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Paint misbehavin'

A dirty war is being waged in Hampshire. Brendan O'Malley (above) packs his white spirit and signs up for the paintball regiment.

We are gathered in a large corrugated shed in a copse in Hampshire. There are 80 of us - groups of friends, fathers and sons, young couples - and we all have one thing in common. We want to shoot each other.

This is paintball at Skirmish Lasham. After a quick run-through of the need to wear protective hoods and masks, and how to use the safety catch on semi-automatic Inferno rifles, we are split into two rag-taggle armies, clad in combat overalls, armed with a magazine of paint pellets and sent into battle.

Standing on top of our bunker, a marshal tells us our mission: to take a flag from our opponents' base and prevent them from taking ours. It doesn't matter how we do it, but if we get shot we have to hold up a hand and walk out of the game. A defence as well as an attack would be advisable.

I decide to attack on a wide flank, run 30 yards, get pinned down behind a birch tree with pellets zipping past my ear, before I'm killed by a splodge of orange on my right temple. Somewhere in the distance, having chosen a rather different - and cannier - strategy, our boys have got the flag.

Back in the netted safety zone for a break, the combatants, especially the male combatants, are swapping stories of derring-do. "I shot one right on the side of his 'ead," one says. I think I need to talk tactics.

Jonathan, 34, large and stout, with a general's belly, looks like the type to turn to. He's over from the Middle East where he works in training and development and is remembering old campaigns with his friend Adrian, 28, an advertising executive. "Fire and move, that's what it's all about. Otherwise it's just attrition." What about defence? "Stay in a fluid position. If you're fixed you'll be taken out."

I remember his advice when I burst out of the bunker in the next game, throw myself on to the ground and start crawling through mud and brambles. "Fire and crawl" may not be quite what he meant, but the pain of thorns penetrating my bare hands is dulled by the sight of my first kill. An enemy sniper behind a tree. I don't know where I got him but I definitely heard an "AAAGH!".

Game three is more interesting: each side has to carry a bomb over a wooden bridge, through a clump of trees, and plant it inside the hexagonal log wall around the enemy's base - without getting shot, of course.

The marshall is looking for a leader in our team. Naturally, he picks "The General", as Jonathan has now been nicknamed. "What we need is one group to hold the open ground on the left, a larger group to draw them off and attack from the right, and a group in the middle to cover the bomb carrier as he makes for the bridge," the General barks.

The order to start crackles over a walkie-talkie and the three groups scurry into the undergrowth - but not Jonathan. He is sitting on the edge of our base with Adrian, lighting a fag and tracking the action by the sound of gunfire.

To the novice it might seem he's taking his promotion a tad too far, but there's method in his calmness. Gun battles are raging on both flanks as he predicted, but it's all quiet in the middle. Time for the bomb carrier to scramble over the bridge.

We follow up behind. Then the bullets come zipping through the trees. The bomber dies right beside Adrian, 40 yards from the enemy base. Adrian is going to make a run for it, but my rifle has jammed. Disarmed, there's only one thing I can do - act as a decoy.

We charge the base. There's a hail of bullets from all directions. My legs feel like they are being cut to pieces and Adrian falls with the bomb just before the enemy wall.

During the tea break the marshals recount a more extraordinary tale. Moments after we left the battlefield a wild screaming was heard. The General came hurtling up from the rear roaring like Norman Schwarzkopf with a spear up his backside, picked up the bomb and threw himself over the base wall. His heroic effort will never be forgotten because there is a new crater where he landed.

Lunch is burgers, hotdogs and pop, then it's on to a new setting, a Wild West-style settlement with oil-drum walls surrounding a watchtower and wooden huts. The two sides take turns to attack or defend. As the defenders can't move anywhere, this is definitely attritional warfare. Coming at the fort is fun. Orange smoke bombs (a fiver each) can flush out the besieged; comrades can cover you as you charge inside, poke your rifle through a window and hear the squeals as paintballs dig into enemy legs. But don't do what I did and run out of bullets just as you get there. "Ouch. Ouch. Aaagh, I'm dead. I'm dead. Okay!!!" Defending - the General, curiously, sat this one out - is a turkey shoot, a matter of praying that you can escape the hail of bullets ricocheting off the barrels and that you can see enough through the smoke to take out the enemy.

There are typically eight games in a day of paintball at Skirmish Lasham, and you can buy as many extra rounds of ammo as you can afford. Though it is dominated by men, between 10 and 20 per cent of combatants are women who, according to Skirmish marshal Becky Whitham, are usually surprised at how much they enjoy it.

Skirmish Lasham's owner, Lawrence Barwick, says the sport has changed since it exploded in the yuppy years of the late 1980s and the Rambos have gone. "The women are good for business," he says. "It keeps the guys calm."

* 'TES' readers can try paintballing at a reduced price of Pounds 15 per day including lunch, tea and coffee, the first 100 shots (additional shots Pounds 3.50 per 50) and free hire of overalls. Contact Skirmish Lasham, Manor Farm Buildings, Lasham, Alton, Hampshire GU34 5SL. Tel: 01256 381628. Strong shoes or boots, gloves and thick clothing are advisable.

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