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Lean Times, Small Balls?

Note: This editorial is the sole opinion of Dale Ford, and doesn’t necessarily reflect the opinions and views of advertisers or sponsors of The Ford Report. No industry people or paintball media were harmed during the writing of this editorial.

Looking out at some of the more well-connected news outlets and blogs like ProPaintball.Com and Paul Richard’s blog View From The Deadbox, there’s been a lot of talk lately about potentially fundamental change in paintball as we know it.

Over in Europe the rumor began that a move from .68 caliber paintballs to .50 caliber paintballs would be a good thing. In America, the idea was run with, and the brainstorming began. In speaking to some people I know about this issue, .50 is seen as a ‘sweet spot’ to get the maximum number of paintballs from a sheet of gelatin as it goes in to the machine that cuts and fills the paintballs. These encapsulators are expensive, sophisticated pieces of equipment, but to change the size of the paintballs coming out of the machine is actually rather simple, involving the replacement of the die rollers in the machine. It’s still an expensive part to replace, but the procedure itself is fairly straighforward. Encapsulators aren’t paintball-specific technology…like a lot of things in paintball, it’s technology adapted from other industries, in this case the pharmaceutical industry.

Basic physics dictates that a .50 Caliber paintball will fly further and straighter than a .68 Caliber Paintball, due to the lighter weight and smaller size of the ball as it flies through the air. To get the same kinetic energy applied to the intended target, velocities will have to increase, since a .50 Caliber paintball is lighter than a .68 Caliber paintball.

While the rumor of a change to .50 Caliber grew in Europe, the economic decline in America has deepened, and the potentially lower costs of shooting .50 Caliber have apparently started gaining a following within in the American Paintball Media and blogosphere. Richmond Italia and Bill and Adam Gardner’s new venture, G.I. Milsim is being spoken of as a revolution-in-the-making. Private conversations with people I know indicate that G.I. Milsim will indeed be a big deal at this year’s World Cup (wherever it’s going to be…), and with the advent of Kingman Training’s 11mm pistols, it makes one wonder if a caliber change will be a part of the revolution.

In the ancient days of the game (when I started playing, that is) several calibers of paint existed, including .62 and .68. The first time I got lit up playing paintball was by a player wielding a .62 caliber Tippmann SMG. The impacts of the paint felt like hits from an M60 machine gun, and interestingly enough, the SMG sounded like the beloved M60 I had fun with in the Army. Several people have commented that a .50 caliber paintball will hurt more than today’s .68. If we were still learning the art of making a paintball like we were back in the late ’80′s when I started, they may have a point. However, I would think that paintball pain isn’t necessarily a function of size as it is quality of the paintball itself.

Today, Kingman Training has their 11mm pistols using 11mm paintballs, and RAP4 makes .43 caliber markers for the military and law enforcement training industries. Very little effort, if any, has been made to make these alternative calibers mainstream.

So my question is, why fix what isn’t broken? While I think it’s reasonable to assume that consumables like paintballs offered at better quality at cheaper prices will appeal to players, are players at the grassroots level willing to have their current equipment rendered obsolete by a change in caliber, or if possible, modified to work with .50 Caliber paint?

How about field owners, who more often than not dictate how players perceive the game, react to having potentially thousands of dollars of rental equipment rendered obsolete? Will a program be enacted to assist field ops with the onerous task of replacing or modifying their rental fleet to work with a new, smaller, possibly more profitable paint? The case can be made that increased profit margins will offset the cost over time of replacing or modifying a rental fleet, but the initial outlay for either option will still fall on the field owner, who in most cases is operating on razor-thin margins to begin with.

While the industry is a vital part of this game we all love, there’s a tendency to try and dictate change from the top down, rather than working from the ground up. It’s true that market forces will dictate what succeeds and what fails, but paintball as a whole is still a relatively small industry, with a tiny, niche market that it services. Small enough that if a majority of the industry gets together and decides that a particular course of action is in the best interests of them, then that will take priority over what may be more in the best interests of the players. Is this really the time to try and make a fundamental change? As much as we admire the skill of the professionals playing the various circuits, they still represent a tiny minority of players out there.

There have been lots of things reviled as the ‘Death of Paintball’. Those included constant air, compressed air, semi-automatic guns, electronic guns, and a host of other innovations that have made the game more enjoyable and easily accessible to players. Will a move to a smaller bore paintball be one of these innovations or will it genuinely hurt the game? I have mixed feelings about it myself. In conversations I’ve had with individuals involved with this current innovation, it’s seen as a savior for an ailing industry.

The increased efficiency of manufacturing paintballs in a smaller caliber to more fully utilize the gelatin sheet going into the encapsulator can possibly have a trickle-down effect to field owners and players. With the potentially decreased operating pressures a smaller caliber marker will require to operate, will this have the effect of higher performance, less expensive equipment over the current state of the art? Will players, field owners and shop owners be willing and able to make the investments in their equipment and rental fleets that will be required by even a gradual changeover to a smaller bore paint?

As for me, I’m facing mixed feelings on this issue. As a player, I love the idea of less expensive paintballs for me to put down range, but having several thousand dollars of equipment rendered either obsolete or in need of likely expensive modifications to continue using them is a bitter pill to swallow. In the end, players, field owners, and shop owners at the grassroots level are the target audience for all of the efforts of the industry, and making a fundamental change in a basic item like the paintball we all shoot isn’t really the way to continue serving their needs.

While I wish the best of luck to those who are trying to reinvigorate the game with their plans, I would caution against using Mil-Sim markers and small bore paint as a solution to what ails the game. Relying on Mil-Sim markers makes the assumption that the Mil-Sim ‘movement’ was ever as large or as influential as it was perceived. While a realistic looking marker may draw in newer, more casual players, there’s no evidence to suggest that these casual players grow into more serious players buying more effective and profitable equipment down the line.

A more reasonable approach like a return to common sense interaction with these players by actually playing on the same field as they’re on from time to time, to a more common sense approach to sponsorships and support of tournament teams of every level, and supporting fields and shops, who are the front line for the industry in making their products available to the players. It’s simply not time to be making fundamental changes like bore size, when a more long term positive result could be achieved by merely getting back to the basics.

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  • FUna
    May 27, 2009

    Excellent article and observations Dale.

    This is one of those things that has popped up occasionally, if only a few times, in paintball since I started playing back in ’88.

    I agree with what Dale has said: mixed feelings.

    .68 caliber paint really is a low-tech throwback to the beginnings of paintball being played using airguns designed for marking trees and livestock. Its time has come and gone.

    However is this the time to change?

    If so, how?

    A smaller paintball, in my opinion, would be great. They would be more accurate (like BBs or pellets), less prone to deviation because of crosswinds, fly faster, and possibly have more range due to less wind resistance.

    But lets say a change to a .34 caliber ball (1/2 of .68) was made and the balls were significantly more accurate and outranged the .68s? Current paintguns would be instantly obsolete. We couldn’t mix .68 and .34 caliber players on the same field when one player has a huge advantage over the others.

    (Don’t bring up the “its the player not the gun” argument…that only works on a level playing field…a smaller ball would unbalance everything on a fundamental level.)

    Like Dale alluded to, it would be a really painful transition for paintball as a whole from manufacturers, to players, to field owners.

    Would it be worth it? Yes if the change was feasible for a number of reasons some of which Dale touched on: cheaper paint. Smaller, lighter, cheaper paintballs. Paintball guns that can be made more compact and lighter. New, innovative loading systems that aren’t conducive to .68 caliber paint. Paintball guns that can have more of a mil-sim look and feel making paintball look more attractive than airsoft. More range. Better accuracy. Less PAIN (young kids and even some adults won’t be as scared to try).

    Can it be done? Sure, but the transition itself could destroy paintball as a recreational sport as it is currently and it would take years to recover from the lost players, fields and manufacturers that go out of business, and lost revenue to and restructuring of tournaments and scenario events.

    Would the end justify the means though?

  • 1NOnly
    May 28, 2009

    I’m all for it to be quite frank. From the limited research I have done, it’s obvious that the smaller bore paint is superior in performance. If that means updating my gear or buying completely new geear, then so be it. After all, don’t we buy new gear all the time that offers better performance?

  • Fubarius
    May 29, 2009

    Where are people getting the uninformed idea that smaller paint performs BETTER? I’ve used the RAP .43 cal stuff, performed worse in every way except efficiency.

    Any gains in range from reduced cross section are countered by a loss of range due to even greater reduced mass.

    Ratio of shell thickness to mass is also a factor. The mass decreases faster than the surface area, so the same shell would have less force in impact to break it.

    Now some of these can be counteracted by going to a much faster velocity (last time I did the math, a .43 cal ball would need a velocity of over 500fps to have the same impact force as a .68), but you’d have to change the way we aim the guns. You can barely see a .43 or .50 cal ball fly in the air at 300fps, it would be impossible at 500.

  • shutts67
    May 30, 2009

    My thoughts are that the smaller paintballs would hurt more. With the smaller mass, the speed would need to be increased to make sure the shell breaks on contact. If the same force is delivered in a smaller cross-section, the deceleration will be greater, causing more pain. With that decreased cross-section, the PSI of the impact will rise, possibly forcing the need for new masks, making all current equipment obsolete…

  • splattttttt
    June 1, 2009

    The idea of shifting to a smaller caliber paintball comes up rather often through out the www paintball communities and local groups. And the the most common and typical acknowledgment is that a smaller than a 68cal. paintball would react inferior to the accepted, and more widely used available stock at the moment.
    Smaller bore paint has been available for a long time already and is nothing new to people who use blow guns where paint size is restricted to a 43cal. The latter has not inspired purists of the sport wanting to go and have a custom paintgun manufacturer design them a specific design paintgun to accommodate for this except for law enforcement institutions and the like.
    Up until now, small paint manufacturing facilities have probably made a decent profit with it. But yes… “Lean Times”. Lean times has probably hurt sales substantially due to the many organizations requiring cut backs, and now the manufacturers want to try and sell this stuff to us? LOL
    I ain’t buying it. I like my big balls TY

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