By
Tom
January 30, 2022

Airsoft Tracer Units: How Do They Work?

If you play CQB in enclosed spaces or struggle to see where your BBs are going then an airsoft tracer unit can be a godsend to help improve your accuracy. There are a wide range of tracer units available from most leading airsoft manufacturers, but how do these devices actually work?

What Is An Airsoft Tracer Unit?

Tracer units are designed to illuminate BB pellets fired from an airsoft gun. These consumer devices are not compatible with real firearms but instead can be used with airsoft guns and special Tracer BBs to give the user an edge in low-visibility environments. By illuminating the BBs fired from your airsoft gun you can quickly adjust your aim; which could be make or break in a firefight. Tracer BBs are also especially useful if you are playing in poor conditions where it's not always possible to see your BB flight path, i.e. fog or snow.  

How Does A Tracer Unit Work?

A tracer unit is a basic device that simply houses an ultraviolet light emitter and a sensor. Every time the unit senses a BB passing through it will trigger the light emitter. In order for this to work you must use the right BBs. Tracer BBs contain a small amount of phosphorescent material that reacts with a certain wavelength of light, such as the ultraviolet light from a tracer unit. This causes the BB to glow, and therefore allow you to 'trace' where it has gone.
Whilst this effect can be seen during the day, it is easier to see in dark or low-light conditions.
  airsoft-tracer-internal

Image courtesy of Acetech

What Are The Different Types Of Tracer Units?

Tracer units need to be in the BBs path and have access to a power source. Because of these requirements there are only a couple of different styles, even though there may appear to be a wide range of airsoft products that claim to do the job.

Silencer/flash-hider tracer

airsoft-tracer-silencer

Image courtesy of ActionSportGames

These tracer units are built to look like a silencer or flash-hider and hide the tracer device inside. They are compatible with a huge range of airsoft guns as long as they have a CCW thread (counter-clockwise thread). They tend to be an all-inclusive unit, and include a compact battery location in the design so no wiring is required. Whilst you can buy one of these for as little as £40, this will be a basic model that requires AAA batteries. For people wishing to get more features there are products like the Xcortech X3300W; this is an advanced chronograph tracer unit that allows you to control the tracer from a rail-mounted PEQ box.

Hop-up tracer

airsoft-tracer-hopup

Image courtesy of Taiwangun

A hop-up tracer is less popular than an external based device, but that isn't because it's worse. In fact in some scenarios the hop-up variant is better than the external devices, even though it might be the cheaper option. These devices work by using LEDs that are set to the correct wavelength of light inside your gun to illuminate the BB whilst it is in the hop-up chamber.  A special hop-up unit is required although most are compatible with standard M4 AEGs. Another reason why people choose a hop-up tracer is because they dont have the same restrictions around battery size; this is because they can be wired into your AEG circuit, drawing power from your AEG batteries. The downside of this is that it will impact your AEG's battery life as it isn't a separate power source.

Why You Should Use A Tracer

  • Enhanced visibility You can easily see where your BBs are travelling which is great for low light conditions. It's also useful for long-range engagements such as using a sniper rifle from a distance.
  • Looks Cool Airsofters love to look cool on the field. Having a trademarked tracer unit firing BBs that look like lasers in the dark definitely counts as cool in our book.
  • Reload Indicators Load a few tracer BBs that are a different colour to usual at the start of your reload process. Then, when your mag is close to empty you'll spot the tracer colour change, allowing you to reload before you run out.

Why You Shouldn't Use A Tracer

  • Cost Whilst there are affordable units on the market and tracer BBs aren't much more expensive than their normal counterparts, you may find upgrading the performance of your gun to be better value for money.
  • Less choice in ammo While there are some tracer BBs made with biodegradable materials and a range of weights available, you may find that there is not as big a choice of ammo compared to traditional BB products.
  • Less stealthy Tracer BBs make it easier for you to track and follow your BBs but it'll also be easy for enemies to see where your BBs are coming from. If they are looking in your direction they may also be a visible light from the end of your barrel.

What Are The Best Airsoft Tracer Units?

There is a range of different styles available as we've discussed above; so it all comes down to your requirements (and tastes if you choose an external one!) Below we've listed a few options for those who want to find the cheapest entry into tracer ownership and also options for people who are after as many features as possible.
We’ve not discussed the internal tracer units as these do not offer the same levels of compatibility as the external devices.

Cheapest External Tracer

nuprol-tracer-unit

Image courtesy of Nuprol

If you want the cheapest possible external tracer then our picks would either be a Nuprol Tracer Unit, ASG B&T Airsoft tracer unit or the Acetech AT2000R tracer units. All three of these are no-frills units designed for CCW thread guns and can be had from £40.

Feature-rich External Tracer

xcortech-tracer-unit

Image courtesy of Nuprol

Our favourite feature-rich option would have to be the Xcortech X3300W. Whilst the tracer it comes with is similar to the cheaper versions on this list, the accompanying PEQ box and MOSFET opens up a wealth of extra features such as an inbuilt chronograph, ammo counter, and selectable burst firing modes.

Final Thoughts

Whilst so people might think tracers to be a bit much, we think their pros definitely outweigh their cons. When playing in dusky conditions or in CQB sites with little natural light the ability to see where your BBs are going is invaluable. For that reason alone we'd recommend a tracer, so the fact they can also be used to mark positions to your teammates and assist in confirming if you've hit a player or not shows just how much they can help you become a better player.
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