The Survival Game: The Story Of The First Recorded Paintball Match

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An argument about wilderness survival helped lead to the first paintball game. (Courtesy Joe Drinon)
An argument about wilderness survival helped lead to the first recorded paintball game. (Courtesy Joe Drinon)

This story starts with two men, two dueling philosophies … and an argument.

"Charles is sort of workout freak," Hayes Noel says.

"Hayes is one of the most competitive people I’ve ever known," Charles Gaines says. "He’s a jock."

On one side of the argument was author, bodybuilder and all-around outdoorsman Charles Gaines.

"I love to fish and hunt and canoe," Charles says.

He’s got a rugged Robert Redford look — and is best known as the author of "Pumping Iron." That’s the the book and subsequent documentary that made Arnold Schwarzenegger a household name.

On the other side was Hayes Noel, a New York stockbroker and former college football star.

"Seventy-six years old, born in 1941," Hayes says.

Charles and Hayes were best friends and constant rivals. They played tennis, fished and skied. A friend said that the pair of them could bet over the length of a dog or the number of bricks in a fireplace.

The Survival Debate

Hayes Noel prided himself on his success in the fast-paced "Wall Street Jungle." (Courtesy Doug McKnight)
Hayes Noel prided himself on his success in the fast-paced "Wall Street Jungle." (Courtesy Doug McKnight)

One summer in the late ’70s, they rented a house in Martha’s Vineyard with their wives. And one night, while grilling bluefish and downing gin and tonics, they picked up on a long-standing argument about the nature of survival.

It was a third-drink debate that had been raging for some time now. And it had to do with who would be better suited to survive in the wilderness — in a predator-prey situation.

Hayes thought his experiences in the high-stakes arena of the New York Stock Exchange made him an ideal survivor. He thrived on adrenaline and was unafraid to take risks.

"And I said, ‘I can survive in any jungle,’ " Hayes says. "I can survive in the Wall Street jungle, I can survive in any jungle."

Charles believed just the opposite — that outdoor survival relies on a set of learned skills and abilities.

"There’s a great song by Hank Williams Jr. called ‘Country Boys Can Survive,’ " Charles says. "We know about rifles and shadows. And how to find moss on a tree and how to make a fire when you don’t have any matches. The idea that you could take city skills and transfer them into that sort of environment is typical of the kind of hubris that a lot of my city friends have."

The two drank and argued into the night. But there was never any way to take it further than words.

That was until a few weeks later, when a friend sent Charles a forestry catalog … one featuring a unique piece of equipment.

The Paintball Guns

"It was a single-shot, CO₂-cartridge-powered gun — pistol — that shot paint-based pellets," Charles says.

The Nelspot 007 paint pistol was originally invented to help foresters mark trees. (Courtesy Taylor Quimby)
The Nelspot 007 paint pistol was originally invented to help foresters mark trees. (Courtesy Taylor Quimby)

It was the Nelspot 007: the world’s first paintball gun. It had actually been invented more than a decade earlier for use by foresters to mark trees on difficult terrain and farmers to mark bred livestock.

It was the summer of 1979 or 1980. Charles was living in New Hampshire at the time, writing and teaching at New England College in Henniker. He ordered a couple of pistols, then invited Hayes up to see his new toys.

"And I said, ‘We're going to settle this one way or another,’ " Charles recalls. " ‘You say you can survive in the woods of New Hampshire as well as I can. We’ll see about that big boy. C’mon up here.’ "

"Charles had a little field that was all brushy," Hayes says. "I said, ‘Why don’t we go out and hunt each other in this field?’ "

"I knew where he was almost the whole time," Charles says. "From the get-go. I came up behind him — he was sitting down getting his breath behind a tree. And I didn’t have the heart to shoot him, so I just put the gun up to his head and said, ‘OK, who wins?’ Right?"

Now, this is what you’d expect in a parable, right? The prideful and obviously wrong city slicker loses out to the woodsy folklore of the country boy. But this is an allegory. The lesson has to be repeated if you want it to stick.

In the mind of Hayes — the stockbroker —  nothing was really settled. There hadn’t been any rules. Charles was playing on his own property, it ought to be best three out of five — you get the idea.

A Bigger Game

By this time a third friend had joined the debate: a local ski shop manager named Bob Gurnsey.

"Gurnsey is another tremendously competitive man," Hayes says.

And over the next few months, the three of them started to plan a grand experiment: A 12-person game that combined paintball guns and capture the flag and would span 100 acres of New Hampshire forest. They called it The Survival Game.

They arranged for referees and staked out a property in Henniker, New Hampshire. And on Jun. 27, 1981, a dozen competitors showed up, decked out in camouflage and ready to play.

One of the 12 original paintball players arrives in Henniker, New Hampshire. (Courtesy Ritchie White)
One of the 12 original paintball players arrives in Henniker, New Hampshire. (Courtesy Ritchie White)

"We had a guy who was the best turkey hunter in the state of Alabama," Charles says. "We had a wild elk hunter. We had a Green Beret lieutenant. We had a venture capitalist from New York. We had a surgeon. We had a movie producer."

Joe Drinon was there. Back then he was a stockbroker and amateur boxer.

"It was friendly competition, but, believe me, it was fierce competition," Joe says. "I mean, except for me."

Drinon’s wife, Anne, was there that weekend, too.

"I looked at this equipment and I thought, ‘I don’t believe this,’ " Anne recalls. "It's like a bunch of 5-year-olds going out in the woods and just having fun."

Sports Illustrated staffer Bob Jones was there, too, with a photographer for the magazine who was looking to shoot pictures rather than contestants.

Along with the invitations, Charles and company had sent along eight pages of rules.

The players would be spread out around the perimeter of some 100 acres of land.  Each would be equipped with a pair of goggles, a Nelspot pistol, a few handfuls of pellets, a compass and a topographical map of the area.

“I thought, ‘I don’t believe this.’ It's like a bunch of 5 year olds going out in the woods and just having fun.”

Anne Drinon

Inside the forest would be four flag stations, each with 12 colored flags hanging from a branch.

"White, green, blue and red," Charles says. "And the point was to get one of each of the flags from each of the flag stations and be the first one out at the exit point, which was also marked on the map."

Players, of course, could eliminate each other at any point using the pistols. But ...

"To be shot, to be officially put out of the game, you had to have paint on your clothes," Charles says.

The Battle Begins

Charles' and Hayes' 12-man paintball squad poses with the final leaderboard. (Courtesy Ritchie White)
Charles' and Hayes' 12-man paintball squad poses with the final leaderboard. (Courtesy Ritchie White)

At 10 a.m., referees placed the contestants around the edge of the forest, out of sight from one another — and at the sound of a bullhorn, the game began.

"Every little twig that snapped, every little bird — everything, every breeze, every branch, was maybe somebody, and it’s what kept the thing so exciting," Hayes says.

Hayes planned to outrun his opponents and started sprinting from station to station, collecting flags.

"My strategy was, I thought, a great strategy," Hayes says. "I was in great shape."

Meanwhile, Ritchie White, a licensed forester, took the tried-and-true still-hunting approach that he used when stalking deer.

"Doing that, you hear someone else before they hear you," Ritchie says. "Unless it’s another person doing the same process."

"How people played the game reflected who they were," Charles says.

Charles got two flags before facing off against the Green Beret, who took shelter in an old abandoned shack he found on the property.

"We were shooting at each other," Charles says. "I was shooting at him through a window, he was shooting at me out the window. I was trying to circle around behind. And all of a sudden, I see this thing coming through the air, and it lands right at my feet. It’s a potato. And Tony says, ‘Grenade!’ "

The potato was a joke … and eventually the two walked away in a truce. Both of them got tagged not long after.

"So that was my Waterloo," Charles says.

Hayes got three flags before being shot by a trauma surgeon who took out nearly half of the players single-handedly. And meanwhile, Ritchie — the certified forester — quietly made his way through the woods.

“It was friendly competition, but believe me it was fierce competition.”

Joe Drinon

"Ghosted through the whole field," Charles says. "Picked up all four flags ..."

"I don’t think he even fired anything the whole game," Anne says.

"I can’t say that Ritchie White didn’t take risks," Hayes says. "He just avoided confrontation."

I asked Ritchie if he knew what had happened when he got out with the flags.

"No," Ritchie says. "Because it was over two hours. You know, I just said, ‘Who’s ahead? Who won?’ And they said, ‘Well, no one else is out.’ "

A Champion Is Crowned

It was the first recorded game of paintball ever played. But it was also the end of the debate between Charles and Hayes. The country boys had won.

"Clearly the woods skills were the prevailing skills in the game," Ritchie says.

For a storyteller, this tale is about as good as it gets. There’s an almost mythical quality to the survival story — the argument, the characters. But for a journalist? Well, let’s just say there are problems.

Ritchie White, the game's winner, displays his Nelspot 007 pistol. (Courtesy Ritchie White)
Ritchie White, the game's winner, displays his Nelspot 007 pistol. (Courtesy Ritchie White)

That first game of paintball wasn’t just a good time. It was also a convenient bit of public relations. Not long after, Charles, Hayes and their friend Bob Gurnsey started a business: The National Survival Game.

As I spoke with people who were there and read firsthand accounts of the game written back in the ’80s, a lot of little discrepancies started to pop up.

After first getting the guns, Charles told me that he snuck up on Hayes …

"It was a pretty simple, straightforward test which I won," Charles says.

But Hayes told me he snuck up on Charles.

"I just crept up — I was right behind him," Hayes says.

And there are dozens of little problems about who did what. Who first found the guns? Who first bought the guns? Where the argument started.

Combing through all the different versions, you can see how the story was distilled, adapted for each new telling.

"The truth is my version is the true version," Hayes says.

"If there are any irreconcilable differences between his version and mine, call me back," Charles laughs.

In the end, maybe it doesn’t matter. A good story is a good story.

This segment aired on July 21, 2018.



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