August 19, 2014

TIBERIUS, ARE YOU HEARING FOOTSTEPS?



TODAY'S SHAPED ROUNDS


There is no doubt about it, the introduction of first strike rounds in 2009, by Tiberius Arms changed the game of paintball for a lot of people.


This was the video that hooked me and caused me to begin the process that would eventually lead me to sell my regular paintball gear and jump into precision shooting.  Watching the video now is akin to watching an old movie.  It feels really does feel old.  Take it from me, when this video first came out it was a sensation. After all, an aimed shot taken at 100 yards with a paintball was mesmerizing for those of us who had never even imagined such a thing.

As I have said before, once you know the round and its ballistics you realize how simple it was to set this shot up.  Mark a spot high enough on the back wall to aim at, and the round will drop right down on the dummy. No wind to contend with, and dummies don't move during the flight time of the round.  Despite all that, whoever thought up the idea behind the video was an advertising genius.  Its effect on the paintball community was nothing short of profound.

In 2009, all Tiberius had to offer that would fire these rounds was a conversion kit for its T8 and t9.


It wasn't long after the introduction of the first strike rounds that Tiberius moved to introduce the T4, T8.1 and T9.1, all of which were specifically designed to shoot its new rounds. In the intervening years, many other paintball-gear manufacturers have moved in to create equipment that would make use of first strikes.

For quite some time now, Tiberius's competition has been limited to the area of its rifles and pistols.  It was a little slow in getting its new T15 to market and, as a result, is now feeling a lot of pressure from Milsig, who has now moved into the marketplace with a line of good looking, reasonable-priced mag-fed rifles.

Since 2009, however, the first strike round has gone without change and without much of a reduction in price.  It's true that when the first strikes were originally marketed, they were even more expensive than they are now, but much of the price reduction that has occurred since the round's introduction is attributable to the way the rounds are packaged.  The old timers will remember than when you bought first strikes at the very beginning, the only way you buy them was in a tube containing 8 rounds or in boxes containing a number of the plastic tubes.  Very, very expensive.  The sheer expense in buying the things was slowing sales so Tiberius began selling them in bulk form which meant shipping them loose in plastic bags instead of tubes.

Now that certainly made things cheaper for those us having to buy them, but it also created another accuracy problem.  When first strikes were stored in tubes, they were stored nose down.  Fill tended to settle nose down.  Now that they are sold in bulk, the fill settles in various ways inside the storage bags.


This is a first strike round just taken out of a bulk storage box.  If you look carefully at the nose, you can see a crescent of empty space right starting right where the fins meet the nose, and the gray shading of the fill around it.  Getting the fill to settle in the nose again can be done but it takes awhile of letting them sit nose down in the tubes.  There is some discussion about whether it is better to have the fill settle completely in the nose or back against the fins.  I prefer that it be in the nose but in any case, you don't want it lumped to one side.  Yes, you can store them for a bit to help the settling but in most scenario events you are buying their bulk rounds and if you pick up your paint just before the event starts, well this is what you will be shooting.

Also note that little bit of plastic left over on the fins. This is actually a pretty clean round compared to a lot of others I see.  

Unfortunately, nothing much has changed since.  There are basically two main fill colors, white and blue. White is what is sold over the counter or what you will get when you order them on-line. Blue has traditionally been reserved for use in events. The price hasn't changed.  I believe that there was some change to the process early on that caused a slight reduction in the quality of the first strike rounds. I have always believed that someone found a way to make them in a cheaper way without losing much in the way of quality.

The rounds themselves are often a bit out of round. They vary in size a bit from about .686 - .688, but I have found, on average, one larger round in a box of 100. That round is usually large enough that I just toss it. The nose of the round itself has the small, poorly shaped mold mark that undoubtedly doesn't add anything positive to accuracy of the round.



The fins on the first strike round often come with small chips in them or, conversely, little bits of extra material adhering to the edges as you saw in the picture just before this one.

As expensive as they are, and even with all the niggling little things that make them frustrating at times to use, they are still the only game in town for those of us who prize accuracy above rates of fire.

Nothing ever stays the same for very long.  Someone is always working on building a better mousetrap; it's why I love capitalism so much.  Companies have to continue to adapt and innovate if they want to survive. Just choosing to sit back and watch the money roll in on the sales of  a killer product, secure in knowledge that your patents will protect you, is a sure way to ultimately get left behind.  In sports, when you hear an opposing player catching you from behind, it's called "hearing footsteps."  I hope the people at Tiberius Arms are paying attention because, just like with Milsig's decision to move on the mag-fed market segment that Tiberius has always had pretty much locked up, other companies are striving to make products that knock the first strike round off its pedestal.

IS THIS WHAT SHAPED ROUNDS WILL LOOK LIKE TOMORROW?

HONORCORE ROUNDS


The rounds that Honorcore is now beginning to talk about have a been around for awhile.  When Scarab Arms first started talking about producing a ballistic round that would compete with first strikes.  This is what it put forward.  



Obviously there is a strong resemblance to first strikes and I am sure this provoked a bit of discussion between the legal beagles at Scarab Arms and Perfect Circle (that's who actually makes the first strike rounds for Tiberius Arms).

For awhile, we didn't see anything more from Scarab Arms until we saw this late last year:

It doesn't take a discerning eye to see the abrupt change in design.  These were marketed under the name "One2One Rounds."  What Scarab Arms did was to take a finned foam base ring and then insert a .50 caliber paintball into the center.  Scarab Arms said that the round was 40% lighter than a first strike round. They were priced at about $33.00 for a hundred-round box, thus making them quite a bit cheaper than first strike rounds.

Lots of players jumped on board and couldn't wait to get their hands on them.  There was lots of player speculation that these were going to be really useful for mag-fed players because, even though they didn't have the range of first strikes, they would still be good in the 50-60 yard range and certainly better than regular paint.

Yeah right.  Lighter rounds mean a loss of range but it also means that wind is going to push them around even more than it does with first strikes.

Well, the initial adopters uniformly reported back that the round was absolute garbage.  First, they didn't feed well, tending to end up in the breach nose down. Accuracy and range was reported as being on par with regular paint and nowhere near that of first strikes.  There were also reports of the round being poorly manufactured.  Players trying to use both hopper and mags found that the chrono. differences between One2One rounds and regular paintballs were too large to make that possible.

After a very short period of time, the One2One rounds virtually disappeared.  If you search the Scarab Arms site today, they make no mention of the round at all.  Did the round die because of the initial bad reviews? Many people thought it was gone. Not so fast though, it has been resurrected under the Honorcore name. How did that happen?

Well, here's how.  The guys at the heart of Honorcore were originally doing business as Milsig Canada and started that operation in 2007. In early 2013, the relationship between the now-owners of Honorcore and Milsig broke down.  They blamed Milsig for a whole host of things and decided to form their own new corporation. So these guys merged with or bought up Maxtact, Tactmark, Rexworks, and Scrab Arms.

Honorcore promptly set about designing its own line of guns and took on the marketing of the One2One round.  It is now the 5068 round, obviously alluding to the combination of the .68 caliber paint size and a .50 caliber paintball.


There are clearly some significant differences in the appearance of this round and the One2One Round but the basic concept is the same.  There are fins (only not foam this time out) and a retaining ring to hold a .50 caliber round in the base. If your thinking that those fins look kind of close to the design of the first strike round, you can bet that Perfect Circle is probably thinking the same thing.

Honorcore has now pulled all the information on this round.  It could be that they are just quietly testing.  On other hand, one of the first step lawyers invoke in fights like this is to have the company marketing the questionable product pull its product and stop any advertising (with an injunction if necessary) until the dispute is settled.

RAP4 SHAPED PROJECTILES

Honorcore isn't the only one trying to create a competitor for first strike rounds.  RAP4 has also stepped onto that stage with the introduction of its Shaped Projectiles. In July of this year, JJRON posted this photo.


He said it was a picture of a prototype round that RAP4 was developing.  Immediately, players began to speculate on what this wacky-paintball-with-a-turbine was and how it would work.

RAP4 has now started to begin to explain what it has in mind for its new rounds, and as we will find out, they are planning to introduce not one, but two rounds.  Here is there standard round:


Now you can begin to see the particulars of its design. It has become clear that this is going to be RAP4's standard round.  It is supposed to spin using a drive band that circles the center of the projectile.

Here is a video of Omar Macy doing a comparison shoot of first strikes against the standard Shaped Projectiles.  Pay close attention near the end of video, Omar talks a little about the second and later round he will be marketing as the "match grade" Shaped Projectile.



Omar, himself, has gone to the forums to explain a little bit about these new standard Shaped Rounds.  He is adamant that they will not be inferior to first strike rounds.  He calls them an alternative to first strike rounds with the same performance.  In his words, these shaped rounds were tested and found to be "every bit as good if not better than FS." He goes on to say that spin caused by the drive band is more consistent than first strikes and that the specifications of the drive band can be changed so that there will be no difference between the velocity of these rounds and those of regular paintballs so that dual users can easily use both. According to Omar, the initial price will be about .13 cents a round and it is his goal to bring that price down to .10 cents a round.

In response to RAP4s claims, and because I am an honest skeptic about new gear unless it has been tested by someone I trust, I offered to test these rounds in a straight-up test against first strikes.  Omar's response was to say that "thousands" of these rounds would be sent out for beta testing at a later date.

Omar also went on to make a rather fuzzy claim that he had seen the round actual correct its own trajectory after travelling about 15 yards.  I am not sure what he is trying to say.  Rounds can do a lot of things in flight, but correcting their trajectory once they are off target is not one of them.  This ad from RAP4 may illustrate what he was trying to say.



In addition, he says that these rounds retain about 85% of their trajectory and range (note he doesn't say accuracy), when used with a smooth-bore barrel.

So what about this Match Grade Shaped Round.  Here are some sketches from RAP4.



This is an interesting design with a spinning propeller at the back of the round.  RAP4 clearly has high hopes for what it calls its gyroscopic-stabilized airfoil rounds.


Note the "maximum effective range" chart at the bottom.  It lists 400 feet as the maximum effective range for first strikes and 500 feet for these new shaped rounds.

SO, WHERE IS ALL THIS GOING?

Let me start by saying something that I have said many, many times before.  I love competition and capitalism.  Manufacturers and developers don't work for free and while they might get some personal satisfaction from creating something that is truly noteworthy, there is only one real bottom line for them.


Make no mistake, everyone involved, RAP4, Honorcore, Perfect Circle, and Tiberius Arms knows full well that there is a great deal of money being made on first strikes and that anyone who creates a real alternative to it will tap into that money stream.  That's why Perfect Circle and Tiberius Arms are going to closely watch any companies trying to market something that arguably infringes on any patents.  Anyone who thinks that this struggle involves people simply doing what is good for paintball are delusional.

The truth is that both Honorcore and RAP4 knows what it will take to push first strikes out of the way. Players want a round that is just as good (or at least very close) to first strikes that will cost them less.  In addition, people like me and other precision shooters are looking for something even more accurate.  As a result, both companies are going to make those claims about their respective products.  They have to or there is no point being in the marketplace.  

I welcome Honorcore and RAP4's attempts to challenge first strikes.  I, too, want a better or at least cheaper round, preferably both.  I also understand just how difficult a task it is for a developer to come up with something that actually equals the performance of first strikes, feeds in the guns like first strikes, and yet avoids trespassing on Perfect Circle's patents.  

Companies like Scarab Arms are going to try and fail.  That doesn't mean that its work was pointless, because someone else comes along and builds on that failure with something just a little different (like Honorcore) and maybe that gets us closer to what we want. 

MAXIMUM EFFECTIVE RANGE 

Before I can really go forward with what I want to say about these rounds, I need to make sure that everyone who reads this understands what I mean when I use the phrase "maximum effective range," because it is one of the most misused terms in paintball.  The words are bandied about by players and manufacturers and yet no one actually defines what it means when it is said or written. Most often, it is confused with just the phrase, "maximum range." It is important to define terms so we are all on the same page.  

The terms "maximum range and "maximum effective range" couldn't be more different.  Maximum range is what paintball players have come to know as "longballing."  In other words, if I tilt the gun up to the optimum angle and pull the trigger, how far will the round go downrange?  The goal of long balling is to hope that if you throw enough paint downfield, maybe one will eventually break down there. 

I think we need a usable definition for "Maximum effective range." I use a variation of the definition used in the real-steel world.  To me, it means that range that a paintball player can fire a round and consistently strike a man-size silhouette over 50% of the time.  For paintball purposes, the maximum effective range of any round depends on two things: (1) the combination of rifle, ammo, and optics system being used, and (2) the ability of the shooter.  Thus, when I refer to maximum effective range of any round I am talking about an experienced shooter using first strike rounds through a good rifle with some sort of good sight or scope mounted on the rifle.  I believe first strikes have a maximum effective range of about 80 yards. Of course, not every shooter or rifle is going to be capable of achieving that, but a good shooter with the right gun can.  

Now, I hear lots of players saying they think that the maximum effective range of a first strike round is much longer than 80 yards.  What I don't see is much in the way of credible video that actually demonstrates someone holding a rifle and actually shooting at those longer distances and striking a man-size silhouette (not a large piece of plywood or the side of a building) over 50% of the time. 

I actually don't spend much time shooting at a full-size silhouette target anymore.  I find them cumbersome to move around and I like the challenge of shooting at something smaller.  Here is my standard, half-length silhouette.  It is all metal and easy to move around, and clean off.  There is no paper or cardboard to replace and the hits stand out nicely.  



In the end though, it doesn't matter what targets you and I use for practice, unless, that is, we are trying to convince someone else of a maximum effective range number for the rounds we are using.  If Honorcore or RAP4 is going to try and convince me that there respective rounds have the same, or better, maximum effective range, as first strikes, then all I need to see is credible video of by a real shooter who is consistently hitting a man-size silhouette at 80 yards or longer.  RAP4 doesn't need to put "thousands' of rounds out there to convince me.  I know exactly what I can expect out of a first strike round at various ranges.  Just show me a good, clear, uncut video of ten rounds being fired at a man-size target by a real shooter at 80 yards.  If at least 6 rounds hit that target then I am a believer.  I don't think that is too much to ask.

Without a good definition of "maximum effective range" all kinds of confusion ensues about what is mean by accuracy and range.  For example, we recently saw a reported kill with a first strike round that occurred at 117 yards, during a large scenario event. Immediately on the heels of that, I saw someone selling a SAR12 and claiming that the gun had a "maximum effective range" of 117 yards.  As far as I am concerned. unless that seller can set a man-size silhouette out to 117 yards and hit it 6 times out of 10 attempts (not going to happen in my opinion), then that SAR12 does not have that kind of maximum effective range. All that serves to do is deceive a potential buyer into thinking he/she is getting something they are not.   

RAP4's last graphic posted above is another example of the confusion circling this term.  It lists the following maximum effective ranges for projectiles fired at 300 FPS:
Regular paintballs: 200 feet (66.6 yards);
First strike rounds: 400 feet (133.3 yards); and
Match grade shaped rounds: (166.6 yards).

I have no information on the range of match-grade shaped projectiles, but I can tell you this, the other two ranges listed are just plain wrong.  First, the ranges listed for regular paintballs and first strikes can't be their respective maximum effective ranges.  There is just too much distance there. Well then, was RAP4 using the phrase "maximum effective range" when it actually meant the maximum range of regular paintballs and first strikes?  

Nope, that doesn't work either. Back in 2009, when first strikes first appeared on the scene, TechPB did some maximum-range testing of regular paintballs and first strike rounds..  They shot rounds at 300 FPS along a dirt road and measure the longest ranges they could get out of each.  They found that regular paintballs had a maximum range of anywhere from 289 to about 325 feet. Their testing also found that first strikes had a maximum range of 517 feet.  My testing on first strike maximum range ended up giving a result of about 520 feet so I am pretty confident that TechPB numbers on regular paintballs are spot-on.  

So what does that chart mean and what is it trying to show? In the end, the only really understandable message conveyed by that chart is that RAP4 claims its match-grade rounds has substantially longer range than first strikes.  How to really determine the veracity of that claim is going to be impossible because none of the numbers we actually know to be true are anywhere near the numbers they are using.  Honestly this kind of advertising doesn't inspire confidence in me.  It looks like pure hype, without any solid basis in fact, thrown together by an advertiser or graphics department. 

CONCLUSION

The bottom line for all of us is that we simply have to wait and see.  Candidly, I have not found Scarab Arms or RAP4 to be companies that consistently deliver on their promises for new gear.  Maybe Honorcore will be better in that respect. 

Tiberius Arms could step up though and take some affirmative steps to help itself (and us).  I would suggest that the following three things might be a good beginning:

1. Even if (and I strongly suspect this is true) it hasn't a clue as to how to build a better first strike round, it could relieve some the competitive pressure on it by lowering the cost of its rounds. Yes, in the short run it will make a little less money on sales, but that would immediately take some of the financial incentive out of the game for its competitors.  After all, each is claiming that their rounds will be cheaper because they know that's what players want to hear;

2. Tiberius could also work with perfect circle to immediately create a first strike round that has better tolerances, is more consistent in size (say .686), and also improve the quality of each round.  This would be, in essence, creating its own match-grade round.  That would enable it to continue selling the current type of first strikes we all know, albeit at a substantially lower price (as I suggested in step 1), and also sell its higher-grade round at a higher price.  There is nothing unusual about that approach. That is a common practice by regular paintball manufacturers who sell field grade paint for a lower price than tournament paint; and

3. Finally, Tiberius could use the lead time that the above-steps would gain it, to work hard on developing a newer type of first strike round. Something a notch above what is out there now.  No one is in a better position to do exactly that.  After all, they hold the patents.  

Taking those three steps would lower the incentive for further competition and give Tiberius time to do what it should have been doing all along, working on first strike research and development.  It would benefit you and me too, because we would pay less for our everyday rounds, and maybe get something truly accurate for the same money we are paying now when we decided we needed or wanted that extra bit of accuracy.

Will Tiberius do any of that?  Depends.  Do they hear footsteps?  Are they listening? Does it simply want to sit back on its patents hoping to hold the monopoly on ballistic rounds without investing any more cash in research and development? After all, that's what it has done since 2009.  

I'm sure that there are folks at Tiberius who are thinking, "Hey, it's worked well so far."  But has it?  The company took much the same approach with its rifles and it is now scrambling to catch up with those companies who are now trying to eat its lunch. They smell blood in the water because Tiberius fell behind current technology.

The real downside is that because everything is being done under so much time pressure, Tiberius's attention, understandably, is completely devoted  to trying to put out a T15 and fix the problems that will inevitably arise with a new platform so it stays competitive in the rifle market. That means they have no time to react to the competition on the shaped-projectile front.  Everything for them is now an emergency.

My point being that maybe all Tiberius did since 2009 was waste precious time by not working on a better projectile when they had the chance.  Personally, I think that the sit-and-hold tactic is a really short-sighted approach.  Trust me, other people and companies are out there working real hard, right now, trying to figure out how to take the shaped-projectile market away from Tiberius.  Yes Tiberius, those are definitely footsteps you hear.    



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