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.
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.
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.