- The Washington Times - Monday, June 9, 2008

ROSEDALE, Md. | It’s the year 2013, and Russian troops are locked in fierce combat with NATO peacekeeping forces in Eastern Europe.

Bedeviling both sides is “Sheik’s Fist,” an unpredictable band of terrorists led by Sheik Rattlen Roll, a mysterious mercenary whose sole objective is to inflict destruction and chaos.

Thus was the stage set for “Operation Grizzly Agenda,” an airsoft scenario game played in late May in the woods at Outdoor Adventures paintball field in Rosedale, near Baltimore.

More than 200 enthusiasts, mostly teenage boys and men in their 20s and 30s, plus a handful of brave, young women, sported full camouflage gear and carried stunningly realistic replicas of MP5 submachine guns, M4 carbines and L96 sniper rifles, as well as Beretta M9s and other side arms.

Despite the daylong, testosterone-fueled battle in the woods, no one got hurt. And that’s by design. Airsoft guns, though realistic in size and looks, only fire lightweight, 6 mm BB-sized plastic pellets.

Photo Gallery:Airsoft Scenario

But because the pellets fly at up to 420 feet per second (nearly 300 mph), safety is paramount. Like paintball players, airsoft players wear Darth Vader-type masks that shield their faces, eyes and ears.

Airsoft pellets merely bounce when they hit a player, unlike paintballs, which leave an unmistakable colorful splotch where they break.

Honesty and safety

Befitting an image of military integrity, airsoft players are encouraged to play honestly and call themselves out when hit.

In this scenario game, players that had been hit had to stop playing and wait be “healed” by a designated medic or fellow team member or walk off the field to their reinsertion point for a few minutes before rejoining the action.

“Airsoft is a completely honor-based game, which is the main reason why parents are eager to let their children be involved,” said Josh Davenport, one of the founders of Mid-Atlantic Airsoft Players Registry (MAAPR), the group that organized last week’s scenario game.

Ryan Kim, 13, of Crofton, Md., began playing airsoft with his friends in January.

“Now my dad and my uncle are here because of me,” Ryan said proudly.

Similar to other members of the Russian team, the Kims all wore green camo, in contrast to the NATO team’s desert tan.

“It’s my first time,” said Ryan’s uncle, Michael Kim, wearing a protective vest and sporting an M4 carbine. His game strategy? “Stay low. Follow orders. Don’t get shot.”

That, of course, was easier said than done.

Following a detailed safety briefing by Ty Brown, an MAAPR official and former tactical medic with the Department of Homeland Security, the players, evenly divided between Russian and NATO forces, walked to their respective starting positions in the woods.

When the game started, whoops, hollers and battle cries mixed with the rapid-fire clicking of fully automatic airsoft guns. Being hit by an airsoft pellet is usually painless, except at close range (less than 20 feet), when it can leave a small bruise.

The teams scored points by accomplishing preset strategic objectives, including finding and retrieving a downed unmanned aerial vehicle (a four-foot long PVC pipe with cardboard and foam wings), boxes of (fake) munitions, and taking and holding sections of the woods.

“Keep the squad together so we can work as a team,” yelled Jack Fitzgerald, 24, an automobile mechanic and avid airsoft player from Silver Spring who commanded Russian Squad 5, which included the Kims.

Whether by teamwork or plain luck, Russian Squad 5 located the downed aerial vehicle deep in the woods and brought it back to headquarters for valuable points.

Growing recreation

Airsoft has been around for a dozen or so years, a relative newcomer compared with paintball, which has been played for about 40 years.

With 5.5 million regular players and 2,500 fields across the country, paintball is the fourth-largest “extreme” sport in the United States after in-line skating, skateboarding and snowboarding.

Paintball also has amateur and professional league tournaments, televised on ESPN, and boasts more than $300 million in annual equipment sales, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association.

Few such numbers are available for airsoft.

“We only began insuring airsoft fields 11 months ago. We don’t have any statistics,” said a spokeswoman for the National Sports Entertainment and Recreation Association.

But airsoft is quickly growing in this and other areas, especially on the West Coast and in Japan and Europe.

“We’re seeing a real increase out there,” said Lee Draper, president of Outdoor Adventures, which hosted the scenario game.

One of the region’s oldest (since 1988) and largest paintball operators, Outdoor Adventures began offering airsoft games at its field in Bowie a couple of years ago, attracting at first only several dozen players.

“Now we have 200 or more players at a single event,” Mr. Draper said.

Back on the field

In the scenario, game play was halted around lunchtime as a fierce thunderstorm drenched the metro area.

During the break, Ronald Flynt, a real-life emergency medical technician from Calverton and member of the NATO team, reflected on the Russians’ prowess.

“We were holding them pretty good, but then we got to ‘Pacmanistan’ and got ambushed. We got clobbered,” he said.

The morning session, it seems, belonged to the Russians. But by afternoon, the tables had turned, and the NATO soldiers dominated play.

But not all the action took place in the woods. A separate playing area, about a football field in size and surrounded by 20-foot-high netting, housed “Turducken City,” home turf to the deadly terrorist Sheik’s Fist.

“They hate everybody,” said MAAPR’s Mr. Brown. “They’re the ultimate aggressors. They roam the city and shoot anybody who comes their way.”

Turducken City was created for close-quarters battle, or CQB in military lingo. About a dozen open railroad boxcars and other bunkers are strewn about, re-creating the uncertain environment that real SWAT teams face in urban settings or what coalition forces in Iraq face while conducting house-to-house searches.

Many police and military personnel play airsoft to keep their skills honed, Mr. Draper said, noting that several law-enforcement types were present.

During the morning, NATO team members took on the Sheik’s Fist (in actuality, a veteran airsoft team). In the afternoon, it was Russia’s turn. Unarmed “civilians” and “hostages” roamed the compound, intermixing with Sheik’s Fist players.

Sarah Bradley, 22, had volunteered to be a hostage.

“I just scream and fall on the ground to attract attention, and hopefully, I get rescued,” she said.

Sarah had accompanied Mr. Fitzgerald, her boyfriend and Russian Squad 5 leader, because it was his birthday. “It’s my first time playing, and I’m excited,” she said.

Shooting civilians in Turducken City resulted in losing otherwise hard-won points. This proved to be the NATO team’s downfall, because while both teams scored equally well in the woods, the NATO peacekeepers hit more civilians in the city, tipping the balance to the Russians.

But as in real life, some battles never end. Already organizers are planning a rematch, which likely will be well-attended.

“This is a lot more realistic than paintball,” said Mr. Flynt, the EMT from Calverton. “It’s as realistic as you can get without anybody getting hurt.”

And befitting airsoft’s image of integrity, MAAPR said it will donate proceeds from the scenario game to Relay for Life to support pediatric cancer research.

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