Hardcore for airsoft at 99-acre Chesapeake facility
Anthony Williams was surrounded by gunfire.
The enemy was a few feet away as he crept through the heavily guarded village. They tried not to make a sound. But Williams could tell they were there from footsteps on the hard dirt path, shadows that hung around corners of buildings, and shots that sped by.
Positioning himself on the side of a building, Williams inched forward. Sweat dripped onto his military fatigues under the warm sun.
Williams and his squad mates had their assigned target in sight. But the time needed to complete their mission was fast ticking away.
Seconds later, a squad mate raced toward the target and toppled it. The enemy saw the approach but fired too late. The mission was a success.
“A rush for sure,” Williams said.
Williams wasn’t on a military mission. But he was on a battlefield, of sorts.
He was playing airsoft, a sport in which players try to eliminate opponents and achieve objectives using replica guns that fire small pellets – which feel like a pinch or bite when they strike.
“It’s like paintball but more realistic,” Christopher Wratten said. “And you don’t get paint all over you.”
Airsoft gained popularity in Japan in the 1970s, then started growing in the United States in the 1990s.
At about 99 acres, Ballahack Airsoft, in southern Chesapeake, has the largest field on the East Coast. With games Saturdays and Sundays, it brings in more than 300 players on average weekends. It also hosts games on Wednesdays and Fridays.
Wratten, 27, runs Ballahack with his father, Chris Wratten. The younger Wratten created the idea to run airsoft on the family’s property after seeing a gun in the late 2000s.
“It was just too cool to pass up,” he said.
Ballahack attracts primarily teenage boys and men in their 20s, 30s and 40s. But a handful of women play, as do some senior citizens.
For Father’s Day weekend, David Heppner, 54, and his son Alexander, 16, traveled about four hours from Lynchburg to compete together.
Alexander plays soccer and tennis. He said airsoft is as good as or better than a workout.
“Running 2 feet deep in mud while being shot at,” he said, “and you can’t sit still.”
For many players, airsoft’s appeal is the variety it offers. Ballahack’s field includes swamps, ponds, trees and tall grass to wander in.
It also includes a village, which the Wrattens and friends have built almost entirely by themselves, bit by bit, since Ballahack opened.
About 800 feet long by 500 feet wide, it holds more than 100 barriers – walls and bulkheads that provide cover – and more than a dozen replica buildings. Doors in those buildings can be moved so players can’t get comfortable in the setup.
“You can come out here each time and have a different environment,” said Dan Harshman, 25, who started playing airsoft about two years ago. At the time, all he knew about shooting was from the video game “Call of Duty.” “And even that wasn’t much,” he said.
Within a month, Harshman had purchased a $400 airsoft gun. A few months later, he became a field marshal, essentially serving as an airsoft referee.
For him, the best part of the game is the tension before a battle.
He likes thinking through the best tactical moves, which often include hiding in woods or being waist deep in water.
“Don’t be shy,” he advised new players. “See what other people are doing, but really get in there and go.”
Harshman sold video games before he found airsoft.
Now, he’s looking at entering law enforcement.
Many police officers and military personnel do play the game. But not necessarily for training.
Mitchell Chaney is part of a Navy Fleet Surgical Team. He was stationed in Virginia about two years ago, and quickly found Ballahack.
“The community is fantastic,” he said.
That is the main appeal to many players. Some have mundane jobs, so the game adds excitement to their lives. Others use it to stay in shape.
But few at Ballahack treat it as win-at-all-costs. They’d like to defeat the enemy. But more importantly, they’d like to come away having enjoyed the experience.
“I’ve met more friends here in two years than anywhere else,” Harshman said. “It’s just a great environment.”
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