Some years ago we purchased about 20 hectares of French hillside in the western Vosges…. Heavily forested and rough. The intention was to start a sort of School Field Centre, but for various reasons that didn’t happen, so we were left with all that land and no idea what on earth to do with it.
Then one fine day, a friend was wandering around in our forest with me and he casually remarked that it would make an amazing Paintball field. Well I had never heard of Paintball, so I asked him what he meant. He explained in a few succinct words what Paintball actually was.
Paintball is not Rambo!
To begin with we were far from interested, as the idea of a bunch of wannabee Rambos rushing around our land, shooting at each other didn’t really appeal one bit. But he insisted that it was actually in no real way a sort of glorification of machismo or of violence, but was actually great fun, and not at all aggressive – nor did it glorify war, killing and other totally nasty and unacceptable ideas.
So we looked into it, and discovered that apparently he was quite correct. All the stuff on the Internet about paintball seemed to emphasis fun, laughter and a sort of return to childhood playing of cowboys and Indians… “Bang bang, your dead, count to 100 and carry on” seemed to be the essence of the game.
There is a sort of version of Paintball called Airsoft, which uses replica firearms and shoot small plastic pellets instead of the rather large marble-like Paintballs. This is a militaristic and to my way of thinking rather unpleasant “sport”. People get dressed up in military uniforms and rush around with their replica AK47’s, M16’s and so on… Not for me.
So we looked into the sort of investment that would be needed to make it happen, and found that actually it was not an impossible amount of money, given that we already owned the most expensive part of setting up such a centre – the land itself.
Anyway, to make a long story short, we decided to give it a go, raised the money we needed to get it started, with thanks to the several people who lent us the money we needed (Buying shares in the company we set up to run the Paintball field, which we named Aigle Paintball, which is French for Eagle Paintball), and set about creating the necessary battlefields in our land for people to play the game in.
This entailed a good local friend of mine called Jean Pierre and myself, armed with a variety of large chainsaws, cutting down any trees that were in the way to create enough clear forest for people to be able to see and shoot at each other, then using the bits of the trees we had felled to make a whole range of bunkers, walls to hide behind and other fun constructions all over the place.
This was bloody hard work, as some of those trees were huge, and took a lot of cutting to reduce to a manageable collection of logs to build our bunkers with. And we were of course, left with mountains of smaller branches and other tree type rubbish to dispose of. But we had fun the two of us doing all of this.
Pondering how best to make a road for people to stalk each other along, and set ambushes and all the other jolly things that Paintball entails.
We created three large fields, each with a very different character, and between the three of them, we probably had about 5 or so hectares (about 12 acres) for the games. One was a large area of relatively gentle slopes and loads of trees, another was on the rather steep side of a hill, not so many trees, but enough to give cover, and the third was in a flat area of scrawny thin trees where we built two villages, and lots of tracks with street names and so forth, and my old Volvo station wagon as part of the scenery.
During all of this work, I became what is known as a Gas Master… Sounds good eh? What it meant was that I knew all about filling the Paintball gun’s gas bottles with CO2 without causing explosions or freezing my hands to the bottles (CO2 when the pressure is released is extremely cold,) so as I filled the bottles they became covered in a thick layer of ice…. We also looked at a whole range of Paintball guns to find a type that were tough enough for rental work, as we supplied about 95% of the people who came and played on our fields with the equipment they needed – Face masks, breast plates (for women players), overalls, gloves ammo belts and of course, the Paintball guns themselves.
In passing, as parts of our Paintball fields were more or less beside either a road or a public forest path, we had to string up a 4 meter high net all along those sections of our Fields, so that no one walking on the public roads could get accidentally shot. Wouldn’t have made for good relations with the community if we made a habit of splatting casual passers-by now would it?
These nets were a high maintenance factor for us, as the very large wild boar and deer who shared the forests with us simply walked into them and dragged them down to the ground as they wandered around at night.
We also set up a firing range at the entrance to the main field, so that people could try out their guns before heading into the first game, seemed essential as the great majority of our customers had never seen a Paintball gun, let alone fired one before.
The games themselves tended to last about 10 minutes each, and a session at our centre was generally about 2 to 3 hours play. Playing a number of games in each of the three fields.
The games all had some sort of scenario – capturing the enemies flag, getting an important personage from point A to point B without him (or her) getting shot en route, Capturing the enemies fortress or village, simple attrition (“kill” all your opponents) and so on. We were constantly thinking up new games, and ended up with several hundred distinct games to be offered to our customers.
Unlike most Paintball centres, we felt that as the people had paid good money to play on our fields, being shot shouldn’t be the end of that particular game for them, so basically we made a rule that when hit, you had to retreat about 50 metres, wait a few minutes, and then join in again. This had two advantages, they got more play time, and this in turn meant they used more Paintballs, which is were we really made our money. In the entry fee we included a couple of hundred Paintballs, which were generally used up within the first 30 minutes ( a lot of people simply sprayed Paintballs like they were shooting machine guns. You could actually shoot off about 7 Paintballs per second with the semi-automatic weapons we rented them). So my Marshals who walked around controlling the games also carried thousands of spare Paintballs with them, that they sold to people as they needed them… Not unusual for us to get through up to 30 000 Paintballs in a day.
Women, soldiers and firemen play seriously, men like testosterone flooded idiots
During these games I observed some intriguing behavour patterns. When we got groups of women with no men, they listened carefully as the rules of the various games were explained, gave thought within their teams as how best to achieve the set gaols, and then systematically went about it, following their agreed strategies. Very careful and economic players by and large. However, when it was a mixed group (men and women) the women tended to take a back seat and leave it up to the men to make all the decisions, and didn’t really use their brains at all. Groups of men only, tended to be extremely macho, shoot like mad things, almost invariably fail to achieve the aims of the games as they were too busy being “men” to think very clearly – we loved them as they got through enormous numbers of Paintballs. Occasionally we had groups of Firemen, Policemen or soldiers. They mostly went about it all rather as the women-only groups did, carefully considering the aims of the game and doing their best to achieve them..
From our point of view, groups of professional infantrymen were the worst customers, as they hardly shot any Paintballs at all… Not surprisingly I suppose.
The Game Marshals I used were all local young people, who turned out to be superb at this work. They could control the players, ensure a very high level of safety (Paintballs go fast and if you got one in your eye or ear could cause serious injury) and ensured that the atmosphere was light and fun. I had a pool of about 10 or so of these young people to draw upon, and was constantly amazed at how well they went about their work for us.
Great bunch of kids they were.
As I mentioned above, Paintball is essentially a childish game, and it was great to see the groups who came and played. Most of them really hadn’t a clue what they were letting themselves in for, and were reasonably enough, very apprehensive about it all. But invariably after the first game had been played, and the players gathered together to catch their breath and relax before the next game, they were all unwound, laughing at each other and totally at peace with themselves. It turned out that Paintball is a very cathartic game, about the best way of relaxing a bunch of uptight and nervous adults I have ever seen.
However, I rapidly discovered that almost no one in that part of France had even heard of Paintball, so we had a very uphill battle on our hands to get people to become aware of us, and to come and try it out.
We made slow but steady progress with this, but after some 3 years we were still only breaking even, and we had effectively run out of money, just as our collection of Paintball guns were ready to be replaced by new ones – This we simply couldn’t afford to do, sadly. So we decided that we would have to do something radical to get our financial feet under us again. What this turned out to be was Lotty getting a job in an international school in Luanda – the capital of Angola – and us heading off to Africa to make our fortunes there.
So, as one of the Dutch people in the village was looking for a place to set up a large scale bar and restaurant, we swapped our land and all upon it for three houses that he and his wife owned between them, and headed off to our next adventure, Angola.
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