Unpacking the History of Paintball
The history of paintball is a strange one. While we get a lot of questions about paintball like how to get started or what type of gear is the best, we’re going to take paintball back to its roots.
Fifty long years ago, the Nelson Paint Company invented the very first paintball gun. However, it wasn’t used to fire at friends or dominate a game of capture the flag, but rather to mark trees or cattle. Loggers and farmers used these original paintball markers for work, but it didn’t take long for sporting goods retailers to see a much more exciting future for paintball.
We’re going to be unpacking the incredible history of paintball. From its humble beginnings to modern-day competition, let’s explore the history together.
A Fateful Day in the Woods
It all began with a debate between Bob Gurnsey and Hayes Noel. Gurnsey was a sporting goods retailer and Noel was a fairly successful stockbroker. While they were hanging out, a friendly argument arose over this very question:
“Could a city dweller with street smarts beat out country folk in the woods?”
For years and years, this debate continued until one day, a friend of the famed duo came across Nelson’s paintball marking gun in an agricultural magazine. From here, the real history begins.
The Very First Game
Surely, two bored individuals fired the Nelson’s Paintball Marker at each other and had a blast. However, the first official “game” of paintball took place in June of 1981. Out in a wooded area of New Hampshire, Gurnsey was busy writing the very first unofficial rules of the paintball match — and they were quite simple.
- Four flag stations were strategically placed through a 125-acre plot of land.
- Each station had designated colored flags (one for each player).
- Players would attempt to grab their flag from each flag station
- If you’re shot, you’re out
There were 12 total players for this flag paintball mayhem, each with their own strategy and tactics. Some players hailed from the great outdoors as foresters or farmers, while others were filmmakers, surgeons, writers, and investors. Some relied on speed, and others used stealth. Years of debating who would win out in the woods came down to this fateful game.
Ritchie White, a forester, ended up as the winner of the very first paintball game. What would follow, no one could have predicted.
The National Survival Game
Whether it was pure luck or destiny, a few of the first 12 players were writers. One of which went by the name Bob Jones. Jones had a blast and wrote an article about their newfound game. It was published in Sports Illustrated in October of 1981.
Gurnsey, one of the original founders, began selling what he so elegantly dubbed the “Survival Game” package. Think of it as the very first paintball bundle. For $150, players would get:
- Paintball marker
- A rule book
Whether Gurnsey knew it or not, he had come across an IRL version of the explosive Battle Royale scene that we see in video games today. It wasn’t yet called paintball, but rather the National Survival Game. Gurnsey went on to open the first commercial paintball field, partner with Nelson Paint, and his brand of the National Survival Game became franchised and played all over the U.S.
Player count was booming, and the industry was growing. Two players, Jeff Perlmutter and Dave Freeman saw incredible potential in the game and wanted to work out a business deal with the National Survival Game. However, the deal never went through, and they ended up forming their own enterprise called Pursuit Marketing Incorporated and partnered with Benjamin Sheridan to create their own paintball marker.
A Bumpy Transition
The National Survival Game dominated the ’80s and hosted tournaments, competitions, and casual games for players around the country. During this time, the official nomenclature of “paintball” was born, as the game made its way across the pond to England in 1985.
Paintball was becoming more competitive — leading to a need for faster, smaller, and action-packed games. The International Paintball Players Association (IPPA) was formed in the late 1980s with a few missions in mind.
- To grow the sport
- Ensure the safety of players
- Create standards for paintball markers (300 fps limit)
- Host tournaments and games
- Have fun
With all that said, there were certainly folks that opposed the game. Certain states, like New Jersey, required players to have firearms permit to purchase a paintball marker. Even if you did go through the legal loops to obtain a paintball gun, shooting it at another person could leave you in legal trouble.
Parents and lawmakers alike weren’t always thrilled about children shooting high-velocity projectiles at each other — but that didn’t stop the coming momentum.
The Birth of SpeedBall
While woodsball and other larger-scale fields were commonplace, it wasn’t until 1989 that SpeedBall emerged. Sat Cong Village (known today as SC Village) opened a new concept field called “SpeedBall.” Using pallets, painted tires, wood structures, and other homemade bunkers — they created a new spectator sport where players could show off their skills.
Concept fields like this one would become commonplace in nearly every field in the country. Also known as hyperball, these tributes to SpeedBall would eventually grow into the inflatable airball maps we see today in top-tier competitions.
The Golden Age
As the late ’80s and early ’90s rolled around, the game exploded. Technology improved and household names like Tippmann, JT USA, and Spyder came into the marketplace. Biodegradable, non-toxic, and water-soluble paintballs were created — reducing the environmental toll and making mothers worldwide thankful that they wouldn’t have to spend hours getting stains out of their child’s clothes.
This was known as the “Golden Age.” Certainly, there are far more options today than there were in the nineties. However, there was something magical about old-school paintball, its ingenuity and simplicity.
The very first paintball CO2 tank, for instance, was re-engineered from the soda industry. The very best Tippmann markers were created because the founder loved making half-scale collectible replicas of machine guns. The self-cocking marker came about because its founder kept aggravating a pre-existing injury from pumping his basic paintball gun.
It was truly an era of creative solutions that bettered an already incredibly fun game.
The Rise and Fall of the Patent Wars
As technologies improved, paintball markers became more intuitive, and major networks like ESPN broadcasted paintball tournaments like the World Cup in 1995 — it didn’t take long for the competition to leave the field.
In the late nineties and early 2000s, paintball products were showing up on shelves in major retailers like Walmart, which was both a pro and a con. While it helped grow the game, it also subjected players to cheap and unreliable products — and unfortunately, the rise of vandalism and misuse of paintball markers.
Amidst all of this chaos, competitions and innovative products just kept coming. Eventually, in 2003 — the patent wars began.
Smart Parts was given a patent for paintball markers that utilized electro-pneumatic valve systems for their bolt assembly. This patent was the springboard for several lawsuits that killed many smaller companies — and left many players with a bad taste in their mouth for Smart Parts.
As legal battles raged on, Who Dares Plays (WDP), creator of the beloved Angel paintball gun, prepared to fight Smart Parts in court. Refusing to pay fines and royalties, WDP eventually won out and was granted joint ownership of the patent.
As the “patent wars” ceased, the game continued to shapeshift to fit the market. Large-scale TV events weren’t doing the game any favors, so companies and manufacturers focused on tournaments and team sponsorships.
All the while, fields and arenas continued to pop up all around the country — reaching modern-day paintball madness.
While competitions are still a major player in the overall game of paintball, it’s all about fun. Recreational games, family outings, and events like bachelor parties or work retreats breathe new life into the game each and every day.
Paintball equipment and technologies continue to improve, creating more streamlined systems for play and safety. While the Golden Age of paintball is behind us, there’s no telling where this incredible game could go in the future. We’re just excited to be a part of it.