Basic Radio Operations in Paintball

by Tackleberry


            Radios can be an extremely useful tool in paintball, they can also be limiting and annoying if not used right.  They give you the option of spreading out, allow you to hear the latest info from the field, and allow you to “road trip” and run errands off the field as well.  I broke this down into two articles, one for basic radio use (this one) and one for advanced RTO, for those who gotta take things all the way. 


The Right Radio


            First step with using radios for any task is to chose the right radio for the job, not just grabbing the first thing Evil-Mart marks down for 19.99 each.  All radios fall into one of three categories: Base Station, Mobile, and Handheld. 


A. Base radios are stationary; they usually involve mounting an antenna on the roof of a building and AC operation so you can plug it into the wall.  Depending on the allowed power output, base radios can be capable of the highest output, and the antennas they use can be mounted high above ground giving the greatest range of the three.


B. Mobiles are vehicular mounted radios, like a cop car would have, they usually have a roof mounted antenna because cars shield outside signals from getting into the passenger compartment, and they need to be able to work off 12 Volts DC, rather than throwing batteries into a bottomless pit. They can be mounted under the seat, on the dash, under your CD player or in a number of places in the car.  The cigarette lighter in nearly all cars supplies 12 volt DC power, and many mobiles come with a cord and “cigarette adapter” which plugs right into that, some come with bayonet plugs that connect into your fuse box for a better connection and a more permanent setup.  Microphones are a necessity, because only a lunatic would lean over to speak next to his CD player to transmit on his radio while driving, external speakers and headsets are usually available so the unit can be heard over driving noise, but many states don’t appreciate you wearing headphones while driving.  Needless to say driving is your first responsibility, not rag chewing on the radio.


C. Handhelds are the most compact of all these, you can fit them in a pocket or on a belt clip, hold the entire radio/antenna combination right in your hand.  They always have some sort of internal battery power source, they are also the weakest type of radio right out of the box, because they are not connected to ground (more on this later) and their antennas are made short for convenience.  Their battery life varies, some can use both rechargeable and non rechargeable, others use just one.  Good handhelds can be plugged into DC or AC power sources to save batteries while at home or in the car, and the best have removable antennas which allow you to use mobile or base antennas as well.  Features like Voice Operation (AKA VOX) are great for paintball because they allow you to use your hands elsewhere and keep the noise to a minimum.  Downside of VOX is that when you fire your marker, or sneeze it keys up your radio.


Options and features

Many options are available on these radios.  Scan feature means you can set the radio to monitor many different channels, it stops when it hears activity.  All radios have what’s called squelch which filters out the background noise (static) some have a knob you use to tune it out, others do it automatically (called auto-squelch).  All radios have some sort of Push To Talk buttons (PTT) which activates the transmission of the radio, releasing it allows you to hear others.  Only telephone radios (cell phones for example) can operate with separate frequencies, one to listen and one to talk continuously.  Those are called Duplex, normal PTT radios are on one channel called Simplex.  Some CB radios have ANL (Automatic Noise Limiter) DNR (Dynamic Noise Reduction) and other wonder gadgets by different names that filter out different kinds of static, they are only necessary if you are trying to pull signals out of the static and don’t have any type of automatic squelch like CB radios for example.  They aren’t really needed on anything FM. 


Types of Radio Services


Newer radio services like FRS, GMRS, and business band radio (MURS) have what is called Continuous Tone Coded Squelch System or CTCSS, and is the least understood feature in all of radio history.  CTCSS is less understood than how nuclear weapons are built, but its simpler than you think, sneaky advertising by manufacturers and people who don’t read user manuals are mostly to blame for that.  CTCSS was developed by Motorola to keep unwanted users off licensed radio frequencies they would build a CTCSS radio circuit into every radio in a fleet.  CTCSS emits an audio tone that is impossible for the human ear to notice, other radios would be programmed to not send any radio transmission to their speakers unless they contained that sub-audible tone when they transmitted.  When the Family Radio Service (FRS) was created the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) wanted it to be different from the old Citizens Band (CB) radio created in the 70’s.  CB had people talking long distance with high powered radios, talking about things that the average Joe wouldn’t want his kids to ever know, regardless of their age, and there was no way to filter them out.  You would just have to pick an unused channel and hope none jumped on to talk to his friends about things he did to a hooker in a truck stop that would even get him kicked out of Amsterdam.  The Motorola system was chosen to be an option for FRS radios to have, 38 specific codes were chosen to be used (Motorola has hundreds available) allowing a group of people to all set their radios to the same CTCSS code, to block out the outsiders from being heard by their radios.  CTCSS is not activated on channel 0; channel 0 is no-code and allows you to hear anyone on the channel regardless of the code they are on.  Now that you know that, you know that CTCSS is not “sub channels”, “sub frequencies” or, “encryption”.  It is a filter used by YOUR radio to hear other radios transmitting the same code that you select the radio hear. 


Example:  If you are on channel one code 38, and your friend is a ½ mile away also on that same channel and code, you can talk normally.  An outsider on channel 1 code 0 can hear everything you say, and he can transmit on any code on that channel and cause Interference, or can “Step on you” making it hard for your friend to hear what you say even though the outsider is on a different code.  This is because the channel is the same, its like shouting over each other in an airport but in different languages.


Phew.  Now you know what CTCSS is, it’s a filter that’s all.  The FCC says that only 38 codes can be used on FRS radios, that means that for FRS manufacturers can only make some or all of those and nothing more, makes life easy for everyone who wants compatibility among different manufacturers, even though the companies would like to give us all a royal screwing.  Now lets move on to Frequency.




            A. All radios operate on a frequency or a number of frequencies.  Frequency is a bit complex to explain scientifically, so let’s save that for the advanced RTO conversation.  Let’s just accept the fact that frequency determines where your radio transmits in the radio spectrum, and we assign every frequency a number.  If two radios are on different frequencies they can not talk to each other.  Frequency is measured in MHz or Mega Hertz which is a million cycles per second, if you’re wondering why your computer processor uses the same measurement for its CPU. 


B. The radio spectrum goes from 1 MHZ to beyond 2,000 MHZ and believe me that’s a lot of space.  Submarines transmit around the world and from underwater at 1 MHz, short wave radio is around 10 MHz and the signals there bend around the world, CB radio is around 27 MHz, FM Music radio is between 98 and 108 MHz (look at the dial, go ahead) business radios are around 150 MHz, FRS is around 460 MHz, and cell phones are around 860-900 MHz.


C. Some basic characteristics about frequency that will help you chose your radio deserve mention.  Low frequency radios need larger antennas, the antennas used on 1 MHz to contact submarines are almost ½ mile long, while common police antennas around 150 MHz are usually 2 feet long.  At higher frequencies the antennas get smaller, cell phones around 900 MHz only need an antenna a few inches long, and radar stations in the 15000 MHz range use antennas that are less than an inch in actual size.  So the higher the frequency of your radio the smaller the antenna you need, if you look at FRS radios in the 460 MHz range the antennas are usually a few inches long, my base antenna for GMRS is 8 inches long and that is the largest it can safely use.  If the antenna isn’t the right length the radio will operate strange, have poor reception/transmission range, or will cook itself (more on this in the advanced article).  But frequency doesn’t stop there, low frequencies can penetrate the earth’s surface (mountains, water) easily, but as the frequency gets higher natural objects block signals more BUT enter man made objects easier.  FRS radios will penetrate buildings and cars easier than they will penetrate heavy forests or mountains because of their high frequency.  If your CB radio which is relatively low frequency were operating at the same output power as the FRS radio, it would be horrible indoors, but be a great tool in the woods.  So if you plan to operate indoors get a higher freq. radio, outdoors you may want to look into a low freq. radio, if you can handle the antenna that is.  Lastly, there is a thing called propagation, which doesn’t affect paintball too much.  This is how signals travel over long range, low frequency signals bend a lot over the visible horizon, that’s how CB radio guys in Texas can shoot “skip” signals off our Ionosphere for people in Canada to hear and vice versa.  Amateur radio operators (Hams) talk around the world at low frequencies, sometimes they can hear their own transmission go around the world and hit them again after talking.  At high frequencies the opposite happens, signals above 150 MHz tend to not bend as easily, and up by 460 MHz they don’t bend at all over the horizon.  This is good if you don’t want to hear people 100’s of miles away who can’t hear your tiny radio anyhow.  It’s bad if you’re in a military situation and you want to talk to a command center in the Philippines, but were not so like I said it isn’t terribly relevant.  Just remember that if you’re on FRS and you’re transmitting to someone in a valley, you will want to move to high ground to establish a near line of sight so your signal travels far enough, if you have a huge mountain between you the signal won’t make it.




As for “Channels” they are names assigned to certain frequencies, so if your FRS radio has 14 Channels, it means that Channel 1 is actually 462.625 MHz, and 462.6825 is channel two and on and on.  This is designated by the FCC who has to approve of every radio made in the USA, and license the use of frequencies as well.


Power Output and Range


A. Power output, usually measured in watts, can also be confusing.  No matter what the radio says on the box, that may confuse you, the FCC decides what the max power is for a certain radio frequency and only approves radios for manufacture that meet those needs.  Some examples are CB radio, you are only allowed 4 watts maximum power, yes people modify their CBs and use amplifiers (AKA foot warmers) to boost power, but when they get caught they get fined big time, FRS is allowed only a ¼ watt, my local PD is allowed a max of 100 watts, and the local talk radio station is only allowed 200 watts.  Ill list the laws for the unlicensed radio bands later, just understand that there is a limit to what the radios are allowed. 


B. “But the box says I get 4 miles range.”  Yep, and Spyder says their guns get 200 feet max range on the box.  This is all under ideal conditions, were not wearing colored Pentium-commercial chemical suits in a laboratory someplace.


C.     Height above ground greatly affects the line of sight from your radios antenna

to the receiver’s antenna.  The higher up you are the better your range is, you may also be able to get signals from behind hills and buildings if the height is good enough.  Take a FRS radio up on a mountain sometime and try it.  The range might exceed 4 miles if it is unobstructed.



So … What Radio?


            So now that we got all that out of the way, “What are the best radios out there?” you might ask while tugging on my pants leg.  Well that depends on what you want to do with the radio and how much you want to spend. 


A. For paintball FRS radios are usually first choice, they have 14 channels, CTCSS codes, don’t use lots of batteries, are small, and don’t require weeks of practice to use.  My beef is that the range isn’t as good as some other license free services, but for communication amongst a team within 1 mile of itself they are pretty good. 


B. Low power 49 MHz headsets are available at most Radio Shacks and hunting supply catalogs, they are short range however (shorter than FRS) and don’t usually accept accessories like ear buds and speaker microphones.  They are usually under 30 bucks for a pair, so they deserve mention and work good for 2 man teams. 


C. MURS is a long winded acronym for what was the old license only Business Radio band, it falls around 154.400 MHz and is now license free because every radio shack sold them, and no license was required to buy them, so in 2000 the FCC declared it license free because they had no hope of enforcing anything on the band.  Now anyone can buy them, they offer up to 5 watts of power which isn’t bad, can use mobile and base antennas, and are of a professional grade, not your average weekend warrior radios.  The downside is that they are usually 100 bucks or so, but remember these are professional grade, equivalent to most police and fire dept issue radios.


D. CB Radios are still occasionally used for paintball.  Their antenna size needs to be larger than most because of the frequency they are on, and require 12 volts of power, which means using 8 AA batteries at a time, or carrying a 12 volt power source (battery or generator/alternator) around with you.  This would work great for Paintball Tanks, allowing farther communications than FRS radios, but for handhelds it would be rather cumbersome.  CB’s are allowed to have external antennas added unlike FRS which are made with non-detachable antennas.  So your CB rig could have a homemade antenna that could be thrown up in a tree for extended range, but that would be difficult for anything but a HQ area to do, and would be scenario geared like most of the info in this article.  I keep having visions of a M1 Abrams paintball tank with dual K-40 CB antennas on the turret rolling along….moving on.  CB’s can be found on eBay for 15 bucks, or at most garage sales, they do work good for avoiding traffic and “Smokey Bears” for the drive down to the field, but you’d run the risk of being a Smokey and the Bandit imitator.  If so grab yourself a ’77 Trans Am and a cowboy hat and do it the right way!


E. GMRS is almost the same as FRS, but is better in many ways.  GMRS began long before FRS; it was a license only version of CB radio but on 460 MHz frequencies instead of 27.  It was well regulated for a long time, then the FCC created FRS in the 1990’s and they took 14 low power frequencies from GMRS and used them for FRS.  GMRS still uses these frequencies, the first 7 frequencies on any GMRS approved radio is FRS 1-7 as well.  The benefit is that you can operate GMRS at 5 watts of power on FRS 1-7, while FRS radios only have a ¼ watt of power, as well as a few other GMRS only channels.  Some GMRS channels can use up to 50 watts!  This power makes a world of difference, it’s 20 times the power, and the radios tend to be more professionally made.  They cost more per radio than FRS, and the requirement to get a 75 dollar license every 3 years acts as a deterrent to most people.  You need that license to use the radio period, but not to buy it, causing a lot of people to buy off the shelf GMRS radios and transmit illegally; there is also an emergency channel which they usually abuse.  Chances are if you are on GMRS and someone asks your license number, they already have your position, they police themselves and call the worst offenders in to the FCC.  A GMRS in summary, is a great radio for the designated radio man of a unit, but is overkill for talking to just other teammates; the antennas are allowed to be detachable, allowing for high gain external antennas to be used.  If the team RTO and the general of the game had one of these, they could talk to each other from a great distance.

Using the Radio in Paintball


So now you’ve got a radio, or a desire to assault me, and you plan to use it in paintball.  There are a few basics which will help you out and cut through the confusion.  Passing them on to your team in advance makes for more successful radio usage.  Browsing the military radio handbooks can offer additional insight, just as talking to a radio tech or Ham radio enthusiast, but here’s a summary of what to do.


A. First off if your radio is dead, you’re the unpicked fat kid in softball.  So bring extra batteries, charge them in advance, and radio check with your teammates when your in the parking lot (or if someone leaves it on and walks in the john, flatter the guy in the next stall by screaming hari-kari, and hope your buddy doesn’t drop the radio in the bowl  while he scrambles for the on/off button).  When you do a radio check, count to 5 to make sure you are on the right channel; if you’re to close you might get the feedback screech.  Now you will want to plan on what to do if someone is on your channel, there aren’t many channels available, and if you decide to change saying “lets go to channel 4” just tells the listener/loud mouth where to go next.  So having everyone write down alternate channels is a good start, but assigning color codes for each channel is even better.  Write on the back of all the maps “blue channel is channel 2 red channel is 4” and so on.  You will be glad you did later on in the game.  If you’re working with other teams, commanders, generals or even refs, it’s a good idea to give them the same list.  If you want you can arrange check-ins, so if you don’t check in they know you’re either in the dead zone waiting to re-insert, or out of range.


B. Next if you use real names, listeners will know who you are and may wreck your plans of victory.  Call signs should be easy to remember, and not be too difficult to say.  You can use numbers like “Team leader is #1, second in command is #2” or handles like “Tomahawk, Red Dog, Mr. Bud, Midget, To Tall, or Snake Turds” whatever works.  Make a list of who is who, and give it to anyone you plan to contact during the game, so you can link up if need be without opening up on each other or walking into a trap.  You can make codes for different actions.  Like “Sierra’s” being snipers, the “Old man” being the enemy general, or saying your “10-something” for setting up an ambush, just so long as everyone who needs to know knows what they are and none else.


C. You can setup grids randomly drawn over a map and assign sector names for each box, or geographical area like a valley, ridge, and stream and give them names.  Then make copies of the map and distribute it to your team and people you will work with outside the team.  This way you can say “I’m in area B3 moving to C3” and have everyone on your team know what you mean, opposed to saying “I’m next to the bridge objective on the little creek with all the un-friendlies that were supposed to move to!” and alerting the whole world what’s going on, possibly confusing your team and thanks to Murphy’s Law, not confusing the enemy team.


E. Phonetic Alphabets are good to know also, spelling something over the radio is usually confusing.  B sounds like D, E, and C.  So you say “alpha” for A, “bravo” for B, “Charlie” for C and so on.  There are two ways to do this, one is used by the military, and the other is called APCO and is used more by Police and Emergency Services.  Just so you use words for each letter, things should work out well, and it gives you time to write them down if need be.


F. With all this stuff you may be ready to go to town with lots of technical sounding jargon, shouting into the radio like something out of a movie and using your radio until someone smashes it on you just to stop the madness.  Well any cop will tell you, with radios less is more.  Don’t overuse your radio.  Short, coherent, calm radio transmissions are good for a number of reasons.  First your message will be understood.  Second it will be over quick, and the other team may not understand it.  Third it would be hard for someone to find your signal.  And lastly, if your message is 10 minutes long, 5.5 minutes into your pep talk someone might need to use the frequency and not be able to get through.  So say what you have to say quickly so your intended receiver(s) can understand it and nothing more.  Hold yourself back from belching, farting, whistling, and telling “yo-momma” jokes on the radio, it will be well worth it.  Don’t shout into the radio, because it will distort the sound and receivers will hear only bits and pieces, plus the sound will give you away if you’re trying to be stealthy.  If your whispering into the radio, try to speak as you inhale, not exhale, so the sound is more controlled and even.  Lastly, remember to push the transmit button, wait ½ a second, talk, and wait another ½ second and let go of the button.  This way you don’t cut yourself off, it seems simple but many people need to do it, some radios don’t transmit instantly, with CTCSS codes on they take a split second longer to activate the receiver. 


Some Radio Terminology


Some words to try using are:

Affirmative – Yes, understood, or will comply (same as Rodger)

Negative – No, don’t understand, or can’t comply.

Wait – Means just that, wait a minute

Break – Ends one message without ending the transmission

“Jo move north BREAK Mike move east. Over”

Over – Use at the end of a transmission waiting for reply

            “Where are you?  Over.”

Out – Use at the end of a conversation, not expecting a reply

            “Ok were done for the day, OUT”

Repeat – Request for other user to repeat entire message

Say Again – Military version of repeat (avoid confusion with artillery commands)

Repeat after – same as above but for entire message after certain part

            “Snowman Repeat after ‘Grid A1’ OVER”

Say Again after – same as repeat after, again military version

Relay – To repeat your message to another user, usually out of range from you

            “#3, I will relay your message to #5 he can’t hear you, OVER”

All stations – Lets everyone know to listen

Check In – Request for everyone listening to answer briefly using their handle

            “Team 5 check in” “Adam” “Charlie” “Mike” “Indian”…..

Emergency – Repeated 3 times for a real emergency, then message follows, so that everyone knows the games over someone is really hurt, then give location.    Shut up if you’re not involved and you hear this, people tend to want to help out but just clutter the channel with unrelated BS, if you’re not needed just listen.

            “Emergency, Emergency, Emergency, player needs medical help!”


Listening to the ‘Other Side”


            A. Without stealing too much material from the advanced placement article, it is possible to listen to the enemy teams communications just as you want to avoid having them do.  Radios with a scan feature are great for this, you can turn any CTCSS codes off, scan the channels and pick up other people talking.  You might be a little upset when you hear your own team over-chattering and giving away secrets, and it won’t always be possible to tell them apart from the other side. 


B. Use some common sense and you will be able to keep a heads up on what’s going on.  If signals are very loud and strong, they are probably near-by; if weak they are probably far away.  You can put the bottom of the radio against your chest; antenna pointed out level with the earth, and turn 360 degrees.  This is a way to figure out what direction the signal is coming from, when its loudest you know pretty much where the transmitter is, as you turn away the signal goes to crap.  Do this with two people who are a distance away from each other (and have compasses) and you can draw a line on the map to the general location of the transmitter using the two positions and bearings.


C. If you want to be everyone’s hero, read the advanced RTO piece and you will be able to make directional antennas that fit in your BDU pocket, and you can get carried away with finding the enemy radios.  Remember keying the radio up and stepping on someone’s signal is technically illegal, and if it’s a Ref, you might be looking for a new field to play scenario games on.


            D. Turning up the volume does NOT increase the range of the radio, contrary to popular belief.  The louder your speaker is the more battery power you waste.  That may seem insignificant, but radios use 60% of their power making sound out of the received signal, 20% on transmitting and 20% on standby.  So use your batteries wisely.  An ear bud or headset saves battery power because it is close to your ear and produces less sound, so you may have another reason to get one.  If the accessory plug gets dirty or corroded it will cause more resistance and waste battery power.  So hit them with Brasso or WD-40 every year and wipe them dry with a paper towel.


Carrying the Radio


            You will most likely want a radio with some sort of belt clip.  Radio holders are good too, if you don’t use a headset you may want to clip the radio onto a suspender or a BDU epilate so the volume can be turned down significantly.  You don’t want the noise of your radio speaker giving you away.  You also want it to be secure and easy to get to.  Squeegee’s method of taping the radio to a gun’s Co2 tank works well; it keeps it close to your head and the marker in hand while transmitting.  If you take an old bicycle tube and cut it into half inch thick rubber bands you can make your own radio holder, or strengthen the existing one.  These are made by many surplus companies and called “Ranger bands” and sold for 20 bucks a bag, bike tubes are cheaper than that and you can make your own.  They are narrow enough that you can tie the radio to your shoulder harness or belt pretty easily.



Closing Thoughts


            When you practice with your team have everyone bring their radio along like they do with their gun, squeegee, and camo.  Get used to using it and you will have a bit of an advantage over everyone else.  The uses are many and you can always learn new tricks to use them with.  Hopefully I didn’t chase you away from them altogether. - Tack