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The History of Paintball Includes Gin, a Forest and a Dream!



So you’ve been playing paintball for a few years now and you have some pretty awesome equipment to show for it! The latest Ego, the fastest OLED board and quickest loader – but have you ever stopped to think about where it all came from? What were the origins of this extreme sport?

A Bottle of Gin and The Cold War

With the way the sport of paintball has been evolving over the past ten to fifteen years, one could easily assume that it would have its roots set in military training, but that isn’t exactly the case. The truth is much more “sobering” so to speak, as the idea was dreamed up over a bottle of gin in a New Hampshire backyard. Successful Wall Street stock broker Hayes Noel and his friend, writer and outdoorsman Charles Gaines were discussing the survivability of the average American should their national security be compromised.

It is important to remember that during the time of this backyard discussion (mid 1970’s) the Cold War with the Soviet Union was at its peak and a scenario like this could have been possible. Noel and Gaines were arguing about who would be better suited to survive in the scenario, a savvy city slicker or an avid outdoorsman? However, Hayes’ discussion with Charles was doomed to be just that – a goes nowhere, does nothing discussion – until after sharing his thoughts with George Butler. This discussion with Mr. Butler pointed Noel in the direction of the Nelson Paint Company and their Nelspot 007 paintball marker.

The Nelspot 707 Enters the Forest

Many of the paintballers of today may consider the TiPX and the T8.1/9.1 revolutionary – I mean a compact, maneuverable pistol seems pretty novel alongside the paintball slinging Dye and Tippmann’s, right? Well, I guess the old saying “the more things change, the more they stay the same” just might be true!

Nelspot 707

Nelspot 707 (top), Crosman 150

The truth of the matter is that the very first “paintball gun” was the Nelspot 707 marker which was initially developed for agriculture and forestry in the early 1960’s when the Nelson Paint Company was approached by the forestry industry to produce a device that could mark trees for timber (hence the use of the term ‘marker’ today). The Nelspot 707 was a CO2 powered pistol that fired paint pellets which were loaded in to a barrel along the top of the pistol.

Nelson had several paint marker designs including a pistol that would squirt a stream of paint much like a water-gun, however these made reaching trees that were any meaningful distance away or obstructed by thick brush next to impossible. Nelson put 3 years in to developing a gelatin capsule that could be injected with an oil-based paint and fired from an air-gun. Their next step was to approach Crosman to design the gun that could fire the paint projectiles.

Crosman Lays the Groundwork for Paintball

Crosman engineer James Hale obtained the patent for the CO2 powered Nelspot 707 and began production in 1965 – almost 15 years before the idea of a paintball game was even born! The Crosman company produced the Nelspot 707 for 3 years for the Nelson Paint Co. before they determined that is was no longer financially worth the cost.

original splatmaster gun by Bob Gursey

The Original Splatmaster by Bob Gurnsey

Nelson needed a replacement for the Nelspot 707 but did not own the patent rights and therefore had to start from scratch. This time, Nelson asked established air-gun producer Daisy to design and produce their markers. Enter the ‘Daisy Splotchmarker’, renamed the Nelspot 007 – clearly to reflect the smooth and deadly-accurate qualities you would expect from anything with ‘007’ in the title! It was this marker that took centre stage in the first ever paintball match in 1981.

Let the Games Begin!

Noel and Gaines had been tossing the idea of bringing their survival game to fruition for a few years now – even going so far as to duel each other at 20 paces (likely after further gin consumption), but it took another man by the name of Bob Gurnsey to help lay down the rules.

Gurnsey, (a ski shop owner) helped Hayes Noel develop the rules for the National Survival Game (NSG). He found the land for the game to be played on and sent out the invitations to 9 friends to come and participate in the first National Survival Game. While the idea of the NSG is credited to Noel and Gaines, it is Gurnsey that is considered to be the grandfather of paintball. In addition to writing the definitive set of rules governing the original game, he also opened up the first real paintball supply shop – National Survival Game Inc.

site of worlds first paintball game

The Site of the World’s First Paintball Game in New Hampshire

Gurnsey sold an NSG starter kit which included a Nelspot pistol, paintballs, goggles, a compass and a rule book. He even developed his own low cost, widely available paintball gun – the Splatmaster (sound familiar?). Of the original 12 that took part in the first paintball match, Bob Gurnsey was the only one to continue on with it – some say that without him, the sport would have never taken off at all.

In 1981, with the location chosen, the invitations out and the equipment ready, all that was needed in order for the first match to happen was to collect the $175 fee from the players to cover the cost of the equipment and provide food and adult beverages!

Our 12 pioneers – Hayes Noel, Charles Gaines, Bob Gurnsey plus 9 of their friends ranging in background from movie producers to hunters, professional boxers and surgeons – all set out to make paintball history!

The field was set on an 80 acre, forested lot and was a variation on the traditional capture the flag game. There were 4 flag stations spread out across the lot, each station had a flag for each player and the first player to capture all 4 of their own flags – or the last man standing would be declared the winner. In the end, while several players were in fact shot out with paintballs, some were tagged by hand and eliminated. There is even an account of one player throwing a moldy onion at Charles Gaines! In the end it was Richie White, a New Hampshire forester that came out on top – surprisingly, without even firing a shot and instead, relying on stealth and guile.

“No one ever saw Ritchie, and he never fired a shot. He crept through the woods from station to station, gathering flags as easily as a schoolgirl gathers flowers.” Wrote Lionel Atwil in his 1983 book the ‘Official Survival Game Manual’.

Atwil was not the only writer in the group of participants in the first paintball match. Others such as Bob Jones recounted his experiences as well and in turn, articles started popping up everywhere – including this Sports Illustrated Article from 1983. While John Skow’s article in People Magazine makes it clear that the friendly culture of rehashing the days events has been a part of the game since the very start.

For an interesting glimpse into the history of paintball, check out the video below featuring Bob Gurnsey and a few friends playing a game of woodsball – I think I see a set of V-TAC Tiger Stripes!?

Paintball Spawns a Competitive Side

If paintball has its roots in the forest, how did we end up with the inflatable bunkers and speedball? It was a natural progression into the competitive side of the sport, really. Fields had started to crop up all over the place by the late 80’s and with the growth in popularity came the desire for competition and tournaments. The only problem was that each field was different and consistency was non-existent. Some fields tried to have similar settings with smaller play areas, scattered with plywood buildings and bunkers and having the players start within shooting distance of the opposition (hence the term ‘Speedball’). It wasn’t until 1996 that Brass Eagle, a Canadian paintball company, introduced the first fully inflatable field, with all the cylinders and doritos that we know and love. The introduction of the inflatable field meant that not only could a paintball field be moved anywhere, but also that each field could use the same dimensions and have the exact same cover on both sides of the field, creating a truly level playing field where neither team would have an advantage due to terrain.

From the very first Nelspot 707 of the National Survival Game to the first strike rounds leaving the Tiberius Arms T4, the sport of paintball itself continues to evolve and advance. It is almost certain that the spirit and comradery of the sport will remain a constant forever!