Shoot to Thrill Paintball players gun down their friends in living color

August 15, 1993|By Patrick A. McGuire | Patrick A. McGuire,Staff Writer

I raised my noggin a teensy bit above the ridge and spied Renee crouched behind a tree. She came from West Virginia, a computer specialist out with some friends for something just a little different. No match, really, for your hard-bitten raconteur in touch with his inner warrior.

I eased my semi-auto into firing position, musing that this wasn't such a hard game after all. But before I could say bodda boom! bodda bing! Renee laughed wickedly from 20 yards out, took aim and drilled me through the skull like a rogue dentist.

Instantly, a sticky, orange, fish-oil-based liquid, smelling like yesterday's crab feast, oozed through the vents in my face mask and down into my eyes. A knot the size of Wheeling bulged from my forehead. I rolled over on my back in excruciating pain and mused that no sir, it doesn't get any better than this: a beautiful day out in the insect-ridden woods, fish oil in my eyes, and gosh, still hundreds of square inches of my flesh ripe for the bruising.

I was "out," the euphemism in the outdoors game of paintball for being killed. They don't like you to say "killed" in paintball because they are afraid that sounds too militaristic, too much like a war game, too much like something most people would think insane.

They would rather have you think of paintball as a mainstream game like soccer or even chess. They don't even want you calling your semi-automatic paintball gun a gun, even though it looks like a gun, has a trigger, a barrel, makes a loud bang when you shoot it and fires a .68 caliber, gelatin-coated ball filled with fluorescent fish goo at 200 miles an hour.

Can you say paint thrower?

Can you say "Aieeeeeee!"

All right, I confess I'm the kind of guy who doesn't play hurt without a whimper. And just as some people would rather play football than Ping-Pong, I concede there are those who would rather raise welts than vegetables as a pastime. Who am I to judge?

And besides, Renee did stop and ask if I was OK before shooting me in the back in the very next game. And even then she gave me a yikes-I-didn't-really-mean-it-but-it-was-kind- of-fun-anyway look as I staggered glassy-eyed off the wooded playing field maintained by Outdoor Adventures near Bowie.

In the old days, before rationality faded from the land, a paint ball was something cattlemen used to mark their steers or foresters used to mark trees slated for cutting. About a dozen years ago a couple of incorrigible Eastern types, men who obviously hadn't spent enough time playing Roy Rogers in their kidhood, invented a game called "Survival."

They basically ran around in the woods playing war, using the cattle man's paint gun as their chief means of settling the age-old cowboys-and-Indians argument: "I got you!" "No you didn't. Missed me, missed me." "Yes I did too get you, you big cheater."

The thing is, with an orange lump on your forehead, the argument is sort of moot.

Sports Illustrated was the first to write about this new game, and almost overnight it struck a chord in the forever-young hearts of zillions of won't-grow-uppies. The result is a game that now has taken hold in every state in the union and across two dozen foreign countries. It attracts millions of players a year aged anywhere from 14 to 45 but often younger and, ahem, sometimes older.

Some players are professionals whose teams compete in tournaments and earn more than a million dollars a year in prize money, put up by corporate sponsors. Most, though, are people like Renee and me and the 20 or so other neophytes lured out to the Bowie woods on a recent Saturday morning by the sheer lunacy of being allowed to shoot a gun at someone without getting indicted.

With 400 such sanctioned paintball fields in the United States alone -- there are three in Maryland, two more in Northern Virginia -- the business is said to generate between $100 and $400 million annually. The majority of players pay a flat rental fee of about $25 to $45 for four hours play, complete with guns, paint and safety equipment.

But more than 100,000 paintballers are so into their sport that they pay hundreds for elaborate new gun models and hundreds more for modifications that regulate how fast and accurately the paint balls fire. These die-hards spend money on goggles, camouflage clothing, gloves, shoes, and, of course paint, which runs anywhere from $70 to $140 for a case of 2,000 paint balls. (In an average four-hour session, a player can easily go through 1,000 balls.)

Instead of playing on sanctioned fields, hard-core paintballers usually secure the permission of a local landowner and prowl the terrain in groups of 20 or 30, without benefit of referees or liability insurance. Such events are known as outlaw games and the only way to play in one is to get invited.

Gonzo paintball

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