I love shooting at a gun range. It makes me happy—in a meditative, controlled way. Barring any unwelcome accidents on the line, I expect any given trip to the range to be cathartic and satisfying. But not exciting. Nor particularly useful in terms of self-defense strategy and/or tactics. If you shoot to learn how to protect yourself in an armed encounter, or feel like you’re singing that old B.B. King song The Thrill is Gone, it’s time to take it to the next level. Paintball . . .

What is Paintball?

Paintball is a team sport. Two or more teams of one to several thousand players compete to accomplish objectives while shooting at each other with paintball guns (or if you want to be PC, paintball markers). If you get shot, you’re out for the rest of the round.

Paintball guns are pneumatic; they operate more like BB guns than cartridge-based firearms. The paintballs themselves are ostensibly .68 caliber, consisting of a thin shell filled with a gelatinous, water-based, brightly colored and non-staining liquid. They are propelled via expanding gas released in regulated bursts from a tank attached to the gun. Most field mandate a muzzle velocity less than 300 ft/s.

What’s fun about it?

Paintballers are at least as obsessed about their kit—masks, hoppers (to hold the paintballs), tanks (to hold the compressed gas), barrels, pants, jerseys, cleats, pads, pods, pod packs, etc.—as your average gun nut. There’s a strong parallel between the firearm and paintball communities, including forum bickering, brand-based prejudices, accusations of snake oil and, with the relatively-recent introduction of .50 paintballs, we even have our own caliber wars.

Ostensibly, the purpose of the gear is to let you play the game. Tweaking your “loadout” in the garage is big fun, but it’s not the end goal.

I fell in love with the sport on Sept 25, 2005. I was in a tumultuous point in my life: I’d recently graduated from college, moved to VA, had a falling out with my parents, got my first job, was having trouble paying bills and, most significantly, I’d gotten married three days earlier. In a fit of irresponsibility, I dropped about $500 I didn’t have buying my first set of paintball gear. I didn’t know if I was going to have fun or if I’d just make a horrible mistake. (I mean buying the gear, not the marriage)

I was playing a scenario game. There were about 200 people playing on a few dozen wooded acres. A few minutes after play started I stumbled across a series of wooden towers spread out in a clearing. The floor of each tower was about five feet from the ground. I climbed into one and found it offered solid protection, especially once I barricaded the entry with a piece of plywood. There was a player on my side under my tower and a handful of other players, no more than 10, in and around the surrounding towers.

It wasn’t long before about 30 players from the other team assaulted our position. I would jump up and take a few shots then duck back under cover, moments before dozens of paintballs would pass through the space I’d just occupied. It didn’t take long for me to be the only person remaining on my team. During one of my brief retreats, leaning against the thin plywood wall of the tower and feeling the paintballs slam into the other side and hearing them whiz overhead that I realized I was hooked.

How do you play?

Paintball can be as simple as a bunch of guys playing on a friend’s property, with everyone trying to shoot everyone else. More organized play breaks into three categories: scenario, woodsball and airball. They differ in where you play, what you’re trying to accomplish, and the number of players on each team.

The majority of tournament play—the driving force in the industry—is airball. If you’ve seen paintball on television recently, it was almost certainly airball. Games take place on a small (150’ x 125’) field cleared of obstacles, apart from inflatable bunkers.

Teams usually consist of three to 10 players each. There are two flags, one each at stations at opposite ends of the field. Players start near their own flag. The goal: take the opponent’s flag and return it to your flag station. In reality, the fields are so small it’s nearly impossible to successfully return the flag so long as any member of the opposite team is alive. Victory usually belongs to the team that shoots out all the opposing players. These games are fast paced, normally only a handful of minutes long.

Woodsball is paintball in the “woods.” A typical woodsball match takes place on a field ranging from a quarter acre to two acres. Cover can found in the form of natural trees and bushes, plywood leaning against trees, stacks of wood or stones, large spools, pipes, old cars, or purpose-built structures like the perviously mentioned tower. Players have a known objective and a predetermined amount of time to complete it.

Typical objectives : two-flag capture-the flag (go get the flag at their base and bring it back to ours), one-flag capture the flag (flag in the center, bring it to the enemy base), attack and defend (single flag at their base, capture and return to our base) or simple elimination (shoot the entire team). Games continue until one side wins or time expires. The time limit is usually in the 15 – 30 minute range, depending on the situation.

“Scenario” is woodsball, only bigger and longer. The player count starts in the hundreds and can ascend into the thousands. Scenario games usually last all day and frequently span multiple days. Oklahoma D-Day, the largest operating scenario, lasts a week. It includes 4,000+ players over 100 acres.

A more typical scenario begins on a Saturday morning and runs through Sunday lunch. The player count ranges from 300 to 1000 players. More reasonably sized scenarios involve around 200 players, last six to eight hours, played over a few dozen acres.

Transferable Skills: Paintball to Firearms

Trigger discipline is one of the most important skills that transfers from paintball to firearms. Most paintball guns are electronically fired; you activate a microswitch by depressing the trigger. Trigger pull is measured in grams, not pounds.

If you’ve got your finger on the trigger, a simple change of position or a slight stumble will transmit enough force to fire. It only takes a few negligent discharges to learn to keep your booger hook off the bang switch. It’s great feedback: it scares the crap out of you every time.

Tactically, paintball teaches you to think, plan, act and communicate with a gun, on the fly, while dodging enemy fire and countering their strategy. Knowing when to move, moving, locating threats and, above all, keeping your cool under stress are useful skills fore anyone who wants to know what to do what someone’s trying to shoot you.

As you might expect, US Armed Forces use paintball for combat training. The U.S. Army chose my team, Old Man Militia, to act as OpFor during a paintball training exercise at Ft. Meade in 2008.

Renting Equipment

If you’re going to rent equipment from the field, you don’t need anything but money and a comfortable set of clothes that you don’t mind getting dirty. For obvious reason, long pants are required. They should be sturdy; you’re going to be kneeling a lot. Thin material can tear and doesn’t offer your knee much protection. Footgear should provide adequate ankle support.

The field will provide a gun, hopper, tank, barrel, mask and barrel sock (protection against an accidental discharge). I strongly recommend that you bring some drinking water. Paintball is a very athletic activity and you’ll need to stay hydrated. You’re going to be excited, distracted and full of adrenaline, so you won’t notice you’re thirsty until you’re well on the way to dehydration. Bring water and drink frequently.

If you need corrective lenses, wear your contacts if you have them. Glasses will fit under most masks, but it’s not pleasant.

A Quick Note About Safety:

The barrel sock will stay on the barrel until just before the game starts. Only remove it when instructed by the ref. Replace it as soon as you’re shot or the current round is over.

You put your mask on before you enter the field. It stays on until you leave the field or until you enter a safe area (if applicable). Seriously, leave your mask on. Some people get shot and then take off their mask on the middle of the field while the game continues around them. These people are idiots. Even when the game is over, you keep your mask on until a referee gives clear instructions that it’s ok to remove it.

Paintball Buyer’s Guide

If you’re not renting from the field, here’s a quick list of what you’ll need to buy: mask, gun, tank, hopper.

Mask

The mask is the most important piece of equipment. It’s your primary piece of protective gear and has a direct impact on your playing abilities. Cheap masks have cheap lenses; cheap lenses fog up. If your mask is fogged up, you’re nearly useless and you won’t enjoy the sport. Better masks are rugged, allow for wider vision and remain comfortable throughout gameplay. A good mask costs between $60 – $100.

Recommended Models: V-Force Grill, V-Force Profiler, Empire E-Vents, Dye Invision
Ron Uses: V-Force Grill

Gun

Paintball guns or “markers” shoot operate according to one of three systems: pump, semi and ramping. Pump guns are similar to a pump shotgun (without the ejection sequence). Pumping the handle cocks a hammer and places another round in the breech. Semi is also analogous. Each trigger pull fires a round and loads another round. Ramping requires some more explanation . . .

The majority of paintball guns are controlled electronically. When you pull the trigger you’re not releasing a sear and allowing a hammer/striker to fall. You’re sending a signal to a circuit board, letting it know you’re want to shoot. If the gun’s ready, the electronic brain will pass the signal to a solenoid which begins the pneumatic firing cycle.

After a few years of experimentation, “ramping” most tournaments use ramping guns. Ramping is full auto. BUT you can’t just hold down the trigger; you have to keep pulling it X times per second, where X is usually between one and four.  Most tournaments cap ramping electronically at 10-13 balls per second (bps).

There are a few metrics to use when comparing paintball guns:

Reliability: Is this gun going to work when I need it to? How much attention does it require in order to work?

Efficiency: Given a set volume of air, how many shots will I get? Gun A might get 1800 shots from a 68/45 tank. Gun B may only get 1000.

Loudness: Every gun shoots a paintball at close to 300fps. Some just do it without making a big deal about the whole thing.

Smoothness: Even the most unruly paintball gun is tame compared to any firearm, but how much recoil do you feel each shot?

Kick/Barrel rise: again, comparatively, there’s not much barrel rise, but when you’re shooting 600-1200rounds/min, small things add up to take your muzzle off target.

Weight: Lighter is better.

If you’re dabbling, Tippmann makes a solid, inexpensive, dependable marker (i.e. gun). Pick a model, they’re all pretty good. Most of them are mechanical and can use CO2. Their main draw: they will work regardless of the abuse and neglect. On the negative side they’re heavy, inefficient, loud and they kick. They make a great marker that, should you outgrow it, will serve as a dependable backup. Price: $100-$400.

If you’re a little more serious, I recommend the Empire Axe ($460) or Planet Eclipse Etek 3 ($600). The Axe is quiet, light and efficient. It hits a sweet spot in the price/performance ratio. The Etek 3 is louder, kicks more and and costs more, but it’s as reliable as sunrise.

Moving upscale, the Bob Long Victory retails for $1200. (Pick your jaw up off the floor. Used guns usually sell for 50 percent off retail.) Bob’s G6R is also an excellent choice; it’s a ridiculously efficient marker. Patriots note: Bob Long guns are designed and built in the USA.

The Planet Eclipse Ego 11 is at the top of the heap ($1250) It’s reasonably efficient, quiet, and smooth and rock-solid reliable. At a close second is the MacDev Clone VX ($1200). It’s smoother, quieter and more efficient than the Ego, but requires more upkeep. Following that, the aforementioned Bob Long Victory.

Recommended Brands: Bob Long, Planet Eclipse, MacDev
Ron Uses: MacDev Droid (semi/ramp), CCM T2 (pump)

Tank

The tank holds the gas that propels the paintball.  Generally, it screws into the bottom back of the marker’s grip and acts as a stock when firing the gun. The gas is either Carbon Dioxide (CO2) or normal air. CO2 tanks are made of steel. High Pressure Air (HPA) tanks are made of carbon-fiber (you can buy steel HPA tanks, but I don’t recommend them). Players fill them with normal air compressed to 3000-5000psi. You can not use CO2 in an HPA tank nor HPA in a CO2 tank.

There are four choices for HPA tanks. The first option is material: steel or carbon fiber. Get the carbon fiber. They’re more expensive, but they’re worth it. Steel tanks are heavier, have a lower max pressure, and have a smaller volume.

The next option is maximum pressure. The higher the pressure, the more shots you’ll get from a tank. Pressures are usually available in 3000psi or 4500psi. Some tanks are rated for 5000psi, but most fields don’t have compressors that go that high. The 3000psi tanks are cheaper, but I recommend the 4500. It holds 50% more air with no increased size in the tank.

The third choice is output pressure: High-Pressure or Low-Pressure. Only one brand of gun requires a LP tank (Angel), but several brands require HP. Go for HP.

The last option is the tank volume, expressed in cubic inches. The larger the volume, the more air the tank will hold, but the larger the tank becomes. You have to find one that fits you well while providing enough air for a reasonable number of shots. 68ci is the standard size and works for most guys. I’m short, so 68ci is bit big for me. There are numerous options in different shapes and sizes.

The shorthand for tanks is their “size over their max pressure”. So a 68ci tank with a maximum pressure of 4500 psi would be described as 68/45.

A good HPA tank will run $100-$150

Recommended Manufacturers: Ninja PB, CP, DXS
Ron Uses: Ninja PB 50/45

Hopper

A hopper goes on top of the gun and holds the paint.  (Note: the Tippmann A5 and X7 have integrated hoppers). The simplest hopper is just a molded plastic container with a lid. Gravity pulls the paintballs down into the breech. These are cheap and light, but they frequently jam and dramatically limit your rate of fire. I don’t recommend gravity feed plastic hoppers for anything but a pump gun.

Most players use agitated or force-feed hoppers. These use a paddle to agitate paintballs and force them down the feedneck into the breech. They range in price from $40 – $100+.

Recommended Models: Empire Prophecy, Dye Rotor
Ron Uses: Empire Prophecy

And there you have it. There are plenty of online resources for paintball enthusiasts, but there’s no need to get ridiculously geeky about it from the git-go. The play is the thing to capture the king. Go to a field that rents, play the game and see if paintball is for you.

19 Responses to A Beginners’ Guide to Paintball

  1. Now I know it’s a small world. Never expected to see a post from OMM here. I’m sure we’ve played with, and against, each other on multiple occasions at Splatbrothers. (Team RATS)

    While there are a few skill sets that are similar between firearms like trigger discipline, threat assessment, shoot-n-move and others, I’d say there are significantly more that do not. I frequently recommend paintball to friends who want to get in an gun fight with ‘thinking’ target. In a one-on-one or small squad based fight it can really get the adrenaline pumping. Especially for a shooter who has never been in that sort of position. Beyond that ability to be in a fight where you literally shoot your adversary, I’m quick to point out that this is not their favorite rifle or pistol and, in my opinion, paintball represents a poor training opportunity for a firearms centric shooter.

    Play paintball because it’s good fun and good exercise. Do not play paintball with the intent of augmenting your regular firearms training.

  2. I haven’t tried paintball yet-do they have a paint knife? That babe looks more like she’s into bukakke…

  3. Paintball does tend to help but you definitely need good gear for it to do any good. The lower quality barrels, markers, and paintballs can make a 30 ft shot almost impossible as you will see the round curve and completely miss your target. It might sound dumb but I actually played competitive paintball for about 10 years and had a number of sponsors. Its an incredibly good sport to keep you in shape as well as teach you to think. However, the problem that I found with competitive play was that like many other things it turned into a game of money. Now you see guys who should a thousand+ rounds a game to ensure you cannot move, much like suppressing fire in real life except you are trapped in a confined area as the fields are extremely small. Its a very very addictive and fun game that can teach you some good life principals if you get in at a good field with good people and it definitely is good for training if you get some of the markers that have magazines that hold the paintballs.

    • I honestly dont know what sort of google fu skills are involved in finding all of these classics…But I appreciate them on a dull friday like this.

  4. I’m curious about the US Army style of paintball training. Could you elaborate?

    I’ve played at casual rent-your-gear places a few times, and I’ve never been satisfied for a few reasons.

    1. The engagement distances are too close. The paint-balls just don’t fly very far before accuracy degrades. Maybe 20-30 yards at most, unless you “longball”. The limited range creates a cascade of potentially bad decisions regarding movement and maneuver. I’m not sure I want to train myself into thinking that I can run a few yards for cover if someone has a gun pointed at me at 50 yards.

    2. The playing fields were way too small. But I assume this can be solved by driving out further and paying more money.

    3. Too many paintballs flying. I’m not sure it’s tactically realistic to be more-or-less continuously firing for 20 minutes. For one, a real gun will surely become very hot.

    4. The penalty for getting hit should be dialed up to 11. The goal is for your team to win, not necessarily to stay alive. That drives the aggressive tactics of experienced paintballers, especially in the early “deployment” phase of the game, when getting a good positional advantage is critical. Again, may not transfer well to real life situations.

    5. Hopper over the sight-line of the gun. I assume this can be solved with money.

    I’d be interested in indoor paintball scenarios using something like a RAP4, clearing rooms and such, or maybe a close-in urban fighting environment. I think you could get a lot of good practice with muzzle control. What does the army do? I’m not trying to bash paintball, I’m genuinely interested in how the army integrates paintball into training.

    • The army uses them to simulate a MOUT (Military Operations in Urban Terrain) scenario. My personal experience was in a warehouse with a shanty town set up and a VIP we needed to acquire and escort to safety. The team that was put against us was given multiple lives and had many vantage points and hidden doors to pop out of as well as having been familiar with the course as we had never seen it before. It was great training and the only downside of it was the concrete floors were very slippery after a while.

  5. Nice article!

    I think I might be a paintball nut, I noticed the Cool Autococker paintball marker before I noticed the girl in the bikini 🙂

    You forgot to answer one of the most asked questions, which is Does it hurt? The answer is yes, especially the first few times you play when your most afraid. After that the adrenaline rush takes over and you don’t care anymore!

    Have you been to EMR Castle Conquest?

  6. … paintball guns (or if you want to be PC, paintball markers) …

    Please oh please tell me that’s meant tongue-in-cheek. ‘Cause they are guns. Aren’t they?

    And regarding that bikini-clad young lady at the top, I don’t know where all that paint came from but I’ll bet it wasn’t from a paintball gun. I got shot with one of those damn things once while wearing a golf shirt and it hurt like a mother. There was no second shot. I was pissed.

  7. I love it when you show hot girls, but this one has her finger on the trigger and no eye protection (bad girl). I wish that one of these videos had girls playing paintball in bikinis, that would have been better than watching those silly guys.

  8. I haven’t tried paintball yet-do they have a paint knife?
    I know you’re kidding, but I’ll answer your question. In many woodsball or scenario games, if you touch someone with your barrel, they’re out. It’s called barrel-tagging. The barrel doesn’t need to be on the gun, but you can’t whack ’em with it.

    I’m curious about the US Army style of paintball training. Could you elaborate?

    I don’t know, specifically, what the Army gets out of the training. Anything I say on the topic is speculation, since I wasn’t involved with setting up the exercise, I just showed up to sling paint. The exercise I was involved in was way more like paintball than it was like warfare.

    Apart from some warmups we didn’t do a whole lot of paintball like you’d see at a field. We usually had scenarios that were being played out. Unfortunately this was a while ago and I can’t remember many specifics, though I do remember ambushes.

    1. The engagement distances are too close.
    I agree. The most accurate scenarios were when we ambushed them.

    2. The playing fields were way too small.
    Not a problem where we were. As a precaution, we were given instructions on how to get back to civilization in case we got lost. If you walked the wrong direction they’d have to send out a search party.

    3. Too many paintballs flying.
    Soldiers carried only what was in the hopper: 200rds. They were using mechanical, gravity-fed hoppers which can’t maintain more than 7bps. Our paintball guns were capped at 10bps.

    4. The penalty for getting hit should be dialed up to 11. The goal is for your team to win, not necessarily to stay alive. That drives the aggressive tactics of experienced paintballers, especially in the early “deployment” phase of the game, when getting a good positional advantage is critical. Again, may not transfer well to real life situations.
    Paintball definitely favors aggression. You wouldn’t last long in Iraq if you acted how paintballers play.

    5. Hopper over the sight-line of the gun. I assume this can be solved with money.
    It can be. The best way is a T9.1 paintball gun from Tiberius Arms. They look awesome, too. Not all fields allow you to use them, but they have several very real performance benefits over spherical paintballs.

    I’d be interested in indoor paintball scenarios using something like a RAP4, clearing rooms and such, or maybe a close-in urban fighting environment. I think you could get a lot of good practice with muzzle control. What does the army do? I’m not trying to bash paintball, I’m genuinely interested in how the army integrates paintball into training.

    I haven’t participated in any urban training with the Army. That could be a lot of fun. However, I did play at the National Guard MOUT training facility at Camp Blanding in Florida. That was a lot of fun. I’ve got a lot of respect for the guys who clear buildings in real life; it’s dangerous and scary work. Those guys must need handcarts to carry around their balls.

    You forgot to answer one of the most asked questions, which is Does it hurt? The answer is yes, especially the first few times you play when your most afraid. After that the adrenaline rush takes over and you don’t care anymore!

    Have you been to EMR Castle Conquest?

    It hurts when you’re not amped up. Normally when you’re on the field you don’t feel much unless you get hit someplace sensitive.

    I’ve never been to Castle Conquest, or to EMR for that matter, but it’s on my list of places to go. My preferred scenarios involve large fields with lots of room to maneuver. I stop having fun if everyone’s drawn out into battle lines slugging it out.

    Please oh please tell me that’s meant tongue-in-cheek. ‘Cause they are guns. Aren’t they?
    Yes, I was joking.

    And she’d look much more unhappy if she’d been shot that many times as opposed to having the photographer’s assistant dab her with tempera.

  9. Woodsballer here. I’ve got a Tippmann 98 Custom, recently upgraded with a Cyclone hopper and 16 inch barrel, and soon to have an e-trigger and HPA tank.

    I’d say as far as training goes, paintball is more suited for militia training than personal self-defense. The most transferable skills are teamwork, tactics, and thinking quickly under stress.

  10. Thanks RonH for the answers.

    Your post inspired me to do some research, and what I think I am looking for is airsoft. I used to play around with airsoft pistols as a teenager, it’s amazing to see how far they’ve come. Never been shot with one though, I wonder how much it will hurt in the wrong places.

    Any thoughts on airsoft? Seems to have the longer range, greater weapons handling realism I’m looking for. Probably the high-cap and cheap BBs means that even more ammo will be flying around, but who knows. Hopefully those BBs are bio-degradable…

    • Played airsoft once or twice, didn’t really like it. I think it’d be a lot more fun indoors. Airsoft does NOT have a longer range than paintball — it’s much less, in fact (at least all the guns I’ve used, maybe higher quality ones have better range) and the pellets are extremely affected by wind.

      As far as being hit with one? Lightly stings if it hits flesh, might not even feel it if it hits cloth.

    • I never got into the Airsoft scene.

      Here’s the problem I see with airsoft: I don’t always feel it when I get hit. It will take a ref seeing a hit on me to let me know that I’m out. With airsoft, there’s no mark to prove that a hit took place, so if the player doesn’t notice it, they’re not going to call themselves out.

      And of course if a player decides to cheat in Airsoft, there’s no evidence whether a shot hit or not. Maybe the players are more honest in Airsoft, but I can’t say either way. I can say that there are players who wipe or don’t call themselves out in paintball and that there’s not much that will ruin a game faster than a wiper on either side.

  11. I once went mud bogging with my father at fort Custer in Michigan. This was back when he still had his military jeep. I remember finding all sort of things scattered throughout the place, from grenade tops to bullet links. I even found a used smoke grenade. In addition there was tons of paintball shells everywhere. So yes they use “simunitions” along with paintball.

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