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by Bill Mills - Photos by Dawn Mills - Dec 2005
In the early 1980s, the game of paintball started with bolt-action pistols powered by disposable 12 gram CO2 cartridges. It didn’t take long for the equipment to evolve to meet player demands for more firepower. Lou Grubb set up a larger refillable CO2 tank on a paintball gun, and called it “constant air.” Tippmann Pneumatics refined that idea by bringing the SMG-60 to the market, not only as the first select fire paintgun long before most other manufacturers would evolve from pump to semi-auto, but also integrating the refillable CO2 tank into the paintgun as a backbottle. The SMG-60’s CO2 tank didn’t need hoses and adaptors to hook up to the paintgun, it simply screwed into an air system adapter (ASA) on the back of the receiver. That arrangement of a screw in CO2 tank set a standard that the sport has now been using for more than 20 years.
In the mid 1990s, high pressure compressed air (HPA) became common place in the sport as a higher performance alternative to CO2 that wasn’t as affected by cold weather. While these innovations have given players the ability to fire more shots between reloads, they both suffer a shortcoming that was not found in the simple disposable 12-gram cartridges. Both systems require access to the gasses for refilling. To perform fills, CO2 must be obtained from industrial gas suppliers in large quantities, and high pressure air must be obtained the same way, or produced with high pressure compressors which cost thousands of dollars. For most paintball players with a couple hours drive of an established paintball field or store this is not much of an issue, they can just get fills when they go to play.
Many in the paintball industry have long postulated that limited access to air and CO2 was restricting the growth of paintball. If players could pick up a power source for their markers that was as easy to obtain as 12 gram CO2 cartridges at a hardware store, but could provide many shots like refillable tanks, then people living in remote rural areas would be able to set up their own private fields to play with friends and family.
With the introduction of the C3, and “Propane Enhanced Performance,” Tippmann, LLC has squarely addressed the fuel availability issue. The C3 is a pump action paintgun which derives its name from its power source – C3H8, also known as Propane [author’s note: See Mr. Mackey, I wasn’t sleeping when you taught IUPAC nomenclature.]
Propane, a valuable fuel in its own right, is actually produced as a by-product from two other fuels. Propane, along with butane is removed from natural gas because of its tendency to liquefy, something that would cause problems in natural gas systems. It is also separated out of petroleum oil, as a part of the refining process which produces gasoline, diesel, and other fuel products. While a clear, odorless and non-toxic gas at room temperature propane liquefies under moderate pressure, which allows much more of it to be stored in reasonably sized containers – much like CO2 does at about 10 times the pressure. Because it is usually stored and transported as a liquid, propane is also often called LPG, or Liquified Petroleum Gas.
Propane’s primary value to American consumers comes from the fact that it is flammable. It is used as a clean burning fuel for everything from rural home water heaters, to portable torches, backyard barbeque grills, and forklifts. Burning is an energetic reaction. When propane is mixed with the proper ratio of oxygen, and heated high enough, it will undergo an energetic oxidation reaction. A single propane molecule will break apart, and recombine with five oxygen (O2) molecules to produce three carbon dioxide (CO2) and four water (H2O) molecules and heat. Because the products of combustion are simply carbon dioxide and water, propane is considered to be a clean burning fuel.
In a typical paintball gun, the power behind the paintball comes from taking a pressurized gas, and letting it expand, pushing the paintball down the barrel as it does so. With Tippmann’s new PEP approach, the power comes not from the storage pressure of the propane, but from the volume of hot carbon dioxide and water vapor produced in a small controlled explosion. It is these two gasses, which expand behind the ball, giving it speed. In operation, the C3 is, in many ways similar to the internal combustion engine of an automobile.
Availability and low cost are propane’s attractors for use in paintball, and those it definitely has. Disposable propane cylinders (they can be refilled, but refilled cylinders may not be legally transported in a vehicle) are available at very reasonable prices in almost all of the United States. Commonly used for camp stoves, portable grills, camping lanterns, and torches, these tanks come pre-filled in locations including hardware stores, camp supply stores, and even rural grocery supply stores. In their literature announcing the C3, Tippmann cited that a standard 16.4 ounce disposable propane tank will typically cost three to eight dollars. While reviewing the C3, we picked up a pair of 16.4 ounce tanks shrink wrapped together at a big box retail store for just over three dollars – about a buck and a half a tank.
Compared to disposable 12 gram CO2 cartridges that yield a typical 20 to 30 shots in paintball pistols, the C3 gets appreciable better mileage. Tippmann estimates that a single 16.4 ounce propane tank provides enough fuel for 50,000 shots. To put that in perspective, that is 25 cases of paintballs, a stack five boxes wide, and five boxes tall. Looked at another way, if fired at the four ball per second rate that Tippmann lists as the C5’s maximum rate of fire, it would take just under three and a half hours of non-stop shooting enough paint to fill the backseat of a car, to use up a tank that only cost a buck and a half.
With the addition of a combustible fuel to paintball come inevitable safety questions. Just how safe is propane as a paintgun fuel compared to CO2? From a pure pressure aspect, the propane has an advantage, which Tippmann stresses in their literature. With only 80 to 120 psi of tank pressure there is much less force involved with the possibility of a physical failure of the tank, or a component of the paintgun. The risk comes with the flammability. While many players voiced concern over this in Internet forums when the C3 was announced, a look at the safety record of the wide spread use of disposable propane cylinders in the US should put things in perspective.
That is not to say that the risks can be ignored. Following the precautions in the C3 manual, and on the packaging for the propane cylinder are key. Ever since having witnessed a neighbor’s house go up in flame after a floor cleaner’s refillable propane cylinder leaked in their closed garage (ironically the neighbor was in the business of cleaning up fire damage) this author has been adamant about following a golden rule of propane use – never store it in an enclosed space. By storing propane containers in a protected, yet open non-living space, any minor amounts of gas which might leak from the cylinder will simply drift away in the air, rather than concentrate to levels with that critical 5 to one oxygen ratio at which point a source of ignition spells trouble.
Another concern voiced in forums when the C3 was announced was that it would be hazardous to fire it near a source of ignition, such as a person smoking a cigarette. When the C3 fires, it does not belch out propane. The propane is burned, and the CO2 and water vapor produced are not flammable, in fact both are used for fighting fires. While it is true that a very small amount of unburned propane is probably released (simply because no engine/system is perfect) it is not a significant amount. The real concern would come from a leak somewhere in the C3 venting propane. Fortunately an odorant is added to commercial propane, making leaks easy to detect by smell.
Safe handling and storing the propane tank off the paintgun, in a safe place also reduce the risks presented by a leak. It is additionally important to note that full or partially full propane cylinders are considered hazardous waste and should never be disposed of through normal garbage collection. Proper cylinder disposal varies in different parts of the country, here on the Space Coast of Florida, it involves simply dropping them off for free at the hazmat depot of the county landfill.
Another consideration of the new PEP power source is legality. On Internet discussion forums many have speculated that the use of combustion as a power source would cause the C3 to be classified as a firearm, and subject it to firearm laws. When asked about this, Tippmann’s public relations consultant provided the following the following statement, "The C3 Marker is not deemed a firearm because propane is not considered an explosive under federal law and because its intended use is for sporting goods purposes only and therefore not a ‘destructive device.’ Local laws do vary, however if a city or state allows the sale of a CO2 marker, than the C3 marker should be available for sale because it has the same functionality and performance characteristics of an existing paintball marker."
In use, the C3 is not much different than any other pump action paintgun. A hopper is placed in the feed port and filled with paintballs, the propane tank is screwed into the marker, and it is pumped and fired. At about two and a quarter inches, the C3 has what is for paintguns, a rather long but light pump stroke. This is because the pumping action does more than simply chamber the paintball, it also clears the combustion chamber, activates a fuel injector, and uses suction to draw fresh air into the chamber, mixing it with the propane.
The C3’s construction is a conglomeration of metals, polymers and composite. The main combustion tube and most of the internal combustion related components are made of aluminum, steel and brass. A molded plastic frame fits over this, aligning the barrel with the receiver, and forming the grip frame, which holds the electronic ignition system and AAA battery. It should be noted that a battery is included, already installed in the C3.
The trigger guard, which fits into the two halves of the frame is identical to that of a Tippmann 98 Custom. This means that changing guards, and triggers to a two finger trigger is relatively straightforward.
The barrel – a 14 inch unported model with an angled breech and wire style ball detent seems shorter than it is, because the breech sits so far back on the C3’s receiver. On the top of the barrel and receiver are basic iron sights, the rear sight being easily adjusted for elevation. On the back of the C3 is an opening for simple velocity adjustment, which is performed with a straight slot screwderiver.
The C3 is set up for right handed feed. The feedneck angles out from the breech at roughly a 45 degree angle. Like their other hopper fed paintguns, Tippmann has built an angled end and receiver for a hopper into the C3’s feedneck. It is rare for a manufacturer of a right hand feed to do this, but since Tippmann has designed it in, there is no need for a feed elbow to be added.
Surprisingly unlike their other hopper fed paintguns, Tippmann does not include a hopper with the C3, leaving hopper selection up to the end customer.
The C3 is packaged with retail store sales in mind. Its box consists of a vacuformed clear plastic clamshell keeping all of the components in place, surrounded by an open front cardboard box to keep the overall shape rectangular and easy to stack or stand up for display. In addition to the paintgun, Tippmann includes the owner’s manual, a pair of hex wrenches, tube of paintgun oil, and a Straight Shot squeegee. Tippmann was the first large scale manufacturer to include squeegees, bundling pull through types with many of their earlier paintball guns. The recent purchase of the Straight Shot name and design from inventor Tom Harrison made the inclusion a natural for Tippmann, and a good practical step as a pull-through squeegee would be difficult to use without removing the C3’s barrel.
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