- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 27, 2001

If you're in the mood for an adventure with the children that is a bit out of the ordinary, consider taking them out and shooting them.

With paint balls, that is. But note that they'll probably shoot you first.

Though some frown on the notion of shooting at another person, paint-ballers find the game far less violent than football and less physically demanding than soccer. The rush of adrenalin and heart-pounding excitement remind you that this is no spectator sport.

In practice, the game of paint ball is much like cops and robbers or army. Unlike those imaginary children's games, paint ball leaves little question who shot whom first. The marble-size paint ball leaves a brightly colored splotch where you "tagged" an opponent or got tagged yourself.

There are several local paint-ball fields where teams of players can compete in wooded areas outfitted with barricades and bunkers. More than 100 players showed up on a recent Saturday at Outdoor Adventures Paintball, an 80-acre site in Bowie that features nine large wooded fields. The facility also has three tennis-court-size enclosed areas for "speedball," or "hyperball," which uses large corrugated plastic barricades for shelter.

Though the vast majority of the players were men and boys, a few brave women and girls showed up as well. As for skill level, some of the women appeared to be better shots than their male counterparts.

Paint-ball games are played with air guns (called "markers") powered by compressed air (actually, compressed carbon dioxide). A hopper attached to the top of the gun holds about 200 paint balls, which can be fired as fast as the trigger can be pulled.

Players are grouped into two teams and escorted by referees to opposite ends of one of the football-field-size playing fields. Scattered throughout the field are trees, brush, wooden barricades and bunkers. When the whistle blows, players dash for cover and attempt to pick off their opponents.

A hit anywhere on the body or gun forces the hit player off the field until the next game. Games typically last 15 to 20 minutes.

The most common game is capture the flag. The objective is to grab a piece of cloth that is hanging in the center of the field and run with it to the opponent's end. Referees closely monitor the action and call players out if they are hit. The refs also enforce safety rules and codes of conduct, including ejecting players who use profanity or display unsportsmanlike behavior.

Because the paint balls fly at up to 280 feet per second (nearly 200 mph), safety is paramount. Players are required to wear protective masks that shield their eyes, face and ears. Off the playing fields, referees are vigilant that guns are de-cocked and fitted with barrel plugs so they cannot discharge accidentally.

As for the question of pain yes, getting hit with a paint ball can sting, like getting snapped with a wet towel, depending on the distance and where you get hit. (Ironically, getting hit in the face mask is painless because the ball never touches the skin. You just have a big splotch of paint to wipe off.) The paint is nontoxic and washes out with detergent.

Besides welcoming walk-ons, Outdoor Adventures plays host to birthday parties and even corporate retreats.

"We get a lot of corporate team-building exercises out here," says Bill Styron, Outdoor Adventures vice president. "Paint ball teaches you to rely not only on your own skills, but on others to achieve your goals."

Players without equipment can rent a complete set of gear, including gun, face mask, ammo belt, 100 paint balls and compressed air and play for the whole day for $30 per person. Walk-ons with their own equipment play for $10 for the day.

Games times vary from season to season and depending on whether players are renting equipment or are walk-ons. Whenever you go, plan to arrive early to fill out registration forms and waivers and get your equipment and training. Outdoor Adventures carries insurance, but, like ski lodges, requires participants to acknowledge potential risks of injury.

Children younger than 18 need a parent's or guardian's written permission to play. The minimum playing age is 12.

Remember, you will be running and hiding in the woods, so wear old clothes, such as blue jeans, and avoid bright colors. High-top tennis shoes or sneakers are useful. Most regular players dress in camouflage shirts and pants, but any dark color will work. A cap or bandanna will help protect the top of your head.

The fields are busiest on weekends, when up to 200 people show up. Saturdays are best for walk-ons because Sundays typically are filled with team practice. Mr. Styron recommends calling a few days in advance to reserve equipment and space. Extra paint balls and compressed-air refills can be bought at the field.

A canteen also sells candy and snacks, but you should bring your own lunch and be sure to pack plenty of liquids.

And remember, once your heart stops pounding, that it's only a game.

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