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What is a paintball? Does it hurt when you get hit?
How did this whole thing get started?
Is this another American fixation with firearms?
Isn't it really all about war games?
Isn't it just a bunch of boys running through the woods shooting each other?
How much does it cost to play?
Are there organized teams and leagues?
Where do the kids buy this stuff?
Splat! Splat! ... from NY Times (Published 11.16.04)
More questions & answers...

What is a paintball?
Does it hurt when you get hit?

The paintballs are small containers, usually gel caps, filled with water-soluble paint. The guns or markers are powered by compressed gas. Paintball markers evolved from the gas-powered guns used during the 1970s for other purposes, such as those used by forestry groups to mark trees and trails or by farmers to mark cattle. The guns had to be redesigned to regulate the power and speed for the safety of paintball. The game of paintball naturally evolved as the users of the marking guns started horsing around and aimed the guns and markers at one another.

The kids tell you that it doesn't hurt. However, I have seen the welts, especially the ones resulting from close range hits on exposed skin. Typically, the players wear protective clothing, jumpsuits, gloves, a variety of hats, wraps and caps, and most importantly, goggles.

During tournments or other forms of regulated play, the sponsers will check that the guns are set up within a "safe" range according to a chronographer which measures the speed of the balls as they are fired from the gun (typically 260 - 280 feet per second). There are also rules of play which prohibit firing at opponents at very close range.

How did this whole thing get started?
A milestone in the history of Paintball occurred in 1981 when twelve friends played a version of "Capture the Flag" using the tree-marking guns. The twelve friends decided to buy into a tree-marking gun manufacturer called Nelson and started promoting and selling the guns to the public for use with the new recreational sport. In 1982, the first Paintball field was opened in Rochester, New York.

According to the Nelson Paint Company website:
The Nelson Paint Company was founded in 1940 by Charles and Evan Nelson... Faced with the challenge of marking trees in hard to reach places, Charles Nelson invented a paint pellet that could be shot out of a gun.
This first Nelson paint pellet was not intended for the sport of Paintball - it was intended for the forestry industry. Likewise, the first commonly used Paintball gun was actually designed for the forestry industry - the Nelspot 007, invented by James C Hale (U.S. patent 3,788, 298 issued on January 29, 1974.)
The first gun specifically designed for playing Paintball was the Splatmaster invented by Robert G Shepherd. U.S. patent number 4,531,503 was issued to Shepherd on July 30, 1985. Later electropneumatic markers were developed like the Shocker and the Angel.

Is this another American fixation with firearms?
While the game started here, it has certainly taken off in Europe as well. Here's a link to a site called "Paintball Fields - Europe." There you'll see a list of fields from nearly every country in Western Europe, from Germany (surprise!) to friendly Switzerland and the peaceful Nordics (Sweden, Denmark, Finland).
Here's a link to a US company looking for partners around the world.

Isn't it really all about wargames?

It sure looks like a wargame. Many players dressed in army surplus camies and black boots would agree, while others like to think of paintball as a sport, as entertainment, high-tech tag, if you will. Football players commonly refer to their game as war, and certainly the blood, concussions and broken bones that occur every weekend are the emblems of courage, teamwork and violence of those contests for territory.

When I watch the kids play, I can't help but recall the 30 seconds of stock footage we have all seen of the terrorist training camps in Afganistan. Is paintball providing our country with an entertainment based method for preparing our children for the next round?

People seem to enjoy fighting. Kids - especially boys - seem to need to aim and shoot. Competition is one of the roots of our culture. My son says he likes paintball, because, unlike war, people get shot but nobody gets hurt.

Isn't it just a bunch of boys running through the woods shooting each other?

It can be. Kids in rural areas delight in running through the woods shooting each other. But no supervision, unregulated guns, and a casual approach to goggle use and other common sense pre-cautions, can lead to injury as well as complaints from neighboring property owners and others who frown at the noise and splattered paint on mother nature.

The alternative? Indoor and outdoor paintball facilities are popping up all over. Organized play is usually available in either the speedball or scenario format - or both.

Speedball (also known as Arenaball) is played in a fenced-in area, maybe the size of a basketball court or small soccer field. Two teams of 3-10 players gather at opposite ends of the field, wait for the go signal, take positions behind inflated barriers or "bunkers", and fire away. The goal is to eliminate the opposition (get hit and you're out), capture a flag at the center of the field, and then deliver the flag to the opponent's "dead-box." Here's a panoramic view of the speedball field at Friendly Fire in Upton, Massachusetts.

Scenario Paintball is also about two teams, trying to eliminate the opposition and capture the flag. Scenario is played outdoors, usually in a wooded area, and depending on the size of the field, the teams can have as many as two or three hundred players on each side!

How much does it cost to play?

Paintball fields charge between five and fifty dollars per day. This may or may not include equipment, compressed air and paint. Participation in tournaments requires an entry fee which start around $100, usually split among the 3-7 members of the team. Most also require that each registered member must purchase a case of paint which sells around $60.

Paintball guns - or "markers" - can be bought for a few hundred dollars or a few thousand. For those who have yet to make the case to their parents, or to squeeze the cash from a paper route, the best alternative is to rent equipment.

Once the initial investment is made, there is of course the need to purchase upgrades, enhancements and accessories. These may include barrels, hoppers, goggles, gloves, headgear, air systems, harnesses and pods to carry additional paint into the fray. Easy to see how this has grown into a billion dollar segment of our sagging economy.

Are there organized teams and leagues?
While not quite at the level of the NFL or NBA, organized paintball is moving up and fast. Soon you will see Paintball Highlites on ESPN. Check out these links for teams and leagues:
Paintball Teams & Leagues
National Professional Paintball League
New England Paintball League

The Paintball Times
"Those who advocate a move to 'Pro Sport' do not understand that Paintball isn't an elitist sport, confined to only a small segment of the population, like any other 'Pro Sport'. Paintball is for everyone, always has been and always will be. Paintball is the great equalizer of sports and that is why it we all love it. Heck, some of us will even play it at a disadvantage just for the thrill of going against a more heavily armed opponent. What other sport can you do that in? Ok, Jousting, but we don't do that anymore."
- Bret Golihew, April 1994

Where do the kids buy this stuff?

Primarily on the internet. Go to google and type "paintball equipment" and you will get over 70,000 returns. Since sales online are made with credit cards, this theoretically ensures that the buyers are over 18. Go to ebay and you will find over 400 categories of paintball stuff and tens of thousands of items for sale.

Paintball has grown in popularity to the point that the various forms of guns, gear, clothing and other accessories are now available at major retail outlets such as Target and Galyans. There are also stores here and there that are specialty shops which feed the frenzy and serve as gathering spots for players.