So you’re sitting at a table with your friends, a date, or an acquaintance, and you start talking about hobbies. Inevitably, you mention that you play airsoft, only to be met with ‘That’s like paintball, right?’ Yes and no. Airsoft and Paintball are similar in that they’re both sports that involve shooting at other people for fun with non-fatal consequences, but that’s roughly where the similarities end. Airsoft and Paintball players tend to be like oil and water, rarely mixing their hobbies and seeing what both are about. Chances are you don’t really know all the differences between the two sports. If you’ve never played both sports and want to know more about how they stack up next to each other, this article’s for you.
Projectile and Pain Differences
The most noteworthy difference between airsoft and paintball stems from the projectile used. While airsoft uses a 6mm or 8mm plastic BB, paintball uses much heavier 18mm-ish balls composed of a gelatin skin and a colored oil filling. Due to the nature of how paintballs are made, it’s impossible to give them a polished, seamless exterior like what one might see with high end sniping Bbs. This, combined with the increased weight of paintball results in a game that tends to be played at closer ranges than airsoft. While a high-performance airsoft gun can be accurate out to a bit over 230 feet, hitting targets after 120 feet with a paintball marker involves a lot of luck.
Since paintball is inherently limited to shorter ranges due to the nature of its ammunition, the game has stuck to a typical FPS limit of 300 feet per second while airsoft guns can exceed 500 fps at certain outdoor fields. Paintballs hit significantly harder than airsoft bbs due to their greater size and weight. As a result, paintballs can always be felt through clothing as if you’ve gotten a heavy, blunt slap. I play at outdoor fields where the airsoft FPS limit is 500 FPS or less, so from that perspective, airsoft BBs feel like a particularly sharp flick when struck by one in a well-padded area.
If I were to compare the two, getting hit by a paintball will hurt more than an airsoft BB unless you take high-powered BBs to bare skin. Since the projectile is typically 6mm of hard, unbending plastic, the concentration of force can be enough to break the skin. Should guns over 500 fps be used, airsoft BBs can actually start embedding themselves in the skin. While I’ve never had any BBs embedded in me, I did take several arm shots that drew blood when I wore just a t-shirt in the summer and still have some slight red marks to show for it! My paintball matches, on the other hand, have only ever left large bruises and welts.
A recent development in paintball technology is fin-stabilized rounds, which are significantly more accurate than traditional spherical ammunition but are also significantly more expensive.
It may come as a surprise that airsoft guns and paintball markers are designed almost completely differently. Airsoft guns are almost exclusively designed after existing firearms, with internal mechanisms made to suit the form, typical paintball markers are the polar opposite as function has defined their form. In fact, having a smoothbore barrel is just about all they have in common. Since airsoft guns use hard ammunition, spring-loaded magazines work fine. Since paintball has soft, fragile ammo, it’s typically stored above the gun in a hopper and fed by gravity into the chamber. Some modern paintball markers use magazines for increased realism, but their limited capacity is a disadvantage that makes some players consider “realistic” paintball markers to be impractical.
Internally, paintball markers work a bit more similar to a real firearm than most airsoft guns do due to having a functioning bolt – a feature limited to bolt action rifles in the airsoft world. This bolt is powered by a built-in or remotely connected refillable air tank, and after the bolt cycles, a new paintball falls into the chamber. This allows for a malfunction unique to paintball – chopped balls. Painful sounding, isn’t it? It’s just what it sounds like, though. When a paintball fails to feed into the chamber, when the trigger is pulled, the bolt chops the paintball in two, smearing its contents all over the inside of the barrel. It’s nothing a barrel snake can’t clean in a few seconds, but it can be a bit of an irritation, as some markers do this with surprising regularity.
The difference in shape between a paintball marker and an airsoft gun have to lead to some pretty large differences between how each sport chooses to portray itself. Airsoft’s community often strives for realism, at times to a degree that could easily be described as “LARPing with guns.” Meanwhile, paintball’s community often strives for a sport aesthetic, with players donning team jerseys, wearing vibrant colors, and basking in the mass societal acceptance that comes from having ‘marker’ that looks nothing like a real, dangerous firearm – arguably the main reason for its usual popularity over airsoft here in North America.
That being said, it’s not as if paintball players wear day glow colors when playing woodball – they know the value of concealment just as well as airsoft players. On CQB fields, however, it’s common to see paintball players wearing runners or cleats for increased maneuverability, while airsoft players generally stick to their trusty hiking or combat boots.
Airsoft vs. Paintball Final Thoughts
If you’ve never played airsoft or paintball, I highly recommend trying either one out! If you don’t have any local airsoft communities, at the very least you probably have some paintball players nearby. It might not be slinging BBs, but slinging paint is better than slinging nothing. On the other hand, if you’re an airsoft player who’s never tried paintball or a paintball player who’s never tried airsoft, give it a chance. You might find that you like that sport more than you expected. Please take a look at our airsoft rifle reviews or our informative articles on our website.
C.S. Wilhelm has is a 28 year old ex-military guy who’s been playing airsoft regularly for over a year in the forests of west coast Canada. Less interestingly, he’s also a tremendous nerd. C.S. Wilhelm has a degree in both Creative Writing and English, is a former editor of Portal magazine, and is currently an IT student.