Why Are Paintball Guns Called “Markers”?

Have you ever wondered why paintball guns are called “markers”? It is kind of a strange name for a gun, don’t you think? What is a paintball marker and why did it even come into existence?

Once you read this post about the history of paintball guns, you will quickly understand why paintball guns are called markers, and why the name stuck!

What is a Paintball Gun?

Marking Trees & Cattle! The Humble Origins of the Modern Paintball Marker

To understand how the term paintball markers came about, we have to roll back the years to 1970. In 1970, Charles Nelson had made quite a name for himself in the paint related product business.

Invetor of the paintball markerOne of his many inventions was a paint squirt device that allowed US Forestry Officials to quickly mark trees that were to be cut down, with a dash of paint. The US Forestry department asked Nelson to develop a product that will allow Forestry officials to mark trees with paint, only this time be able to do it from a distance. This was essential as Forestry officials found it difficult to always walk right up to a tree that had uneven terrain or streams or bushes around it.

Nelson then went to his drawing board, used his knowledge about the paint business, and invented a product he coined a paintball “marker”. It was a simple name, as that is what the product did. Nelson managed to do this by encapsulating paint into a little gelatin film that exploded upon impact, and could be shot through the air, by his paintball marker.

Nelson was mostly responsible for the invention of encapsulating paint in a gelatin film. To shoot this gelatinous ball of paint, he took the help of a company called Crossman to develop the first paintball marker, a gun they together called the Crossman 707.

Though the marker worked and did its job, it didn’t have much demand. After all, there were only so many US Forestry officials looking for paint markers then!

But, Nelson kept the concept of a paintball marker alive, well after the Crossman discontinued manufacturing. This time, he again teamed up with a company called Daisy, an airgun manufacturer at that time, to create a gun they called the Splotchmarker. This was in 1972. Though paintball as a sport wasn’t invented until 1981, the Splotchmarker and Nelson’s paintball “marker” managed to stay alive, fulfilling the needs of a small audience that had a need to shoot things and mark them with paint. Splotchmarker eventually became Nel-Spot 007.

first paintball marker ever made
The Nel-Spot 007, the world’s first marker used in a game of paintball

Splotchmarker as a name was probably dropped because it was quite a mouthful, and probably because it wasn’t such a great name on second thought.

Besides US Forestry officials, Nelson found that cattle ranchers wanted to buy their markers, as it allows them to mark and tag their cattle from a distance, something that saved them a lot of time.

This went on for a few years, until the paintball marker found its modern and more prevalent use as a paintball gun.

The First Paintball Game, Ever!

Paintball as a sport was basically first conceived by a couple of drunk guys. Funny as it might sound, this origin of paintball becoming a sport is quite well documented.

The drunk discussion happened in 1977, between Hayes Noel and Charles Gaines. Hayes was a stock broker and Charles was a writer. Initially, Hayes and Charles thought of paintball as a test of human survival. They basically wanted to equip players with a harmless weapon with which they could see who outlasted the others in the woods (Woodsball comes from that!). They fantasized about matching upĀ  players from different walks of regular life with somebody who was a true outdoors-man, like maybe a hunter or a soldier, people skilled to survive.

Their idea of paintball as a game was then shelved for almost 4 years, as Hayes went back to stock trading and Charles to his writing.

World's first paintball game
The world’s first paintball game, played in June of 1981, in Sutton, New Hampshire. This remains a paintball playing venue to this day!

In 1981, our paintball enthusiasts in Hayes and Charles were back at it. This time, they roped in another believer in Bob Gurnsey, a ski shop business owner. They decided that the previously discussed Nel-Spot 007 would be the paintball marker of choice, probably because it was the only paintball marker available.

To rule out the possibility of the Nel-Spot 007 maiming or killing someone with paint, the trio decided it was a good idea to test the gun on a human subject. The chosen test subject was Shelby Gaines, son of Charles Gaines, the writer in the story if you remember it right. Shelby approved the lack of pain, or maybe that the pain was tolerable, after getting shot by the Nel-Spot 007. His exact words were apparently “It didn’t hurt much!”.

The trio then put out invitations to begin their game. 9 players quickly signed up. The trio wanted to play as well. So, there were now 12 who wanted to play their first paintball game in Henniker, New Hampshire.

A package was put together, providing players with a kit that equipped them with the Nel-Spot 007, food, supplies and of course, alcohol. The package cost $175, a rather steep price for those days.

To stick to their original concept of pitting people from regular walks of life against people used to surviving in the outdoors, the teams were chosen carefully.

One one team were our stock broker, writer, ski shop owner and a venture capitalist. To make sure they weren’t completely clueless in the macho and outdoors department, they roped in a boxer and forester as well.

The other team consisted of six hunters, people who were used to shooting, to kill no less.

The first game was a capture the flag styled game. The playing field was a 80 acre ski area, covered by forest. The playing field was littered with 4 flag stations, each with 12 flags. Docked at these flag stations were referees who blew their whistles every 15 minutes, to help the paintball players find the station, if they lost hope in their map reading skills.

After an intense battle that saw as many paintball shots fired as obscenities yelled at each other, out emerged a person named Ritchie White as the sole remaining survivor. If you were wondering what his profession was, well, he was the Forester in the group. Perhaps his experience with using the Nel-Spot 007 to mark trees from a distance came in very handy, to mark his opponents with paint.

That game in 1981, conceptualized by 12 men over drinks is what has snowballed into modern day paintball, a game played by about 3.4 Million* Americans, in 2017. The paintball industry in 2017 saw total sales of paintball guns, paint, paintball masks, accessories, clothing, gear and miscellaneous product sales that amounted to $157 Million*. *https://www.statista.com/statistics/191920/participants-in-paintball-in-the-us-since-2006/

The next time you try paintball, take a moment to think of those 12 pioneers who decided to battle it out in cold New Hampshire, not even knowing that they would invent the sport of paintball, now ranked the 15th most popular extreme sport in the world.