'"Ah," said Arthur, "this is obviously some strange usage of the word safe that I wasn't previously aware of."'
- Douglas Adams, "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy"
It turns out that this particular paintball field requires only two pieces of safety equipment: a face mask, and something called a 'barrel bag'. The latter is a small bag made of some heavy canvas-like material, and that is attached to some sort of bungee cord which allows the bag to be put over the barrel of the paintball gun and then held there by pulling the bungee cord over the top of the gun and wrapping around the back of the gun. While this doesn't prevent the gun from being fired, it does cause the paintball expelled from a 'live' gun to break in the bag, which does two things:
- prevents the ball from sailing out and hitting anybody who's not expecting to be shot, and
- really irritates whoever is going to be responsible for cleaning the gun you just fired.
Along with the safety briefing comes a review of the 'menu' options available to those of us who need to rent equipment. The good news is that there are plenty of options, including upgrades to the standard gun and goggles, as well as options to buy extra paintballs, a kelly green set of plastic coveralls, and a set of white cotton mesh gloves.
Although I mark all of these options, by the time I get to the ordering desk I'm informed that a) the rental shop doesn't have any of the gun upgrades, and b) the coveralls and gloves, which otherwise seem really useful for someone who doesn't have his own apparel, come only in sizes that are apparently meant for children -- one of the other older participants, name of Dan, picks up the largest 'XL' size of coverall, and it's a near-perfect fit for his 5-foot, 6-inch, 160-pound frame.
We're also introduced to the air compressor while we're assembling our gear; the compressor is what's used to provide the accelerant for the paintballs to be fired from the gun.
At this point, it'll be worthwhile to describe the actual rental guns. They look what I, in a lifetime of playing modern-era and near-future role-playing-games like Top Secret and Twilight 2000 imagine a submachine gun would look like if, instead of a standard gun stock, the butt of the gun consisted of a small propane bottle. The bottle allows air to be stored at pressures of up to 3000 psi, and it's a little intimidating to realize that, once the pressure drops as low as 1500 psi (which is still 100 times normal atmospheric pressure), the performance of the paintball gun will likely be 'impaired' enough so that I'll want to come back and recharge the air bottle (at least, according to the guys running the intro lecture). It's also a little intimidating to hear JR ask if the compressor can pump up to 4500 psi, since that's what his custom weapon's bottle can handle; it turns out that 4500 psi isn't supported at this site, to JR"s disappointment (and much relief from the rest of us).
The weirdest thing about safety on the paintball field, though, is that there's no admonition about places not to shoot -- you're not told to avoid aiming at somebody's facemask or groin, and in fact it turns out that, of the different scenarios we play that day, there's one where there's an implicit suggestion that aiming for the face is not just kosher, but good tactics, and a different one where the head is explicitly the only place on the target where a valid hit can be scored. (This seems particularly bizarre to folks I talk to later who've played paintball in an era where aiming for the head could get you expelled from the site, especially given that helmets are not required. I can only assume the 3000 psi restriction has something to do with it, or perhaps 'modern' paintball is more of a bloodsport than previous generations were comfortable with.)
We are informed that we can be expelled for not obeying the orders of a paintball judge -- there are four such guys dressed in the zebra-striped shirts of American football referees -- and that the judges will tell us when we can remove our barrel bags and when we must don our facemasks. They do their best to seem stern with these warnings, though unfortunately all the judges labor under the handicap of being the youngest men present on the field, and certainly less than half the age of the guest of honor.
As we prepare to head to 'Artillery Hill' for the first game, I get an odd feeling not unlike the feeling I often get while setting up a game of Talisman, a fantasy-themed board game that I've seldom finished with an equal or greater number of friends than I started.