JOHNS CREEK, Ga. – History buff and military re-enactor Michael Steele and his buddies didn’t go to the pool or the lake last weekend; they didn’t hangout. Instead, they decided they would mark the 70th anniversary of D-Day by re-enacting the storming of the beaches at Normandy and push the Nazi defenders back until the beaches were secure and their objectives taken.
Of course the German side did not want that to happen, and planned a stubborn defense of the battlefield.
You see, these Northview High School students are all devotees of tactical war-gaming called Airsoft. They use realistic weapons that fire soft BBs that the boys say can feel like pinch or a sting.
Some of the boys are new to Airsoft, and others have varying degrees of experience. But they all share the enthusiasm of the sport.
Steele, who plans to be a history teacher, has been an Airsoft military gamer since he was 6 years old. That was 10 years ago. He picked up the interest from his older brother and has “inherited” some of the material from him.
The rest he has had to buy; it doesn’t come cheap. Airsoft is competitive war gaming and is comparable to paintball the way you might compare baseball to softball. It is another level of gaming from paintball.
“It is like paintball, but more competitive. There is more competition and a lot more objectives. And it takes more skill,” Steele said.
“The weapons are more realistic and they come in a wider variety,” he said. “It’s all about quality. You see good reviews and bad reviews. You have to do your research before you buy.”
Uniforms come online or at local Army-Navy stores.
Connor Neely, 14, is another youngster who started early with the help of his neighbor Steele, whom he has known since he was 5. He said he got shot a lot when he was younger.
“But it made me a better Airsofter today,” Neely said.
A true veteran, he said for the re-enactment he brought along two crucial items – duct tape and Super Glue.
For this special D-Day tactical operation, Steele and his compatriots secured some startling G.I. and Wehrmacht reproductions, including the American .45-caliber Thompson submachine gun – better known as the Tommy gun – and the forerunner of all modern assault weapons, the German sturmgewehr.
They give the gamer a significant boost in firepower. The Tommy gun carries 200 rounds in its magazine.
For their re-enactment, they secured a 10-acre site off Old Alabama Road. Six of those acres belong to Kristian Barber’s family. He commanded the German defenses, which includes some bunkers they have created in the woods. A couple of creeks in the brush provide convenient trenches.
Barber, 16, got started “just a few years ago,” also introduced to Airsoft by his brother.
“I got into it my freshman year. We go to special [Airsoft] fields. There are seven in Georgia,” he said. “I’ve been to all of them. There are some indoor venues also, but we prefer outdoor.”
They generally go out once a month. Barber said it can be “stressful” when outdoors in that environment where someone wants to shoot you.
“But it’s a bonding experience with your team. You also learn a lot about safety. You have to treat it like a real gun,” he said.
One does notice they treat their weapons with care and safety on the site.
Steele and Barber say they hope one day to go to Scotland or Ireland where thousands compete in complex and sophisticated simulations. They say the sport is huge there.
Asked why they were re-enacting D-Day, Steele said it was dedicated to those veterans who hit the beaches for real seven decades ago.
“We want to honor those men who fought for freedom at great sacrifice to themselves,” Steele said.
The two teams had 10 to 15 on the American side representing the 101st Airborne and the 59th Rangers. There were about 10 to 12 on the German side. The disparity reflects the advantage in numbers, Steele said. But the German side had more experience, which reflects the advantage the Germans had.
They started at noon on Saturday, and then camped overnight and ran more “operations” on Sunday before coming home to a hero’s welcome.