exception) and they’re a lot softer than the type used in airguns. They are usually made out of plastic and can come in different weights. Other materials are used though, such as:

  • 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.

As the vast majority of BBs are 6mm in diameter, the different weights are dictated by the material that is used. The lightest is around 0.12g, then you’ll typically find them at 0.20g, 0.25g, 0.28g up to about 0.40g. The most common are 0.12g and 0.20g though.

One final note here, you can get BBs that are 8mm in diameter but these are used in the less-common gas-powered airsoft shotguns that command a higher velocity.

Airguns

The most populat type of ammunition for an airgun is the pellet, however they are also capable (depending on the airgun) of firing BBs, darts and arrows.

The pellet is typically constructed of lead but can also be made from tin or even a combinations of metals sucg as steel or even gold alloys. There are two main parts to the pellet, the solid bit at the front known as the ‘head’ (this is where all the mass is) and is also the bit that can vary in shape, depending on what type of pellet you have. Then, there’s the skirt at the back which provides some stabalisation.

Pellets come in different calibers, the most common being:

  • .177 (4.5 mm) – perfect for shooting up to about 10m but is capable of much further distances than this.
  • .22 (5.5 mm) – also possible for general use but common in hunting.

Other calibers are used, up to .30 caliber for the traditional airgun but up to .57 caliber for higher powered (what’s known as PCP) airguns.

The BB is slightly smaller than its airsoft counterpart, being 4.5mm in diameter. They are typically metallic and made of steel (with a zinc or copper coating).

Ammunition Comparison Summary

Airsoft ammunition uses weight (or even grain) as its standard unit (for instance 0.20 grams) however airguns typically use inches (for instance 0.177 caliber is 0.177 inches). Each gun type has a variety of different calibers that can be used and both have a good variety of ammunition type.

How Do They Work?

Airsoft

Similar to airguns, there are a few varieties of airsoft gun that can be used:

  • Spring-Powered – these are single-fire guns that use a spring to push a piston air pump forward, which in-turn pressurises air within a pump cylinder. This air will then shoot the BB (or other projectiles) from the barrel. The spring must initially be compressed by the shooter, which is typically a bolt handle (with rifles) or a pump (for a shotgun). Spring-powered airsoft guns are not as powerful as the gas-powered variety but more so than the electric ones. These spring-powered airsoft guns are also categorised as ‘mechanical’.
  • Battery-Powered – these airsoft guns also use a spring-piston delivery mechanism but use a battery to transmit power to the motor which will automatically compress the spring for you. This gives the gun the ability of a semi-automatic mode, something the spring-powered variety can never offer. Note, there are several different flavours of battery-powered airsoft guns from these automatic ones down to lower powered models.
  • Gas-Powered – also known as the ‘pneumatics’ – they use energy that is stored within compressed gas to drive the bullet out of the barrel. Within this gas-powered group, there are some sub-varieties. The most common being the gas-blowback guns. These will have a canister that’s usually contained within the magazine which stores the compressed gas. Upon pulling the trigger, a tiny amount of this gas is released. This system also uses the gas to load the next shot and create a feeling not dissimilar to recoil. Unlike some types of air-rifle, CO2 is not typically used as this gas. Airsoft gas-powered guns use what’s known as a green-gas (this is basically propane mixed with silicon oil).
  • Hybrid – these are a new type of airsoft gun that are basically modified versions of the Automatic Electric Gun’s (AEGs) or similar to the Gas-Powered type. Both these types involve loading the BBs into a shell case. The AEG has an electrically powered blowback system and causes the shell case to be expelled after each round is shot. The gas blowback type uses a tank which contains compressed gas for the propellant and is a method to accommodate multi-fire capability. Note that neither of these is particularly common currently. 

Airguns

Airguns can be powered a number of different ways, some are similar to airsoft:

  • Spring-Piston – A spring is used to drive a piston forward and compresses the air in front of it. This compressed air overcomes the resistance of the pellet within the breech and forces it down the barrel and on to your target.
  • Gas-Ram – this works in the same way as the spring-piston powerplant, but without the spring. Here, the spring is replaced with a sealed gas unit and instead of the spring pushing the piston forward, compressed gas does the job.
  • CO2 – These carbon dioxide powered rifles are powered by either a 12g or an 88g canister, inserted within the weapon somewhere. It is the compressed gas that drives the pellet out of the gun with this rather than a piston.
  • PCP – Pre-Charged Pneumatic guns are quite similar to the above CO2 guns. The gas is stored in a reservoir and then released when the trigger is pulled. However, PCP guns don’t have a canister inserted into the gun, they are either manually fed the air by a pump or a scuba tank is used to fill it to the correct pressure. 

Gun-Type Summary

There are a lot of similarities between a spring-piston airgun and a spring-powered airsoft gun. Most of the difference comes when we start looking at CO2 delivery and the higher-pressurised PCP airguns that are able to deliver a far greater punch than an airsoft gun.

How Much Power Do They Have?

Airsoft

Airsoft guns are designed to have a lower muzzle velocity than airguns. This might not mean much to everyone but the usually deliver less than about 1.1 ft/lb. The projectiles used also have less mass to them, so less penetrative power than your average airgun.

The Muzzle velocities are usually in the range of 200 to 390 fps
(feet per second) for the automatic electric airsoft guns and between 390 to 560 fps for the single-shot spring-powered guns.

They can typically shoot up to a range of around 110 yards (100 m) but this is a high-quality example and is not common. Typically, most of the airsoft guns will only have a range of around 55 yards (50 m). 

Airguns

The power of an airgun varies depending on a lot of different things. The power-unit of the gun (spring-piston, PCP, CO2 etc.), the caliber of the pellet (.177, .22 etc.) and the type of pellet used primarily. 

You will see much higher numbers for power deliver than airsoft guns. For instance, there are many .177 rifles that deliver 20 ft/lbs. Similarly, some .22 rifles are capable of 25 ft/lb and if you’re looking at the higher caliber rifles, for instance, the .25 cal weapon then you could be seeing a somewhat scary 38 ft/lb. This kind of stopping power will stop large mammals, quickly.

Regarding the speed of the pellet as it leaves the muzzle? Well, this can vary tremendously but a few are known to be able to shoot at around 1400 fps. How fast is that? Well, that’s around 955 mph. After shooting something out of your rifle at this speed you will hear a second crack. This crack is the pellet breaking the speed of sound (which is around 750 mph depending on temperature).

As for distance, well an airgun pellet will certainly travel a lot further than an airsoft BB. With so many variables involved it’s difficult to get a definitive number but we’re probably looking at around half a mile. Of course, it depends on what type of gun you’re shooting. If you’re using a little .177 pistol then 50 feet might be pushing it!

Power Comparison Summary

There’s no doubt about this one, an airgun is able to deliver a lot more power than an airsoft gun at much higer velocities.

How Dangerous Are They?

Airsoft

There’s no question that airsoft guns are not as dangerous as airguns. However, as I mentioned above an airsoft BB can leave the barrel at (on average) around 300 feet per second. Let’s think about that. How fast is 300 fps? Well, it’s just over 200mph! Would you really fancy being hit by anything travelling at that speed?

Of course, the velocity of the BB isn’t the full picture. The construction of the BB means that they have an elastic property that will disipate a lot of the energy on contact. Also, due to the aerodynamics of the BB (or the lack of it) the velocity curve drops rapidly from the point it leaves the barrel. 

It’s very rare that a direct hit will break someone’s skin and the unfortunate recipient will be left with a scratch or bruise. This is assuming that the standard BBs have been used and not the harder ceramic variety that can not be used outside of target shooting.

The biggest risk is when hit in the eye. Yes, goggles are mandatory at events and should always be worn but sometimes people don’t or just plain forget. A hit to the eye could cause permanent blindness. Then again, the same could be said if someone pokes you in the eye (just for perspective).

Airguns

Airguns can be very dangerous if not used correctly and safely. Proper safety glasses should be worn at all times. I actually wrote an article purely on airgun safety, you can check it out here if you like (opens in a new tab).

Children should always be supervised at all times and it is unfortunate to have to say that there have been fatal airgun accidents. The rule should always be to ensure safety first, fun second. Without the first, the second is impossible in my book! 

I’m not going to bang on about how to stay safe with an airgun, the information is all out there. However, it’s probably obvious by now that airguns are not as safe as airsoft guns.

Safety Comparison

Although you can still do some damage using an airsoft gun (particularly with eye-related injuries) it is rare that a serious incident will occur. However, with airguns can be dangerous due to the more massive projectile being delivered at much higher velocities.

Comparison Graph

AirsoftAirgun
Power DeliverySpring/Battery/Gas/HybridSpring/Gas-Ram/CO2/PCP
Ammo TypeBBsPellets / BBs
Weight / Caliber0.20-0.40 g0.177-0.57 inch
Muzzle Velocity200-560 fps>1400 fps
Power Output< 1.1 ft / lb> 38 ft / lb
Danger Rating4/108/10

Related…

If you’re also interested in what the difference is beween a BB gun an an airsoft gun, then check out the article here.

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:

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