“I will never be satisfied with my design until I’m dead.“ – Tanio Kobayashi, 2003
I have written a fair amount recently about the 1960s and the “Golden Age” of US airguns. So, I thought it might be interesting to talk instead a little about the golden age of Model Guns in Japan and how this helped to kickstart the design and development of airsoft replicas. It’s also interesting (or at least, I find it so), that airsoft and air guns, although they may seem superficially similar, actually arise from very different philosophies.
“In Europe there is a culture of guns, so the attitude toward real guns is healthy. That’s what makes European attitudes to toy guns healthy as well.” – Tanio Kobayashi, 2003
In Europe and North America, guns powered by air have been used as a practical alternative to firearms for hunting, self-defence, target shooting and even as military weapons for more than two hundred years. Modern regulations limit the power of air powered weapons which means that current pellet and steel BB shooting replica pistols are no longer suitable for hunting or self-defence, but they are “real” guns which simply use a different form of propellant. Airsoft arose from a very different attitude towards guns and can be traced back to post-war Japan and to a particular set of circumstances involving a massive interest in firearms combined with restrictive legislation which made private ownership of even air guns almost impossible. Add to this mix a young designer, Tazuo (usually known as Tanio) Kobayashi who had very particular views about the role and function of replica guns and the outcome was the worldwide phenomenon we now call airsoft – realistic replicas of firearms which shoot with relatively low power.
In the mid-1500s, Japanese military leaders became interested in arming their troops with firearms. At the battle of Nagashino in 1575, more than 3000 troops equipped with modified European muzzle-loading arquebus helped to win the battle by holding off repeated charges by cavalry and infantry. When Japan invaded Korea in 1592, more than 40,000 men of the invasion force were Ashigaru (gunners). However, in 1603, following a protracted and bitter civil war, warlord Tokugawa Ieyasu triumphed and established the Tokugawa Shogunate, a feudal military government. This led to an extended period known as Sakoku where Japan decided to isolate itself from Western influence. The use of firearms was severely limited and proscribed during Sakoku, which lasted until the Meiji restoration in 1868. Not until the late 1800s did Japanese military forces began re-arming with Western firearms, but private ownership of such weapons remained very rare and the use of air weapons almost unknown.
Ashigaru firing tanegashima, Japanese Matchlocks
Despite an increasing focus on military matters in the period leading up to World War Two, levels of private gun ownership remained very low in Japan. Even organised crime gangs (Yakusa) almost never used firearms and, perhaps because of this, Japanese Police forces did not carry guns until they were requested to do so by American occupation forces in 1946. But in the period following World War Two, Japan became increasingly exposed to Western culture, particularly through movies and television. For the first time, Japanese people were seeing firearms in popular entertainment, especially in the American Cowboy movies and television shows which were so popular in the 1950s. Like almost everyone else who was exposed to this stuff, many of them wanted to practice their quick draw technique and to find out what it felt like to handle and shoot a firearm. Perhaps the fact that firearms were so difficult to own in Japan added to a history of prohibition and legislation also increased the mystique of guns in Japan, making them even more desirable?
Japanese movie poster for Fort Apache (1948)
However, the options for owning any kind of firearm were very limited in post-war Japan. Private ownership of handguns was forbidden and even obtaining a license for an air rifle was (and is) an onerous and time-consuming business which involved regular mental health, drug and shooting tests and the requirement to prove that the user has no criminal record and is not part of any extremist group. For the vast majority of people, the only way to directly experience handguns was through replicas.
The Model Gun craze
In the early 1950s, several Japanese companies began to import replica guns, mainly from large US manufacturers such as Mattel. These were usually paper cap firing models, often of cowboy themed guns. One of these companies was the Japan Modelgun Collection Association which was formed in Tokyo in 1959. Soon after, the company changed its name to Model Gun Corporation (MGC) and hired its first employee, a 23 year-old designer called Tanio Kobayashi. Initially, Kobayashi’s role was to modify imported American toy guns to make them look and handle more realistically, but MGC quickly recognised the potential in producing their own accurate replica guns for the Japanese market. Koyayashi began work on the design of more realistic replicas and in 1962 MGC released their first non-shooting replica, based on the Walther VP-2 pistol. The MGC range quickly grew to include replicas of most significant handguns and a fair number of SMGs.
MGC Colt Model 1903 Hammerless Pocket Pistol
MGC replicas were generally made from zinc alloy and replicated the look and function of the original weapons very closely. Blank cartridges were not permitted in Japan, so the first versions of these replicas used conventional paper caps inserted inside machined multi-part cartridges. Many of these paper caps were needed to provide a single shot with enough power to operate blowback action, and loading was a tedious and time-consuming chore. Later, larger plastic caps containing up to 1g of propellant were produced which provided sufficient power to allow a single cap to operate the blowback, making loading much simpler. In Japan, these replicas generically became known as model guns. Most were provided ready-made, but some were supplied as a kit which the buyer had to assemble. The term model guns is still used to distinguish this type of replica from blank firing replicas, inert non-shooting replicas and replicas which shoot pellets or BBs.
Japanese model guns are some of the most visually and functionally accurate replica guns ever made, and these are still collected by large numbers of people around the world.
A thing of great beauty – the MGC Sterling SMG
Noting the rise in popularity of model guns and concerned that it might be possible to convert them so that they could be used to shoot projectiles, the Japanese government introduced increasingly strict legislation in 1965, 1971 and 1977. Amongst other requirements, these new regulations ensured that all model guns would have barrels that were blocked by hardened steel to prevent their being opened. So, while model guns might look and operate like firearms, they were incapable of shooting any type of projectile. For many enthusiasts and collectors, this was unacceptable – they wanted replicas which would actually shoot and which could be used in competitive events.
The birth of Airsoft
While Japanese regulations ensured that any replica that used gunpowder could not be used to actually shoot, the same restrictions did not apply to air powered guns provided that these did not shoot pellets or steel BBs. After some experimentation with different sizes and types of projectile in the late seventies, most manufacturers of air powered replicas standardised on a low-mass, spherical plastic or rubber projectile of 6 or 8mm diameter. These were unlikely to penetrate the skin or cause serious injury even at point blank range, but they could still be accurately shot to surprisingly long range. Using a plastic projectile meant that these replicas were classed as toy guns and escaped onerous Japanese legislation which applied to air weapons shooting pellets. These replicas were marketed under a variety of names including Replisoft, Softair, Comfortable Air, and Air Shot – the term airsoft wasn’t generally adopted until the late 1980s. By the early 1980s, a number of spring powered replicas shooting these plastic BBs were available from companies such as Masudaya, Matsushiro and Chiyoda. Some replicas were also produced which used bulky external air tanks as a power source, but these were complex, expensive and not easily portable. As CO2 cartridges were not permitted in Japan, what was needed was a self-contained air supply which could somehow be retained within the replica itself.
Back at MGC, Tonio Kobayashi had designed several air powered replicas for MGC shooting these new plastic projectiles, but the designer was worried. Other manufacturers were providing replicas capable of shooting the new BBs at higher and higher speeds (500 fps was average by 1984) and Kobayashi was concerned that it was a matter of time before these were capable of causing injury. If this happened, the Japanese Government was almost certain to introduce new legislation to control air powered 6mm replicas. What Kobayashi wanted to focus on instead was replicas which shot with less power, but provided enjoyment because of the accurate way in which they replicated firearms.
The MGC M93R
Tanio Kobayashi with the MGC Beretta M93R
“The airsoft gun is not about power. It should be about enjoyment.” – Tanio Kobayashi, 2003
In 1985 MGC released a replica of the Beretta M93R designed by Kobayashi and which shot 6mm plastic BBs. It’s probably fair to say that this replica was the first modern gas airsoft pistol. The MG M93R was a non-blowback, licensed replica featuring full Beretta markings and constructed mainly of plastic. The full-size, drop-out magazine had a circular plate in the base which could be removed, giving access to the gas compartment. Unlike modern gas airsoft pistols, compressed air was stored in a metal “Power Bombe”, basically a small metal tank a little larger than a 12g CO2 cartridge which fitted inside the magazine. The bombe was filled by connecting its nozzle to a pressurized container of air – originally cans of compressed air used to power airbrushes were used. One notable feature of the MGC M93R was its ability to fire both in semi-auto and three round burst modes. This replica proved enormously popular in Japan and influenced most other Japanese manufacturers to follow a similar design philosophy, focusing on visual and functional fidelity rather than outright power.
MGC Beretta M93R – This is the Custom version which includes a folding shoulder stock
Before the end of the 1980s, MGC released a second version of the M93R, this time featuring a blowback system designed by Kobayashi and a with more conventional gas magazine with a fill nozzle in the base. You might imagine that things were looking good for MGC at this point, but sadly, this wasn’t the case. Despite being larger than any airsoft manufacturer operating today, according to Kobayashi, the Director had lost interest in replica guns and in 1994 MGC was declared bankrupt. By that time a number of other notable Japanese companies (including Marushin and Western Arms) were producing successful and reliable airsoft replicas. Even Tanaka, which had previously produced wooden moulds for use in making casts for model guns, were beginning to move into the small scale manufacture of airsoft pistols.
Kobayashi moves on
Tanio Kobayashi had completed the design of a range of gas powered blowback replicas based on Glock pistols for MGC before leaving the company in the early 1990s to become a freelance designer. Trading as the Tanio Koba design studio, Kobayashi went on to become involved with Tokyo Marui and designed the blowback system that would be used in that company’s replicas as well as providing advice and guidance to other airsoft companies such as Cybergun and KSC and producing his own replicas under the Tanio Koba brand.
Tanio Koba gas blowback H&K USP replica
Now in his late seventies, Kobayashi is still active within the airsoft world, still enjoying working on and shooting replica guns and is still hugely enthusiastic about his favourite firearm manufacturer – Heckler & Koch. I have never owned a Japanese Model Gun or any MGC or Tanio Koba products, though I’d like to. The MGC Model Guns (and those produced by other Japanese manufacturers such as Hudson and Marushin) are some of the best non-shooting replicas available and MGC and Tanio Koba airsoft guns are superb and still provide evidence of the extreme care which went into their design and construction.
Many people regard Tanio Kobayashi as the father of modern airsoft, and that’s probably fair. His emphasis on providing a satisfactory shooting experience which mimicked the use of a cartridge firing weapon rather than on producing more and more powerful 6mm replicas helped to shape and guide a new industry which hadn’t yet decided where it was going. Partly because of his influence, airsoft weapons retain a unique identity and feel, providing a safe and enjoyable shooting experience. Some people regard airsoft guns rather contemptuously as low powered air guns but I think this is a mistake. Air guns are real weapons which come from a European and North American approach to guns. Airsoft weapons arise from a very different philosophy which can be traced directly to post-war Japan and the influence of Tanio Kobayashi. Neither approach is “right”, but this is worth bearing in mind when you decide whether you want .177”/4.5mm or 6mm replicas.
Competitive events featuring airsoft weapons are still very popular in Japan
I have to admit that I probably prefer 6mm replica pistols to their 4.5mm counterparts which shoot steel BBs. With 6mm plastic BBs there are fewer ricochets and less chance of causing injury or damage if you do get hit by a stray BB. Fairly early in my collecting and shooting of replica pistols, I managed to shoot a very expensive hole in a large double glazing unit. I had been shooting with a 4.5mm Tanfoglio Witness and the rain of steel BBs had gradually eroded the thick wooden backstop I was using. I wasn’t aware of this until the steel BBs had worn a hole completely through the backstop and one of them passed through and hit the glazing unit behind. Right about then I started to wonder whether I needed the additional power that comes from shooting 4.5mm steel BBs rather than their larger plastic cousins? And the answer was no. For target shooting, I find 6mm replicas just as satisfying as 4.5mm, with the added advantage that I can vary the weight of the 6mm BB to adjust trajectory and use hop-up adjustment to fine tune the point of impact at my chosen distance. Of course, pellet shooting replicas are different – shooting a pellet through a rifled barrel is always going to give better accuracy and consistency than shooting any form of BB through a smoothbore barrel. But the awkward shape of soft lead pellets means that pellet shooting replicas rarely replicate the functionality of cartridge firing weapons as well as BB shooters.
In the thirty years which have passed since the launch of the MGC M93R, the range of available airsoft replicas has expanded beyond what anyone could have anticipated and manufacturing is now done in Taiwan, China, the Phillipines, Europe and the US in addition to Japan. Very large numbers of people use airsoft guns for training, target shooting and skirmishing around the world but it’s still possible to look back at the MGC M93R and the ethos it represents and say ”It all started here”.
All quotations from Tanio Kobayashi come from a 2003 interview given to RenegadeRecon.com.
Tanio Kobayashi’s Facebook page
MP40s Model Gun Forum – everything you ever wanted to know about model guns