Paintball 101

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If you’re already playing paintball this is going to be a pretty boring read.  Heck, even if you have only played the game once you probably will know a lot of what is written here.  However, this guide is not for those that already play the sport, but rather for those that know little to nothing about it. This is a guide for parents who have children that want to play and figure they should learn a bit more about the sport or have concerns regarding their child’s safety.  This is for those who have a loved one that plays the sport and they want to find out more about their significant other’s hobby. It's for those that, well, probably didn't even know there was such a thing as paintball until fairly recently. There is a lot more to the sport than what is written here, but it is a place to start.

What is Paintball?

Even to the uninitiated most people feel they have some idea of what paintball is.  Simply put, paintball is a game of tag where small gelatinous balls filled with “paint” are shot from an air powered gun at other players in order to “mark” them out.  That is the sport defined in a single sentence. 

However, just like if someone tried to describe you in a single sentence, this definition is very vague and doesn’t really tell you what paintball really is all about.  There are so many aspects and angles on the sport that saying you are playing tag just does not do it justice.

As for the physical aspect of the game a little history is in order.  Paintball “guns” originated with, of all things, the forest industry.  Lumber companies wanted a quick and easy way to mark trees that they wanted cut down and a company came up with a small “gun” powered by a simple 12 gram CO2 (Carbondioxide) cartridge that shot small balls filled with oil based paint.  It did not take long before someone concluded that not only could you shoot trees with these new “markers” but also other people.  Early games were played in the woods with players wearing shop goggles for eye protection and playing games of capture the flag where a player from one side would try to get a flag from the opposing team’s “base” while trying to keep the flag at his base from being captured. If a player was hit with a paintball, he was out until the start of the next game.  These early markers were very primitive and had to be re-armed after each shot.

The game evolved a lot from there as did the equipment.  Rather than try to cover everything at once it’s probably best to break it down some.

The Basics

The various pieces of equipment used in paintball.

Regardless of the type of game that is played, all forms of paintball have certain things in common. Each player has a paintball gun, commonly referred to as a marker.  This marker has a tank attached to it that holds either liquid CO2 (that changes into a gas within the marker) or High Pressure Air (HPA).  The gas from this tank is used to propel a paintball that is roughly .68 inches in diameter up to a speed below 300 feet per second (fps) While paintball markers are capable of firing at speeds greater than 300fps, it is not safe to do so.  All guns have adjustments that will limit the speed of the paintballs so that they are not fired any faster than this velocity.  The paintballs are stored in a large container which sits atop the marker called the hopper.  In addition, paintball markers have parts with names common to regular firearms such as barrels, triggers, cocking levers, and other various items.  However, none of these parts are interchangeable with real firearms and paintball markers cannot be made to fire real bullets.

The paintballs themselves are made up of two parts, the shell and the fill.  The fill is a vegetable based paint that washes off with water.  The shell is what holds the paint and gives the ball its shape.  It is gelatin based and, along with the fill, is completely biodegradable.   While the fill can be washed off with water, some less expensive paints can stain clothing if not washed off shortly after the day of play concludes.  New paintballs are being manufactured now which have fills which are a liquid upon impact but which will change to a powder as they dry.  This makes clean up much easier and it is less likely to stain clothing.

Paintballs come in all different colors and have different color "fills" of paint. Here you can see the paint fill and broken shell of a paintball at the bottom of the image.

A hopper holds the paint on the marker much like a magazine holds bullets for a real firearm. They usually feed using graviety into the breach of the marker. When the hopper runs out of paint, players can refill it by using paint pods. Generally a hopper will hold 200 rounds of paint and paint pods can hold up to 160 rounds of paint. Players can carry up to nine full pods of paint on their person using a pod carrier but generally will carry between two and six.

If a paintball breaks in the barrel of the marker a player can use a squeegee to quickly clean the paint out of the barrel on the field. While this usually will not get all the paint out of the barrel it will get enough out to allow the player to continue playing. Some barrels are coated so that players can just "shoot out" paint in the barrel by turning their marker upside down to keep new paintballs from feeding into the marker and then firing a few shots of air to blow out the broken paint.

When not on the field a barrel cover is required to be on every marker. This cover goes over the end of the barrel and will stop a paintball from coming out of the barrel if the marker is accidentally fired. This protects players in non-playing areas that have their goggles off from getting shot in the eyes if a marker accidentally goes off.

Safety. Or Why You Won’t Shoot Your Eye Out.

A lot of people believe paintball is a dangerous sport.  I mean, after all you are shooting other players with a type of gun and anyone that has ever known someone who has played probably has seen the small welts a paintball hit can cause.  Believe it or not though, paintball is a very safe sport. 

A study was conducted a number of years ago to see how many injuries were caused by specific sports.  The study only counted injuries that required a visit to the hospital or resulted in a loss of time from work or school.  This study broke down the findings by the number of exposures to the sport (One game of football would be an exposure.  A practice session would be another.) and presented the results as the number of injures reported for every 1000 exposures.

The sport of Lacrosse came out the big loser in the study with almost 225 injuries per 1000 exposures.  Baseball and Football both showed just fewer than 28 injuries per 1000 exposures earning them second and third places on the list respectively.  Hockey had only 12.5 injuries per 1000 exposures and Bowling was only 0.5 injuries.  Paintball came in even lower than bowling with only 0.2 injuries per 1000 exposures. 

Why it is important to wear your mask. Paintball injuries are few so long as the proper safety equipment is used.

Paintball injuries are so few mainly because of the strict safety standards set forth by the fields and manufacturers.  The first and most important piece of the safety puzzle is the Paintball Mask.  These masks cover the eyes, face, temples and ears of the player.  These are the areas of the human body most vulnerable to injury via paintball.  A large lens made of Lexan plastic protects the eyes while harder plastic or flexible rubber cover the other portions of the head.  Masks are available that will offer complete head protection but are generally not necessary.  Fields strictly enforce the “goggles on” rule while players are on the playing field and players choosing to ignore this rule are usually asked to leave. When off the field in areas where goggles are allowed to be removed, fields will require barrel covers to be on a player's marker at all times.  

Elbow and knee protection are also very important as is a good athletic cup for male players and a padded sports bra for female players though none are required.  It is also highly suggested that players wear high-toped boots that provide substantial ankle support to reduce the likelihood of sprains.    

In addition, paintball markers themselves are tested to make sure they are shooting below the allowed speed limit of 300fps.  Most fields have limits even lower (usually in the 285fps range) in order to have an additional margin of safety as paintball masks are rated for up to 300fps.  Note though that while they are only rated to this level all of them will maintain integrity from impacts greater than this velocity but may be damaged as a result and require lens replacement. Paintball fields use a device called a Chronograph to determine how fast a marker is shooting.  A Chronograph is similar to the radar devices law enforcement agencies use to clock motor vehicles.  A digital readout on the Chronograph displays each paintball’s speed as it is fired from the marker in feet per second.  Usually the player must fire three or four shots over the Chronograph and have no single paintball register greater than the field’s allowed speed limit in order to be allowed to play.  Due to the nature of CO2 it will increase in pressure with heat and this can cause a gun to shoot faster, or “hot”, as the day gets warmer. Because of this, most fields require players to “chrono” both in the morning and after the midday lunch break to make sure their markers are still operating at safe velocities.

Additionally, most fields do not allow markers to fire any faster than the player can pull the trigger.  The marker firing once for every pull of the trigger is referred to as “Semi-Automatic” or just “Semi-Auto”. Some markers have the ability to fire in “burst” mode, usually meaning the marker will fire three paintballs for every one trigger pull, or full auto mode where the marker will continue to fire so long as the trigger is held down.  Most fields will not allow either of these modes to be used and every marker made with multiple firing modes has the ability to lock the marker into a Semi-Auto Only mode for this reason. 

The infamous paintball welt. Generally, this is the worst "injury" a paintball player sees. While a hit on bare skin may cause a more serious looking welt, they are generally painless and look much worse than they feel.

Fields may also institute “overshooting” or “surrender” rules.  Overshooting rules state that a player may not shoot another player more than a certain number of times.  Usually this number is 3 or less.  If a player shoots another player more than the overshooting limit he faces ejection from the game.  Multiple occurrences of overshooting can result in the player being ejected from the field for the day.  Every field I’ve played at has an overshoot limit.  Rarer is the surrender rule.  This rule states that if you sneak up on a player and get within a certain minimum range, the attacking player announces his presence by shouting “Surrender!” and the opposing player raises his marker and walks off the field.  There are two types of surrender rules, optional and mandatory.  In optional surrender rules the surprised player may try and shoot the attacker announcing surrender before the attacker shoots him.  With mandatory surrender rules the opposing player has no choice and MUST surrender.  Usually the distance required to use either surrender rule is 10 feet or less and helps prevent players being shot at extremely close range.

If a player is seriously injured on the field, all play will stop while the injured player is cared for.  Generally speaking it is extremely rare for this to happen. Most injuries on paintball fields are minor cuts and bruises or dehydration during particularly hot days.

Referees chronograph a marker before the start of a Speedball game. This ensures that the players' markers are all shooting at or below the regulated safety speed limit.

To address all these safety rules, fields will employ a staff of referees.  These referees are responsible not only for enforcing game rules such as no wiping away a hit or players going out of bounds but also for the safety of the players themselves.  During Tournaments, these referees are all over the field making sure the players that are eliminated can get off the field without being hit again on the way out and checking for hits (called paint checks).  During recreational games, referees are mainly there for player safety.  They usually carry handheld chronographs in case they feel a player has a gun shooting above the field mandated speed limit. 

As for injuries from paintball hits themselves, they are relatively minor.  Most of the time there is nothing more than just a slightly red spot that goes away by the next day.  Sometimes the shell will make a small cut but that is pretty painless.  Markers shooting hot or shots from extremely close range can cause bruising and even break exposed skin but these hits are not all that common and most can be prevented by wearing the appropriate clothing and making sure you have no areas of bare skin exposed to being hit by a paintball. See the Safety First guide if you have more questions about paintball safety. 

The Different Flavors of Paintball

Where it all started...in the woods. A typical woodsball type field with bunkers made out of stacked branches and wooden palets.

Most folks not in the know about paintball think it is a bunch of guys running around in camouflage outfits playing Rambo with guns in the woods. Well, they would be partially right but not completely. 

In the early days, paintball was played out in the woods, all the players wore camouflage, and there was most certainly a para-military feel about it.  It was not too long though before people started building fields specifically for the sport of paintball.  With this step away from playing in out-of-the-way places in nature the sport became more structured.  Fields became smaller and field owners began adding props to the fields in order to have their fields stand out and to give the players a different feel to the game.  Things like old helicopters, tents, trucks, plywood buildings, and scrap airplane fuselages began making appearances on fields and given names like “Beirut”, “Russia”, or “Vietnam”.  (These field names come from a very old paintball field here in Southern California now known as SC Village.)  Others began transforming the landscape itself in order to build diversity such as digging trench systems in a field to form a complex labyrinth the players would have to negotiate in order to find the other team and their flag.  These fields, now called scenario based fields, gave players a much richer playing experience than just rustling around in the woods ever did.  In addition, the playing area now had well marked boundaries and was generally much smaller than the fields that were in the wilderness.  These kinds of fields thus saw a huge spike in popularity and are still around today though in many different forms.

Scenario fields (not to be confused with Scenario Games) add personality to a field by adding bunkers such as old tires, cars, helecoptors, planes, or even buildings. There is no end to the different field themes when it comes to these kinds of fields.

Time now became the next big factor in the game of paintball.  When the games were played out in the woods, a single game could last for hours.  Obviously if someone was shot out early they could have a long wait until the next game would start.  When the scenario type fields began to pop up, the games got shorter.  Because the players had a much smaller area in which to play games could be shortened to under an hour with 30 minute games becoming commonplace. 

Even so, players could wait 25 minutes between games if they were shot out early.  This meant many players would just hang back and wait for the other team to come to them in order to get in as much playing time as possible.  This could lead to games where both sides just sat near their base waiting for the other team to come to them. Though it was popular for players to try and out-flank their opponents and players that tended to be less aggressive enjoyed the slower tempo of these games, aggressive players would usually only be rewarded with an early finish to the game. Thus that style of play was inherently discouraged by the very nature of the game.

In order to address this problem, paintball parks began creating even smaller fields for the more aggressive players.  Where with a scenario field the teams would start out so far apart that they could not even see the other side, these new fields were so short that the teams started out in full view of one another.  These fields used flat, open areas that then had obstacles added to them to provide cover for the players.  At the start of the game players would have to quickly run and find cover to avoid being shot.  Games had a much faster pace without the need for players to travel great distances before seeing the other team and the length of the games shortened to around 10 minutes in order to minimize wait times between games. 

A fairly typical Speedball field. Note the lack of natural cover which is common of almost any speedball field.

In order to differentiate the different types of fields and games, those games played outside of sanctioned fields or at fields that were nothing more than large sections of wilderness became known as “Woodsball” fields whereas these new, ultra-small fields were called “Speedball” fields and most "Scenario" fields were referred to as "Recreational" fields. 

Another benefit to Speedball fields because of their small size was that now, for the first time, spectators could watch a paintball game in its entirety.  When paintball was played on scenario fields or in the woods, it was almost impossible for spectators to watch the game and actually see what was going on but with the advent of Speedball the “game” of paintball could now transform into an actual team sport like Football or Baseball.  This concept was quickly grasped by the industry and paintball tournaments began to form.  Players began wearing more colorful “uniforms” rather than the traditional camouflage outfits and formed speedball teams. 

A Speedball team "on the break" at the start of a game. Note the inflateable bunkers on this "AirBall" style field.

Speedball fields changed as well.  Where in the beginning the different obstacles placed on the field for players to use as cover were random, now they were set up so that both sides of the field had the exact same “bunkers” in the exact same locations so that neither team had an advantage based on which side of the field they started from.  As the sport gained popularity and more tournaments were scheduled the fields were made more portable.  Netting could be erected quickly, synthetic turf could be laid down and bunkers could now be inflated turning any area the size of about three basketball courts side by side into a paintball field overnight.  These “AirBall”, fields so named because of their inflatable bunkers, remain the standard of most professional tournaments to this day.

Even though Speedball has become the mainstream face of paintball players still continue to play in the woods, on scenario style fields and non-tournament style speedball fields.  In fact, the number of players who enjoy paintball on these "recreational" fields per year is greater than those who play on Tournament style arenas. Players can show up to a paintball field, register, and play paintball with other players of similar skill level.  These players are referred to as “walk-on” players and the games they play on the these fields are often referred to as “recreational” (or “rec” for short) games.  This differentiates them from “tournament” players (whether or not they are actually playing in a tournament) playing on Speedball “Arena” fields. However, there is nothing preventing a “Rec” player from jumping into a Speedball game in one of the arenas or a “Tournament” player hoping onto a scenario field full of “Walk-On” players.

An indoor "X-ball" field setup for a paintball tournament. The small size of the field allows for spectators to easily follow the action. Tournaments like these are the professional face of paintball.

There are other additional differences between “Rec” games and “Tournament” style games.  Rec games are usually a little bit longer but only by 5 or 10 minutes.  The days of 30 minute recreational games are, for the most part, gone.  Usually Rec games will still be capture the flag but Tournament style games often focus on Elimination (one team shooting out all of the opposing team), center flag (a flag in the middle of the field that a team has to capture and take to the opposing team’s starting point) or the traditional capture the flag.  However, because of the small size of the Speedball fields, “flag” based games often see one side completely eliminating the other side.

Also, professional tournaments sometimes allow for players to have markers that shoot faster than they are capable of pulling the trigger.  This feature usually falls under the term “ramping” and the rate of fire is limited to under 15 balls per second (bps).  This helps to equalize the playing field in tournament. In Speedball, rate of fire can be an important aspect to winning or loosing a game.

In addition to Official Tournaments where 3, 5, or 7-man teams go head to head against each other there are two other types of special events in the paintball world.  The first is call the “Big Game” format.  These games are played at fields that have multiple scenario based fields at their facility.  On a normal day, players would have games playing on multiple fields simultaneously throughout the day.  Under a Big Game format, the boundary dividers between these individual scenario fields are taken down turning the multiple, individual scenario fields into one big field and thus the smaller, multiple games into one “Big Game”.  The players are divided into two separate teams at the beginning of the game and are given starting points at opposite ends of the combined field. 

Big Games and Scenario Games bring in large numbers of players and add an different spin on the classic game of "Capture the Flag". Paintball grenades, tanks, smoke grenades and other props enhance the scenario experiance as can be seen in this picture from the famous Oklahoma D-Day Scenario game.

In the Big Game format the rules generally change about getting hit.  In normal games, once you are hit you are out until the next game starts.  Not so with Big Games.  After being hit, you must return to what is called a Dead Zone or Spawn Point.  There is usually one assigned to each side to be used only by players from that side.  Upon arriving at the Dead Zone, one of two things can happen.  If the game uses instant resurrection, the player checks into the Dead Zone, wipes off any hits he has on his person, and then can immediately walk right back into the game and start playing again.  The other option is what is called timed resurrection.  With timed resurrection the player enters the Dead Zone and must wait until the next resurrection window opens up. Usually these windows are 15 minutes apart and stay open for five minutes.  Thus if a player arrives at five past the hour he would have to wait in the Dead Zone until fifteen after the hour before he can re-enter the game.  However, if he arrives at 16 after the hour he can immediately rejoin the game since the five minute re-spawn window is still “open”. Thus even with a timed regeneration a player is not out of the game for more than ten minutes. 

Big Games will usually start when the paintball park’s normal games would start and will run until a lunch break. Play stops for about an hour then starts back up again after lunch and continues on until the time when the park would normally stop games.  Sometimes the park will have flag stations throughout the field that the teams can capture for team points and announce a winning team at the end of the day but most of the time they are just a big capture the flag game and are much the same game that use to be played in the woods when paintball first started.

Scenario games are similar to Big Games in that they are played on many fields turned into one field or on very large and specialized fields.  There are some big differences between Scenario Games and Big Games, most notably Scenario Games have a theme to them and players run “missions” to get points.  Paintball tanks, rocket launchers, and grenades can all be found at scenario games. For more information on scenario games, check out the All About Scenario Games guide on this site.

Conclusion 

Well, those are the basics.  There is so much more detail to each of these topics but I wanted to keep this no longer than it needed to be…and probably failed.  However, this covers what paintball is and where it came from.  As you can see, there is a lot more to the sport than just hitting someone with a ball full of paint.  With the proper gear, paintball is a safe and fun activity that can be enjoyed by anyone from 10 to 100. 

Good luck, and remember, it is all about having fun.

- Robotech

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