FORT RUCKER, Ala. (July 20, 2016) - So your 10-year-old comes to you and says, "Dad/Mom, I want to play paintball." How would you respond? I found myself in that exact situation a few years ago, and I'll admit my initial response wasn't the greatest. I'd experienced paintball several years earlier at a competitive pistol shooting event and really didn't care for it. I thought the paintball guns were frustratingly inaccurate, expensive and unsafe. However, my opinion was about to change.

My son kept bugging me about paintball and I eventually gave in to him. I read some things about the sport and learned a lot of new paintball-specific rules. I figured my son would probably want to quit the first time he got hit with one of those gelatin balls traveling at 300 feet per second. (Just for reference, 300 fps equals 200 mph.) Still, I went out and spent $200 for two starter packs that had everything we'd need to play paintball, or so I thought. The packs included a marker (also known as the paintball gun), mask, safety plug for the barrel and carbon dioxide (CO2) bottle.

The instructions stated to never shoot someone with the marker set higher than 300 fps because serious injury or death could occur. You're probably wondering how you check the velocity of paintballs. Well, you can't, unless you have a chronograph, which measures the time an object passes between two sensors and calculates the speed in feet per second, miles per hour or whatever measurement standard it is programmed to clock. There are also radar chronographs, such as the kind law enforcement officers carry to look for speeders. While chronographs used to be really expensive, you can now pick up a good one for less than $100.

Being a conscientious father, I went into the garage and retrieved my shooting chronograph to measure just how fast those little paintballs were traveling out of the barrel. The first marker I shot was about 250 fps; the second one, however, was more than 320 fps -- and that was right out of the box! I adjusted our markers to about 280 fps (?10 fps) so we could play the next morning.

When we sat down for dinner that night, my son started asking questions like, "Is it going to hurt?" Still trying to discourage him from getting involved in the game, I said, "Imagine your worst pain and multiply that by 10." My wife gave me that you-better-not-hurt-my-baby-or-I'll-kill-you look. I reassured her that the paintballs would sting a little, but wouldn't hurt that much.

The next morning, I told my son to put on a sweatshirt and long pants. I then asked him to call his mother at work and tell her he loved her before we went out to play. While this made him extremely nervous, it worked to my benefit because he paid a lot more attention to what I had to say as we walked out into the woods. I then explained the safety rules.

The rules were pretty simple. The mask was to stay on his face at all times when the barrel plugs were out. If he got hit anywhere, even the marker, he was out of the game. He was to then raise his marker into the air and put in the barrel plug. Once both barrel plugs were in, we would move to our patio, where we would take off the masks. In the event his mask fell off, he was to cover his face with both hands, drop to the ground and scream. That would signal me to stop shooting in his direction and run over to see what was happening. He agreed to everything I said and we went to separate corners of the wooded field, about 75 feet apart, and got ready to play.

I yelled the countdown and we started shooting at each other. With each hit he took, he yelled, "Ouch!" When we were through, I figured he would never ask to play again, but I couldn't have been more wrong. He absolutely loved it and wanted to play more and more. For the first time in a long while, I saw a sparkle in his eyes. He could not stop talking about how much fun it was.

That day, I, too, developed a love for paintball because it helped build an even greater relationship with my son. My opinion of the game had changed. It was no longer a waste of time. From now on we would play safe, fair and often! For the next year, we continued to play in the wooded lot. Most of the time it was just the two of us; occasionally, though, some of the neighbors would join us.

One day, my son was invited to a paintball party with 15 other boys at a friend's house. My wife and I thought nothing of it, so she dropped him off in the morning and I was to pick him up later. When I drove up to his friend's house that afternoon, I noticed the boys were playing without shirts and had huge red welts, some bleeding, on their bodies. I asked my son what happened. He told me they didn't have a chronograph to set the velocity of the paintballs, so they set the markers by comparing the sounds. They then picked teams and played shirts versus skins.

I felt like a failure because I thought I'd taught my son how to play safely. Yet, the first time he played without me, the safety rules went out the window. Determined to prevent this from happening again, I came up with a plan. I had my son invite all the boys over to our place for a three-man tournament, at which I would give each member of the winning team a trophy.

When boys arrived, I explained the tournament rules and then the safety rules. After everyone said they understood, we used the chronograph to set the velocity of their markers to 290 fps before getting on the field. The first boy fired three shots over the chronograph at 340, 320 and 350 fps, so I adjusted it down to 280 ?10 fps. This went on until the last marker was set to a safe velocity.

The boys were curious as to why I was adjusting their markers. I explained that their protective equipment was designed to shield them from hits up to 300 fps. Anything over that could cause their mask lenses to break, leaving them vulnerable to eye injuries or worse. It was at that moment a light bulb went on in their heads. They realized that playing without properly calibrating their markers could be dangerous.

So how does this affect you? If your child wants to give paintball a try, there are some important things you should do before sending them out on their own. Take them to a professionally run paintball field for their first experience. There, referees will be on hand to explain and enforce the safety rules and remind players about the importance of wearing masks and using barrel plugs.

The well-run facility will have chronograph stations to ensure paintball velocities are within the safety limit of 300 fps or less. Also, the field is going to be clean, with well taken care of bunkers and very few obstacles to trip over. In addition, an adequate number of staff members will be available to ensure each group is properly supervised. It's a good way for parents to ensure their children are playing safely.

Author's note: When the 10th Mountain Division's commanding general instructed the Directorate of Family Morale, Welfare and Recreation to create a place on post for his Soldiers to play paintball, I was in the right position, garrison safety officer, to influence the integration of safety into the program from the start. The DFMWR program manager and I were sent to the Paintball Training Institute in Tennessee to become experts in all things paintball. From the inspection of paintball air tanks to the proper way to lay out a course, we learned it all. Later, a spinoff program for family members was started, and the Youth Services Paintball Program came online with full support from the safety office. The program has developed into a great place to introduce 10- to 18-year-olds to paintball in a controlled, safe environment. And to think, it all started with a simple request from my son.


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FYI

Editor's note: Tippmann Sports, a leading provider of paintball markers and gear, offers the following information to anyone interested in playing paintball. Neither the Army nor any of its components endorse Tippmann Sports. These tips are provided for information purposes only and do not constitute an endorsement of Tippmann Sports or its products or services.

Paintball is fast, extreme and, most of all, fun. Like all sports, an informed player can help make the game safer. In fact, safety is one of the most important parts of the game. Here are some tips to help keep the game more safe and enjoyable.

1. Never fire your marker when you or anyone near you is not wearing proper paintball-approved eye protection.

2. Never remove your goggles in the field or in the elimination zone.

3. When you are eliminated, call "out" as loudly as possible, raise your hand and walk off the field. Do not remove your goggles until you are back at the safe zone.

4. Always wear eye protection; never wear anything but goggle/mask systems made especially for paintball.

5. When you are in the designated safe zone, or not on the playing field, make sure to have your barrel plug in your marker barrel.

6. Many markers will fire even after a CO2 or high-pressure system is removed from the gun, so always wear goggles when working on your marker - even when the air source is removed.

7. Do not alter your cylinder or valve in any way or try to remove the cylinder from the valve.

8. Since velocities have a tendency to fluctuate throughout the day, it is wise to chronograph your marker several times during play.

9. Always keep the safety in the safe position and, if your gun has a power feed, keep it in the OFF position when not playing the game or taking a break from play.

10. Don't stand in the open for too long during play.

11. Always reload your marker or catch your breath from behind a tree or bunker.

12. Markers should be stored uncharged and unloaded.

13. Markers should be transported uncharged and unloaded.

14. Do not shoot cars, homes or other items with painted or finished surfaces. The paintballs are nontoxic but can discolor or dissolve painted or finished surfaces.

15. Never shoot anything from the marker except water soluble paintballs.

16. Remove all power sources before disassembly of a paintball marker.

17. Never shoot at another person with the intent to cause injury or harm.

18. Pressurize your paintball devices only when you're ready to use them.

19. Don't handle, play with, load, use or shoot a paintball marker while under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

20. Observe all safety rules applicable to firearms when handling a paintball marker.