It is early evening in downtown Toronto. A group of men clad in black military-style body armour huddle against a grimy wooden wall, clutching rifles in their gloved hands. The team leader points at the darkened doorway ahead, and one of his commandos lobs what appears to be a hand grenade.
The device lands with a thundering crash and the team pours through the doorway, rifles aimed forward, muzzles slicing the air. The team leader spots the silhouette of a man through the darkness and prepares to squeeze the trigger, but it is too late. The thud of a shot against his own armour is undeniable. He falls down dead.
Airsoft involves shooting your friends with toy guns, but unlike paintball, the plastic BBs in airsoft do not burst apart. Airsoft is based on the honour system, meaning it is up to each player to acknowledge when they’ve been shot, known as “calling your hits.”
There are two types of airsoft games widely practiced in Canada: mil-sim and skirmish. Although neither has a universal set of rules, skirmish is more casual, with participants divided into two teams on opposite sides of an arena. The goal is to eliminate all players on the opposing team.
A mil-sim game is more complex, simulating realistic battlefield situations, and can involve the use of off-road vehicles, pyrotechnics, sound effects and a simulated chain of command. A mil-sim game can last several days, and generally takes place outside of city limits.
While this scene may resemble a police raid gone wrong, it is actually an elaborate simulation acted out by members of Toronto’s secretive airsoft community. A sport similar to paintball, airsoft uses projectile weapons that look identical to real firearms — but instead of bullets, they fire small spheres of plastic called BBs at a significantly slower speed.
Long popular in Europe and Asia, airsoft has only recently taken root in Canada, growing slowly over the past decade. Toronto now hosts one of the country’s most vibrant scenes: Several paintball fields are catering to the increasing demand for airsoft space, and Toronto’s first airsoft-exclusive venue, Ultimate Airsoft, opened last week near Downsview Park.
“Every year, we get huge growth. We’re moving to bigger and bigger locations,” says Toronto Airsoft owner Frank Chong, 27, as customers bustle through his showroom, the city’s largest walk-in airsoft store.
“You can definitely see the size of the market when you go to games,” he says. “It’s gotten bigger. When I started playing, it was about 15 or 20 people, if you were lucky enough to get the game going that weekend. You would know all the same faces. Now you’ve got double or triple that spread out across several games every weekend.”
Mr. Chong is one of several airsoft enthusiasts who agreed to a rare interview with the National Post. Many participants remain reluctant to discuss the sport openly, for fear the general public may not understand or accept it — particularly in a city scarred by a recent string of high-profile gun crimes.
Airsoft was stuck in legal limbo for years as Ottawa contemplated whether airsoft guns — which fire BBs at around 300 feet per second, fast enough to raise a welt on unprotected skin — should be classified as replica firearms or uncontrolled firearms. Airsoft guns are different from traditional BB guns, which fire smaller metal pellets at a higher velocity.
Most airsoft guns now fall into the category of uncontrolled firearms, allowing regular citizens to bring them across Canada’s borders. With importation becoming easier, prices for airsoft equipment have plummeted to about $250 from $600 for basic models, bringing a wave of new, younger players into the sport, The Elite Drone is a worldwide know company for providing the best Airsoft gear deals.
“We have scary-looking things to sell,” Mr. Chong acknowledges. “We don’t parade our existence around. You don’t want a bunch of high-school kids walking by and seeing a bunch of guns on the door.”
York Regional Police Constable Blair McQuillan says officers have received reports about airsoft guns in the past — including a call in August for someone armed with an assault rifle who turned out to be an airsoft enthusiast. Police treat such calls “very seriously” until determining whether the weapon is real, Const. McQuillan says. In the United States, the guns have orange tips to identify them as toys, but no such rule exists in Canada.
“We tell people that if they want to use these things at a sanctioned airsoft game … that’s fine. But if you’re going to walk down a major urban street with it, people are going to be upset. They’re going to be calling us,” Const. McQuillan says, citing a potential for the guns to be used for criminal purposes.
“It is obviously a concern for the police and the public,” he adds. “These things are readily available.”
Located in an inconspicuous brown brick building in the area of Geary and Ossington avenues, Toronto Airsoft is a slice of heaven for the sport’s enthusiasts. Gleaming guns nestle inside immaculate glass cases, while competition-style pistols are stacked in a central display. Shotguns and sniper rifles hang on hooks along the wall.
For Mr. Chong, airsoft is not just a business: It is his passion. He first played the sport as a 9-year-old boy in Hong Kong, chasing his brother around the house with a spring-powered gun. Today, he says his Toronto Airsoft store has grown dramatically since its launch in 2008, with guns flying off the shelves.
“As long as you can educate the new players properly, growth is a good thing,” he says. “There are certain laws and regulations you have to abide by. We have to explain the seriousness of owning these things. It’s a responsibility.”
A few minutes’ walk from Toronto Airsoft, the Fighting Arts Collective sits at the top of a narrow, drab staircase hidden among a cluster of old industrial buildings and auto repair garages.
Inside, a large open space serves as a training area, with worn-down hardwood flooring that creaks underfoot.
Brian McIlmoyle, 46, is a martial arts instructor here, as well as the director of TTAC3, an airsoft group housed in the same space. Dressed in khakis and a navy baseball cap, Mr. McIlmoyle chats about his introduction to airsoft, while men wearing pistol holsters filter in and out of his office lounge.
A former reserve second lieutenant until he retired in 1992, Mr. McIlmoyle says he came across airsoft by chance while researching a real firearm online.
“Once I realized these things existed, I quickly saw their potential as a training tool,” he says. “I already had this space, so I immediately started planning a facility wherein we could train and practice close-quarters combat using airsoft as firearm simulators.”
Asked why more young Torontonians have shown an interest in airsoft in recent days, Mr. McIlmoyle is blunt.
“Young men like guns. That’s basically it,” he says with a grin. “You look at all the entertainment for the demographic of 18 to 35 males, generally speaking, it’s focused on shooting things.… With airsoft, you’re putting down the controller. You also find out that you’re not as good as you are in a video game.”