Monday, July 4, 2011
Mag-Fed Malarkey - Rant Week
Last week, RAP4 revealed that their much-delayed magazine conversion kits would finally be released for sale to the public. This means that soon, players all over the Paintball world will be able to scoop the internals out of their Tippmann 98s, Phenoms, and BT-4s, place them in the kit bodies, and finally get a taste of how shitty mag-fed play can often be.
Now don't get me wrong - playing mag-fed definitely feels "cool". It's fun to tear out an empty mag from your marker and slap in a new one, all while the player next to you behind your bunker stops shooting his hopper-fed marker and gawks. But there are a lot of negative issues with the equipment, and with the style of play that mag-fed markers necessitate, that can be extremely aggravating. I think a lot (maybe most) of the buyers of these kits thought about the "cool" factor only when they pre-ordered, and are in for some nasty surprises when they take their new toys to their local fields.
This may seem like a bold statement to be making, considering that the final versions of the product haven't even made it to market yet. But I can make it with 100% confidence because even though the kits are a new animal, the weak link in this entire magazine-fed Paintball business, the magazines themselves, will be a constant.
The current magazine-fed markers from RAP4 and MILSIG are based on Spyder and Tippmann designs, respectively. They aren't fancy, but these markers have been on the market for years, allowing them to be tweaked & improved release-by-release, until they perform almost flawlessly. The conversion kits RAP4 are releasing will be using the internals from equally reliable and proven markers, including not only the basic Spyder design and the A5, but also the BT-4, Tippmann 98, and X7. I have no doubt that if RAP4 has done their homework on the kits, the internals will cycle and function as well as they did in their old marker bodies. But with all of the above marker options, it's the magazines that will be weak link.
See, the problem is that Paintball magazine designs that are available today are basic adaptations of real steel magazine concepts. With real firearm magazines, a spring presses cartridges/rounds upwards into a weapon's breach under pressure, allowing the action to scoop them up, chamber, and fire them.
This is all fine and good for cartridges, which are made of hard metals like brass and steel, but it's problematic for soft, squishy paintballs. Paintballs under spring pressure will dimple or deform to an oval shape, depending on the brittleness of the ball and ambient temperature. Either effect can hurt the accuracy of the ball, causing curves and other odd behaviour. When you only have 18-20 rounds in your magazine accuracy in your shots counts for a lot, so this is a big issue. Using harder-shelled paint can help somewhat, but then you end up with bounces on your opponents, which is also discouraging when you have only a few rounds available to you.
Another problem with the design of the magazines is the detent system. The feed collar of each mag has little detents that keep the balls from rolling out. Not only does the paintball type used have to be large enough for the detents to do this (small paintballs will roll right past them), but one has to be careful not to knock or even nudge the collars against anything. If you go to place your loaded mags upside-down into pouches equipped with MILSIG's T-bars, catching the collar on the edge of the pouch can release the detents, and cause the balls to fall right out into your pouch.
You can avoid this by storing them upright in the pouches, but not only does downward pressure on the tops of your pouches cause them to spill out as well, but real operators wanting to use Paintball mag-fed equipment for training purposes would have to store their mags upright, which generally isn't done anymore (due to sand and other crap being able to get into an upright mag). So that training value would be lost.
Another problem issue with the detents (although less likely) is that when you go to insert the mag into the magazine well on your marker, you catch the collar on the edge of the well. This can eject a ball or two into the mag well itself (not the chamber), and when you go to insert the mag in one quick, smooth motion, you squish and pop the balls inside the well with the top of the mag. This has happened to me, and it's messy!
So these are potential issues with a working Paintball magazine, but what about those that don't function so well? What if there's a problem with the spring or winder, and the balls don't feed? Or the winder or spring gets stuck out of the blue, so that a ball is only half-fed into the chamber, which you only find out when the bolt slides forward and slices the paintball in half? This is a frequent occurence with many mag-fed equipment users, and I go more into detail about it in this older post. Out of 6 RAP4 magazines I own, I've had a problem in this area with 2 of them (a 33% problem rate), and out of the 6 MILSIG 20-round mags I own, one has a spring that has been getting stuck lately (a 16.5% problem rate). This doesn't take into account mags that are perfectly fine, but that insert into magazine wells manufactured with improper tolerances so that they don't fit properly and misfeed. Although I have to say that this last problem is something that's only been seen with RAP4 products lately (and was a widespread issue they fixed after it was identified on their test conversion kits), and haven't heard about this problem on MILSIG's current markers.
Another issue is that of price. When a magazine only holds 18-20 rounds, you have to buy a few extra just to be able to keep up with other players running full-sized hoppers. Even at a limited-ammo scenario event, you'd need 4-5 mags on you to enjoy the game properly, meaning at $30-$35 a mag plus shipping you'd have to spend $100+ just to carry the same ammo as someone with a $5 hopper.
Next, a player switching from hopper-fed to mag-fed play usually has to upgrade or switch out a vest meant for pods to one that has pouches that can carry the mags, and this also drives up the cost of the switch.
Which leaves the price of the markers themselves. The RAP4 conversion kits will definitely bring the cost of a magazine-fed marker down (a cheap Carver One + a kit would get you a barebones one for around $200), but up to now the prices of magazine-fed systems have been quite outrageous. When paying a LOT more for a MILSIG Elite or RAP4 Matador marker than a Project Salvo/Sierra One, in my opinion a buyer should expect at least a Project Salvo/Sierra One's reliability.
Once a player's invested in a mag-fed marker (or kit), some mags, and new equipment to accomodate the setup, where do they go to play? They're only really practical at limited ammo games/Milsim events, which fields don't tend to support that much. They make their money off of sales of paintballs, and a player with a mag-fed marker and 4 mags on a chest rig tends not to go through that many of them. As a result, players end up using them in normal recreational play and at Big Games, mixed in with 16 year-old kids in clown suits with Speedball markers hosing down their bunker. Occasionally they may get lucky enough to get a chance to pop out from their bunker and fire off a pathetic "double-tap", against withering fire from what in Milsim terms is a portable GPMG. Obviously this is not fun (or fair) at all.
Speaking of Big Games, where's the widespread promotion and support of magazine-fed Paintball games by the manufacturers of these products? Toyota sponsors all sorts of auto shows and racing events, and Frank's Red Hot sponsors regular barbecue events, but why is it that outside the BC Lower Mainland or the Mojave Desert, neither company producing these expensive magazine-fed Paintball systems has organized a large-scale event for buyers & users of their products? This "Build it and they will come" approach will fall flat in the current Paintball environment; they need to create or sponsor venues where people can actually not only use, but enjoy the product they built and sold them. To exaggerate an example a bit, what the companies are doing now is like selling ski equipment to people in the Middle East (Ski Dubai aside). They need to support games and events that fit mag-fed equipment, and drive up demand for it that way, rather than just rely on the "cool factor" to sell it to someone who'll play with it once or twice before realizing it's not useful anywhere right now.
When someone using a Spyder or A5 equipped with a gravity hopper can put half a case through one without having a break, but can't put 6 mags through a marker based on one of these designs without gooping up or jamming them, it's obvious the magazines are the problem. These problems and limitations of Paintball mags are already well-known, not least so by the manufacturers themselves. And what RAP4 should've done before introducing their kits to try and mass-market a flawed system, is to vastly improve the magazines. By this I don't mean doing what both MILSIG and RAP4 did with their new 20-round magazines (as in upgrading the materials and components used in them, making them from sturdier plastic, etc), as this is as ineffective in taking care of the problem as rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. I mean actually changing and REDESIGNING the entire magazine from the ground up, to market a system that actually works as it's meant to 1000 shots out of 1000.
I actually can't single out any of the two companies here, as I've broken paint for no good reason using both RAP4 AND MILSIG mags. One of the two, or BOTH in a collaborative investment (although we know this will never happen due to the egos in this industry), needs to tackle this problem if magazine-fed markers are going to be any more than a niche product that people buy for the cool factor. The players buying these kits and markers will already be at a disadvantage when bringing them onto a field for the reasons discussed above, so the last thing they need is their marker going out of commission with a break caused by shoddy mags if this format is ever to hit big.
There's been a lot of hype about how Tacamo/RAP4's D-Mags will be a new design that will revolutionize mag-fed play, but after the company's dismal showing with their box magazine (and the semi-apologetic company statements that followed), I'd be surprised if these weren't a disappointment. Considering they'll be selling for 1/6th the price of the current magazines, expecting them to perform better is probably dreaming in Technicolor!
Tippmann quickly went back to the drawing board when their first TPX pistol mag design fell flat, so why can't the makers of magazine-fed markers in the "full-size" segment now do the same after years and years?
The Uncertain Future Of Mag-Fed
With RAP4's upcoming conversion kits and D-Mags, magazine-fed Paintball play and equipment is about to get some major exposure and popularity. If the companies involved can market and support decent products that are good values for the money, the format stands to grow quite a bit, and make them a lot of money.
On the other hand, if the status quo in support is maintained, the current equipment isn't improved, and both major companies continue to display apathy towards doing better, a whole new slew of mag-fed equipment adopters will become frustrated and spread the word, and the format will fall flat for good. The next few months will be very interesting ones for the world of magazine-fed Paintball.