Airsoft is a hobby sport that involves players running around and firing 6mm plastic BBs at each other at sometimes impressive velocities.
While the game is widely considered safe to play, as you might imagine getting hit by a small plastic sphere fired that’s coming at you at 400 FPS isn’t always the most pleasant experience in the world.
Since the dawn of the sport way back in the 1970s, various people at different times have come to the conclusion that having a device that can block incoming fire might be a distinct tactical advantage in a game, particularly in close quarters.
As a result, whether it’s to mitigate the pain of being hit or to replicate riot police and/or SWAT unit tactics, some airsoft players choose to add airsoft riot shields (either professionally made or home built) to their loadout…occasionally to the annoyance of other players.
In this guide, we’ll explore the world of airsoft shields, discussing their advantages, disadvantages, their rather controversial nature and things to look for/look out for when buying one.
What Are Airsoft Riot Shields and Why Are They So Controversial?
Airsoft riot shields, much as you might imagine, are portable protective barriers that are designed to protect a player by blocking incoming volleys of BBs from hitting their body and anyone directly behind them.
Like most other pieces of equipment in the game, airsoft shields take their inspiration from ballistic and/or riot shields used by police, security and military units in certain situations to protect themselves from low-caliber bullets and other projectiles.
The idea behind airsoft shields is to give users additional protection when advancing on enemy positions and portable cover from behind which they can fire at their foes.
Airsoft shields can come in a number of different shapes and designs, from large clear rectangular shields (airsoft riot shields) to heavy-duty and intimidatingly opaque ones with minimal visibility (mock ballistic shields).
On the whole, however, most tend to be full-body affairs, providing maximum protection to a player’s head, chest, shoulders and legs.
Generally designed to be as lightweight as possible (after all, they don’t actually need to withstand the impact of an actual metal bullet), airsoft shields can also come in a number of materials, such as plastic, foam or even aluminum alloy.
The only real criteria for their construction is the need to stop a small plastic BB traveling at between 100-500 FPS, which is a pretty low barrier all things considered.
Airsoft Shield Controversy
Now, while carrying a big hunk of plastic or foam can certainly help stop your body from getting hit by BBs (and hence getting eliminated) in an airsoft game, they may not help you make any friends.
Shields are fairly controversial accessories in the world of airsoft for the very same reason they can be very useful – they are very good at preventing BBs from hitting you and usually will allow you to advance and take out opponents from a position of comparative safety.
In a game like airsoft, where the only way to eliminate opponents is to hit them with a BB, it’s not hard to figure why such a device might be considered unfair by other players.
Fairness aside, there is another reason why airsoft riot shields are considered pretty controversial – their use really isn’t all that realistic.
In the real world, riot shields are not bulletproof and most aren’t even really bullet resistant, being used mainly to protect against hand-thrown projectiles, stabbing weapons and the fists/kicks of unruly opponents.
To be sure, the larger, heavier and opaque ballistic shields can do an excellent job at protecting users from bullets, but can and will sustain critical damage from being hit by repeated shots and/or heavier caliber bullets.
Consequently, while they certainly have their uses, the choice of deploying riot shields or ballistic shields in a situation is a tactical one and their users do have to be trained in their use.
In contrast, even super lightweight airsoft riot shields tend to be essentially impenetrable to the relatively slow moving and soft plastic BBs that airsoft guns will fire at them, making their users more or less the equivalent of a walking tank (from the front anyway and so long as they stay behind the shield).
Not only does this ruin the authenticity and immersiveness of a game, it can also encourage the shield user to act in ways that they otherwise wouldn’t, such as by allowing them to be more reckless on the field (such as by allowing them to dangerously blindfire from behind their shield or charge headlong into enemies) and ruining everyone else’s experience in the process.
Airsoft Riot Shields Vs Ballistic Shields: What’s The Difference?
Generally speaking there are two kinds of shields that often end up on airsoft fields- riot shields and ballistic shields.
Like their real world inspiration, airsoft riot shields are generally lightweight and made of clear plastic.
This allows users to move around with them more easily and see what’s going on in front of them without any restriction.
They can come as full-sized rectangular shields offering maximum protection or as smaller circular or rectangular shields that provide localized protection and maximum maneuverability on the field.
Ballistic airsoft shields, on the other hand, are designed to mimic the look and design of bulletproof/bullet-resistant shields used by military and police forces.
They are generally thicker, much heavier (sometimes 30+ pounds) and, critically, aren’t transparent.
They generally have a smallish plastic window that players peer through as they move, which restricts a user’s field of vision quite a bit.
When it comes to airsoft use, unlike the real world there really isn’t a practical protective difference between these two shields – good quality models will generally do a fine job at stopping BBs.
The critical difference is in how easy they are for the player holding them to use and, consequently, the relative benefit they provide.
Because they are comparatively lightweight, easy to maneuver around with, easy to see through and offer more or less the same level of anti-BB protection as heavy, cumbersome ballistic shields, airsoft riot shields generally have a distinct advantage here.
Interestingly, it is for these reasons that most other airsoft players (and quite a few fields) tend to object to their use on the field.
Such players and fields tend to prefer that anyone bringing a shield use a ballistic replica, seeing the difficulties associated with their use as a sort of inherent in-game balance or check against their benefits.
In other words, many airsoft players prefer that if you do bring a shield it should be very heavy, hard to carry around, impossible to run with and hard to see out of.
Reasons For Using An Airsoft Shield
They can provide unmatched protection (against direct fire)
As we’ve mentioned, even airsoft riot shields made of simple, clear plastic can stop a 6mm BB from passing through and hitting the user, giving them portable protection that can help prevent them from being eliminated unless opponents get a lucky shot into their feet or an exposed elbows or arm or manage to get behind them or to their side.
This can allow users (and sometimes even their teammates) to carefully advance towards their opponents or an objective unimpeded by even the heaviest fire, unlike other airsoft protective accessories such as armor.
They can help you and your team win
In doing so, airsoft shields can give the players and teams that use them a distinct advantage that can help them win games quicker, more reliably and more easily than any other accessory or loadout option out there.
They can add to the realism of certain games and playstyles
While they do lack some elements of authenticity and aren’t always the most realistic option to bring to a game (such as in the outdoors), if you are playing CQB or running certain tactical simulations (indoor hostage rescue, for example) shields can add a higher level of realism to a game, allowing users to recreate true-to-life SWAT-style small team tactics in an airsoft environment.
Reasons Not To Use An Airsoft Shield
They are often bulky and can reduce maneuverability
Part of the fun of airsoft is the ability to freely and quickly run and gun.
Although they aren’t always heavy, holding an airsoft shield throughout a game can be pretty awkward and the shield itself can end up annoyingly bumping around or catching on walls, obstacles and doors.
They aren’t always allowed on the field or face significant restrictions
Because of the fact that they do change the nature of an airsoft game quite a bit, are often seen as unfair and can promote reckless and even dangerous behavior on the field, many fields have started banning the use of airsoft shields.
Furthermore, in fields that do allow shields, many have opted to level the playing field for other airsofters by attaching a number of restrictions and regulations to their use.
For example, some fields will only allow users to bring heavier, opaque and more cumbersome ballistic shields, which forces their users to move more slowly and more cautiously and allows opponents to more easily flank them.
Other fields may limit the types of weapons that shield-bearers can use, with many limiting them to lower-powered pistols or SMGs.
Notably, a good number of fields now consider shooting from behind a shield to be a kind of blind firing, even if the player is using a clear riot shield.
Consequently, these fields force those carrying a shield to lean out from behind it to make a shot, which in turn gives opposing players an opportunity to get their own in.
Finally, some fields may create arbitrary rules for the use of shields to even things out.
For example, they may create a rule that a shield can only take a certain number of shots before needing to be discarded or that certain weapons (such as grenades) can immediately destroy them.
These rules and restrictions, and the greater scrutiny users may consequently face from refs, can in some instances make bringing a shield more annoying than they are worth.
They will make you a target…and you aren’t quite that invincible
Because they are controversial and a potential game changer, airsoft shields can quickly make the player holding one a priority target for opposing forces who will be looking for any opening or weakness to exploit.
In other words, if you’re bringing a shield to a field be prepared to become a massive BB-magnet.
Further, keep in mind that even larger shields aren’t totally foolproof.
In most cases your feet, lower shins and whatever body part pops out from the side of the shield can and will still be hit by BBs if you’re not careful, which can (thanks to the rules of airsoft) result in an elimination as surely as if you were directly hit in the face or chest.
Further, keep in mind that, just as in real life, an airsoft shield won’t really protect you from airsoft landmines, traps or even grenades, which can and will launch BBs from underneath, from the side or even behind even the most well-made airsoft shield, eliminating its carrier.
Finally, as with most airsoft tools, a shield is no substitute for good tactics and skill.
With proper coordination and communication, opposing players can outflank and out maneuver a shield carrying player, eliminating them by taking aim at their exposed sides or even with some stealthy knife work.
What To Look For When Buying An Airsoft Shield
Although simple, as with anything else in the sport airsoft shields can suffer from quality control issues.
In particular, users will want to take a look at the construction and relative thickness of an airsoft shield, making sure that it can withstand a sudden impact without cracking or shattering.
This is particularly true with airsoft riot shields, which are intended to be light, easy to see through and as easy to carry as possible.
Generally speaking, you’ll want an airsoft shield that’s at least a good few millimeters thick and made of a sturdy plastic, plexiglas or polycarbonate material.
A good rule of thumb is to think of the other plastic protective devices designed to survive BB impacts, such as full face guards and optic shields.
Aluminum or metal alloy is a great choice, but keep in mind that it does add quite a bit of weight (which you will have to carry) and will need a window to see out from behind.
Another point to consider is that, if you are picking up a ballistic shield with a window, to make sure that it is made of a thick, sturdy material (as opponents will aim squarely at it with everything they have) and that it is properly fastened or fixed into place.
After all, it wouldn’t really be a good idea if it fell out mid-game.
Finally, those interested in carrying an airsoft shield should make sure that the handles and straps they come with are properly secured to the shield as, once again, it’s not a great experience to suddenly have your shield suddenly drop to the ground when facing a bunch of angry opponents.
Local regulations and restrictions
Once again, just because you have a cool shield does not mean that you’ll be able to bring it or use it without restriction.
Always check your local airsoft fields’ rules to make sure buying an airsoft shield will actually be worth your time and money.
While most airsoft riot shields are pretty lightweight, other kinds can get pretty fancy and, subsequently, kind of heavy.
Although a shield certainly needs to stand up to the impact and velocities of airsoft BBs, keep in mind that you won’t be facing real steel firearms and don’t really need Level IIIA ballistic protection.
Further, it’s important to remember that this is airsoft and you will be running and gunning at times and it is always nice to be able to move around without killing yourself.
Although cool to look at and use, airsoft shields are at best an occasional use item.
While you always want to pay for a quality shield (as you don’t want to irritate other players and then have your main form of protection catastrophically fail in front of them), you probably also don’t want to blow too much of your airsoft budget on this item.
Although they can offer a great deal of protection, offer a distinct strategic advantage on the field and allow players to realistically replicate certain CQB tactics, airsoft shields (in particular airsoft riot shields) aren’t always accepted by other players or field owners.
It is therefore always important to carefully weigh the advantages and disadvantages of their use, as well as any local rules, restrictions and customs before making a purchase.
David Lewis – A longtime airsoft and airgun enthusiast and collector, our editor David’s lifelong passion for tactical sports began in high school with some friends, a cheap knock-off airsoft M4, and an open field behind his parents’ house.
When he’s not plinking around, he enjoys sharing his knowledge of airsoft and helping those just starting out.