Paintballs Weren’t Created for Sport
Paintball gear dates back to the 1960s, when the Nelson Paint Company created the first paintballs. These early paintballs were comprised of a gelatin shell with colored, oil-based paint inside. To fire the paintballs, they contracted out a series of custom CO2 pistols. Originally, paintballs were used for marking things from a distance. Loggers used paintballs to mark trees and cattlemen used them to mark livestock from afar. Because of this, paintball guns were (and sometimes still are) called paintball markers.
It Started with a Debate Between Friends
The first ever paintball game was the result of an ongoing debate between three friends: Bob Gurnsey (a sporting goods retailer), Hayes Noel (a stockbroker) and Charles Gaines (a writer). The three men were discussing survival in the woods. Specifically, they were debating whether a city dweller with street smarts or a seasoned outdoorsman would fare better in a battle in the woods. It was all theoretical until Gaines spotted Nelson’s paintball marking gun in an agricultural catalog. After firing one the paintball guns at Gaines to test the safety, the three men decided to test out their debate in real life using the paintball guns.
The First Game Was Played in New Hampshire
The first official game of paintball took place on June 7th, 1981 in New Hampshire. The game rules were written by Gurnsey. Four flag stations were scattered throughout a large wooded area. Each flag station contained four different colored flags – one for each player. The objective of the game was for each player to collect all four flags and arrive at a marked exit. The trio recruited friends and colleagues from a wide cross section of life in order to keep the spirit of their debate – there were roughly equal numbers of outdoorsmen and city folk in attendance. Each of the players was issued a Nel-Spot 007 paintball marker, goggles, camouflage, paintballs, CO2 cartridges, a compass, and a map. The results didn’t really resolve the debate, but they all agreed that they had a great time.
The Game Was Popularized in the 1980s
One of the participants, Bob Jones, was working as a writer for Sports Illustrated at the time. He published a story about their little competition in 1981. TIME and Sports Afield also covered the game, leading to an onslaught of letters and requests for more information from readers. Gaines, Noel, and Gurnsey realized that they had stumbled onto a business opportunity; they created the National Survival Game and even got Nelson Paint Company to license the paintball guns and ammo for non-agricultural purposes. In 1982, Gaines opened the first paintball field. As the game gained popularity, enthusiasts began modifying the weapons to include larger magazines and automatic firing, by but far the most important improvement was the switch from oil-based to water-based paint, which made clean-up much easier. Because other organizations besides the National Survival Game were also popping up, the burgeoning sport was given a more generic name that we still know it by today – paintball.
The Sport Endures Today
Today, paintball players collectively spend over $169 million a year on equipment. There is even a World Cup of paintball. While it is considered an extreme sport, paintball has one of the best safety records of any sport – just 0.2 injuries are reported per 1,000 participants. Paintball grew dramatically in popularity throughout the 1980s and 1990s. While the sport isn’t quite as popular as it was during its peak in the early 2000s, paintball is still a beloved activity and, for many, a way to prove their survival skills and tactical prowess while having fun with friends.