Light it Up: A Guide to Airsoft Tracer Units

Twilight – the sun is setting but the BBs are still flying and nobody wants to stop the fun.

How do airsoft players keep the fun going (and keep track of hits) while darkness encroaches?

The answer, much as it is real steel firearms, is to come prepared with an airsoft tracer unit,

What is an Airsoft Tracer Unit?

An airsoft tracer unit is an attachment or device that contains a light emitting diode (LED) and some kind of motion sensor.

When an BB passes through or near the device, it triggers the sensor and this causes the device to flash light, typically in the ultraviolet (UV) spectrum. 

This UV light can “charge” certain specially coated BBs (called tracer BBs) with energy, causing them to glow in the dark. 

As these now glowing BBs are fired out of a barrel, they leave a visible trail of light behind them.

Airsoft tracer fire

Much like a real tracer round, this allows users to more easily track their BBs as they are sent down range in low-light conditions.

Types of Airsoft Tracer Units

Tracer units tend to either come as suppressor style tracer units, magazines tracer units and hop up tracers. 

Suppressor-style tracer units

Pros Cons
Cool looking, often looks like a suppressor  Increases the front weight and length of your airsoft gun, unbalancing or making it more cumbersome in tight spots
Easy to install – threads right in Easy to bang around and damage in low light conditions if you’re not careful
Pretty easy to find with many different models, looks, prices and styles
Can be used with any gun that fits in dimensions or if you have a compatible adapter 

Suppressor-style tracer units are built into a mock silencer, or suppressor, that is screwed into the end of your airsoft rifle. 

They come in two varieties, those that come pre-integrated into a suppressor, and those you can insert and remove from compatible silencers. 

Integrated tracer units

Suppressor-style tracer units are units that fit into a suppressor or mock airsoft silencer. At first glance they are more or less indistinguishable from a regular airsoft suppressor.

Suppressor-style tracer units are the most commonly available tracer units and come in a variety of thread sizes (14mm being the most common) with both positive and negative threading and in a wide variety of suppressor styles, so players have a lot of options for style with these. 

For those with unusual bores or threading there are specific tracer unit adapters as well, letting them be used with different thread sizes (12mm to 14mm, for example), as well as for clockwise/counterclockwise (positive/negative) threaded airsoft guns. 

Integrated, suppressor-style tracer units are convenient and simple, being ready to use right out of the box and allowing users being able to swap their airsoft tracer unit for a regular suppressor on the fly, keeping components separate and more organized. 

On the downside, they can be a case of take what you can get, with the style, LED illuminator and other features (auto-off for example) limited to whatever the factory provided. 

Drop-ins

Drop-in units, as the name implies, are tracer units that are sold as a module that can be placed into (and removed from) a variety of supporting suppressors. 

Individual tracer units, while not ready to use out of the box,can have improved features and functionality over standard units since they are dedicated modules. 

Similarly, they can be dropped into pretty much any mock suppressor or silencer that can accommodate its size, meaning with a little work users can better customize their loadout and look to fit their taste. 

Magazine Tracer units

Pros Cons
Can be used with as many airsoft guns as the magazine fits Limits airsoft tracer use to the number of tracer magazines a player carries
Easier than other options to swap in and out on the fly More expensive than a traditional magazine
Decent battery life May lowers capacity of BBs able to be taken
Can be used with any gun that fits in dimensions or if you have a compatible adapter  Have to be way more careful with the magazine so as not to damage delicate electronic components inside

Magazine tracer units have the airsoft tracer unit integrated directly into a special magazine, bathing tracer BBs in UV light and getting them to glow even before they reach an airsoft gearbox. 

Pic of airsoft magazine tracer unit

These units allow users to more easily switch between tracer fire and non tracer fire, making them a far more tactically flexible option and reducing the amount of accessories mounted to a user’s airsoft gun, which keeps things light.

On the downside, the ability to use tracer fire is more directly limited to the number of tracer magazines you can carry (and the BBs within). 

Tracer mags also tend to be more expensive and fragile than normal airsoft magazines, so you won’t be slamming these home as hard or letting them drop during reloads. 

And, of course, you do need to find tracer magazines that will fit your particular airsoft gun (and fit well) for everything to work. Given that these are more rare altogether compared to suppressors, this isn’t always such an easy task. 

Hop-up Tracer Units

Pros Cons
No effect on barrel length, can keep airsoft guns short, sweet and maneuverable in CQB Need to modify your airsoft gun; requires disassembly and careful installation
No real effect on overall weight of airsoft replica, as it replaces existing hop-up Will replace any custom or high quality hop-up units already installed
Decent battery life Models often specific to particular weapons
Can be used with any gun that fits in dimensions or if you have a compatible adapter  Have to be way more careful with the magazine so as not to damage delicate electronic components inside
Most units run off airsoft gun battery, reducing its charge as well
High RPS and FPS airsoft guns can damage the mechanics of the device, making them not really suited for its use

Hop-up tracer units replace the built-in hop up unit of an airsoft gun with one that contains tiny, specialized, UV illuminators. 

A little more tucked away than other options, hop up tracer units tend to withstand the bumps and knocks of running and gunning a little better than other options and have no effect on the weight and length of an airsoft gun or its barrel. 

hop up tracer unit

Further, being a hop up with some lights installed, they are simpler and can be less prone to various electronic issues and bugs, not needing things like motion sensors to work, for example, since they’re on until unplugged. 

On the downside, installing one of these does require at least some skill at disassembling and modifying an airsoft replica. 

They also make an airsoft gun subject to the hop up quality of the tracer unit, meaning those with custom or high quality hop ups may need to make a tough choice since most tracer units won’t be quite as good. 

Finally, many hop up tracer units tend to be always on until unplugged, requiring users to build and install a switch as well, or to modify it in other ways to only operate when a trigger is pulled. 

Interestingly unlike other airsoft tracer units, most hop up units tend to run off the battery of the airsoft gun, which, while saving users the need to swap and recharge batteries, can somewhat eat into the weapons battery life as well and leave players in a bad situation if they aren’t careful. 

Which of these is the best option for me?

Situation You Should Consider 
I don’t want others to know I’m using a tracer unit Magazine Tracer Unit  or Hop up Tracer Unit
I want a tracer unit that I can easily swap on or off my airsoft gun Suppressor-style or Magazine Tracer Unit
I want to keep my airsoft replica as short as possible  Hop up Tracer Unit
I like the tactical look of an airsoft silencer or suppressor  Suppressor-style Tracer Unit
I don’t want to fiddle around with my airsoft replica Suppressor-style or Magazine Tracer Unit
I’m a little rough and highspeed with my airsoft gun and accessories when I’m running and gunning  Hop up Tracer Unit
My airsoft gun is a little unusual and uncommon Suppressor-style Tracer Unit (with or without adaptor)
I only want to use tracer BBs a couple times per game at most Magazine Tracer Unit
I’m looking for something that’s easy to find and replace if necessary Suppressor-style Tracer Unit 
I have or am interested in an extended inner barrel  Hop up Tracer Unit or Magazine Tracer Unit
I want to strike from the shadows and disappear again while my enemies flee in confusion before me Don’t use an airsoft tracer unit

Tracer BBs: The Key to Airsoft Tracer Units

Unlike normal airsoft BBs, tracer BBs are coated with a thin layer of phosphor, a synthetic fluorescent. 

This phosphor layer lets tracer BBs emit light or glow when exposed to radiant energy, such as that provided by an airsoft tracer unit. 

On the downside tracer BBs tend to be more expensive than other BBs, and can represent a significant added cost to an airsofter’s budget depending on how frequently they’re used. 

Tracer BB Colors: Do They Matter?

Aesthetics aside? Absolutely. 

Most of the time, tracer BBs come in red or green as these are the most highly visible under low light conditions, with green tracer BBs tending to glow brighter than red tracer BBs and therefore being the preferred choice for most situations. 

There are other colors offered, of course, purple and blue for example, although they tend to be more costly and tend to work poorly compared to green and red tracers. 

Airsoft players should be aware that not all tracer units work with all tracer BB colors. 

The vast majority work with green (as it most readily absorbs their light), while some higher quality units deliver enough illumination to work effectively with both red and green tracer BBs. 

Typically tracer units will indicate with which colors they are intended to be used and, unless you don’t mind weak performance, it’s best to pay attention to this before you buy. 

Are These Tracer BBs Biodegradable?

Something players should know when considering tracer units is that outdoor airsoft ranges often require players to use biodegradable BBs, since sweeping up these little plastic bad boys isn’t really an option outside.

As with regular airsoft BBs, there are biodegradable tracer BBs on the market and these are easily found online. 

However, players should be aware that they tend to be more expensive than regular tracer BBs. 

Why Use An Airsoft Tracer Unit?

There are many reasons why using an airsoft tracer unit would make sense in a game. 

Tracking aim in low light conditions.

Since tracer units turn BBs into little glowing balls of light that fly through the air, they allow players better track the trajectory of their BBs in low light conditions. 

Seeing where their BBs fall can let users better adjust their aim up or down on the fly, walking their BBs until they hit their target. 

Target identification in team airsoft play

If you’re playing as part of an airsoft team, especially as a team leader or even as a marksman, airsoft tracers can be quite useful to pinpoint things for your teammates to fire on, helping you mark targets quickly, effectively and with a minimum of needless chatter.

Targets do not necessarily have to be other players, either.  Tracer BBs can be an effective way of directing team members to cover, for example, or to pay attention to various points of importance. 

Hit identification 

In low light conditions it can be hard to see the impact of your BBs, making it easier for less-than-scrupulous opponents to avoid calling hits. 

When an illuminated tracer BB hits its target, its glowing trail makes it very easy to see it bounce off in the dark.

Team identification – green vs red

If you’re playing a more structured, team airsoft game in low light conditions, players can more easily track who is firing on who with differently colored tracer BBs.

One team can be red, for example, while the other can be green. 

This only works, of course, if everyone follows a gentleman’s code and no one decides to be a sneaky operator and swap tracer BBs. 

Shock and Awe

If another airsoft team is not expecting it, a sudden stream of illumination coming at them in the dark can be an effective and confusing distraction, creating potential opportunities for the attacking team to exploit. 

Low BB Warning

One less common advantage of using an airsoft tracer unit is that by adding different colored tracer BBs as the bottom of a magazine, or by adding several rounds of tracers to the bottom of a mixed tracer/non-tracer magazine, the tracers can act as a potent visual indicator of when you’re running low on airsoft ammo. 

If you’re firing green BBs and suddenly start firing red, for example, you’ll know it’s time for a mag swap. 

What are some drawbacks to using a Tracer Unit in Airsoft?

Flash is visible to other players – can and will make you a bigger target

Darkness can often be an ally in an airsoft game. 

Patient and experienced players can use it to their advantage, lying in ambush or stealthily approaching their intended target. 

When a tracer unit fires and flashes its tracer BBs its light can be visible to other players, drawing their attention (and ire) to the user, with returning fire soon to follow. 

This can be a particular problem with magazine tracer units where, due to low light conditions, a stealthily approaching player may not realize they have loaded an tracer magazine rather than a regular airsoft magazine, lighting themselves up by mistake as they fire and getting lit up in return. 

Require specialized and more expensive BBs

An airsoft tracer unit without tracer BBs is essentially flashing dead weight since regular airsoft BBs don’t absorb light and thereby glow in the dark. 

In order to serve their intended function, airsoft tracer units require specialized, phosphor-coated BBs that tend to be both more expensive and sometimes harder to find than their non-coated counterparts, driving up airsoft costs and preptime. 

Need a power supply

Sadly, regardless of their type, airsoft tracer units do not work on magic and the frustrated cries of your opponents. 

They are powered by a battery source that will need to be maintained, measured out and eventually replaced. Without proper monitoring and care they can, and probably will, go out during a game, rendering the tracer BBs useless and leaving users in the dark. 

Hard to find heavyweight tracer BBs

Tracer BBs most commonly come in a range of 0.20g to around 0.30g, meaning those who like to use heavier weight BBS, say .40-.50g can have a harder time sourcing them, meaning snipers and other accuracy enthusiasts may be out of luck.

You need to be gentle

As they contain delicate parts, tracer units require players to be a little more careful and less gung-ho in games. 

Running and gunning in CQB, taking sudden dives and rolls or banging your weapon against a wall or the floor can damage a suppressor tracer unit. 

Similarly, high FPS airsoft guns can damage hop-up tracer units, while dropping empties or slamming them home a little too aggressively can damage magazine tracer units. 

Airsoft positions and the use of tracer units

Although there’s nothing really stopping someone from using a tracer unit if they so choose, in an airsoft game there are a few roles where it really makes sense to consider using a tracer unit. 

Airsoft positions that can benefit most from tracers in teamplay

Position Possible Usage Examples
Team leaders Designating targets, pathways, objects, cover and approaches for teams 
Designated Marksmen Designating targets and other high interest objects for other team members, especially given their increased range, mobility and sight
Rifleman Designating targets, better aim in low light
Support Gunners Intimidation, walking BB fire up or down for increased accuracy in low light conditions

Airsoft positions that won’t benefit as much from tracers in teamplay

  • Conversely there are certain positions that don’t benefit as much from (and can even be hurt by) the use of tracer units and tracer BBs
Position Why tracer units don’t help
Snipers An important part of sniping in airsoft and in real life is maintaining your position unnoticed. The flash of a tracer unit can give this away.
Similarly, tracer BBs don’t usually come in the heavier weights that benefit snipers in airsoft gameplay.
Scouts Deployed as part of intelligence gathering, scouts are intended to go unnoticed by opposing players for as long as possible. 
Like snipers, their stealth can be compromised by the illumination of glow in the dark BBs and the flash of a tracer unit. 
Grenadiers The role of a grenadier in an airsoft game is to get close enough to deploy an airsoft explosive like a BB grenade, smoke grenade or flashbang, not designate targets for teammates.
While a tracer unit can’t hurt, t+hey often have enough accessories and things to worry about.

Airsoft Tracer Units and Rate of Fire

When it comes to rate of fire, one thing to keep in mind is that airsoft tracer units won’t work as well (or at all) if tracer BBs are being fired too quickly,

In theory, airsoft tracer units require a sensor of some kind to be triggered and so they are technically limited in terms of rate of fire. If BBs fly by too fast, the sensor won’t trip in time to activate the light and bathe the BB in glow-providing light. 

Now, each Airsoft Tracer Unit has its own rate of fire rating and in general they are capable of working to about 30 or 35 RPS (BB rounds per second). 

Practically speaking, this should present no problem for the vast majority of airsoft players since this translates to roughly 1800 to 2100 RPM (BB rounds per minute), which is more than enough for most airsoft rifles and even most airsoft machine guns, light or not. 

However, users with modified gearboxes or certain specialized replicas may experience performance issues using these devices. 

Airsoft Tracer Units and Barrel Length

With suppressor style airsoft tracer units, the barrel must end where the tracer unit begins. 

Those using extended inner barrel airsoft setups where the inner barrel extends 20mm+ from the outer barrel may have problems with it obstructing the sensor, causing the tracer not to work. 

Those interested in longer inner barrels should then consider using alternative tracer units, such as hop up and magazine units, if they can find ones that are compatible with their particular airsoft models. 

What Makes a Good Airsoft Tracer Unit

It should work well

All else being equal, in the short time tracer BBs pass through it the device should bathe them in enough UV light to get them to glow in the dark, and consequently requires good illuminators and sensors.  

You don’t really want to send off patchy or half-illuminated BBs.

The most frequent reason cheaper units don’t work isn’t due to lack of illumination, but because they don’t output enough light quickly enough to deal with the airsoft gun’s speed of fire. 

Most good brands of tracer units will be up front about the RPS they can handle, which is a good indication of at which point they’ll start to fail, and at a minimum, we feel airsofters should look for those rated to 30+ RPS. 

Good battery life

The last thing any airsoft player wants is to have a device fail them at the wrong time-  whether it’s their gearbox, hop up or tracer unit, when the BBs are flying things need to be working. 

A big part of a device’s actual battery life depends on the condition of the battery over time and most good airsoft tracer units are tested to 20 000 shots or more, with the best topping 100 000 or more.  

Weight

Those looking for airsoft tracer units should definitely look for those that are lightweight as possible, particularly when it comes to suppressor tracer units and magazine tracer units (to a degree). 

Any extra weight can unbalance a user’s airsoft weapon, even if it’s only .1 to .30 lbs (50-140 g), which can have a negative impact on performance and handling. 

Battery Saving Features

In an airsoft game it’s not uncommon to get caught up in the action and forget to turn off your airsoft tracer, which can unintentionally drain the battery or cause accidental flashes at the worst possible moment.

Good tracer units come with features like auto-off, standby modes, push button activation and more.

Build quality

Although not the most complicated devices out there, airsoft tracer units do involve some wiring, LEDs, batteries and some soldering. 

These components need to withstand at least moderate use and we suggest users check the following as some potential indicators of quality:

  • Should be made of a sturdy material – ideally aluminum – for protection as well as added realism
  • Units certainly shouldn’t rattle if you shake them or feel loose
  • The on/off button should feel solid and not loose or weak
  • And the threads and thread adapters (if necessary) should feel solid, clean and not have any loose threads or bits that can catch on a barrel
  • Red tracer BB support – although not strictly necessary, if a tracer unit says it can illuminate red tracers, it can generally be used as an indicator that the device is outputting a good amount of illumination quickly
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