War Games: Inside The Hardcore World Of Military Simulations

Severed heads, realistic guns, and a 300-lb man wishing for Obama's death. Welcome to America's next big sport

Photo Illustration: R. A. Di Ieso
Sep 07, 2016 at 7:00 AM ET

Tom “Crossfire” O’Rourke is eagerly unpacking a prized item from this morning’s mission. Inside a styrofoam cooler labeled with a red biohazard sticker, he unveils a severed head packed in ice and dripping a thin red liquid.

“The Al Qaeda group was trying to get a body part that had Ebola,” Crossfire says. “Because they planned on using that as a weapon of mass destruction.”

Seated nearby is a man named Jolly. He speaks in a low, measured rumble, weighs nearly 300 pounds, and is hobbled by a visible limp. Jolly too is excited to show me the head.

“Does it look like Obama?” Jolly asks. Crossfire opens the plastic bag and clears away the excess ice. Inside is a plastic, bald, Caucasian head with its eyes and mouth sewn up, the kind that you’d pick up to decorate a kid’s Halloween party. 

“Dammit, wrong head,” he says, grinning. “A man can dream, right?”

It’s Fourth of July weekend, and I am at war. This is the world of airsoft sports.

For the uninitiated, airsoft sports is a blanket term for elaborate, role-playing simulations of military combat in which participants use airsoft rifles — gas- and electric-powered, realistic replicas of actual weapons that fire plastic pellets at speeds that can reach 1,000 feet per second. The simulations take place in paintball-like indoor courses or in large-scale outdoor airsoft fields for full-on MilSims, short for military simulations, that can stretch out over multiple days. Truly devoted players often train and compete in ongoing units and squads — hundreds of which are scattered across the U.S.

Tom “Crossfire” O’Rourke is both the co-founder of Military Simulation Airsoft Tactical Operations (MSATO), one of the largest MilSim presenters on the East Coast, and a player himself, ever since he got hooked 20 years ago during an office paintball outing. Over the last 14 years, Crossfire has been promoting and developing the sport, upping both the realism and the intricacies of gameplay, and assembling ever-more complex and exotically-staged military scenarios to create, “The ultimate strategy game,” he says.

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On July 3, shortly after lunch, I arrive at Ground Zero Airsoft, Jolly’s playing field in Wolcott, Connecticut. Today’s two-day event is modeled after “Tears of the Sun,” a 2003 film in which Bruce Willis leads a team of commandos to rescue Monica Bellucci from Nigerian rebel forces. The playing field is replete with props like a wrecked helicopter, the Ebola-ridden head, and a few boats Crossfire scored on Craigslist that will serve as the extraction point.

“What I’ll do is I actually work along those lines to create a storyline for the players,” Crossfire explains by phone. “Basically, what we allow them to do [is live] out their fantasy of being in the movie.”

I’m surrounded by approximately 150 other men, teens, and boys as young as 11 years old, all of whom are toting airsoft M4’s, AR-15’s, M200 sniper rifles, various pistols, and rubber knives, decked from head to toe in camouflage, tactical vests, plate carriers, and other protective gear. I even spot two players in full-on ghillie suits.

There’s a friendly, if battle-weary buzz in the air, punctuated by ball-busting jokes and casual ribbing. They lob zingers about being “triggered” and needing “safe spaces.” It feels like some mix of an open-air locker room at halftime and, yes, an actual infantry gearing up for battle. Squint a bit and you’d think they mean to sack nearby Hartford.

At 1:30 p.m., Crossfire reads the results of that morning’s battle. The team of Navy SEALs was able to recover the Ebola-contaminated blood samples and extract themselves from the area, but the rebel forces managed to get a hold of the severed head. Now the SEALs need to set up a decontamination tent, destroy all remaining blood samples, and get to the extraction point before 1700 hours. As an added bonus, a role player will be entering the battlefield. He will be portraying a Nigerian royal.

From the crowd, someone shouts, “Is he illegal?” Those within earshot smirk and chortle.

It’s time for me to jump into the fray. Standing over an oil drum, Crossfire lends me a tactical vest, airsoft rifle, and helmet. I look, for all intents and purposes, like I’m ready for battle. Crossfire reminds me that replicating battlefield activity is a major selling point of the sport. “That’s what a lot of the players love,” he says with a wink while strapping a band of white tape to my arm and leading me into the forest to join up with the rebel forces. Crossfire evinces a tough-as-leather vibe mixed with a gravelly charm, such that you could easily imagine Billy Bob Thornton sliding into his role if anyone felt compelled to put this all on screen. It’s not surprising that Airsoft devotees here near-universally refer to him by his nickname.

Walking into the brush, I’m scrambling to recall what the mission is and whose side I’m supposed to be on. Real war or not, I’m lost in the fog. As we trek deeper and deeper into the woods, suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I spy an enemy player crouched behind a tree with his weapon pointed right at me. He grins, knowing that he could have lit me up were it not for Crossfire’s warning to hold fire until he could insert me into the field.

Before I know it, I’m peering over the top of an embankment, I can see a ramshackle lean-to. Red arm-taped SEALs flash into view. I fire off a few rounds, hitting nothing.

One of my teammates is barking nigh-incomprehensible orders. I blindly fire into the woods and crouch back down, panicking about getting hit and filled with a desperate, gnawing desire to shoot something, anything. As I lean in to try to make sense of what the ostensible squad leader wants me to do, I jerk my head up and a BB careens off the top of my skull.

“Hit, hit,” I call out, placing a red bandana—a “kill rag”—on top of my head to indicate an injury, lest I get lit up again. If another player can maintain contact with me before three minutes are up, I’ll be brought back to life. But at that moment, a squad dejectedly ambles down the embankment. They too have their kill rags out.

They call themselves the Reaper Squad, and they’re humping it back to base camp, dejected about the screw-up that cost them their lives. In lieu of heading off to the “respawn point,” a designated area of the field that’ll bring you back to life, we head back to their car. Trailing along, I ask airsoft veteran and Reaper Squad member Kirk Giglio what happened.

Kirk explains that he and the rest of Reaper Squad got pinned down after someone ordered them down into a valley. They soon realized that they were out of bounds, and in the scramble to get back into the field of play, they got trapped.

“They just had the high ground,” he says. “So we sort of got pegged and flanked around, but we held up.”

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As we walk, he takes off the camo bandana and protective goggles he’s wearing. He’s got a kind of pudgy, boyish face and tends to look at his feet or off into the distance when he talks. He tells me that over the last five years, he’s probably spent “a couple grand” on airsoft gear.

Kirk’s investment registers as relatively low. Another player from the Hartford-based 21+ team, Direwolf Airsoft, confesses, “My first two years, my budget was two grand, and I hit that if not exceeded it both times.” He makes me swear not to mention him by name lest his wife discover how much he was actually spending.

“On top of that, a lot of the larger games are going to have gear requirements,” the wife-fearing airsoft player says. “Then everything breaks. Because no one’s real gentle with our gear. We’re sitting there, running, jumping, diving. Radios break. It’s 50 bucks a pop to replace those. Guns break. Guns break like it’s nobody’s business all the time.

“It’s constantly slowly chipping away at your checkbook.”

We’ve wandered back through base camp to the parking lot and are huddled around the back of an SUV. Before today’s game, I had a preconceived notion of who the typical airsoft aficionado would be: a muscle-bound, square-jawed wannabe-jarhead getting off on danger while dodging any real danger. A few of today’s players definitely fit the stereotype, and I’m told that that at the larger national ops, their presence is more ubiquitous. But the Reaper Squad doesn’t fit the bill. They know that playing this expensive, time-consuming sport might scan as odd, but they don’t care. They seem at ease with the geekiness of it all.

“For me, it’s just a hobby,” Tom Archambault, a 20-year-old clad in Russian military camo, says. “A bunch of nerds going out and pretending to shoot each other with fake guns… I mean there’s nothing wrong with it, that’s just like, we’re all nerds.”

“You gotta understand you’re running around with toys,” Kirk says, to which Tom adds, “[…] it doesn’t matter how much you spend on the gear, it just matters how much you want to have fun.”

That fun may be in danger, though. A January bill put forth in the Massachusetts House of Representative that was killed in May would have forbidden the sale of airsoft weapons that aren’t plastered with bright neon orange paint.

Still, you can understand the attempts to impose restrictions on airsoft sports given that there have been more than a few instances in which police mistook an airsoft gun for the real deal — including the shooting of Tamir Rice. However, the Reaper Squad is united in their belief that legislating airsoft sports is both unjust and ineffective.

“If they’re telling us to paint our guns in neon colors, then a criminal can paint a real gun in neon colors,” Zach Esposito, a student at the University of New Haven currently majoring in national security studies, says. “You know, there are ways around everything.”

We make our way up a ridge, and I spy Crossfire’s downed helicopter. The area is heavily guarded and while the Reaper Squad mulls a few strategic plans, purple and magenta smoke begins pouring out of the helicopter, the air is rife with the smell of sulfur, and the pop-pop of not-gunfire, as wave after wave of SEALs pour out of the helicopter, only to turn back and immediately repeat the same sequence all over again.

Down below, Crossfire and Jolly are shouting at at each other. Someone decided to hold a photo/video shoot in the middle of the game, but neglected to inform most of today’s participants. The Reaper Squad is not happy.

“We’re in the middle of a firefight, which is ridiculous,” a Reaper explains. “The SEALs I guess were getting shot and one of them got so pissed off he took his pistol and he shot some guy in the face a couple times.

“And then the guy’s of course like, ‘What the fuck are you doing? We weren’t even shooting at you?’ and they lit him up. Fucking A. He’s just a dick.”

Meanwhile, down below, someone has rigged up what sounds like a Gatling gun. It’s modeled after an A-10 Warthog powered by a high-pressure air tank buttressed with a polar star engine. Another airsoft player shows me a YouTube video on his phone of the actual rifle in action.

“It’s fantastic. Awesome!” he says. “That is so much gunfire. This is awesome!”

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If Crossfire has his way, this degree of realism will pale in comparison once the  MilSim TV show he’s developing gets greenlit. It’s a “reality program of a competitive nature,” he says, but doesn’t reveal whom his potential future broadcast partners might be. Given the success of quasi-reality sports like American Ninja Warrior, Crossfire’s claim scans.

According to Crossfire, airsoft sports are the “fastest-growing extreme sport worldwide.” As things currently stand, all that’s separating Crossfire from bringing MilSim to the masses is a billionaire willing to bankroll his dream.

By 4:30 p.m., I’ve made my way back to base camp. (Though I have no way of knowing, I’m told the red team won. They accomplished all three objectives and reached the extraction point in time.)

The guy that fears his wife learning how much of their bank account has been drained rolls up his sleeves to reveal forearms covered with still-bleeding welts. A tall, chinless friend of his with a buzz cut complains that his ears are still ringing after he got clipped on the side of the head. I talk about not being remotely in shape for this, and they grumble in agreement.

After an afternoon playing the game, it all feels oddly normal. Being surrounded by what could be mistaken for a paramilitary group is normal, even as smoke grenades intermittently are set off. They’d thrown one at me when I was first heading into the woods, and I practically jumped out of my combat boots. Now, I’m used to it. I barely flinch.

In that moment, it hits me: there are levels of remove here. They aren’t LARP-ing war; they’re playing at playing at war. The appeal is in the fidelity to the image, to the camo and the gear and the weapons, the realism of an unreal world, plus a deep desire for the cameraderie and teamwork you’d find in a real military unit.

It’s not about a lust for violence, but a boiled-down essence of a particularly male form of play, or rather, a boy’s play. Being a hero and, more to the point, looking like a hero. I felt it. You take that weapon in your hand and it demands you fill the form, that you crouch, aim, and shoot. It has its own power, a desire for aggression and mainling pure adrenaline free from inflicting actual harm. All of it camouflaged by role-playing that harkens back to games of cops and robbers or cowboys and Indians, us vs. them. Saving the day, or even pretending you’re Jesse and Walter from “Breaking Bad.” And that’s okay. This, too, strikes at something embedded deeply within the core of sports.

I think about the Reaper Squad, rolling around in a ridge, screaming “medic” and giggling, waiting for someone to touch them within three minutes, so they could recover from their theoretical wounds.

I think about Crossfire, who the next day emails me a quote that he says explains the appeal airsoft sports:

“Civilized life has altogether grown too tame, and, if it is to be stable, it must provide a harmless outlets for the impulses which our remote ancestors satisfied in hunting.” — Bertrand Russell

I think about the 11-year old player I interviewed that morning. When I asked what he liked most about the sport, he said, “I guess it’s just, like, the freedom, you know, you get to run around, have fun shooting people.”