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Part-perfectionist, part maniac, Colin Thompson found his life's master plan in paintball.
I first met Colin Thompson, face to face, at last year's SI Masters in Nashville. He was leaning over his combination display table/workbench, fixing another manufacturer's piece. A crowd of players Ken Kelsch The Universal Paintball Warriorstood in a loose circle, trying to get him to tool their various paint pellet pushers. Unfortunately for his bank balance, he was spending more free time helping bring his competitors wares up to his own exacting standards than hawking his own line. I found the whole situation apropos.
I have been having hour-long conversations with the man at least once a month for years; few are more knowledgeable about the Nelson family of paintguns than Colin Thompson. Our last talk centered on his own fascinating history and I think it amazing how it parellels the development of paintball itself.
Colin Thompson originally worked in computers (no surprise there) and like a lot of us, had to be dragged off by a friend, in this case David Bassman, to see what "this game" was about. He became a convert after only one day. When he was later laid off from his job, teaching the ins and outs of IBMs, he became the airsmith at the now- closed Conquest in Southern California. That was back in September of 1987.
His long-standing interest in radio-controlled miniature race cars gave him hands-on experience manufactoring his own precision parts. He soon turned his perfectionist's mindset to the paintball arena. He once told me of the satisfaction he felt when seeing a player's astonishment at the increase in accuracy that results from newly-polished paintgun innards. The promise of such a jump in performance started many players on the hardware highway in search of the perfect piece.
The obvious next step was to begin the manufacture of custom made, after-market, specialized add-ons for the dedicated player. The first Thompson product was his unique knurled front frame screw (which, coincidentally, happened to be the first product I bought). I can testify to the fact that it did not gouge the bottom of the bolt face as happened with many of the other attempts at making a proper screw, simply because it was actually the right size. The curvature of the screw head locked in fairly tight to the arch in the mating area of the frame, thereby making the whole joining of the upper and lower receiver tighter. (I still checked on the whole assembly every five minutes, but this was due to my own nerveous habit; this one worked.)
Thompson's next move was also an obvious one. A couple of months down the line, he produced a stainless steel bolt and hamnmer. I purchased his second generation "Friction Free" assembly after throwing away a disastrously gross oversized attempt at stock replacement from a now-defunct company. I stuck in his aftermarket 14" barrel and will now admit that I did not readily spread work on how well it worked (OK, so for a while I liked the flush I got from other's admiration of my newfound marksmanship). As it turned out, I must have done some talking because, soon enough, a lot of my friends (and some opponants, too) started purchasing these little tail- in-the-bolt innovations that locked everything up in a straight line for consistent hits on the target area (live or paper). Thompson readily gives credit to Sudden Death team member Tony Verbique for helping to develop the idea. In the fall of '88, Thompson started work on his HiBoy Dovetail Sight, a device which had such a long tunnel for sighting that there was no need for either a front blade or rear notch because it literally combined both; if you still yearned for that red dot apparatus, it could be mounted right on top of the bugger.
It was also at this time that Thompson started making his own replacement barrels. It wasn't long before he realized that he had made just about all the components needed for a gun. One morning (circa November '88), he put them all together and built the first, all black, Colin Gun. Because he is a perfectionist and slightly insane, virtually each of the first batch of these hand-made, roll-your-own guns was different. Some reflected tiny "improvements" while others sported major inovations, but every piece was a genuine, custom gun, made at the break-neck speed of one or two a week, quite an accomplishment considering all the handwork, including Flex-honing each barrel, involved.
In January of '89, Thompson attempted to stabilize his production with the manufacture of a single, complete gun called the Grey Ghost because of it's unique color (he said it blended perfectly with the environment; I liked it because it stood out amoung the masses at the chrono). Thompson incorporated Stan Russell's concept of step honing the barrel which meant having a chamber diameter of approximately .689 for a good hold on the pellet, and by increments increasing the cone of the tube to an end spread of .693 for a reduction in friction for the already stabilized round. The barrel was hard-anodized so a Flex-Hone could not remove critical amounts of aluminum - only polish it up for peak performance.
The other problem Thompson addressed with the Grey Ghost was valve tube breakage. He called his creation the Jet Set and changed the whole device by dropping the standard twin port design for a 3- hole system of proper feeding of the beast while forestalling the traditional snapping of the tube in rapidfire mode. A few more months down the line, development of a plastic cup seal brought breakage down to near zero.
This version of the gun, complete with 16" barrel, weighs less than 3.5 pounds with underslung c/a tank California-style rig. It's great shooter and is still so distinctive that a game against walk- ons, I still get a lot of static about it - even though I've been using it for more than two seasons. It's hard to give up a gun whose every piece is hand-polished by the manufacturer (how's that for anal?)
Could the beast be improved upon? Thompson's attention turned to the matter of shots per 12-gram. With the standard friction-free bolt and hammer, I was in the 20 or so shot per 12-gram range (without super-charging the back check hose system). I tried a few of his futuristic, highly polished, increadibly fluted 30-gram hammers. On the lightest of weights, under optimum New Jersey (scant humidity) conditions, it was possible to achieve upwards of 50 shots on a single powerlet. By the spring of '89, Thompson had the technology locked up, adding a gram or two to the heft of the hammer, and the end user got the most consistant shots possible for the money (of course, with bulk loading 12-gram systems, this ideal lost some of it's urgency, but think of the combination of lightweight hammer and 6-pak).
A few minor improvements followed. The innards were so polished that the coupled bolt and hammer would actually slide around, thereby double-feeding a round. Thompson and John Barber came up with a simple solution: a forward returning spring was incorporated into the pump, also increasing the firing rate. But trouble loomed on the horizon. Thompson's sub-contractors started selling his designs to other wholesalers. It's virtually imposible to patent every little inovation in the game, and just about every builder in the business will tell you (sometimes, justifiably, in reams), someone's gonna take your idea and run it to the ground. The only thing to do is develop new innovations so fast that your competition won't be able to copy your stuff quickly enough and will eventually go out of business.
Thompson joined the forces with Jon Silvers of Paintball Connection (Silvers is presently president of the IPPA) to retail his products while he cranks out 10 to 30 Grey Ghosts a week (talk about limited production runs!). He is also trying to do most of the work in house to avoid depending on sub-contractors.
Last year, in Nashville, I passed my Ghost to the two gents who staff England's Paintball Monthly: Barry and Andy predicted that the gun would take off like wild fire in the UK where every player has to have a whole battery of paint pushers. They were right. Our tea- drinking cousins are gobbling up between one-third and half of Thompson's production. A lot of players on both sides of the Atlantic also went nuts over the Ghost's bore-drop, hand-finished sibling, the Spirit, which made its debut back then.
Despite this demand for the top-of-the-line Grey Ghosts, people were clamoring for "low-end" more affordable guns, not realizing that a maniac like Thompson could not and would not give up his high standards of quality. But after he learned that some players would give up some of the finer details in order to have a respectable gun, Thompson compromised with a series of high-quality guns that, despite lower price tags, can still hardly be classified as low-end. The only significant difference in this line is that the guns aren't hand- polished and the barrel IDs are not as rigidly controlled by the step- honing procedure. The Wrath made it's debut with a drop-chamber configuation, then gave way to the Specter, a bore-drop final version. These guys still shot straight and come in three flavors: underslung California style, back bottle and Bottom Line (more about this innovation in a sec). A lot of field owners started to use the Specter as their field gun because they didn't have to oil the bolt and could just wash the whole gun without any of the stainless steel innards rusting up on them.
Once things have settled in for a while, Thompson decided to disrupt his manufacturing processes by changing the Ghost again. His new aim was to replace the Carter-style lower receiver with one that had a "straight back pull trigger" and could actually wedge the sear straight up like an elevator rather than tilt it up like a seesaw (control must be absolute around here obviously). Of course, everything in the trigger had to be adjustable to include trigger travel, creep and pull, and the auto trigger had to be adjustable to a critical breaking point preventing unacceptable velocity drop. Grey Ghost owners with guns made after October '89 can attest to the success of this concept.
Solid ergonomic handles made their debut in January '90 with a wide variety of plastic (black or camo) and wooden grips. My personal favorite development of last winter was the Bottom Line. Although I like the skeletonized Stan Russell on my Ghost, I immediately saw the advantage of running my hose directly from the bottom of the hand grip and using the 7 oz. bottle as the shoulder stock. The Bottom Line helps to insure that CO-2 is delivered on its gaseous form. Besides having one on my Ghost, I've got one on my Bushmaster and just ordered one for my Automag.