The Battle of Henniker isn't in the history books—yet. It was fought on a sparkling June day in 1981 through the woods and fens of south-central New Hampshire, and even as the Crimea produced its legendary Light Brigade, World War I its Old Contemptibles and The Bulge its Battered Bastards of Bastogne, so, too, did Henniker create a neomythic corps of veterans: the Paint-Stained Wretches of the First Survival Game (SI, Oct. 19, 1981).
As one of those crusty vets (my camouflage suit still bears an ineradicable white paint blotch where I was zapped by the Death Doctor), I was eager to read The Official Survival Game Manual (Pocket Books, $6.95), which offers not only a historical perspective on the Henniker hostilities but an update on the Game itself: its rapid growth, improvements in weaponry, refinements of tactics, even a sprinkling of psychobabble as to what it all signifies. Written by Paint-Stained Wretch Lionel Atwill, the book captures the tongue-in-cheek humor of the Game—an elaborated, ridge-running adult version of Capture the Flag with elements of hide-and-seek, cowboys and Indians and plain old-fashioned tag thrown in for good measure—with this reply to those sobersides who wonder if it isn't a bit childish: "Silly, you bombastic booby, what could be silly about running around the woods shooting at people with paint pellets while screaming dialogue from a comic book—Powee, aughrrgh, splat! Of course it's silly!"
Since its inception two years ago, the Game has spread across the country, its popularity fanned by network-television notice (a network has expressed interest in covering a national championship shootout this fall) and articles in publications as diverse as Outside Magazine and The Wall Street Journal. Already, 106 authorized Survival Game dealers in 45 states and Canada are catering to camoclad paintslingers—offering equipment rentals and playing fields at an average of $12.50 a head—and Bob Gurney, a cofounder of the sport along with writer Charles Gaines and New York stockbroker Hayes Noel, estimates that by the end of the year some 10,000 players a week will be gunning for one another on 150 fields coast to coast.
That famous First Game at Henniker was primitive compared to today's level of play. A dozen of us scooted around 125 acres of boulder-studded woods, trying to capture flags from four stations and avoid being shot by our playmates (while shooting as many of them as possible en route). The Nel-Spot 007 handguns we were issued, powered by 750-psi carbon dioxide cylinders, were woefully inaccurate. The .68-caliber paint pellets often refused to burst, even with a hit on a kneecap. Reloading was slow and frequently resulted in a ruptured pellet. We lost our spare ammo, stupidly expended the full charge of our CO2 capsules in a single whoosh, got lost right and left, stumbled into patent ambushes—and had a whale of a good time. Today, the new paint pellets burst much more readily; the paint itself is water-based and soluble; extended, three-inch bolt knobs and forward magazine plugs facilitate firing and reloading; and anyone who reads Atwill's book will learn Game tactics from ambush to zap.
Today's Game comes in a variety of flavors: the Individual Game, as pioneered at Henniker; a Team Game (the most popular brand) in which two squads of anywhere from six to 25 players each try to capture each other's flag and return unhit to home base; and such subgenres as Quick Draw, Duels, Shoot-Out (a mass duel at the end of a Team Game that expends all the remaining ammo) and Secret Agent, a Team variant in which the judges covertly inform one team member that he's actually on the other side and that he can reveal his true allegiance anytime after the first 10 minutes of play. Atwill fantasizes about such future mutations as Survival Game Pirates (played on boats at sea), Air Ace (using small aircraft) and even Urban Survival (in abandoned buildings).
To the gloomsters and pop-psych critics who decry the Game as "a sign of these troubled times," Atwill points out that in more than two years of play "there has not been one reported incident of violence. That is the telling point, for unlike most games, the Survival Game purges rather than feeds aggression in players.... A sign of the times? Not all that bad, I say."