Paintball history has a short yet storied past. The game didn’t start out how some might think. It wasn’t someone in their backyard inventing a new extreme sport. Rather paintball history begins in the mid-1960s with Charles Nelson of the Nelson paint company. Nelson was approached by the U.S. Forestry Service to develop a tool to mark trees at a distance. Marking trees for removal can be a strenuous and at times dangerous task. Nelson needed a paint-filled projectile that could be fired at a fast enough rate to reach its target and explode on impact. So, he created a gelatin casing that could be filled with oil-based paint. All Nelson needed now was a way to fire the projectile. Nelson ultimately contracted the design out to Daisy, the airgun manufacturer. Along with Nelson, Daisy produced the Nel-Spot 007. The Nel-Spot 007 would become the marker that helped start the sport of paintball. In fact, it was the Nel-Spot 007 that caught the attention of a group of friends that had a long-running debate regarding human survival.
For years Charles Gains, Bob Gurnsey, and Hayes Noel debated whether survival was a skill that was learned or innate. When the group discovered the Nel-Spot 007 pistol they created the “Survival Game.” Little did they know they would go down in paintball history as the founding fathers of a new sport. Their ingenious idea was to have a mix of twelve men armed with the Nel-Spot 007 battle it out to see who comes out on top. Six of the men would be office workers that held little survivalist knowledge. The other six would consist of farmers and tradesmen with extensive knowledge of the outdoors. It was White Collar vs. Blue Collar. And in June of 1981, paintball history was made with the first-ever paintball game being played.
Held on 80 acres of New Hampshire backwoods, the objective was to collect 12 flags scattered across four different flag stations. With no protective gear on the market, no one knew what to wear for paintball. So, the participants only had shop goggles and the clothes on their back for protection. Also, with this being the first attempted game of paintball the tactics and strategies varied between the 12 players. Some used speed and suppression to take out the opposition. While others, like Richie White, utilized stealth. This strategy led to Ritchie Whites Victory over the 11 other contestants. Making Ritchie the fist victor in paintball history. Ironically Ritchie was a forestry worker at the time. Some might say Ritchie had an unfair advantage. He reportedly won without being seen or firing a single shot.
Bob Jones of sports illustrated, who also participated in the first-ever paintball game, wrote a story profiling this moment in paintball history. His article generated interest in the newly developed sport. Bob Gurnsey, Hayes Noel, and Charles Gains saw an opportunity and capitalized on the games growing popularity. Together they began selling kits that included the Nel-spot 007, paintballs, goggles, a compass, and a rule book. They named their kit the National Survival Game (NSG). And in 1982 Bob Gurnsey opened the first commercial arena in paintball history. Gurnsey also partnered with Nelson-Paint. He then distributed paintball markers to entrepreneurs interested in opening their own paintball fields. And by 1983 the first tournament also called the National Survival Game was held with a cash prize of $14,000. In a short two years, a random game thrown together by a group of 12 people grew into an industry of its own.
Between 1981 and 1983 two NSG players attempted to partner with the NSG founders, but any proposed deals fell through. So the two players, Jeffperlmutter and David Freeman formed their own company Pursuit Marketing Incorporated (PMI). PMI would come out with their own paintball marker the PGP and would sell over half a million units. With newfound competition, the industry exploded. And by 1986 the sport now widely referred to as Paintball had grown to be loved internationally. But something was missing, the paintball markers and protective equipment were still unstandardized. This would change in the late 1980s when three companies emerged and changed the landscape of paintball history forever.
Like many industries, the companies that lay the groundwork later become overshadowed by the newcomers that follow. Either they get bought out through mergers or they fail to adapt to the changing industry. In 1987 and 1988 the big three entered the paintball industry, Tippman, Worr Game Products (WGP) and JT USA. JT USA, a company that specialized in motorcycle equipment prior to dabbling in paintball, developed the first paintball mask specialized for the sport. It was designed to withstand the forces of a paintball strike, something shop goggles weren’t always able to do. The mask also covered the face protecting it from welts. It was the first standardized protective gear in paintball history. Today JT not only makes protective equipment, but they also produce their own line of paintball markers.
Worr Game Products came to the scene in 1987 and exploded in popularity in the 1990s with their Autococker paintball markers. The Autococker line used a closed bolt system when other markers at the time used an open-bolt system. Unfortunately, WGP went out of business in 2008 after failing to keep up with rapidly changing technology.
Lastly, we have Tippmann. The name Tippmann is synonymous with paintball and arguably the most recognizable brand in the industry. Before they produced paintball markers they made replica machine guns but saw an opportunity in the new sport. Tippmann got to work in producing the first semi-automatic and full-automatic markers in paintball history. The impact these three iconic had on paintball history is immeasurable. Of these three companies, only JT USA and Tippmann still operate today. These companies created a standard in the industry that persists today. Before this, players had to find what they could to use protective wear and had limited choices in paintball markers. Now players had equipment they could rely on to keep them safe and ahead of their competition.
With the plethora of new gear and markers, more people than ever were able to play paintball. This opened the door for professional tournaments, leagues, and teams. The National Paintball Players League (NPPL) was the first league of its kind in paintball history. Founded in 1992, the NPPL would hold 5 tournaments a year leading up to the Paintball World Cup. The Paintball World Cup was at one time broadcast on ESPN, the largest sports entertainment channel in the world.
The 1990s and early 2000s were the peak years for professional paintball. In an article by Bruce Weber of the New York Times, written in 2004, Weber discusses the growing popularity of the sport, reporting that 10 million Americans had played it in the past year. But a short four years later the Great Recession would bring the sport of paintball to its knees. This would be a turning point in paintball history. Paintball, as with most recreational activities is not cheap. With fewer consumers playing recreationally, a trickle-down effect took place. Sponsors were generating less revenue from weekend warriors, and in turn, they couldn’t sponsor events or teams. Because of this leagues like the NPPL were erased from existence. This was the largest contributing factor to the decline of paintball in 2008. But like the economy, paintball is picking up the pieces. While wholesale numbers for paintball equipment are nowhere near pre-recession numbers they are steadily rising. The paintball industry is also adapting in order to reach a broader market. The introduction of the lower velocity .50 caliber class of paintball markers has made the sport more family-friendly. Although paintball purists are not too fond of this trend, the inclusiveness of the sport is imperative to its survival.
Paintball is here to stay and its history is still being written.