War Games The weapons look real, but the bullets are no more than capsules of color. Paintball is the sport, and it's growing more and more popular with teen-agers.

November 01, 1998|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF

Pinned down by enemy fire, Anthony Collurafici crawls as far forward as he dares. Mud and leaves smear his chest and legs. He doesn't care. His focus is on the two bad guys shooting at him.

There, 20 yards straight ahead, a man hidden in the trees. No more than 15 feet to the right, another gunman close enough to smell his cologne (possibly Brut, but it's hard to say).

At least Collurafici has protection - a tree stump and some railroad ties - and he is grateful for it. But it's a standoff. They have cover, too. He's outnumbered, and time is running out.

Then, a bold but foolish move. One bad guy pops up and runs straight at Collurafici, who coolly takes him out. The other raises his arms in surrender: He has run out of ammo.

That gives Collurafici the opportunity he has been hoping for. He leaps to his feet and runs. With less than one minute left in the 20-minute contest, he bolts down the unprotected left side of the battlefield and captures the enemy's flag.

Even the corpses are impressed.

"It was a rush, a pure adrenalin rush," said Collurafici, a junior at John Carroll School in Bel Air. "It wasn't about me winning the game. It was the whole team working together."

Collurafici, who sports a silver hoop earring and likes to snowboard, is no GI Joe. But then not much about the recent Sunday morning maneuver was government-issue.

This was paintball, one of the fastest growing sports among teen-agers. A game invented less than two decades ago as a diversion for adventurous 20-to-30-something men - it has been recently seized upon by the under-20 set.

In just two years, annual sales of paintball equipment - principally gas-powered guns or "markers" that shoot encapsulated dollops water-soluble paint - have more than doubled, and manufacturers see continued good times ahead.

"We've taken off in the 10-to-18 age group," said Bud Orr, owner of Worr Games Products, a California-based maker of paintball guns and accessories. "We've really been hit heavy by them."

Orr estimates his business has grown by 50 percent in the past two years, and that kind of growth has been fairly typical of the paintball industry.

Nationwide, paintball suppliers expect to post a record $450 million in gross sales this year compared with $200 million in 1996, said Mike Henry, editor of paintball 2-Xtreme, a monthly magazine that collects industry data.

Henry estimates that more than 2 million people have played the game. Most new players, he believes, were born no earlier than 1981.

The game's appeal to youngsters is easy to understand. Participants, usually young men or boys, hunt one another outdoors in a quasi-military fashion.

It is like the preteen game of war, but played with realistic weaponry (and no more disputes over who got the drop on whom). Get hit by a paintball on any part of your body and you're dead - at least until the next game.

"I read about it in a magazine, and I got hooked," said Gavin Junkins, 16, a junior at Broadneck High School near Annapolis and a two-year veteran of the game. "There's no other place you can shoot somebody, hunt somebody, and they don't die."

When editors of ITAL paintball 2-Extreme END ITAL polled players, they found relatively few hunted animals or even owned a real gun, but many played role-playing fantasy games like "Dungeons and Dragons."

Most young players said they preferred "shoot 'em up" computer programs like Doom or Quake and the so-called "extreme" sports like skateboarding and snowboarding to most organized athletics.

"This is the computer generation, and this high-tech game is a natural fit," said Henry. "When a paintball player is not playing, he's more likely to be found behind a computer than a football or basketball."

But there are other factors behind the paintball explosion. Two years ago, paintball manufacturers began marketing their wares through mass-merchandisers like Wal-Mart, Sports Authority and Dick's instead of exclusively through the small, mom-and-pop paintball retailers they had in the past.

Prices came down, too, at least for entry-level equipment. Although it still costs $150-$250 for a fledgling player to be properly outfitted, that's substantially cheaper than the cost of one high-end gun, which can run $1,000 or more.

"This is [the game of] Army for the little guys," said Tommy Maliszewski, partner in Maryland Paintball Supply, a retail store on Harford Road in Parkville. "It goes back to the plastic action figures. Games like laser tag are fine, but you don't get the same experience. You can't hear the paintballs whistle through the trees."

Whistling is the right way to describe it. Paintballs travel about 300 feet per second or 204 miles per hour. They are little more than a blur once fired.

When the .68-inch spheres hit, they can sting: A nickel-size bruise or welt is not an uncommon paintball souvenir.

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