How Are Paintballs Made?

Anyone who has ever played a game of paintball can tell you how fun and exciting the radical sport can be. Running through the course with paintballs splatting around you and your enemy in your sights can be thrilling. But have you ever wondered how paintballs are made? They are supposed to be soft enough to break open without causing you any serious harm. But if you don’t wear the proper padding and equipment, they can still hurt. Many paintball players show off their bruises like trophies. So what materials are used in making paintballs? How are paintballs made? Are the materials environmentally safe? If you have ever been hit by a paintball, here is some information that will make you appreciate that colorful splat a little more.

Old School Paintball

Paintball got its start way back in the 1950’s and was first developed by the Nelson Paint Company. The original device was designed for the U.S. Forestry service to mark trees. Later, the company devised a way to shoot a ball of paint for use in the cattle industry. Cattle owners used chalk to mark cows but this grew problematic when the cattle were out in the pasture. Owners could not always get up close to the cows to mark them. The paintball gun made this much easier because it allowed cattle owners to mark the desired cattle from a short distance. The earliest forms of paintballs were made of glass and filled with oil-based paint but later were manufactured by pharmaceutical companies using the same methods as making medicinal capsules, vitamins, and bath beads.

Modern Paintball Materials

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Although most paintballs were originally manufactured by pharmaceutical companies because they were already set up for the process, the growth of the sport of paintball has since changed most of that. There are now many manufacturers that specialize in making paintballs as well as other equipment specific to the sport. There are now many top paintball brands such as the Brass Eagle Company and ZAP Paintballs, Inc. The paint used in paintballs is also no longer oil-based. Instead, it is a water-soluble paint and washes out of clothing easily. The materials that make up paintballs are mostly found in food and are actually edible even though they don’t taste like it. The basic materials that make up the paint are mineral oils, food coloring, calcium, polyethylene glycol, sorbitol, and iodine. The paint is enclosed in a ball that is made from a semi-soft gelatin, the same material used to coat medicines. But don’t let the color of the ball fool you because the color of the outside shell may not be the same as the color of the paint inside.

Most modern paintballs are described as .68 caliber. This is the common caliber used in most paintball games and tournaments in the U.S. Because of the gelatin shell, paintballs are very succeptible to heat and moisture and may warp. An especially hot or humid day may cause the paint to swell inside the shell. If you are playing outdoors and in the sun, proper storage is key. Many players use insulated coolers to keep the paintballs cool and dry.

How Modern Paintballs Are Made

The process for making paintballs is pretty universal, despite brand variation. The first thing to get manufactured is the paint. The type of paint used in the sport of paintball is specially mixed at a paint manufacturing plant and then shipped to the encapsulating plant. At the encapsulation plant, the shells are crafted out of gel strips. To make the shells, workers pour water into a massive heating bowl where sorbitol and various sweeteners are added. Next, so that the mixture can be transformed into a round hollow ball, gelatin is added. All of the ingredients are allowed to melt and mix for around 30 to 40 minutes. Once the gelatin mix is alowed to cool, it is rolled onto a drum to create a thin strip.

The next step in the process is to load up the gel strips and the paint into a capsulation machine. The gel strips move through two counter-rotating drums. These drums have half round indentions that mold the gel into half a round paintball shell. As the gel is molded, the machine lines up both halves of the ball and as it closes them together, injects an amount of paint into the hollow cavity. The two halves are then sealed together.

At this point the paintballs are still warm and soft so the gel needs to cool so it can harden. To accomplish this, the balls are dropped into a tumbling machine. The machine gently shakes the balls which cools them down. Also, the shaking allows the balls to harden to a uniform roundness. Once the paintballs are cool, they are placed in trays where they can finish drying and curing.

Once the balls are completely dry, they are ready to be packaged up and shipped out. The balls are visually inspected for any obvious flaws before being loaded into a hopper. Hoppers are large, funnel-like containers that fill the packages according to weight. A case of paintballs is advertised as holding 2, 500 balls but since the hopper uses weight to determine when a package is full, the actual number may vary.

Testing and Quality Control

As paintballs are manufactured, they are placed into numbered lots. This makes it easier for inspectors to perform their quality control. A percentage of each numbered lot is set aside for inspection and testing. After a visual inspection for any obvious signs of defects, the paintballs are placed in a machine that measures the weight and diameter of the balls. To determine if a ball is brittle, a drop test in conducted. This involves simply taking a paintball and dropping it from a predetermined height. A paintball that has been manufactured properly should crack open upon impact. The final test involves taking the batch to a target range for field testing. Better quality paintballs use a higher quality of materials, thinner shells, and go through more rigorous testing to make sure they are accurate.

Are Paintballs Environmentally Safe

Modern paintballs are safe for both the environment and for one’s health. The paint is non-toxic so if you get it in your mouth and accidentally swallow it, it won’t affect you. The paint dissolves in water so it won’t remain on your clothes or all over the outdoors where you play. Also, the shells are biodegradable, too. All those broken paintballs will soon dissolve with enough rain and weather.