LAUREL HILL — Starting Saturday, the sport of Airsoft again has a venue in North Okaloosa County. Evolution Airsoft opens in a previous operator’s wooded 22-acre site at the end of Robbins Road.
Its clearings are filled with moveable barricades and obstacles, as well as permanent structures representing rudimentary forts, towers and buildings.
Sam Allen, who, with friends and a partner, lease the parks-and-recreation-zoned land from Okaloosa County, “but the lease went up from a dollar a year to $100 a month.” He expects 20 to 30 players a day.
The sport, which Allen says is popular with active duty and retired military personnel and “a lot of military enthusiasts,” consists of shooting other participants with 6-mm plastic BBs using generally air-powered guns.
While being struck by one of the BBs can sting, they’re not lethal, Allen said.
Reopening the field fulfills a need for local Airsoft enthusiasts who have no place to play the game in North Okaloosa County, Allen said. He credits his son for encouraging him to open Evolution.
“My kid, who was 12 at the time, wanted an Airsoft gun, so I started Googling for places to play,” Allen said. They found the Laurel Hill site, but it closed in July 2015.
“Airsoft teaches kids about gun safety,” Allen said. Before his sons were allowed to participate, they spent a couple weeks learning to operate their guns at home, he said.
“I don’t play around when it comes to safety,” he said. “I want to run this place right and focus on the kids who are still going to be coming here for five or six years.”
A typical round of Airsoft might include several groups of seven or eight players who begin the round in different locations around the venue.
Organizers create scenarios and missions, such as rescuing a kidnapped scientist and returning him safely to the winning team’s base, or capturing another team’s base.
As teams scurry through the underbrush, creep along trails, pop out of gullies and shelter behind obstacles, Allen and his partners enhance the experience by tossing rechargeable flash grenades and smoke grenades.
“It’s stuff that adds to the effect but doesn’t hurt anybody,” Allen said.
By making some of the barriers moveable, “we’ll be able to change the dynamics of the game,” Allen said, altering the terrain from weekend to weekend.
Some serious players invest as much as $1,500 in top-of-the-line costumes, woods gear and equipment. Allen said the average players just needs the basics.
“If you’re playing Airsoft with $1,500 kit and you get annihilated by a kid in a pair of $20 blue jeans, you’re going to feel pretty dumb,” Allen said.
Future plans include building a multi-room “shoot house,” in which players can route their opponents from rooms and hallways.
Allen also foresees Evolution Airsoft playing a serious role in the community. With Eglin Air Force Base shooting ranges heavily booked, the military and area law enforcement agencies can reserve the field for training and practice, he said.
Thursday, Allen was putting several more obstacles together for Saturday’s 10 a.m. opening. For a $10 fee, Airsoft fans can play all day. Rental guns will be available, and food will be for sale. Evolution will be open every other Saturday.
Groups, including Boy Scouts, social clubs and church groups are welcome to try the sport, Allen said.
“Everybody’s got glory stories at the end of every game,” Allen said. “It doesn’t matter what your social setting is or what your religion is. Here we want a safe and friendly family environment for everybody.”