Airsoft and paintball are two popular air gun sports and while they do have some similarities, notably the ability to shoot your friends in a game setting, they can actually have quite a few differences that set them apart.
If you’re looking for a tactical team-based shooting sport but are unsure as to which might be best for you, then read on as we compare and contrast airsoft and paintball.
What Is Airsoft?
Created by a Japanese photographer and shooting enthusiast in the 1970s, airsoft is a popular team game where users shoot at and eliminate each other using plastic BBs fired from specialized low powered, smoothbore air weapons called airsoft guns.
Airsoft games can vary quite a bit and include fast-paced team elimination games (speedsoft), outdoors games, capture the flag, military simulation (milsim), reenactments, scenario-based games, CQB and more.
While they can be played casually at home with friends, airsoft games are typically hosted on airsoft fields, which can have both indoor and outdoor terrains.
What are airsoft guns like?
Airsoft guns are typically designed to look and feel as close to a real firearm as possible (with quite a few being made of metal components) and tend to replicate their handling characteristics as well.
Fully functioning slides, switches, bolts, rail systems, stocks, and more are all considered highly desirable features, as they add to the overall accuracy of an airsoft gun’s design.
Many models are also officially licensed, containing realistically placed trademarks from actual firearms companies.
The guns themselves can be powered by gas (green gas or CO2), spring or batteries (as Automatic Electric Guns – AEGs) and fire small, plastic 6-8mm BBs, with typically velocities kept under 450 feet per second (FPS).
What Is Paintball?
Invented as a sport in the early 1980s in the US, paintball is a competitive sport played using specialized air guns called “paintball markers”, which at the time were commonly used by outdoor professionals to mark things like trees, landmarks and even livestock.
These markers fire largish (17-18mm) dye filled gelatin balls, called paintballs, that on impact leave a rather noticeable splash of paint, letting everyone know that a player has been eliminated.
There are a wide variety of paintball game types out there, including high speed eliminations (speedball), outdoor games (woodsball), themed games, military simulations, deathmatches, attack and defend, king of the hill, capture the flag and much more.
Paintball games tend to be played with others and can either be played casually or in paintball fields, which can be located indoors or out.
What are paintball markers like?
As we mentioned, paintball markers are the main air gun used in paintball.
They use compressed gas (either CO2 or highly compressed air) to launch a dye-filled ball, and can be powered manually, by pump or electronically via electro pneumatic solenoids.
Paintball markers are typically fed by hoppers and tend to have a distinct needle-nosed profile, although some mag-fed models and paintball shotguns can replicate the look and feel of real firearms as well.
What Are Airsoft Guns Used For?
Airsoft guns can be used for a variety of shooting-related activities.
In addition to being used in formal and casual airsoft games against other players, they are a popular choice for recreational target practice and shooting (“plinking”) as their lower power and cheap ammo make them safe and ideally suited for backyards and even the indoors.
In recent years, largely due to their realistic designs, low power and, well, cheap ammo, airsoft guns have also been used as training tools for police and military forces on occasion, helping teach and reinforce gun safety, handling and even tactics.
Finally, airsoft guns can also be collectable items as they may replicate the design of interesting but hard to find guns, and are generally a legal alternative in countries and areas where firearms (or certain firearms) are restricted.
What Are Paintball Markers Used For?
In contrast, paintball markers are primarily used in the context of paintball games and other paintball activities.
While some users can and do practice their shooting at home, they aren’t necessarily the most cost effective, accurate or long range air guns out there for this purpose.
That said, they are sometimes used as a practice tool for military, police and security forces around the world, with specialist (and occasionally regular) paintball markers being used as a way of safely practicing military tactics and strategy in realistic scenarios.
Interestingly, paintball guns are still used by foresters and ranchers as a way of quickly marking trees and cattle from a distance, and have been picked up by riot police as a tool for marking and identifying suspects.
Airsoft Vs Paintball – Some Similarities
Airsoft guns and paintball markers are relatively safe to fire at other people
Airsoft guns and paintball markers are designed to be safely fired at other human beings without (assuming everyone is wearing safety equipment) doing any real damage.
Unlike traditional BB guns and pellet guns, then, both gun types can be used in competitive 1 v 1 or 1 v many activities and games, broadening their usefulness.
Airsoft and paintball share a number of interesting game types
As we’ve mentioned there are quite a number of airsoft and paintball game types out there, and the two sports do have a number in common when it comes to team games.
Some examples include:
|Airsoft Game||Paintball Game|
|Capture the flag||Capture the flag|
|Defuse the bomb||Defuse the bomb|
|Defend/Attack the Hill||Attack and Defend|
|Zombie apocalypse||Zombie apocalypse|
Both airsoft guns and paintball markers can be subject to legal restrictions
As they are replica guns, both paintball markers and airsoft guns do have some legal restrictions to their use.
For example, in the US you have to be 18 years old to buy either airsoft guns or paintball markers, although those under 18 can use them and even visit fields with parental supervision.
Additionally, depending on where you live, imitation and replica firearms may be illegal to carry in public (in addition to being a bad, and potentially lethal, idea in general).
Both airsoft guns and paintball markers have accessories and upgrades available
Finally, tinkerers have a lot to love with airsoft guns and paintball markers.
As they are both used in competitive and hobby settings, both types of air guns have extensive ecosystems of upgrades and modifications that allow users to really personalize and customize the look and performance of their pieces.
Interested users in both sports can, for example, pick up improved bolts, grips, valves, gearboxes, control boards and much, much more.
Paintball Vs Airsoft – Differences
By far the most obvious difference between airsoft and paintball is in the ammunition used in both sports.
In paintball, users fire 0.50-68 inch/12.7-17mm gelatin balls filled with colorful dye at each other.
With airsoft, on the other hand, users tend to fire off 6-8mm plastic or resin air-filled BBs at one another.
Paintball makes it harder to cheat (on hits)
One rather irritating problem in airsoft is the refusal of some players to acknowledge their elimination, or “call their hits.”
As little plastic BBs ricocheting off a human being tends to be somewhat hard to spot at a distance, especially outside or with lots of obstacles around, the sport tends to rely more on the honor system.
With paintball, on the other hand, it is a lot harder to try and cheat in this way.
Paintballs are filled with dye and explode on impact and leave very obvious evidence that you were hit, something that holds users a little more accountable in game.
Airsoft guns tend to be more realistic and collectable
In general, airsoft tends to strive for realism and airsoft guns tend to be as realistic as possible.
This is to say that airsoft guns tend to look, feel and even handle like real firearms and can make nice collectables, especially if the gun they are based on is hard to find or restricted in some way.
In addition, a good chunk of the airsoft community tends to focus a lot on building realistic loadouts and even using actual military/police uniforms and gear when possible.
In contrast, most paintball guns tend to have a very distinct look to them and even those that do try to replicate real firearms (such as mag fed versions) tend to have some tells, such as having a very large bore barrel to accommodate 0.50 or 0.68 caliber paintballs.
Paintball markers tend to have a lower velocity
While both airsoft and paintball guns can reach some pretty impressive velocities, as measured in feet per second (FPS), paintball guns in general tend to be more restricted in this regard.
Most markers are usually kept to 280 FPS (250 or lower in indoor games) due to the fact that their heavier and larger ammunition can be a physical hazard to opponents if launched at higher speed.
In contrast, airsoft guns can come out of the box hitting targets at up to 450 FPS, and most CQB or indoor FPS limits only tend to start at 350-400 FPS.
Airsoft tends to be a cheaper sport to play
Overall, airsoft is a cheaper sport to play.
For one thing, airsoft ammo is quite cheap.
Most users should be able to pick up cheap airsoft BBs for around $4-5 per thousand, compared to around $30-40 per thousand for paintballs.
Airsoft also requires less safety equipment than paintball, with full masks being essential rather than just recommended and pads and heavier clothing being fairly ubiquitous.
Finally, airsoft guns tend to be more affordable on average than a marker (outliers obviously excluded).
A good quality airsoft rifle can run into the mid-hundreds, and a good quality pistol or SMG far less than that, while a high quality marker will easily exceed $1000, plus accessories (loaders, air tanks, regulators and so on).
Airsoft vs paintball pain
How much these games hurt can be a factor for some potential players.
Although they are kept to an overall lower velocity, paintball markers do hit with a greater impact due to the fact that the .50-.68 caliber dye-filled paintballs are considerably heavier than the small, plastic BBs used in airsoft.
In fact, they tend to hit and transmit a fairly impressive 10-14 joules of force compared to an airsoft BBs 1-2 joules of force, which can lead to some pretty impressive welts and bruises.
Although getting hit with an airsoft BB isn’t always pleasant, generally speaking being hit with a paintball tends to be a little worse.
Airsoft guns tend to be more accurate and have better range
Although both airsoft and paintball use relatively un-aerodynamic balls as projectiles and aren’t anywhere near as precise as pellet guns or actual firearms, by and large airsoft guns tend to be more accurate at any kind of distance.
Airsoft BBs tend to be smaller and lighter and the guns tend to fire them at higher velocities, meaning they tend to fly farther without dropping to the ground compared to large, heavy, high-resistance paintballs.
More than that, many airsoft guns tend to have hop up units, which spin the BBs on their way out and allow them to travel further than they would otherwise thanks to the Magnus effect.
Many of these hop up units can be finely tuned, making the difference between them and a paintball marker far more noticeable when it comes to range.
Airsoft tends to have a lot more tactical accessories out there
As we’ve mentioned, realism is kind of a thing when it comes to airsoft and many airsoft guns come with rails and threaded barrels that (unlike most paintball markers) allow them to be customized and fitted with scopes, laser sights, mock suppressors, tracer units, fore grips, flashlights and more.
Airsoft has a wider variety of replicas
Both airsoft guns and paintball markers can be offered in a wide variety of imitation firearm styles.
That said, airsoft guns were intended to be as close to real firearms in look, feel and design as possible.
As a result, if there is a gun out there (or if a gun existed at some point in time) chances are there’s an airsoft replica of it that you can purchase.
This even extends to more esoteric weapons, such as grenade launchers, RPGs, miniguns, shell-ejecting rifles, crew served machine guns, vintage weapons (such as the example of a Thompson below) and more.
In comparison, while there are some realistic paintball markers out there and while users can get an M4, AK or even a shotgun-style marker, the vast majority maintain a fairly standard function-over-form design and there really just isn’t as much or as great variety for sale compared to airsoft.
Airsoft guns can carry more ammo per gun
While most paintball hoppers carry around 200 paintballs at a time, airsoft guns can be fitted with high-cap magazines that carry 400 or more BBs, and many can even fit drums containing thousands of rounds.
Paintball is messier
There’s no getting around it, if you play paintball you’re getting splattered with paint.
While being hit with airsoft BBs on bare skin can leave some small bruises and welts, they aren’t likely to leave any residue on clothing.
Paintball games are usually faster paced
While speedsoft is a thing, by and large paintball games are more dynamic and fast-paced than airsoft, taking place on smaller fields and with markers that are built for fast shooting, all of which is ideal for an afternoon of running and gunning.
Paintball tends to have more organized tournaments and events
Paintball is the more well-known sport between the two and by and large, it tends to have more organized and standardized rules and tournaments compared to airsoft.
There are, for example, tons of paintball leagues, professional teams, thousands and thousands of local events and competitions and even a world paintball cup.
So Which Is Right For You, Paintball Or Airsoft?
At the end of the day, choosing between paintball and airsoft really comes down to a personal choice.
Both hobbies are still popular, get you outside, can be a lot of fun and are generally a great way to spend an afternoon.
If you are still uncertain as to which is best for you, we’ve created the chart below with some considerations that you might want to bear in mind.
|I want something that…||Then you should look into|
|Lets me use a gun that’s as close to a real firearm as possible||Airsoft|
|Lets me shoot at someone else||Either one|
|Has lots of game types||Either one|
|Lets me practice my target shooting||Airsoft|
|Makes it hard for opponents to ignore being hit||Paintball|
|Has lots of high speed, run and gun action||Paintball|
|Lets me accessorize and modify my gun as much as I’d like||Airsoft|
|Is more budget oriented||Airsoft|
|Has lots of organized tournaments and leagues||Paintball|
|Doesn’t hurt quite as much||Airsoft|
|I don’t want to get too dirty||Airsoft|
|I’m more into high speed competitive shooting than realism||Paintball|
|I’m really into realism, uniforms and a more authentic military/police gameplay||Airsoft|
Ted Clark– Hailing from Florida, Ted has been an avid airsoft enthusiast since he was in middle school. When he’s not checking out and reviewing airsoft guns, he enjoys picking off his enemies one by one on the field as a sniper.