Airsoft guns and BB guns are two types of air gun that are widely collected and used for casual target practice and at home shooting.
Although the terms are occasionally used interchangeably these two types of replica guns are actually very different, and these differences can have a critical and meaningful impact on user safety and long term enjoyment.
If you’re new to the whole replica gun game, or you just find yourself confused about the differences between airsoft guns and BB guns, then read on as we compare these two popular options.
What is an airsoft gun?
Invented in 1970s Japan by Ichiro Nagata, a shooting enthusiast and photographer, airsoft guns are replica guns used in the popular hobby/sport airsoft.
They are smoothbore airguns that fire a small (usually 6mm), round plastic or resin projectile at a much lower power than most airguns, typically below 450 feet per second.
Airsoft guns come in many different models and designs and can be made of plastic, reinforced plastic, aluminum and even steel.
Most are modeled after actual firearms, including firearms that are otherwise restricted to the general public, which are referred to as “real steel firearms” in the community.
What is a BB gun?
First invented in 1886 by the Markham Air Rifle Company as a wooden spring training gun and later popularized by the Daisy Manufacturing Company, BB guns are a type of air gun that fires small, round metal projectiles called BBs at targets.
The word BB gun takes its name from the size of the smoothbore shotgun lead shot used in the first guns produced, 0.180 inch or 4.6mm “BB” shot, which was usually used at the time for hunting small game and birds.
The bore size of BB guns has since been changed to a slightly smaller 0.175 inch (4.4mm) diameter, and models now come in all shapes, sizes and types (including air rifles and air pistols), but the concept behind their operation generally remains the same and they remain fairly popular all round the world.
What are airsoft guns used for?
Airsoft guns are often used in recreational shooting (referred to as “plinking”), as well as in a wide variety of airsoft games and events that involve players shooting each other, “tagging” their opponents to eliminate them from the game.
As a result of their lower power and relatively large and soft ammunition, airsoft guns are typically considered safe enough to be fired at other people and so these airsoft games have become relatively popular since their inception.
Due to their relatively predictable shots, soft ammunition and low power, airsoft guns are also widely used for outdoor, backyard, and even indoor range recreational target shooting (to about 200 feet or so).
What are BB guns used for?
Since their inception in the late 19th century, BB guns have been a popular tool used primarily for recreational target practice and training.
They are frequently given to younger shooters by their parents in order to help them get the feel for a gun and, although their metal BBs and lack of recoil aren’t exactly true to life, are even used by more experienced shooters as a cheaper and safer way of practicing their shooting skills outside the range (such as in their backyard or even indoors).
In fact, modern BB guns (particularly higher quality BB air rifles and air pistols) have become far more realistic, replicating many real firearm features, and higher quality examples can even be used to provide realistic and safer training in the proper handling, draw and even use of the guns they are modeled after.
Contrary to popular belief, however, most BB guns are not a good option for hunting or pest control.
While BB guns originally used lead birdshot as their main source of ammunition, modern BB guns aren’t really all that powerful and lack the accuracy and projectile weight to be used for hunting (even small game), and are more likely to simply injure an animal then kill it.
This is instead best left to high power pellet guns and, of course, actual firearms.
Similarities between airsoft guns and BB guns
Similarity to real steel firearms
While airsoft guns were always meant to look like actual and popular firearms (which aren’t legal to own in Japan), in the past BB guns have mainly stuck to the classic, wood and metal Daisy-style lever action rifle.
Today, however, both airsoft guns and BB guns (particularly .177 air rifles and pistols) can be very realistic and look and feel very much like real firearms.
They can be made as various modern carbines, bolt action rifles, pistols, revolvers, shotguns, and much more.
They can also be modeled after firearms that are otherwise restricted, rare or hard to find, such as machine pistols, full-auto SMGs and historical battle rifles.
As a result, both airsoft and BB guns can be good options for those who are into firearms but for whatever reason can’t (or won’t) get their hands on real steel versions.
Propellant and power options
Airsoft guns and BB guns share a couple ways of being powered.
Both forms of airgun can be powered by spring, with users manually cocking the gun (or drawing a bolt) to compress a spring before it can propel a BB down its barrel.
They can also both be powered by gas, with both airsoft guns and BB guns using CO2 or green gas to launch BBs towards a target.
Both modern airsoft guns and BB guns do have attachment points (such as standard 20mm rails) for mounting firearm accessories like scopes, grips, brakes, flashlights, lasers and more.
As such, they can be customized and personalized to a fair extent, making the gun as tactical as a user might like even if they are mainly for form rather than function.
Similarly, both airsoft guns and BB guns can come with threaded barrels, allowing users to mount mock suppressors to them.
Legal issues in some areas
Finally, as air guns, both airsoft guns and BB guns can be subject to legal restrictions on their purchase and use, which can vary depending on where you might live.
As a result, it is important to always check your local laws before buying either one.
Minimum purchasing age
In the US, airsoft guns and BB guns can only be purchased by a person over the age of 18.
There is, however, generally no restriction when it comes to how old someone needs to be to use one.
That said, we always recommend parental supervision when it comes to under-18s handling either one.
Differences between airsoft guns and BB guns
Ammo: Metal BBs vs Airsoft BBs
Probably the most obvious difference between a BB gun and an airsoft gun is in what they shoot.
Although they both refer to their ammunition as “BBs,” an airsoft gun fires a relatively large (6 or 8mm) plastic or resin ball.
In contrast, a BB gun traditionally fires a .177 inch or 4.5mm metal (usually lead or steel) ball.
Overall, airsoft BBs are softer, lighter and safer to use than a 4.5mm metal BB. They are also generally fired at a lower velocity, which means they don’t impact with quite as much force.
Variety of builds
While both traditional airsoft guns and BB guns can come in a variety of different looks, due to the relative popularity of airsoft and its emphasis on replicating actual firearms, there tends to be a greater number and variety of airsoft gun models out there.
Historical replicas, pistols, shotguns, SMGs, revolvers, niche firearms, miniguns, light machine guns, heavy machine guns, sniper rifles, grenade launchers, military battle rifles, carbines, hunting rifles, guns from movies, tv and video games…all have accurately designed airsoft replicas available for sale.
Although airsoft guns can be modified to deliver a fairly powerful punch, BB guns tend to fire at a greater velocity than airsoft guns, as measured in feet per second (FPS).
By and large most stock airsoft guns keep things under 500 FPS, while quite a few BBs go well beyond this and a few are on sale firing in excess of 600 FPS or more.
Accuracy is a bit of a tricky thing when it comes to comparing BB guns and airsoft guns.
As both types of airgun fire off relatively un-aerodynamic ball-shaped projectiles, neither can really be said to be all that precise.
Having said that, BB guns tend to use heavier metal BBs as their standard ammunition, which means that they tend to fly straighter and are less susceptible to wind and other environmental factors that can send them off course.
As a result, they can be a little more accurate on average out of the box.
One thing to keep in mind, however, is that many airsoft guns tend to come with hop up units.
These little devices add spin to airsoft BBs as they pass through, which allow them to travel straighter for longer distances (thanks to the Magnus effect).
Many of these hop ups are adjustable (as can be seen from the rotary dial in the picture above), meaning that users can make fine adjustments to “tune” the accuracy of their shots at range.
Safety and Appropriate Targets
One critical difference between airsoft guns and BB guns relates to safety.
Due to their lower power and use of softer plastic BBs, airsoft guns are safer to use than BB guns.
While both air guns can be dangerous if misused, and while appropriate safety precautions and clothing should be used when handling either, the fact is that heavier metal BBs are more likely to cause damage to or penetrate skin and tissue than airsoft BBs, which usually ricochet off with a few welts or bruises.
More importantly, and it really can’t be stressed enough, BB guns should never be fired at another person.
While airsoft guns were designed to be used in person-vs-person games and are (relatively) safe to fire at your opponent, especially if users are wearing proper equipment and shooting sensibly, the lead or steel BBs used in a BB gun can be dangerous.
Every year around 30 000 people are injured in the US by BB and pellet guns, most being children and teens.
Severe injuries can include penetrative wounds, severe eye injuries, injuries to the face, head and neck and even traumatic internal injuries.
All a good reason to keep that BB gun pointed at a target with a proper backboard.
Modifications and customization
By and large, airsoft guns tend to lend themselves to customization and modification far more than BB guns.
Aside from the fact that there are tons of aftermarket and upgrade parts on the market, particularly for those based on Tokyo Marui patterns, airsoft tends to have a strong online community presence and there are tons of ideas, instructions and videos out there to help users tailor their gun to their needs.
This is all especially true for many AEGs, which can have MOSFETs and ETUs installed in them that can possibly allow users to really get in there and fine tune the gun’s gearbox with a wide variety of pre-programmed functions and specifications.
In some cases, with the click of a button, users can set the sensitivity of their trigger, add a burst mode, add a binary trigger, add pre-cocking, add low battery warnings, BB counters, customize the potential rate of fire and much more.
Speaking of which…
BB guns are either spring powered (as traditional BB guns) or gas powered (as can be found in .177 air rifles and air pistols).
Although the Barra 400e is a notable exception, by and large BB guns are not offered as Automatic Electric Guns, which are the most popular type of airsoft gun out there.
Battery-powered AEGs offer easier, more cost effective and more consistent performance in all weather compared to spring and gas powered options, and as we’ve mentioned, their gearboxes can be very customizable and modifiable.
So, Which is Better – Airsoft Guns or BB Guns?
As can be seen, although they share some similarities as air guns, airsoft guns and BB guns are pretty much apples and oranges for all practical intents and purposes.
It is therefore hard to say which is better per se.
If you’re looking for an accurate replica of a firearm that you can safely use against friends and opponents (adhering to typical safety recommendations, of course) and perhaps modify as time goes on, then you’ll want an airsoft gun.
If you have no intention of shooting at people or playing wargames with your friends and are just looking for a more accuracy when backyard plinking, and you feel confident in your ability to keep things safe with metal BBs, then perhaps a BB gun is the way to go as they tend to shoot a little straighter out of the box and with a little more force.
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.