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Airsoft vs. BB Guns: Knowing the Difference

So, you may have heard “airsoft gun” and “BB gun” used interchangeably, but are they really the same? 

Sure, they both shoot projectiles that are called BBs and can function somewhat similarly, but that is where the parallels end.

Knowing the difference between an airsoft gun and a BB gun isn’t just important to make sure that you buy the right kind of gun–it also can be a matter of avoiding serious injury or even death.

Let’s dig a little deeper and look at the differences between these two types of guns.

The History of BB Guns and Airsoft Guns

We know–you didn’t come here to get a history lesson, but indulge me a little bit. 

BB guns were created in the U.S. in 1886 and were originally spring piston-powered rifles that fired single shotgun pellets because they were widely available. As BB guns continued to evolve, they moved from being largely made of wood to being manufactured from metal, similar to actual firearms.

Mass production began in 1888 by the Daisy Manufacturing company, which is still in operation and making BB guns today.

Daisy BB Gun
Daisy BB Gun

Airsoft guns, on the other hand, were created in the early 1970s in Japan. They were intended to be a way for gun enthusiasts to not only have their cake but eat it too, since Japan’s gun control laws were quite restrictive. 

Originally, airsoft guns fired plastic pellets, were powered by green gas, and were used for target practice. It was soon discovered that airsoft guns could be safely used to fire at other people without causing injury, and the game of airsoft as we know it was well on its way.

Vintage Tokyo Marui Desert Eagle
Vintage Tokyo Marui Desert Eagle

It didn’t take long for airsoft to make its way to the United Kingdom and the United States, and the 1980s saw a boom in popularity for airsoft. Manufacturers began designing airsoft guns for recreation, often imitating real firearms.

As you can see, there are a few differences already, but let’s take a closer look at some more of them.

What is the Difference Between Airsoft and BB Guns?

Airsoft guns and BB guns weren’t designed for the same uses, so there are a number of things that set these two apart.

Ammunition

One of the biggest differences between BB guns and airsoft guns is the ammunition they use. As we mentioned, both fire ammunition called BBs, but they are not the same thing.

BB guns use lead or steel BBs that measure about 4.3mm in diameter. Because of the power of the gun, the weight of the ammo, and its small size, BB guns can cause severe injuries or even be deadly.

Daisy Steel BBs
Daisy Steel BBs

Airsoft guns fire plastic BBs, sometimes called airsoft pellets, that are 6mm in diameter. In addition to using larger, lighter ammo, airsoft guns also fire their rounds at a much slower velocity, so they don’t have nearly as much impact.

Multicolor Aisoft BBs
Plastic Airsoft BBs

Power

Both BB guns and airsoft guns are built for performance, but the definition of performance varies slightly. BB guns fire rounds at faster velocities (measured in feet per second, or FPS) than airsoft guns.

Generally, airsoft guns fire rounds at less than 500 FPS, while BB Guns can fire up to 550 FPS. There are some high-performance airsoft guns that can fire rounds at velocities beyond 500 FPS, but the reason these guns aren’t deadly is the difference in ammo used.

Steel or lead BBs penetrate much better, so they cannot be safely used to shoot at others. This is why BB guns are a popular choice for pest control, though.

Prairie Dog
Pest? Maybe. Cute? Definitely

Use

Airsoft guns are designed for target practice and playing the sport of airsoft, where players shoot at each other to eliminate opposing team members. They also are sometimes used to train law enforcement and military units.

BB guns are intended for target practice, as well as pest control and even hunting small game. More powerful BB guns can allow hunters to kill their prey without the loudness of using an actual firearm.

Accuracy

If you’re shooting at something, you want to hit it, obviously, so it’s no surprise that both forms of guns are pretty accurate. BB guns may have a bit of an advantage, though, since heavy metal BBs are less susceptible to environmental factors, like wind, which can throw off accuracy.

BB guns dominate long-range shooting, but they cannot be used up close, while airsoft guns can be. 

Many airsoft guns use a hop-up system that will help put a spin on the BB. By putting a spin on the round, it’s able to travel farther in a straight line (think the spiral you want when throwing a football). Tuning a new hop-up system can take a bit of time, but once you’ve got it working right, you’re good to go!

An airsoft hop-up system

Safety

Airsoft guns are, by nature, much safer to use than BB guns. Lower FPS rates and lighter ammo reduce an airsoft gun’s ability to penetrate a target, so they bounce (somewhat) harmlessly off your target.

BB guns, however, are never safe to fire at another person (or anything you aren’t trying to kill, really), and even a ricochet can have serious consequences. When shooting a BB gun, your backstop must be able to stop a lead or steel BB.

Metal signs aren’t a great backstop, as Ralphie’s about to learn.

Even if airsoft is safer than BB guns, it’s still not an excuse to be reckless. Always wear eye protection, when around BB and airsoft guns–even if you aren’t the one shooting. Never fire airsoft guns at ranges less than 10 feet, and try to avoid shooting opponents in the face, joints, neck, and groin to prevent injury.

In the End…

If you’re looking to play war games with your buddies, airsoft guns are the way to go. If you’re looking for a target gun, you may want a BB gun, but airsoft guns also shine in target practice and offer a lot of safety advantages–especially for backyard and young shooters.

Have questions about airsoft guns or BB guns? Let us know in the comments! Don’t forget to like Orange Tip Tactical on Facebook to see all the latest airsoft news.

Milo Harrison

Milo's a desert rat by birth and grew up in the shadow of Nellis AFB. He first discovered paintball in high school, but quickly switched to the world of airsoft when he found out how much less it stung. He still loves a pickup game in the backyard, but these days, you'll usually find him at airsoft LARP events.

View all posts by Milo Harrison →

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