BB-firing Air Pistols: fit for training?

A new look at an ever-evolving type of air gun — which may have changed enough to interest you.

For by Spyros Georgilis

A few months back, our writer Mr. Harwood Loomis presented a then-new 1911-type air pistol, shown above. That it looked like a 1911 wasn't surprising but, as the author pointed out, its manual of arms was a good approximation to that of the real thing — and in a BB gun, this was surprising. So much so that, we at felt that this type of BB pistols is worth a closer look. Also, some details in this BB gun reminded us of airsoft pistols, which has explored quite extensively in the past.

A quick (?) look at how air pistols evolved over time

A generation ago, BB guns and other types of airguns were seen far more regularly than now. Changing attitudes towards guns (especially when teenagers are involved) means that they are now rarely seen, at least in public. Which is a shame, since some of us credit them with getting us interested in firearms in the first place.

Back then, airguns were seen mainly as kids' guns. There were at least two reasons for this. Firstly, adults could get all the shooting practice they could want with real guns. Secondly, especially when it came to 1911 air-pistols, back then they didn't look or work anything like real guns. Safeties either didn't exist or were decorative, triggers were hinged and didn't slide, sights were an afterthought and, with few exceptions, the whole thing was plastic—so weight and balance were nothing like the real thing. Adults were keen to tell their sons (and daughters) that these things were definitely not toys, but using them themselves for practice probably didn't even occur to many, with good reason.

A Crosman GI 1911, a CO2-powered BB gun with a blowback action

Another Crosman BB 1911, also CO2-powered but without blowback

A licensed Colt Defender BB pistol, with CO2 power, no blowback and a double action trigger

Then, about a decade ago, we first saw a new type of gun-shaped product: airsoft pistols and rifles. Spring-powered versions of these plastic, pellet-firing 'guns' existed at least another decade before that, if not more, but the gas-powered versions introduced another feature, usually called 'blowback'. This simply meant that their slides reciprocate. Perhaps the idea was introduced mainly as a 'cool' effect but, crucially, it meant that the operating mechanism could now be called semi-automatic. And this, in turn, meant that we could finally get a proper, single-action trigger—one that slides.

A Western Arms MEU(SOC) Late model replica

This caused an explosion in the market. It also meant that citizens of countries that did not permit ownership of firearms could now buy something that looked and worked like the real thing. The fact that Japan is one such country and that two of the biggest names in airsoft pistols (Tokio Marui and Western Arms) are based there, certainly helped things along. Keen members of can browse to the airsoft forum section to see the details in these 'guns'. Aftermarket modifications were possible and brought attention to detail up to a level that stunned even seasoned 1911 aficionados: remember the old, squared dust cover in pre-2003 Springfield Armory 1911s? The first MEUSOC pistols for the US Marines used such frames, so the airsoft replicas had such 'squared' frames, the 'late' MEUSOC version sporting the more rounded frame!

Different dustcovers between early and late MEU(SOC) pistols — full review here

Of course prices for these 'ultra-detailed' replicas were quite steep; modified and customized pistols could easily cost as much as a real entry-level 1911 made in the Philippines, so they sold mainly in countries with restrictive gun laws—which is why customized select-fire airsoft AR-15 or AK rifles could sell for four-digit prices. No, really.

Fortunately, airsoft makers eventually wound things down a bit, so that affordable versions for people who simply wanted to practice were catered for, too. Starting from 4-5 years ago, if you had around $85-100 to spend, you could find an airsoft that would fit in the same holster as your full-sized 1911 pistol. Choices dropped rapidly for 1911s with shorter barrels, but some still existed.

The problem was that many people simply refused to consider buying a plastic pellet-firing 'toy-gun', for practice. And even people who gave them a try, found themselves fumbling with annoying details like sourcing the right type of gas, which could not be found at most hardware stores. But eventually, airsoft actions became 'beefy' enough that they could handle the higher pressure of CO2 canisters, so some models began using them, but they went mostly unnoticed… and many airsoft fans who noticed them didn't like them, because the width of the canisters necessitated a bigger opening in the magwell than would be 'right' for a 1911 pistol.

It is a shame that this change in propelling power did not receive more fanfare, because not only are CO2 canisters much easier to find, they are also powerful enough to drive an action firing heavier lead pellets. Plastic airsoft pellets are 6mm in diameter (about a quarter-inch), whereas BBs are only 4.5mm (.177”). So it stands to reason that a pistol design firing plastic BBs using CO2 power, must be easily adaptable to use the smaller and heavier lead BBs.

A CO2, .177" BB magazine on the left, a 'Green Gas' (propane), 6mm plastic BB magazine on the right

As it turns out, this thought occurred to several makers of airsoft pistols, who also make air pistols. The picture above shows two magazines, both made by KWC, a well-known Japanese manufacturer of airsoft pistols and, as it turns out, BB-firing air pistols. The one on the left is practically identical to the magazine included with the Colt-branded air pistol in the afore-mentioned article. The one on the right is an airsoft magazine, for plastic 6mm 'GBB' pellets. The construction is necessarily different, since one magazine has to fit a CO2 gas canister, while the other incorporates a compressed air canister in its structure (albeit one working at somewhat lower pressure), but the basic working principle is the same: BBs or GBBs in the front, a follower that incorporates a side 'shelf' to allow the slide stop to hold the slide ipen when all BBs/GBBs are fired, while in the top rear a valve releases the prerequisite amount of gas when hit by the frame-mounted firing pin.

A rear view of the CO2 magazine

The picture above shows the release valve, which is hit by the firing pin in order to release the gas for each shot. Presumably it needs to be a bit stronger than the propane valves found in airsoft pistols, but otherwise it is the same. Also shown is the small, square opening at the top of the magazine, which releases the gas that is needed to cycle the slide. Again, this is identical to what we are familiar with, in airsoft pistols.

We understand that BB-firing airguns using CO2 canisters lack an adjustable hop-up, which is standard in airsoft pistols, but this makes sense: plastic BBs come in different weights, and given that they are already light enough for their trajectory to be affected by the rolling motion of the pellet (imparted by the barrel, as the pellet rolls down its length), a means to adjust their speed is useful. On the other hand, metal BBs are much heavier and vary little in weight, plus they punch a much smaller hole in the air (4.5mm Vs 6mm, for an apples-to-apples comparison), so there are much fewer variables in their use in a given air pistol.

As a comparison, to show why the design that incorporates a canister in a removable magazine is such an important change, have a look at the air pistol shown below:

This is the Winchester/Daisy Model 11, another CO2-powered 1911 BB pistol, pricier and of better quality than the three shown earlier. While it is as hefty as a real 1911 pistol and features a reciprocating slide, like the other, cheaper pistols, the CO2 canister needs to be inserted separately into the frame, in this case via a removable side panel which is secured by a 're-purposed' mainspring housing. The BBs are inserted in a magazine, which is just a plastic sprung column, as shown in the picture above and to the right. So, while shooting the Model 11 may feel like the real thing, loading and reloading cannot.

Anyway, all this may be interesting to technically-minded souls but what other 1911 air guns are there? To answer this question we browsed through the offerings of PyramidAir and Airgun Depot, two of the best-known (to us) US sources for such pistols.

KWC Tanfoglio Witness 1911 CO2 BB Pistol

Mechanically, this gun appears to be the same as the Colt already reviewed in the E-zine. But with GI sights, a lanyard loop and GI-style brown grips, it is closer to the M1911A1 than the Colt. Interestingly, one seller identifies the manufacturer as KWA, while the other simply names 'Tanfoglio' as the maker. Either way, the markings are a bid odd; there IS a real 1911 sold by Tanfoglio, but it is not available in the US market — and it is NOT styled after the M1911A1, rather it is intended for competition, so it comes with adjustable sights and other details making it better suited to that role. In the US, you may have heard of Tanfoglio as the maker of the Italian, EAA Witness-branded clones of the famous CZ-75 pistol.

Both sellers offer this pistol for $99.99 (same as what the 'Colt Commander' goes for). Having an all-metal slide, frame and barrel, it is certainly better priced than the airsoft pistols we were used to. If you can live with the odd markings, it could be a good training aid for a GI-styled 1911 pistol.

Swiss Arms 1911 BB Pistol

Not happy with the markings on the Tanfoglio 1911? Would you like a set of markings from another little-known European 1911 maker instead? No problem, the Swiss Arms 1911 is available for you. Yes, this company did actually make 1911s in Switzerland as recently as a decade ago, but you never heard of them for the same reason the good-old Sig P210 never made it big outside Switzerland: severe export duties made it prohibitively expensive. Fans of the P210 still paid dearly for it, but obviously it made little sense to pay those kind of prices for a 'Swiss-made' 1911.

As far as the air gun copy goes, it too is styled after a M1911A1. The price in Airgun Depot is $99.99, while it is currently $10 dearer in PyramidAir.

KWC Blackwater BW1911 R2 CO2 Pistol

GI-styled pistols look good, but if these air guns are to serve in a training role, something with higher sights, a beavertail grip safety, an extended thumb safety and a means to attach a light, could be more useful. Both sellers offer this, a Blackwater-branded, KWC-made air pistol. This writer is not aware if a real version of the same thing exists, but there it is. Price-wise, this time it's PyramidAir that is cheaper at $99.99, Airgun Depot asking $10 more.

Remington 1911 RAC Tactical BB Pistol

This one appears to be very similar if not identical to the Blackwater pistol above, in everything except the markings and the color of the trigger. However, it currently sells for 79.99 in PyramidAir, while in Airgun Depot it goes for $69.99. It is still of an all-metal construction, so if railed 1911s are your thing, it is worth a look.

Remington 1911 RAC BB Pistol

Staying with Remington, a simpler, M1911A1-like model is also available. No, the markings won't confuse anyone into thinking it is a Remington Rand, but the name is certainly more familiar to 1911 fans than Tanfoglio or Swiss Arms. Again, the sellers don't entirely agree on prices: PyramidAir asks for $99.99, while Airgun Depot currently asks $10 less.

Sig Sauer 1911 Metal Blowback CO2 BB Pistol

Sig Sauer has jumped into the fully-featured market of pistols known as 'tactical' with both feet, so it should come as no surprise that there are air guns (and airsofts) bearing their name. This is another railed 1911 clone, with all other features we have come to expect in such 'tactical' 1911s, including an ambidextrous thumb safety. Price is a bit higher than previous models, at $124.99 in Airgun Depot and $.04 less in PyramidAir.

Additional thoughts

We were unable to find any versions of such air guns with barrels shorter than 5", or with shorter grips. The latter may well be impossible, since the height of the magazine cannot be any shorter than what is required to house the CO2 canister. The Colt Defender with the double action trigger seems to question this theory, but it lacks a blowback action, which could well be a factor. But we would have expected at least to see models available with 4.25" or 4" barrels. There are also no copies of double-stack 1911s available, however we would expect this to change in the future, because double-stack airsoft 1911s do exist, including some with CO2 magazines.

So are these air guns suitable for training? Within the limitations posed by the lack of availability for anything other than a full-sized pistol with a 5" barrel, the author believes so, in the sense that it is legal to use these air guns outside shooting ranges, although readers should check their State and local laws to confirm this. We are not suggesting that these air guns are a substitute to training with real guns, but they certainly allow for some useful extra trigger time, at much lower cost and potentially, at many more convenient places than would be possible with real pistols.

In the past, spent quite some time examining and testing airsoft pistols. Owning a faithful copy of a full-custom 1911 costing a fraction of the price may have been part of the appeal of these tests, but the main driving force behind them was the potential these pistols had as home training tools. In this author's opinion, this holds just as true for this latest category of metal BB-firing, CO2-powered air-pistols.

Please go to this thread on the M1911 Pistols Organization discussion forum to discuss this article:

Find us on :

Thank you.