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Roger Weller, geology instructor

by Cory Hoyt
Physical Geology
Fall 2010


Paintballs and the Environment

          The game now known as paintball got its start from humble roots.  The original paintball marker was designed for the U.S. Forest Service to mark trees.  Originally, Forest Service workers lugged buckets of paint up hills so they could mark trees for various purposes like logging and such, and the Nelson Paint Company stepped up and made the Forest Service workers job a little easier.  Where before the forest service had to lug a bucket of paint and a sprayer around, by creating a gun that shot balls of paint shelled in glass, the workers could move easier through the woods and save themselves time and energy.

            The paintball marker made its next move to the cattle industry.  When cattle workers marked cattle, they originally used chalk.  This was a problem when the cattle were out in a pasture or didnít want anyone near them.  The cattle workers needed a way to mark the cattle from a short distance away.  The Nelson Paint Company stepped up again with a paintball marker that the cattle workers could use.

            It wasnít long after this that the game got its start.  Three men, Hayes Noel, a stock trader, Bob Gurnsey, and author Charles Gaines, in 1981 held the first recorded paintball game.  It was a capture the flag scenario and the winning team captured the flag without a shot being fired.  They soon formed the National Survival Game Company and the game moved on and increased in popularity from there.

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            At the center of the game is the paintball used to mark your target.  In the beginning the paintball was an oil based paint encased in a glass shell.  This was quickly changed for safety reasons and because proper headgear had not yet come out.  The problem with oil based paint as well was the fact that it would not come out of cloths very well.  Paintballs today are an organic paint compound and wrapped in a gelatin-like shell.  This non-oil based paint mixture is much easier to wash out of clothing.

            The process of making a paintball is simple.   In some instances the paint is made at a separate location than the gelatin shell, but many paintball makers now have the machines necessary in one plant.  The shell is made by creating a mixture of sorbitol (which is usually used as a sweetener or laxative) and other sweeteners are added.  So the paintball can me molded and it can hold its shape, the gelatin is added.  This mixture is melted together and divided into strips so they can be pressed into hollow cups for the paint to go into.  The paintballs are then filled with the paint mixture, and the halves are combined forming the paintball.  An animation file that shows the basic process is located at:

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                        (Picture source:

            To cool the paintball, they are placed in a bin a shaken, not stirred, so the paintballs can keep their uniform roundness while cooling.  After cooling they are packaged in batches of 500 rounds or so a bag and placed in boxes that range from 500 rounds to 2,500 rounds.

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            The compound now used for the paintball paint is a mixture of mineral oils, food coloring, calcium, polyethylene glycol, sorbitol, and iodine.  Each of these chemicals provides a unique quality to the paint to make it as easy to shoot as possible.  As all of these are natural, meaning they are completely safe if ingested on purpose or accidentally.  This is good due to the tradition of some paintball teams making a rookie eat a paintball before he joins the team.  Each chemical serves a purpose, but each company as well guards its recipe carefully as well as the reasons for each.  Not much exists on the web about the purposes of each component in the paintball paint.

            What does exist speaks of only a few on the components, the first being sorbitol.  Sorbitol helps to keep the moisture content in the paintball constant.  Because the paint is water-based, sorbitol is very important to the paint mixture so the paint in the ball does not dry out or harden.  Sometimes gelatin is added to keep the different compounds from separating in the paintball.  Polyethylene Glycol is used to help the paintball decompose.  When exposed to large amounts of water it breaks down the shell and the paint. 

            So paintball, from its early and humble beginnings has emerged to become a world-wide sport.  From the indoor speedball fields to the outdoor scenario games, the paint is the same.  From a dangerous, glass shelled, oil based paint to a safer, organic paintball, the sport is forever changing the world of extreme sports.

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