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A Parent's Paintball Primer
By Bill Mills - Dec 2004
Around the holidays parents are often presented with something on wish lists that they didn’t see in their youth, paintball gear. With this rapidly growing sport, this brings to mind questions like, whether paintball is safe and whether it can be played in the backyard or out on the street. Unfortunately, it can be all too easy for a parent to buy a package of paintball gear at a large chain “mart” store or sporting goods store and simply assume that it poses no serious dangers because it was available on the shelves of a mass merchant.
The parent sending their child out into the yard to play paintball on Christmas day could be making a life changing mistake. On the other hand, the parent who takes the time to read and follow the safety instructions included with their paintball equipment, learn about its safe and proper use and makes sure that their child plays in a supervised playing environment that meets the requirements laid out in those instructions can be fostering the start of a life long sport and family activity for their child.
The term paintball can be applied to any number of games that center on the use of a paintgun. The most typical of these games is capture the flag, where two teams of players compete to grab a flag either from the center of the field or from their opponents side of the field, and return it to a base station. Along the way, any player that is hit by a paintball that breaks open on them is eliminated from play. There are many other game variations, such as elimination where the aim is simply to shoot out all of the members of the opposing team, or attack and defend, where one team must defend a fortified position. The commonality of all of these paintball games is that they involve a paintgun, often called a marker to shoot the paintball. The paintball gun is a large bore (.68 inches) gas powered device, which is built for one purpose – to launch paintballs at paintball players.
SAFETY IS KEY
The sport of paintball has an excellent track record in terms of safety, but that record can only be maintained when key protective elements are rigorously enforced in the game. For a player or parent of a paintball player, it is critical to learn about and understand these aspects. Some of paintball’s most common injuries are the same as most any outdoor activity – sprained ankles, knees, minor cuts and scrapes, and other distresses that come from tripping and falling when running around out of doors. Proper footwear, like high-topped athletic shoes or boots gives added protection for the ankle, while knee padding can even be used for players who slide and crawl more aggressively.
The truly frightening injury associated with paintball is an eye injury. Paintballs can travel over 200 miles per hour when exiting the barrel of a paintball gun. While a paintball is only a marble sized blob of non-toxic water based paint surrounded by a thin shell of the same type of gelatin used in bath oil beads, it can literally destroy the unprotected human eye at the speeds which it travels. A number of recent articles in medical journals have noticed an increase in paintball related eye injuries caused by paintball over recent years. Also noted in many of these studies is the fact that the overwhelming majority of these injuries happened when proper paintball goggles were not used.
Paintball goggles are the front line of defense for the eyes. In the mid 1980s when paintball was still a very new and evolving sport, simple shop goggles were used for eye protection. Unfortunately, these proved to provide less than adequate protection, despite the fact that one of the leading distributors of paintball supplies included them in player packages with their paintball marker. Cases of paintballs breaking through the lenses of these goggles, or ski or moto-cross goggles were not uncommon. By the late 1980s JT USA developed the first of the modern paintball goggles, built to handle the full force of multiple paintball impacts with a rugged polycarbonate lens. The paintball goggle soon evolved to also include protection for the ears, the temples and the face down to the chin. While many seasoned paintball players do not realize this, the mask portion of the goggle is also critical to protecting the eyes - it is not a removable option. In addition to protecting the portions of the head they cover, paintball masks are designed to prevent a paintball from striking around the edge of the goggle frame and getting to the eye by bypassing the lens assembly.
When shopping for paintball goggles, the first and most prominent thing to look for is that the manufacturer warrants the goggles to meet or exceed ASTM standard F1776. ASTM International was originally founded as the American Society for Testing and Materials. Its original purpose was to set standards used for grading iron for use in railroad rails. It has since expanded to a world-wide voluntary standards management organization. The ASTM paintball subcommittee consists of representatives from the paintball industry, and has even involved concerned medical professionals. This group has published a number of voluntary standards for the sport of paintball. ASTM does not test or approve paintball products, but it has published a group of tests in ASTM F1776 that the paintball industry has adopted as strength and testing criteria for paintball goggles.
The next most important thing to look for in a paintball goggle, is fit. This is one reason that paintball goggles aren’t a good gift for under the Christmas tree. A poor fitting goggle can leave unprotected gaps around the face, and worse yet, slip off during a game. For this reason, it is a wise decision to shop for paintball goggles at a paintball store which has a variety of brands and models available. Also of importance is that the goggles be of a design that resists fogging. A significant number of paintball eye injuries that happened to players who had proper goggles were not due to the goggle failing, but rather to the player removing them on the playing field, usually due to the lens fogging. Some paintball goggles minimize lens fogging by using a large curved lens giving more airspace between the lens and face. Others use dual lens designs with an inner lens that is insulated by a trapped layer of gas. This is another area where fit comes into play. Gaps between the goggle and the nose bridge can bring warm moist air up behind the lens. For players with glasses, some goggles are equipped with compact fans that circulate air behind the lens to combat fogging of both the goggle and glasses. The staff at a paintball shop will be able to check the fit of the goggle, as well as advise on how well the different models resist fogging.
Paintball goggles typically range from $20 to $100 or so, and especially in terms of fit and comfort (which ultimately affect protection) tend to be a “you get what you pay for” type of product. While it may be tempting for a parent budgeting Christmas gift money to save where possible, especially if the bulk of that budget is going toward a flashy, feature laden paintball marker, it is important to remember that the goggles are arguably the most important safety item in paintball. They are what stand between your child and permanent blindness. As I often say, a good pair of paintball goggles that fits properly is a whole lot less expensive than a glass eye.
BARREL BLOCKING DEVICES
Another important piece of safety equipment in a player’s gear bag is a barrel blocking device or BBD. The old adage from firearms safety can also be applied to paintball – “most accidents happen with an ‘unloaded’ gun.” Rather than trying to load and unload a paintgun as a player walks on and off the playing field, a barrel blocking device serves as an easy visual indicator of the safety status of a marker. Their purpose is to block the barrel in case the paintgun is accidentally fired when it is off the playing field, in an area where people are not wearing paintball goggles. In the late 1980s SC Village in Southern California was the first paintball field to require the use of barrel plugs. Barrel plugs, made of metal or plastic are basically like a cork for the barrel of the paintball gun. Often a shot will dislodge the barrel plug, and spray paint spatter making quite a mess, but the plug will usually serve its purpose (as long as it was a proper fit to the paintgun) and prevent an intact paintball from leaving the barrel at full speed.
As paintgun technology has progressed so have barrel blocking devices. With modern semi-automatic paintball markers, especially those that have sensitive electronic triggers, there is a chance of multiple accidental shots, so if the first shot dislodged a barrel plug, those around the marker would be unprotected from the second shot. The solution came in the form of what is typically called a barrel sock or barrel bag. This cloth bag slides over the end of the barrel and is held on to the marker by a loop of cord or webbing that loops over a knob, hopper, or other part toward the back of the paintgun’s body. A properly built and secured barrel sock will catch multiple paintballs without coming loose from the barrel. While many paintball gun manufacturers still include barrel plugs rather than the newer sock style barrel blocking devices, most paintball fields and all major paintball tournaments require the newer safety devices.
Most modern paintball guns feature some form of velocity adjustment. How velocity is adjusted varies with each particular model, and these settings are explained in the owner’s manual. Because the weight of paintballs and their shape is relatively consistent, the key component that affects how far a paintball will fly is muzzle velocity, or more simply put, how fast the paintball is traveling when it leaves the marker. It can be tempting for players who don’t understand paintball safety to want to increase their velocity. They do this to have more range, and thus an advantage over their competitors. The problem with this idea, as that as the velocity increases, so does the impact energy.
Leaders in the paintball industry have determined that 300 feet per second, or approximately 204 miles per hour is the maximum acceptable velocity for a paintball. Bruising at the site of a paintball hit on unprotected skin is a common occurrence in paintball. However, at higher velocities more serious bruising and tissue damage can occur. Above 300 feet per second, there is a also a risk of transdermal injection, where the paintball can hit bare skin so hard that it can push some of itself, and bacteria from the skin and paintball through pores and under the skin, leading to infection. Additionally, paintball goggles are designed to protect against paintballs traveling at speeds up to 300 feet per second. Realistically, the ASTM standards involve testing them to far beyond this point to allow a significant margin of error and overprotection, however they are designed for use only with paintguns firing at or under 300 fps. For these reasons, paintball fields and the companies that insure them typically require that markers be adjusted to fire at or below 285 feet per second. This allows a margin of error in velocity and prevent shots over 300 fps on the field. Some fields catering to younger players, playing indoors or at night where players may shoot each other at closer distances will often set lower velocity limits around 250 fps.
To measure velocity, a paintgun is fired over a chronograph. Using either a pair of optical sensors, or Doppler RADAR technology, the chronograph displays a velocity reading in feet per second. Because the velocity at which the paintgun is fired will be affected by a variety of factors, including temperature, propellant gas temperature, and even the brand and freshness of the paint used, it is imperative that the velocity of the paintgun be checked multiple times through out a day’s play. It is not practical to “set and forget” a paintgun’s velocity. Because of this, a chronograph is a required piece of paintball safety equipment. With costs ranging from $80 to over $200, most players do not own their own chronograph, relying instead on the field chronographs at the commercial field where they play, or pooling money with team-mates for a group owned chronograph.
CO2 AND COMPRESSED AIR
Handling CO2 or compressed air is another area of safety concern. The CO2 tanks used in paintball store carbon dioxide as a liquid that boils to create gas in the tank as it is consumed. The pressure of CO2 depends largely on temperature and generally ranges from 800 to 1200 psi.
Compressed air is the other gas source used in the sport and compressed air tanks have built in regulators which reduce the pressure of gas fed to the paintball gun to below 800 psi. Compressed air systems range in pressure ratings from 3,000 to 5,000psi. Handling compressed gases can be done safely, but should not be taken for granted. It is critical to read and follow all of the manufacturer's instructions regarding usage and storage of pressure tanks. As CO2 is especially sensitive to temperature shifts, CO2 tanks should not be stored in direct sunlight, or enclosed warm spaces like the dashboard of a car in the sun.
If a CO2 tank does overheat, it is designed to rupture its burst disk, a safety pressure relief valve. This will result in a spray of CO2 vapor, and the tank may spin around a bit. If this happens, the best thing to do is get away from it and wait for it to empty. The valve can then be repaired by an airsmith at a paintball shop, where the burst disk can be replaced with a new unified burst disk set to the proper torque. Similarly, if a burst disk ruptures, or a component leaks on a compressed air system, the best thing to do is get away from it, and wait until it has drained before taking it to a professional for inspection. A thin jet of high pressure compressed air from a broken gauge can inflict serious injury by injecting air under the skin of any body part held next to it. The mantra for parents to teach their younger players about compressed gas tanks is that, if it’s leaking, get away from it and get help.
Many of the CO2, and all of the compressed air (often erroneously referred to as nitrogen or nitro due to their compatibility with nitrogen gas) tanks used in paintball have a limited life span. At cycles ranging from 3 to 5 years, the tanks must be tested and re-certified by a department of transportation approved hydrostatic testing facility. For CO2 tanks, the cost of testing usually comes close to or even exceeds the cost of a new tank, leaving many to simply consider the tanks to be disposable at the end of their retest cycle.
For compressed air tanks, the higher cost of the tank can make testing and certification cost effective. The life span of a tank can be checked by comparing its date of manufacture and DOT hazmat exemption code number, both of which are stamped on the tank, to the information available at hazmat.dot.gov.
In addition to the legally required inspection, it is wise to regularly perform visual inspections of tanks, to make certain they are not leaking, chipped, damaged, or showing other signs of physical wear. The tank’s valve or regulator should also be checked to make certain it is not loose in the tank. CO2 tank valves are not considered to be user serviceable, and should never be removed or installed by anyone but a professional trained in maintaining high pressure compressed gas equipment. At the time of this writing two deaths are known to have occurred relatively recently, due to partially full CO2 tanks accidentally being unscrewed from their valves. These are the only two deaths known to have been caused directly by a paintball gun or paintball compressed gas tank. At least one of these accidents was suspected upon preliminary investigation to be due at least in part to modification of the tank’s valve by an untrained person. More information on the CO2 tank valve issues, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s related warning can be found HERE.
As with any piece of paintball equipment, if you are ever in doubt about how to properly handle, check, service or repair a compressed gas tank, get in touch with the manufacturer or distributor of the product. A few minutes researching on the Internet for a phone number and talking on the phone can be the difference between a safe enjoyable experience and an accident waiting to happen.
THE PLAYING AREA
Arguably the most difficult point to safe paintball play is finding a safe and legal location. When that brand new paintball gun comes out of the wrapping paper under the Christmas tree, it can be very tempting to take it out in the back yard and try it out. Safety aside, that may not be legal. In many cities there are ordinances prohibiting or heavily restricting the use of airguns. In Palm Bay, Florida, for example, the city’s code against discharging a firearm includes a clause stating that its definition of firearm includes not only firearms but also airguns, though it provides an exception whereby paintball guns may be used at a municipal paintball field. Violation of this law can result in a fine of up to $500 and up to 90 days in jail. Most of the sales staff at the large chain stores don’t bother to mention that when selling paintball starter kits.
In addition to being in a place where paintball is legal and on land where the land-owner has given permission there are a number of other safety issues to consider. A paintball playing field needs to have a buffer of at least 300 feet between areas where the paintguns will be fired, and any persons, pets or property that are unprotected (i.e. not wearing paintball goggles.) Optionally, 20 foot tall paintball netting can be erected to form a boundary between playing fields and “safe zones.” The area also should be free from items that will be trip and fall hazards to running players who have focused their concentration on the paintballs flying through the air.
For minors playing, adult supervision is mandatory. Barrel blocking devices, goggles and chronographs only work when they are used. Younger, and often adult players for that matter, need to be watched over to make sure that goggles aren’t removed on the playing field, that decisions aren’t made to increase the velocity to unsafe levels to get that extra bit of range, etc. A full description of the components that make up safe paintball field operation can be found in the ASTM standard F1777-97.
Setting up and maintaining a safe, legal paintball playing area is not a quick and simple process. As an alternative, many players go instead to a commercially operated field. Commercially operated fields offer a number of advantages. Legal issues will have already been taken care of through zoning variances. Paintball barrier netting, or boundaries will be in place to segregate the fields from the staging areas, chronographs will be in use and field staff will be supervising games. Commercially operated fields also offer other bonuses to the player, in that there will be a group of people to play against and often improvements to the field, like inflatable bunkers on tournament style fields or forts and bunkers on scenario fields. Often there will be an airsmith on site to help with any equipment problems and commercial fields also supply rental equipment, which means other family members can come along to try out the game without investing first in gear.
Unfortunately, like most businesses, not all paintball fields are well run. Spending some time asking local players, and even an advance trip to check out a field are a great way to pick the winners from the losers.
PAINTBALL GUNS ARE FOR THE GAME
It almost seems so obvious that it shouldn’t
need stating, unfortunately it does. Just like most sporting goods
equipment – baseball bats, hockey sticks, and golf clubs, paintball guns
have been misused to cause serious injuries to innocent victims.
As paintball equipment is more common in US homes, assaults and drive by
shootings with paintballs have made the news more frequently. As
a parent, no one is in a better position than you to decide when your child
is mature enough to own a paintball gun. Some parents opt to keep
their minor children’s paintball guns in a locked closet or other secure
location when not in use. Not only does this stand as a protection
from misuse, but it also provides the young player a buffer against accusations
if paintball vandalisms or assaults happen in their neighborhood.
As a paintball player since 1986, and someone who has worked with youth through Scouting and church groups even longer, I would like to say that I am encouraged that you, as a parent are taking the time to read this article. Paintball can be played safely, and in my experiences traveling North America to attend paintball tournaments and big games with thousands of people on the fields, accidents and serious injuries have been very few and far between. Keeping paintball safe depends on the players and for the younger players it depends on you, their parents looking out for them. It is your responsibility to ensure that both you and they are educated in paintball safety. The parent who absentmindedly buys their child a paintball gun and leaves them unsupervised to do with it as they will is one of the greatest dangers facing our sport today. On the other hand the parent who takes the time for education and supervision is on the road to expanding their relationship with their child, supporting them in an exciting activity and sometimes even joining them in one of the world’s most enjoyable sports.
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