It is quite a stretch for U.S. Customs inspectors at the Port of Tacoma to declare that they recently intercepted machine guns, especially when the devices they confiscated were two models of a well-known brand of high-end Airsoft toys. To make such a claim, Customs relied upon a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) determination that these toys could have parts replaced or modified to turn it into a weapon capable of firing real bullets in automatic mode.
For such a claim to be true, the modified toy would have to:
- accept M4/M16-type military magazines
- strip a cartridge from the magazine and push it up the feed ramp into the toy’s chamber
- have a functional fire control group action, barrel, and gas system to cycle the weapon
- withstand (structurally) the high heat and pressures of a firearm cycling at hundreds of rounds per minute
Both Airsoft Outlet Northwest (the retailer/importer the Airsoft guns were seized from) and AirSplat (the nation’s largest Airsoft retailer) stock and have experience with the various configurations of the WE Tech Airsoft gas blowback systems, and both claim to have had experts attempt see how these toys could possibly be converted into functioning firearms. Airsoft Outlet Northwest took a previously delivered (without incident) WE Tech to a gunsmith that specializes in the AR platform. The gunsmith determined the following:
- The WE TTI M4s lack any sort of functional gas tube which is integral to an AR15′s operation
- The upper receiver of an AR15 fits onto the lower of the WE TTI M4
- The stock trigger pack in the WE TTI cannot strike the firing pin of a AR15 bolt
- The body of the WE TTI lower is several mils thinner than an AR15 lower, and shims would be needed for any AR trigger pack to work
- The trigger pack of an AR15 appears to be able to fit onto the lower receiver of a WE TTI M4, one of the AR15 trigger pack retaining pins is impossible to insert without major modification, and the hammer isn’t operable with the WE TTI lower.
In short, the gunsmith determined that the entire upper receiver would have to be replaced by an upper from a real M4/M6 type rifle to have a hope of functioning, and a trigger pack from a real M4 would have to undergo extensive modification to even fit. And even when modified to fit, it wouldn’t fire. If this gunsmith is correct, then all the effort to take a $400 toy and $600-plus of real gun parts — plus significant labor from a proficient gunsmith — would result in a thousand-dollar club less functional than the original toy, unable to fire real bullets or Airsoft pellets.
AirSplat, which has had samples of the exact same firearms in the past and which carries WE Tech products, had a slightly different experience in their attempts to see if these toys could be converted into weapons. They also had a tester who seemed supremely qualified to be in a position of being able to tell a toy gun from a fake one. Jon Dibblee was an Army infantryman for six years before being honorably discharged as a sergeant last year. He currently works for AirSplat, and he conducted tests with other employees on several models of gas blowback M4 replicas, trying to see if they would work with real M4 parts.
In the models they reviewed, Jon and his team determined the same fundamental conversion problem that dogged every attempt to turn an Airsoft gun into a real one, and that was the quality of the materials used in Airsoft construction. While quite acceptable for use in compressed-gas powered toys, the metals and plastic used in Airsoft would melt under the temperatures generated by real firearms, if they didn’t blow apart from the high pressures first. The all-important component (from a legal perspective) that determines whether or not a product is a gun or a toy is the lower receiver, which all Airsoft distributors contacted have confirmed are made of inexpensive pot metals that can not withstand the heat or pressures generated by authentic firearms.
In addition to the failure-prone lower receivers, the various Airsoft toys (including WE Tech) tested by AirSplat could not mate a real AR upper receiver to a toy lower, due to the placement of the two pins that hold the upper and lower units together. The hole location for the Airsoft pins were not compatible with the real AR upper, and were in fact ingeniously placed in such a location that attempting to drill new holes would result in the receiver metal tearing between the existing holes and new ones, immediately turning the receiver to scrap.
AirSplat was also unable to get real M4 magazines to lock into place in the Airsoft lowers, noting that the magazine lock was located in a different position inside the receiver, with the toy magazines designed to catch roughly 1/4″ higher. They captured this magazine locking failure on video as part of their review of a similar Airsoft M4. This video, of course, isn’t evidence that the WE Tech would have similar problems, but it certainly suggests that is yet another possible failure point of the ATF determination that the two WE Tech M4 variants could be turned into a weapon.
Playing devil’s advocate, one can easily understand why the ATF would want to block the importation of toys that could be easily converted into automatic weapons. Any toy that could be converted into a machine gun should of course be banned.
The ATF has thus far failed to show anyone evidence that they were able to easily convert one of the confiscated WE Tech Airsoft Rifles taken from Airsoft Outlet Northwest into a weapon. There has been no information that they attempted to test fire any conversion they may have attempted, or what the results of that test may have been. All requests for specific comment to the public affairs officers of both the ATF and U.S. Customs have gone unanswered.
Last but not least, the Customs/ATF argument for confiscating these toys might seem more plausible if they were focused on one kind of firearm, with a specific lower receiver they would publicly demonstrate as a serious threat.
But Customs has not stopped with confiscating just WE Tech M4s from Airsoft Outlet Northwest. They’ve also confiscated sixteen KJW M700 bolt-action Airsoft rifles (though Amazon.com sells them easily enough), four m700 bolt-action rifles from Bell, fifteen WE Tech SCARs (available seemingly everywhere), ten pistols, and four revolvers. The total cost of the additional Airsoft toys and accessories being held from Airsoft Outlet Northwest by U.S. Customs is roughly $20,000.
Bren Martin, part of the family that owns Airsoft Outlet Northwest, says they are no different than any other family-owned business trying to survive in a down economy and that the seemingly vindictive and arbitrary seizures by Customs threatens ten jobs.
Are U.S. Customs inspectors and the ATF treating the Martin family and their business fairly, or are these confiscations both punitive and unreasonable, considering that the same guns they have declared are “machine guns” can be purchased with monotonous frequency by anyone in America with a credit card and an internet connection?
We’ll address these questions and whether or not the entire affair is a gross example of bureaucratic incompetence in “Agents of Incompetence, Part III.”