Plastic has a lot going for it, all things told.
It’s a cheap, modifiable, flexible, lightweight material that has really transformed our world.
When reinforced by fiber, such as with carbon fiber, nylon or fiberglass, it can be surprisingly strong, too, capable of being turned into building materials and even reliable firearms.
It’s perhaps no wonder, then, that many airsoft replicas make heavy use of polymer materials.
With that said, there is just something about the feel and authenticity that a metal airsoft gun provides that plastic models struggle to match.
If you’re in the market for a full metal airsoft gun then read on as we discuss some of their advantages, disadvantages, and many of the common misconceptions players have about them.
What do we mean by full metal, anyway?
Generally speaking, when airsofters and manufacturers talk about full metal airsoft guns, they don’t necessarily mean that the entire replica is made of metal components (although they can be).
Instead, a full metal airsoft gun usually refers to a replica with metal:
- Upper receivers
- Lower receivers
- Barrel assemblies
- And gearboxes
There are many full metal airsoft guns out there with some pretty fine plastic or wood furniture and nonessential body components (buttstocks, triggers, grips, handguards, etc), but the general idea is that the most important components of these airsoft guns are made of metal of some kind rather than plastic.
Advantages of Metal Airsoft Replicas
Beyond the nice feel of solid metal in your hands, full metal airsoft guns do have some advantages over their plastic counterparts.
There’s no getting around it, despite their true to life looks, many plastic airsoft guns can be overly lightweight, flimsy feeling and even too flexible and can feel like toys at times when you hold them.
Airsoft guns that use more metal in their construction tend to have the right weight, look and sound (especially if they are blowback models and/or have wood furniture) and just tend to feel more like a real gun than polymer versions.
If you’re someone for whom realism is an important part of airsoft play, you might want to consider a full metal airsoft gun, especially if you’re buying an airsoft gun that is based on a real steel version that doesn’t contain polymer materials in the first place.
Sure it’s not always the case, especially for cheap metal airsoft models that use soft alloys or when compared to high quality reinforced polymers, but generally speaking a decent quality metal airsoft gun and its components will stand up to day to day running and gunning better than plastic versions.
Metal pieces are usually less susceptible to casual chipping and small breaks from drops and dings than their plastic counterparts, although they are painted and will scuff more easily.
With heavier slides and slide mechanisms, and various other metal components, full metal airsoft guns tend to have a slightly more impressive recoil as well as a distinctive, metallic snap.
Now, it’s really more of a matter of taste and feel rather than force, since there are some plastic airsoft guns that use special recoil springs and other mechanisms to give their replicas a harder kick.
If you prefer gas blowback to electric, you might want to consider a metal body for its increased durability around the slide.
Other than providing a more satisfying sound and experience overall, metal components tend to be a little more sturdy and long lasting, especially if you like to experiment with more powerful gasses as these can damage plastic versions over time.
Drawbacks of Metal
Due to the increased cost of the components used, the increased cost to mill and cut them and their more premium position in the airsoft market, full metal airsoft guns tend to be far more expensive than their plastic or mixed material counterparts, sometimes up to 1.5-2x the price regardless of actual performance or even overall quality.
Metal pieces, even cheap aluminum alloys, tend to be heavier than polymer composites, which is something to think about if they’re not balanced correctly or if you plan on carrying them around for long periods of time.
Unlike plastic, most metals used in airsoft guns tend to rust if not properly taken care of.
Aside from being not exactly a barrel of laughs to notice on a $300 airsoft gun, if not dealt with the metal will fail over time.
This means that full metal airsoft guns do require more maintenance overall and need to be stored with a little more care, especially after getting wet or dirty.
Metal shrinks in the cold, which can cause increased friction for metal components above and beyond their polymer counterparts.
Users of metal airsoft guns may see issues with magazine fit, as well as issues with the slide and slide mechanism that can impede performance.
Metal also gets hot if left in the sun, which is something many an airsoft user has found out to their detriment when absentmindedly picking up a metal airsoft gun on a hot day.
Advantages of Polymer Airsoft
Conversely, polymer airsoft guns have a variety of advantages to them that airsofters should consider before dismissing them.
Owing to the nature of their materials, airsoft guns made of polymer can be a lot more lightweight and easy to carry around in-game than ones with an all-metal construction.
Plastics are generally easier to source and, when you’re talking about a full production line, easier to mold into shape than metal, and this cost saving is usually passed along in the form of a cheaper purchase price.
Easier to maintain
Unlike metal, plastic doesn’t rust and is fairly weather resistant. As a result, it doesn’t require quite as much care and maintenance by its users.
Can be made to be quite durable and realistic looking
Although the use of cheaper plastics have given polymer airsoft guns a poor reputation for build quality, when reinforced with fiber (e.g. nylon, carbon fiber and fiberglass), polymer airsoft guns can be surprisingly durable, sometimes to a level that exceeds those made of aluminum.
Similarly, with careful painting and construction, polymer airsoft guns can be made to look very similar to a full metal version, with some models even replicating a stainless steel look.
Is a metal airsoft gun always more durable than polymer?
No, not always.
There is no universal standard when it comes to the types and quality of metals used by airsoft manufacturers, which is something to consider.
Depending on the brand, the product line and the intended price, airsoft guns can vary a great deal in the type and quality of metals that are used.
For sure, some companies use higher quality metals for their receivers, bolt carriers and other essential parts, using things like steel, tempered billeted and forged aluminum.
Others, however, are content to use cheaper, less durable metals to save a little money, building replicas from pot metal or cheaper zinc alloys, for example, that are prone to brittleness and cracking or denting over time.
Similarly, even if manufacturers do use metal that is high quality in theory, they may be sourced cheaply and contain defects or flaws, or have been damaged in the manufacturing process, or just be overly thin for their purpose.
In contrast, while its true that generally speaking metal is a little less prone to damage than plastics, there are airsoft guns made with various high quality plastics, such as those that using nylon and fiberglass reinforced plastic.
These can be exceptionally durable and lightweight and give even the better metal airsoft guns a run for their money.
While you certainly don’t have to be a metallurgist, if you are in the market for a metal airsoft gun it is always important to dig a little bit into the materials they actually use and the reputation of the company before making any decision one way or another.
How realistic is a metal airsoft gun, anyway?
It’s a common misconception that a full metal airsoft gun is inherently more realistic than a plastic or polymer one.
While it’s certainly true that a full metal airsoft gun will be heavier and have a distinct feel to it (not to mention, in some cases, a nice rattle), it’s also true that not all real steel guns are totally made of metal.
For a variety of reasons, including to save weight, cost and lack of rust, there are quite a few well known guns that are actually made mostly out of high tech polymers, Glock springing instantly to mind.
Other examples of real steel guns that use a good deal of polymer in their construction are the:
- G36 rifle
- Sig 552
- Tavor Rifle
- Steyr AUG
- And more
Typically, polymers are mostly used for a firearm’s frame but may occasionally be used for receivers as well, with a good deal of debate and interest surrounding polymer lower receivers in the firearms world.
In fact, companies like Polymer80 have made a name for themselves in this field and has ignited debate in what is, admittedly, a fairly easily triggered community of enthusiasts.
Since, for many airsoft players, a big component of airsoft is how well an airsoft gun replicates the real thing, it can be worthwhile to do a little research on the weapon an airsoft rifle is based upon and more fully understanding its components before making a decision regarding its replica’s construction and likely spending more money in the process.
Full metal airsoft guns can be really cool.
They look, feel and sound more like real guns and can, depending on what they’re made of and their build quality, be more durable and long lasting than their plastic counterparts.
That said, like everything else, they do have their drawbacks that users should consider, including their increased price and weight.
At the end of the day, however, the quality and components of an airsoft guns construction matters far more than the materials it is built with and it really boils down to a matter of personal preference and taste.
Will Martin – Will has been into airsoft and paintball for well over 10 years, and has done it all – from upgrading and fixing gearboxes as a tech to building custom airsoft loadouts for his friends to supporting off those friends as a DM.