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Tippmann Model 98 with Flatline barrel system


Dennis Tippmann Jr. and Sr. with the Flatline prototype


Highlight shows the Flatline barrel shape
Thank you to CFW Enterprises for the use of their studio in the above photographs.

The Tippmann Flatline
Sneak Preview
by Bill Mills






I started to write this article, and somehow ended up with an essay about being a skeptic when it comes to new paintball technology.  My point with that was that when someone comes out with a new paintball product and makes some extraordinary claims about it, I tend to be critical.  With that viewpoint in mind, the Tippmann Flatline is the first paintball product that has truly put me in awe since the first time I fired an accurate semi auto. 

Because of my skeptic nature, and the number of pitches I've seen for some truly outlandish paintball products with equally fanciful claims, I think I would have laughed the Flatline off I hadn't shot it myself.

Since early in 1999, Ben Tippmann has been hinting to me that Tippmann Pneumatics had something big in store this year.  Now, I like Ben, he's a cheerful person, and does a great job as a field rep for Tippmann at tournaments and big games.  But what would be so big from Tippmann?  Even a super refined electro-pneumatic semi would not be revolutionary.  Sure there are more of them coming out on the market but they're not revolutionary any more.  When asked what the new product was, Ben would just smile with an evil grin.

In August of 1999, I was on the phone with Al Iba of I&I Sports discussing a trip my wife Dawn and I were planning to California.  Al mentioned that Dennis Tippmann Sr. was flying out to show him "something big".  He knew Dennis had been hoping to get a preview of the product with a writer, and had already planned to do a photo shoot at CFW Enterprises, the company that publishes APG.  Unfortunately, he didn't know exactly what the product was, it was still being kept pretty hush-hush.

Less than a week later, Dawn and I were sitting in the conference room at CFW's Burbank, CA offices.  We passed the time in discussion with Curtis Wong, the company president (they also publish Paintball Magazine which we edit).  Soon Al Iba arrived along with a trio of Tippmanns.  Dennis Sr., Dennis Jr., and Joseph.

Dennis Jr. was holding what looked like a Tippmann Model 98 with the barrel removed, and a new barrel installed in a shroud on top, running the length of the receiver and having a forestock.  Dawn commented that the styling looked somewhat like a Vector.

"What does it do?" I asked.

"It shoots 80 feet farther." Dennis replied.

As I said, I'm a skeptic, and that just set off the red flags in my head, but I listened.  I'm glad I did because if he had just taken off the shroud and showed it to me I probably would have laughed out loud.

"How?" I asked.  The question seemed straightforward enough.  I asked that he let me know what would be considered "trade secret" so I'd know what I could and could not write about. 

"It's all so simple," he said.  "We won't be able to keep it secret at all."  The only stipulation was that I could not publish anything about it, or discuss it with anyone until it was unveiled at the Zap Amateur Open in August.   Dennis went on to explain that the patent on the technology is already pending, providing them with legal protection.  They believe it will work with most other paintguns as well as their own, and are considering licensing it to other manufacturers.

With that, Dennis Jr. Proceeded to explain that they had developed a system that put a strong and consistent backspin on the paintball.  The backspin, he said, provided lift that allowed them to shoot with a flat trajectory, and get more range than a standard paintgun at the same velocity.

Dennis Sr. explained that 12 years earlier he was shooting an SMG-60.  For those that don't remember the SMG, it was Tippmann's first paintgun - a 62-caliber select fire model, and the first paintgun to feature a CO2 tank that screwed into the paintgun.  A ball broke in the barrel.  Each shot after that hooked off to the left or right, except for one that flew straight and true.  It didn't follow the arched path a paintball usually takes.  He reasoned that because of the paint in the barrel the balls were picking up a spin that generated lift, and when it was aligned properly, it counter-acted gravity, allowing a straight line shot.  From that day until today, Tippmann Pneumatics has been looking for a way to duplicate the flat shot.

OK, I wasn't laughing, I was listening.  The theory was sound at least.  Physicists call it the Magnus Effect, named after the addressee of a letter that first described it.  The Magnus effect states that a rotating cylinder or sphere generates lift.  Its effect on items from baseball pitches and golf balls to experimental heavy lift blimps has been well researched. 

Airsmiths refer to it as backspin, and a number of products have been designed to create it.  There is a US Patent currently on file for a special barrel, and paintballs that have a grove grove in the center filled with air paddles to force them to spin.  That's the wonder of a patent, you don't have to have a clue whether something will work, or how to manufacture it, but if you can draw it, and have a good lawyer, you'll get a patent.

A number of airsmiths have made backspin bolts that release a jet of air at the bottom of the ball only.  The effect that they have, if any is slight enough that they haven't captivated the attention of paintball players as much as venturi bolts. 

Personally I've experimented with backspin.  I built a backspin bolt for a Viper M1.  While I didn't do an empirical test, it appeared to have a slightly flatter trajectory, but it also appeared to be less accurate, with the balls gently hooking to the left or right.  My conclusion was that if the bolt was creating backspin its effect wasn't strong enough to flatten the shot, and that the axis of the spin wasn't all that consistent, as evidenced by the decreased accuracy.

Reading through the rec.sport.paintball news group archives on www.deja.com, you'll find some lively debates about backspin and rifling, some people claim it's impossible to get a paintball to accept a spin because the liquid center won't spin along with the shell.  As an example they suggest spinning a raw egg and a hard-boiled egg on a table top.  The raw egg stops spinning quickly, the hard-boiled egg does not.

That would be great if we were shooting eggs at each other, but we don't.  Try spinning a paintball, and you'll find it spins fine.  The fill in a paintball is quite thick.  If you've ever had older, clear shelled paint where the pigment separated out of the fill, you'll know about this even more.  Tumble, twist, spin or roll, the fill doesn't spin separately from the shell.

If lift from backspin is possible to achieve consistently, what would the benefits be?  A straight shot, for one thing.  Imagine you want to throw a piece of paper across the room.  You could wad it into a ball and toss it.  That would be rather like shooting a standard paintball.  You would have to aim high, to counter-act the fact that gravity is going to accelerate the paper toward the ground.  The result is a curved flight path for the ball. 

Alternatively, you could fold the paper into a paper airplane and launch it straight across the room.  That's the flight path of a paintball that has lift strong enough to hold off gravity.  With this illustration, you can see why people have tried to get a good backspin on a paintball.  By having a paintball that glides in a straight line, instead of falling in an arc, it is much easier to use scopes and sights - there is less, if any upward angling of the shot needed to compensate for the drop of the ball. 

So, how much of a difference did the backspin from Tippmann's new gun make?  Dennis Sr. sketched a diagram on a notepad.  On a 180 foot test range, they clamped down a standard Model 98 and fired it at the target.  Its paint hit the ground halfway to the target.  They did the same thing with a Flatline Model 98 and were able to shoot 4 foot groupings.   Considering that paintguns aren't normally fired perfectly level to the ground, they fired at further distances, elevating the standard Model 98 to reach the targets.  They found the Flatline could hit targets 80 feet further away than the standard Model 98.

That's an impressive difference.  In a paintball game being able to hit your opponent at a distance of 80 feet before he or she can hit you is a big deal.  To top it off, if you are playing indoors or in a wooded area, low overhangs can prevent some long shots because of the height they need to arc.  Not so if your paintball is flying a straight path to the target.

Dennis Jr. removed the shroud from over the top of the Model 98 to show us the parts that made Flatline work.  He apologized for a chip missing from the back, explaining that what we were seeing was a pre production prototype and the shroud had only been cast a couple of days previously.  He also explained that unlike the prototype we were seeing, the finished models would have a 3/8" sight rail.  With the shroud removed I could see that the barrel did not run along the top of the receiver.  Inside there was an adapter installed in the Model 98 barrel threads.  The adapter was a couple of inches in length, and angled upward at an 11-degree angle.  The paintball fires through the adapter upwards into a barrel that is curved until the muzzle is facing straight forward.  The barrel, when removed is about the size and shape of a banana, except it is the same thickness end to end. 

For years barrel makers have been telling us that you need a super-straight barrel for accuracy and range.  According to good old Isaac Newton, an object in motion is going to continue in that motion until disturbed by an outside force.  That means that you could have a barrel shaped like a corkscrew, and once the ball leaves it, the force is only in one direction (of course you may develop a spin on the ball that affects its flight).  Think of a garden hose.  No matter how you coil or straighten it, the path the stream of water takes only depends on the water pressure and the direction you point the nozzle.

Dennis Sr. explained the reason for the curve.  The ball is fired upward into the barrel.  The barrel itself is a large bore design.  As the barrel re-directs the ball's path centrifugal force makes the ball roll along the top side of the bore.  It is this rolling that imparts a consistent spin on each ball.

After coming up with idea for the bent barrel, Tippmann's research and development staff started by putting a barrel in a vise, and bending it a little bit between shots, then noting the effect.  Through much experimentation, they found the optimum curve for use on the Model 98 shooting at a target 200 feet away.  Bending a little less allows a little drop in the shot, bending a little more causes it to rise up (potentially they could build a longer range model that would end up hitting too high if you shot it at near targets).  From there, they needed to figure out how to re-produce the curve.  Bending aluminum tube stock turned out to be tricky.  Different alloy mixtures bend differently, and tubes tend to collapse when bent.  After testing 4 different methods they developed a system to quickly and reliably produce Flatline Barrels.

Additionally Dennis Sr. explained his belief that the Flatline ball maintains its velocity longer than a normal ball.  He suspects that the disturbance the spin causes on the boundary layer of air pressure around the ball reduces its wind resistance.  Tippmann plans further testing with chronographs placed at different distances from the shooter to see if this is true.  If it is, it means a Flatline ball will hit harder, and be more likely to break at long range than a standard shot ball.

After all the talk Dawn and I were anxious to see the Flatline in action.  The Parking lot at CFW Enterprises has brick walls on 3 sides and a fence on the fourth, making it nice and convenient to seal off for use as a paintball test range.  Its length is about 150 feet so we did not have the opportunity to see everything the Flatline was capable of achieving.  However, the flat trajectory was definitely noticeable.  It was arrow straight.  Bracing the bottom-line tank against my shoulder and sighting down the barrel I followed the ball to the target.  At the last moment it lifted up about 5 inches before splattering.  Joseph Tippmann explained that the Flatline's flight path takes a slight rise then levels back out around 150 feet from the shooter.  They are still in the process of exploring all of the aerodynamic effects caused by backspin. 

Firing off a volley of shots I attained a grouping of about two and a half feet in size, which is about what I will usually shoot with a Model 98 at the same distance.

We were shooting fresh RP Marbalizer.  Dennis Jr. said that a good round paintball was very important.  Lumpy or oblong paintballs won't spin evenly.  While in development Tippmann tested Perfect Circle paintballs.  Perfect circle balls are made by Airgun Designs for police and military training in areas where paint and gelatin residue would be hard to clean, or the environment would dissolve gelatin.  The shell is injection molded plastic, and the fill is pure water.  They are, as the name implies perfectly circular.  Unfortunately, the slick plastic did not get much friction against the barrel, and the water fill would not spin with the shell (perhaps if they hard boiled them...) making them impractical.

Dennis Jr. also mentioned that keeping the barrel clean was very important, paint from a broken ball, or the oil that many manufacturers coat their paintballs in will cause the balls to loose traction with the barrel wall, and not attain proper spin.

The Flatline was unveiled August fifth at the Zap International Amateur Open, and is scheduled to begin shipping to customers in early September 1999.  Tippmann data sheets distributed at the tournament list a 140 foot increase in distance for the Flatline when compared to a standard Model 98 at 280fps.  The sheets include flight profile graphs showing the arched profile of a standard shot versus a Flatline shot.  According to the diagram, a Flatline fired paintball shot level from 90 inches above the ground will travel level for 180 feet, and begin to drop, finally striking the ground 250 feet from the shooter.  Shot dispersion graphs also indiceted a noticable increase in accuracy over the standard Model 98 barrel at 50 foot (approx. 6" grouping vs. 16")and 75 foot ranges (approx. 14" vs. 24").


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