By Bob Whaley, Gun Digest
Anyone who has followed columns I’ve written over the past few months knows what a stickler I am for training. If you are serious about buying a AK 47 Rifle or a Glock for self-defense, training from a competent source trumps all the gadgets and whiz-bang, voodoo magic mind spells currently the rage in the age of the YouTube “expert.” The skills you acquire from those competent sources are perishable, and you don’t want to lose those hard won skills you took the time and money to learn. Therefore, sustainment training becomes vital to maintaining response capabilities. The problem that comes up regarding our ability to attend training and to practice acquired skills can be brought down to a single word: adulthood!
We only have so much time between jobs, kids/grandkids, social life and other essential activities to dedicate to defensive skills practice. We need to get the most bang for our buck and available time. Dry fire, of course, is essential. Reams of information have been published on the positive value of dry fire, so I don’t have to re-hash the topic here. Simply stated, dry fire. It’s good! Do it! Can we, however, add an additional component to our non-ballistic training that pushes beyond the limitations of dry fire practice? Enter modern Airsoft and air gun equipment.
Don’t get me wrong, nothing beats a well planned out and executed live range session. That’s where some of the rubber meets the road. We have to be proficient with our defensive measures and practice with the actual equipment we carry on a day-to-day basis, but we also need to fill the gaps, especially when a range session isn’t in the cards for one reason or another. Use of Airsoft and air guns can bridge that gap by providing a means to hold us accountable for specific performance standards through visible results.
Here’s what I mean. Dry fire provides us with a system to practice various aspects of our response plan absolutely perfectly. When we press the trigger at the end of a presentation, we can easily see if there’s movement to the front sight or issues with grip throughout the press—really, all types of issues—because recoil and muzzle blast aren’t present. Again, essential practice. But, there is no accountability for the precision of the “shot” because there are no measurable results, i.e. a hole in the target. Ok, no worries. Dry fire is still valuable practice because of the very absence of recoil/muzzle blast, but what’s next?
Adding additional practice with Airsoft or air guns adds the accountability. You can see the results on a target and know graphically that your dry-fire actions were correct. Neither, of course, replaces live practice, but both add to your ballistic training. And you probably can use the same area for dry fire and Airsoft or air gun training. There’s no downside really.
Airsoft and air gun equipment is getting better all the time. Major firearms manufacturers, like SIG Sauer, are beginning to either make exact replicas of their product line or are having equipment produced under license agreements. That means you can procure a practice pistol or carbine that for all intents and purposes, looks, feels and functions exactly like the live firearm you operate on a day-to-day basis. Likely, you can use the same holster or carry system you use for EDC during your air gun or air soft training session. These are all positive aspects.
The quality of this equipment obviously varies with the price. As many are already aware, yes, you do get what you pay for. Function ranges from single-shot spring operated models to gas or battery operated models that provide extended semi-automatic operation in Airsoft platforms, while air guns are available in spring-piston, pneumatic and CO2-powered options. Ammunition for either choice is relatively inexpensive. Targets specific for Airsoft and air gun training are available and are worth the price. For example, I’ve shot Airsoft with a dedicated target that provides the ability to capture your pellets, which become insanely tiny when they escape and begin rolling around your training area. It can be like trying to clean sand from the beach out of your car. The more you clean, the more that appear. Plus, many of the dedicated targets provide the opportunity to re-cycle pellets which is not usually recommended if they are allowed to “free range.” I’ve also shot without Airsoft and air gun specific target systems, and it works just fine if the area is properly prepared. It’s really your call.
So, my recommendation for equipment to get the most from your money and time would be to acquire an Airsoft or air gun replica of your primary carry gun. It should either fit your EDC holster, or you should purchase a copy of your holster that fits the replica. Next, if it exists for your Airsoft or air pistol, get at least one extra magazine and mag pouch. Lastly, I recommend you buy a dedicated target system. SIG Sauer, for example, has an entire line of shooting targets that make training more enjoyable and rewarding.
Next, you need to prepare your training environment. I’ll talk about Airsoft for force-on-force training in a minute, but for now, I’m outlining the procedure I use for training that mimics my dry fire plan. First, in this context, I consider the Airsoft or air gun a live instrument since it has the capability to launch a projectile. That means I have a backstop that is capable of stopping the round expelled from the Airsoft or air pistol. Since I already have a dedicated target, I’m halfway home. I use the same area for my Airsoft training as I use for dry fire, that being the unfinished area of my basement. That means the target is placed in line with a blank concrete wall, which is underground—no way anything is escaping from that backstop! All procedures for ensuring a live, ballistic-capable firearm is not introduced into the dry-fire and Airsoft/air gun training area are followed. Remember, your next negligent discharge is just one trigger press away. Following established protocols will help push that unfortunate event back another day.
For me, this non-ballistic training usually follows an abbreviated dry-fire session. I say abbreviated dry fire because there are times I will perform dry drills only. If I add Airsoft or air guns, it’s usually in conjunction with dry practice. You may certainly do something else if you prefer. That’s just the procedure that my brain wraps around. My Airsoft and/or air gun training plan will follow the dry-fire training plan and is intended to add that vital verification aspect I talked about earlier. Nothing is perfect in life. You can perfect the wrong behavior with dry fire as easily as you can with live fire. Adding levels of verification helps ensure you are, indeed, ingraining the level of precision you want.
I see some folks using Airsoft for force-on-force training, and with proper safety procedures, I see nothing wrong with this application for air soft equipment. The issue I see comes up when people shortcut safety protocols established in conventional marking round training. In my opinion, that’s a recipe for disaster.
If you’re going to use Airsoft for force-on-force training, make sure you are performing actual training and not simply engaging in a game. And again, don’t get me wrong, games are fun, but they’re not always meaningful training. So to do it right, script a scenario based on an actual event or a compilation of real events. Have a coordinator who will brief role players and control the event so specific training goals are achieved. In addition to the event coordinator, you need a safety officer who will ensure nothing that can be used as a weapon enters the training environment. Once the scenario launches, play it out to the end. If necessary, the coordinator can push things in different directions to achieve the listed training goals.
As for gear, many Airsoft guns can be calibrated to a point as to power. Some folks feel they need to crank them to the top limit of power so a significant amount of pain is experienced if trainees get shot. I don’t feel that’s necessary. First, it’s a safety hazard. Injury not only limits the amount of training that can be performed but also opens up aspects of liability and may lead to a prohibition on force-on-force training long term. Throttle back kids! A tiny owie is as good as a big one!
Next, whether it’s marking rounds or Airsoft, I require full-face protection, at least heavy clothing (marking round chest protection is better), neck guards, gloves and groin protection. In addition, the event coordinator will ensure there is adequate stand off between trainees to prevent the risk of “contact” injuries. There must be at least an arm’s length between participants for a round to be discharged. Any closer puts us in jeopardy of unnecessary injuries and all the aforementioned problems. That’s a lot of work, but a safe training environment is mandatory if we want to gain the most possible from the event. If there’s one significant injury, then your training event is wrecked. Don’t let it happen.
The addition of Airsoft and/or air gun equipment to your training regimen can add an additional link in developing and sustaining skills necessary to respond to a critical incident. Initial outlay costs are reasonable for most budgets, and the equipment is becoming more robust all the time, so maintenance should be modest. And, if you have 10 to 20 minutes of extra time, you can execute an effective training plan in an environment not conducive to live ballistic training. All in all, I’d say that’s pretty good bang for you buck