by Mark Sual
It begins. The enemies are barely visible in the thick foliage ahead, but like clockwork, the first man in the buddy team sees them and begins to lay down a hail of suppressive fire. Unlike the movies, he does not spray and pray with his weapon; instead he sends careful, timed shots, meant to keep the enemies’ heads down and conserve ammunition all at the same time.
While the first man suppresses, his buddy quickly assesses the situation with the knowledge that the element of surprise is lost and he must take action now. He senses a lull in the enemy’s return fire and bellows, “Moving!”
“Move!” the first man replies, and with that, his buddy begins to run towards the right flank. Even as his legs move in one direction, his torso acts independently, allowing him a full field of fire which he takes advantage of, shooting while moving. He reaches a vantage point that allows him access to the enemy’s flank and begins peppering them with his own fire.
The first man hears the chatter of his buddy’s weapon and knows that it is time to go. Using the same “Moving/Move” command, the first man closes with the enemy under the cover fire of his teammate. Within another minute, it is over. The enemy lies destroyed, with the buddy team victorious. The fight is done but the two never falter in their awareness. With the simple announcement “Loading!” the buddy team change out ammunition, ensuring they are ready for the next engagement, and continue on their mission. Instructor Henry Yen, however, is pleased.
“Weapons on safe,” he announces. “Endex!” “Endex” is military slang, a combination of the words “end exercise,” and is used to signal the conclusion of a drill or training evolution. The three gather together as another buddy team prepares to run the drill. They quietly discuss what went right, what went wrong, and what they can improve on the next time they carry out the exercise. Brian Wang, the first man, listens intently as Henry provides his feedback; Alexander Chang, the second, lets his rifle hang on a sling as he takes a sip from his Camelbak hydration system. The air is filled once more with the pop-pop-pop of semi-automatic weapons fire. To the untrained eye it would seem as if the US military was conducting exercises in the middle of Mission Viejo.
Henry and the two people he is instructing, however, are far from being in the military. While the techniques and theory utilized are legitimately in use by the armed forces, the enemies destroyed were Coke cans, the ammunition fired merely plastic bb’s. Instead of soldiers, the buddy team that so perfectly executed a basic military maneuver are civilians, both of them alumni of UCR and UCI respectively. Henry, the instructor, is a Irvine alum and currently works on campus. All three are members of West Coast MilSim (military simulation), an organization at UC Irvine, and avid participants of the sport known as airsoft.
To those who know it well, “airsoft” refers to an activity in which participants use exact replicas of firearms to engage each other in some soft of combat scenario, from video game-style shoot outs to actual training exercises conducted by law enforcement and military personnel. At the most basic level, players set up a controlled field, call “Game on!”, and have it until only one team (or one man) is left standing. More advanced games will have simple objectives for teams to complete, while complex operations will have tasks that have nothing to do with airsoft at all: for example, photographing enemy bases, capturing high value targets, and working with civilian roleplayers. Many people often explain airsoft as being similar to paintball. That is untrue on most counts: for example, in paintball, one is considered “out” when he is stricken by paint, for all to see. In airsoft activities, there is no paint and it is up to the player who has been to be honorable and declare a simulated “death.”
For others not so intimate with it, reports of blatant misuse come to mind; people have been shot and killed by police because they brandished airsoft replicas in public, and officers could not tell if they were real or not. These are the most common stories of airsoft available to the public. There have been several instances across the nation where uninformed police officers have approached an airsoft event with weapons drawn; at times, even police SWAT teams have been deployed on reports of airsofters. Most of the time, the players are sent home with a warning because they were playing on public land, which is illegal in most states. Rarely will an overeager officer fire lethal rounds at airsoft players, but it has happened; the highly-realistic nature of the airsoft guns and the general public’s lack of awareness lead to such events.
To Henry, “airsoft” means something much simpler. “Airsoft generally describes the general tool in which you use to propel 6mm plastic bbs out of a realistic looking gun,” he explains. “The whole point is to replicate a real firearm as closely as possible without making it dangerous. Beyond that, it’s pretty much what you want to do with that tool. The airsoft aspect of it only describes to me the actual replica, the tool itself.”
The replicas available in the airsoft realm are a firearm enthusiast’s dream. From the most simple handgun available to the civilians to restricted assault weapons issued only to United States Special Operations teams, most guns in existence have an airsoft form. In California, these can be purchased and owned without regulation, provided that the buyer is at least eighteen years old. Taking into consideration California’s stringent firearms laws, some people use airsoft as a means to be able to handle weapons that, in real-steel (actual firearm) form, would not even be allowed in the state.
These replicas are not cheap, however; the price range is wide, from as low as $100 for a replica MP5 submachine gun, made famous in Die Hard, to $1500 for a replica M4A1 carbine, the standard issue long gun to the United States Army. While the MP5 is not available to the general public in its real form, the equivalent of an actual M4A1 can be had for the same price as the replica, sometimes even cheaper. The high cost of basic replicas does not even include the plethora of accessories, combat gear, special weapons, and uniforms that most airsofters feel called to purchase at one point or another in their “careers.” For example, a player’s eye protection is crucial to protect their vision from the bbs. Casual players typically use $5 shooting glasses they buy at WalMart, while the MilSim players spend up to $400 for tactically-oriented Oakley sunglasses. They both do the job of protecting one’s eyes, but at a different price point and with different types of play in mind.
“It’s really cost intensive,” explains Henry. The amount of money one is willing to spend on airsoft is typically an indicator of their level of involvement and gameplay preference. Some of the more dedicated airsofters report spending at least $2000 to buy their initial batch of gear, a high price indeed when considering the low entry cost of other activities.
EAC and WCMS
For some, the basic weapon is enough to last them for casual use. Typically they participate in simple “force on force,” or elimination-style games. As explained by club president Steven Yong, the primary airsoft organization at UCI, Eater Airsoft Club (EAC), is meant to cater to these casual players who are not interested in committing their money and time to a dedicated team. Within the larger organization, however, is the smaller group West Coast MilSim (WCMS); they prefer a more realistic approach to their airsoft activities, and are willing to spend the money for the necessary gear. “We do a military simulation type thing where we have designated teams, actual fireteams and squads and we actually have to go out and complete missions,” explains Henry. “The whole point isn’t to go out and shoot at people, but to go out and complete a mission and, within that, shoot at people who get in the way.”
While most casual skirmishes last anywhere from ten minutes to an hour, the operations that the MilSim group attend usually have them in the field for four hours or longer. During this time they must carry all necessary equipment on their person as they do not have the luxury of returning to their cars to resupply, as most regular players do. Members of WCMS don’t stop themselves from playing at casual games, however; while they do train and prepare for the more realistic simulation operations, they can also be found participating with the members of the casual grup at pick-up events throughout the area. Reactions to such events are a hit-and-miss, considering their public nature: the quality of the players varies, as does the quality of the venue.
West Coast MilSim was originally founded at UC Riverside by Brian Wang, originally from the Bay Area. He brought his experience and training with him to school in Southern California and brought life to the original club. In 2009, however, Brian transferred from Riverside to Irvine for a year; during his stay here he formed the Irvine chapter of West Coast MilSim, with Henry acting as Staff Advisor. In an effort to make airsoft more accessible to those who had never played before, several reforms were instituted that led to the creation of Eater Airsoft Club later that year. That is where the club has been since its inception, and the organization has drawn in members from all walks of life. Most members are students at UC Irvine; others come from as far as Rosemead and Riverside. Some members have prior or future military service: Hwirarm Park, from the Irvine chapter, is currently in the Army ROTC while Brian Myint of the Rosemead chapter went through the Marine Corps. Devil Pup program. While some airsofters learn valuable military skills from their hobby and carry them over to a career in the armed forces, most choose to remain civilians and only fight on the simulated battlefield. Alex Khachatoorian, one of the original team members, currently serves as an Emergency Medical Technician and Henry works in the IT field.
Briefing & Rehearsal
WCMS meets regularly for three different things: on-campus meetings, team training, and the actual airsoft events where they square off against other airsoft teams. On Wednesday nights, PCB1300 is transformed from a UCI classroom into something akin to a military briefing room. Using the projector and white board, President Steven Yong lays out the schedule for the next few weeks. Sometimes, he leads the team in an after-action review, or AAR, where they reflect on their performance at both games and trainings. AARs are valuable, as they allow the good to be emphasized and the bad to be highlighted for further analysis and remedy. As he talks, an easy banter floats amongst the members gathered before him, a sign of a close-knit unit. For the most part Steven lets it go, but when he needs to explain something particularly important, his eyes and narrow and his voice grows stern as he tells his teammates to quiet down and pay attention. The talking stops, forks and chopsticks come to rest on still-warm food, and they listen. They learn of projected enemy troop strengths for the next event, of the itinerary for the next training and they commit it to memory. Sometimes the meetings are as short as forty-five minutes; other times, the full two hours are used. No matter how long the meeting lasts, however, there is one ritual sacred to Wednesdays that the member of WCMS try to adhere to as much as possible: as soon as the meeting is over, they head to University Town Center to share a bite to eat if they haven’t eaten already.
Fast-forward four days. Now Sunday, the team is out at their training ground, a field known as Crown Valley fifteen minutes south of Irvine. White plastic pipes stick out of the ground with cans taped to their tops as targets; while most teams use human silhouettes for target practice, West Coast MilSim knows that it is impractical in that most of the time, an enemy never presents their full silhouette in the field. Few members are out today: Eater Airsoft Club prospectives Christine and Chris have come out to learn the trade; Bay Area Tactical member Matt has come all the way from Riverside to keep his skill set in shape; and WCMS members Michael, Alex, Brian, and Henry are doing the same. The temperature is high, but the trainees and instructor push through with their drills. They learn how to shoot their weapons under cover while lying sideways, how to properly change out ammunition magazines when they are empty, and how to manipulate their weapons around obstacles. They learn and practice techniques that ordinary people will never use in their life, all for love and dedication to their favorite hobby.
According to Steven, the main difference between Eater Airsoft Club and West Coast MilSim is the training. One thing that remains constant, however, is that after each training session there is always good company and good food to be had - typically, burritos from Albatros in Lake Forest.
It’s game day at Code Red Airsoft Park. With the field over an hour away in Colton, and the beginning of gameplay slated at around 10AM, the members of WCMS and EAS are up early. By 7:45 they have assembled at Henry’s apartment in Newport North to carpool to Code Red; by 8:00 they are on the road and en route. The trip there is uneventful as morning traffic is light, and the members pass the time by talking about anything other than airsoft: they discuss their favorite Japanese anime shows and video games and, reluctantly, they complain about their school work, papers due, and the like. By the time they reach the field at aroundd 9:30, however, all of that is forgotten.
It was once strictly a paintball field, but Code Red allocated a portion of the property to cater to airsoft. This early in the day, the weather is cool and a morning overcast hides the sun, but just barely. Early arrivals lounge around in the provided plsatic lawn chairs, having already checked in and registered their weapons. They are mostly children and poorly equipped, a far cry from the UCI students and their wide variety of equipment.
Again, like clockwork, the UCI team members get to work as soon as their cars are parked. First, they unload their gear bags and claim a free table for their staging area. With that out of the way, they take turns; half go to the registration booth to pay their fees and sign liabilities waivers while others stay near the cars to watch the equipment and begin loading up their personal gear. After about fifteen minutes, they switch.
By this time, more players have filtered in and almost thirty people have showed up for the airsoft event. Henry is pleased; more people means more opportunities to put their training to the test. Like the Irvine unit, most of the players arrive in groups and sit together. Most of them, however, do not seem to be as trained or cohesive as the crew from Irvine. How skilled they are will be determined on the field.
With mags loaded and weapons in hand, the team moves to the central briefing area for the preliminary safety and mission briefing. It is longer than usual due to the amount of new players to the field. The field official goes over minimum engagement distances and declares that players may not shoot each other with their airsoft replicas within twenty-five feet of each other; instead, they must “surrender” the enemy or “parlay,” by moving twenty-five feet back and re-engaging. This is to minimize the amount of injuries casued by close range shots. He also stresses that everyone must abide by the honor system and call their own hits, lest they be caught by refs and banned from the field.
The briefing concludes shortly, and they play a quick round of team deathmatch, an elimination-style game. The ears of WCMS perk up, however, when the ref announces that the next game will be scenario-based with roleplayers. This is what they trained for, a chance to try out the skills they have acquired.
Weast Coast MilSim gets put onto the team that represents the US military, while the rest of the group get placed on the insurgent team. The goal of the operation is to negotiate with a neutral party of indigenous personnel and get access to their city and resources. The insurgents and US teams insert into the opposite ends of the field, and slowly inch towards the center bunker where the neutral force is located. WCMS takes the point for the US team, and they move smoothly over the rough terrain. Each man covers a sector, weapon low but ready to be snapped up in case of an emergency. Unlike a normal game, a shot fired now, too early, can spell defeat for the team.
An indigenous guard sees them approaching and brings his weapon to bear. “Hold it!” he barks, “Weapons down and hands where I can see ‘em. We’ll only take one negotiator.” With a simple hand movement, Henry signals to the team representative to approach the bunker. Without a weapon in hand he steps into the hornet’s nest and disappears from view. From the opposite end of the bunker, the indigenous forces conduct the same screening with the insurgent negotiator and he, too, enters the bunker to make his case heard. There is tense silence for almost five whole minutes, unheard of to regular airsoft players but a relatively short time to those with experience in MilSim. Many players think the game will drag on, and hope that negotiations will come to a head in their respective team’s favor.
The negotiations never finish. Someone inside the bunker yells “BOOOM!” And seconds later, both negotiators and everyone who had been in structure exit with their hands above their head, signaling that they are dead. “OPEN FIRE!” yells Henry, and the team members each select a target. In the chaos, how to select a target is clear: whoever isn’t wearing their uniform gets shot. Semi-automatic fire erupts all over the battlefield and within minutes it is all over, with the US team victorious in the firefight but no team victorious in the objective. It turned out that, because negotiations weren’t going well for the insurgent team, their representative analyzed that there was a great deal of enemies all together in the structure; this is commonly referred to as a “target rich environment.” Feeling that it was more beneficial to kill everyone in the bunker rather than finsh the negotiations, he pulled a replica grenade out and acted as a suicide bomber, putting a quick end to the meeting. Henry, who was getting irritated at waiting, grins at this. “Awesome.”
The members of the Irvine group play for a few more hours, then begin to pack up for the ride back to Irvine. It will be a longer trip as traffic is more prevalent in the afternoon, but the make believe soldiers of UCI don’t mind at all. They have a full day of airsoft to tide them over as sit in the stifling heat on the way home; “war stories” are told on the drive, anecdotes of awesome stealth attacks and multiple enemy eliminations. But the number one thing on their mind is tradition: at the foremost of their priorities at the moment is getting burritos. Trading in their camoflauge for jeans and shirts, they hit the road, regular people once again. “That’s the thing about playing airsoft,” says Steven, a few days later. “Sure, you can go on your own. But it’s a lot more fun when you play with friends, as part of a team. A lot of people say negative things about airsoft and the people who play it, but we’re just having fun with our buddies.”
Interview with Henry Yen, 40 minutes
Interview with Steven Yong, 35 minutes
Interview with Alex Khachatoorian, 15 minutes
WCMS training 9/26
WCMS game 10/3
WCMS training 10/9
3 EAC/WCMS Wednesday meetings