Paintball Pioneer, Ex-New London Resident, Reflects

Thursday, February 26, 2015
Forced into bankruptcy by the financial strain of lawsuits, paintball co-founder Bob Gurnsey has been removed from the industry for nearly 20 years.

Now 72, the former New London resident has embarked on another business opportunity: selling original memorabilia from the early days of the game.

Among the collectible items Gurnsey has preserved include unused “Splatmaster” pistols he designed and guidebooks and maps of the world’s first two commercial facilities, operated in Sutton, N.H., and Alabama by Gurnsey’s “National Survival Game” from 1981-95.

Each item comes with a certificate of origin and optional autographs from Gurnsey, a leukemia patient who is selling the items in part to help offset medical expenses. The inventory can be viewed on Gurnsey’s Facebook page, Paintball Creators Memorabilia, and he said a larger website is in the works.

“I wanted to make sure everything came with parchments of authenticity, because these are all very rare,” Gurnsey said from his home in Jacksonville, Fla. “Plus it really helps the collector. If two people come in with bats autographed by Babe Ruth, and one came from Babe Ruth’s wife and has a parchment of authenticity and the other has nothing directly connecting it to Ruth or proving he signed it, which one do you think is going to be worth more? Obviously, the one with the provenance is going to be the one that skyrockets in value.”

Among Gurnsey’s favorite artifacts is a 4-by-8-foot wooden panel used as a target board.

“It’s covered in splats from the old, oil-based paint pellets and it just kind of has this atomic life to it,” Gurnsey said. “I almost took it to the dump, but then I said, ‘Oh my word, that looks like it was painted by Jackson Pollack.’ It’s so beautifully abstract, I feel like it should be hanging in a cathedral. I have it framed now in my house. In 1993, I was offered $25,000 for it, but decided to keep it at the time. It will be interesting to see how much it might sell for today.”

A Manchester native who attended the Queen City’s Dublin School, Gurnsey went on to Connecticut’s Mitchell College. He left after one year on the advice of his ailing father, Frank.

“He was a Harvard graduate, but my family was one of entrepreneurs going all the way back to the early 1800s,” Gurnsey said. “He was sick with polycythemia and he told me to quit college. He said the best teachers you find aren’t going to be at a university, they’re going to be out in the real world.”

Gurnsey found a mentor in Bob Skinner, proprietor of Bob Skinner’s Ski & Sport shop near Mount Sunapee Resort in Newbury, N.H. He worked at the shop and, while living in New London, became friends with author and part-time Sunapee resident Charles Gaines. Gaines penned the popular 1974 fitness guide Pumping Iron: The Art and Sport of Body Building.

At Gaines’ home one evening, Gurnsey, Gaines and New York-based visitor Hayes Noel had the idea for a competition. They’d tag one another with gelatin-coated paint pellets and plastic pistols manufactured by the Nelson company, which released them to assist agriculturalists and to help foresters mark trees and livestock.

“We’d seen the guns in catalogues,” Gurnsey said. “(Gaines and Noel) wanted to do something without any rules, where we just ran around blasting each other, but I said, ‘We’ve got to have rules. If we don’t have rules, I win, because I’ll make a foam rubber suit and the pellets will bounce right off me.’ ”

Based loosely on the rules of Capture the Flag, Gurnsey and company designed an every-man-for-himself format with four different flags. The only way to win was to gather all four and bring them to a victory station without being tagged even once. Gurnsey, Gaines and Noel were among the group of 12 who played in the first game in the woods of Henniker, won by a forester from the Seacoast area named Ritchie White.

Three weeks later, the trio created a business called the National Survival Game and wrote team-based rules. Along with their own facilities in Sutton and Alabama, the company developed a start-up program for investors to open their own game centers.

Equipment distributed included the Splatmaster, made of super polymer plastic and firing 2-3 shots per second, and rounds of paint pellets, holsters and goggles.

“It was a model where a mom- and-pop could invest in $2,000-$3,000 in equipment from us and easily make their money back,” Gurnsey said. “More than 700 (parties) invested in it in three years.”

While his partners advocated for expensive full-page ads that ran for weeks at a time in Sports Illustrated, Gurnsey said the most response came after he invested $250 of the company’s last $400 in a half-page advertisement in Shotgun News.

“It was a gun magazine, so I knew that the people reading it wouldn’t be biased against a game that involved shooting,” Gurnsey said. “I also knew it had a lot of readers. I had a friend from Hanover design a pen-and-ink drawing with one shooter behind a rock and the other one looking like he was about to go into a tuck-and-role. That ad got about 2,000 responses.”

Yet almost as quickly as the Survival Game concept took off, problems arose. Injuries led to lawsuits, the first coming in the spring of 1982, about six months after NSG debuted.

“I had 103 lawsuits filed against me in total, most of them on the theory that the game was ‘inherently dangerous,’ ” Gurnsey said. “There was never an instance where one of our products failed. I constantly had to show that if they were wearing safety goggles, they wouldn’t have hurt their eyes. We won a lot of cases, but the problem is that even when you win, you lose, because (the plaintiff) doesn’t cover any of your legal expenses.”

Despite advice from attorneys to close NSG as early as 1988, Gurnsey resisted bankruptcy until 1995. Today he’s proud to have played such a prominent role in a game enjoyed worldwide and featuring a number of professional leagues.

Gurnsey said there are things he would do differently with his business given the chance, but he has relished the gestures of support he’s received over the years.

“There were a lot of research and development projects I had to scrap because of the lawsuits, but I kept it going as long as I could,” he said. “What makes it worth it are the lives the sport has touched and the amazing letters and phone calls I’ve received. I once had a mother tell me her son would probably be in jail if it weren’t for paintball, because it gave him a positive outlet. I’ve met married couples who met at a paintball game. That’s the kind of stuff that makes it all worth it.”

Jared Pendak can be reached at or 603-727-3306.

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