Paintball’s Timeline of History

Paintball will be thirty years old come June 27th, 2011.  Here are some highlights of those thirty years:


Numerous myths surround the invention of paintball. It’s probably true that just about any kid growing up during the 50s and 60s thought that it would be a great thing to be able to shoot some kind of real bullets out of their toy army guns.

Lots of us did, in fact, do just that. Remember the admonition that if you play with a BB gun, “you’ll put your eye out with that thing!”? (This is precisely the reason why I had to borrow a friend’s gun when I wanted to play BB gun and dirt bomb wars.) Who can blame parents’ reluctance to let their children to play with toys that can cause permanent injury?

In the late 1970s, the Nelson Paint Company developed a gas-operated gun and marking pellets for a variety of industries, including Forestry and Ranching. The guns and pellets were used variously to mark trees for removal, cows to be culled from the herd, and essentially anything else that required putting a semi-permanent mark on an object from a distance.

Given that the folks using these guns were normal American outdoor types, it probably took less than thirty seconds from opening the package to the first cowboy-on-cowboy paintball war. Whoever was involved in that encounter can lay legitimate claim to having played the first ‘paintball’ game.

The official history of the game (which can be found in numerous incarnations on the internet – HERE and HERE for example) and in the various books written about the sport) begins with two friends, Charles Gaines and Bill Guernsey. The story goes that they were discussing the advantages and disadvantages of different types of survival skills (city survival versus outdoor survival).

They concluded that they needed something, like a marking gun and a set of rules, that would allow people to test their individual skills against each other. After about a year of searching, Gaines and Guernsey chose the Nelson Paint company’s guns and pellets, developed a set of rules for ‘survival games,’ and invited 12 friends out to the woods of Henniker, New Hampshire in June of 1981 to test out their new creation.

(I recently found and confirmed the physical location of where the first game was played.  You can read about it in my series of articles on the site, starting HERE.  You can also see a map of some historical locations HERE)

The version of the game played back then was “every man for himself” – quite unlike today’s team sport.  Interestingly enough, the winning player won without firing a single shot – he just snuck around the woods, displaying his ultimate hunter skills and out-foxed all of the other players. Shortly after this experimental game, the inventors created a company called The National Survival Game to market the sport as a franchise. Several playing fields still in existence today started out as NSG franchise fields – but unfortunately for the founders of the game, many other would-be field owners felt that their fees were too high and it wasn’t long before several independent operations had opened up for business.

In 1982, NSG decided it would be a good idea to have their fields host local competitions that would lead to a National Tournament Championship, creating what has now become the high-end of the sport – tournament paintball.

A few years later, several fields across the country hosted what were then termed Big Games – the objective of which was to have as many people as possible playing at once. Shortly thereafter, the concept of the Scenario Game was born – events which have a theme and encourage players to role-play within it. (William Shatner, the actor of Star Trek and TJ Hooker fame, has popularized scenario games as annual charity events, the first of which had a Star Trek theme, pitting the Federation, the Klingons and the Borg against each other.)

By the mid-80’s, virtually every manner of paintball play had been invented, and it was only a question of growing the sport and gaining wider appeal.

By the beginning of the nineties, paintball was well on its way to becoming a pastime enjoyed by millions around the world.

The sport is now recognized by the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, whose marketing surveys reveal that it is a billion-dollar industry, played by over 15 million people every year in the United States alone.

Paintball is  one of the largest E-Bay sporting goods categories and even has several television shows broadcast nationally on a weekly basis.

From playing ‘army’ in the woods, paintball has now become a common, everyday activity, enjoyed by millions from all walks of life.


1981:               First game played (Henniker, New Hampshire)

1982:               First national competition played

1986:               First national publication out on newsstands

1990:               First publicly-traded paintball company established

1992:               First National Tournament League founded (NPPL)

1996:               First Nationally-Televised Competition (ESPN)

1999:               First Recognized as a Legitimate Sport by SGMA

2000:               First National Collegiate Event

(Most of the preceding text was excerpted from my book A Parent’s Guide To Paintball, which you can read more about or purchase HERE)

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