Electronic or Mechanical: Which Paintball Gun is Right for You?

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Electronic vs. Mechanical Paintball Guns

© 2007 David Muhlestein licensed to About.com, Inc.

You know you want a paintball gun is, but you don't know for sure if you want to go mechanical or electronic. While both varieties will shoot paintballs, they do it in very different ways.

Learning the differences and the advantages of each type will help you choose which gun is right for you.

Paintball Gun Basics

All paintball guns (or paintball markers) are designed to shoot paintballs at high speeds using compressed gas (either air or CO2).

  • When a paintball gun fires, a small bolt pushes a ball into the paintball barrel and simultaneously seals the ball in the barrel.
  • A valve then releases compressed gas which expands in the barrel, forcing the ball out the end.
  • The major difference between different guns is how the gun advances the ball into the barrel, seals off the barrel, and releases gas into the barrel.

While there are many different ways that guns work, they can be divided into two major categories: mechanical and electronic.

Simply put, mechanical guns are mechanically activated while electronic guns rely on battery power and a circuit board to fire. There are also electro-mechanical guns that are a hybrid of the two types.

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Mechanical Paintball Guns

Tippmann A-5. © 2007 David Muhlestein licensed to About.com, Inc.

How Mechanical Guns Work

Most semi-automatic mechanical paintball guns are blowback guns. These fire when the pulled trigger releases a bolt which is propelled forward by a spring and pushes the paintball into the barrel.

Once the ball is in the barrel, the bolt strikes a pin, opening the valve, allowing air to go down the barrel. The bolt is forced back to its original position by the force of the air expanding (the name "blowback" comes from the fact that air blows the bolt back into position).

Types of Mechanical Guns

There are many different types of mechanical guns that come in many different price ranges. They range from basic plastic pumps to precision-milled guns that cost over a thousand dollars. Here, we will discuss the most common and most readily available blowback mechanical guns.

The Maintenance Required

Mechanical markers are typically quite reliable and need little in terms of regular maintenance.

They should be cleaned and oiled after every few uses (ideally after every use). The o-rings should be replaced as needed.

They are usually very easy to disassemble. If one does develop a problem, the replacement parts are inexpensive and a mechanically inclined person can often fix it without too much trouble.

The Advantages

  • Mechanical guns are usually significantly cheaper than electronic markers and are readily available for those just getting started in paintball. 
  • They can usually run on either CO2 or compressed air and are very easy to setup and use without previous paintball experience. 
  • Many mechanical markers from different companies use the same size pieces so replacement parts are easily found.

The Disadvantages

Mechanical guns are typically not as fast, as accurate, or as consistent as electronic guns. The exact amount of air that propels the paintball from the barrel varies from shot to shot and the speed of the ball can vary (usually by only a few fps, but this can affect accuracy). 

  • Mechanical guns are usually louder than electronic guns and they must be cocked before they can be fired. 
  • Mechanical guns typically need a higher air pressure in your tank to fire. While an electronic gun might be able to fire with only 200 psi of pressure, a mechanical gun often needs 600-800 psi to fire. This means that you get fewer shots per tank of air.

Examples of Mechanical Paintball Guns

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Electronic Paintball Guns

Smart Parts Shocker. © 2007 David Muhlestein licensed to About.com, Inc.

How Electronic Guns Work

Electronic guns (or electro-pneumatic guns) fire paintballs by using battery-powered circuit boards that activate solenoids which cause the gun to fire.

The trigger pull tells the circuit board to fire, which then activates the gun. Since circuit boards are programmable, it's easy to tell the board to fire automatically, use a three-round burst, or any other firing modes.

Electronic guns also rely on regulators to assure consistent firing. These are mechanical devices that take in variable air pressures from a tank and release the air at a lower, constant pressure.

Types of Electronic Guns

Electronic guns come in many varieties and have many different internal setups. While the different types of valves, regulators, and bolts in different guns do affect performance, the general advantages and disadvantages are almost the same.

The Maintenance Required

Different electronic guns have different regular maintenance which usually consists of basic cleaning and lubricating (either with grease or oil, depending on the gun). Read your manual and carefully follow the instructions.

  • Electronic markers are typically more difficult to disassemble. They typically come with detailed manuals that explain how to disassemble and reassemble each part of the gun.
  • Be sure to follow the instructions carefully during routine maintenance.
  • Electronic guns are quite complex, so any major repair or upgrade should be done by a professional.

The Advantages

Compared to mechanical guns, electronic guns are more consistent, more accurate, and can fire faster.

  • They can also be smaller and lighter than their mechanical counterparts.
  • Since the trigger only has to activate the circuit board and do not physically activate the firing mechanism, the trigger pull can be very light and very short.
  • Electronic guns can also operate with a much lower pressure than mechanical guns and get more shots per tank.

The Disadvantages

  • Electronic guns cost considerably more than mechanical markers and are not as readily available.
  • They are difficult to repair and usually require professional servicing for problems or upgrades.
  • They usually require compressed air so you don't have the option of using CO2.
  • You have to make sure that your batteries are charged up.

Examples of Electronic Paintball Guns

  • Smart Parts Ion
  • WDP Angel
  • Planet Eclipse Ego
  • Proto Matrix Rail

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Electro-Mechanical Guns

Evil Omen. © 2007 David Muhlestein licensed to About.com, Inc.

How Electro-Mechanical Guns Work

Electro-mechanical guns are basically mechanical guns with an electronic trigger which electronically releases the bolt to fire.

The actual firing mechanism is almost identical to a basic mechanical marker. However, the electronic circuit board allows for fully automatic firing, three-round burst, and other firing modes.

The Maintenance Required

The maintenance of electro-mechanical guns is basically the same as maintenance for mechanical markers.

  • Be sure to regularly clean and oil the gun after use.
  • Make sure to keep the electronics dry at all times.

The Advantages

This is a hybrid gun, so it gives you the best of both worlds.

  • You have the reliability and simplicity of a mechanical marker with the ability to increase your firing speed and shoot fully automatic or use another firing mode.
  • You can also decrease the weight of the trigger pull (make it easier to pull back smoothly) and shorten the trigger pull.
  • Electro-mechanical can also be bought at a price that is much less than true electro-pneumatic guns. The price is comparable to many mechanical guns.
  • These guns have many of the same parts as mechanical markers so replacement parts are easy to find.
  • Other than the electronics (typically completely contained in the grip), they are also relatively easy to repair.
  • They also can use either CO2 or compressed air.

The Disadvantages

Electro-mechanicals have many of the same disadvantages as mechanical guns.

  • They are not as accurate or as consistent as most electronic guns.
  • They are as loud as mechanical guns. 
  • They require a higher air pressure (usually over 600 psi) than electronic guns.

Examples of Electro-Mechanical Paintball Guns

  • Evil Omen
  • Spyder Pilot
  • Piranha E-Force
  • Tippmann X-7 Electronic
  • Spyder VS3

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Other Mechanical Paintball Guns

Automag with X-Valve. © 2007 David Muhlestein licensed to About.com, Inc.

There are many markers that don't really fit into the mechanical marker category as a "blowback" marker. While these guns were once common, but they are increasingly more difficult to find on the shelves and are almost exclusively available online.

Each of these varieties of guns has different pros and cons which are very different from traditional blowback mechanicals. Here is a brief overview of some of the options.

Pump Paintball Guns

You must pump the gun (slide a handle forward and then backward) between each shot.

  • The biggest drawback is the rate of fire, which is very low because it relies on you.
  • Pumps are often the most accurate guns available and offer a fun alternative to semi-automatic play.

Autococker Paintball Guns

Autocockers are basically self-cocking pump guns.

  • Considered by many to be the most accurate semi-automatic guns available. They are not as fast as electro-pneumatic guns.
  • Autocockers also have more parts that tend to break than either classic mechanical or electronic guns.
  • To fire properly, they must be tuned and adjusted constantly to maintain ideal  operation.

Automag Paintball Guns

Automags are mechanical guns, but they are blowforward guns (as opposed to blowback like mechanical guns).

  • Require no cocking and operate at around 800 psi (a relatively high operating pressure).
  • Can handle a high rate of fire with the optional electronic frame (the electro-mechanical variety of the gun).
  • Known for their reliability but they are also gas hogs and get fewer shots per tank than many other guns.