First strike rounds - why do they work?

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The Tiberius First Strike round. The paintball that changes the rules.

The average effective range of a paintball is about 150 feet, or 50 yards.  Beyond that the ball will probably not break if you hit your target.  And that’s a big if.  Generally speaking beyond about 100 feet you are lucky to hit whatever it is you’re shooting at with a round paintball. It has only been the paintball marker’s high rate of fire that allows enough paintballs to be thrown at a target in a short period of time that allows the shooter hope of eliminating their target. Until now.  Enter the Tiberius Arms First Strike paint round.  They claim more range and more accuracy without a change in velocity.  What makes them work and are these claims valid? Read on to find out.

Believe it or not it seems a bit odd that it has taken paintball 25 years to learn lessons that were learned over 150 years ago.  In the mid-1800s armies around the world shot round balls of lead from smooth bore muskets.  Like today, trying to hit anything beyond 50-60 yards was nearly impossible.  Then, like now, the balls would bounce around down the barrel.  Thus the shooter couldn’t predict what angle the bullet would eventually leave the barrel.  While we all know round projectiles are bad, why are they bad and, more importantly to this discussion, are First Strike rounds better?  If they are, why?

Go with the flow, man.  Don’t be a drag.

To understand why round is bad, we have to get into some science.  Now, before you go running away I’m not big on scientific jargon either so I’ll keep this simple.  When we talk about the way air affects an object moving through it we speak of it in terms of “Fluid Dynamics.”  But Robo, you say, fluid dynamics sounds like it has to do with water.  It does.  Yet, surprisingly, air acts like water when we’re talking about things moving through it and you can put models in water, move them through it, and see many of the same results that you cannot see in air because…well…we can’t “see” air.

Turbulant flow (top) vs Laminar flow.
To begin air, like water, flows. It flows around objects and affects them. There are two types of flows.  The first is called laminar flow.  Laminar flows nice and smooth.  If you think of scenes from a wind tunnel where they have the different lines of smoke moving in the chamber and those lines are flowing parallel to one another, those are examples of laminar flow.  The other type of flow is called turbulent flow.  Turbulent flow is where the flow is not smooth and becomes disturbed by eddies of currents moving around within a flow.  If you run your hand through a body of water, you can see these eddies form behind your hand. 

Now, as air flows over a body moving through it, there is a layer of air that moves over the surface of the object.  This fine layer is called the Boundary Layer.  The movement of the Boundary Layer of air over an object…say a paintball…creates drag through friction.  When it comes to paintball, drag is what slows the paintball down after it leaves your marker.  Thus this flow of the Boundary Layer over your paintball is slowing it down.  But that’s not the only kind of drag affecting your paintball.  There is a point where the boundary layer separates from the wall of the paintball.  This is called, easily enough, Boundary Layer Separation.  However, when this occurs it creates what is called pressure drag.  Pressure drag is a much stronger form of drag than the friction drag the boundary layer produces as it moves over the wall of the paintball.  You can see the differences of these two types of drag by looking at the way a boat moves through the water.  As the water moves around the hull, this is causing drag as the water’s boundary layer is rubbing past the hull of the boat.  As the boundary separates from the hull at the rear of the boat, it forms a wake and this wake generates pressure drag on the boat.  The same happens with a paintball.

Boundary Layer Seperation around a sphere showing pressure drag behind the sphere.

So now we know there are two different kinds of flow and two different kinds of drag when a paintball moves through the air. However, we need to know that they are not independent of one another.  As a laminar flow moves over a paintball, the Boundary layer will separate sooner.  With a turbulent flow however, the boundary layer separates later.  Remember earlier we mentioned that pressure drag, the kind of drag generated when the Boundary layer separates from the paintball, creates far more drag than the friction generated by the air moving over the paintball?  Well about 80% or more of the drag experienced by a paintball is generated by pressure drag.  Bad news is that when a paintball is moving through the air, it is moving with a Laminar flow and thus the Boundary layer separation is happening sooner. 

Because of this, a paintball generates a very large wake and contends with a great deal of pressure drag.  This is what affects the range of a paintball.  If this pressure drag could be reduced further, the paintball would not experience as much drag, would not slow down as rapidly, and thus would fly further. While we can make a paintball fly further by generating lift with a backspin, we still have a very large amount (though reduced from a non-back spinning paintball) of pressure drag slowing down the paintball. 

Follow the bouncing ball.

Just like when you try to knock over a spinning top it resists the change, a spinning projectile resists changes to it's flight path.

So now we know why paintballs don’t fly very far, but what about why they are so inaccurate?  This really is a two part question so we’ll handle these one at a time. First is where the paint moves down the barrel.  In an ideal world, the paintball would be the exact size of the barrel.  It would seal the barrel so that no air could pass by the ball when it was fired and every ball would travel straight down the barrel leaving it at exactly the same velocity.  But we’re not in a perfect world.  Paintballs are not uniform in size so some will be smaller and some will be bigger.  Bigger ones may cause more friction slowing the ball down while smaller ones can bounce around the barrel as they move through it and leave the barrel at slightly different angles causing wildly inaccurate and inconsistent shots.  They are not uniform in roundness either so even if a ball fits pretty snugly it may not be round thus leaving a gap for air to pass through between it and the barrel or a high spot that generates more friction.  Both conditions will affect how fast the ball leaves the barrel. 

Once the paint is out of the barrel it can be affected by many more factors.  Paint on the ball will cause the ball to fly wildly off course but small imperfections, dimples, or irregular shape can also wreak havoc on a paintball’s flight.  Also, because the ball is allowed to spin in any way it wants and usually not at all, there is no stabilization keeping it flying straight.  Even if it were, the fill would not spin and thus not produce a strong gyroscopic force necessary to stabilize the round since that force requires a fairly large percentage of the round’s mas to spin around the axle of the flight path of the round. 

All these things conspire against the standard paintball to reduce range and accuracy.  Up until now though we all have had to deal with the same limitations so it hasn’t been an issue.  Enter First Strike rounds.

THAT’S more like it.

Now that we’ve seen the limitations and issues with regular paintballs, let’s take a look at First Strikes.  The most noticeable thing is the shape of the round. While the front half of it still looks like a paintball, the back half of the round is shaped far differently.  It is a squared off skirt with small angled fins on it.  This shape does a number of things to improve the accuracy of the round.   

Boundary Layer Seperation around BB pelet. Note that if this were shapped like a First Strike round the Boundary Layer Speperation would not occure until the air passed the skirt of the round and produce even less pressure drag. (The fins would create some turbulance but less than the the flair on the pelet.)

First off, only the front half of the round carries paint.  While this means it has less paint than a standard paintball, it also means that the weight is mostly up front and more of the weight of the round is made up of solid material.  As we’ve seen, while in the air it doesn’t matter if a paintball turns or spins as it will always present the same relative shape to the flow of the air around it.  With an oblong round like the First Strike, it will want to tumble in the air and if it were allowed to do so would be even more inaccurate than a regular paintball.  This is where the fins come into play. While in flight, the angled fins cause the round to spin around its line of travel. This gyroscopic force of the spinning weight of the round stabilizes the round and makes it harder for imperfections to throw it off course and wind to affect it in a more predictable manner. The weight distribution and skirt also serve to keep the round aligned in flight much like a badminton birdie until the ball is spinning enough to stabilize the round.  With this kind of stabilization the rounds fly more accurately. 

Also, because they are made out of a different material than paintball shells, First Strike rounds tend to be more uniform in size. In addition, with the longer skirt, the rounds tend to bounce less down the barrel.  Of course, the larger the barrel size the more likely they are to bounce around reducing their overall accuracy.  However, it is still far more accurate than standard rounds since the skirt will stabilize the round when it leaves the barrel.

First Strike round on left and a Civil War era Minie ball on the right. The designs share some similarities.

But the skirt and the fins do more than just stabilize the round in flight.  They provide the round with a far more aerodynamic shape.  Remember that little thing we talked about called Boundary Layer separation?  The skirt provides for a better separation point and significantly reduces the amount of pressure drag applied to the round. While friction drag is increased, there is still a net reduction in drag for the round.  This means at 100 feet the First Strike round will be moving much faster than a standard paintball.  Since both a First Strike and a paintball will fall at the same speed, a First Strike will cover more distance in the same amount of time as a regular round if fired at the same angle and same velocity.  This is what gives the rounds greater range.  Since the round loses less speed over time, it can fly further and yet still be able to break on target giving it a much greater effective range than a paintball.  Accurate shots have been taken resulting in eliminations at 150-300 feet.

It’s interesting to note that the First Strike round has a comparable shape to the Civil War Era Minie Ball round that replaced the standard musket ball.  With the exception of the improved overall aerodynamic shape provided by the pointed front end, the Minie Ball and the Frist Strike rounds are very similar and perform a similar function; increased range and improved accuracy.

It’s still not perfect.

Rifled barrels may increase the accuracy of the First Strike round by getting them spinning before they exit the barrel.

Many claim that the First Strike round isn’t perfect and still is not as accurate as a bullet. Two issues with this argument are that bullets are not perfect too and we’re not looking for bullet accuracy but rather improvement over a round paintball.  The Frist Strike certainly improves on that. Not only that, but companies are finding ways to try improve upon the round. Companies such as Tiberius, Dye and Kingman have started offering markers that shoot both First Strike rounds and standard paintballs with a twist of a barrel or flick of a switch. Hammerhead and Lapco have released barrels specifically for the round.  The Lapco barrel has a very tight bore and seeks to address the issue of the round being able to bounce around in larger barrels while the Hammerhead goes with a larger bore but both are rifled to impart the spin while still in the barrel that the First Strike normally wouldn’t have until it’s been in the air for a while.  Both barrels have been show to improve the round’s accuracy above smoothbore barrels. 

It costs WHAT!?

And they’re not inexpensive.  Like many new technologies the price now is pretty high.  A box of 2000 high grade paintballs runs about $55-$60 a box.  That equates to about $0.03 per round. First Strikes on the other hand run about $40 for a box of 100 for a price of $0.40 per round…more than 10 times the cost of a standard round. However, with their improved accuracy and range the idea is that it should no longer take a barrage of paint to eliminate one player.  Also, being fed from magazines, players tend to fire less and find other ways to get an advantage than rate of fire further reducing cost.  It remains to be seen though if these rounds will have a big impact on the sport of paintball.  So far, they’ve seen limited use and yet players are seeing the distinct advantage that these rounds give a player so it stands to reason that the rounds will become more popular.  If demand for the round increases it could be production cost decreases making the cost per round come way down.  Unless someone derives a way to make a 200 round magazine for them and have them quickly swapped out it is doubtful they will completely replace standard paintballs.

Conclusion

As with most of my guides, this is just a brief overview of the physics behind the sport, which reminds me, I may need to revamp my accuracy in paintball series about with the advent of the First Strike rounds.  There is a reason why firearms manufacturers moved away from round balls to the Minie Ball and while there are many differences between the two, the basic principles of what made the Minie Ball better than the standard ball holds true when comparing First Strike rounds to regular paintballs. We may see First Strikes become such a dominant round on the paintball field that they replace regular paintballs for good or we may not but one thing is for sure, they are a much superior round except in high rate of fire applications and cost.  Whatever the case may be, First Strikes do work and while the science behind them is sound, the results are even more spectacular.  If you haven’t already, search for videos of these rounds and see for yourself what a difference they make in a marker’s accuracy.  Understand I’m no scientist and this is just the most basic of overviews of the science behind this so if you really want to know more about why these rounds DO work, Google terms like Pressure Drag, Boundary Layers and Separation.

And remember, it’s all about having fun!

- Robotech

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