Buying Guide: Your First Sniper Rifle
Perhaps the most misunderstood aspect of Airsoft Skirmishing - The Sniper, the role, and the rifle. The term "Sniper" originates from the verb "to snipe", gaining common usage in the 1770s among soldiers in British India, in reference to shooting snipes, a small aquatic bird that was considered an extremely challenging game bird for hunters due to its alertness, camouflaging color and erratic flight behavior. The snipers were the best marksman there were, with excellent fieldcraft, and able to land a single shot at the perfect, fleeting moment on a small, fast-moving target.
First the hard-to-swallow pills: If you are looking for something that will shoot three times as far as an AEG Assault rifle, you won't find it within skirmishable velocities. If you want to sit in a tower and rule the game, you will find you are quickly trapped, flanked, and inevitably taking a walk back to respawn. If you think camping will work, you will find that Airsofters are a bit more tactically minded than COD players, and will suss you out quickly if you keep killing them!
Airsoft sniping is a far cry from the real world and even further from the sniping experience that video games provide. You will have very little success if you intend to sit back, camp, and pick off your opposition from half the field away. The Airsoft Sniper, whilst having more range and accuracy than the bb-hosing AEG users, cannot rely on this alone, as the advantage is not even close to that of a real-world Sniper's rifle when compared to a 5.56mm firing Assault rifle issued to most infantrymen. If you decide to take up sniping in airsoft, expect to be outnumbered, surrounded, and spending much of your time finding a nice position, get a few shots off, only to have to vacate it when you are spotted by the enemy team.
The Airsoft Sniper has to rely on stealth, fieldcraft, tactics, and being unpredictable; more akin to real-world sniping in an urban setting, Enemy at the Gates-style. Your rifle, despite having perhaps 20-30% more range than an AEG is not going to keep them at a distance by itself, since that 20-30% amounts to a distance that can be covered by a 5-second sprint to close the range. Airsoft sniping is very much software over hardware, which is why I'm thankful for the advice given to me, over a decade ago, before I dabbled in Airsoft sniping. The advice I was given was to purchase an AEG as my first gun, and try using Sniper tactics before buying a dedicated platform. Instead of diving in deep with an upgraded VSR-10, I chose to develop my playstyle to be in line with the limited things even heavily upgraded Airsoft sniper rifles can do, and it saved me from making some costly buying mistakes. Airsoft Snipers may look a bit creepy and abhuman in their ghillie suits but they are usually friendly chaps, if you see one at your local skirmish site feel free to ask them about their setup, they love talking about that stuff!
Where the spring-powered bolt action sniper rifle excels is in shot-to-shot consistency. This is at least as important as the accuracy of the rifle, as knowing that the rifle will act nearly identically every time it is fired allows more confidence in range and windage compensation and more likelihood of a quick follow-up shot hitting its target. Spring sniper rifles are generally the best rifle to start your sniping career with as they are much cheaper to buy, easier to upgrade, lighter in weight and generally more forgiving.
With a spring action sniper rifle, you will have to manually do what an AEG does inside its gearbox with the help of a motor and battery, but to a spring in the region of twice as strong. Even if you aren't a muscle-bound monster, you will be able to cock these rifles after some practice, and there are some techniques to make it easier. It is a different story if you are in an unconventional position, however, meaning you may have to move and potentially give away your location at a critical moment in order to work the bolt.
For the beginner Sniper, the Spring bolt action rifle is what I would recommend. Assuming you have been skirmishing before, already own an AEG and a sidearm, a spring rifle would be the best entry point to Airsoft sniping. The magazines are cheap and available, they often come out of the box either firing at a high muzzle velocity or ready for drop in upgrade parts, and are lightweight and relatively easy to manuvre. The most important thing to consider when choosing a platform to snipe with is its parts compatibility. VSR-10 parts are the most prevalent on the market, the platform itself has many inherent characteristics which make it the best place to start from and the magazines are small, light and cheap. There are many VSR compatible sniper rifles available for very little money, should you purchase one of these rifles the first thing I would recommend is to strip the rifle and clean the factory grease off the cylinder and replacing it with silicone grease, as well as cleaning the barrel using your cleaning rod, a microfiber cloth and some silicone spray. Before upgrading any components, either use it at a skirmish or gauge its long-range performance shooting it somewhere out of view and on private property, with permission from the owner. Once you pinpoint the weaknesses of your rifle out of the box, you can think about what upgrades to consider.
The gas bolt action platform comes with the advantage of a near-silent bolt pull with no spring to fight against. This will allow you to rack the next round into the chamber without disturbing your firing position or drawing the eye of the enemy with a long and arduous spring action bolt throw. Gas bolt action rifles are heavy, and super realistic, though this comes with the balancing factor of being more unwieldy, more difficult to upgrade and having more expensive magazines. Gas bolt action rifles are for the advanced Airsoft Sniper, someone who has been sniping with a spring-powered rifle for some time and is seeking an even greater challenge.
A gas-powered bolt action sniper platform will be inherently less consistent than a spring sniper rifle. Due to the cooldown effect, a gas sniper rifle will never have the shot-to-shot consistency that a spring rifle can have, even when using CO2 or HPA. You can still fine-tune a gas sniper rifle to be very consistent, especially if you fire it at a controlled rate, but this takes a lot of tuning and is often beyond what the average Airsofter (even Airsoft Sniper) is willing to undergo to make the rifle perform still not quite as well as a well-tuned springer.
Gas bolt actions are not very well suited to a beginner Sniper. They are expensive, they lack in consistency when compared to spring-powered equivalents and they are usually similar in weight to a real bolt action precision rifle, making them too heavy for most to carry around for a full skirmish. If you have your heart set on a gas bolty, whether it is for their unparalleled realism, low noise report or ease of running them at high power be prepared to have to do a lot of setup, tuning and potentially upgrading and using a CO2 or HPA rig to get the best consistency. These rifles may be difficult to set up for skirmishing, and even when they are set up well they may not be able to give the accuracy and consistency a spring rifle would, but they are a hell of a lot of fun. If realism is your thing then a spring rifle is no substitute for the realistic, effortless bolt pull, realistic weight and feel and general high-quality construction of a gas bolt action rifle.
Electric Semi Auto DMRs, whilst related to sniper rifles in that they will have to obey a Minimum engagement distance and are allowed to operate at higher muzzle energy, are primarily intended to support a squad in a counter-sniper role. The DMR user generally integrates themselves into the squad and provides long-range spotting, a slight range increase, and the ability to deal with enemy Snipers. Obviously, you can use your rifle however you want, and there is nothing wrong with using an AEG in a traditional sniper role, though the lower FPS and louder action will require adapting the sniper playstyle to a more mobile role as you will get some attention if you are landing those hits!
An electric platform can provide a useful stepping stone for the new Airsoft Sniper, though it will not give you the entire experience, it can be less frustrating having that quick follow-up shot available when the wind picks up. Whilst some AEGs are available out of the box locked to semi-automatic and firing at higher FPS, carrying out these upgrades to an AEG can be costly and difficult. Electric platforms are also much noisier than either spring or gas bolt action rifles, meaning you have to be more careful about choosing when to engage and may have to consider some silencing modifications if you plan to play as a true Sniper with an AEG.
If you have your heart set on an Electric DMR AEG I would recommend going for a long rifle, with a long inner barrel, decent battery space, and an upgradable HOP unit. Wack a big ol' scope on it, set your HOP, and start with that, keeping your velocity within normal field guidelines and keeping the fun switch (full auto). Keeping full auto there for the time being means you aren't in trouble if the enemy gets too close, and if you change your mind on using a DMR you can still use the platform as an assault rifle. Installing a tight bore inner barrel would be a priority, and if your HOP isn't as constant as you would like, upgrading the rubber and nub would be the next step to take. If you still want more range, look into semi-auto locking and upgrading your spring but beware; upgrading the spring alone will potentially cause damage to other components and will drain your battery much more quickly.
Part and parcel of Airsoft sniping is using a whopping great big scope, but before forking out for a 6-32x50 scope it is worth considering the limitations of Airsoft projectiles as far as range is concerned and how much of an advantage a more powerful magnification will actually give you in the heat of battle. With an average engagement range of around 50 meters, and an absolute maximum of 100 with a perfectly set up rifle, being able to see the cleanliness of your target's pores with a 32x scope may possibly be a tad unnecessary!
For most Airsoft Snipers, the perfect level of magnification for engagements is 3-4x, giving the Sniper a better view of the target and the ability to hit small exposed areas of the target whilst maintaining a wide field of view and avoiding "tunnel vision". Another factor to consider when choosing a scope is that due to their complexity they tend to weigh quite a bit, and a large piece of glass on your rifle can quickly turn it from light and maneuverable to heavy and cumbersome. I find a good compromise to be a 3-9x40 scope, or similar, which can be used on 3 or 4x to engage targets but can be dialed up to 9 for spotting purposes. The weight should be manageable and offset by the added ability to spot people at long range, without the magnification being excessive for the average size of an Airsoft skirmish site. If you would like to read more about optical sights to make the most informed choice and pick the right scope for your setup, check out our Optical sights buying guide.
Heavy BBs are useful for many platforms, particularly for long range shooting. With the correct amount of HOP applied they provide a more stable flight path, packing a greater punch out to longer ranges enabling them to pass through foliage that would otherwise inhibit their flight and resist strong winds. For full-auto AEGs, the highest you will need is probably 0.28g for those rifles with the most effective HOP units, such as M14 rifles and upgraded setups. For Snipers, this is the lightest BB you should consider using.
Using a sniper rifle puts you at a disadvantage in terms of volume of fire, meaning you need something to keep you going toe to toe with the assault rifle users. Your rifle will be firing at a much higher muzzle velocity, which means heavy BBs are a must to get the accuracy and consistency to get those hits. 0.3g or 0.32g BBs are perfect for an un-upgraded sniper rifle; it will grant you a more stable shot, prevent the wind from doing its thing and punch through the foliage between you and your target. Only having one shot to get the kill, you will need that BB to fly as straight and true as possible. For upgraded rifles, anything up to 0.43 would work well, depending on your setup's muzzle energy and how effective your HOP is. Always bear in mind, you will be chrono'd on the BB weight you use in-game. instead of velocity (FPS) being measured the muzzle energy of your rifle will be calculated. Heavy BBs are not a way to beat the chrono, but they will beat the wind and allow you to get the most out of your HOP unit and high-powered rifle.
Equally as important as your long rifle, any Airsoft Sniper will need a reliable sidearm to fend off the charging riflemen when they get made. There are several platforms favoured by Snipers, and usually, they take the form of large handguns or compact submachine guns. Having a small AEG such as an MP7, P90 or MP5K can provide an excellent option for a more static Sniper, allowing you to hold your position until the last second and cover your own retreat with a hail of full-auto fire, whilst remaining portable and compact aiding carrying along with a rifle. Some Snipers also use GBB and AEP pistols capable of full-auto fire to fulfill this role, and whilst these platforms aren't as capable as an AEG they are significantly more compact and allow the sniper to move more quickly with less baggage. On the other end of the spectrum, there are those snipers who prefer a sidearm optimized to be extremely quiet, opting to remain concealed and get as many kills as they can before relocating. The most noteworthy platforms used for this are the Tokyo Marui and ASG MK23 SOCOM NBB pistols, and various Ruger MK1 NBB pistols. These pistols are very quiet, due to the NBB action, and the MK23 imparticular comes out of the box with a suppressor and has an excellent and highly upgradable HOP unit inside. The MK23 can be upgraded itself, with aftermarket TDC HOP plates, flat HOP rubbers and tight bore inner barrels available; allowing the user to turn their MK23 into a veritable "sniper pistol", with range and accuracy at the pinnacle of what is allowed for a sidearm intended to be used within minimum engagement distance.
Ultimately, what sidearm you choose to carry with your sniper rifle is down to your individual build and requirements, as well as your local field conditions and the local climate. An AEG backup is preferable in winter, or when you are at a site with very little cover; though if you are smaller in stature I would recommend an AEP or GBB pistol instead so you can stay mobile. An NBB pistol such as the MK23 would come into its own at a site with heavy foliage and plenty of opportunities to sneak, especially if you use a ghillie suit or 3D concealment suit, and while it will be at its best in warmer weather, can still perform in winter with a stronger gas.
What Platform should I start with?
Depending on your budget and personal time constraints, there are a few options. Sticking to spring powered sniper rifles as your first would be the best call, they offer the most bang for buck as far as their skirmish performance is concerned. If you are on a relatively tight budget, I would recommend a VSR-10 compatible starter platform such as the WELL MB02/03, Jing Gong BAR-10 or Evolution Airsoft M40. These rifles all shoot rather well out of the box, are very quiet and light as a feather. Starting with a VSR rifle will allow you to incrementally upgrade the parts you feel need improvement. As a general rule, the first thing to upgrade is the inner barrel and HOP rubber, the next being the trigger and sear components, and finally, the spring; only when the trigger and sear are capable of withstanding the additional force. For those with a bit more money on hand, or maybe less time to spend upgrading and tuning, there are pre-upgraded options available, such as the ASG Steyr Scout, Modify MOD24 and the Silverback TAC 41P, all of which feature upgraded actions with stronger springs, steel trigger parts and enhanced HOP units.
Whichever way you choose to go, the most important thing is to manage your expectations and be aware that you will have to be patient, stealthy, and may have to let a kill go if it is going to get you laced by the targets LMG toting team mate. Camouflage, upgrades, gear and tactics will be covered in a future blog, wherein I will outline what camo is the most effective for a Sniper and what it takes to make your own ghillie suit! Until then, good hunting to all the Airsoft Snipers out there!