11 Key Differences Plus Which is More Popular
While these two combat games seem very similar, they’re actually quite different in several key ways. Most notably:
This guide breaks down the 11 major differences between paintball and airsoft, starting with the most obvious. Let the games begin!
During a paintball game when you get hit by a paintball — splat! — there’s no mistaking it. Your clothes get stained with brightly colored paint that easily calls attention to the fact that you’ve been eliminated. Paintball is obvious in this regard - your clothing doesn't lie.
Getting hit in airsoft is far less obvious. Airsoft BBs are small plastic pellets weighing about 0.2 grams each — 16 times less than the weight of a single paintball — and they don’t splatter when they hit their target.
While both paintball and airsoft are honor system sports that require players to call themselves out when hit, there’s absolutely no way around it in airsoft. Cheating is handled harshly in both paintball and airsoft, but it’s flat out not tolerated in airsoft. You have to respect the honor system rules at all times.
Though I’m listing this second — the difference above was low-hanging fruit — realism is the biggest difference between paintball vs airsoft.
Airsoft guns look like real guns. This is because airsoft guns are modeled to look like real guns. If there’s a particular firearm that you like, chances are there’s an airsoft equivalent. And that goes for some of your favorite guns from video games like Gears of War. Airsoft guns are so realistic that United States federal law requires they have orange tips to differentiate from real firearms. This is especially important because some states, like California, have laws that make it a crime to brandish lookalike firearms, such as an airsoft gun, so care needs to be taken to store them away properly when not in use on an actual airsoft field. You can imagine the problems that arise when airsoft guns are mistaken for real firearms. No bueno.
Because of the realistic size and look-and-feel of airsoft guns, the sport lends itself to more realistic games that resemble real life scenarios. Players usually are decked out in tactical equipment with military simulation (MilSim) skirmishes more popular among airsoft players than paintballers. And while paintball does have shotgun and sniper style markers, airsoft has a wider-array of realistic looking (and functioning) shotguns and sniper rifles. This adds another layer of realism to the game, as an airsoft player can more readily adopt roles, such as sniper, on the battlefield. This is made even more fun when part of a tactical team strategy in full-scale MilSim games.
On the other hand, paintball guns are very obviously not actual firearms, and in fact they’re usually called paintball markers because they mark opponents with paint. The hopper on top of a paintball marker is usually a dead giveaway that the paintball marker isn’t a real weapon. This is another point in favor of airsoft for realism, though it does come at a price. Paintball guns look like paintball guns for the most part.
For the most part, paintball guns are ready to go right out of the box. There are some paintball markers, like the Tippmann 98 Custom paintball gun, that are designed for upgrades, but you won't be at a significant disadvantage if you don't. You can grab your paintball gun from the shop or online and head straight to the paintball games the second you get the thing.
Airsoft guns are almost universally meant to be upgraded with better barrels, bolts, and almost every other part. Stock barrels, in particular, often cost you precious inches (or even feet) on your accuracy range.
While there are some paintball markers that are magazine-fed, all airsoft guns are mag-fed.
There are three types of airsoft magazines:
Low capacity airsoft magazines are the most realistic and hold about 30 rounds. They’re designed for MilSim-style skirmishes that resemble real realistic combat. The downsides are fairly obvious: You need to conserve ammo and reload more often.
Medium capacity airsoft magazines hold upwards of 150 rounds, which are fed into a tube that winds inside the magazine. The tube is filled with a spring, which compresses with every new round added. The spring keeps all of the rounds under constant pressure, feeding each new round into the chamber as you fire. Medium capacity magazines are a solid middle ground for people who don’t want to reload their airsoft gun as frequently but don’t want the oftentimes annoying disadvantages of the high capacity magazine type.
High capacity magazines hold upwards of 600 rounds of ammunition. They have an open chamber on top filled with BBs that uses gravity to feed the ammo toward the bottom, where a spring-powered wheel funnels them into a tube leading up into the gun’s chamber. The obvious advantage is less reloading. The disadvantages are twofold:
Both of these downsides are diametrically opposed to the core appeal of airsoft: its realism.
Because the size of airsoft BBs are so small and light — around 0.2 grams each — you don’t need compressed air to fire them with solid force. In fact, you'll find spring-powered airsoft riles that reach 430 fps (like this one).
You can find spring-powered paintball guns, which operate using a shotgun-like pumping mechanism, but you'll be seriously overmatched on the field. So this is a key difference between these gun sports that people should pay attention to.
No comparison of airsoft vs paintball would be complete without discussing airsoft’s lower-weight ammo — remember, BBs are about 16 times lighter than paintballs — has less kinetic energy in flight. Therefore, the pellets slow down way more quickly that paintballs and are more susceptible to wind and other air effects, especially when traveling longer distances. This means less accuracy over longer distances when comparing this type of ammunition to paintballs. If you get a chance hold both in your hand and it's easy to grasp how different they are.
That's why it's especially important to choose the right airsoft gun. Our guides to the 11 Best Airsoft Sniper Rifles have our favorite guns to mitigate the decreased long-distance accuracy.
It’s also tougher to make corrections for the environment. The reason is airsoft pellets are harder to see in-flight than paintballs and don’t splatter upon impact, making it challenging to see how far off (and in what direction) you missed your target. One thing to keep in mind when comparing the two.
A major advantage airsoft has, and why many paintball players pick up the sport at least part-time, is it usually costs less to play. There are a lot of reasons this is the case:
Of course, in both cases these games can become expensive hobbies if you let them!
Ever wonder How Much Paintball Costs? Our game guide covers 35 equipment and clothing expenses you might incur as a paintball player (and which ones are required vs nice-to-have). From your paintballs to your gun it's all covered here.
Airsoft pellets travel around 400-500 feet per second (fps) whereas paintballs are capped at 285 fps. (Though these limits may be different at each facility.) But despite the faster rate, it hurts less to get hit by an airsoft BB than a paintball (with the notable exception of direct BB-on-skin contact from close range…those still hurt a ton).
The reason is physics. The size and weight of the ammunition is different between the two.
This resource does an awesome job showing the relative forces for airsoft vs paintball impacts. Let’s look at a 0.2 gram airsoft BB versus a 3 gram paintball impact near the max allowable speeds:
That’s 4.63 times more force upon impact for a paintball despite the fact that it’s traveling nearly half as fast. Paintballs can indeed do damage which is why any responsible player will insist on safety at all times.
While a typical airsoft player generallys wear less protective equipment because impacts don’t hurt as much, there’s one area that they really need to beef things up: their eye protection.
Airsoft BBs are much smaller and move faster in close quarters than paintballs, and that means your eyes are at more risk. Having more robust face and eye protection that fits well and doesn’t have small gaps for the pellets to penetrate is hugely important for having a fun, safe day at the airsoft fields. It's all fun and games until somebody gets hurt.
Paintball is the more popular sport. More popularity means more players, which means more tournaments and larger prizes.
Why is paintball more popular?
Well, the answer probably has something to do with the perceived strengths of each sport.
Paintball is easy to pick up for new players. Join some friends at one of your local paintball fields, rent some equipment, get out there, and start firing! A paintball game is more casual, it’s harder to cheat, and there’s nothing quick like the rush of paintballs flying and splattering everywhere.
Airsoft’s strength is its realism, but this can be intimidating for new players and the rush is different than paintball. Instead of getting off on high-speed action, many airsoft teams live for the slow burn of realistic combat and strategy. Airsoft may be smaller in size when it comes to overall players, but in my experience this game has more fanatical converts.
But there is one type of competition that airsoft has and paintball doesn’t: skills challenges.
Instead of working as a team and eliminating opponents, skills challenges pit player vs player on an obstacle course with the goal of completing the course and accurately hitting targets as quickly as possible. It’s a lot like those one-player challenges you’ve played in games like Call of Duty.
Because airsoft places such an emphasis on realism — airsoft guns were invented for target practice in Japan, where there are heavy gun regulations—it’s natural that accuracy- and skill-based competitions have popped up. The Airsoft Nation Shooting Competition is one such example of these games.
Both paintball and airsoft are awesome games with their own distinct pros and cons. While you’re probably here trying to figure out the differences between airsoft vs paintball, the truth is that many players choose both sports: airsoft and paintball!
See you out in the fields! GAME ON.
If you ask me, the answer to the question of airsoft vs paintball or paintball or airsoft should be paintball and airsoft. Of course that's just my personal preference.
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Credit: Featured airsoft gun image courtesy Joint Base Charleston.