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Save Those Serial Numbers
by Bill Mills - Photos by Dawn Mills
September 2006

One of the downsides to the massive growth paintball has seen over the last several years is that there is enough of a demand for paintball gear, and market for used gear, that it has become a more desirable target for thieves – even to the point that a one web site recently published tips on how to steal equipment from tournament staging areas.

Many steps can be taken to fight theft of paintball equipment – both in terms of making it less desirable to steal, and increasing the chances of recovery after theft.

In 1963, the Southern California city of Monterey Park was besieged by a rash of hubcap thefts. Everett Holladay, Chief of the city’s police force recommended that residents engrave their license plate numbers in the hubcaps of their car. This would make recovered hubcaps easier to return, and stolen hubcaps rather obvious when the thief tried to sell them as used. This community campaign soon expanded to the idea of making sure valuables had unique identification, and spread throughout the US, and even to other nations under the name “Operation Identification.”

While it is not a nationally organized program, many police departments use the name Operation Identification for their public awareness campaigns encouraging citizens in their community to take some very simple theft deterrent steps. On their web site, the Honolulu, HI, Police Department succinctly describes Operation Identification:

“This program helps to take the profit out of burglaries and other thefts by making the stolen property easier to identify and harder to sell. Burglars and other thieves thrive on stolen property, which can be easily sold because it cannot be properly identified. Recovered property that lacks personalized identification cannot be traced and returned to the owner, and it is difficult to introduce as evidence.“

Applying this philosophy to paintball gear is simple, and involves three main steps – first identifying which pieces of kit are at risk, then making sure they are uniquely identified, and finally keeping a record of those items to be able to aid law enforcement or make an insurance claim if they are stolen.

What is the most likely to get stolen? Value and anonymity are traits thieves look for. Paintguns usually carry a good price tag. Very expensive customized paintguns, especially those with custom mill work or anodizing can sometimes surprisingly be less desirable than stock $200 in the box paintguns – because although they are worth more, they are easier to identify and that increases the risk of getting caught. Regardless, risk level, as they are often a player’s largest investment paintguns are well worth protecting. Surprisingly small items like pods or hoppers can make potential theft targets as well, simply because so many look alike and their value is low enough that players will rarely be very worried about them.

Unique identification is the key to Operation Identification. Most paintball markers with price tags over $100, have stamped or engraved serial numbers. For those that do not, it is a simple matter to engrave some identifying information on a section of metal or even hard plastic. Electric engravers use a vibrating stylus to etch materials and many police departments and public libraries have engravers that they loan to the public free of charge as a part of their Operation Identification efforts. A driver’s license number can make an effective identifier to etch into an item as it is easy for law enforcement to track if the item is found – even if the theft was never reported.

[Author’s Note: I engraved my father’s driver’s license number into the frame of my bicycle when I was in third grade – when I was in high school, long after I had sold it, the police contacted us because it was found in a house with other stolen property – we were able to direct them to the bicycle’s rightful owner.]

Laser engraved WARPIG logoGoing even fancier, some paintball shops that offer airsmithing services also offer laser engraving, and it is available as a while you wait service at some larger tournament trade shows. Laser engraving uses a computer-controlled laser to etch steel or anodized aluminum with anything from a team logo to a player name as a permanent part of the paintgun with a professional appearance. This is the same method many manufacturers use to apply serial numbers or their own logos and has an advantage that it can be very easily visible – a deterrent to thieves who will see that it is uniquely identified. It is also very difficult to remove laser engraving without causing damage to surrounding anodizing.

Unique appearance should not be underestimated. Several years ago, a thief made off with multiple paintguns from P&P Paintball in Michigan. Amongst the stolen property was a very uniquely anodized custom Autococker, so unusual that the store’s owner immediately recognized it when someone in another state tried to sell it in the WARPIG Auctions. FBI investigators bid on and won the custom gun to confirm the seller’s location, and then were able to track it through the fseller, catch the thieves and return the stolen property – all because of a unique anodizing job.

MiniMag SerialIt is also important when customizing a paintgun with machining, painting or anodizing that the original serial numbers remain intact. Because they are so critical to tracking stolen property some manufacturers will even refuse to service or provide warranty support to paintguns that have had their serial numbers removed. Similarly, buyers should be wary of any paintgun offered for sale with the serial number removed - even if it is new in the box - there is no legitimate reason for an honest dealer to remove a serial number.

Other items like packs, pads and masks may not be the target a serious thief is looking for, but a couple of minutes with a permanent marker putting a name on interior surfaces can even help against accidental loss when two items that look the same are side by side in the staging area. Whether on purpose or not, pods are some of the most common items to be swiped if for no other reason than they all tend to look alike. A moment with a permanent marker putting initials on the lid – or even better a team logo sticker is a good way to help them find their way back to the right pack.

GoggleSkinz StickersKeeping a record of items is as important as making sure they are marked for identification. This can be as simple as writing down a list of all of your gear, including their serial numbers, color, description of unique traits (even significant scratches in anodizing) and any special identifying marks. Going the extra mile of taking a few photos of your gear can really help a police officer who is making the rounds of local pawn shops. Keeping a copy of the purchase receipt is a good plan as well. With all of the information in a file folder, it is easy to be ready to supply it to law enforcement in case of theft – or to a homeowner’s or renter’s insurance adjuster if the gear is covered under a policy.

Getting the word out as much as possible after a theft goes hand in hand with record keeping. It starts with a police report. While law enforcement agents are not likely to dedicate massive manpower to recovering a $200 paintgun, a police report with a serial number will increase the chance of getting stolen property back where it belongs if it turns up in the investigation of another crime. Some manufacturers keep a stolen gun database, and a quick phone call will increase the chance that your paintgun will make it back to you if someone tries to get it serviced at the factory or at a trade show. After letting paintball shops in your area know, they can watch for your serial number on used gear that heads their way. Similarly, stolen gun reports at places like’s Hot Gun List and message boards specializing in the region or scenario/tournament series where something was stolen are all ways to get honest paintball players on the lookout for your property.

A few simple steps can reduce the risk of stolen gear and increase the chances of recovery if it does disappear. The old saying that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure was never more applicable.


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