On Trying To Appear Bad Ass

In many ways, my experiences as a professional paintball player echo our experiences with puppygate.

I’m going to veer onto a subject I rarely touch upon here – my career as a professional paintball player – because there are so many similarities between the bluster of the evil legion of evil and the adolescent bluster of so many paintball players that I believe there is some insight to be gained.

Quick summation:  I started playing paintball in 1983 and quickly became very good at it.  I had natural talent (shooting skills, Machiavellian thinking, an ability to analyze terrain) and because I played and practiced about a thousand times more frequently than the average player.  (Write.  Write some more.  Keep writing.)

I formed a competition team my second year of play, winning the first tournament we entered.   We were so good that our local field started hosting a game called “Muthers and Uthers” (my first team was the Muthers of Destruction), where we’d take on everyone else, sometimes over 100 opponents.  We never lost a game.

steve's first flag
Steve captures his first flag – September 1983. The objective of the original paintball game was to capture your opponent’s flag and return it to your base. Without getting “eliminated” from play.

During that phase of my career, I was known as ‘Demolition Davidson’:

New field official: “Why do they call him that?”

Old and experienced hand: “Just watch”

followed by exploits of derring-do that are still the stuff of legend today.

Between 1984 and 1994, I helped develop the paintball industry.  I created training regimens, contributed to a revolution in tactical play, wrote THE book on competition play (MAXING:  A Guide To Winning Tournament Play, no longer in print) and helped create the first international competition league, for which I served as commissioner during its first two years.

As a result of all the preceding, competition changed and so did my team.  I and a  handful of stalwarts along with some new recruits formed The Werewolves  of NJ/PA, and we quickly became one of the top teams in the world


Werewolves Competition Paintball Team – 1990. Annual Team Party – rocking the “peacock” team jackets. (Steve is second from the right in the bottom row.)

During that  time I was voted one of the Top 100 Players of All Time (the closest thing paintball has to a Hall of Fame).

My nickname changed too,   I became the Rabid Chihuahua.  (I was an extremely annoying on-field presence.  So annoying that sometimes even my teammates would yell at me to STFU during games.)

What non-players need to understand  about tournament players (as opposed to casual or recreational players) is that there is a huge amount of arrogance and ego associated with believing the following: I can shoot all of you before you shoot me.

steve shooting
Steve demonstrating a snap-shooting drill during the photo shoot for The Complete Guide To Paintball. (Three hits on target in just over a second.)

What also needs to be understood is that there are two stages to the expression of that arrogance and ego. During the immature phase, one has a need to make sure that everyone in the whole world knows exactly how bad ass and nasty you are.  The mere mention of your name should make pee run down their legs.

Muthers of Destruction players get ready to take the field. (Steve is the left most player.)

Which is really silly because it’s just a game.  No one is going to die a real death. Heightened emotion, certainly, the game can be a major adrenaline rush.  And there is the potential for real injury if you are playing your hardest – I had my scalp sliced open, dislocated a shoulder, had my side pierced by tree branches and totally destroyed one knee, not to mention permanent scars all over my body from paintball hits – but it is no more or less dangerous than any sport played at a professional level.

And no.  Paintball is not a “wargame”. Learning the difference early was key to my on-field success.  You don’t “run around in the open like an idiot” when real bullets are flying.  (In fact, military training/tactics are usually a detriment to good paintball play.  Appropriately respecting and adapting for those differences contributed to the training work I did with both military units and police forces in later years.)

Those arrogant, head-swelling team and nick names were used not so much to really scare opponents (they had their own after all – Master Blasters, Lords of Discipline, Grim Reapers) as they were used to convince their owners of how bad ass and indestructible they were.  No one beats Demolition Davidson!  Just watch!

wolves speedball4
Steve in the background playing a version of the game called Speedball – artificial terrain, small teams and a short five or seven minute game.

The second phase – the mature one – comes about once you gain true confidence in your skills.  Once you come to understand that worthy opponents may actually be as good at the game as you are.  (Maybe.  Probably not, but maybe.) You develop respect for the opposition  – and they come to respect you.  Within the circle of true professionalism , there is no need for arrogance or bluster.

You also learn how easy it is to ignore and disrespect the bluster of the unskilled – how clueless their arrogance is and how important to their own egos it is for them to attack those who have moved on to this second plane of existence.  It’s like counting coup. Survive the encounter and you gain some prestige and honor…at least in your own eyes.

steve covering
Steve, foreground, acts as a distraction to cover the crawling player in the background. Demonstration of tactical play for the Complete Guide To Paintball photo shoot.

The Werewolves were the only international competition team in New Jersey during this time.  We were regularly challenged by the cluelessly arrogant, and as a result were able to see first hand how damaging such uneducated and inexperienced beliefs could be.

On one occasion (by far not the only one)  a new local team began talking smack about us, claiming we cheated, claiming that tournament play wasn’t all that hard.  We were even accused of “fixing” an award for “Coolest Team”.  (How’s that for similarity?)

They engaged in crank calls (pre-internet flame war), but we could never pin them down for a scrimmage date. Something “always seemed to move the goal posts”.

Eventually we managed to force them to commit to a date.  (Social pressure can do that, but sometimes it takes patience.) We also agreed that they could bring their entire team – knowing that meant in excess of 40 players (they were recruiting anyone they could, figuring that quantity would overwhelm quality…sound familiar?) While we would be fielding no more than 15 (12 in the final result).

Steve “running around in the open like an idiot” to draw fire and distract the opposition. Surprisingly, it usually worked.

The day arrived.  They marched in, singing Queen’s We are the Champions anthem.  We got our gear ready.  They kept on yelling smacktalk.

We ended up playing two games that day.  Our detractors left before lunch, despite the fact that we’d scheduled the entire day.  During our second game against them, we didn’t lose a single player.  They left whining and crying about cheaters and the unfairness (of life, I suppose).  (More similarity:  facts do not change the rhetoric.)

Unfortunately, the real result of that day was that virtually all of those inexperienced players that had been recruited to this ill-fated effort never played paintball again.  They’d been terribly misled by their so-called leaders, taken down a glory road, only to find that the bubble reality they’d been fed had no connection to the real world at all.  Hmmmmm….

It’s one thing to have reality smack you in the face.  It’s an entirely different matter when reality – in the form of multiple paintballs travelling at 300 feet-per-second – repeatedly smack you in the face, and the hands, and the chest, and the legs and….

A handful of those new players did show back up again with open minds, willing to learn where they’d gone wrong and eager to find out how things really worked.  Some of them even became tournament players themselves.

So you see, I’ve seen this puppy crap before.  The bluster and arrogance is always a cover for uncertainty and insecurity, a reveal of immaturity and a ham-handed and ultimately ineffective bid for recognition and parity with those they perceive (grudgingly, secretly) as the successful examples of the thing they so desperately want to be good at.

The lesson (among others) is, of course, that when you’re entitled to your arrogance and ego, you no longer need to display it.

(Note:  The “meta” of this piece is not lost on me.)


The game was created in 1981.

Paintballs are 68 caliber (.68 inches in diameter) and weigh about 3.2 grams.  They’re made of gelatin (jello) and are filled with a water-based, non-toxic dye

The maximum legal velocity is 300 feet per second;  players wear special protective goggles and other padding.  Maximum effective range is about 300 feet.

The original format was every player for themselves.  This morphed into 15 player teams competing on natural terrain with a version of capture the flag, fields anywhere from 5 to 40 acres in area.  Games originally lasted two hours, then one, then 45 minutes.

Eventually the game moved out of the woods and onto artificial terrain – barriers made of wood or large inflatables.  Team size settled on ten, 7, 5 and 3 player teams.  Game lengths were reduced to anywhere from 5 minutes to 25 minutes, depending on format.

Paintball ‘markers’ (guns) were originally single shot pistols powered by compressed CO2.  Pumps were added during the first year of play.  Good players with customized guns could shoot (fairly accurately) at approximately 7 rounds per second.  Today, guns are electronic semi-auto, powered by compressed air and can fire in excess of 40 rounds per second, though competition rules limit that to about 15 rounds per second.

The average competition player will shoot anywhere from 400 to 1200 rounds per game (depending on position, terrain and game length).

A modest year of competition and practice can cost in excess of $20,000 per player.

Most people who play paintball never get near tournaments.

Military and police forces around the world use paintball (usually modified gear and paintballs) for a variety of training exercises.  Paintball has been adapted for a wide variety of non-lethal and less-than-lethal weapon systems, usually for crowd control, riot control and marking “agitators”.

Original single shot pistol – left; Modern era electronic semi-auto – right. (Note two-finger trigger for high rate-of-fire “drumming” on the right.)
Original old school goggles, left. Modern full mask, right.
Old time players, left. Contemporary tournament player, right.

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