Arts & Culture

Paintball’s Wild History, as Told by the Man Who (Co-)Invented It

From the woods of New Hampshire to the Black Belt of Alabama to 112 countries across the globe, Charles Gaines recounts the evolution of the survival-inspired “little game” that spawned an industry

An illustration of a man playing paintball with a blue, pink, and yellow splatter

Illustration: NICOLE RIFKIN

Prospect, Pennsylvania

July 24, 2004



As I stood beside the tank, strapping on another ammo belt, the sounds of the battle were getting closer. In the woods to the east of us, I could hear bursts of rifle fire, the screams of the wounded, the braying of an enemy officer rallying his men.

“Time to mount up,” T. J. growled, and flicked away his cigarette. Dawn was already manning the tank’s cannon, and Debra, one of the gunports. The swivel-mounted turret gun on top of the Panther was all mine.

Just as I stooped to enter the tank, a young woman dressed like a ninja warrior and waving a Magic Marker ran up and asked me for my autograph. “Thank God I caught you before you left,” she said, panting, her eyes brimming with concern. “The fighting’s heavy out there…”

“T. J. knows what he’s doing,” I said to console her. She handed me the pen, and as the tank’s engine roared to life, I signed my name where she wanted it. “Please be careful,” she said, and gave me a quick kiss on the cheek.

I climbed into the tank, sat behind the turret gun, and let off a few rounds to test the rate of fire. As the Panther rumbled into the woods toward the battle, snapping saplings, the ninja shouted, “T. J.! Take good care of him!”

Now this, I thought, is the way to go to war.

But in truth…if there were a picture in this article of my graying, tubby sixty-two-year-old self then and another of the lovely ninja warrior, you would no doubt be moved to wonder why the person in photo B could possibly desire the autograph and physical safekeeping of the person in photo A. Well, the answer to that is rather a long story, and one every bit as bizarre as a Wes Anderson film.

Stay in Touch with G&G
Get our weekly Talk of the South newsletter.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts

July 1980



Hayes Noel—my main man then and now—is the most competitive person I know. He will compete with you at anything: At a friend’s cocktail party one night, with nothing better to suggest, he offered to bet me on how many bricks composed the host’s fireplace. In the summer of 1980, Hayes and his wife, another couple, and my wife and I rented a house together for two weeks on Martha’s Vineyard, where Hayes and I competed daily at tennis, clam digging, you name it. Grilling bluefish and drinking rum and tonics by a fire one night, he recounted that he and a friend had recently stalked each other through some woods, feigning murderous intent, and that the resulting rush felt better than any drug.

“Who won?” I asked.

“Who do you think?” Hayes said. “I have a highly developed instinct for survival.”

No question that is true. In the kill-or-be-killed jungle of the New York Stock Exchange, Hayes had flourished for years. But. “You and your friend were in the woods,” I pointed out. “And you’re a city boy.”

“It doesn’t matter. You put a born survivor down in the Gobi Desert or the Amazon and he will make out fine. Survival is all about instinct. You either have it or you don’t.”

Life turns on invisible spindles. Who could possibly have predicted that the fatuous monthslong argument that then ensued would beget a billion-dollar industry? You already know Hayes’s position in the debate. I countered that survival relied more on learned behavior specific to a particular environment than “instinct.” As in, “I grew up in the woods. You would have no more chance against me there than I would against you on Wall Street.”

For the rest of our stay on the Vineyard, we bored to distraction our housemates with heated exchanges on the subject and then continued them over the phone long after Hayes had gone home to Manhattan and I to my farm in New Hampshire. Pointless? It would seem so, with no way to test the theories; but to Hayes and me, locking horns has always been both a sport and a form of affection, and so when early that fall, the spindles spun up a surefire way of resolving our argument, we felt both delighted and disappointed.


South Newbury, New Hampshire

October 1980


In September, George Butler sent me a catalogue. A talented photographer and filmmaker, George raised sheep on his New Hampshire farm, as did I, and the catalogue featured products for people who indulged in that expensive hobby. Among those items, I realized in a eureka moment while flipping through the pages, lay the Argument Settler: the Nelspot 007, a CO -powered pistol that shot oil-based paintballs to mark livestock. Or overly competitive, misguided disputants, I hoped.

After ordering two of the pistols, I called Hayes and invited him up to New Hampshire to be painted. And on an October afternoon in my backyard, he and I became possibly the first people to conduct a formal duel with cattle markers, and Hayes perhaps the first man to learn what it felt like to be shot in the butt by one.

Following our bout, we entered the woods surrounding my house and hunted each other. Out of respect for Hayes’s sensitive nature, I will only say of that hunt that it proved to be hair-raisingly thrilling—a totally in-the-moment, electrifying experience that left both of us exhilarated, adrenaline-exhausted, and wanting to tell everyone we knew about it.

The first person to hear it, that very night when he arrived at my house for dinner, was my friend and neighbor Bob Gurnsey, known as Gurns. Short, as compact as a bullet, another maniacal competitor, Gurns was a ski and automobile racer; the owner of a ski shop in New London, New Hampshire; and a lover of all things fast and exciting. Would it not be interesting, the three of us wondered, if we got together a group of friends, each an able survivor, and devised some structure and purpose by which all of us could do what Hayes and I had done in the woods that day? Why, of course it would be!

The game we devised: Twelve players would embark into woods none of them had visited before. Each would be armed with a 007 and a number of paintballs, dressed in camo and shop goggles, and outfitted with a compass and a topographic map of the playing field. The objective would be to capture one each of four different-colored flags hung from trees at four stations in the woods that were more or less equidistant from one another and marked on the map. The first player to reach a home base, also indicated on the map, carrying all four flags while remaining unpainted would win.

A game requiring stealth, cunning, boldness, and strategy; one testing a lifetime of survival instinct and learned behavior? Fueled by our own inventiveness and after-dinner Scotch, we thought we might just be onto something.

South Newbury, New Hampshire

June 26–28, 1981



Over the winter, we sent out invitations to nine friends describing the  game and encouraging them to come to New Hampshire in the summer to compete. We expected numerous regrets, so as a sweetener we invited them to bring their wives or girlfriends along for a relaxed weekend at my farm: two dinner parties; tennis matches, croquet, and other tests of skill; swim races in the pond, speed hiking and bouldering on Mount Sunapee. And, of course, the game—to be played on Saturday, June 27. Not one person turned us down.

By design, the invitees were a colorful and highly successful lot. Among them, a venture capitalist from New York; a seed salesman and expert turkey hunter from Alabama; a hyperaggressive emergency trauma physician; an ex–Green Beret who had served in Vietnam; a taciturn New Hampshire forester; and a merry and sybaritic movie producer. Fatefully, as it happened, the weekend’s attendees also included three national magazine writers.

After a raucous pregame dinner at a local restaurant, we held a Calcutta and auctioned off all the players. The Green Beret went for top dollar, but every man there believed he could win, and several of them bought themselves. At nine o’clock the next morning, we all gathered at the playing field, an eighty-acre stand of woods near Henniker, New Hampshire, that my ice-climbing partner and our head judge, Mike Macklin, had talked the landowner into letting us use. Macklin had cordoned off the boundaries of the field with surveyor’s tape and hung the green, red, white, and blue flags at the four stations he had established and detailed on the maps, along with the home base to which each player was to report when he either was eliminated or had secured one of each color flag without getting marked with paint. Macklin had also recruited four flag station judges to settle any disputes and blow a whistle every fifteen minutes so that the nonwoodsmen stood a chance. Then at ten o’clock sharp, a shotgun blast heralded the start of the first paintball game ever played.

You talk about puredee, eyeball-popping fun? Puerile too, perhaps; but perhaps too, puerile is the purest kind of fun. For all but one of the players, the game devolved into a frantic, jacked-up melee of running, hiding, shooting, and being shot at, but a melee at which I, for one, could not stop laughing. As in: Tony Atwill, the Green Beret, and I glimpsed each other through the trees, took cover, and fired ineffectively at each other (the 007 was, to say the least, an unreliable weapon). Behind Atwill sat a small, dilapidated shed, and he bolted for it. In a minute, I heard something land beside me…a withered potato? Then another, and another. Was I being pelted with geriatric potatoes?! “Grenades!” Atwill shouted. “You’re toast, Gaines!”

Unsurprisingly, each man played the game according to who he was: the cautious sneaking through the woods avoiding firefights, the bold seeking them out, the wily perching in trees by a flag station. Even less surprising, the forester, Ritchie White, who spent at least five days a week in the New Hampshire woods with a topo map and compass, won. The only man for whom the game did not prove a melee, White calmly collected all four flags and walked out to home base in just over an hour without once firing a shot or even being seen by another player. If that memorable day with its victory of learned behavior over instinct put the Argument to bed once and for all, it also roused and set loose upon the world a Pandora’s box of peculiar consequences.

The Black Belt of Alabama

May 1983



Hayes, Gurns, and I were barreling down a highway between Birmingham and Camden, Alabama, in a rented car on our way to play in yet another paintball game: Beyond the windshield lay nothing but fields, beef cattle, and the dark soil that gave the Black Belt its name. I was driving, Hayes was riding shotgun (or pistol, as it soon happened), and Gurns was curled up into a fretting ball on the back seat. This was his first visit to the South, and he had talked himself into believing that as a Yankee, he was putting his life in mortal peril. As native Southerners, Hayes and I did not believe that necessarily to be the case, but with what would pass these days for toxic male humor, we encouraged his dark fantasies. As in, “You better seriously start practicing your y’all if you want to get back to New Hampshire in one piece.”

Over the previous twenty-three months, a lot had happened to put us on that highway. Those aforementioned three magazine writers at the first game had each produced a story about it. When those articles appeared—one in Time, one in Sports Illustrated, and one in Sports Afield—mail flooded in from people all over the country who wanted to know how they could play. Wishing out of the goodness of our hearts to accommodate these folks, Hayes, Gurns, and I started a company: the National Survival Game, Inc.


Each of us possessed a third of an interest and designated responsibilities: Hayes to put up the money (a onetime investment of $20,000); Gurns, who had just sold his ski shop, to handle the day-to-day; and I to generate and manage the publicity. We purchased (optimistically, we believed) a hundred Nelspot pistols, a case or two of paintballs, and some cheap shop goggles and compasses from Walmart. Working from his basement, Gurns would fulfill the orders, assembling the items into shoeboxes along with mimeographed copies of the game’s rules. In the American spirit, we sold the boxes via mail order for three to four times what the materials cost us.

Within weeks of the first article’s publication, in October 1981—written for Sports Illustrated, by the late, great Robert F. Jones—we had to start ordering more pistols and paintballs weekly, and Gurns hired additional help to keep up with the orders. On my side of the business, I had Time magazine, what was then called New Hampshire Public Television, New York City’s largest TV station, and French and Japanese national TV networks all begging to come cover the game…but no game for them to cover.

So, in the spring of 1982, we leased a parcel of woods outside of New London, New Hampshire, and with local recruits, including my wife and children, began staging weekly games there. In order to allow more people to play at a time (and to encourage more shoebox buyers and those buyers to shoot more paint), we devised a team competition very much like capture the flag, and soon teams were coming from all over the Northeast to compete at our field and to stand for the TV cameras in front of an eight-by-ten banner advertising the National Survival Game. Some of the teams who arrived from outside of New Hampshire wanted to start game fields for themselves in their home states, and again out of our boundless largesse, we allowed them to do so by selling them NSG franchises, as well as all their guns and paint.

Ronnie Simpkins, the turkey-hunting seed salesman in the first game, became one of our franchisees, and in the winter of 1983, he invited Hayes, Gurns, and me to his hometown of Camden, Alabama, to play in a game he was putting on there in May. Since I was looking for any opportunity to publicize the company, and since I am from Alabama and knew newspaper and TV people there, we accepted, and I began trying to figure out some Southern “hook” I could use to generate maximum coverage. It occurred to me the day before we got on the plane to Birmingham, and all it took was one phone call.

About twenty miles outside of Camden, we were racing past another field full of beef cattle when Hayes yelped, “Stop!” I did. “Back up!” I did.

“What’s going on?” Gurns asked. “Why are we stopping out here in the middle of nowhere?”

“A test,” Hayes said. “See if my gun is shooting straight after the airplane.”

Looking over, I saw what Hayes had in mind. Just inside a fence, no more than thirty feet away, stood a fine-looking Charolais bull, his white hide fairly begging to be decorated. Hayes rolled down his window.

“Wait!” Gurns cried. “You’re not going to…”

He was interrupted by a bellow from the bull, whose hip now sported a becoming orange splash. “Oh God,” Gurns moaned as Hayes reloaded.

“Uh-oh,” I said, staring into the rearview mirror. “What?” Gurns croaked. I stomped on the accelerator, pushed the rental up to ninety. “A red pickup just pulled out of that farmhouse behind us and is right on our tail,” I said, “so close I can see the gun rack in the back.” Hayes looked over his shoulder. “Give ’er all she’s got!” he shouted, grinning. Gurns, balled up on the back seat, issued nothing but “Oh God, oh God, oh God…” until I screeched to a stop ten minutes later in the parking lot of our motel. “Finally lost him,” I said of the nonexistent pickup.

My Southern publicity hook for the Alabama jaunt came in the form of a friend of mine who happened to be the comely, sporty, controversial, and disaffected ex-wife of the then-governor of Alabama. We will call her Elmira. Knowing that Elmira loved anything that would both put her in the company of men and give her a chance to outperform them, I had phoned her from Birmingham and invited her to compete in the Camden game. “Sounds like fun,” she said. “Pick me up at the Capitol. I have something to do there.”

Early the next morning, I pulled up to the elegant, columned Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery, telling one of the numerous state patrolmen on guard that I had come to pick up the ex–First Lady. Never one to dawdle, Elmira came hurrying down the steps not more than a minute or two later, wearing a tailored camo turkey-hunting suit and carrying an overnight bag and an old brown suitcase.

“Even you won’t need that many clothes,” I told her. “This trip is just for today and tonight.”

“It’s for longer than that, honey,” Elmira said. “And all my clothes are in the overnight bag.”

“Then what’s in the suitcase?”

“Money from his safe. I figured it was a good time to get it while he’s out of town. God knows I have earned every dollar of it.”

“Uh-huh…,” I replied as calmly as I could, trying to think to the bottom of what she had just said. When it sank in, a breath-snatching, white-knuckled, Gurns-esque terror seized me. I was going to be driving down a highway in Alabama with the possibly larcenous ex-wife of the governor and a suitcase full of money?

“You mean…I’m a getaway car?”

“I don’t want to talk about it,” Elmira said with a toss of her head. “Let’s just go play your game and have some fun.”

Well, everybody but Gurns and I did have fun at that game, which, incidentally, Elmira won. He and I, on the other hand, spent the day mostly hiding cravenly behind trees and double-locked our doors that night. What should have been a publicity triumph, with Elmira’s victory (albeit a contested one) over nine good old boys and two scaredy-cats, never transpired—the first thing I did when I got back to the motel was to put Elmira in a room as far away from mine as possible, and the second was to phone all the TV and newspaper people I had recruited to cover a game we had planned to stage especially for them the next day and tell them it had been called off due to (wildly) unforeseeable circumstances.

Despite the Alabama setback, I had no shortage of chances to beat the drum for NSG, particularly as more franchises opened around the country. Dozens of newspapers and national magazines ran stories about the game, and Hayes and I spent much of ’83 and ’84 flying around the country doing radio and TV interviews. He or I would walk onto the sets of Today, Good Morning America, The Phil Donahue Show, and other programs in a camo suit, explain the game to Tom Brokaw or whomever, then hand the host the 007 and let him or her fire away at a target. Ironically, though, the skyrocketing national and international participation in the game had less to do with our publicity efforts than it did with those of a man who was grimly determined to put us out of business.

Let’s call him “Ted.” Ted was a professor of psychology at a Midwestern university who was convinced that paintball was the spawn of Satan, fomenting violence in the culture among our beloved young people, despite the fact that anyone who had ever played the game could have told him that it was just that—play, with no more violence than a game of tag. Determined to have his say, however, about the evil we were perpetrating, Ted would doggedly call and write every media outlet covering us and rant to them. And when some of those outlets would then air his views, our sales would jump. After pondering that improbable result for a while, I got in touch with Ted and invited him to debate me on the subject. He accepted. We had three friendly radio confabs, and after each our sales went through the roof. We even thought briefly about trying to hire him.

By 1984, NSG had more than two hundred franchises in the United States and four other countries, and the three of us had turned down a seven-figure offer for the business. That year, I sold my interest in the company to the two of them and went back to doing more work with less fun. Hayes sold his share to Gurns a few years later. By 1988, the company employed nearly a hundred people and generated $8 million plus in annual sales. Yet things were starting to slide downhill.

The nature of that slide was complicated and dreary, and since I was not around for it, I will spare you the details that led to NSG closing in 1995. I had pretty much lost all contact with paintball by then, anyway. By that point, it had turned into an industry, and from a game played in the woods with a temperamental, single-shot pistol into a kind of war in which participants used hopper-fed, chip-controlled rifles capable of firing more than twenty paintballs a second, and I had no interest in playing again. And probably never would have, had Debra Dion Krischke not called me in the winter of 2004 to invite me to the Fourteenth Annual International Amateur Open Paintball Festival and Industry Conference, an event she was producing at a Pennsylvania fairground that coming July.

“We want to give you a lifetime achievement award,” she told me, and offered to let me play with one of the slick new guns, now more discreetly called “markers.”

“Well, yeah!” I told her.


Prospect, Pennsylvania

July 21–25, 2004



One of NSG’s first hires after we’d moved the company out of Gurns’s basement was a young New Hampshire restaurateur named Debra Dion, who worked as the company’s public relations director until 1987, when she and her recently acquired husband, Ryan Krischke, moved to Pennsylvania to operate one of our franchised paintball fields. Since then, the Krischkes had become major players in the paintball industry, but I had no idea how major until I arrived at Debra’s festival.

Staged over five hot, cloudless days, the festival hosted the world’s largest paintball trade show (more than seventy vendors selling markers, paintballs, marker-customizing equipment, paintball clothing and helmets, and a bunch of other gear); daylong team competitions on four competitive levels featuring fifteen hundred players from the world over; clinics on safety and game strategy; tech classes; seminars and lectures on subjects as abstruse as compressed air maintenance; a two-day scenario game; BMX biking demonstrations; a weird haircut competition; and relentless heavy-metal music.

If you could measure your life by how much eccentricity you have helped to generate, then my time at that event might have had me feeling like Elon Musk. Instead, I felt more like Dorothy after the tornado. Paintball, I discovered over those days, had truly burst its britches. That year, the game’s recreational and competitive forms together constituted a $1.2 billion industry. Some form or another of paintball flourished in 112 countries, with more than fifteen million players. Markers sold for $1,500 and up. Some fifteen hundred paintball fields existed in the United States alone, and thirty-five worldwide magazines devoted themselves to the “sport,” the designation that had evolved from the little game Hayes, Gurns, and I had dreamed up. And the competitive levels that sport supported now included a professional one in which players could earn as much as six figures a year in either of two leagues.

The competitive players at the fairgrounds were mostly fleet and skinny teenagers decorated with nose rings, tongue studs, and tattoos. More than 90 percent of them were male, but there was one female team there called the Femmes Fatales (“A Bunch of Bodacious Babes Who Can Ball”), along with busloads of distaff groupies.

The competitions I watched on the event’s first day took place in an arena measuring 100 by 120 feet, enclosed by a twenty-foot-tall screen of black mesh attached to telephone poles. Inside the arena sat inflatable bunkers of various shapes and sizes, behind which the players, from teams of three people each, took cover and shot at each other until all three members of one of the teams were eliminated.

These games were fun to watch: one-to-three-minute blurs of athletic diving and sliding behind bunkers with paintballs swarming like crazed hornets. They were also about as removed as possible from the game we had invented in New Hampshire almost a quarter century earlier. “Does anybody still play in the woods?” I asked Debra. “Oh, lots of people,” she said. “You and I are going to do it tomorrow, but maybe not in a way you are used to.” She could not have been more right.

At the Pennsylvania event, I learned that only about 6 percent of the ten million paintballers at that point in the United States took part in competitions. The rest played for fun in backyards, in the woods, on one of the thousands of commercial fields around the country, or in what had come to be called “scenario games.”

If competitive paintball looks like a shoot-everything-that-moves video game, scenario feels like acting in a low-budget war movie. In Wyandotte, Oklahoma, for example, every June more than three thousand players gathered in campers to reenact D-Day over two days. Roles got doled out to sixteen hundred “Germans” and sixteen hundred “Allies,” who crossed a river in landing crafts to attack the “Germans,” engaging them in a battle featuring smoke bombs, tanks, and helicopters. Other scenario games laid siege to medieval villages, attacked VC-held Vietnamese villages, and freed princesses from dragons. In the one Debra and I played in, the Army of the Blues was on a highest-priority mission to break the Blues Brothers, Jake and Elwood, out of prison and then keep them from being recaptured by the evil Forces of the Establishment, or FOEs.

“We’re with the good guys,” Debra said. “And I thought you might like to be in a tank?”

Like virtually everyone at the International Amateur Open, our teammates T. J. and his wife, Dawn, had configured their lives around paintball. Dawn worked as the editor of a paintball magazine, and T. J. operated a paintball website when he was not commanding one of his two tanks in a scenario game. He had fitted out the larger of those tanks, a replica of the World War II German Tiger, with a gigantic sound system over which he and Dawn, his go-to turret gunner, played the 1812 Overture or Metallica full blast as they drove into battle.

T. J. had offered his other tank, modeled on a German Panther, to Debra and me. To fashion this one, he had cut off the roof and doors of a 1990 Chevy S-10 Blazer, installed a roll cage, and covered the whole thing with a fiberglass shell. He capped it with a swiveling turret with gunports cut into the sides and mounted a PVC potato gun cannon that shot Nerf footballs. Now that, sisters and brothers, is eccentricity to be proud of!

T. J. claimed to be “obsessed with turrets,” and after climbing into the turret Dawn had vacated for me, I could understand why. As we crashed into the woods, I had a giraffe’s-eye view of skirmishes all around us, snipers camouflaged as bushes, smoke bombs exploding, and two negotiating “generals” (one of them named Barbie). When two FOEs fled at our approach, I let them have it with my turret gun, feeling as all-powerful as Hannibal on his elephant. Striped with paint from crack to collar, the men waved at the tank and grinned.

All of us in the tank were grinning, too. In fact, I felt owned by grinning at this comic book warfare and couldn’t stop even after our tank was “disabled” with a FOE’s Nerf football mortar round.

“You get to where you live for this shit!” T. J. said after we had climbed out of the tank and high-fived all around.

“What do we do now?” I asked him. The rules stated we had to stop playing for an hour, he replied. By then, it’d be the dinner break. We were done.

Done?” snarled Debra. “The hell we are. Charles is one of the inventors. Get this thing rolling, T. J. And you,” she turned to me, “get back up in the turret!”

I might have kissed her for that.

That night, the lifetime achievement plaque I received read, “In recognition of an inspired idea that launched an industry.” It might more aptly have been inscribed, “Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”