For a sport only 30 years old, the evolution of paintball has been rapid. The equipment and the game format have evolved from a simple test of survival using cattle markers to a multi-million dollar sport of high-tech guns and high-profile venues.
The First Game Of Paintball
We’re fortunate to know true origins of our sport. The first game of paintball took place on June 27th, 1981 in New Hampshire. The first game of paintball came about as a way to answer a question. Who had better survival skills–a hunter or a person with street knowledge?
The question had been posed by a group of friends and they had debated it for a few years. It wasn’t until one of the players saw some cattle markers in a farming magazine that the question could finally be settled.
Bob McGuire, a sporting goods store owner, drafted the rules for the first game of paintball–known as the survival game. On the day of the game, players were given a cattle marker, goggles, a compass, and a rudimentary map of the 100 acre playing area. There were four flag stations on the map. The objective of the game was to navigate to the four flag stations and retrieve a flag from each station. The winner was the first person to collect four flags.
The game was ultimately won by Ritchie White, a forester from the area. Ritchie managed to avoid his opponents and secure his flags without ever firing a shot.
It didn’t take long for one of the participants to realize there was a business potential in their survival game. Bob Gurnsey, the man who wrote the rules for the first game of paintball, opened the first commercial paintball field. However, it wasn’t called paintball. It was known as the National Survival Game.
The Evolution Of Paintball Gear
The earliest paintball equipment was nothing more than a cattle marker (the gun) and a pair of shop goggles. It quickly became apparent that equipment specific to paintball was needed. The paintballs that were used for cattle marking used an oil-based paint, which left permanent stains on everything. That was fine for marking cattle and trees, but it wasn’t so great for people. Eventually the paintball manufacturers produced a paintball that was not only washable, but also non-toxic and bio-degradable.
It also wasn’t long before marking pistols were being made with the game of paintball in mind. The original pistols were rock-and-cock, which meant the user had to tilt the gun back between shots to load the paintball into the breech, then cycle a pump handle to chamber the paintball and cock the gun. The first evolution of paintball markers was the advent of spring loaded magazines that would force the paintball into breech of the pistol, similar to the way pump shotguns work.
As with any sport, players started tinkering with their equipment and thus the paintball arms race began. One of the first things to evolve was the loading system. Players began cutting the magazines off their markers and soldering feed tubes to them. Loaders were fashioned out of everything from quart oil bottles to tubes of PVC pipe, all in an effort to have a gun that carried more ammo. Even more paintballs were carried in cigar tubes, giving the player a near endless supply of paint, and a huge advantage over players whose markers held only 10 rounds.
The propellant source became the next evolution of paintball. The original paintball markers used small CO2 cartridges called 12-grams. If you’ve ever used a seltzer bottle, you’re familiar with these cartridges. They were good for about 15 shots, before they had to be changed. That was okay when paintball guns only held 10 rounds at a time. However, the evolution of the paintball hopper meant players were carrying more paint in their marker and it was quickly apparent that the air source had to evolve.
Tippmann Pneumatics came up with the first commercial air source for paintball guns and called it constant air. The constant air tank was a larger, refillable CO2 tank that screwed into the paintball guns. The introduction of constant air to paintball presented a radical change to the way the game of paintball was played. Player were able to shoot hundreds of rounds per game, rather than a hundred rounds all day. The constant air advance was the first controversial evolution of paintball.
Not all players were thrilled with the development of constant air tanks. Some players felt the advancement would result in players using a spray-and-pray method of playing, rather than hunting their opponent and taking time to pick their shot. However, commercial field owners saw constant air as a way to sell more paintballs, so it wasn’t long before they added it to their rental fleets.
Perhaps the next great evolution of paintball was the development of the first semi-automatic paintball marker. Semi-automatic means that the loading of the paintball into the gun and the re-cocking of the firing mechanism are automated by a mechanical linkage. Semi-automatic paintball guns were easier to use and had a higher rate of fire than the earlier pump guns.
In the late 1990’s paintball evolved once again with the electrification of paintball markers and hoppers. Circuit boards and solenoids controlled the firing cycle of paintball markers, while the hoppers were outfitted with electric agitators that increased the rate at which paintballs could be fed into the marker. The addition of the circuit board in a paintball markers meant new firing modes could be created. A flick of a switch or a change of settings could change a marker from semi-automatic mode, to multi-shot mode, and even to fully automatic. The impact of the electronic era was second only to the development of constant air.
The Evolution Of Paintball As A Sport
Another evolution of paintball was its evolution to a sport. It wasn’t long after the first game of paintball that the first tournament was held in 1983. Since then countless tournaments and leagues have sprung up all over the world. The first professional paintball series was the National Paintball Players League (NPPL). Each year they hosted 4-5 events throughout the country, with the biggest event of the year being the paintball World Cup. Players traveled from throughout the world to participate at the World Cup event.
Eventually the league fell under the control of some of the largest companies in the industry. There was a power struggle and the NPPL splintered into a second national league, known as the Paintball Sports Promoters (PSP). The lines were drawn with the largest companies supporting the PSP and the smaller companies supporting the NPPL. Players loyalties fell along the lines of their team sponsorships. Ultimately the PSP became the dominate league in the sport, until their fall in the spring of 2015.
The Evolution Of Paintball Into The Mainstream
As paintball matured into a multi-billion dollar industry, it caught the awareness of the mainstream public. Conversations around the water-cooler at the office changed from, “what’s paintball”, to, “I’ve seen that on TV”. Paintball was featured in commercials, television shows, and even movies.
In 2004, Microsoft released Greg Hastings Tournament Paintball for the Xbox. The game was wildly popular and routinely ranked as one of the most popular games of the year. It’s impact on the paintball industry couldn’t be ignored as millions of people tried paintball for the first time.