TTAG reader Ian writes:

There are some obvious similarities between paintball and other firearm shooting sports. Both use “guns,” for example. But in the end paintball is exactly that, a game. It has its own set of rules and equipment that support a set of ballistic physics that make it unique and entertaining. And then there’s the amount of research, development and innovation that has swept through the sport in the last 20 years. It’s far exceeded the firearms industry during the same span. Of course, this isn’t a fair comparison for many reasons. But with the primary equipment being so similar in purpose why have paintball marker development and firearm development paths diverged so much? . . .

First, for those of you not familiar with paintball markers (it only takes a few conversations with the TSA before you stop using the word “gun” to describe the undeclared item they are about to find in the luggage they are randomly checking) they come in two basic flavors: mechanical and electronic. Mechanical markers operate with sears, hammers, valves and springs set in motion by articulating the trigger.  Most electronic guns are comprised of a circuit board, solenoids, sensors and a switch that activates the electronically timed series of events by tapping the trigger.  This video gives a brief description of both as well as a glimpse of them in action.

Developers haven’t subjected mechanical markers to a great del of technological innovation, largely because they have been engineered close to the edge of what is possible. You must have a trigger move at least XXX distance to set off a series of mechanical events which can only happen so fast when driven by a human finger.

Electronic markers on the other hand continue to progress. With faster reacting solenoids, software that adapts to how the player taps the trigger and sensors that detect the flow of balls into firing position, the rate of fire is no longer limited by the marker itself but how fast you can feed paint into the marker.

When I say “tap” the trigger I’m not being entirely accurate. The word “tap” implies far more force than is required. The trigger systems on modern paintball markers can be tuned to have almost no visible travel and no perceptible weight. ANY contact with the trigger – no matter how slight – trips the switch.

WDP Angel (courtesy vspaintball.com)

With a little practice most people can easily fire over 15 balls per second with a semi-automatic marker. Competitive players can easily fire more than 20 balls per second. With this much rapid-fire firepower in a gun-like product why aren’t we excited about the prospect of electronic technology making its way into firearms? Let’s first look at what electronic paintball technology has to offer . . .

From an environmental standpoint paintball markers must endure farm more strenuous conditions than most of our firearms will ever encounter. They’re shaken violently for much of their use (running, jumping, sliding, etc.). The electronics are designed to withstand all of this for years of use. Paintball markers are also designed to cycle millions of times without the need for significant repairs. Simply have a pro shop tune it right, follow your routine maintenance, don’t try to customize it too much and your marker will operate flawlessly for years of active play . . . until it doesn’t.

Anybody who has played competition paintball will tell you about electronic marker that fail in the middle of a match. Batteries fail, poorly soldered connections fail, running/ jumping/sliding giggles connections loose. Because the electronics need to be sealed from dirt, splattered paint, rain, mud and sweat; they can be susceptible to condensation building up inside the gun as temperatures change.

DM14 (courtesy dyepaintball.com)

Even if everything is working correctly, splattered paint can cover the sensors that detect what the marker is doing. This usually sets the marker into a “limp mode,” reducing it to a rate of fire that can be slower than a good mechanical marker. While nobody is willing to accept this from their equipment, everybody knows that it will happen eventually. It is unavoidable.

If a mechanical marker fails, it can be fixed with an allen wrench, some O-rings and some Loctite, then used the next match. When the electronic marker goes . . . who knows? If you’re in a match, it’s time to grab your backup marker and hope atmospheric conditions didn’t cause your primary marker to fail.

To compete at a high level in paintball the risk of an electronic marker’s failure is far outweighed by its superior rate of fire. It’s worth the risk in large part because the failure rate is so low that there’s no hesitation when selecting which equipment to go with at the start of a tournament. That failure rate however is far higher than that of my mechanical markers, and they are more difficult to fix, both during a match or between matches. And the risks . . .

At the end of a paintball tournament everybody goes home – whether their equipment failed or not. Aside from a few welts there usually aren’t any injuries. In my years playing I’ve had far more failures of my electronic markers than my mechanical ones. For that reason I always kept a mechanical marker with me as a backup. For that reason, I will never trust an electronic or “smart” gun.

While paintball is a game. The lives of myself and my family are no. While I learned some very practical lessons from my years as a paintball junkie, the lives of my family should not be contingent on whether or not a connection came loose while I was jogging. If it was a humid cool day the last time I cleaned my gun. If Sam the solderer sneezed while assembling my circuit board. Or if I sanded my fingerprints off while refinishing a dresser. If the batteries are fresh. 

Electronic triggers are fun to play with. But you don’t want to play games with matters of life and death. 

Bio: I was born in Oregon and raised in several small towns in both Oregon and Washington. I started shooting with my father at age 4 and have been a POTG ever since. I purchased my first paintball gun in 1994 and played in the woods with my friends.  \Eventually I moved to Denver, Colorado and started playing in local tournaments. I played competitively through the late 90s until about 2004 traveling to compete in national series initially with the Colorado Headhunters and eventually with the Sharpshooters. I currently live in Jacksonville, FL and do CAD/IT work for an engineering firm while doing what I can to support the family aircraft parts business my father runs.

39 Responses to Paintball Competitor: Why I’d Never Carry a “Smart” Gun

  1. I stopped upgrading my paintball equipment around ’94. I still play with an Automag that is all mechanical and mostly stainless steel. If I won’t trust electronics to keep from being hit with a soap filled jello ball, I sure wont trust it with my life. I would definitely own a smart gun because I collect firearms that I consider different or unusual, but I can’t see myself ever carrying one.

    • I think that without CERTAIN unreasonable laws that are actively inhibiting development, smartgun tech would be healthily advancing. It is actually a good idea for specific firearms that are not suitable for self-defense, where a failure to unlock is not a life-or-death situation.

      The firing mechanism for electronic markers aren’t at the point where they’re 99.44% dependable, and that’s after 20 years of aggressive development. If the firearm industry were free to do the same, they’d probably have the problems licked in another 5. Electrically fired rounds with near-zero lock time? Triggers that trip the firing sequence based on pressure, not movement? That would shake up the precision target shooting world.
      It’s too bad.

      • The problem with using electronics on some firearms, other than as a user specified option, is that the anti’s will see it as proof that it is acceptable for all firearms on a mandatory basis. Once they are mandated the government WILL mandate a “kill switch” mechanism, thereby being able to disarm any- and everyone at will.

      • You won’t get that zero lock time that you are after.
        Firearms are much different than paintball markers. The soleniods dont have the power to set off primers reliably. The best that can be done is to use a solenoid to trip a mechanical sear, but most of the lock time is in the time from sear release to primer contact. That will still remain, so you will be giving up the reliability of the old system in return for no benefit. So what if the marker can fire 20 rounds per second. Jerry Michulic does that with mechanical semiautos already. All it takes is practice. And with that practice will come more precision as well, so its a twofer.
        Same goes for the “toughness” of todays electronics. They might tolerate the running and jumping, but its the recoil of a firearm that really does the damage. Once again, a paintball gun doesn’t have to worry about that. I can’t see these “smart” firearms being good for anything other than collecting, and an occasional trip to a range for the novelty of it.
        Another thought, just how often does your “smart” phone do weird things that you don’t want it to do? How would you like these glitches happening on your firearm on your belt every once in a while? Even if its only once a year?

      • What laws are restricting the further advancement of “smart guns”?

        And yes, paintball markers (not guns, I don’t shoot friends with guns, and there is a legal difference) are way past 99.44% reliable. With a fresh battery it is easy to “shoot ropes” (shooting so fast your paintballs in the air look like a rope from your barrel) for an entire case of 2000 paintballs. If your marker failed once, that would be 99.95%.

        Also, electronic primers have already been done. Etronx by Remington. Talk about a fast lock time… http://www.thetruthaboutguns.com/2013/12/chris-dumm/electric-cartridge-primers-gone-but-not-lamented/

    • Having retired from competition I now only have two markers in my collection. One is my original tournament gun, a 1994 autococker. The second is another autococker purchased in about 2000 and converted aftermarket to an electronic trigger system. It has since been re-converted back to a manual swing trigger. Since I didn’t stop playing competitively until about 2004 I had to keep upgrading my gear. If I want to relive those glory days I just rent e-guns. Most of the time I simply enjoy being picked close to last, then wrecking the field with my antiques.

  2. “Electronic triggers are fun to play with. But you don’t want to play games with matters of life and death.”

    And that perfectly captures the reason I will never trust my life to a “smart” gun, and why you are highly unlikely to ever find a police department (other than Chicago and Washington, DC) that will arm the police with a gun that relies on an electronic gizmo to work perfectly, every single time.

    Hey, I still think George Patton was right, and the M-1 Garand is “the greatest battle implement ever devised”.

    Bathe it in mud, run it until the barrel glows and the forend/handguard chars – it still works. It is accurate and highly effective (.30-06) out to 600+ yards with the iron sights. And if you run out of ammo, the steel buttplate with 9.8 pounds of wood and metal behind it still makes a dandy weapon.

    Yeah, I’m a dinosaur. But remember – even though dinosaurs are now extinct, they had a much longer track record than any upright apes have yet achieved.

    • I enlisted way back in early 2001, so forgive my bias.

      I’ll take an M14 over an M1 any day. .30-06 doesn’t offer enough of an advantage over .308 to be a deciding factor in my opinion, especially considering the weight and magazine difference. If I’m in a situation where the round’s velocity is the deal breaker, give me an ’03 Springfield. Otherwise, M14 all day, every day.

      • OK, I will reluctantly give you a plus on the M-14. Hey, I just like the old Garand, since that was my first rifle in boot camp and I was able to buy my own from the (then) Director of Civilian Marksmanship. I have considered an M1A, but so far have resisted the temptation.

  3. Too much common sense. Must be an extremist Koch Brothers NRA shill. We all know the antis don’t care whether it works or not, just so long as the feel good about getting their way.

  4. I’ll only play games limited to Nel-Spot 7 rd bolties. Okay, you can use the 10rd loading tube extension, but that’s it. Use yer noodle work with your team and maneuver, don’t rely on a garden hose. Might be why I don’t get out much anymore.

  5. I’m surprised there hasn’t been a movement to curtail paintball because it encourages people to shoot one another. The liberals in the cities would be all for a ban.

    • Oh, there has. Just not on a national level. It’s much more popular to blame video games or movies. But paintball and airsoft get theirs too.

    • I remember having a brief conversation with a mother at a paintball range about how she really didn’t want young johnny (her kid looked to be around 13) playing paintball because it encouraged violence. Being the elegant, well-spoken teenager (I think I was 16 at the time) that I was, I laughed at her and told her she was nuts. Maybe then she thought paintball encouraged disrespect and arrogance, but what the hell, I was 16.

  6. Here is the problem with smart guns. People are short sighted when it comes to technology. Just like military warfare, signals can be jammed. How hard would it be for criminals to have a small radio frequency jammer on them preventing a smart gun from operating? There are already small cell phone jammers on the market to prevent people using their cell phones in certain areas. A gun that cannot fire in the time of need is a worthless gun.

  7. I grew up playing stock class, lol.

    It was always amusing to run around on a field using my ‘ol Phantom pump, beating up speedball players with these fancy $1500 markers without any problem. Those were the days, for sure.

    • Aww the phantom good stuff. I had a Hammer pump back in the day, for the days when you couldnt afford a case of paint for the day and all you could get was a bag of 250, or just wanted to play with a pump gun 🙂

  8. LMAO @ the 90 degree framed Angel, slid through a nice puddle at an NPPL event, and then it was ugly and didnt work. Thankfully techs at events are about like wizards, especially when you buy them beer etc.

    Thanks for the nostalgia, got to relive quite a bit of my happier younger years while reading this.

    Too funny about talking to the TSA about your paintball stuff, “I thought you said this was a paint marker?!”, “No I said paintball marker.”.

    One of the teams I played on, shipped everyones gearbag together ahead of time, so we didnt EVER have to take them in the airport (if we drove they wouldnt fit in the van anyway + smell).

    • You can’t have a conversation about paintball development without including WDP products. They were the one to beat for many years.

  9. I play Airsoft every once in a while and had a pretty funny experience. The last game of the day I was the last person left on my team and I was moving up on the last person on the other team. He noticed me and I took cover behind a tree. As he stepped out to charge I jumped out and pulled the trigger to hear the half-whine of the motor. My battery had died and my gun failed to fire, my team lost, and everyone had a pretty good laugh. In real life that wouldn’t be a funny story, it would be a tragedy.

    For a little more info, the battery is a 9.6v 1800mah and should have lasted six more hours but I think the temperature variations took it out that day.

    • I don’t play, but I have two high end airsoft guns. For reasons. An electric P90 (modified) and a gas G18 (stock.)

      The P90 has shown itself more than adequate for shooing aggressive dogs out of the yard. We’re talking dogs who routinely run loose, whose owners have pressed charges against neighbors who have used paintball markers to scare them off (the color of paint on their flanks is a good way to tell which direction they came from.)

      The G18 is another story. Within a certain range, it’s probably more accurate than the real thing. It’s killed chipmunks consistently at range. Keep in mind it is exactly as it left the factory in Japan. I don’t currently have a local source for green gas.

      Even if I were to compete, I would never rely on an electric. I’d want a gas or spring backup at the ready. Batteries die a hell of a lot faster than springs lose their potential.

  10. I have no idea what the relevance of this write up is to smart guns? It should be obvious that added complexity will most likely adversely affect reliability, though this is not always the case. It seems like someone just wanted to talk about paintball on a gun blog.

    However much I hate the idea of “smart guns,” the triggers need not be completely electronic. It would be straightforward to couple the electronic identification mechanism to a standard mechanical trigger. If the ID mechanism fails, the default failure mode is to have the mechanical trigger work as if the gun was non-smart.

    It’s also nonsense that we can’t make an electro-mechanical trigger mechanism as reliable as standard firearm trigger. How about the trigger mechanism on an M61? Fire control on modern missile systems? Obvious, the level of test and quality of engineering on these devices are held to a much higher standard than paintball toys.

    • The correlation I was trying to point out is that electronically controlled firing mechanisms have been around for many years. Years that provide us non-anecdotal evidence that they are prone to outright failure when they are needed. I understand that facts and evidence are usually discarded outright by the anti’s, and I doubt anybody has ever done statistics on paintball players who have had markers die on them, but having played for years I can tell you with utmost confidence that the results would be close to 100%. These are the sort of facts that we need to argue against smart gun mandates.

  11. I love the mechanical simplicity of my Tippman A5. With a response trigger, I can easily keep up with the firepower of any of the electronic markers that others may use.

    After playing paintball competitively in college, I’ve outgrown wanting the newest and best electronic marker. Now it’s just the A5 for me for the 1-2 times a year that I get out to play paintball.

  12. Going to play paintball this Sunday for my niece’s birthday. I use an electric Spyder as my main marker and a mechanical Tippmann A5 for my back up for all the reasons listed in the article. Plus I can go full auto with Spyder. Who can resist that?

  13. Paintball is a great team sport. I used a 2001 autococker decked out back in the day. Every so often youd get lucky in a scenario game and play with older guys that were in the military and they would give you a beating. Youd learn alot. Then youd go to the speedball field and those same military guys would get destroyed by 13 year olds. Learning all around for everyone. I dont play anymore but one thing that painball gave me is excellent situation awareness under stress. As a kid I learned to look everywhere when flooded with adrenaline. I didn’t know it at the time but what I was doing is what we see being taught today in firearm classes, to break tunnel vision.

  14. I think the NRA should not stand in the way of smart guns as a lobby. I think it can strenuously make everyone aware of their shortcomings. If NJ agrees to repeal the law (and if no one else takes it up), then fine, let the market decide. A $2000 .22LR pistol won’t be able to compete with a $200 9mm.

    Besides, the first time one of them malfs during a home invasion or mugging, Arm-meritrix will be up to its eyeballs in a lawsuit.

    • I was aware that the NRA objects to the any mandate requiring smart guns. But I would love to see a citation where they are actively halting advancement of technology research or units sold via lobbying or legislation.

  15. My experience with electronics is that either they burst into flames the first time they’re turned on, or they outlive there usefulness, (unless they are high end, then they die the week after the warranty expires).
    Electronics on guns? Scopes, lights, and lasers I can see. But anybody who has grabbed a flashlight when the power goes out only to find the batteries have died has to feel anxious about electronics controlling the trigger. Guns are supposed to make you feel safe, not anxious.

  16. I’d also add that if I want to make sure my paintball gun is functioning I can test it by firing it nearly anywhere without risking anyone’s safety or my going to jail.

    • Not only can you but you probably do test fire it a few times just moments before you plan to use it. One last minute check before it really counts or just to start the game timer built into the electronics.

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