Page last updated at 14:30 GMT, Tuesday, 26 May 2009 15:30 UK

Is there a problem with paintball?


In battle with paintball fanatics - 'It's such an adrenaline rush'

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

Germany is considering a crackdown on paintball after a teenager killed 15 people in March. But is it harmful to dress up in overalls and run around the woods covering each other in goo?

So there you are crawling through the undergrowth training your sight on an unsuspecting group of enemies.

Rental: Vast, vast majority of UK market - players hire marker, overalls, mask and buy paintballs at site
Scenario: Players with own kit attend monthly mass themed battles
Tournament: Played in open arenas with shaped spongey shelters

You're just about ready to pull the trigger and there's a pain in your side. As you sink to the ground, you hold up your hand and a few bars of Barber's Adagio plays.

You're dead. Only you're not. It's not blood you're spattered with, but fluorescent yellow paint made out of vegetable dye.

This isn't real war, but merely the insistent thwock and pop of paintball pellets being fired.

And, sounding a little bit Basil Fawlty, the businessmen and enthusiasts of the world of British paintball would rather you didn't mention the word "war".

Typical paintballer

They also are not massively keen on the words, "warlike", "militaristic", "pseudo-militaristic", "battle", and "gun".

The words they would like you to use are "outdoors", "sport", "leisure", "fun" and "a bit of a laugh".

Man hit in the head, Campaign Paintball, Cobham, Surrey
The sport has been in the UK for more than 25 years

They don't want the general public assuming that the typical paintballer is like Mike Watt from the cult comedy Spaced, kitted out in camouflage gear, warpaint, an ammo belt, a knife, Rambo-style bandanna and two guns.

And at the moment they're particularly concerned because of anxiety over paintball in Germany after the Winnenden school massacre, which saw teenager Tim Kretschmer shoot 15 people and then himself.

In the aftermath of the murders, it was reported that the German government planned to ban paintball - among a raft of anti-firearms measures - because the activity encouraged violence.

This is anathema to Steve Bull, owner of Powerplay Skirmish Wakefield and spokesman for the UK Paintball Sports Federation.

No Rambos

"I've never really known these militaristic people. We made a conscious effort in the mid 1990s to distance ourselves from the gun culture.

"It is not all Rambos in the woods for the weekend. It's just good fun. It is a leisure industry. It isn't an aggressive sport."

Some sites have plain or camouflage overalls
Guns called markers
Powered by CO2 canister
Ammunition goes in hopper on top
Balls are gelatine capsules full of vegetable-based dye
Players must wear masks at all times to protect eyes

Even the distinctive paintball gun, with its long barrel, "hopper" on top and gas canister at the back, is not a gun.

"We call them markers," says Jim Sennett, co-owner of Campaign Paintball in Cobham, Surrey. "The word gun tends to give the wrong impression."

Mr Sennett has been in the business 24 years, first discovering the sport while travelling in the US. His first site, in Beaconsfield, had only a handful of guns. Now his 110 acre site is one of an estimated 200 in the country.

While the corporate bonding market has been in decline, paintball has become a standard fixture for stag weekends and birthdays. Several hundred thousand people go to one of the venues every year. The UKPSF's research suggested a 17% increase in visits between 2006 and 2008.

Real guns

Go to a paintball venue on any given Saturday and you will see people running around in woodland, dodging around flimsy wood shelters, blasting each other with vegetable dye. They get dirty, they sustain superficial bruising and they often spend rather a lot of money.

But the German authorities clearly think there may be something more sinister in it. Paintball for many years did not enjoy a clear legal status in Germany, says Mr Bull, and was primarily played on US military bases. And when it did start to gain ground, players generally shunned military fatigues.

Paintballer takes cover, Campaign Paintball, Cobham, Surrey
When you are shot you are out

But some in the governing parties in Germany say it is a malign influence because it "simulates killing" and trivialises violence. But unlike the issue of a link between computer games and violence there seems to be a lack of research into any correlation between paintball and bloodshed.

"It has never been popular in Germany," says Mr Sennett. "You are shooting a projectile at someone else. But you compare that to shooting real guns and it's just not the same. You ask anyone who has played paintball and the last thing you want to do is to go to war. It makes you realise how easy it is to get shot."

But after the initial reports that Germany might opt for an outright ban on the sport, it is now more likely that there will be tougher regulations rather than a ban.

Regulation has a lighter touch in the UK, where at the rental sites, large parties of 11 and 12-year-olds are common, dropped off by parents at the beginning of the day at what must be one of the country's most expensive creches. It's usually five or six pounds for a hundred paint balls, and a child can go through those very quickly indeed.

Banning them from playing would be a terrible plan, suggests Ivan Martin, director of Delta Force paintball.

Michael Vaughan and Andrew Flintoff in paintball gear
Paintball has been used to encourage team bonding

"We live in a country where common sense prevails. Where do you draw the line - ban computer games, ban toy guns, stop kids playing cops and robbers. That's fantasy violence.

"It doesn't have a paramilitary bent or training for real war. I've been operating it for 21 years. I've seen more violence on a Sunday league pitch than I have on a paintball site."

One might think there is no danger of paintball - established and mainstream as it is - ever facing a serious legal threat in the UK. And yet the British paintball community is ever wary. It pays to be extremely careful, lest you suddenly find the legislative spotlight shone on your sport or your livelihood.

Some owners and enthusiasts worry about being tarred with the same brush as airsoft. Airsoft uses replica guns that frequently look very realistic and costumes that give a distinctly more pseudo-military feel.

Lucy Hahn, a 23-year-old student, is one of the hardcore paintballers with an interest in the healthy future of the sport.

Chris Edwards
There are professional paintballers, who compete in a European league

She wears nearly £2,000 of kit. Baggy trousers that look almost like what a snowboarder would wear, goggles, an elaborate harness for ammunition and a gun which features a computer chip to control the rate of fire and a motorised hopper to feed the ammunition in faster. It is a long way from the normal rental kit.

"It's what I spend pretty much all my spare time doing. It's a great way to release pent-up anger - get out there and blow off a bit of steam. I play with people in their 50s who have been playing for 30 years.

"I'm not obsessed. People can get addicted to the adrenaline, the rush it gives you."

And restrictions will have a direct impact on the British teams in Europe's semi-professional paintball leagues. Chris Edwards, who runs the Birmingham Disruption team, would not want to lose the supply of players and teams that Germany provides, in the event that it is restricted in some way.

For now though, the thwock and pop will continue.

Send us your comments using the form below.

Its like the news article I read yesterday about a man being pulled over for laughing whilst driving. The world is becoming draconian to the extreme, essentially cracking down on fun. I'm pretty sure alcohol kills more people than paintball, but are they going to ban that? How about cigarettes? Any takers? Of course not, people would not stand for it. Utterly absurd.
Sam Taylor, Oxford, UK

If authorities are really worried about the likelihood of some paintballers taking it too seriously and going on a real rampage, the smartest thing to do would be to let paintballing continue as is, and pay more attention to it as a likely "choke point" where the disturbed might like to practice their fantasies. The vast majority of paintballers are just acting out harmless childhood "war-games". Banning it would simply stop the majority of that harmless fun and drive the people who use it for more sinister practice underground. Do the right thing and allow the game to continue but encourage vendors to report unusual behaviour etc. People who therefore end up on watchlists can then be monitored more closely and when combined with renting too many sick films and disturbed blogging or chatroom talk can raise red-flags for potential crimes in the planning stage.

Paintball is as much an analogue for war as Volleyball or Lacrosse. Deep in the mists of time, sport was always a way to prepare for battle or to prove your prowess in it. Paintball is unfairly targeted because you pull a trigger rather than smash a ball.
HL, Nashville, USA

Last time I went paintballing there was a couple there who shot the hell out of each other for three hours and went home very happy and very bruised. More kinky than warlike if you ask me. Oh and if you get hit in the softer tissues, it flippin' well hurts.
Ian, Cambridge, England

Obviously people are quick to point the blame after an incidence such as that in Germany. Clearly we are not addressing the real issues of people like Tim Kretschmer such as low self esteem etc.

Fencing is a sport that simulates real battle field skills. Surely we don't go and ban fencing after every stabbing incidence.

Stop playing the Blame Game and address the real issues with our teenagers
Blake, Dunedin, New Zealand

I've played paintball twice and while i can't argue with the comments about the adrenaline rush I can disagree with the comments about the lack of militaristic (is that a word?!) overtones. On both occasions the games have been run with military references. It was similar to military style exercises I took part in, in the air cadets, years ago.

On both occasions head shots were allowed. The second time I ended up with concussion and 2 large lumps on my head!

I'm not familiar with the current rules and regulations but I would suggest that these sites should be a bit more regulated ( without an HSE overload).

What possessed someone to actually shoot me at close range in the head albeit with a paintball is another matter entirely! I'm afraid the Germans may be on to something, however I don't think banning paintball can be the answer.
Rebecca, Scotland

Paintball is great fun! Does this mean we should be banning clay pigeon shooting and archery too?!

If you want to ban a violent sport ban football - I've seen a huge number of fights break out at games whilst working as a steward with far more people being injured than at an average paintball game
Lucy, Scotland

I think Michael Moore summed up this problem best in his film, "Bowling for Columbine": the propensity for any nation to wage war is as great an influence on the actions of lone gunmen as paintball, video games, rap music, movies or crowd violence at football matches. Germany has had a chequered history, no doubt, but so has Britain, America and almost every other Western nation. Perhaps it would be more telling to look at truly peace-loving countries (if there are such things) to see how many massacres are carried out by individuals in high schools or shopping malls before deciding to single out one leisure activity for blame.
Dave, Cheltenham, UK

I can say I've played plenty of times and I never feel like I'm playing war. I've had teenaged girls who hate violent movies play with me and they just love it! Its also important to remember that when we shoot out another opponent we often say "I got you", not, "I killed you". We some times use military words like "flank" when we're trying to outmanoeuvre our opponents but there isn't much to it. Its a fun sport, I honestly think video games and movies have more of an impact than paintball in creating violent people.
Peter C, Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada

I agree with the comment in the piece "It makes you realise how easy it is to get shot" I have been to about 6 paintball days in 20 years and it was always good fun and I have come away thinking I would never want to be involved in a real war. I arranged a paintball day for my son and his friends for his 14th birthday 2 years ago, and again, the boys all enjoyed the day but none of them showed any sign of being aggressive during or afterwards.
Tom Ray, Hemel Hempstead, UK

It's interesting to note whilst the article down plays the military aspects of paint ball the majority of the pictures show paintballers wearing camo gear. For an industry that wants to distance itself from military themes, they're not really succeeding.

As for the terminology, let's face it, it fires a projectile, whether it's a bullet or not is irrelevant it's a gun and it's gun shaped.

Does it glorify war and gun crime, that depends on your perspective, but I'd rather someone go to a paintball event and vent their anger with vegetable dye than a shopping mall with an actual gun.
Marty, March

I spent nine years in the military, with regular firearms training, but we used to 'play' paintball on weekends and it bears no resemblance to real warfare at all. The fact is that paintballing requires interaction with other people, team building, discipline, understanding of safety, following rules and many other things that the 'loner' characters that seem to perpetuate killing sprees often lack.

Compare that to true 'warfare' simulation computer games, and other games where a civilian killing spree can be part of the game (i.e. Grand Theft Auto). These are often played by teenagers in an unsupervised environment, where they're sat on their own, isolated from 'reality' and not having to consider the feelings of 'real' people.

I've served my country carrying real firearms, I've been paintballing many times, but I've also played computer games and I'm convinced that the latter are the more dangerous.

Also, perhaps encouraging teenagers to participate in more outdoor activities where they learn about people, teams and success through working together, and how to overcome whatever difficulties they're having in a constructive manner, would reduce the feelings of despair and isolation that lead to these tragic events.
Doug Chaney, London, UK

I went paintballing once, aged 58, with my 18-y-o son who was about to start uni. It's the only time I've ever fired a gun. It was terrific fun, very physical, very entertaining, mad to suggest that it promotes militarism or lack of respect for life. Eight years on, my son is a doctor who will specialise in paediatrics. He learned to use a rifle while at uni as a reservist in the Australian Army Combat Engineers and hasn't used a gun since.
Faustino, Brisbane, Australia

It is the individual who is either responsible or irresponsible when it comes to violence.

Give a man a baseball bat and he can either play baseball or he can use it as a weapon. That doesn't mean we outlaw baseball.

Give a man a car and he can drive it and be safe of drive dangerously and be a killer, but we don't stop using cars.

One, clearly troubled, teenager went on that killing spree. Paintball, computer games, films, books, sports etc were not to blame.
James B, Sheffield, UK

I'm a fan of the FPS games and all though the graphics are becoming ever more sophisticated they are never close to real-life.

This was close but it's still just fun as you tend to be a bit more brave than if the bullets were real. I have to agree though that after trying paintballing I know I do not want to go to war. I'd be shot within the first few minutes!
Stephen, Cardiff

I recently enjoyed a paintball day with my friends, there were other groups there, and a bit of healthy competitiveness ensued, but this was not violent , and any person who wanted to surrender could, and get them self out of the game. The "enemy" team even applauded me when I got out, since I had been the last man standing and had "gave them a good game" - the entire experience was friendly and much more strategy and duck-and-cover-based than aggressive.
James, Portsmouth

I think that not calling it a gun is more damaging than calling it by its proper name. In any culture there are people who have trouble differentiating between fantasy and reality. Outlawing the fantasy (i.e. play fighting) is not a solution. We need to identify and help those people who might 'lose it'.
Matthew, St Albans

I can see why a link is being made between the 2, but I would have thought that AirSoft would have been a more direct link... Using replica "guns" and fatigues to effectively simulate warfare. To me, paintball is much the lesser evil of the two... and moreover is a lot of fun. (as is AirSoft!)

All said and done, I am not sure that this would help in any way... it would probably force this underground. Perhaps what they need is to bring in legislation to ensure that people who do attend these sort of things are recorded and give organisers a method to report any "abnormal" behaviour to someone so they can be looked at?? Overall I think this is a very mature reaction to this issue but possibly slightly misguided.

I think that there is some link between Paintball/Airsoft and these sorts of incidents and something does need to change. Remember folks, Guns don't kill people... people kill people. By over simplifying it (ie the removal of such facilities as Paintball/AirSoft) you end up making it much more complicated.
Ross McInnes, Andover

I've been paintballing since I was in my second year of university, and it's great fun. Of course there's a macho aspect (wild charges across no-man's lands where you're almost guaranteed to get splattered with enemy paint paint spring to mind). However at the end of the day you go for a laugh, and to have fun with your mates.
Matthew Brown, Glasgow, UK

Use whatever phrases you wish - something which fires a projectile in this way is a gun. What else are they mimicking by running around shooting each other?! It's play-soldiers. They would have a lot more credibility if they just admitted it instead of hiding behind "paint-ball speak".
Rosie, Liverpool

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