The official histories claim that paintball initially appeared in 1981, however, it is much more likely that the sport actually got its start when the Nelspot 007 hit the market in 1972. The usage of the gun as an official piece of sporting equipment wouldn’t happen for another four or five years, but we can all agree on this: give a typical American lad something to hold in his hand that fires projectiles, and within the first 30 seconds, targets will be sought.

It took four or five years for the first paintball gun to be recognized as sporting equipment, and another four or so years for the initial organized game utilizing that device to take place (1981 in Henniker, NH). The progress of paintball gear has been relatively gradual throughout its early history.

Paintball Gear History Outline

1981

One marker – the Crossman Nelspot 007 (distributed by the Nelson Paint Company).  One paintball – the original Nelsplat marking round – oil based fill (and much heavier than ASTM rules now allow).  One power source – the 12 gram CO2 cartridge (made by several different companies).  One mask – the standard shop class goggle.  One uniform – whatever you happened to want to wear.

Entirely absent at this time – loaders, pods, pumps, fans, chronographs, padded gloves, squeegees, butt packs, harnesses, barrels, made-for-paintball pads, facemasks.  Actually, everything was absent except for the gun, the oil-based balls, the 12-gram and the shop goggles.

Paintball Gear History: Nelspot 007
Crossman Nelspot 007

1982

The game was still not a formal enterprise; the Godfathers of paintball – Gaines, Gurnsey and Noel – were still putting their National Survival Game franchise operation together and formal places to play were just beginning to appear (few among them still remain – Survival New York (now Paintball Sports NY) and Three Rivers Paintball are stand-out examples);  paint was still oil-based and being supplied in screw-top aluminum tubes, the guns were still Nelspot 007s and the facemasks were still goggles. 

However, the nascent technological revolution was upon us:  Jeff Perlmutter and Dave Freeman (of Pursuit Marketing International) were trying to offer an alternative to the NSG franchise and the Benjamin Sheridan Corporation was in the process of modifying one of their BB guns, NSG themselves were putting the finishing touches on the first made-just-for-paintball marker – the Splatmaster, and well-behind the scenes, work was beginning on a water-based paintball.

Paintball Gear History: Gaines, Gurnsey and Noel
Gaines, Gurnsey and Noel

1983

PMI introduces the PGP, NSG lays the groundwork for the Splatmaster, and the water based paintball and ten round plastic cigar tubes begin appearing. The PGP, made exclusively for PMI by the Benjamin-Sheridan company had no pump and a side-mounted 9 round magazine tube.

At this time, paintball was known to very few people, played by even less and the number of manufacturers serving the sport were few and far between.  There was plenty of room for improvement all the way around.  The kind of people who were likely to play a new sport like paintball are also the kind of people who take matters into their own hands and invent what they need if they can’t buy it already made.

All kinds of home-brewed technical improvements and innovations were being introduced at this time, making it virtually impossible to credit the “originator” of this or that or the other thing, but it is during late 1983 and early 1984 that the ground work for many new products is laid: pumps and pump handles, speed-feeds, ball gates and gravity feeds, sights, constant air, packs (originally Army ALICE gear and M16 magazine or canteen pouches), stocks, barrel cleaning devices, extended barrels, ball spinning devices (sand paper) ball breaking devices (razor blades in the barrel), auto-triggers, velocity adjustments and many, many other ideas and concepts that would eventually become regular products or would be lost forever in the mists of time.

PMI PGP
PMI PGP
Splatmaster
NSG’s Splatmaster

1984

Major changes during this time saw the introduction of the first paintball gun made just for the game.  NSG’s Splatmaster was a composite plastic, tilt-feed pistol that incorporated advanced features (magazine in the gun, 12-gram chamber in the grip).  Meanwhile pumps as standard feature had been added to both the Nelspot 007 and the Sheridan PGP (both guns had previously been hand-cocked and many old-time players still have the calluses and scars to prove it!); the regular use of  home-made gravity feeds and/or one-way ball gates and the creation of Constant Air – a large volume tank connected to the gun’s valve with a pressure line.  Gramps & Grizzly (which would become an early manufacturer and supplier of paintball gear) and Budd Orr are both credited with the introduction of this concept;  most likely both arrived at their products independently, with the G&G configuration eventually becoming the standard.

Prior to the introduction of pin valves (by Tippmann later on this year), all CA systems were “California style,” requiring an adapter for the tank and a separate on/off valve.  It would be a year or so before “back bottle adapters” (donkeys, now referred to as the ASA) would be introduced.  Among the first to offer them was McMurray & Sons, but they would soon be adopted by PMI and other gun manufacturers.

Someone else (at least a year previously) had discovered that the sear on the Nelspot 007 could be over-ridden if the trigger was held back, leading to the practice of ‘auto-triggering’ (firing as fast as you could pump);  PGPs did not have this advantage, but several folks worked out how to create one as an aftermarket upgrade and by the following season (1985) PMI was offering an upgrade kit.

This is also the year in which several airgun companies began modifying and improving the existing markers and offered “custom” paintball guns to the public.  Perhaps the best known of these was a company called McMurray & Sons.  In late 1984 they introduced the Annihilator – a long barrel, custom valved PGP.

The previous year, NSG had held their first national (International) tournament (won by a Canadian team, the Unknown Rebels).  This first tournament series offered more than twenty thousand cash in prizes and was a qualifying series: in order to be invited to compete, you had to have won a regional NSG championship during the season.

Also at about this time shop goggles were replaced first by Uvex goggles and later by Oakley goggles.  Both companies would eventually pull their products from paintball due to a large number of liability insurance claims (most injuries caused by players removing their goggles, not by failure of the goggles themselves).


1985

The explosion of just about everything paintball.  New companies were entering the market, the clamor for new gear was finally being met:  Tom Kaye of AirGun Designs manufactures the first paintball mask for PMI (known as the PMI or ‘Goalie’ mask; the Woodstalk mask – a smaller product, would also be introduced at about the same time).  Paintball masks were developed as stand-alone products, designed to fit under the various styles of goggles that were being used at the time.

The UZI Mark-4 paintball marker is introduced to fields, combining innovative features (internal magazine, external velocity adjustment) and a not-so-well received design.  Brass Eagle begins manufacturing guns for the Canadian market (the Ninja 68, Ninja Nightmare and more);  Gramps & Grizzly begin modifying and upgrading everything under the sun; The Puma paintball marker makes a brief appearance on the scene.  Cooper-T begins manufacturing aftermarket accessories for Benjamin Sheridan paintball guns.

Distributors, both big and small, (TAG – The Adventure Game, National Paintball Supply of South Carolina, AGS and TASO of California among them) begin to try and grab market share, introducing their own lines of basic gear.

UZI Mark-4
UZI Mark-4. Photo: Stock Class Paintball
Tippman SMG-60
Tippmann SMG-60. Photo: VintageRex

1986

JT Racing, a motocross supplies manufacturing company, adapts one of their riding masks for paintball and introduces the JT Whippersnapper – the first combination goggle-facemask system.  “Old Pros” quickly modify the mask by cutting off the lower portion (a modification that would later be adopted by JT as the half-mask).

While others are busily modifying their basic guns, Dennis Tippmann draws on pneumatic and firearms experience and introduces the SMG-60, a full-auto, clip-fed, cast aluminum machine gun. (Later, other versions of the gun would be introduced, including semi-auto, select-fire and 68 caliber.)

Tournaments were becoming more of a regular thing and the new caliber, full-auto, the constant air tank, auto-triggers and barrels longer than 10 inches from breech to muzzle were banned.

At about the same time, Tippmann Pneumatics also introduces a pin-valve version of the constant air tank (supporting the SMG-60 with a quick-change capability) and helping to eliminate bulky hoses, fittings and on/off valves.

Also being introduced at about this time were a slew of Nelson-based “custom” paintball guns. Companies like Adventure Game Supplies offered after-market upgrade kits (wrap-around pump, longer barrel & receiver, etc) and eventually started packaging their own guns under their own brand names.  Other companies, such as Aerostar, Rebel Manufacturing and National Gun Sports followed suit.

1987

Gun manufacturing and competition goes into full bore mode.  Various improvements to the Nelson-based systems are continuously introduced by both existing companies and new start-ups.  Many regular players find themselves purchasing a new gun every couple of months.  Four notable innovators enter the seen – Line SI, Palmers Pursuit Shop, Worr Games Products and Para-Ordnance.

Line SI introduces the Bushmaster, which is heavily promoted to tournament players and soon becomes ubiquitous (few realize that most tournament players quickly replace the internals of the gun with custom product from other manufacturers). The Bushmaster claims to solve the “pinching” problem by offering a ‘ramp’ from the breech into the barrel.  Regular use by one of the game’s winningest teams – Navarone – convinces most players of the gun’s superiority.

Glenn Palmer takes the opposite path and introduces the Paladin, based on Benjamin Sheridan/PMI  gun technology, bringing air efficiency and smooth operation to this style of marker.  Budd Orr introduces the Sniper, with looks unlike any other marker and a hybrid technology, somewhat merging the mechanical operation of  Nelson and Benjamin Sheridan systems.  Para-Ordnance enters from way out in left field, offering as MAC-10 style full-auto pistol that actually uses pistol primer caps (blank shells) fitted with a paintball.  Velocity of the Model 85 cannot be reduced below about 450 fps and use of the Model 85 is quickly banned.

At about this time, JT Racing, Ultimate Sport, AGS and many other companies begin to introduce harnesses – bandoleer, belt and wrist-style carrying devices for holding ten round tubes and 12-gram cartridges.

1987 also saw the introduction of the first independent or OPEN class of national tournament.  The Air Pistol Open is held at Survival New York (formerly an NSG franchise field, interestingly enough) and an alternative to the closed, regional qualifying NSG system is offered.  The Air Pistol Open also introduced the first simplified scoring system (which would pave the way for systems in use today).

Line SI Bushmaster
Paintball Magazine 1988
Paintball Magazine 1988

1988

’88 can be re-named the Year of the Loader, as the groundwork would be laid this year for magazine systems that did not rely on a stick feed; various and sundry players had been modifying all kinds of containers up to this point – oil cans, soda bottles, etc. CMS would introduce the ViewLoader, Smart Parts would begin experimenting with the Whaler (with Magic Fishlips) and B-Square would introduce the fliploader, among others.

Sometime during the past couple of years JT Racing would introduce several new styles of mask in addition to their Whipper Snapper; Paintball Mania Supplies would introduce the PMS Mask (monkey mask), even though the majority of players would still be wearing Uvex goggles and PMI or Woodstalks.

It was also around this same time that chronographing – testing the velocity of guns – would start to become commonplace.  Most fields used the Chrony – originally developed for other shooting sports.

1988 was also the year in which the International Paintball Players Association would be formed in California, the industry’s first player-based organization.

1989

1989 saw the expansion of tournament series all across the country (and internationally) and rules-writers were forced to keep pace.  This was also the last year of predominantly 15 player teams;  once tournaments entered the next decade, teams would steadily reduce in size.

Loader technology also continued to move forward with the introduction of Performance Paintball’s AmmoCan – the first disposable carrying system (followed about a year later by a similar product form PMI) and plastic flip-top lids (notable among them – the Guppy from Smart Parts).

Harnesses also kept pace with various belt and pouch systems being introduced by all and sundry – notable among them were Idema Combat System’s Ultimate Warrior vest, Unique Sports belt pack and various less expensive options from companies such as The Ultimate Sport.

The CCI Phantom would be introduced this year, along with the Carter Comp from Carter Machine, the Gray Ghost from the LA Paintgun Company, the NW Comp from NW Sales and the Sniper II from WGP.

AirGun Designs introduced the Six-Pack+, a 12-gram magazine and shoulder stock system, giving players who preferred 12-grams equality with those using constant air; it also broke the back of the prohibition of CA in tournament play, as there was now effectively no difference.  (It also helped that field owners were getting tired of cleaning the spent 12-grams off their fields.)

Finally, 1989 was the also the Year of Vapour Gear, as players were treated to a long running and wide-spread advertising campaign for the Destroyer – a drum-fed, select fire Tommy gun style marker, supposedly manufactured by Elite Enterprises.  The gun was real – in prototype – but financing failed and it never went into production.  It would not be the last ‘does everything including the laundry’ paintball gun that would never be shipped.

An early advertisement of the Phantom Revolution.
An early advertisement of the Phantom Revolution.
AirGun Designs 68Automag
AirGun Designs 68Automag

1990

1990 is the year of the semi-auto.  Work had been progressing apace for some time (Line SI was the first to introduce a quasi-semi-auto with the Advantage, a double action based system, but this would prove to be too little too late).  Almost simultaneously, AirGun Designs introduced the 68Automag, Palmer’s Pursuit Shop introduced the Hurricane, Worr Games Products the Autococker, FAST the F1 Illustrator, PMI the PMI-III/VM-68 and Brass Eagle the Poison and a host of other, related models (such as the Golden Eagle).

1991

In 1991, the focus again returned to masks and loaders, with the introduction of the Vents Predator system, seemingly coming out-of-nowhere, Vents offered the widest range of vision, the largest area of protection (including the first integrated neck protector) and a passive airflow system that very effectively prevented fogging, Z-Leader would enter the market (originally distributed through Idema Combat Systems).  Dave Bell of CMS was busily adding motors and paddles to his popular VL-200 and a variety of other systems, such as the Helix loader, would briefly be marketed.

1992

1992 is the year of High Pressure Air.  Tom Kaye of AirGun Designs introduces the first HPA/nitrogen system at the PaintCheck Five-Man Tournament in Pennsylvania.  It would quickly be copied, modified, accessorized and improved by a host of companies including Paintball Mania Supplies (NitroDuck) and Air America. 1992 was the year that also gave birth to the national tournament league concept, beginning with a meeting amongst professional teams and promoters in November of that year.

1993-1997

From 1993 to 1996/97, several milestones would be met, notable among them would be: the introduction of the first under $200 semi-automatic paintball gun (both the Brass Eagle Stingray and the Kingman Spyder Comp), the creation of the first publicly traded paintball company (Brass Eagle); the first inflatable bunker system (Sup’Air from Adrenaline Sports), the introduction of various open-field formats such as airball and Hyperball, and the development and marketing of the first electronic paintball guns – the Smart Parts-Pneu-Ventures Shocker and the WDP Angel.

By the end of the 1997 tournament season, with little or no exception, the groundwork had been laid for all of the various paintball technologies we use and enjoy today. Companies like Tiberius Arms and the development of their pistols and now their First Strike rounds (and the markers that fire them) – and Spyder, Tippmann and other that are making training, MilSim, and scenario markers, are really pushing the game to new and great places. GIMilsim and thir development of the .50 caliber paintball are making huge efforts to reduce the cost to play the game. And smaller companies like MacDev, TechT, Exalt, Pinokio, and many others continue to design and market products that further the game of paintball.

Brass Eagle Stingray
Brass Eagle Stingray