Do you know the number-one debate when it comes to combat sports?
There’s no doubt that they are a thrilling, adrenaline-fueled pastime, and they’ve been growing in popularity ever since they were invented.
But there’s one argument in the community that will probably rage on until the end of time.
Airsoft vs paintball – which is better?
Now, there are airsofters screaming airsoft, and there are paintballers screaming paintball – but let’s see if we can get to the bottom of this, once and for all.
And at the very least, this article should point you in the right direction when it comes to choosing the sport for you.
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- Airsoft or Paintball in a Couple of Words
- Why Play Combat Sports?
- What is Airsoft?
- What is Paintball?
- Age Restrictions
- Guns and Ammo
- Protective Gear
- Additional Equipment
- When to Play
- Venues, Arenas, and Playing Fields
- Types of Gameplay and Rules
- Player Roles and Tactics
- Hits and Pain
- Cheating and Gamesmanship
- Competition and Tournaments
- Environmental Impact
- Airsoft vs Paintball Price
- The Final Verdict
Airsoft or Paintball in a Couple of Words
I’m not going to lie – this will be a thorough, in-depth comparison between airsoft and paintball, pitting them head-to-head, to see who comes out on top.
It’s called an “ultimate guide” after all.
But for those who prefer their answers in a nutshell, here’s the final verdict, right off the bat.
Airsoft is initially cheaper, more realistic, and comes with enormous scope for guns, gear, equipment, and extras.
But prices can add up, guns break and malfunction easily, there are no pro leagues or players to speak of, and it’s not as environmentally friendly.
Paintball is more expensive upfront, but it has a larger following, and is more accessible, with professional leagues and tournaments worldwide.
Guns and equipment are more durable, although the loadout and look isn’t nearly as realistic as airsoft. It also hurts much, much more – and can get very messy.
Now, there’s obviously a lot more to it than that brief summary, so please read on to discover everything you need to know in more detail.
Why Play Combat Sports?
While the debate continues as to which combat sport is better, there’s no doubt they share some obvious similarities.
And with those similarities, come some excellent reasons to play combat sports in the first place.
Both airsoft and paintball are brilliant for:
- Keeping fit and healthy, developing stamina, strength, and endurance.
- Meeting new people and expanding your social circle.
- Learning and developing teamwork, leadership, tactical skills, and strategy.
- A team-building and morale-boosting day out.
- An unbeatable adrenaline rush – feel that surge in dopamine and serotonin.
- Getting off the couch and into nature.
- Stress management and reduction – get your anger out!
Let’s take a quick look at each sport now before we get into the nitty-gritty of what sets them apart.
What is Airsoft?
Airsoft was developed back in the 1970s in Japan, as a way of circumnavigating the country’s strict gun control laws, so firearm enthusiasts could enjoy harmless shooting enjoyment.
One of the world’s leading airsoft brands – Tokyo Marui – then invented a realistic automatic electric gun or AEG, and the sport exploded.
Today, it’s played by millions of people around the world, (3.4 million in the US alone) with an estimated gun market value of around $1.5 Billion.
Players are usually divided into teams, and engage in a number of different combat scenarios, with realistic replica weapons firing non-lethal plastic pellets.
Aside from the gameplay, an immensely popular part of the sport is building a convincing loadout, with tactical gear and equipment that closely resembles the real thing.
To see what I mean, check out this article on airsoft versus real military gear.
Games can be played both outdoors and indoors. Military simulation games (MilSim) are most popular outside, while a version called speedsoft is more suitable for fast-paced inside play.
What is Paintball?
Paintball has a wonderful backstory of being invented in the early 80s, as the result of a bet between a city slicker and a hunter – who could actually survive in a combat situation in the wilderness?
Using modified paint markers for cattle and forestry purposes, paintball was born, and the rest is history, (although I’m not sure who won the initial bet).
Today, paintball is one of the fastest-growing sports in the world, popular for corporate events, bachelor parties, birthdays, and more.
Players use “markers” that fire paint pellets which explode and mark a target when hit – thus eliminating them from the game.
Like airsoft, it can be played both indoors and out, although outdoor fields are by far the most common and popular.
Pro leagues and tournaments are popular, and there’s a push for it to be included in the Olympics. For more information, take a look at this article on paintball as a sport.
Now we’ve had some scene-setting backstory, let’s put these two combat sports giants against each other in a head-to-head battle to the DEATH!
Or, just to see which one you might prefer.
How young (or old) can you be to play airsoft or paintball? The answers below are in reference to the US only, and it will vary from country to country, as well as state to state.
For airsoft, there is no minimum age restriction, but there are caveats depending on the field/state. Take a look at this article on US airsoft age laws for more information.
Generally speaking, it’s recommended that a child is at least 13 before embarking on a life in airsoft in the US. In many countries, you’re not allowed to play unless you’re at least 18.
For paintball, it’s similar, and a child should be at least 10-years-old to play. However, there are low-impact fields available, where younger children can participate.
This article on paintball age restrictions will tell you more.
In most cases, parents or guardians will need to sign a waiver for anyone under the age of 18 to play a combat sport at a registered paintball or airsoft field.
And for the actual purchase of guns, you need to be at least 18 to buy both types of weapons.
Guns and Ammo
Perhaps the most obvious and significant difference between the two sports is in the guns and ammo.
Airsoft guns are highly realistic pieces of hardware that resemble real steel weapons so closely – that it can be very difficult to tell them apart.
They can be powered with battery packs, single-action springs, or gas canisters/cartridges. This article on the different types of airsoft guns will tell you all you need to know.
Airsoft weapons fire tiny plastic BB pellets, commonly six millimeters in diameter, and weighing 0.20 grams. Variations of both size and weight are available, and they are stored in magazines – similar to real firearms.
Depending on the type of ammo and gun – including modifications and upgrades – a typical airsoft weapon will fire at around 350 FPS (Feet Per Second).
Paintball is notably different. Guns are known as “markers” and they’re powered by Co2 canisters or compressed air. Electronic guns are available, but they still need gas to fire.
A “hopper” sits on top of the gun, which stores around 200 paint pellets. Pellets are made from non-toxic, vegetable-based substances.
Most paintball fields have a 250-300 FPS limit when it comes to the power of the gun. Have a read of this article for an interesting in-depth look at the different types of paintball ammo.
Go here to explore paintball guns in more detail.
Both airsoft and paintball demand the wearing of protective gear – particularly for the eyes and face – which is non-negotiable.
This article will teach you about airsoft goggles, while this piece will show you the best paintball masks on the market.
I highly recommend covering the whole face for both sports – but for paintball it’s essential.
Providing your head, face, and neck are well protected, you can pretty much wear what you want for both paintball and airsoft, but these tactical pants with knee pads are a good starting point.
Tactical shooting gloves are highly recommended for both sports. I wish I was wearing some when I got shot with a paintball on my little finger…
Women might want to consider a padded bra, while both sexes often wear crotch protection – more commonly for paintball – in the form of a cup or padded underwear.
Loose clothing is recommended for paintball, as it will absorb the sting better, and may even prevent the pellet from breaking at all (which doesn’t count as a hit.)
These articles on what to wear for airsoft and what to wear for paintball will explain things in more detail.
Most paintball players will be content with some loose-fitting old clothes, overalls, or genuine paintball pants and jerseys.
(Although there are tactical paintball vests available, and serious players will follow that link.)
But for airsofters, when it comes to additional equipment, this is where the sky’s the limit for your loadout.
If the military wears it – so do airsoft players.
Tactical helmets, sidearm holsters, combat boots, plate carriers, and chest rigs… the list is almost endless on the level of detail airsoft players are dedicated to reproducing.
And that’s not to mention sports cameras, night vision goggles, headlamps, and other tactical gear to enhance the gameplay experience.
When to Play
Sharing another similarity, airsoft and paintball are best enjoyed as three-season sports, and I would recommend late spring and early fall as the best times to get involved.
Colder temperatures affect both – particularly paintball – although it is possible to play year-round.
Remember, you’ll need a different loadout depending on the time of year, and this guide to playing paintball in the summer is essential for combating the heat.
Much of the advice is easily applied to airsoft, but you can take a look at this article on playing airsoft in winter, as it also goes both ways.
Venues, Arenas, and Playing Fields
Both airsoft and paintball share further similarities when it comes to the playing arena.
Outdoor fields often utilize abandoned buildings, old military installations, disused hotels, and hospitals.
Accessing these games is the Holy Grail of combat sports – since they usually run on private land, and not everyone can be invited.
Dedicated combat sports businesses try hard to re-create such an environment with specially-made constructions to resemble similar, convincing, and challenging terrain.
Wooden forts and/or bases are common, as are scrap cars and buses, oil drums, foxholes, bunkers, old military vehicles – and anything else that provides exciting thematic cover.
For indoor play, simple plywood structures are common in an attempt to recreate buildings and cover. Depending on the size of the arena, old vehicles might also be used.
And some games just use whatever nature has provided – woodsball being a good example. My first-ever game of paintball was in a forest – with nothing but the staging area to tell it was a paintball field.
That, and all the tree trunks splattered with paint.
Tournament paintball is played on a more compact field – often with special inflatable bunkers for cover. Take a look at this article to discover the differences between speedball and woodsball.
When I first got into playing paintball, there were fields all over the place (the mid-80s – 90s was arguably its boom time), and it was pretty easy to get a group together and access a game.
I think this is still the case today, as paintball continues to enjoy popularity around the world – with more players than airsoft at the time of writing.
To me, airsoft is a little harder to get into, and you might have to dig deeper to help get you started. This website on all the US airsoft fields is a terrific resource for such an endeavor.
However, many good fields today are offering both sports in one location – which is a great way to kill two birds with one stone and try them both out at your convenience.
Types of Gameplay and Rules
Airsoft and paintball also share similar rules when it comes to how the games are played, and the different types of game modes available.
You can enjoy options like team deathmatch, capture the flag, king of the hill, president assassination, free-for-all, zombies, and much, much more.
Inventing your own games is highly encouraged, and private matches can get seriously creative.
Dedicated fields will have in-house rules, which you should familiarize yourself with before play begins.
This article on the best airsoft game modes will explain more – and remember many are easily transferable to paintball.
But airsoft game rules are slightly different – especially when it comes to calling your hits (more on that, below).
I would say that airsoft offers more variety in the choice of games you can play, and just edges paintball in this regard.
Player Roles and Tactics
Aside from the realistic loadouts you can achieve in airsoft, players are committed when it comes to military operations and tactics.
As such, a core of airsoft player roles has been identified over the years, with the main positions being team leader, assault, support, designated rifleman, and sniper.
Medic and engineer can be added depending on gameplay, and you should follow the link above to find out more.
Similar roles might be available in paintball, but the main difference when it comes to positions and tactics lies within the type of weapon you’re running.
For the most part, paintballers will have very similar guns, with similar rates of fire, and similar levels of accuracy.
But the weapon platforms available to airsoft players creates an enormous choice when it comes to gameplay and strategy.
Having a sniper hidden in the bushes with an effective range of 100 feet just isn’t possible in paintball – but it is with airsoft, and that’s a notable difference between the two.
Hits and Pain
This is one of the most commonly asked questions when it comes to pitting these two sports against each other:
Airsoft vs paintball pain – which hurts more?
The short answer is paintball – by a country mile.
While field FPS limits for both weapons are about the same, airsoft guns can be modified to fire considerably faster.
Still, while that does have some impact on how much the pellet will hurt, it’s the size and weight of the ammo that actually does the damage.
And that’s where the .68 caliber, three-gram paintball is going to leave a serious mark.
Take a look at this article on paintball vs airsoft pain for a more in-depth analysis.
But either way – you shouldn’t be afraid to try it. Providing you’re well protected in both sports, you’ll be fine, and there are low-impact paintball fields available if you are genuinely concerned about pain.
Now, aside from the obvious differences in the guns and ammo, realism is what genuinely sets the two sports apart.
And in this department, airsoft has paintball beat – hands down.
In fact, this is arguably its greatest advantage over its younger cousin. The guns, the gear, and the games resemble real steel engagements, particularly when playing MilSim scenarios.
It’s interesting to note, the United States Coast Guard adopted airsoft as an official training method in 2018.
Other armed forces and law-enforcement units around the world also use airsoft as a form of non-lethal combat training for a variety of scenarios and situations.
And while MilSim and reenactments can still work in paintball, overall, it doesn’t even come close to the dedication airsofters pour into their preferred pastime.
For the most part, a paintball marker looks like a paintball marker – and nothing else. Realistic, mag-fed paintball guns are available, but they’re not as common – and not as good.
There is an advantage to this when it comes to safety, however, as nobody but the most jittery cop should be confusing it for a real firearm.
But just take one look at the airsoft guns available – and the sheer variety of platforms you can get your hands on. If it exists as a real gun, it will likely exist as a realistic airsoft replica.
Check out these airsoft sniper rifles as a good example. You just don’t get that in paintball, and the same can be said of these awesome airsoft shotguns, too.
Cheating and Gamesmanship
By the very nature of paintball, the pellets explode in contact with the target, making it extremely obvious who has been hit.
While cheating exists in any sport, it’s a lot harder to get away with in paintball.
The exact opposite can be said of airsoft.
With no visible mark to speak of, players can easily pretend they were never hit – which is a common problem with the sport.
Airsoft relies on the honor system of calling your hits, but enforcing it isn’t that easy. For more information, take a look at this article on airsoft rules and regulations.
When paired head-to-head, I’ve personally found airsoft players to be more aggressive, abusive, and generally more unpleasant.
However, I’m not tarnishing everyone with the same brush – and that is just my personal opinion from just under 30 years of experience.
Competition and Tournaments
While tournament and competition play is available in airsoft, at the time of writing, it doesn’t really have an official body – or a professional league to speak of.
(Speedsoft players might disagree, as SpeedQB is a popular company running pro gear, guns, and games since 2016.)
Paintball, on the other hand, has a well-established pro circuit, with a global presence and teams all over the world.
In some states, pro paintball players can earn as much as $65,000 a year! Now that’s what I call a dream job!
Sadly, this important aspect of playing combat sports is often overlooked by many players, but it’s worth noting – in case some of it manages to stick.
The world’s oceans are filled with tiny bits of plastic. I can bet my bottom dollar that there’s a monumental amount of airsoft BBs in there, as just about everything gets washed to the sea at some point.
There are biodegradable pellets available, but they tend to be more expensive at the time of writing. They might also have a tendency to break apart on impact – which can be hazardous for anyone wearing mesh face masks.
(Note – don’t wear mesh face masks for airsoft.)
Still, bio BBs are generally very good quality, don’t cost that much more, and I highly recommend you choose this course of action whenever possible.
Paintball ammo is plant-based and will degrade over time. However, when it comes to laundry, it’s a much messier sport.
Although you might think points like these are negligible – it all adds up, and we should all be doing our part to look after our planet.
Airsoft vs Paintball Price
The moment of truth – often the dealbreaker when it comes to which sport you choose to take up – how much does it all cost?
At my local airsoft field, it costs $20 to join a game on the weekend, which includes a gun and a magazine. Mask hire is $5 more, and BBs are sold separately. Expect to pay $10-20 per 2000 count.
If I want to play paintball, I’ll hand over $50-60 all in for 3-5 hours of play, with 500 rounds of ammo.
A 2000 count of mid-range paintballs will cost $40.
A 2000 count of mid-range BB pellets will cost around $10.
A decent entry-level paintball gun will set you back $100-300.
A decent entry-level airsoft gun will set you back $80-250.
As you can see, paintball is more expensive initially, but over time, and with the inclusion of purchasing upgraded guns and gear (as well as weapon maintenance costs) airsofters will soon catch up.
Having said that, I think after “buying once, crying once,” airsoft will be much cheaper to play in the long run, and with most players using rechargeable AEGs – the running costs are significantly less.
The Final Verdict
I’ve marked this as a dead heat. Six for airsoft, six for paintball, and three draws.
It’s just going to come down to personal preference, and what’s more important to you.
I love them both, for example, but I would say I’m more a paintballer than I am an airsofter.
They each have their advantages and disadvantages, and I would highly recommend you try both before making your mind up.
Something tells me this debate is going to continue for some time…
There you have it, folks, the ultimate battle of airsoft vs paintball has been settled. Or has it? Would you like to add anything more? Which sport do you prefer? Perhaps laser tag is more your thing?!
(And there’s nothing wrong with that!)
Let me know in the comments if you’d like to share anything with the community.
Stay safe out there, and happy paintballing/airsofting!