By Steve Baughman
Although not classified as “small arms”, the author recently evaluated several functioning machine gun replicas, which are used for a variety of training and hobby purposes. They make for an interesting addition to any gun collection… These are not intended as childrens toys or for shooting at other people. All safety rules should be strictly followed.
About a year ago, I heard about a new type of gun that claimed to provide suppressed, full-auto firepower with no transfer fees or special licensing. After investigating, I found that 500-round magazines were available, along with a choice of M-16, HK51, MP5, Sig551, Aug, and other models. Discovering that an M-60 and Minigun was also manufactured, I decided it was time to get serious about these claims, and to find out what all the fuss was about. It sounded highly improbable in today’s maize of Federal paperwork and oversight into our personal lives, particularly in the Class III world. Believe it or not, these gun options are still available in the form of functioning air-gun replicas. Officially classified by the U.S. Department of Commerce as “look alike” or “imitation” firearms, any person who is at least 18 years old, and lives where there are no local or state laws that prohibit ownership, may indulge in the full auto experience. Being curious about ATF’s official position on these guns, I contacted the Technology Branch Chief to get the governments definition of their classification. His response is shown in the accompanying letter.
Also known as Airsoft or SoftAir guns, these weapons are manufactured in Japan by Tokyo Marui as actual functioning guns that fire plastic BB’s. The BB’s are propelled via a piston-driven electric motor within the gun. Advertised as some of the finest replica firearms in the industry, the guns have the same dimensions, look, feel, and heft of the real thing, usually at a fraction of the price. I just had to try some of them out to see for myself what they are like. These guns are constructed of metal alloys and high impact ABS resins (similar polymers used in Glock, H&K, and other firearms). All the gun parts are close copies of the original manufacturer, and it is very difficult to note any differences from the real thing in many cases. Rear sights are adjustable for windage and elevation. They can be adapted to an assortment of available accessories, such as tactical lights, scopes, slings, etc. Stocks retract and extend. Magazine release buttons function just like the original guns. Selector switches and safeties also work.
My reaction when I saw these units for the first time was that they could be used for tactical weapons training for law enforcement personnel. They can certainly provide a realistic operating tool for SWAT teams, which train in confined spaces and in urban areas. I wasn’t the only person who was thinking of this application. Law enforcement units in several states are currently using these guns for tactical training purposes. Some military units, and several television shows and movies have also used them. After evaluating and shooting several of these models, I’m convinced that they can provide a multitude of uses for both the professional and novice alike.
I was able to evaluate these guns with assistance from a company named 747 Imports, of Kennesaw, Georgia. 747 Imports is an authorized distributor/retailer for the Tokyo Marui Air Soft machine gun replicas. The owner, Deepak Bakshi, has been involved with these guns for about 10 years. His company offers sales, technical advice, repair, and service. Prices range from about $465 for a FA-MAS to around $1000 for an M60. Most units are priced somewhere between $500 and $600. Full color catalogs are available for $5 (refundable on first purchase) upon request. It may sound like a lot of money for a replica machine gun, but once I saw them in person, I was impressed with their appearance, durability, and overall quality. With the price of transferable machine guns climbing steadily higher and higher, usually several thousand dollars worth, those individuals who have the desire to experience full auto fun now have a viable alternative.
The heart of each gun is a rechargeable ni-cad or lithium battery. It provides power to an electric motor, which then drives a piston providing compressed air to fire the BB’s. All of the components of the air system are fully contained within the gun itself. No air compressor lines, exposed wires/switches, or compressed air canisters to run dry at the most inopportune moments. The battery is designed to provide approximately 2500 rounds of shooting before recharging is required. Batteries recharge to full power in about two hours, and are completely contained within the gun and out of sight. All models function in both semi and full automatic modes, and are also configured with a working safety. Some models are equipped to fire in the three round burst mode as well.
The plastic BB’s are 6mm (.24 caliber) in diameter. They are offered in weights of .14, .20, and .25 grams. Lighter BB’s are good for long range shooting, but are more easily deflected by windy conditions. Overall, I found the .20 gram weight provided the best performance for both short and long-range applications. The heavier .25 gram projectiles are the most accurate at short ranges. Barrels are not rifled, so the projectiles are launched without the benefits of spinning for stabilization. As far as ammunition costs are concerned, these replicas can be fed at a much cheaper rate than the real gun. A pack of 3500 BB’s cost about $25. Special tracer BB’s cost about $25/600.
Each gun has a detachable magazine which houses the BB’s. Loading is simply accomplished by either pouring the projectiles into the mag, or using a loading tube/plunger. The high capacity magazines are the easiest to load, as all you have to do is pour them in. Filling the standard M-16 magazine took about 20 seconds. Once loaded, the magazine is “dialed-up” with a ratchet gear located on the bottom of the magazine. The dial-up provides upward spring tension to push the BB’s up into the guns chamber. Once the magazine is inserted into the gun, it is ready to fire. No other charging is required to chamber the first projectile. Magazine capacities vary from 25 to 500 rounds for most guns. The HK51 tested comes with a 60 round magazine. I used an optional 500 round magazine to do some volume shooting. I fired approximately 1500 BB’s through the HK51 before noticing the velocity starting to drop off due to battery drain. Extra magazines are available, as well as more powerful electric motors, which provide muzzle velocities of 400+ fps. High performance upgrades would include electric motors, firing springs, gearing, and compression chamber components.
A “silencer” is also available which attaches to the barrel. It does not make the gun any quieter, but it does contain an internal photocell that “flash-charges” glow-in-the-dark BB’s. As the gun is fired, and the BB travels through the unit, the photocell “ignites” the projectile, simulating tracer fire. Firing full auto, the projectiles glow like a green stream of water as you see them travel downrange. Red tracer BB’s are in the development phase and should be available in the near future. The silencer unit uses four AAA batteries, and it does not reduce muzzle velocities.
Rate of fire is 600-700 rounds/minute on full automatic mode. Based on my tests, I would say the typical “effective” range would be around 50 yards. Maximum range is approximately 100 yards, due to what’s called the “Hop Up” feature. The Hop Up system places a slight backspin on the projectile providing an uplifting force as it travels outward and away from the gun. The amount of spin is adjustable by the shooter via a rotation lever on the side of the gun. Rotating the lever increases or decreases the upward spin force on the projectile. The event is accomplished by a small interference detent, which projects down from the top of the barrel bore just in front of the chamber. The BB hits the detent as it is fired, hence providing backspin. This feature can add about 15% more distance to the maximum range than for that of a normally fired BB. I chronographed several models, and the average recorded muzzle velocity was around 230 fps with 100% Hop Up selected. Without Hop Up selected, muzzle velocities increased to about 330 fps.
While shooting offhand at some coke bottles 20 yards away, I quickly got the swing of things. Firing 10 and 20 round bursts, the BB’s were pinging off the bottles and ricocheting in all directions. My favorite test unit was the HK51 look-alike. I also fired the M16, HK MP5, Aug, and HK PDW models. Reliability was 100 percent with all of the guns tested. No “misfires” were encountered. I fired these guns along side an integrally suppressed Ruger MkII pistol to compare the sound signatures. From a subjective standpoint, the airgun was probably half as quiet as the suppressed .22LR pistol. We were shooting Winchester high-velocity .22LR ammo through the pistol, and our chronograph recorded readings of 980fps. The air guns typically averaged around 300-330fps.
The low noise of the airgun allows one to shoot in places which are not possible with a real gun. Many a backyard, basement, or even a living room could be set up as a “firing range” with these air guns. Main benefits include no smoke, no brass to pick up, and virtually no noise. Eye protection is highly recommended, due to the high volume of ammo that usually exits the barrel and the ricocheting that normally occurs. Firing point blank range into an aluminum can, we were able to easily penetrate the exterior shell. From 10 feet away, the BB’s punched through two sheets of cardboard and kept on going. I would not want to get shot with one of these guns unless I was wearing adequate protection.
Dreaming and Reality…
While shooting these guns, I realized that we might have found the closest thing to Small Arms Review editor Dan Shea’s “dream gun” as is technically possible. Dan’s dream of a .22LR Minigun with a backpack mounted, hopper-fed ammunition chute providing an unlimited ammunition supply is not a reality yet, but I think something pretty close could be constructed with one of these airguns. Unfortunately, Deepak tells me the Minigun model is no longer made, but that a few might be found on the used market. With a little creative engineering, I believe the Minigun or M60 could be modified to run off a backpack-mounted battery or a retractable extension chord on household current. This would supply the necessary power requirements for extended shooting sessions. A backpack hopper feed tray could be used for the ammo feeding. This concept would provide the shooter a virtually unlimited supply of ammunition, as long as someone could help load the hopper as it is exhausted. Yes Dan, you could have your ammo bearers following behind you, dumping thousands of rounds into the gun as you travel downrange blasting away.
The standard magazine for the M60 holds 1000 rounds and is gravity fed, so as long as long as you have gravity feed for the ammo supply, the above concept is possible. I had hoped to test out a Minigun during my evaluations, but with its discontinuance, it was not possible. The M60 version may be the best chance to test out this idea on. The weight of the M60 is about 10 pounds, and the Minigun was reported to weigh in at 20 pounds. Also, there is no need to have anybody adapt a silencer system, as these guns are quiet enough as is. Any of these guns would be unique items indeed to add to a firearm collection.
For my own personal uses, I have found a unique application for one of these units. They provide non-lethal nuisance animals control around my property. I live on 5 acres of suburban bliss, and up until a few years ago, was fairly isolated from humanity. With the influx of more people and houses nearby, there has been a dramatic increase in nuisance animals invading my property. Although there are leash laws in the county, there are many free-roaming dogs and cats that frequent my yard and livestock areas. This really drives my dogs crazy, since I keep them confined behind chain-link fencing. The BB’s have just enough velocity and impact to get the invaders attention, and also gives them something to remember when and if they decide to come around looking for trouble. The full auto air gun is an excellent tool to persuade them that they do not want to come around my place.
To conclude, these air guns are remarkable high quality replicas. They give one a realistic experience of firing an actual machine gun, providing a unique alternative to owning the real thing. The best thing they have going is that no FFL, transfer tax, or federal paperwork is required. They are top quality reproductions, and should provide years of reliable service. Deepak estimates he has about 50,000 rounds through his HK51 with no maintenance except periodic lubrication of the feeding chamber. Each motor is lifetime rated for at least 50,000 rounds before replacement would be necessary. Every model is provided with a manual outlining maintenance and disassembly instructions. If you can’t afford your Class III “dream gun” right now, a functioning airgun replica may satisfy the soul in the interim. It’s an interesting hobby to say the least.
Marui Co., Ltd.
2615 George Busbee Pkwy
Suite 17, Dept SAR
|This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V1N11 (August 1998)|