The History of Paintball

Who exactly came up with the idea of using high-powered gas guns to fling balls of colored liquid at other people? It turns out that the story of paintball is not only interesting, but quite a winding one. The technologies that underpin modern paintball were not, in fact, meant for fun and games at all.

The Invention of the Paintball

Without paintballs, you can’t have paintball! I’ve actually written a separate article on the nature of paintballs themselves so if you want to know more about how they work, feel free to read that. As to the early days of paintball technology, it was the Nelson Paint Company that generally gets the credit for inventing the gelatin-sphere ball filled with paint. This happened in the 1960s and not for the reason you might think. Early paintballs were filled with a viscous, oil-based paint – not the sort of thing that would just wash out with water. But that was sort of the point. You see, the idea was that loggers, ranchers, and other outdoors-type folk could use these newfangled paintballs to mark things like trees and (probably very surprised) livestock. The first paintball prototype was actually a horse pill injected with paint!

Now Nelson had their paintballs, but didn’t have any way of firing them. So the company actually approached more experienced organizations to help design and build the first paintball markers. Initially this contract was given to a company known as Crosman, a company that specializes in air guns and is still around today. In fact, they make a respectable range of Airsoft guns. The relationship with Crosman didn’t last however, and the task of making the first paintball markers fell to the Daisy company, which is well known for its BB guns. This origin story is of particular interest to me, because it shows that paintball and Airsoft both share quite a bit of their DNA with each other.

Vintage Paintball Marker

The First Paintball Marker

The first marker ever was the Crosman 707. However, Crosman did not manage to sell enough of them to make it worth their while financially. Remember, paintball as a game did not yet exist, so the market for the product was quite limited. Shrugging off the failed deal with Crosman, Nelson approached Daisy to co-develop the Daisy Splotch Maker.

In its marker form, it was branded as the Nel-spot 007. As with all first-generation paintball markers, this was a pump-action marker that had to be primed after every shot – no auto or even semi-auto here. After 12 shots (if the air cartridge lasted) you’d have to reload. This doesn’t sound like the ideal tool for playing paintball but, really, that is not what it was designed for. Still, this was the only paintball marker you could buy at the time, so there was literally nothing else on which to found the game of paintball.

The First Paintball Game

There are three names that every story of paintball’s history needs to include: Hayes Noel, Bob Gurnsey, and Charles Gaines. These friends had been playing with the question of woodlands survival – if humans hunted each other through the woods, who would survive? In June of 1981 they finally managed to pull a game together. The first ever, it took place in Sutton, New Hampshire.

This first paintball game was, of course, a woodsball game; specifically, a capture the flag match. It didn’t work quite how you might imagine, though. There were four flag stations; each held a flag for one of the twelve players. Spread out over 125 acres and with just 12 players, this was an epic game. The first person ever to be eliminated in a paintball game was Ken Barret, shot by Jerome Gray. The first losers and winners of paintball!

Paintball Gets Mainstream Attention

OK, so that’s how the actual game was invented, but why did anyone care what a few crazy friends got up to in a forest out in the middle of nowhere? The pivotal point came in 1981 when a journalist named Bob Jones wrote an article about that first match for Sports Illustrated. More articles started showing up in magazines such as Time. People reading about the game started sending inquiries, trying to find out how they too could play. The concept of paintball seemed to have quite a lot of appeal.

Following this rise in demand, Bob Gurnsey opened the first paintball field in 1982, clinching an exclusive deal with Nelson paint to sell their products in the process. By 1983 the first national championship was held under the “National Survival Game” brand, with the Canadian “Unknown Rebels” taking the first ever win.

Paintball Arms Race

Remember that at this point all paintball markers were slow to fire and had low capacities, but it didn’t take long for people to start modifying them in ways that made them shoot faster, further, and more accurately. By the mid-80s markers had bigger magazines, pump-handles, and longer barrels. Predictably, players of what we now call classic paintball thought that these changes were going to ruin the game.

pump handle

Modern Paintball is Born

In the late 80s paintball as we know it today started to show its face. This was when Dennis Tippmann took the technology from the family industrial sewing business and opened Tippmann Pneumatics. Before this, Tippmann had a business which made half-scale machine gun replicas. Thanks to legal changes, this became illegal, but paintball offered the perfect segue. Tippmann produced the first full-auto paintball marker – the SMG-60. This was quite literally a game-changer. Tippmann also invented the modern CO2 gas tank we all know, by modifying technology from the soda industry.

In 1990 we got the Tippmann 68 Special, the first ever paintball marker that used a gravity-fed hopper rather than a clip. Now all the pieces had fallen into place for the fast-paced mayhem we all know and love today.

What’s Normal for the Spider is Chaos to the Fly

While Tippmann invented all the most important technologies, their early markers were still pretty clunky. The first Spyder from Kingman changed that in a big, or perhaps small, way. An aluminum semi-auto marker that was easy to fix, cheap to own, and performed incredibly, it leveled the playing field dominated by those using classic pump-action markers and wielding expensive automatic markers. Now the less well-heeled players could fight back with a vengeance.

Paintball is now popular and exciting enough that the 1995 World Cup is broadcast on ESPN. However, the game doesn’t really draw a large viewership, which means that sponsor interest was limited.

Electric Boogaloo

The latter half of the 90s brought major innovations, especially electronic guns like the Angel, which ruled the tournament scene up to the early 2000s.

Rise and Fall and Rise Again?

From then until now paintball grew into what seemed like the next big thing in “extreme” sports. However, economic downturns and various other factors conspired to reduce interest in the game. While there are still plenty of people playing the game for fun these days, the professional scene is much diminished.

With the rise of YouTube and much easier ways to bring niche audiences together, paintball may be poised for a comeback. Even if it never goes pro again, we’ll still be here stalking the woods and running like madmen across the speedball field.