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Airsoft at IWA 2012

Airsoft at IWA 2012

At IWA the Airsoft section has become increasingly integrated into the military/law enforcement side of the show, with the result that booths displaying real-steel firearms and airsoft replicas now rub shoulders. It is becoming increasingly hard to tell one from the other too, thanks to ever-greater authenticity and a proliferation of trade licensing agreements between airsoft manufacturers and firms such as FN, Heckler & Koch, LMT, Sig Sauer, U.S. Ordnance, to name but a few, as well as accessory makers such as CAA, Magpul, and Yankee Hill Machine. Even Mikhail Kalashnikov is at last getting to cash in on his designs, lending his image and signature not just to airsoft replicas and GCG’s .22LR guns, but also to knives, and most recently to vodka (available in regular bottles or as a limited-edition set featuring an AK74-shaped flask nestled in a wooden imitation weapon crate!)

Are You For Real?

Leading the pursuers of authenticity are companies such as Systema, who market their wares exclusively to the Mil/LE sector as an inexpensive yet effective alternative to Simunitions and paintball systems for force-on-force training. Consequently, Systema’s guns are exact 1:1 replicas, faithful in dimensions, weight, balance and compatibility with any sights or accessories their uses may fit to their actual service weapons. This means steel magazines that weigh the same as a half-full original, hold the same number of rounds, and are drop-tested for durability; it means sensors that detect when the magazine is empty and lock a realistic bolt back until a fresh magazine is inserted and the bolt-release activated; and it means an ingenious gearbox design that fits inside the width of an authentically-proportioned receiver. Features like this may be at a premium for serious training scenarios, but they are clearly also prized by many civilian airsofters, as they, and other realistic features are increasingly incorporated into guns for the leisure market.

Take a look at the ASAR-4, an AR M4 clone from Bulgarian makers Airsoft Systems, for example. This gun, features a Smart Control Unit (ASCU) - an on-board computer that controls firing (semi, burst, auto), empty magazine lockup, and bolt release, and gives a realistic trigger pull into the bargain, and an adjustable one at that (from 1.5 to 2.5 kg). The ASCU continuously monitors gear movement, ensuring complete gear cycles; instantly detects jams and malfunctions; protects the battery against deep drain, and prevents overload to the micro-switch and PCB. Thicker walls to the gearbox act as a heat-sink, and an extension at the front end transfers the force of the spring safely into the front of the receiver, enabling the installation of a powerful M150 spring. The ASAR-4 is still in prototype form, but release is planned for Spring 2013.

Gassers

Electric guns remain central to the modern airsoft experience, and are becoming increasingly sophisticated, but other formats are gaining ground: GBB (Gas Blow Back), which uses CO2 or Green Gas to add a more dramatic muzzle report, realistic cycling of the slide, and ERG (Electric Recoil Gun), which uses battery power to the same end. The truth is that neither the report nor the recoil is anything like that of the real deal, but both undeniably make the sensation of shooting an airsoft replica much less neutral – and more enjoyable.

A good place to check out guns in both these formats was KWA’s stand.  Here were GBB guns styled after the radical KRISS Vector, M4 lookalikes from the LM4 PTR series and AKs from their AKG Series, alongside ERG RM4 PTR and AKR versions of the same guns. There were handguns too, with new models including replicas of the M1911A1 U.S. Army, ATP Auto, MKV (Makarov), TT-33, and 945C pistols.

PTR stands for Professional Training Rifle, and as with the AS and Systema guns, you get an automatic last-round bolt hold open function, as well as a realistic receiver, bolt and carrier. In addition, KWA’s Force Velocity System provides simulated recoil on a par with a live-fire .22LR, with charge gas giving enough gas to shoot 3 magazines in full-auto and 5 in selective-fire mode. The first models released will be the standard LM4 (M4A1) with a 14.5” barrel and the LM4C (Commando), with an 11” barrel, along with a standard AKG-74M and a short-barrelled AKG-74SU with folding polymer and skeleton stocks respectively.

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The ERG guns function with the same degree of authenticity, debuting KWA’s next-generation 3GX gearbox and derive their power from a battery rather than a gas reservoir, and their “recoil” from a “Kinetic Feedback” rather than a “Force Velocity” system. You can also disable the bolt-hold-open feature, or run the RM4 and AKR series ERGs with standard TM-compatible magazines which won’t activate it. As with the AKGs the AKRs will be offered in both 74M and 74SU variants, the only visual difference being in the hand-guard, which needs to be slightly larger to accommodate a LiPo battery. The ERG LM4s come in three variants: CQB, Scout, and SPR, all fitted with Magpul-licensed receivers, MOE grips and hand-guards, MOE or UBR stocks, MBUS sights and PMags. The CQB has a 10.5” barrel and a carbine-length hand-guard; the Scout has a 14.5” barrel and a mid-length hand-guard; and the SPR has a 20” barrel and a rifle-length hand-guard.

KWA’s replica of the Kriss Vector SMG was similarly authentic, showing the same quick 4-pin takedown as the original, and with a realistic bolt-group, as well as metal 10, 25, or 50 round magazines that weigh the same as fully-loaded real steel versions.

KWA’s booth also demonstrated how sometimes an airsoft manufacturer can go further than the firearms manufacturer’s whose work they emulate, since a big draw on their stand was their ERG version of Magpul’s neat PDR-C bullpup. Despite using the standard 5.56 NATO round and STANAG magazines, the original gun was too radical for the US military and so stalled at the prototype stage, but Magpul then went on to collaborate in the development of an airsoft replica via their PTS (Airsoft) division. It’s a great design, with nice ergonomic touches like a P90-style grip, a trigger with a double pull like the Steyr AUG (half-pull for semi-auto and full-pull for full-auto), and the bullpup layout means that, even with a 10.5” barrel, it’s still 6” shorter than an M4 Commando.

Also worth checking out if you like your airsoft guns to resemble the real deal in function as well as looks are Vega Force Company /Umarex’s HK417 AEG –which sports an up-rated (V2.2) gearbox that permits a more realistic grip angle and narrower receiver.

So What’s Next?

Well, G&G had a GBB sniper rifle on their stand, the M96, that in addition to simulated recoil, boasts a “shell-ejection system”. BBs are pressed into the mouths of dummy cases then these are loaded into the detachable 4-round magazine. Once a cartridge is chambered, pulling the trigger releases a blast of gas (from a 12g CO2 capsule in the butt, or from a Green Gas reservoir in the hand-guard, depending on the version), through two channels: one leading to the rear of the dummy cartridge, where it propels a BB forwards down the barrel at around 150 m/s (490 FPS) and the other into a cylinder ahead of the chamber, where it drives a piston backwards towards the shooter, simulating recoil. Simulated recoil comes at the price of high gas consumption here, however, so expect just 12 shots per charge in the Co2 version, and a miserly 4 per charge with Green Gas. Shell ejection may be inconvenient for skirmishers, but its appeal for those who want the last word in authentic firearms simulation.

Personally, I’d like to see the system incorporated into G&G’s recreations of the M98K (G&G M980) and the Garand M1, both of which currently load via detachable magazines rather than from the stripper or en-bloc clips that are an iconic feature of the originals. On the subject of Garands, there currently are two versions in development, the second from ICS, but even though the ICS version offers an authentic magazine capacity of 8 rounds, neither recreates the clip-ejection of the old Marushin model.

I’ll finish with a device that that could transform airsoft skirmishing, pushing effective ranges out to several hundred metres: G&G’s M.I.T. (Military Intelligence Tracer Unit). It looks like a chunky silencer, and functions one half of a laser-tagging system, the other being a wearable receiver that can detect a hit up to 300m away, where it will activate an audio alarm, a strobe, and possibly even a splatter device. The unit also works as a chronograph, a shot counter (thanks to a display on the side), as a laser aiming device, and as an activator for luminous tracer BBs. Previously this sort of functionality was only available in expensive – and rather cumbersome - military systems, such as MILES (Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System). The M.I.T. uses a 14mm counter-clockwise thread so will fit most muzzles, and it runs off a LiPo battery which, thanks to an automatic standby function that shuts it down after 10 minutes of inactivity, will last for a whole day’s play. The M.I.T. should be available in June 2012.

Finally

The sheer amount of great gear on show at IWA means that I’ve had to leave out more than I could fit in here, so I hope devotees of ASG, ICS, King Arms, Real Sword, Redwolf, and a host of other makers will forgive the inevitable omissions. I also missed out on another milestone in the development of the airsoft sector at IWA, the Airsoft Meetup. Organised by NLAirsoft, this was a symposium, modelled after a similar initiative at SHOT 2012, which brought airsoft (and tactical gear) manufacturers and dealers together with media representatives and players, and I’ve heard it was very successful.

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