Simulated military combat game ‘airsoft’ draws players to Linneus field

3 weeks ago

LINNEUS, Maine – UPS dropped off Jon McQuarrie’s first shipment of smoke grenades on Wednesday afternoon, a package he had been anxiously awaiting. 

Within minutes he pulled the pin on one to test it out. There was a loud bang and blue smoke spread as it detonated just outside a wooden fort near the elaborate tire wall along his airsoft field, Southern Aroostook Action Sports, in Linneus.

Along with business and life partner Tessa Flannery, McQuarrie was obviously having fun as the two demonstrated airsoft, a simulated military combat game, out in the field. There are only four airsoft fields in the state and SAAS is the only one north of Androscoggin County. 

“We deliberately keep things light, this is only a game. We are not here to do training. We don’t do current conflicts like Ukraine Russia games,” said Flannery. “There are police forces and other groups who do use airsoft equipment for training as well as some fringe groups, like militias, but that’s not what we are doing.”

Airsoft started in the early 1970s in Japan and by the late 1980s it spread to the U.S. McQuarrie said it is basically a game of long distance tag, not unlike laser tag or paintball. And it is really big with people who enjoy first-person shooter video games like Call of Duty or Fortnite.

In airsoft play, replica guns have a magazine filled with tiny plastic pellets that are fired at members of an opposing team. Airsoft guns shoot 6 mm plastic balls or BBs. An actual BB gun generally uses 4.5 mm metal ball bearings. 

They really sting if a player is hit, but are not as painful as paintball, said McQuarrie.

Unlike some toxic airsoft videos on YouTube, McQuarrie and Flannery work hard to make sure games at SAAS just focus on play and sport. All racial and other derogatory slurs are strictly off limits, they said. 

“Nothing here is lethal. You are more likely to get hurt tripping over a root in the woods than from a BB,” McQuarrie said. “Airsoft is not about guns, not about glorifying guns, it is not about gun violence. It’s like long distance tag.” 

While rare, especially if wearing the recommended protective face gear, injuries can happen. Flannery was hit point blank in the forehead, drawing blood, she said. Another player lost half a tooth.

“Kids have to wear face protection,” said Flannery. “And if they are over 18, I tell them,’if you pay your own dental bills, you’re stupid if you don’t, but I can’t make you.’”

Airsoft guns are not classified as firearms although you must be 18 or over to purchase one. And federal law requires a blaze orange tip on the barrel so they are not confused with real firearms. In 2014, Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old Cleveland boy was playing with his friend’s airsoft gun in a local park. A rookie police officer shot and killed him. Rice’s friend had removed the orange tip. 

LINNEUS, Maine — June 26, 2024 — Jon McQuarrie and Tessa Flannery of Southern Aroostook Action Sports in Linneus take a break on Wednesday after demonstrating how airsoft games are played. (Kathleen Phalen Tomaselli | Houlton Pioneer Times)

McQuarrie first started building Southern Aroostook Action Sports in 2019. Over several years, mostly by himself, he built the elaborate course behind their sustainable agriculture and fiber business, Gallifreyan Farm. While on the airsoft field, the sounds of sheep, angora bunnies, alpaca, chickens and even an emu are often heard in the distance. 

The field is dotted with forts, bunkers, benches and outposts with names like Pallet Fort, Grizzly Den, Outpost Omar and the terrifying bunker. When somebody donates building supplies to the field, the structure McQuarrie builds will be named after the donor he said.  

A guy everybody calls Soup brought a bunch of wood and now there’s Soup Kitchen on the field.

Airsoft is a game of honor, they said.

“When you get hit by a BB, call it,” McQuarrie said. “Wave your dead rag around and put it on your head and return to where the game dictates.”

Both McQuarrie and Flannery administer, moderate and play the game. 

“I carry spare batteries, spare rental mags and a small tool kit that has everything I need to do a field repair on a rental. I also carry a bullhorn,” he said.  

Flannery’s favorite game is a variation of tic tac toe. There’s a big tic tac toe board and McQuarrie hides wooden Xs and Os throughout the field. Each team has to find their X or O and get it back to the board without getting hit by a BB. 

In another game, a big metal container filled with rocks is the bomb and players start at Pallet Fort, trying to make it all the way to the Temple containing the bomb without getting hit. The other team defends anywhere along the path.

Memorial Day marked the beginning of their fourth summer of gameplay and the course is taking shape. They have expanded their rental gear to accommodate 12 at a time and are expanding play to include businesses and groups that want to use the field for the day. They recently hosted a local high school, although they would not reveal the name, for 30 seniors to play. 

Additionally, they are focusing on building a community of players. 

LINNEUS, Maine — June 26, 2024 — Jon McQuarrie of Southern Aroostook Action Sports in Linneus built most of the forts, bunkers, trails and other structures on his airsoft playing fields. Here, McQuarrie’s partner Tessa Flannery demonstrates protective face gear on Wednesday afternoon. (Kathleen Phalen Tomaselli | Houlton Pioneer Times)

“After every game I cook burgers and things for everybody,” said Flannery, who is also a fiber artist. “I try to stay on top of having a cake for birthdays or graduations.”

SAAS is open to the public on Sundays only, beginning at 8 a.m., and the first Saturday of the month is free for veterans to play. The next veteran day is July 6, starting about noon. 

In October they will host Operation Damage Control to raise money for the Veterans Sanctuary Foundation. McQuarrie and Veterans Sanctuary Foundation founder Zach Inman went to school together and the sanctuary Inman is building is nearly next door to the airsoft field. 

In the future, they plan to offer paintball and nerf games for the younger kids. 

They will run until the last Sunday in October. There’s a $12 per person field fee and the complete rental kit is $18. Although a good number of their players have their own gear.