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Both airsoft guns and BB guns fall under the air gun category. Airsoft guns even fires BB's, too. Because the similarity, there are quite a bit of confusion for newcomers. There are drastic differences between the two. And it can be quite dangerous, or even deadly, to mix the two.
This article makes clear distinction between airsoft guns and BB guns. For the purpose of this article, when we say BB guns, we also mean pellet guns, because many of them can shoot BB's. This article presents facts with side-by-side comparison between the two sports, so that you have clear understanding and can make informed decisions.
The intention of airsoft guns is to allow people to reenact battles and war. The plastic BB's do not injure humans with the right protective gear. Similar to paintball, football, basketball, etc., airsoft is a skill-based sport that involves team competitive play. You can also use airsoft guns to plink in the backyard for fun.
BB guns are primarily used for plinking in the backyard or hunting small animals. The metal projectiles travels at sufficient velocity to penetrate skin. You cannot use BB guns on another person because you will seriously hurt or kill that person.
Airsoft gun (photo on the left) resemble real guns. BB gun (photo on the right) also resembles real guns. Their similarity to real firearms causes some of the confusion between firearms and air guns.
Airsoft guns have orange tips, because federal laws mandate such indication on replica firearms for business commerce. Individuals may remove the orange tip after purchase, depending on local law. Most airsoft guns are replica firearms, because they fire plastic BB's. It is unlikely to kill or seriously injure someone with plastic BB's, but minor injuries may occur when used in unsafe conditions. Newcomers tends to refer airsoft guns as BB guns, adding to the confusion.
BB guns do not have orange tips, because, frankly, they are real guns; metal BB's can injure and even kill people. In fact, BB guns are used for hunting small games. It is just that BB guns propel BB's by air, rather than combustion in real firearms.
The photo on the left shows an airsoft pistol. The photo on the right shows a BB pistol. Both types of pistols resemble real firearms. The airsoft version has an orange tip, which is not required on a BB pistol. See previous section for more details.
Airsoft BB's (in the left photo) are usually 6mm in size, composed of hard plastic, and weights around 0.2 grams. There are biodegradable BB's that are more friendly to the environment. A pack of 5000 BB's costs around $15.
BB gun can use two types of ammunition: metal BB's (middle photo) and metal pellets (right photo). The metal BB's are 0.177 inches (4.5 mm) in diameter. A pack of 6000 metal BB's costs around $6. A pack of 500 metal pellets costs around $7.
Airsoft BB's are slightly larger than metal BB's and metal pellets. But the metal projectiles are heavier. All three types of ammunition are one time use items.
Most competitive airsoft guns shoot between 300 to 500 feet-per-second (FPS). That translates to an effective engagement distance of 100 to 200 feet. Some airsoft sniper gun can hit 350 feet accurately.
BB guns can shoot projectiles as fast as 1250 FPS. That is as fast as real handguns. Most BB guns fall in the range of 275 FPS to 1000 FPS. "The maximum range of a BB gun in the 400 to 600 ft/s (120 to 180 m/s) range is 240 to 350 yards (220 to 320 m), provided the muzzle is elevated to the optimum angle." - Wikipedia
Airsoft BB's are dangerous to soft tissues. Therefore, to play airsoft safely, you have to wear impact resistant goggles and facemask. On bare skin, airsoft BB's will sting and cause welts. Airsoft BB's are not safe to use inside a house. The BB's may penetrate or recochet off the walls. They will shatter glass and ceramic.
Metal BB's and metal pellets are extremely dangerous to soft and hard objects. Therefore, the same caution applied to firearms should be applied to BB guns as well. Like real firearms, you should wear shooting glasses.
Airsoft guns uses three types of propellant. The spring version does not use any consumables, other than the plastic 6mm BB's. You manually cock the spring back to shoot the BB's. The electric version uses rechargeable batteries. The gas version uses some form of gas.
BB guns uses two types of propellants: pneumatic pump or gas. The pneumatic pump does not use any consumables, other than the ammunition. Instead, you manually pump the pressure to fire the ammunition. The gas version uses prepackaged, compressed gas. The gas version allows you to rapid fire.
In addition to the ammunition being consumables, a gas airsoft gun could potentially use all sorts of gas: green gas, red gas, propane, CO2, and compressed air. The gas has to be replenished at every game.
The airsoft electric gun (AEG) uses rechargeable batteries. Rechargeable batteries allows you to power your airsoft gun over and over, without having to worry about the recurring cost. Sure, batteries will have to be eventually replaced, but the cost is far lower than having to pay for gas at every game session.
The gas version of BB guns uses CO2 to fire the projectiles. The CO2 comes in cartridges that are commonly available in sporting goods stores. Because BB guns are generally not used in a competitive sport, you can change CO2 cartridges at your own pace; usually when it is depleted.