Right from the first article, ATRG has attracted loyal readers whose numbers are growing; as has the part that all content writers enjoy: the interaction. Few readers have been as interactive as Rich – Always on hand to assist when my limited gear knowledge fails me, and also one of the people whose blog has inspired the very creation of ATRG. For a while now I’ve been lucky enough to chat to Rich on a regular basis, sometimes just a “Hey, Have you seen this?” and more often a rally of conversation that sometimes ends with one of us having to say “Hey, Its 2am… I’ve got work in 4 hours, Chat tomorrow!”
Without further waffling on my part, Rich was kind enough to ask and allow me to publish a few questions I though might be of interest to his readership…
Q. So, just to set the scene… When and where did you first get involved with Airsoft?
I got into airsoft by mistake.
Some colleagues in work were into LARP. They’d recently bought AEGs to represent weapons in whatever role-play scenario they were into. This was autumn 2005, so pre-VCRA (the legislation which made realistic imitation firearms technically illegal in the UK).
After acquiring these AEGs, they started learning about airsoft and asked me if I’d fancy going to a ‘skirmish’.
I was drunk when they asked, so I agreed.
If you knew me pre-airsoft, I think you’d agree I’d be the person least likely to get into it. I was more concerned with my hair style, eating in nice restaurants and generally being an arse.
The very first skirmish we attended was at Spectre Swine Zone, situated somewhere between Abergavenny and Hereford, on the Welsh border. It’s where I met gucci gear maker Boris, incidentally, as he and his son had started playing there too. It’s now long gone, sadly, but it was a CQB site based at a former pig farm. There was also a ravine/woodland section which was awesome for fall-back attack and defend games.
Well, it would have been awesome if my AEGs ever worked…
The LARP guys and I also played at places like Fireball in the Midlands, Dragon Valley in Caerwent – also on the Welsh border – and Ground Zero in Dorset. However, we became regulars at a site in Thornbury run by Airsoft Warehouse called Black Ops.
That’s really where I cut my teeth, playing against a highly aggressive, domineering team composed of a core of extremely talented ex-paintballers.
Black Ops eventually turned into Spartan Airsoft and later relocated to Lulsgate, near Bristol Airport. That’s still what I would call my home site.
My first few years of airsoft were dogged by shit gear, and AEGs which worked intermittently – as touched upon earlier. Tokyo Marui, Classic Army, Star…you name a brand that was popular in those days and I can guarantee I had the only unreliable, Friday night factory special in the UK. In addition, I’m not competent poking around inside toy guns, so it used to cost me a small fortune in repairs; done by people who thought that putting a big spring in an AEG designed for 290 FPS was the only modification required for it to run reliably at 370. It was enough to make me want to quit, if I’m quite honest.
Finally, I found a brand which worked for me as intended: in the form of an ICS M4. As a bonus, I really liked the split gearbox design. At that point I also had a competent tech to rely upon. I had loads of performance ‘mods’ done and had a mosfet fitted so I could run 11.1v lipos. My game – and trigger response – improved remarkably and people started saying my ICS M4 performed, “Like a PTW.”
I wasn’t sure if that was a compliment or an insult.
PTWs were always breaking down. I mean, I’d never actually used one and I didn’t know anyone who owned one, but I was convinced I was right because other people were saying the same thing.
My predilection for shit gear was partially corrected when I discovered Military Morons. That became my gear bible and my addiction to gucci gear has only grown more and more pathological and severe; influenced in a big way by Gray Fox’s Teamroom – a private forum run by the team of the same name. I still really miss those chats.
Rewinding slightly, by late 2009 the LARP guys I started airsoft with had departed the hobby. However, two of the guys I was now on a team with were into their gucci gear and – crucially – both rocked PTWs dripping with RS. These guys were my PTW gateway enablers and were part of a break away faction from the ex-paintball team I mentioned earlier. Airsoft is nothing without its politics, after all.
I was kind of hooked on getting a PTW from the very first try on one. It had the split gearbox I liked in the ICS M4 and a whole raft of other features the ICS didn’t have. I can still remember that rubicon moment; the weight and solidity of the build and the instantaneous trigger response really spoke to me.
A PTW is an AEG and all AEGs do pretty much the same thing. They can only be so accurate and consistent. You can’t cheat physics. For me it was – and still is – the mechanism by which the BB exits the PTW’s barrel that appeals.
However, these guys were experiencing the odd breakdown or hop inconsistency. They’d also switch to backup AEGs in the pouring rain,
So, there was a slight hesitance on my part.
All over the the forums, the accepted wisdom surrounding PTWs held with what I now observed in practice: they were notoriously unreliable and hydro-phobic. On the other hand, those same people would simultaneously claim that their upgraded and heavily tweaked AEGs were, “As good as a PTW.”
It confused me that they’d make positive comparisons with something they found so irredeemable.
I did my due diligence to mitigate risk, because £1k+ is quite a chunk to spend on something widely perceived to be an expensive paperweight. It helped that I’d received a year’s back pay from work, but what really made me take the plunge was speaking to Tackleberry and finding out what he does to perfect the PTW.
The guys I played with got Tac’d motors, hops and moisture-proofing at that time and it was transformative! Their PTWs didn’t miss a beat.
And that’s the distinction I need to make clear right here. Non-Tackleberried PTWs tend to be flakey as fuck. There are always exceptions, I agree. But that’s my experience in talking to the many, many PTW owners I meet through the blog; and having owned a fair few Tackleberried PTWs myself over the last eight years.
I ordered everything I needed from Tackleberry and out of the box I got a platform which to this day is the most skirmishable I’ve ever found. Since then, I’ve never looked back. I still have my first Tackleberried PTW from 2010 and it’s never given me any problems. I kind of forget about the bad old days, it’s so reliable.
That first PTW marked a turning point for me. It introduced me to a whole new scene of personable, like-minded individuals who congregated around Tackleberry’s forum.
There were a load of dicks as well, but we ignored them…
Q. How did you start along the path to blogging?
Starting the blog was actually a spur of the moment thing. In hindsight, I spent way too much time on Military Morons for it not to have been my main influence.
MM is still the benchmark for thoughtful, in depth analysis, engaging style and judicious opinion. I thought that strategy could be applied in a multidisciplinary way, to my own interests – not limited to reviewing gear.
I’d written a number of PTW-related review threads on Tackleberry’s forum between 2010 and 2013, which I thoroughly enjoyed doing. Those posts were the precursors to the blog. In fact, the very first blogs I published in May 2013 were real steel rail reviews which I’d originally debuted on that forum.
I’ve always been just as interested in the backstory or narrative as the outcomes. It’s the journey as much as the destination. To my mind, no one was really doing that style of writing at the time and in this environment, so I accidentally filled a niche.
Why accidental? Because it was unconscious. I’m the furthest away you can get from being an entrepreneur, so I don’t look at ideas as market vehicles. But the unconscious decision was to my benefit, because the blog brought in a lot of views very, very quickly.
Equally, I never made a conscious decision not to put myself at the centre of the blog. I’m quite a quiet person until I get to know someone, and I don’t stand out in big groups. I am literally a ‘grey man’ – blending in, largely unnoticed. I could never pitch myself as a larger than life internet character, because that would be inauthentic and not true to myself. Plus, I’d never pull it off 🙂
What is true, though, is that the more stuff you review or describe the easier it gets. You build up a lexicon and a supply of comparisons which streamline the process. More than that, you develop a style of writing which is highly individual.
To be honest, when I look at my early stuff I cringe.
Q. Why, “The Reptile House”?
The Reptile House was – and still is – my usual social media name, so it wasn’t exactly plucked from thin air. As a blog title, I think it’s aged well because it’s pretty abstract.
I deliberately chose The Reptile House as a social media name – and a title – because it is sufficiently vague. I knew that would be the title, way before I finally signed up with WordPress. I didn’t really know what the blog would be about, so I didn’t want to go in with an airsoft-related name, just in case I changed direction.
It’s actually not my only blog, but I’ll leave that hanging 🙂
Q. When did you start to get the feeling that The Reptile House was starting to gather a large fan base?
There wasn’t time to watch it grow initially, because it gathered pace extremely quickly. The times I remember most in this context are more to do with me not being able to cope with the scrutiny, expectations or engagement. I’ve had two long breaks from the blog and even thought of deleting it at one point.
When I’m on top of things I’m in my element, but I don’t have the best metal health. So I only put myself out there when I’m feeling resilient.
Q. So with the blog being such an international hit – and pretty much the “go to” place for those little details that would otherwise go unnoticed – how do you decide on what to write about; and where do you go to seek a second opinion?
It is incredibly humbling when the blog is described in those terms. In moments of pride, it’s a great feeling to have that kind of reach – and wholly unexpected at the start. Given that it’s written in English, I suppose the blog has a natural advantage.
And, predictably, three of my top five readerships tend to come from countries where English is the first language. However, given that I’m British and write from that perspective, you may be surprised to learn that the blog gets incredibly high views from the USA and Canada. The USA often tops the list, in fact. Germany and Japan place consistently highly in the top ten, too; as does Scandinavia.
I only write about things which interest me and that’s always been my guiding star: complete freedom. There’s no grand plan or agenda. I tend to get really into something, do it to death and then move on.
I don’t feel any pressure to write, so if I’m not inspired I don’t do it. However, being a curious person and having a passion for the milieu, it doesn’t take long for a new narrative to coalesce – often quite randomly.
This isn’t a job so I’m loath to monetise it, because I don’t want it to become an obligation. I pay to prevent WordPress from running their dick enlarger adverts on my pages and I also pay for photo storage and other services like the domain – so I make a net loss from running it. But you can’t look upon a hobby in terms of financial profit and loss, because it then becomes a business. If you’re doing the hobby right, you should be penniless 🙂
As for second opinions, they are essential.
I’m a total imposter, so I speak to different people depending on the nature of the advice or guidance required. I’ll focus on one specific example: UKSF.
This is not my area of expertise. I have no competence or credibility in this area, but it is one of my interests. However, I do know some experts who are kind enough to help me with contextual information, fact checking and pretty much anything else.
I tend to speak to perr_mike, gaz_isg, jay_taranis and E27_Romeo; or, for a more CTSFO angle, I’d also be speaking to taskforcewarrior. Of course, this isn’t an exhaustive list of UKSF experts. But I can contact any one of them with an out of the blue question, and get a definitive answer pretty fast. They are never dismissive and always ready to help me – even if I’m talking shite (which is quite normal).
For more general advice or views I have a few close confidants and I hope they know who they are, because they are absolutely crucial to the blog and my enjoyment of the hobby. There may be one or two in the list above, in fact.
Q. As any content writer knows, sometimes it’s the most unexpected posts that end up having the biggest reach…. Are there any that stick out in your mind? Either because for one reason or another, they missed the mark or because they hit harder than expected?
I should expect this by now, but blogs that I consider more of a risk in terms of style or content always do better than I think they will. Also, discursive ones where it’s just me navel gazing do better than I think they ought to.
I wouldn’t say reviews miss the mark, but I find that they are slow burners. However, google really opens them up to a wider audience in the long term. People will be searching for “Crye JPC 2.0 review” for years. I still put the same effort into each and every blog, though, regardless of how popular I think it will be.
Nowadays I don’t look so much at stats for individual posts unless they do spike and I get an alert from WordPress. As long as I’m getting over a certain amount of views per month, I’m more than happy. I do control it to a certain extent, as I don’t want it to overheat and become unmanageable. It’s all about pacing and a little drought every now and then allows me some reflective time, and readers wanting more.
Q. Appealing not just to Airsofters but also Firearms and Military enthusiasts the world over, do you have a particular focus or audience in mind when writing, or do you feel that due to the “Real Steel” nature of the gear and parts you write about that it’s mostly irrelevant to put labels on your readership?
I think the most important thing in this respect is the blog’s ethos.
I don’t actually know what the ethos is – I’ve never defined it – but by being stringent about content and standards I control it tightly. I just couldn’t write a rule book, as it’s very much about what my gut tells me.
So far I’ve been really lucky that others have been interested in what I’m interested in, or by how I articulate my interests. It’s a good feeling when someone says, “You made a vertical grip sound interesting.”
Of course, my own writing is just one aspect of the blog. The other side is down to the hard work of its contributors, who I owe a huge debt to.
Q. Besides a relentless writing schedule, you’re also an avid reader of other people’s work… Firstly, are there any other less well-known blogs/sources that you’d recommend? And also, what tips would you have for someone who is thinking about writing/posting Airsoft content?
I can tell you which content providers I read regularly, if you like?
There’s a bit of a theme in this list, because all of the blogs are very good at stuff that I can’t do at all.
At the moment, the most compelling is ATRG. Reading it I get a new perspective on stuff, even if I’ve reviewed it myself in the past.
ATRG is always well written and delivered in an even-handed tone.
The Cohort Blog is passionate about learning and development and it’s always a treat when I get the alert that a new blog has been published.
The Cohort’s specialism is in the area of CTSFOs and he had a few blogs in the works which are going to be well worth tuning in for.
One of the good guys!
He’s a JTAC, so his reviews aren’t the descriptive stuff I churn out but based on real world use and abuse.
He has a lovely dog, too!
Pow! Don’t fuck with The Full 9 or you’ll get a Hellfire in the face.
Written by a serving armourer, The Full 9 has a massive back catalogue of videos and blogs, but in its newest iteration it delivers high quality content through its Facebook page.
Not one to waffle, you get exactly what you need to know very quickly.
I could never hope to write a blog like this because I’m ‘Art Of The Deal’ dysfunctional.
Having said that, I’m not trying to imply he’s like Donald Trump…
Another serving guy who’s an airsofter.
Again, brings real world experience to reviews, so I listen to him carefully.
The airsoft content is on hold right now, but there’s loads of crossover stuff that’s both instructive and interesting.
Plus, the photographs! It’s worth consuming N&B even if you don’t want to read their wise words.
The independent punk rock airsoft fanzine which successfully transitioned to major label success. Will never sell out or conform and has one of the strongest merchandise brands on the block.
On the other hand, he has also made the shittest attempt to quit airsoft that I have ever seen 🙂
Get ready for Nu-Monkey, as it’s going to be a stripped back confrontational onslaught with a melodic twist.
This guy is an absolute machine and it’s where I go to keep up on what’s current or emerging.
It’s a highly rewarding move to keep a tab open for SSD. It’s written in digest style, mainly – although the author’s detailed pieces are equally as incisive and well written. I often reference SSD in the blog.
He doesn’t publish often, but when he does it’s like a dissertation written to academic standards – and not many writers do that so convincingly and in a compelling way. It’s the product of a highly professional, trained mind.
Sometimes cautious but highly judicious; I always learn something I didn’t know prior to reading Taranis Blog’s articles.
And moving onto the second part of the question?
As for tips, I guess these would be my recommendations for someone starting up:
- Publish at your own pace
- Listen to advice, but make your own decisions regarding content
- Be apolitical
- Be open about your influences
- Borrow wisely and reference sources where practicable
- Watermark your own pics (I really need to start doing this)
- Review even-handedly even if you get complimentary or loaned gear
Q. Final question… Well, Two in one really… What one thing do you really like about Airsoft and what would you change if you could?
I’ll start with what I would change, but I’m afraid it’s a slippery answer.
There’s nothing in airsoft that needs to change, that doesn’t need changing in society itself. Airsoft is a microcosm. However, we all have different interpretations of what society should be like and I’d veer into politics if I were to outline mine. I don’t think airsoft and politics mix well, so that’s about as far as I can go and feel comfortable with.
As for what I really like about airsoft: learning.
If I’m interested in something I enjoy learning more about it, and documenting that process in blogs. I don’t always get things right, but you can follow an audit trail of my wrong turns until I get it right.
I think the key is not presenting theories and gut feelings as absolutes. I also think sometimes that as a culture we’re obsessed with being right and are afraid to be seen to fail. You have to dare to lose to increase your knowledge, and to challenge and develop yourself.
Think about some new, never been seen, in the wild pics. More often than not there will be something within those pics we’ve not seen before, and which we didn’t know about last week. That’s really exciting and may turn what we thought we knew on its head.
My advice is to adopt the tautology I first heard in Zero Dark Thirty, “We don’t know what we don’t know” and enrich your learning potential.
Thanks again to Rich and congratulations on The Reptile House’s 5 year run. Here’s to the next 5!
Thanks for having me on ATRG and for the kind words – it’s truly appreciated! And don’t forget, the interaction you spoke of at the start of the interview goes both ways.
ATRG is one of the few blogs where I read each new article as soon as it’s released. When I hit the Like button in WordPress, that’s not an automatic process. It means I’ve read the article and I think it’s good, or – more likely – great. I’ve seen ATRG evolve already and it continues to go from strength to strength.
Keep doing what you do so well – and thanks again for the opportunity to talk about myself and the blog. It was a really great set of questions and also a bit of a challenge. It’s normally me asking the questions 🙂