Les Lee reports from Horsham, where 250 acres of West Sussex have been turned into a truly spectacular airsoft site.
Every now and again in life, you come across something that truly does supersede your expectations and Dogtag Airsoft, near Gatwick did that for me. So much so, that I was compelled to make a second visit because one day of action just didn’t cut it. This place is massive! 250 acres, which make up the 16 fields of play, should fill the belly of any Airsoft high-roller.
Set your Satnavs for “RH12 4SE” and it will lead you to Holmbush Farm, Faygate where you will find a signposted hard top lane which will take you up to the Holmbush Paintball site – but don’t turn in there. Continue along the lane deep into the forest and you will find yourself at Dogtag’s hard -standing car park area, which is well away from the paintball area. Grab your gear and twenty paces later you will find yourself in what is in my experience, the biggest, most user-friendly, covered and secure safe zone you could wish for, where you will be greeted by Ross Beare, the site owner.
Back in 1995 Ross acquired this huge piece of land, predominantly to build what turned out to be a very successful and highly acclaimed Paintball site. Following on from that success he incorporated archery, shooting, blindfolded 4×4 driving, low ropes, axe-throwing and Segways, which effectively catered for just about every venture and activity that outdoor enthusiasts and thrill seekers could wish for. Then, in 2013, together with his great friend Albert Finnigan, they decided that their own shared passion for Airsoft should be (and could be) incorporated into this already successful Paintball site. However, unlike many other good sites and wherever possible, they wanted to operate this in its own entity. After all, 250 acres is a seriously big piece of our planet and there was more than enough quality woodland to segregate Airsoft from Paintball, with the option to encroach if there was a need or desire.
Now that you have a rough idea of the sheer scale of this place, I will do my best to elaborate a little. Amongst the fifty plus buildings (yes, you heard me right – that doesn’t include barriers, trenches, natural defences, etc.) I was super-impressed to see the actual build-quality of these structures. These are not some quickly nailed together “that’ll do” features, with a little plasterboard and a coat of paint! We are talking holiday camp style log cabins and, from a health and safety perspective, will most probably stand up to a small nuclear detonation in the back yard.
Sorry, I’m getting boring now (but I just love the thought of nobody getting hurt during a fire fight), so let me tell you a little about the games themselves (which incidentally are always subject to a pre-game safety check for fallen trees and/or branches, slip trip or fall hazards, etc.). These include “Island Fortress”, “Towers Field”, “SAM Site”, “Raise the Alarm”, “Urban Raid”, “Medipack Valley”, “VX Gas”, “Amazon”, “Village Church”, “Jungle” and the latest addition, “The Helicopter”. From the titles it should give you an indication of the type of games to expect but Ross hasn’t rested on his laurels by just naming games, every sortie has a “feature”, an objective of some sort. To give you an example, by completing a mission on one of these, a missile is electronically launched across a valley which ultimately destroys the enemy base. I for one have never seen such realistic special effects at any site and it was quite overwhelming to see the thought, time, money and energy that has been invested to make Dogtag an industry leader – as well as a great place to spend a Sunday. Ross has also given me a heads-up about “Dark Fortress”, a new game set for the very near future. Talking of investment and to give a you another idea just how much has been installed and developed to make Dogtag one of the best, about £30k has been ploughed back into the site in the last nine months alone and there is an ongoing development program in place to continually improve, replace and regenerate the valuable natural woodland, which itself is a place of sheer beauty.
I must add that there are several different scenarios for every field, so it is unlikely that you would ever play the same game twice, unless demand was so great. Then Ross will ensure that you get exactly what you want, such is his determination that everyone leaves happy and having had an exhilarating day. Even if you turn up having never played before and without kit, there are 50 complete sets of rental gear at your disposal and Tactical Quartermaster has an on-site shop where you can buy virtually anything. Of course, Dogtag is also UKARA registered and can process UKARA applications usually within 48 hours.
In the centrally-based safe zone, which is adjacent to the game areas (so no long hikes back), you can quickly return to “base” should the need arise. Should your gun malfunction, the resident gunsmith can either repair, or offer a free loan gun until yours is fixed (or for the remainder of the day, should the need arise). Of course there are battery charging and HPA charging facilities available, again all free of charge.
This isn’t obvious when you are viewing through misty glasses, or mesh goggles up to your neck in flying BBs but I was fortunate to have my second visit on a non-game day, so was able to soak up what Mother Nature had provided. This is some of the most beautiful spruce forest and wilderness and part of Ross’s remit is to best maintain the natural habitat therefore, as you will find, the majority of structures are resurrected fallen woodland wherever possible.
Marshals Keith Porter and Brendon Rudge join Ross every day, working at the site on basic maintenance and rebuilds, whereas Head Marshal Jason Frisby keeps focus on the smooth running of the day and the Marshal to Player ratio of 1 to 10 keeps order. All Marshals wear red uniforms and carry radios and those that are first aid and (equally importantly) fire-fighting trained are strategically placed throughout. Forest fire is sometimes overlooked issue at many sites, as during the heat of summer a stray spark can easily turn dry bracken into an inferno in seconds.
Anyway, back to the stuff that you want to know, typically you will find 80 plus players turn up (on average) every other Sunday but that said, the numbers are increasing in line with investment and the £25 walk on fee includes lunch, free tea and coffee throughout the day and the resident photographer to take your photos FOR FREE – which I thought was a nice touch. Obviously snacks and cold drinks are available to top up your energy levels from the on-site office/shop. Dogtag membership currently stands at around 130 regular members and that’s just in the last nine months. Membership will cost you the grand sum of £10 which will include (when eligible) your UKARA registration, a DOGTAG AIRSOFT players patch, a 25% discount on pyro’s and a minimum of two free Members Only games. Dogtag also works closely with Crawley Surplus and Tactical Quartermaster for all your gaming needs, including RIFs whereby any Airsoft gun is sold with a voucher for a full day’s play at Dogtag Airsoft – which will entitle the buyer to initiate use of said weapon in a purpose-built site, thus enhancing responsible ownership and good practice.
It is inspiring to see that since its independence 9 months ago, there has been a 200% increase in clients and that alone is indicative of just how good this place is.
It is refreshing to see that “appropriate adults” are allowed to play, providing they are accompanied by someone aged 10 years plus… or something like that! So Dads and Sons, what are you waiting for? After all, this is the new and improved 21st century “Father and Son” day out – you don’t have to go fishing anymore!
One point worth mentioning, is Dogtag Airsoft (Corporate Division) is available 7 days a week by prior arrangement for work, birthdays, hen, stag do’s, etc., so it might be worth taking that snippet of info into work tomorrow and leave it on the boss’s desk. After all, “Team Building” is high on most business agendas nowadays… and just imagine the bounty on the Boss’s head (wouldn’t you just love to shoot your boss in the butt)! Dogtag is also available for private hire for team games or team training.
As always, I like to ask the site owner to have their say on how they see things because, as I always say, “nobody knows their site better than they do”. When I asked Ross this question, with nothing short of passion and commitment, he replied:
“We were all taken aback by the politeness and gamesmanship of Airsofters. Jason Cole (aka Pugwash) had always said that he’d be delighted to run Airsoft events rather than Paintball, as the guys are so friendly and honest, which is a far cry from the Paintball events we run.
“We are all delighted that we decided to venture into Airsoft and have not looked backed since developing Dogtag Airsoft 9 months ago. We have learned a great deal from the advent of running Airsoft games and although we have made several mistakes along the way, we are proud to have listened to our customers and responded to their feedback to ensure that we are now able to offer our customers (what we believe to be) the best Airsoft experience in the South East of England.
“We pride ourselves on our professionalism and client services. We believe that we have come a long way since the addition of Airsoft to our centre but we know that we still have a long journey ahead of us to make sure it turns into our goal… which is to be the ultimate Airsoft site in the UK. Without question we know that the people we need to thank more than anyone else are our loyal band of regulars, without whom none of this would have been possible and we strive to make sure that we return their supportive efforts by exploiting Holmbush’s potential to its fullest”.
Well after seeing what I had with my own eyes, that is a bit of an understatement, as Ross seems to be doing a damn fine job already! His determination to strive forward and continue to develop is nothing less than an inspiration.
Now I know that many of our younger players may want to stick their fingers down their throat when they simply hear the word “Paintball” but let’s hold back a second and explore the simple word of “evolution”.
Both myself and our beloved Editor Nige were 1st generation Paintballers. We both concur that we may not be where we are today had someone not invented the Paintball Gun, in particular the original Splatmaster ten round pistol. A simple co2 powered lump of plastic, quite crude in its basic form and non-customisable because there simply wasn’t the choice. Not even a single Ris rail to fix any form of sighting system – yes, it really was that basic, but boy did we have fun!
We had to develop skills to get a hit, such as stealth and cunning but there was nothing more rewarding than hearing that overwhelmingly satisfying “thwack” when, from a very minimal distance. You would also usually hear a string of blasphemous words follow on, as these things hurt due to having to get so close to your target (as was the very nature of the game and equipment)! However, it wasn’t all corporate/stag/hen/birthday groups in the early days and we did have choice, albeit limited, when it came to buying our own camo, boots, masks and other bits and bobs.
Then then came the day when the first semi auto rifles were available and of course the road to progression and development had begun. After a while teams found themselves in organised leagues and as one thing led to another, Paintball became a well-established and well-reputed sport in its own right and to this day is still enjoyed by many.
However, as I see it, Airsoft has a lot to thank Paintball for, not only in terms of the creation of a recognised and well established sport where it is acceptable to shoot other people but we have advanced and refined the “shooting others” part and turned it into our own remarkable sport. “Honour” is the sole reason that Airsoft is held in such high esteem, as it brings out this very important element in all of us and gives us that otherwise rare opportunity to display the honourable side to our very nature, something that is deemed to be lacking in today’s Paintball.
And so, from the early 1980’s and a humble plastic paint-firing pistol and a few acres of woodland, we can often find ourselves using converted (or at least amalgamated) sites to shoot others with our technically advanced weaponry, increased firepower, various terrains and a never ending selection of kit and caboodle. This, in my opinion, is where the sport of shooting others has evolved from and nobody that I know can give a better example of this than Dogtag Airsoft, where both sports not only run side by side but also gives the option of extra game zones adding to the choice, dictated by the players by way of numbers and/or desire.
Ross’s philosophy is quite simple really, he gives the customer exactly what they want in the best and most comprehensive way possible, so it is no surprise that Dogtag Airsoft is going from strength to strength and I really do believe that his ultimate goal will be reached – and 2015 could be the year it happens.
Well it’s time to wrap this one up and for me to conclude that Dogtag Airsoft is up there amongst the best, if not THE best that I have had the privilege to visit and review. Ross is passionate about all he does and Dogtag is the cherry on one very big and inviting cake. It is professional to the grass roots and above all else, I dare anyone to go and check it out and leave with nothing but a big cheesy grin and empty BB bottles because, apart from being one of the friendliest sites ever (and it’s worth mentioning cliques and self-proclaimed elitists will not get their egos tickled here as everyone is as important as the next person), Ross’s first and foremost objective is that every single person has the best Airsoft experience possible in the most friendly, fun and safe environment.