Then? Well for me, "then" wasn't too long ago.
I started playing three seasons ago. Our group at the time was half paintballers, half airsofters, all playing together. Eventually most of the paintballers bought AEGs. The group was tight, everyone got to know each other well enough to trust each other with rules. My first few games were played with a TM Glock 26, one mag, and a hope and a prayer. I never got kills, but I didn't care. It was fun to just hang out, meet new people, talk about "If I had the cash, this is the gun i'd build...".
A couple of guys in out group were Russian military fanatics. They started talking about starting up a small Russian squad. I had long been into Cold War military equipment, so I figured "Hey, why not?" I bought my first AEG from a local fledgling retailer: TM AK-47 full stock, with one battery. I remember the long wait for the battery to charge the first time. It seemed like forever. When it was finally done, I plugged it in, loaded up my one lowcap, and took my new toy to the garage.
I was hooked on the first pull of the trigger.
The next week I bought a set of Flora BDUs and a M21 vest off of my teammate. A couple more AK lowcaps, and one more skirmish later, we were the Windsor Spetsnaz.
Fast forward to now, and things have changed a little. I went to my first out of town airsoft event (OP: High Anxiety). It hooked me even more. This time, it wasn't the gear, it was the people. I had a massive head cold the entire time and STILL had the most fun i've had in a long long time. We expanded our little Russian group to 8 players, and merged with another Russian themed team (Comrades in Arms). I've finally built the gun I had been talking about before, my dream gun. I look forward to building many more dream guns to come.
As for our little group down in Windsor, we're still small. We still all pretty much trust each other. The only thing that has changed for us it that we now all crave the bigger games, 2-5 hours drive north. A long ride back from a game after running around for hours. But i've come to realize something in my few years of playing.
It's not the equipment or gear that make this game so much damn fun. It's the people.