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Paintballs for Dummies

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by Steve Davidson

Paintball is nearly 25 years old (this June it will be) and during that quarter century, the projectiles we shoot have undergone some major changes and improvements.  We?ve gone from oil-based fills to water-based fills, we?ve standardized the caliber at a nominal .68 (there used to be .50 and .62 as well) and manufacturers have introduced new gel formulations and fill formulations that are thicker, they?ve become more weather tolerant and shelf life has been increased enormously.

There?s a wealth of information available about paintballs, there are far more manufacturers than ever before and hundreds of millions of balls are being produced every year.

It?s therefore fairly surprising to find out just how ignorant most players are about paint.  The average paintball players seems to think that they can pick up any old case of paint, ignore who made it, where and how it was stored, pay absolutely no attention to what they are shooting it out of, store it in the sun in the staging area and expect to get flawless performance for a penny or less a ball.

Ignorant, misinformed, stupid, arrogant and just plain dumb.  All paintballs are not created equally.  All paintballs are not stored properly.  All paintballs will not work in all weather conditions.  All paintballs will not react the same way to all paintball markers.  And not all players treat their balls with the respect and attention that they deserve.

We all know that paintballs are made from gelatin and that they have food coloring, starch, fish oils and other chemicals in them.  We all know that they are designed to withstand the punishment of being fired from a gun, fly through the air some hundred plus feet and then break on relatively soft targets (an engineering feat if there ever was one) ? but how much more than that do you know?

Very little, if the evidence at tournaments and scenario games is any indication.

Let?s go through all of the major factors that contribute to lack of paintball performance;  by the end of this thing, you?re going to find out that VERY FEW of these issues have anything to do with the ball and most of them are the PLAYER?S FAULT.

When you purchase paint, what do you look for?  The brand name?  The caliber size?  The shell or fill color?  The price?  The ?grade??

If you?re purchasing your paint based on any of the above considerations, good luck, as none of these factors have a major impact on performance.

Brand names can provide a general indication of quality, but let me clue you in.  More often than not, the paint in that box right now is not exactly the same formulation that was in that box last month and probably won?t be the formulation in the box you buy next week.  Some brand names are protected, in the sense that the manufacturer is using the same molds, gel and fill formulation, drying and tumbling times, same quality specifications, but beyond a certain point, paint manufacturing is an art, not a science.

Just because ?Great Paint? shot good last weekend is no guarantee that it will do the same this weekend.

The caliber size?  Hah.  EVERYONE who makes paint prints ?.68 caliber? on the side of their boxes.  Going by the inserts provided by the barrel manufacturers, .68 caliber can range from .679 to .697, and most likely balls have been produced that are outside of that range as well.

Shell or fill color?  Ok.  And the fact that my gun is anodized red means that it shoots faster than everyone else?s.

Price?  More expensive balls give better performance?  Cheaper balls are crap?  Well, there?s actually something to be said for pricing.  In a lot of cases, price reflects grade, but as we?ll see, that is most definitely not always the case.

How about the grade?  We?ve got brown box, white box, rainbow, skittles, rec paint, scenario paint, tournament paint, professional paint, field paint, premium paint, private label paint, some stuff I left in my car trunk since last season paint, Chinese paint, winter paint, seconds, floor sweepings and ?secret formula? paint.

What?s that all about?  Well, that started early on in the industry when the few manufacturers that existed wanted to offer different products to different market segments.  They made good, basic paint for fields and then they offered a more expensive ball to picky customers, such as tournament teams.

Once more competitors started entering the market, each of them wanted their paint to look and sound better than the other guy?s, so they labeled their boxes and paint with different gradings.

A little less than two decades ago, it was true that the better sounding grade names had a fair amount to do with the higher price being asked for the paint, because it was a better grade of paint;  it was made with thicker, stickier fills, used better gelatin, more attention was paid to quality control and the formulations were tailored for the ball?s use.

Today, the lines between grades have blurred to a large extent and there are plenty of private re-labelers (not to mention manufacturers) who shove any old paint into any old box, depending on how much profit they need to make this week.

Joe Schmo cobbles a few bucks together, contracts with a paint manufacturer to purchase a few million balls (cheapest grade possible), has a fancy box printed up with a name that market research indicates will have a hot response and there it is on the internet, selling for $85 a case ? Joe Schmo?s Absolutely Killer Professional Grade Paintballs.  Joe spends all his money on buying off a few high-profile teams (they get someone else?s tournament grade paint slipped into Joe?s boxes) and on glitzy advertising campaigns and the next thing you know, hundreds of players are buying factory rejects at premium pricing.

(He gets away with this time and again because most paintballers are ignorant?)

There are, in reality, only four or five real gradations and variations amongst paint formulas, and they are there for a distinct purpose.

White box or seconds are usually overruns, rejected paint, paint that didn?t quite make the cut for a higher grade, paint that was not the right color, paint that is too old or paint that, for one reason or another, is not or can?t be packaged as a higher grade.  Sometimes seconds shoot fantastically and, lucky you, you ended up with a great bargain.  Other times you may as well pick up a paintbrush, shove it in the box and then run screaming at your opponents for all the performance you get.  (Hey, look at the pretty colors inside my barrel and all over the inside of my hopper?)

Recreational grade is usually an inexpensive ball with a relatively hard shell and a relatively thin fill.  That?s because most rec players are using lower end guns that put a beating on the ball when fired;  most rec players are just ?fooling around?, so fill thickness is not a major concern, and thinning it out lowers the cost of manufacture.  Sometimes rec paint is re-packaged seconds, as there really is very little difference between the expectations of the white box customer and the rec paint customer.  (Ignorance again?)

Field paint usually has a pretty thick shell and a medium thick fill;  field owners do not want to be cleaning guns all day ? it cuts down on their profit margin and, if the players bounce a few balls off of each other during the day, no big deal, they just might have to purchase another case to get through the day.

Premium paints are usually a medium-thick to medium-thin shell and a relatively thick fill.  Premium paint customers are usually a litter better educated than their rec counterparts;  they?re looking for a straight-flying ball that breaks most of the time and leaves a mark that can be seen from a good distance.  These are players who are willing to pay a bit more for better performance.

Tournament, professional and secret formula paints are (usually) the high-end performers in the market.  These paints are made under exacting quality standards for weight, size, seam, etc., have very, very brittle shells and very, very thick and heavy fills.  People playing for money don?t object to greater expense, want consistency from shot to shot, want the ball to break on target every time (they?ll deal with the barrel breaks) and don?t want that paint wiped off easily.

Beyond that, it?s all just marketing and advertising, so far as ?branding? and box are  concerned.
So.  What all of this essentially means is that you aren?t going to know anything about a paint?s performance until you open up that box, load some of it up and start shooting.

And even then, you?re probably going to be way off base, because there?s a whole heck of a lot of other things to take into consideration first.

Number one ? whenever you purchase paint, you should VISUALLY INSPECT IT.  Most times you can?t do this with internet purchases, which is one of the reasons that buying paint over the web is such a crapshoot.  The vast majority of paint sold through internet stores is sold ?as is ? no returns?.  If soup arrives in the mail, you?re shooting soup, end of story.  Some internet sites offer returns on unopened boxes of paint (but what good does that do you?) and others have better policies, so if you are ordering paint online, only deal with companies that allow you to return paint and/or only companies that you have established a good track record with.

If a retail store you walk into doesn?t offer to let you inspect the paint, or insists that you are not allowed to inspect the paint ? RUN ? don?t walk ? out of the store.

Now that you?ve opened up that box, what are you looking for?

First, check that the bags are sealed.  Paintballs suck up water like a fish, so any holes in the bags are going to allow the balls in there to get spongy.

Next, look for broken balls ? fill in the bag.  You?re paying for 2000 USABLE balls, and broken ones can?t be used.  (If you find one of these, most reputable stores will offer to swap the bag of broken paint, swap the case for another one or lower your price.)

There?s a trick here though.  Some paint (usually lower grades) sometimes arrives with mold-release oil/curing oil in the bag.  This may look like beads of moisture on the inside of the bag, paint smears or a puddle of translucent fluid in the bottom of the bag.

If it really is oil and there?s just a small amount of it, no biggie;  by the time you get that paint home, most of it will have been absorbed into the shells of the balls and will not affect performance.  A huge puddle of it ? I?d want to swap the bag, but other people aren?t bothered by it ? your choice.

But how do you tell oil from fill?  It?s pretty easy, actually.  Oil is translucent (you can see through it) and, when you rub it around in the bag, it beads (makes small droplets).  Fill, on the other hand, is opaque (you can?t see through it) and when rubbed, it smears.

Next, check for dimples and flats.  Dimples are cavities or craters in the shell.  Flats are usually found at the bottom of the bag of balls ? the balls that were resting on the box and being crushed by all of their brothers packed in above them.

More often than not, visual defects such as dimples and flats have little effect on performance ? unless the dimples look like moon craters and the flats are really crushed balls.  I wouldn?t worry about a few of these in a bag of paint ? you can pick them out of the bag and throw then away (for dimples) and you can rotate the box and leave it overnite to eliminate most, if not all, of the dimples.  However, if a good percentage of the balls look like this, chances are its very old paint and you probably don?t want to buy it.  ($10 for the case of crappy looking paint ? sure, no problem?)

Next, look for footballs and peas.  Footballs or eggs are oblong shaped balls ? an error in manufacturing and quality control.  Peas are majorly undersized balls.  If you see more than a few ? dump the case ? as chances are that the rest of the paint, while it looks okay, is wildly varying in diameter, which is going to effect your performance.

Finally, look at the seams, the general overall color of the balls and anything else you might see in there.  Seams should be smooth, straight and have no ?flash? (little rags of gelatin hanging on them).  They shouldn?t be ?weeping? (fill leaking through) as that is a sign of bad seams.

Color is sometimes an indication of whether you are getting seconds or first run paint (?muddy? colors can be an indication of re-used gelatin);  fading of the shell color can sometimes tell you that the paint has been sitting for a while ? but other times can be a reaction to sunlight (what was my paint doing in the sun?) or a reaction of the fill dyes to the gelatin dyes.  None of these is necessarily a bad thing, but its good to know when you actually start shooting the paint.

Last but not least, you can gently pinch a ball or two ? but in reality, that?s not going to tell you much ? unless that ball is very, very spongy.  A little give is normal and acceptable, a lot means a rubbery, usually won?t break, probably swollen from moisture, ball.

(Some players mistakenly believe that if they can pinch and break a ball between their fingers, it will tell them something about the ball.  What, I don?t know, unless it?s that they can get sticky fingers in a unique way.  A sphere is one of the strongest structures known to mankind as stress is naturally spread out over a very large area, and few people can exert enough force with two fingers to equal the impact of a ball flying at over 200 mph.)

Which leads to ?drop tests?, another mistaken belief on the part of players.  Pro players will often be seen grabbing a handful of balls and then dropping them from head-height onto a hard surface and then looking to see how many balls broke on the first hit and how many broke on subsequent bounces.  While it is true that very brittle balls will usually break easily under this test, it really tells very little about the ball?s performance on the field.  The surface its dropped onto affects results, the height affects results, the spot on the ball hitting affects things and, all-in-all, it?s a non-scientific measure of a ball?s potential performance.  Use a drop test if it makes you happy, but don?t rely on it to reveal a whole heck of a lot about performance out of the gun.

So, now you?ve gotten your paint at a decent price and its time to hit the field.  Whoa, hang on a second there.  Where is your paint?  How are you storing it?

Paint is supposed to be stored at temperatures between 55 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit;  its supposed to be stored at 50% humidity and out of direct sunlight and

You?re supposed to rotate the damn box on a regular basis.  Remember the flats we talked about?  Once you get that case of paint, if it was stored upright in the store, flip it upside down, right away.

Throwing paint into the back of the car and letting it sit there overnite is a bad idea.  Sticking it in the closet with the moldy pile of socks isn?t good either (biological action is probably heating those socks up to near combustion temperatures?).  If the paint is in your car, cover it up with something.  If it?s a hot day, turn on the AC;  if its really hot, stick the case (or better yet, the bags of paint) under the AC vent.  If it?s cold, turn on the heater.  Use the vent again if necessary.

When you get to the field ? find a good spot to store your paint, out of the sun, under cover.  If its really cold or really hot, leave it in the car with the appropriate environmental controls running.

Once you open the box ? don?t open all of the bags at once.  Anything left open in the staging area is going to be sucking up moisture while you?re playing.  Sure, its fun for both you and the paint (paint LOOOOVES water) but you?re going to pay the price later on during the day.

If you are going to purchase multiple cases at the game or field and won?t be using it all at once ? ONLY PURCHASE ENOUGH TO COVER YOUR IMMEDIATE NEEDS.  Let the field or event store the paint under proper conditions for you.

DO NOT leave paint sitting in your hopper or tubes between games.  If you stick your gun or pack in the sun, guess what?  Your paint is BAKING.

If you?re camping out over nite at the big scenario game ? don?t store your paint in the tent in opened bags, pods or hoppers.  There?s a little thing called DEW that happens every morning and dew is WATER, which your balls will happily lap up like a wino with a case of muscatel.  Put the paint in the car.  Don?t use the balls in the opened bags.

Now, when it comes to guns, the first rule for paintballs is ? ?its never the gun?s fault, its always the paint?s fault?.  Even in the face of everyone else using the same marker and having excellent results from their paint, YOUR gun is fine, you must have gotten bad paint.

Let me clue you in on something; lean closer, I don?t want anyone else to hear:  most times it?s actually the gun, the shooter or the weather; it?s hardly ever the paint.

Paintball guns have a large variety of different methods for accelerating a ball from a standing start to 300 FPS in a little under 8 inches of travel;  that?s like accelerating your car from 0 to 60 in less than one rotation of your tires, and, no matter how you slice it, that?s pretty darn rough.  Astronauts don?t experience those kinds of forces ? but then again, astronauts are not paintballs, so that?s a relatively pointless analogy.

The point here is that paintball guns do some pretty tortuous things to paintballs and we really ought to be wondering how we get a few intact ones out the end of the barrel, rather than trying to figure out why one or two break in there.

Guns do not all work in the same way (duh), but the critical issue here, for paintball performance, is how your gun imparts energy to the ball.  Some guns use lots of volume and very low pressure.  Others use little volume and very high pressure, and still others lie somewhere in-between.

High pressure, low volume markers do not like brittle paintballs.  Low pressure, high volume markers do their best with brittle paint.

So, if you are shooting a lower-end marker (the vast majority of which are High-pressure, low-volume markers), you?ll be wanting to look for a ball that has a pretty thick shell on it.  If you try and put that ultra-brittle paint through one of these markers, its going to be splooge city out on the field.

By way of contrast, Low pressure, high volume guns can pretty much shoot any kind of shell out there, but if you don?t use relatively thin/brittle shells (to very brittle), you?re going to see a lot of bouncers.

The relative size of your barrel to the diameter of the paintballs being used is also going to affect performance.  If the guy next to you is using the same marker, same barrel and same paint as you and he?s shooting darts while your paint looks like its on a rollercoaster, one of two things is going on.  Either you don?t know how to take care of your paint between games or you?re not using the right diameter barrel.

If you have inserts or different bore back ends for your barrel system, a ?good? fit can be described as being able to blow a ball through the insert or barrel back with a little force.  The ball should not roll through, nor should it require a pneumatic ram to push through.

A lot of information about paint to barrel fit is hype ? its not all that critical ? but the better the fit, the better your relative performance is going to be.

It always amazes me that someone will go out and purchase a high-end marker and then totally disrespect it by paying absolutely no attention to the fact that one of the high-priced features they paid for was the ability to adjust how that gun shoots those balls.  It?s like buying a Ferrari and keeping it in 1st gear ? and then complaining that you get no performance out of it.

When it comes to gun vs. paint performance, your bestest buddy in the whole world are the people who make that gun.  They have these little gnomes hidden away in a dark basement corner over at their offices ? guntech gnomes ? who spend all day diddling away at board settings, regulator settings, dwell-time settings, barrel diameter selections, trigger pressure adjustments, trying to figure out the optimal performance settings so that some other gnomes (the ones they let out of the basement corner) can run around on the field shooting up the other company?s gnomes.  (The gnomes they let out in public are sometimes called ?Pro Players?, but usually they?re called other things?).

Gnomes are obsessive, compulsive, anal-retentive, techno-geeks who live, breath, eat and sleep gun settings.  Once you purchase a gun, if you really want to get performance out of it, you?re gonna have to talk to a gnome.

And what you?re going to say is:  I?m shooting Joe Schmo?s Absolutely Killer Professional Grade Paintballs and I want to know what you recommend for: regulator output settings, rate of fire settings, shooting velocity settings, dwell-time settings and anything else you can tell me that will make that gun shoot that paint the best.

And the Gnome is going to say:  I never heard of that ball before;  what diameter is it, is it a hard or brittle shell and what barrel do you have on your gun?

Told you Gnomes were anal-retentive.

Seriously.  Find out from the paint manufacturer what your ball size is (the nominal diameter, no one can tell you exactly) and most good gun techs familiar with your marker will be able to give you a set-up that will give you close to the best performance you?ll ever see.

DON?T just go on the web and do a search for ?Superfantastic Q87 Marker Settings? ? as most of the people writing that crap have less of a clue than you do.  GO TO THE SOURCE.  They?ll set you straight ? afterall, they want their gun to shoot well so other people will want to buy them.

And don?t make the mistake of thinking that you can follow some of their advice but not all of it.  Guns are pretty complicated these days and most likely everyone at the field will laugh at your attempts to improve the settings because you had a brain fart late Friday nite while watching the NPPL on ESPN.  Believe me, its no fun when everyone laughs at you.  It will make you mad and you?ll want to shoot them all, but you won?t be able to because your new settings are screwing up your gun. (The gnomes are laughing too.)

You?ll also want to probably pick up a micrometer (that size measuring thingie) or a GOOD ball-sizer (several companies make them now) so that you can check to make sure that the ball you are shooting actually is the diameter that you think it is.

Weather.  Good, old climate.  Mother nature loves to screw with paintballers.  (She?s got a thing about gnomes.)
Temperature, humidity, wind velocity and air pressure all affect the performance of your paint.  When it?s hot, your balls want to get rubbery.  When it?s cold, your balls want to get brittle.  When the weather is changing, the air pressure changes and that can affect the velocity you are shooting at.  Increased air pressure lowers velocity, decreased air pressure increases velocity.

The best thing you can do to handle weather conditions is to keep your paint stored in some kind of climate controlled environment, like your car.  But remember that the moment you take them out of the car, those adverse weather conditions are going to start working on the paint, and the longer you?re out on the field, the greater the effect its going to have.  You might be shooting darts at the beginning of the day, but if you leave that paint exposed, you?ll be dhooting harts ? which is another way of saying having crappy results.

Rain and high humidity or extreme cold are probably the worst conditions to deal with.  And there?s not much you can do about it out on the field.  So just remember to adjust your game accordingly ? shoot more, get closer, don?t expect peak performance, and don?t blame the paint that shot great yesterday, because its mother nature?s fault, not the paint?s.

So.  Bet you never thought that paint was so complicated.  Well, it is.  The more you learn about it, the better performance you?re going to get, regardless of whether you?re shooting bargain basement balls or that Joe Schmo stuff.  Before you blame the paint, remember to ask yourself if

Your gun is set up properly
You?re using the right sized insert
If you checked the paint before buying it
If you made sure that what you thought you were buying is what you actually got
If you stored your paint correctly before getting to the field
If you stored your paint correctly at the field
If you checked to see what the weather was going to be like
If you chronoed your gun to an optimal velocity
If you recently checked to see if it?s now still the same velocity
If you?re missing because you?re just a bad shot

Or, if you recently insulted a gnome, Joe Schmo or Mother Nature.

One final word.  The BEST way for you to insure optimal performance from week to week is to find a seller you can trust, follow their recommendations, stick with the same brand and BUY THE BEST PAINT YOU CAN AFFORD.  In the long run, good paint will be a more economical purchase than cheap paint because it will take you fewer shots to get through a game.  It may sound simple, but I?m going to belabor the point.  If you spend $25 bucks on cheap paint and every tenth ball blows up and it takes 12 shots on average to hit your target, its MORE expensive to shoot that paint than it is a $55 dollar case of paint that doesn?t blow up in the gun and gets you eliminations with 3 or 4 shots.  Don?t believe me?  Spend a few outings keeping track of how many shots you take per eliminations you get.  Then spend one weekend shooting a much better grade of paint and compare the average cost of an elimination.  You?ll see that more expensive paint (usually) actually costs you LESS!


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