Replica air pistols are safe, right? I mean, it’s not as if they’re real guns. So you don’t have to worry about safety too much do you? Wrong! Replica air pistols are capable of causing serious or even fatal injuries. Safety in handling and shooting of replica air pistols is just as important as it is when using firearms.
Can you spot any safety errors in the picture above? That’s right – neither man is wearing eye protection. Clever improvised ear protection for the man on the right too. And yes, I do know this isn’t a real picture.
This article provides advice about target shooting safety only – if you’re an airsofter you’ll obviously need to consider additional protection for your face, neck and body.
What’s the damage?
A number of studies have been done on the effects of .177 pellets and 4.5mm steel BBs or lead balls striking the skin. A study in 1982 by V J DeMaio of the Regional Crime Laboratory in San Antonio, Texas found the following effects of .177 pellets fired from an air pistol at a range of 20 feet:
- At 290 fps, there was penetration of skin (pellet embedded in skin),
- At 331 fps there was generally perforation through the skin with the pellet being embedded in underlying tissue,
- At 365 fps and higher, perforation always occurred.
A separate study in 2004 looking at the effect of 4.5mm BB shots to the eye found that a minimum velocity of 246 fps was required to cause corneal perforation with penetration to the retina and extensive damage to the eye.
Plastic or metal 6mm BBs fired from airsoft weapons generally do not have sufficient energy to penetrate the skin, though they are capable of causing serious damage to the eye.
If your are unfortunate enough to be shot with a pellet or BB, seek medical assistance immediately. BBs, lead balls or pellets embedded in or under the skin can lead to serious infections if they are not treated promptly.
It’s clear that the replicas we own will fire at velocities that are easily capable of causing injury. So, what can be done to minimise the risk?
Safe handling of air pistols is the best way to avoid injury. There are three simple safety rules that apply to all pistol shooting:
- Keep your finger off the trigger of a loaded gun until it is pointed at the target,
- Never point a loaded gun at anything you aren’t happy to shoot,
- Always treat every gun as if it is loaded.
The short clip below shows a DEA agent in the US who simultaneously forgot all three rules while demonstrating gun safety to school kids in the US with an “unloaded” Glock .40. He shot himself in the foot. Literally and metaphorically.
There are a few additional safety points for replica pistol shooters to consider:
Never rely on the safety catch to make a pistol safe. Safety catches on some replica pistols are idiosyncratic and don’t work in the way you may expect. Never rely on a safety catch to prevent a pistol from firing.
Beware ricochets. Replica pistols are often shot indoors or in enclosed spaces where ricochets are a real possibility. These are often forceful enough to cause injury. Minimise the risk by ensuring that your target backstop is made of softwood or something similar which will absorb some of the force of a shot.
Check your target backstop. Softwood is good, as it tends to allow pellets and BBs to become embedded without ricochets. However, all backstops become degraded over time, and you may eventually wear a hole in the backstop. Replace it before this happens. I managed to smash both panes of a large and expensive double glazing panel after I shot a hole through my wooden backstop while using a Cybergun Tanfoglio Witness 1911. A well-used backstop may also become so covered with embedded BBs or pellets that it actually promotes ricochets, so inspect and replace regularly.
Never work on a charged pistol. If you’re cleaning, maintaining or working on any gas or CO2 powered replica air pistol, remove the magazine and/or fully discharge the gas pressure first. If you need to work on valves or magazine parts, discharge the gas or CO2 first, and remove the CO2 cartridge. But, duh! No-one would be stupid enough to work on a loaded pistol, would they? Sadly, the answer appears to be yes, given the number of folk who get hurt every year in this way.
Extra caution required during action shooting. A common way for folk to shoot themselves is while practising drawing and firing a pistol. Experienced shooters learn to keep their finger off the trigger while drawing the pistol, for obvious reasons. If you are practising a quick draw with your Umarex SAA from that cowboy rig, please do bear this in mind.
Always wear eye protection when shooting any replica pistol. No excuses, no exceptions. If you get hit in the eye either directly or by a ricochet, you will suffer serious and permanent damage. And so will any bystanders or spectators, so they need to wear eye protection too. It’s probably going to be difficult to persuade your cat, dog, hamster, cockatoo or goldfish to wear suitable eye protection, so keep all pets away from any area where you are shooting.
Specialised shooting safety glasses offer good protection but can be rather expensive. Fortunately any good quality industrial safety eyewear which is designed for impact resistance should provide adequate protection while shooting air pistols. As in most things, you get what you pay for. Those $2 Chinese safety glasses on eBay may look tempting, but ask yourself – How much are your eyes worth? Buy safety glasses which carry the appropriate safety markings for the area in which you live (“CE” marked in the UK and
Europe for example, “CSA” in Canada and “US” or “PI” in the US). Try to get safety glasses which fit close to the eyes and wrap-around the sides. Regular corrective glasses don’t provide adequate protection – on some corrective glasses, fragments may spall off the inner surface and become embedded in the eye if they’re hit by a pellet or steel BB. If you need to wear corrective glasses while shooting, find safety eyewear which will fit comfortably over them.
Hearing protection generally isn’t an issue for shooting replica pistols. However, some replicas are very loud (The Baikal MP654K and some Crosman replicas come to mind). If after a shooting session you experience ringing in your ears, or if your wife’s complaints sound more muffled than usual, you may need to consider some sort of hearing protection.
I know, I know. Most of this stuff is pretty obvious to any sensible person. But I’ll say it anyway. Replica guns aren’t toys. No child should be allowed to shoot or handle a replica gun unsupervised. If a child or any person cannot understand and reliably follow the basic shooting safety rules, they should not be allowed to handle or shoot a replica pistol in any circumstances.
This is not a good idea.
Store your replicas safely. Store them out of sight and in a securely locked cabinet or other locked storage area. If you are transporting replicas in a vehicle, keep them locked away and out of sight at all times. Report immediately to the police the loss or theft of any replica. You may feel stupid, but not as bad as you’ll feel if your lost or stolen replica is used to injure someone or commit a crime.
Right, that’s it. I hope this doesn’t sound too much like a lecture. I enjoy shooting my replicas, but I’m horrified by the number of injuries caused each year by folk who don’t follow basic safety rules. Treat your replicas too casually or carelessly and they’ll bite. One of my other hobbies is riding and restoring motorcycles. Like replicas, these are safe and fun if you treat them with respect and neither if you don’t. Some years ago I saw the sign below next to the Cat and Fiddle Pass, a twisty road in the UK which has seen several serious motorcycle accidents. Substitute “Shoot” for “Ride” and you have some sound safety advice for shooting replica pistols.