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Bang! Bang! You're red

The captain crouches behind a barricade and stares out at the carnage before him; his squad is caught in crossfire. He lets out a deep breath and charges, letting off a barrage with his semiautomatic as cover.

One of the enemy soldiers turns and fires at him. The captain drops to the ground and fires, nailing the enemy in the stomach. The other enemy soldier, realizing he is outnumbered, makes a desperation move, charging out from behind a tree. The captain lets off two shots, hitting the final enemy's chest and shoulder.

"Are they all gone?" the captain yells to a compatriot.

"I think so," the compatriot responds.

The captain moves into the clearing and jogs to the middle of the battlefield toward his objective. Twenty feet from his destination, he realizes he was wrong. An enemy soldier rises from behind a bush and fires, point-blank. The captain's chest erupts in a bright spray of red.

And yellow. And green.

"I'm hit," he cries. "Damn it, stop firing, I'm hit."

The captain raises his gun in the air and walks off the battlefield, his camouflage attire covered by a full spectrum of colors. He will return to fight again. In an hour, in fact.

Welcome to paintball.

This was a typical scene on a recent Sunday at the Top Gun Paintball Park in Masaryktown during a small tournament for local players.

Paintball, basically, is the game Capture the Flag _ with guns. Paint guns. They operate on air tanks and fire paintballs. Guns vary from single-shot pistols to fully automatic rifles.

The objective of each round is to eliminate as many adversaries as possible, capture a flag and return it to a specified spot.

Three to four judges don goggles and orange vests to check competitors for paint marks. The participants, who must wear goggles, are supposed to call themselves out if they are hit. And most of them do.

Any hit is as good as another. If the paintballer is hit in the chest, on the hand, on a pouch, or even on the gun, that player is out for the round and must leave the playing field with gun raised above the head.

The balls and paint are biodegradable; the paint washes out of clothing, and everything else. All players and judges must wear eye protection at all times during play; intentional head shots are not allowed.

The park was opened in early December by Ben Torricelli and David Waterman. Torricelli, 46, has operated a smaller park in Citrus County for five years, but now only uses that park for occasional tournaments. They think more Tampa-area players will make the drive to Masaryktown than to Citrus County.

Torricelli and Waterman, 23, now open the 160-acre Masaryktown park off Phillips Road every Sunday; soon they plan to begin operating Saturday and Sunday.

Depending on the level of play, the game can be expensive. Paintballs run about 5 cents each. Some of a week ago Sunday's competitors used nearly a case _ about 2,500 paintballs. That's more than $120 for a day's shooting. Even the light shooters went through $60 to $70.

But Torricelli said other participants will shoot a lot less, as little as $20 in the course of a day.

"It just depends on how much you fire. Some guys are in that "Robert De Niro-Deer Hunter-one shot-one kill' mode, and they'll fire very little. Other guys will spray the field with paintballs."

Either way, Torricelli thinks he and Waterman have brought the ultimate competitive sport to Hernando County.

Two squads, Welter Skelter "C" (a division of a larger team) and the Bounty Hunters, meet on Field One, one of the largest and most interesting fields, with a large basin and several inclines.

The groups move up quickly and clash. Two Bounty Hunters pin a Welter Skelter behind a tree.

"I need help over here!" yells the Welter Skelter to his teammates.

"Yeah, he does! Yeah he does!" heckles one of his antagonists, firing away gleefully at the man.

The melee moves off to one end of the field. In the meantime, Bounty Hunter Al Devane has vanished into the woods and reappeared at the enemy's station. Unnoticed and uncontested, he runs up, snags the flag and races off to hang it at the enemy station, winning the round.

"Well, I had to work my way around (the field)," Devane said. "It wasn't a piece of cake."

Yes, it hurts, but not much, this reporter learned by taking a fairly close-range shot in the leg. It stung, but didn't leave a mark on the skin.

It can be worse, though, depending on the velocity and the temperature. The velocity the guns fire at varies. Tournament hosts set a limit as to how hard the guns can fire, in an effort to avoid injury.

Competitors are required to check the pressure at which their guns are firing at "chrono" stations before and after they leave the field for each session.

The chronograph measures the velocity that the paintball gun is shooting. A digital readout registers the velocity in feet per second.

If the paintballers do not shoot below the limit when chronoing in, they use Allen wrenches to modify the amount of air entering the gun from the tank.

"These are good people," Torricelli says of his colleagues. "We're not soldiers of fortune. People think it's all crazy Vietnam vets. It's not. This is a sport.

"I don't like violence . . . I'm not a hunter; I don't even own (an actual) gun. This is a great sport. The adrenaline rush is greater in this sport than any other. Bravery counts. Strategy counts. It can give you all of that. You feel great afterward."

At the end of Sunday's session, the paintballers certainly looked like a contented bunch. The $600 Torricelli collected for tournament fees was returned to the top three teams in amounts of $300, $180 and $120.

The five men of the top team received $60 each. Sure, they spent twice that in paintballs, but at least they got half of it back. Torricelli said that in sponsored tournaments, which Top Gun will hold on occasion, the purse is much higher.

Regardless of the money, Torricelli thinks the appeal of the game is obvious to anyone who grew up shooting toy guns at a brother or sister.

"If they give it a try, the first time they'll get the rush," Torricelli says. "It's like going back to childhood. You used to go "Bang! Bang!' and shoot each other. "You're dead.' "No, you're dead.' Now you can prove it."

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