Using two-way radios for Airsoft
Written by: Laurence Doe | Published:
Increasing numbers of Airsoft players buy and bring their own radio equipment to games, to give their team a tactical advantage; credit: Charlie James

Communications are critical in any warzone, even if bullets are replaced with plastic pellets. Laurence Doe examines how Airsoft players and staff utilise radio

‘There’s no action without communication’ – that’s how an Airsoft player explained the phrase in the headline to me. Whether it’s in a mock warzone like those commonly used in Airsoft games or a real combat situation like in the Middle East, radio communications are essential. In any deployment radio is rarely utilised by just one set of users. In Airsoft games, for example, players use radio to communicate, and so do those who organise and supervise the game (known as marshals).

The multiple benefits of radio become clear when entering the battle zones of Xsite Airsoft’s Lane End site, spread across 20 acres of dense and open woodland in High Wycombe. Dotted across the area are various structures and fortified positions designed for strategic game play. Teams vary in size, up to a couple of dozen players on each side. Giving staff radios is the ideal way to appropriately monitor the game and players over such a large and varied site. If marshals have radios it makes them “so much more effective in what they do,” says Tim Wyborn, managing director of Xsite Airsoft.

“They haven’t got to shout to each other, they haven’t got to find anyone, if there’s ever a problem they can radio somebody, and they can use them for the start and finish of games so everyone knows when they’re starting. They’re a very useful tool,” he explains.

“As we deal with woodland or urban scenarios [Xsite also has a base in a former RAF listening post at Edlesborough] where you don’t have line-of-sight of other members of staff, communication is vital and makes their lives so much easier. You can do it without radios but you end up doing a lot of running around and shouting, and that doesn’t lead to a nice calm environment because no-one knows where anyone else is.”

Marshals are also in touch with the managers back at base who are in charge of maintaining a shop that doubles up as a repair workstation. It is stocked with a range of different guns and accessories, as well as many thousands of BBs (a single bag holds 3,000 plastic pellets).

Players need staff to be on hand here in case a gun breaks or they’re too trigger-happy and have run out of ammunition.

Marshals will also often radio in to query if a charged battery or spare gun is available. These can be collected or prepared while the player waits in the field.

Radio also contributes to another important aspect of Airsoft games – safety. Although eye protection is compulsory there are occasions where masks fall off. Players are briefed that in this situation ‘ceasefire’ should be shouted and the affected player must lie down with their face to the ground and hands cupped over their eyes. When the ceasefire is judged to be universal the affected player can safely put their mask back on. In this situation, radio comms can reduce the amount of time that shots are being fired while one of the players is without eye protection.

Xsite Airsoft also considers safety factors that may be out of its hands. These range from horse riders coming close to the site while games are active to members of the public that may have strayed into the battlefield. In both events a ceasefire needs to be communicated to all players and staff quickly and effectively.

Business practices
Xsite has 10 to 12 Maximon Max-728 analogue radios from independent, UK- based, two-way radio supplier Maximon Solutions. Xsite has built up its collection to meet demand and its radios are regularly serviced by its provider. The radios are backed up by a few spare batteries and charging units. Four or five radios will be used in the field by marshals for speaking among themselves while games are underway. The radios are high powered for maximum range, have a metal chassis for improved durability, 16 channels, channel scan, built-in VOX for hands-free use, lightweight lithium-ion battery packs with a rapid charger as standard, and Kenwood-style two-pin connector sockets.

“We don’t use PMR purely because so many players use PMR and the channels get very confused,” says Wyborn. “We’re on a business licence so they’re not going to tap into that as their frequencies are completely different.

“Even if you buy the more expensive PMR radios that use sub-channels it’s still very difficult using them, you still get bleed-over. We want a clear, concise signal and communication between people that’s not interrupted by anyone else so we can carry on our business as we want to.”

The company used to use Motorola radios as they were “the industry standard”, says Wyborn, adding that when new manufacturers entered the market other, cheaper options became available. It chose analogue because only one talk group is used for all staff, so digital is unnecessary.

Xsite’s rules of radio use are simply to look after the equipment and for marshals to keep their language clean. No excuses are allowed – even if an accidental shot hits them in the backside – as they don’t want foul language to be heard by any other radio users who may have accidentally or purposefully tuned in to Xsite’s unencrypted channel.

“You have to have a certain amount of decorum and etiquette. So, although we instruct them for that, as far as radio chatter goes they don’t have a specific way in which they have to start and end communications.”

Wyborn says redundancy is key to the business’ operation, so there are enough units if a battery goes flat to keep the games running smoothly. He adds that keeping the radio antenna length short is also important as it can get snagged when marshals are moving around. Numbering the handsets and a booking system are additional practices that help staff keep track of the equipment.

“You have to speak clearly and concisely. Marshals soon learn the delay between pressing the button and speaking: three- quarters of a second to a second. Someone can start speaking when they press the button and let go as they stop speaking and you get a bad transmission. That’s actually the hardest thing to get through to them because although they’re speaking into a radio and hearing communications back they’re not hearing what they’re saying.”

Under fire
Where radios start to come into their own is in the battlefield for team communication. Players will purchase and bring their own radios along, and often have accessories such as earpieces, “especially in covert situations where they’re trying to be as quiet as possible,” explains Wyborn.

“Airsoft is a very fluid game; you can end up shot and off to a respawn point and come back in without a clue where the rest of your team are, so they use it to say where they are.

“Teams that use radios well are usually reasonably successful, but other teams have radios and don’t use them well – they’re like a fashion accessory. Some of the guys will have a radio because they’re trying to emulate a specific [military] loadout and they’ll try and get as close to the real thing as they can.”

According to Simon Burrows, Airsoft player and owner of the on-site and online shop Just-Cause Airsoft, radio communications are becoming “more prevalent”. He says that a couple of years ago only a few of the better teams used the systems. But now even those who haven’t played for very long are using radios “because they’re so cheap and very useful”. “If your teammate is in the room and you’re outside it’s a benefit if you can talk to him so he doesn’t shoot you when you come in,” he explains.

His shop doesn’t stock radios because the market is “too competitive” with Ebay sellers having a major share of the market, but it does stock radio accessories.

“The best radios are Motorola’s but the most affordable are Baofeng’s, so most people will use those or something similar because of the price.”

The handset used by most players is the Baofeng UV5R, which is sold for around £15 to £20 on Ebay. This is normally purchased with other accessories such as push-to-talk fist microphones, headsets and, if the player really wants to splash out, earguard headsets, “which are noise cancelling” explains Burrows.

“So when the bangs go off [created by small explosives that signify a grenade has detonated, ‘killing’ everyone in the room] it protects your ears.”

Burrows warns that the amount of effort that one puts into setting up communications between a lot of people is important as it can be affected by “atmospheric conditions or trouble with people’s equipment”. He adds that if players want to operate effectively as a team they need programmable radios; preprogramed aren’t ideal as they can’t be “dialled in on the day”.

Airsofters are using a free, open-source tool for programming their amateur radios called Chirp, which supports a large number of radio manufacturers and models and provides a way to interface with multiple data sources and formats. It also allows for the frequencies set out by a radio licence to be programmed into the channels you have for private use.

It’s a system where a person could use, for example, three channels so if someone else is using the same channel as your team during the day you move up a channel higher so you aren’t talking over the same one.

However, Burrows says that bleed-over can be a problem depending on how close the frequencies are. “Sometimes you get local taxi firms on it depending on where you are playing,” he explains, but adds that this isn’t much of an issue and that interference is quite rare.

The Billet
I went to see some Airsoft games at Ambush Adventures’ Billet – an old military barracks in Aldershot that specialises in close-range battles through a series of connected buildings. These have more than 30 entry points and still feature their original army furnishings. The eventual isolation of players in this kind of environment makes “effective communication and teamwork” all the more important says Matt Beddows, an evening game site manager at Ambush Adventures.

Without radios his job would be “very difficult”, as it would involve a lot of shouting. Beddows also views radio communications as a “vital tool whether you’re a player or running a game”. The company has its own business radio frequencies and employees uses four Motorola GP32 two-way analogue radios with a charging station at the Billet site. It also has five staff Baofeng radios for the larger games held at other Ambush Adventures locations.

These consist of three woodland sites: 46 acres of flat woodland in Chobham, Surrey; 50 acres of the New Forest in Hampshire; and 30 acres of woodland in Borden, East Hampshire.

Ambush Adventures also has an urban site in Longmoor, Hampshire, which is a military training complex still used by the Ministry of Defence to ready soldiers for operational tours. These all present different communication challenges.

“Here [Billet] we have less opportunity to see where the players are and we’re constantly walking and communicating, whereas in woodland you can position yourself in quite an easy way and communicate sometimes by shouting,” explains Beddows. “Here if I were to shout to somebody they wouldn’t be able to hear me because they’re inside and there’s lots of grenades going off and explosions, so radio is vital.”

Beddows adds that radio communications are needed when a game is starting or ending, for informing everyone how much time is left, and to address emergency issues that may require first aid, to name a few. Marshals will tell each other how many objectives have been fulfifilled by players on each side, or of problematic events such as someone that has been called out for cheating by not ‘taking their hits’.

Ambush Adventures’ larger games can involve up to 60 players and this creates a need for communication between additional staff such as those in the kitchen preparing food, or those that are monitoring who’s coming in and out of the site.

Frontline view
I spoke to two players at the Billet branch to get an idea of how they used their communications before eventually braving the battlefield myself, armed with just a silenced Airsoft pistol.

One of the players, who uses a Boefang BF888 two-way radio, was previously in the military with the Royal Signals and is now involved in logistics for G4S. He states that his past career has given him “an understanding of the importance of communications for control”, adding that they are needed for effective teamwork.

“For a tactical game, like the game we just played [two teams simultaneously attacking and defending] where as a team you need to know what rooms have been cleared or numbers [of players] or the objective, it really comes into its own.”

The second player – a tester for Panasonic and also ex-military – says the appeal of using radio for Airsoft is that it enables a “close-knit team, completing objectives and exposing enemies”. His team uses licensed Boefang dual-channel radios and Sordin headsets with PTT capability “allowing hands on weapons while you’re chatting away”. They didn’t use codes but did use call signs to address one another.

“If we’re going as one team we’re all on comms together. If we’re defending and attacking then we will have one group set back on one channel and one on another.” His advice to all those looking to use radios to improve their game is simple: “make sure you’re all on the same crib-sheet”.

After speaking with marshals it is obvious that radio is essential for both site and player management. For players radio use is a way to gain the upper hand in a very fast-paced game as it allows tactical information and decisions to be relayed quickly. For Airsoft employees radio communications are business-critical in ensuring games are safe, secure and fair. If the cost of equipment keeps on falling, the use of radio comms by the Airsoft community is likely to continue its not-so-hostile takeover.

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