300 ft. per second ping pong balls! That'll smart!
For airsoft do we fill the balls with glue?
Weapons of mass decoration
By ROBERT HARDMAN
They're used to war around here. In 1485, Henry VII snatched the Crown just 20 miles away at the Battle of Bosworth. A century and a half later, Oliver Cromwell's troops destroyed the royalists four miles from here at Naseby. During World War II, this very field was an RAF bombing range.
But even the hedgerows and all-seeing steeples of this ancient Northamptonshire hunting country cannot have witnessed anything quite as bizarre as this.
Two tanks are charging through thick mud, blasting away at each other. There is blood everywhere and I'm in the thick of it.
Wobbling around in the gunner's seat of my tank, I have my eyes glued to the periscope and I can see that the enemy is swivelling round to take a shot at me. I am determined to zero in on him first while I have a clear line of vision.
"Fire!" I yell as calmly as I can above the bellicose gruntings of an 800hp Rolls-Royce engine which happily runs on anything from plane fuel to chip fat.
"Thwack!" We score a direct broadside, just between the turret and the hull - and the blood is flowing fast.
But the enemy are made of stern stuff and land a hit on my tracks. Neither of us is out of it yet, though, and our roaring engines speed us on to fresh positions from which to clobber each other.
This is no military manoeuvre or computer game. It's much more fun than that. Because someone has just invented the world's first game of paintball with tanks. Now, we can all be Rommel for a day.
Invented in the U.S. in 1981, paintball arrived in Britain soon afterwards and has grown into an industry where anyone can play a grown-up game of Cowboys and Indians, using an air pistol which fires Malteser-sized capsules full of water-based paint at more than 150mph.
As long as players wear masks and thick clothing, no one suffers anything worse than a bruise. The basic concept is simple: he who is the least-splattered is the winner. National tournaments can pull in hundreds of devotees and paintball has built up a solid appeal among stag - and hen - parties, pub teams, students and office workers.
But none will ever have faced a paintball gun like the one I am swivelling into position - which is just as well given that it could be lethal to anyone not protected by a thick layer of armour.
Two hours ago, the nearest I had been to a tank was in a museum. Now I have not only learned to drive one, but am engaged in a battle.
True, the 'blood' splattering all over the place is paint, but there is a buzz of adrenaline, a nagging whiff of claustrophobia and a worrying bloodlust instinct as I scream orders in our pursuit of the other tank.
It is all over in minutes after we both run out of ammunition. It turns out I have won by four hits to three. I jump down in triumph, but my pride is short-lived. I have parked my tank in a swamp and go up to my knees in mud. Pretty soon, though, this place is going to get churned up - a great deal more.
Southfields Farm near Husbands Bosworth, in Leicestershire, is destined to become the port of call for any self-respecting thrill-seeker.
One of Britain's leading 'gift experience' companies has just added tank paintball to its list of activities. In addition to, say, a ride in a hot air balloon or a winetasting course, www.funday.com
is offering two hours of intensive tank warfare for £74 a head.
So, I have come to try it out before the winter mud forces a halt until the spring.
Southfields must be the only farm in Britain guarded by an armoured car and a 16ft artillery gun (both decommissioned). This is a working farm but, 15 years ago, Stuart Garner decided to try out an extra source of revenue on his family farm's 250 acres. He opened a conventional paintball site in one of the woods, but kept thinking up ways of improving it.
So, he bought an old tactical missile launcher (without a missile) to replicate landing craft assaults on dry land. That went down a treat, so he bought a couple of armoured personnel carriers (APCs) to liven things up even more.
Then, he had another idea. If the general public found it so much fun playing infantry games, maybe they would like to try out a spot of armoured activity, too. How about tank paintball?
It took a few years to perfect. Stuart eventually, found just what he needed at an ex-military vehicle sale. During the Seventies, the Army used an APC called an FV432. A handful were also built with turrets and a nasty 30mm Rarden gun.
Stuart had the guns removed and contacted Jez Smith, 26-year-old local engineer and serial inventor, to make the biggest paintball gun ever seen. Their chosen ammunition, fired by compressed air, would be paint-filled ping-pong balls.
The first attempt blasted a ball into orbit. Jez lost sight of it after a mile-and-a-half when it passed the church spire. It also sent a small potato through the sound barrier. Over time, he calmed it to a legal and relatively modest 200mph. Jez then designed a 40mm, 8ft steel barrel to slot into the turret and the company now has five. "Obviously, these aren't proper guns with rifled barrels or they'd be illegal," says Stuart, 38. "But a ping-pong ball full of liquid doing 300ft per second is lethal. That's why we operate with sealed hatches."
Every battle involves two tanks, each with a crew of three plus an instructor/observer. Since I am up against a team from funday.com, I have cheated by bringing along someone who knows about tanks.
My father so enjoyed his youthful experience of armoured vehicles that he spent another 23 years in the Royal Armoured Corps Reserve. With Major Richard Hardman on board, we are, surely, indomitable.
The first task is learning how to drive one of these things. It's a simple case of two levers, one for left and one for right, plus an accelerator. The gears are automatic and it is a joy to operate.
It's easy enough with your head out in the open. It's harder when you have to have to lower the seat, shut the hatch for battle conditions and squint through a periscope. I bumble slowly through the mud but the Major's a natural as we clip along.
"We had to deal with gears and clutches in my day," he says. "This automatic is much more fun."
Next up is firing practice. The gunner does the aiming with two handles, one for raising or lowering the barrel, the other for spinning the turret. The loader has to stuff a ping-pong ball into the breach, seal it, charge the air and press the 'Fire' button. There are no fancy sights, just guesswork using a periscope and the line of the gun.
Since compressed air is our gunpowder, the device makes more of a pleasing 'thwock!' than a headsplitting 'bang!'. All the combatants have a go, but we manage to land only a couple of hits on a static target at 100 yards. It's not looking very promising, but battle is nigh.
I decide to borrow Jez, as my driver. I will aim the gun and the Major will be my loader. It is pure chaos as we thunder off down a preassigned course to the first firing point. "Traverse left!" shouts Hardman senior. Is that aimed at me or the driver? "Traverse left!" he repeats, pointing at the swivelling handle. I spin the turret and there is the enemy staring at us square-on and letting rip.
The bad guys have already fired their opening two shots, landed a blow on my armour with a distinct 'thud' and scarpered.
"Fire!" I shout. "Firing now," says my loader (apparently, this is what you always say when shooting in tanks). Miraculously, I land one on the enemy as they scuttle off. It's pure fluke, but very satisfying.
And so, on we go, each trying to outshoot and outflank the other. With slick directions from the old pro and Jez driving like a demon, we improve rapidly.
I have no idea who is winning. That's the 'fog of war' for you. You barely sense the hits on your hull, even if it's still profoundly uncomfortable to look through a periscope and see a tank firing into your face.
In the end, the narrowest of victories is ours. I find what passes for shrapnel - shards of ping-pong ball - littering both hulls. Everyone has, quite literally, had a blast.
Surely paintball can't get any madder than this? Perhaps it can. "Stay in touch," says Jez. "I've just developed the paintball bazooka -100 pellets a time."
In the farm cafe, run by Stuart's wife, Tracy, I even hear excited mutterings about paintball airstrikes from a plane on a crane.
If only the world's dictators could restrict themselves to weapons of mass decoration.