How Dangerous Are BB, Pellet and Paintball Guns?

December 5, 2008

“You’ll shoot your eye out, kid.” So warned Santa, when Ralphie confessed that what he really wanted for Christmas was an “Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action 200 Shot Range Model Air Rifle” in the movie “A Christmas Story.” Later, when his wish is fulfilled, he almost does exactly that.

BB guns, pellet rifles and paintball guns are still on many Christmas wish lists. The danger they pose to children is obvious, but does that rule them out as gifts for children? Careful parents should do their research. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission reported that between 1990 and 2000 there were 39 air gun related deaths, of which 32 were children younger than 15 years.

BB’s and paintballs projected by air or CO2 gas (as opposed to bullets propelled by gunpowder) can reach some incredible speeds. The classic Daisy Red Ryder (still available) shoots BB’s with a velocity of 350 feet per second (fps). At that speed, a BB can traverse the full distance of a football field in less than a second. Daisy BB pistols, using CO2, can reach speeds of 485 fps.

Paintball guns are harder to gauge. Sellers of such guns do not often reveal the actual speed of the paintball projectiles, but one study showed they reached average velocities of about 270 fps, almost as fast as a BB gun.

Pellet guns are in an even more dangerous category. With velocities of over 1000 fps, they can be as deadly as a bullet.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission warns that high velocity air guns with muzzle velocities of 350 fps or greater pose  risk of death and should not be used by children younger than 16. Daisy labels its air guns accordingly and states that velocities under 350 fps are appropriate for children between 10 and 16, with more powerful guns (e.g., the Red Ryder) limited to ages 16 or over.

With their velocities under 350 fps, paintball guns may be appropriate for children between 10 and 16, but only with the strictest of supervision, including face, eye and body protection and warnings about shooting at anyone’s face or open skin.

In 2004, the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics published a study on the injury risk of air guns. 12% of air gun injuries were to the eye, 24% to other parts of the head or neck, and the rest to extremities. The seriousness of such injuries are often under appreciated by care givers, especially since the light weight of the projectiles may allow them to be swept by blood flow much more quickly than bullets. Wearing eye protection is a must, but some people have been injured, for example, when they temporarily removed their paintball goggles which were fogging up.

Many states have laws covering air guns. In New York City, air rifles are prohibited altogether. In Florida it is against the law for minors under 16 to use a BB gun unless supervised by an adult and only with the express consent of the parent.

Another danger posed by such guns is their realistic looks, which could easily be confused for a real rifle or gun by a law enforcement officer.

In summary, BB guns are not toys. Under 10? Forget it. For older children, only age-appropriate guns (no pellet guns, please)  should be provided and only under strict adult supervision. Such guns can in the right context serve as good educational tools for learning about gun safety. “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid,” remains, however, good advice indeed.