views updated May 29 2018



Paintball is a game developed in the 1980s that soon became popular worldwide. Players shoot pellets of paint from airguns at opposing players in a strategic game similar to the children's classic Capture the Flag. A trademarked version of paintball, called the Survival Game, is the standard version, though the game is played with many variations. Most games are played outdoors in special paintball fields. The owners of the field typically rent all the equipment necessary, and charge players a fee for use of the area. The basic equipment for the game includes a specially designed airgun, paintballs, carbon dioxide cartridges to expel the paintball, and safety goggles. Most people play paintball in teams. In officially sanctioned events, team size is 15 players, but nonofficial games often attract much larger teams, of 40-50 players, or even more. Paintball has been used as a way to build team spirit, and so it is popular with business groups hoping to increase corporate communication. Though people of all ages and genders can play, paintball's main enthusiasts are adolescent boys. The paintball industry brought in an estimated $700 million in 1999, and as the number of teenagers is expected to increase over the next decade, overall sales are expected to hit the $1 billion mark within a few years. As paintball went from a faddish extreme sport to a more mainstream pastime in the 1990s, paintball equipment moved from specialty stores into large retailers such as Kmart. In the United States, there are a number of magazines devoted to paintball, and many players gather information about the sport from prominent websites.


The game of paintball was first played in 1981. It was invented by Charles Gaines, the author of the bodybuilding classic Pumping Iron; Hayes Noel, a New York stockbroker; and a ski shop owner named Robert Gumsey. Gurnsey, Noel, and Gaines were old friends who had often discussed ways of testing survival in a combat or outdoor situation. They got the idea for the game after seeing an advertisement for a paint gun used to blast paint pellets at steers for marking purposes. This paint gun was developed much earlier by Charles Nelson, of the Michigan-based Nelson Paint Company.

Charles Nelson founded his paint company with his brother Evan in the 1930s. He was an eager entrepreneur, always looking for new ways to use or market paint. In the 1950s, Nelson developed a paint marker for the Forestry Service. The Forestry Service was a major consumer of paint that was used to mark trees for cutting or clearing. The Forestry worker's lot was often hard, as he had to lug a five-gal (19 L) bucket of paint through dense woods, sometimes wading through streams or scrambling up steep banks. Nelson devised a simple paint squirter that allowed forestry workers to mark their trees from a more comfortable distance. Apparently, sales were not what Nelson hoped. But he thought of another market for the device, cattle herders. Cattle needed to be marked often, to distinguish which animals were to be sold, for example, or which to be separated for inoculation or artificial insemination. Traditionally, cowboys rode up close to the animals and marked them with chalk. Nelson modified his first paint gun for the cattle industry. Instead of a squirter, which produced a wide splat of paint, he developed paint-filled pellets that could be shot out of an air gun. The pellets would break on impact, leaving a paint mark. Nelson made wax prototypes of the pellets, and eventually had them manufactured by a Michigan pharmaceutical company, R. P. Scherer. He advertised his "Nel-Spot Pellet Pistol" in farming and ranching magazines, boasting that the gun was fast, safe, and economical. It could hit the animal accurately from about 75 ft (23 m) away, and was useful not only for cattle ranchers but for wildlife game managers and animal census takers.

At some point, Gaines, Noel, and Gurnsey saw an advertisement for Nelson's paint markers, and decided to organize a survival game using them. They rounded up nine friends and played a capture-the-flag-type game on 100 acres (40 hectares) of New Hampshire woods in June of 1981. The three originators soon formed a corporation, the National Survival Game, Inc., and popularized the sport. It received tremendous media attention early in the 1980s, and grew in epidemic proportions through the decade. By 1989, an estimated 75,000 people were playing paintball every weekend in the United States, with many more enthusiasts playing in Canada, Europe, Australia, and beyond. Specialized playing fields and stores for the equipment sprang up across the country, with Southern California alone boasting more than 50 playing fields. Different versions of the game developed, including "Civil War," where players faced each other across a field and loaded their pellets one at a time, in the style of weapons used during the Civil War. The companies that arranged therapeutic paintball sessions for their executives included many bastions of corporate America, such as Rockwell International and Sears. Though paintball used guns, backers emphasized that it was played for fun, and was not a war game or combat training. Even church groups went on paintball excursions by the early 1990s. By the end of the 1990s, paintball had grown to a multimillion dollar international industry. The use of paintballs spread beyond the game, and by the late 1990s, media reports surfaced of paintball big game hunts, such as the opportunity afforded to tourists to fire paint at an elephant. Paintball weapons also advanced in sophistication, resulting in controversy over the use of potentially harmful heavy automatic fire from machine-gun like paintball instruments.

Most paintballs were manufactured by pharmaceutical companies that already used the encapsulating equipment for the pellets in other items, such as vitamins and bath beads. These companies were making over three billion paintballs a year by the end of 1999. As the sport and the industry grew, many specialized manufacturers of paint pellets and other equipment sprang up, and these merged and consolidated in the 1990s. Industry leaders included the Brass Eagle Company and ZAP Paintballs, Inc.

Raw Materials

The paint used for paintballs is soluble in water, so that it washes easily out of players' clothes. It is nontoxic, as well, in case a player is hit in the mouth and accidentally swallows the paint. The basic materials for the paint are mineral oils, food coloring, calcium, ethylene glycol, and iodine. The paint is encapsulated in a bubble made from gelatin. This is the same material used in encapsulated medicines, such as many pain killers and cold treatments, and in liquid vitamins, such as vitamin E.

The Manufacturing Process

Making the paint

  • 1 The paint for paintballs is a specialized product because it is both water-soluble and biodegradable, and has been developed for optimum characteristics in the encapsulating process. Typically, the paint is made at a specialty paint facility, then shipped to the encapsulating plant. A very large manufacturer may combine the two operations.


  • 2 Encapsulating the paint is done with specialized equipment. When the game of paintball was first getting started, manufacturing was done at pharmaceutical companies, which already had the equipment in place. As the industry evolved, paintball manufacturers furnished their own factories. The large machines cost millions of dollars. At a large facility, making paintballs is done as a continuous process, with the machines active seven days a week, 24 hours a day. Several hundred workers staff the factory. Most are required to wear specialized clothing and footwear, as well as caps to cover their hair, in order to ensure a clean and relatively dustless work area. To make the capsules, workers load two wide strips of softened gelatin into the encapsulating machine. The strips move through two counter-rotating drums. These drums are lined with pockets or dimples that form the paintball casing. As the gelatin is pushed into the dimple, the machine automatically injects a precisely measured amount of paint into the cavity. It also automatically seals the two strips together, encapsulating the paint.

Tumbling and drying

  • 3 The gelatin is soft and warm at this point. The balls must be cooled and hardened in a tumbling machine. This machine gently shakes the paintballs around. The rotating action of the tumbler spins the paintballs, so as they dry, they end up uniformly round.


  • 4 Next, workers empty the tumblers and place the paintballs on shelves. The shelves are stacked on wheeled racks, and the paintballs are left to air dry. The amount of time the balls dry varies from factory to factory, and this, along with the exact formula of the gelatin, time in the tumbler, and many other aspects of paintball manufacturing, is regarded as a trade secret.

Inspection and packaging

  • 5 When the balls are thoroughly dried, they are ready for packaging. Workers move the balls to the packaging area. They visually inspect them for an obvious flaws. A more rigorous quality check is performed on some of the batch. Workers load the balls into hoppers, and a machine automatically packages them by weight. Paintballs are sold by the case, which is supposed to hold 2,500 balls. But because the machine makes up the case by weight, the actual number in the case usually varies from approximately 2,490-2,510 balls.

Quality Control

A large paintball facility makes paintballs in a continuous process, but the process is still broken up into numbered lots, so that the manufacturers can perform an exact quality control process. A certain percentage of each lot is set aside for inspection and testing. After drying, a worker performs a visual check to find any obvious abnormalities. Then the balls are tested further. Workers place them in testing machines that measure the balls' weight and diameter. A drop test is done to test for brittleness. A properly manufactured paintball should burst on impact, but not sooner, so this is a very important step. After the paintballs have passed all these tests, some are taken to a target range and shot out of paintball guns as a final all-around field test.


Because paintballs are, for the most part, used outside in open areas, they are specifically manufactured to be biodegradable. Both the paint and the gelatin dissolve in water, so the waste from spent paintballs washes way in the rain.

Where to Learn More


Barnes, Bill. The Survival Game. New Haven, CT: Mustang Publishing, 1989.


Bark, Kathleen Dombhart. "Paintball: Tactics Help Build Business Teamwork." Memphis Business Journal (May 18,1992).

"Paintball Business Honors Charles J. Nelson for His Contributions to the Paintball Industry." Paintball Business (Winter 1999).