Have you ever wondered how paintball began?
What a moment that must have been, to be there on the day you invented what would become one of the fastest-growing, most addictive, adrenaline-fueled sports on the planet.
EUREKA! You might have shouted, before getting splatted in the face with insoluble, oil-based paint.
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In this article, we take a look at the history of paintball – where it comes from, who invented it, and where it might be going in the future.
Read on to discover all of this and more in our guide to the birth of our favorite pastime.
Paintball History in Short
For those of you in a rush to make their own history, here’s the answer in a nutshell:
The first paintball gun was invented sometime in the 1960s by the Nelson Paint Company.
As a sports paintball didn’t cross anyone’s mind until the late 70s, with the first competitive game taking place in 1981.
Today, paintball is enjoyed by millions of people in over 100 countries worldwide, and while its following might have taken a knock from time to time (pandemics, etc.), it always bounces back and is on the rise once more.
But there’s obviously much more to it than that, so don’t sell yourself short and find out exactly how paintball came into fruition.
It’s a truly fascinating story.
What Exactly is Paintball?
Paintball is a thrilling competitive combat sport, commonly played by two teams. Objectives vary depending on the type of game being played.
(And yes – it’s a sport – as we have clearly proved in this article right here.)
Each player is armed with a paintball gun or “marker,” which contains spherical capsules that are fired from the gun using Co2 or compressed air.
Paintballs burst on impact, “marking” the target, and that player is then eliminated from the game or spends time in a “deadbox” until respawning.
Games are played in both outdoor and indoor arenas. Woodsball is played (as you might expect) in the woods or other natural terrain, while speedball is more associated with indoor, and/or tournament play.
This guide to speedball vs woodsball will tell you more about the two main variations of paintball, while this article on airsoft game modes will give you an idea of the games you can also play with paint.
In order to discover the history of this adrenaline-fueled riot, we must first examine the origins of the paintball gun.
Paintball Gun and Ammo
The first paintball guns were the brainchild of the Nelson Paint Company, a market leader in the industry, based out of Kingsford, Michigan.
A third-generation business formed in 1940, NPC was headed by Evan Nelson and his brother, Charles, who first came up with the idea of marking paint capsules in the 1960s.
But it certainly wasn’t to be used for a sport and never designed to be fired at other humans.
On the contrary, Nelson, together with his wife, created marking paintballs for the agriculture and forestry sectors – so trees and cattle could be tagged and identified.
And while shooting at humans didn’t come until later, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle if a logger or cowpoke never tried it over the course of the next two decades.
Needing a way to fire the projectiles, Nelson partnered with airgun manufacturer Crosman, and together they developed the Crosman/Nelson 707 – which is regarded as the first paintball gun.
A spring-loaded gun, the 707 was a single-shot marker, requiring the air to be reset after each pull of the trigger. Commercially, it was a failure, so Nelson turned his attentions to improving his fledgling concept.
In 1974, he partnered with Daisy – another shooting sports company, and the improved Nel-Spot 007 paintball marker was born.
Faithfully, it was this gun that was soon to catch the eye of a feuding group of friends.
Meet the Game Inventors
As a sport, paintball didn’t start to take shape until the early 1980s when a bunch of mates got together to settle a bet.
Hayes Noel was a Wall Street stockbroker, and his buddy, Charles Gaines, was a writer, fly-fisherman, and bodybuilder.
Over some beers (isn’t that how everything starts?) in the late 70s, the two got into an argument about who is better suited for survival – the cunning city slicker, or the resourceful outdoorsman?
Which one would you choose?
This debate might have raged for decades if it weren’t for a friend of the pair spotting a paintball marker in an agricultural magazine. You’ve guessed it – the Nel-Spot 007.
An idea began to form.
The story goes that Noel and Gaines had a duel at 20-paces to see if the markers were safe to be fired at humans. I have to admit, I wouldn’t have volunteered to find out!
Perhaps foreshadowing the future result – Gaines won.
Together with their friend Bob Gurnsey – who owned a local retail ski shop, the three devised rules for a competitive combat game – to settle the bet once and for all.
The day that changed combat sports history arrived on the 27th June 1981, when Noel, Gaines, and Gurnsey were joined by nine pals in a 100 acre wood in Henniker, New Hampshire – more commonly used for cross-country skiing.
The group was a mix of farmers, filmmakers, retailers, writers, surgeons, investors, and contractors. Some with backgrounds in the country, others rooted in the city. Each had paid $175 to cover costs.
Armed with a Nel-Spot 007, and a map, players had to collect four flags spread throughout the arena without being shot.
Forester Richie White was the clear winner – without firing his gun once.
One of the players involved was writer Bob Jones, who went on to pen about his experiences, and the article was published in the October 1981 edition of Sports Illustrated.
You can imagine what happened next.
Just as US Navy recruitment was to spike by 500% after the release of Top Gun, thousands clamored to take part in this exciting new survival game. The magazine was inundated with requests on how to get involved.
Spying an opportunity, Gurnsey applied for a license from the Nelson Paint Company to use Nel-Spot 007 markers for non-agricultural purposes. That must have been an interesting phone call!
“We’d like to use your cow and tree guns to fire at humans, please!”
A license granted, Gurnsey went on to create an event called the “National Survival Game,” supplying players with a marker, goggles, rules, and ammo to anyone willing to hand over $150 for the privilege.
And in March 1982, paintball – in its rawest form – was born, with the opening of the first commercial paintball field in New Hampshire. Oh, to have been one of the first people through the door!
A short time later, Gurnsey opted to license his baby, so others could establish their own National Survival Game franchise.
Keen to get involved, the National Paint Company also spotted an opportunity and began manufacturing paintballs using water-soluble substances, rather than the staining oils they were used to.
The paintball industry had begun, which would develop rapidly over the next three decades, culminating in the world-famous paintball brands we know and love today.
And there’s a sign in a New Hampshire field commemorating that great day in June 1981, should you ever wish to visit paintball Mecca.
It wasn’t until the late 80s and early 90s that paintball truly found its heyday, and the sport enjoyed a boom phase during this time.
Possibly thanks to the influx of popular, gun-toting action movies released during these decades.
It wasn’t until 1984 that the term “paintball” was first used, and the considerably less catchy “National Survival Game” was consigned to the annals of history.
In 1985, the first paintball field in England was established. We’re aging ourselves now, but it was around this time that many Riflepal contributors began to get involved with the sport.
It rapidly became the go-to bachelor party event of choice for an entire generation – a trend that is still practiced to this day.
Mass-produced paintball guns soon followed, and one Dennis Tippmann got on board and invented a fully automatic paintball marker, with a modified Co2 gas tank borrowed from soda companies.
The Tippmann SMG-60 was capable of 600 rounds a minute, the world’s first select-fire marker, and a hugely popular 1987 paintball gun.
It cost around $340, which, adjusting for inflation, isn’t far off the price of high-end models today.
It was just the beginning for Tippmann, now recognized as one of the premium paintball marker manufacturers in the world. Spyder soon got in on the game, too, and provided some much-needed competition.
In Los Angeles, in January 1988, the International Paintball Player’s Association was formed, a body that was designed to promote the sport, bring players together, and encourage a media-positive view of paintball.
Unfortunately, the IPPA ceased to exist in 1996. However, there are many international leagues and associations that are still thriving to this day.
In 1989, an enterprising paintball field in California set up the first speedball arena, and a whole new chapter in paintball history was established.
Speedball has become the go-to paintball game mode for tournament and competitive play, and you should check out this article on the best speedball guns if that’s what you’re interested in.
A crucial moment in the development of paintball was to occur in 1995 when ESPN first broadcast the paintball world cup.
Sadly, paintball is much more fun to play than it is to watch, and the broadcast tanked. These days, you’re likely only to view matches posted by serious players on YouTube.
You can barely see a hockey puck when it’s shot, let alone a tiny paint pellet traveling at 300 FPS. Check out this archive footage of the 1996 World Championships to see what I mean.
Of course, like airsoft, paintball isn’t without its critics, and several psychologists at the time of its inception were quick to point out that this “morally obscene” sport was basically thrill-seeking the “killing” of another human being.
We shall refer to those people as “fun police,” and never darken these pages with their mention again.
Clothing and Gear
Unlike airsoft, where players strive for hyperrealism using guns, gear, and equipment as close as possible to military “real steel”, paintball is, shall we say, much looser.
Paintball clothing was originally developed from BMX/motocross jerseys, with speedball and tournament players, in particular, adopting the bright, striking designs, and oversized sleeves.
Camouflage in these games is all but useless, so players enjoy customizing their look to be as vibrant as possible.
And the loose-fitting clothing works two-fold – first, paintballs break easier on tight-fitting garments – so if they deflect on a loose sleeve, for example, it doesn’t count as a hit.
Second, the impact might not sting as much. Take a look at this article on airsoft vs paintball pain for some interesting, sciency-hurt stuff.
Padding and armor have also been added over time, like with these awesome paintball pants – many of which have knee protection built-in. Perfect for sliding and diving for cover.
Of course, Woodsball players don’t want to stick out as much and opt for more muted colors. But they’ll still choose lighter, looser clothing where possible.
Speaking of protection, one of the most important pieces of equipment in paintball is the mask – which is vital if you want to play the sport anywhere. Follow this link for some awesome paintball masks.
They’ve certainly come a long way since the players of that very first match simply wore shop goggles. Imagine getting hit with one of those early oil-based paintballs in the lips, though!
A Global Sport
Today, paintball is played in hundreds of countries worldwide, and enjoyed by millions of people. In the US alone, it is believed that over 10 million are involved in the sport in some way.
Many will be dedicated paintball enthusiasts, some professional players, and others who are simply out for an unforgettable birthday or bachelor party.
Paintball has pro leagues in the US, Canada, Central, and South America, Europe, Australia, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, making it a truly global sport.
And with the advent of bricks and mortar paintball retailers, the sport has turned into a billion-dollar industry. Which, depending on how you look at it, may or may not be a good thing.
There’s no doubting paintball’s popularity, but some believe – along with airsoft – that it’s a dying pastime.
Combat sports can be expensive – particularly for new players – and recent world events certainly haven’t helped their growth in any way.
But they always seem to bounce back – particularly paintball, which is far more popular than its older cousin airsoft.
Check out this article on paintball vs airsoft for more information.
Low-impact fields are becoming popular – particularly for young children and anyone who might be apprehensive about the pain factor. Something called ”Gellyball” is also attracting a new following.
But what of the future of paintball? Will we see it at the Olympics? Many of the sport’s ambassadors are certainly pushing for this, but there are several hoops to jump through first.
Not least creating a recognized body and universal, globally-accepted rules.
That, and the fact that paintball would involve countries shooting at each other kind of goes against the principles of the Olympic Charter in the first place…
Still, with technology improving all the time, the best paintball guns keep getting better. Take a look at the video below on the future of high-end paintball markers.
Either way, as long as there is blood in our collective veins here at Riflepal, we’ll be wearing our paintball masks, filling our hoppers, and unloading paint on the next poor, unfortunate soul in our sights.
We cordially invite you to do the same.
Paintball will properly never die out, as core enthusiasts (like us) live for it. However, it’s no secret that it can be challenging to get into, and its time in the sun might well have passed.
That’s why websites like Riflepal exist – in order for this awesome pastime to continue, to promote paintball in all its forms, and to encourage new players to come to the table.
If you’re looking to get involved (and you should) check out this article on paintball tips for beginners – packed with useful advice for the noobs (and even for the vets, too)!
And go here for budget-friendly paintball guns, if you’re concerned about start-up costs. You can do almost anything without breaking the bank if you put your mind to it!
Here’s a guide for looking after your paintball gear, with the best advice on gun maintenance.
Seriously, take the plunge and give it a go. We promise you’ll have the time of your life!
The history of paintball is a fascinating – and highly entertaining one.
I hope you’ve enjoyed our trip down memory lane, and you’ve learned something interesting to impress your mates down the pub.
Let me know if we’ve missed anything off in the comments, or if you want to share your old war stories with the community.
Stay safe out there, and happy paintballing!