A herd of pre-teen girls from a church group gathered outside the mesh safety fence, giggling, sealing alliances with hugs, and chatting incessantly beneath the Saturday sunshine. They were surprisingly excited.
They’d soon have the chance to shoot each other with globs of paint.
“It’s crazy the variety of different people we get at our field,” says Juan Escutia, co-owner of Urban War Zone paintball in the East End. Birthday parties for 10-year-olds often take the field after college kids, families or adult men fully decked out in camo. Some speak English and some speak Spanish. A few speak neither and have to listen to the safety instructions through a translator.
Yet they all find themselves drawn to this off-beat sport by the same primeval thrill that fills every kid during a game of tag or dodge ball.
The sport’s origins, though, point to a less exciting activity — logging. The first paint ball markers sold to companies looking for an easy way to tag trees and other objects in hard-to-get-to places. Three guys inspired by a hunting safari and Richard Connell’s story “The Most Dangerous Game” started stalking each other with paintballs. Over the years, they developed the equipment and promoted the sport that would grow steadily throughout the 1980s and 1990s.
Today, paint ballers play elaborate games of capture the flag and “protect the president” (that one involves escorting an unarmed team member safely across the field), or reenact historic battles. At Escutia’s field, players simply try to outlast the opposing team as they exchange shots around old spools, culverts and other obstacles.
There is a $15 entry fee for several games, with gun rental prices starting at $12.50 and going down for larger groups. Paint starts at $10 for 250 shots.
If you make it a hobby, Escutia says you can buy the basics — gun, mask and CO2 tank — for between $175 and $225. Fields are easier to come by outside the loop, with Paintball Zone locations in the north and south suburbs, Paintball Bonanza in the southwest, and Survival Game of Texas to the north as well.
While my junior high pals and I used to shoot paintballs at each other with wrist rockets, you’ll find the players at actual paintball fields tend to be a lot more safety conscious.
Everyone wears a full-face mask, guns can only fire at so many feet per second, and rules prohibit people from shooting someone too close. Judging by the kids I saw, getting hit doesn’t seem to hurt. The balls are filled with a water-soluble substance similar to finger paint that washes off.
All in all, it’s not a bad way to blow off some steam.
“It’s the same thing when you’re little kids and you're playing cops and robbers and you're chasing someone down,” Escutia says, “it’s the thrill of a hunt.”