Tank Commander

Tank Commander

I can still remember it, even though it was more than 10 years ago. I was on base guard duty with about 20 other guys. I heard the whine of an electric engine, and it was revving hard and loud. I looked over to my right and saw the dust cloud of the trail being kicked up. I didn't need to see anything more. I knew what was coming. 

"TANK!" I dove over the wall of the base moments before the tank rolled around the corner of the trail at top speed. I heard paintballs barrage the wall I had been using as cover just seconds before and a lot of my slower teammates screaming "HIT" as loud as they could. Then I heard something like a burst-disk from an air tank blow off. I looked over the wall and saw a ref chasing the tank down to call it out of the game. A few minutes later, the other team started the fort assault. We didn't stand a chance, as there were only five of us left.


  This was pretty much my introduction to "mechanized paintball." Since then, I've had the opportunity to play in a tank, as well as around several more. Adding heavy armor to the mix of paintball games puts a twist on things that can make it heavy-handed. If you have a tank and the other team doesn't, you stand a better chance of winning the day. Your paintgun can be the ultimate electronic paint-slinger, but a tank can and will simply obliterate you.

In paintball terms, a "tank" can be anything from a man-powered cage on wheels to a full-blown Panzer replica built from a 4x4 truck. Tank drivers are a unique bunch: part motorhead, part airsmith, part driver and part sadist... and not always in equal parts. I couldn't possibly describe all of the tanks out there, but there are a few basic styles.

First is a "push tank," or sometimes called "PUGS" or a "Flintstone tank." These are basically a netted cage on wheels. I've seen a few without wheels but on metal skis, and one that was worn with suspenders, but most of the smart people put them on wheels.

I did get a chance to be in a push tank the "Texas Rangers" made that three people can be inside at a time. What they did was build a PVC frame, enclose it with paintball-safe netting, hold it together with screws, install a braking system and firing ports, and make a tank that rolled through the castle gate at EMR. They also mounted a rocket launcher on the front to shoot at other tanks.

The beauty of these tanks is that anyone with some time, and a little money, can build one. They're light, surprisingly maneuverable, you can tear them down and pack them in parts, and when you work together you can sneak up on people because they make little to no noise. The downside is that you push the tank everywhere, meaning you're hiking all day. Hiking in an enclosed shelter, but you're still hiking. Plus, longer push tanks require everyone in the tank to work together or you're going nowhere.

Another style of tank is an electric-motor tank; usually a golf cart or similar vehicle is sacrificed to make this tank. When you get to this stage, you're starting to drop a lot of money on the tank itself because you enter a whole new level of tinkering, but I'll get into that a little later.

The up side is, it's electric, so you won't be choking on gas fumes. Plus the design is made to drive around outdoors, so it's a nice platform. But it is a golf cart, so it won't be able to make it up some hills or across rougher terrain. And since you're on battery power, when you're out of juice you're done for the weekend. You can bring spare batteries, but those things get pricey. Plus you're limited in space due to the motor and chassis. You can fit a driver and a gunner, possibly two gunners plus the gear, but not much else.

If that's not enough power for you, get yourself an old 4x4 truck, gut it and make a tank out of that. This is the case for the Armored Fist "Panther" tank that Dawn and TJ drive that I spent a weekend in. Power? Oh yes, there's power. Nothing quite matches a 6-cylinder gas-powered engine to announce "WE'RE HEEERE!!!!" as you rev it up. And with four-wheel drive, where you're going you don't need roads. But there's a downside, and that's gasoline. If you don't route the pipes right, you're choking on fumes back there. And even if you do route the pipes right, you still get fume backdrafts. Your gunners may come out of the tank a little loopy.

Not to mention that if you're not a skilled driver, you can trap yourself on the field. Tanks based on cars or trucks are large in capacity, but also in surface area, too. You can take a turn off a trail and end up hooked on a tree at best, or with two wheels in a ditch and the chassis on the ground at worst. Even on trails, you can easily trap your tank in a corner that you can't back out of, or drive through because of the turning radius of your vehicle. So if you go this route, be ready to spend a lot of time practicing your off-road driving skills.

You could build a tank on anything if you had the time, desire and money. Special Ops "Razorback" tank is an old military vehicle, and I was told at the LI Big Game they were damn near bunkering people in the tank. Go-karts, a Segway, whatever you want to spend money on could potentially be a paintball tank. A lot of tankers will tell you that the vehicle is nothing more than a hole in the woods into which they pour a lot of money and spare time.

Tanks have special rules that they have to obey when they play. In 1996, there were no speed regulations. But after a number of near misses, it was decided there needed to be a speed limit of human walking or jogging speed. What safety rules are in play are wholly dependent on the scenario you're playing, and the rules they're using. For example, one game requires tanks to have a "kill switch" on them, so a player could, in theory, shoot a paintball into it and stop the tank. In practice, they place the kill switch in a box and the hole to hit the switch is .75 inch across. Plus the switch is in the back of the box, so it's an impossible shot. Not that I'm naming names here or anything.

Players also need to know the rules of tanks as well. One rulebook states that tanks have a 20-foot "halo" in which no players can enter. This is so nobody gets run over. Rules may also require a "walker" to go with the tank to act as the tank referee. But most importantly for players outside the tank, almost all the rulebooks state that all players inside a tank can not be eliminated with a paintball. You can only eliminate them by killing the tank.

Translation: Shooting a tank gunner with paintballs serves no purpose other than to make them very mad at you. And they have more paint than you do, and they will use it. This also means that you can't run up to a tank, jump on top of it, and shoot through any opening that you see and blast people point-blank. Nor can you run up to a tank, open a shooting port and blast the tank gunners point-blank. You also can't can throw smoke grenades into a tank to "smoke them out" or paint grenades to "kill 'em all."

This isn't a war movie, so get over it. Most of these rules exist for your safety, and their safety. Nothing will ruin a good weekend of paintball more than knowing that your actions almost caused five people to choke to death and almost started a vehicle fire because you threw a hot-burn smoke grenade into a tank with old carpet on the floor. Learn the rules, stick to the rules, and everyone is happier.

Knowing all the rules is important, because the rules will also provide for how to take a tank out. Most of the time it requires either a grenade of some kind, or a rocket. Rockets are air-powered cannons that launch a "mini nerf football" at 220fps maximum speed. And yes, a lot of players have these now. They're quite fun to shoot, actually. Big cloud of CO2, loud noise, screaming and hollering, it's like a miniature rock concert without the cool music.

For all the cool factor of a tank, they're surprisingly vulnerable. It only takes one grenade or one rocket to kill a tank. And since tanks can only travel on trails, or at least only in areas that they can fit through, one sneaky guy in the weeds can kill a tank from 30 feet away or more. The problem with tanks is that you can't easily see your surroundings, partially because of all the yahoos shooting you with paintballs in an attempt to drive you away (which never works, by the way). But mostly tankers' visibility is limited because of all the safety stuff in the tanks. Sure, you can see 360 degrees around the tank, but ask someone who's concentrating on seeing the trail to find some guy in a ghillie while driving. Try playing paintball in the car with your goggles on while driving and you'll see what I mean.

On second thought, don't. Please.

Tankers know that they need their players to protect them, and a lot of tankers won't roll without a group of players to either flush out the other team or at least give them an idea of what's going on out there. A good combination is a tank crew and at least two players outside the tank with radios. The players outside can help coordinate the shooting, and the tank can protect the players.

A tank is like a porcupine; it can suddenly grow stinging barrels from its side and unleash a fury of paint. The Armored Fist Panther tank had cramped quarters, but we still fit four gunners and a driver inside, and that's a lot of firepower. Imagine what it would be like to put a 5-man team in a moving fortress, hand them the fastest ROF paintguns you can, and give them cargo room for as much paint and air as they want. Yeah, it's that devastating. But they need to know where to put the paint. This is why the ground troops are so important. They need to tell their tank where it's needed, then let them go to town.

Since I'm on the topic of rules, I want to address something else on safety. When I was riding shotgun in a tank, our opponents, in their infinite wisdom, built a barricade on the main trail to block the path of the tank. This quickly became a safety hazard, as the driver couldn't back up safely or go forward safely. It took five minutes of argument to get a referee to move the barrier so we could finally drive to the tank staging area.

As cool as it is to have a "war moment" and build tank traps and barricades, it's important to know that the people driving the tank are players, too. Tanks aren't just computer-controlled bad guys in a FPS game. They're sometimes called upon by the staff as the fastest way to haul an injured player off the field of play and to safety. Not to mention the driver is trying not to run you over with his 3/4 tons of steel while you're shooting the snot out of his windshield. So when you block his path or shoot up his windshield, you're making it harder for him to not run over you, or a teammate of yours, while they're trying to get from point A to point B. You might also be delaying medical attention to someone who desperately needs it. So if you know there are tanks on the field, don't block the trails. And if they're not shooting at you, don't shoot the windows up. They may just ignore you and go where they need to be going.

There. I said it. I feel better.

Tactically, tanks are good rolling bunkers. Most rules won't let you get up close to the tank, but you can still use it as mobile cover. Park a tank in the middle of a clearing and suddenly you have a large piece of cover you can use. Think of it as a bunker that can shoot bad guys for you and won't run out of paint or air. Seriously, hauling 10 cases of paint and a SCUBA rig is nothing for some tanks.

One of the most effective tactics was with the Rangers. The rules of the event said a tank could only stop moving if it was engaging opponents. The Texas Rangers parked the tank at a key position on the field, and they shot at any bad guys who moved. The other team fixated on the tank. The players outside the tank flanked to the sides and started attacking. The tank got taken out, but its presence alone was enough to keep dozens of players mentally occupied.

If the rules allow it, you can even get right on top of a friendly tank and just use it as rolling cover. Long Island has no halo rule, and players routinely use the tank as a bunker on wheels. While riding with Armored Fist, we had "parades" behind the tank all the time. Thirty people follow the tank into the opponents' territory and wreak havoc. It's especially fun when two tanks pass each other with a group of players behind each tank. Instant mayhem.

Depending on the rules, you can also drop off a whole lot of people using a tank as a troop transport. Tanks are routinely cramped quarters. But three people can easily fit in with the normal crew of a tank. The tank can drive them to a remote section of field, drop them off, and drive away as a distraction or just head out of the way. It's also not unheard of for game VIPs to be escorted to important events using a tank. But don't ask if you can hitch a ride. Most of the time the answer is going to be no.

Vehicles add a new dimension to how you can move people across the field. But you have to stay within the rules when you do it. So always check the rules, and then recheck them. Heck, keep a copy of them in the tank in a splatter-proof binder. It may come in handy.

So let's say that you're going to do it. You have a lot of money and an old truck you're not doing anything with, and you want to build a paintball-specific tank. I'm not going to pretend that I know anything about welding, wiring, engineering, or in fact anything about fabrication of vehicles. But what I do know is that the rulebook is going to come into play here as well. Before you start building your tank, check the rules and find out what they require you to have. You'd be surprised that insurance is on top of that list. Drivers need insurance for the vehicle. Some require some kind of safety for the passengers, like foam on any exposed beams. All tanks require that the players inside wear goggles, even if they have protective netting or Lexan on the outside. They may also require a dead switch, fully functioning brakes, headlights, a "Dead tank flag pole"....

Still here? Good. Now we'll get to the fun stuff. First, glass is bad. Players shoot the windshield glass first to obscure your vision, and windshield wipers will eventually fail you. This is annoying and obnoxious to say the least. Plus window glass is strong, but not strong enough to take hundreds of shots an hour. Most tanks keep the windshield glass as it's pretty tough, but any side windows are removed. Replace them with paintball-safe netting. And if you're getting a lot of splatter on your gunners, a Lexan shield behind the netting isn't bad. Now you need somewhere to shoot out of. Making gun ports is important, but how you do it is up to you. I've seen flaps, netted openings, and my favorite is the hard bristles they put on the top and bottom of an opening to prevent paint from getting in, but barrels can be pushed out. How you do that is up to you. But I would highly recommend placing ports on all four sides of the vehicle so you can shoot in any direction.

A main gun is always a crowd-pleaser, and nothing says "I'm thinking of you" more than pointing 15 feet of 5-inch-diameter barrel at someone who won't stop shooting your window. Main guns can shoot paint, hold a rocket launcher, or just be decorative. Most tankers use a length of PVC pipe as the prop for the main gun. If you're really in a mood to look cool, 360-degree turrets not only are fun but you can point the "big gun" at anyone. The Armored Fist Panther turret gun is hollow, and I could put my gun inside and shoot through the big barrel at people. That was fun. Then there are the extras. You want storage space for paint and air. Having a comfortable place to sit or kneel when shooting is always good. Having some room for players to get in if you need to haul them off the field is a bonus. Space in a tank is at a premium, and they're not made for tall people. Some tanks also have audio systems in them too. Why? Well, try to imagine hearing "Enter Sandman" or "Hell's Bells" booming through the woods when they fire up the tank. Yeah, it's pretty damn cool.

And finally, the hardest part is dressing it up to look like a tank. Plywood is the building material of choice here. Depending on how creative you want to get, you can angle it, make façade treads, or go all out and window-dress it to look like a working Sherman. Then painting it in army green or a period-correct camouflage is what some of these guys live for. Just remember, you can spend hours detailing your camo paint job but in the end it'll be whatever color the field paint is.

Tanks add a new level to the game, and sometimes it can bring a whole new level of frustration for players. But there's nothing like entering the field in a tank. It's that feeling of invincibility that you know that you're going to rack up a triple-digit count, and there's nothing anyone can really do about it. Or it could just be the gas fumes, I'm not entirely sure. I want to thank Dawn and TJ Alcott for their help with this article. You can visit their paintball tank Web site at www.armoredfistpaintball.com.

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