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Paintball Inc.
155 Verdin Rd.
Greenville, SC 29607
Phone: (866) 722-5462
Fax: (864) 458-7611

Ravi's Paintball Place

National Paintball Supply’s Vortex Automag

© Ravi Chopra, 2001

Automags. My curse, my weakness.

I remember the first Automag I ever saw. It was back in Pittsburgh at a field called Hamburger Hill, a place where some of the All Americans used to play when they wanted to get in a little rec-ball or were trying out new gear. Bill Gardner had this tiny little paintgun I’d never seen before. At the time, all the popular semi-autos were blowbacks and the All A’s were stomping all over everyone on the pro-circuit using their PMI-3s and one-piece spiral-ported barrels.

I asked him where the cocking knob was and he told me it didn’t need one. He let me shoot it and the short and snappy trigger pull absolutely embarrassed the clunky triggers found on the PMI-3s and 68-Specials that were the popular semis at the time. The thing was so stable while firing that frequent hopper-shaking was required to keep the paint flowing. You could shoot the gun so fast that people often described it looking like an uninterrupted string of paintballs from the end of the barrel to the target.

Naturally, I had to have one.

But with time, the weaknesses of the design became apparent. The uneasy truce between the Automag and a CO2 power source is reminiscent of the Middle-East peace process. Failure to get off the trigger completely between shots resulted in shoot-down and broken paint. Failure to regularly replace certain high-wear O-rings resulted in similar problems. I also personally seem to have been cursed with a peculiar problem wherein I was incapable of shooting an Automag of any kind and at any speed without breaking at least one paintball in 20 in the breech. When shooting a ‘mag, the squeegee quickly became a regular and essential component of my on-field kit.

Over time I found paintguns that suited me better and the Automag passed from my life, leaving me with mixed memories much like a former lover with whom the sex was great, but the constant fighting made the relationship unsustainable. I’ve had occasional short affairs with the old girl. A brief turn with an RT. A few reviews for this magazine. Each time I found things to like, but each time came back around to the same old conclusion that, fun as she was for a game or two, I just couldn’t live with her.

NOT AN EVIL BITCH?

With the coming of electronic frames for the Automag (not to mention the E-mag, recently reviewed in this magazine) I thought that the major problems might well be solved. Since the sear and on/off would be electronically activated with a solenoid and a suitable gap between shots for recharge could be programmed in, I felt that shootdown would become a non-issue. Similarly, I felt that ball breaks not caused by bad paint or broken nubbins would become far less frequent.

As for broken nubbins, custom bodies with ball-detent and lever-arm anti-doublers like the Gun F/X Micromag and recently reviewed Z-body from Galactic Systemz elminate that potential problem. The nifty backspin skidplate on the Z-body adds a nice little adjustable performance twist you really don’t find anywhere else.

Is it possible that among all these custom parts is a solution to the problems people (read: ME) run into with Automags that have relegated this once-top paintgun to the position of second-class citizen on the tournament scene? Could it be that, somewhere out there, there was a custom-built Automag for the man who can’t shoot ‘mags? Could it be that there is an Automag out there for me?

THE ANSWER

The answer is probably no. But National Paintball of South Carolina did their best when they made the Vortex Automag. You may remember the Vortex Autococker I reviewed a few months back; essentially a rebadged Shocktech Autococker minus a few of the Shocktech’s features. The second paintgun to wear the Vortex badge is the Vortex Automag. Unlike the Autococker, the Vortex ‘mag does not come from one of the worlds top custom shops. Instead, our friends at NPS, SC built it from some of the coolest Automag aftermarket parts to bring to market what they hope is the coolest Automag short of very rare E-mag.

The Vortex Automag is based off the Z-body from the Japanese company, Galactic Systemz. I reviewed this custom ‘mag body a few months ago in great detail, so rather than boring you with a repeat of what you’ve likely already read, I’ll just give you the highlights. This body replaces the Automag body, but, unlike the Gun F/X Micromag body, does not replace the rail. This body includes a removable hopper-on-the-left powerfeed, raised sight rail, Cooper-T-style ball-bearing detent, and threads for Autococker barrels. Most interestingly, it includes an adjustable skid-plate in front of the powerfeed which can be screwed down to catch the top of the paintball as it is fired, putting a backspin on the ball and causing it to carry further than a standard paintgun shooting the same velocity.

More range is good and all (and it does work quite impressively) but to work well it requires the gun be held straight (tipping more than a few degrees to one side or the other causes the ball to hook whichever way you have the gun tilted), you must use a very large-bore barrel, and you MUST use high-quality paint. I highly recommend RP’s new Advantage-shell paints. I’ve never seen such perfectly round paint with no flat spots or dimples. This stuff should rock in backspin-equipped paintguns.

To that cool back-spinning, ‘cocker-barrel-shooting body they added Centerflag’s popular electronic trigger frame, the Hyperframe. As these things are made for blowbacks also, I’m seeing these things all over the place. They’re awfully expensive on their own ($350-450 US) but they give any paintgun they’re added to the oh-so-short, mouse-click-length trigger pull, multiple fire modes and an LCD display like some of the most expensive electropneumatics on the market today.

The Hyperframe is built into an aluminum, 2-finger .45-style frame. The trigger is a standard-looking 2-finger piece and the grip panels are textured plastic parts with a window at the lower-back of the left panel for the LCD screen. Electronic features include a shot counter, game timer, and three shot modes (semi-auto, 3-4-5 round burst, and a turbo-like "hyper" mode). Buttons at the back of the grip frame allow you to cycle through modes and switch settings. A safety button goes through the top-back of the frame, but does not cut the power.

All the parts are impressively packed into the confines of this frame, and when you get the grip panels off to install the 9V battery which powers it you see what a nice job they did getting everything to fit - there is absolutely no space left in there. It works by using a solenoid to work a modified Automag sear which fires the gun as usual. As it activates just long enough to pop the sear and then releases, there is no problem with velocity drop-off no matter how fast you shoot as long as there are no problems in your AIR valve or air system.

When fired, this trigger has a nice tactile "click" you can feel when you pull it through the fire point. It is as short as any electro out there and has no extra play forward and backward around the fire point so it will be unlikely anyone will want extra trigger work done after installing this frame.

There are a few things I’m not so hot on about the Hyperframe, though. First, it has no power-switch. The only way to turn the thing on and off is to take off the grip panels and unplug the battery. There is no quick and easy way to get at the battery either - don’t forget your allen wrenches or you have no way of getting in. I also have some concerns about the reliability of the Hyperframe. The first one came to me DOA. The battery was still plugged in from having been tested before they shipped it, leaving open the possibility that leaving your battery attached for long periods when not in use could damage the electronics and kill the frame. I’ve also read and heard a lot of complaints from people having problems with Hyperframe reliability. On the other hand, Centerflag seems to be very good about servicing their parts and getting players up and going again. Furthermore, the replacement frame (sent to me by NPS) worked perfectly for the entire time I had it. I was VERY careful to make sure to unplug the battery after a day of play.

The package was rounded out with a standard AGD rail and AIR valve, a bottom-line and steel-braid hose, a chromed foregrip, and one of National’s new big-bore TASO Stone-Cold II barrels. The TASO barrel was OK, but I really much prefer the LAPCO 0.697" BigShot made specifically for the Z-Body.

IN PLAY

So off to the field I went to shoot the Vortex Automag. I screwed my PMI Pure-Energy 4500 psi air system into the bottom-line, dumped some paint in the hopper and headed to the chrono.

As always, I placed the barrel over the chrono with some trepidation. This is always the moment of truth for me. Almost every time I test a ‘mag these days I seem to manage to break five or six balls in the breech while simply chronoing. I’ve developed something that borders on a pathologic fear of the chronograph when holding an Automag.

My fears, it seems, were unfounded. Not only did chronoing the Vortex Automag go off without a hitch, I didn’t have any problems with it all day! Imagine my surprise when I pounded away on this groovy electronic trigger as fast as I could, backspin dialed-in, and found that not a single ball had chopped, broken, or exploded in the gun as I churned through an entire hopper of paint. Things just kept getting better. I didn’t break a ball in this thing all damn day long. This is a typical experience for me when shooting an Autococker, but is absolutely unheard of when I’m shooting a ‘mag. Now, at least part of that can likely be attributed to the huge-bore barrel, but not all of it. I shot that same barrel when I tested the Z-body with a regular mag trigger frame and I still broke paint. A lot of paint. I’m impressed.

Accuracy was good when using reasonably round paint (I was shooting National’s Vortex paint) but if you get a break in this barrel or have to tip the gun way to the side, expect a dramatic loss in the straightness of your ball flight. Unfortunately, at the time of my test I didn’t have any of the awesome new Advantage paint from RP which I suspect will make this gun shoot even more impressively.

The feel was typical for the Automag. It is a small, compact gun. I really liked the feel of the trigger. I much prefer the tactile feedback this trigger gives you over what is typically found in electropneumatic triggers. I also like the fact that it has no slack, giving it a good, tight feel straight out of the box. You could ask for a softer, stickier set of grip panels though.

CONCLUSIONS

I have to say that the Vortex Automag provided me with the most fun I’ve had using a ‘mag in years. It was fast and easy to use, didn’t break paint (for me, a small miracle), didn’t shoot-down with rapid fire and provided the added flexibility of Autococker barrel use and the option to dial in backspin for extra range. By no small margin, the most pleasant Automag-shooting experience I’ve had in ages.

On the other side of the equation are the potential reliability issues with the Hyperframe (which I’ve heard have been dropping), lack of a power-switch, and absolute requirement for a large-bore barrel and the best paint you can get your hands on.

At $799.95, the price is very steep for an Automag. If you consider the price of piecing this together yourself (Hyperframe + Z-body + AIR valve + rail + small parts) it’s actually a pretty good deal though, saving you a fair amount of money if this is the package you want. On the other hand, you need to consider that several dedicated electropneumatics with all the same firing features are available at the same or lower prices. If I had to shoot an Automag though, this is likely the one I’d choose.

In the Vortex Automag, National Paintball of South Carolina has brought out another contender that breaths new life into the aging Automag design. If you have a yen for an Automag, a pile of cash $800 deep, and want the speed and flexibility of an electronic trigger, the Vortex Automag is worth a serious look.



All material at this site is © Ravi Chopra, 2001