forend and M900

How to Paint Your Rifle

You don’t have to be an artist to give your rifle a camo finish.

By Cameron Hopkins (RSS)
February 10, 2012

Hiding is an art. The science of disguising yourself has long been dissected and studied by military snipers, resulting in a list of everything imaginable that can give you away. It starts with a lovely alliteration of Ss: shape, shine, shadow, smell, sound and silhouette. Then you have color, movement and one that has tormented me countless times, birds.

I’m hunkered down, camouflaged like the surrounding bush with no shiny objects, not even my rifle. I’m not casting a shadow, silhouetted against the skyline or moving. But then a pesky bird flies overhead, sees me, squawks and flies away. Busted.


It just goes to prove you can’t hide completely, but you can take care of the more obvious things. One of the biggest giveaways is a nice, shiny rifle and scope. Painting your rifle is an easy DIY project. Unlike glass-bedding a rifle or adjusting its trigger, spray painting a gun is virtually impossible to foul up for one simple reason: There’s no such thing as a right or wrong way to paint it. As long as you don’t use fluorescent pink paint, you really can’t mess it up.

The necessary tools are easy and cheap: a roll of blue tape found in the paint section of Home Depot, a leafy branch for an overlay and two or three cans of camouflage spray paint. Total cost: less than $10.

In the Sandbox, where difficulty in detection saves lives, camouflaging a firearm has become something of an art.

The first rule is there aren’t any rules. There are, however, some guidelines. The main thing to keep in mind is the purpose of camouflage is to break up an object’s shape. Blending into the surroundings is primarily a matter of color, but breaking up shape is a matter of highlights and shadows, or light and dark coloration.

Your color choices are limited by what’s available in spray paint. The basic colors are dark brown, tan, dark green, light green, black and a sort of primer-red color. Spray paint comes in a special “camouflage” formulation, meaning a flat-matte sheen. I’ve discovered another property of this spray paint that’s extremely helpful—it’s very fast drying. Instructions suggest 20 minutes between coats, but I’ve applied other colors in as little as 5 minutes.

A second guideline is to apply one, or at most two, base colors prior to accenting the pattern with an overlay—a leaf, net or a branch you hold over your rifle, perhaps 6 to 10 inches away. Spray over the blocking item to create an overlay effect.

Basically, the overlay serves as a reverse pattern—the paint goes where the overlay isn’t. If it’s a leafy branch, the paint covers all the gaps and holes around the leaves so the overlay’s shape is not what you’re spraying, but the color of the base coat underneath.

The first step when painting a gun is to tape off the rifle to avoid getting paint into parts critical for the rifle’s function and to protect other components, including optics.

Another guiding principle that took me several attempts to learn is less is more. Go gently into that painted night. You can achieve excellent results with only two colors. If your rifle starts out in a matte-black finish, you can use the black as a third color. I’ve used three colors, but the only time I tried four, it was too much.

Even with a mistake like overdoing the camouflage, you can fix it all by starting from the beginning, again. This is the really great thing about spray paint—if you don’t like it, wait until it dries and start over.

Being able to fix mistakes comes into its own after field use. For example, I’ve discovered spray paint doesn’t really stick too well to scopes. For some reason, the anodized finish on aluminum scope tubes is too slick for paint to achieve a good bond. No matter. After rough use, simply touch up any scratches.

Tape It Off

Perhaps this should be obvious or maybe I should’ve mentioned it earlier, but the only suitable candidates for a camo paint job are black guns or synthetically stocked hunting rifles. I would never deface a marble-caked piece of Circassian walnut with spray paint, but I find no aesthetic beauty in fiberglass or plastic.

Like any painting job, the first thing is prep. You need a roll of blue tape (tape made for painters that’s easily removed) available at any hardware store in the paint section. Tear off pieces of blue tape to cover whatever you don’t want painted. Remove the bolt. Tape off parts vital for function to avoid potential failures to fire. Whether to tape the bolt handle or not is your choice—I’ve done it both ways—but have found paint wears off bolt handles pretty quickly.

A good base coat is vital. The author prefers to start with brown or green, but experimentation is part of the fun.

Cover the ejection port where the bolt resides with blue tape, too. I often have to use several small pieces of tape to cover it, paying special attention to the chamber.

A word of warning is needed here. To cover the chamber, you’ll need a small piece of tape that half blocks and half covers the chamber opening. I painted an 8 mm Rem. Mag. one time, removed all the tape, went to the range and proceeded to sight-in. Things suddenly came to a grinding halt when I couldn’t close the bolt.

It wasn’t until I got home that I discovered the culprit: A small piece of tape jammed up inside the chamber, preventing a cartridge from fully seating. The lesson is to carefully verify all the tape is out of the action before going to the range.

The DuraCoat EZ Camo Kit is a more advanced approach and comes with an airbrush with hose and couplings, airbrush propellant, color bottle with adapter, template, instructional DVD and more. It has enough paint to finish two firearms.

Obviously you need to tape off the lenses of your scope. I simply cover them with an oversize piece (or pieces) of tape. No need to trim them to size—just paint around the tape.

I also cover the magnification ring on the scope if it’s a variable-power model. Sometimes I tape the trigger, sometimes I don’t. As long as you don’t get paint in the trigger mechanism (fire-control group, for you technophiles) you’re OK.

I don’t bother to tape off the muzzle, because if you do happen to over-spray down the bore, the first bullet will remove it. Similarly, I also don’t tape off the recoil pad, but I make it a point not to spray the rifle from the end in order to avoid getting paint on a non-visible part. It’s just going to rub off on my shirt, anyway.

With your rifle taped off, place it on a cradle-like support such as a pair of saw horses or over an open trash can. The idea is to hold the rifle in such a way so you can easily turn it over.

Less Is More

Remembering the maxim, apply a nice, even base coat. Brown and green are my usual base colors. I don’t bother with two coats, because I’m going to add more paint anyway with the next step.

Use a leafy branch, a net, anything with holes for an overlay. Spray through it in primarily diagonal directions to break up the shape of a rifle. Use a color that contrasts with your base, like tan over green and dark brown over tan.

Accenting the camo comes next. Examine your rifle and see if there are any gaps in the paint coats. Depending on the scheme, either spray again with the base or drape your overlay and hit it again with your second color.

By employing an overlay, like a leafy branch or palm leaf, you can add a more natural top coat to your rifle with a contrasting color of your choice.

A third color is to be approached carefully. It’s really easy to overdo camo if you get wild and crazy with a third color. I like to use the primer-red color as a third color, but very judiciously. Black can also be a good third option.

If you’re finished and your rifle looks like a bad Salvador Dali dream, no worries. Let it dry and start over. There’s no such thing as a wrong camo job.

AR Painting

Painting an AR is not much different than a bolt gun, in fact it’s easier. You don’t have to tape off the chamber because you can close the dustcover. The only parts I tape on an AR are the optic and front sight (paint the base, but not the post).

Remove the rear, back-up iron sight since that’s easier than taping it off. That’s about all the prep work you need.

For an AR with a collapsible stock, fully extend the stock so you can paint the receiver extension. I use mostly tan and dark brown on ARs, because those are the predominant colors in the Sandbox.

If your Picatinny rail fore-end uses panels from TangoDown or Knight’s Armament, paint when they are on the gun to keep the pattern flowing.

I like a striated look, so I use a long palm-like leaf. Netting is also a very good overlay for an AR.

Paint doesn’t last long on an AR if you shoot it a lot, but that weathered look adds to its appeal. There’s nothing that screams newbie louder than a freshly painted gun, so get out there, run around, go prone, shoot a few thousand rounds, let your rifle get broken in and avoid all the comments. It’s all part of the joy of painting.

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11 Responses to How to Paint Your Rifle

  1. Karl says:

    Good run down. I’m definitely going to try this on my stainless Mini.

  2. B.Sweet says:

    great points… i recently painted my charles daly semi auto shotgun, everyone was full of haterade when it was just a black charles daly but now that its painted everyone wants to play with it…. we used it as a practice run and then painted his AR the next night, both turned out really good… i went with a couple coats of tan for a nice solid base then went with a light brown for the second color and then highlighted the second color with a rusty brown color like you mentioned… like you mentioned, it doesnt matter if it wears off or doesnt look good because it can always be easily redone

  3. Jim says:

    You forgot a few crucial steps. Paint doesn’t like to stick to slick or dirty surfaces. It may for a while, but it will eventually flake or peel. First, use some type of degreaser (even Windex or rubbing alcohol works well) to thoroughly clean anywhere you will be applying paint. Next, use red scotchbrite (available in pads from most hardware stores or Wal-mart) to scuff all the surfaces. If they are shiny, get them dull. The red scotchbrite is equivalent to 400 grit sandpaper and is flexible, which makes getting into tight spaces easy. Finally, wipe the gun down with Windex then a clean rag. Your paint will now stick much, much better. Jim

  4. Lucas says:

    I’ve recently painted my AR and it seems that the paint isn’t bonding with the medal. it rubs off extremely fast. is there anything i can do about this?

    • Jason says:

      Use a Maddie clear coat helps good with protecting the paint.

    • Randy says:

      @ Lucas did you wipe your rifle down with some kind of fluid to remove any oils from it??? when painting PREP PREP PREP in the key word…. when you think it is degreased enough do it ONE more time…. I have painted many many rifles/handguns and in the beginning I had a horrible issue with peal… thought it was product.. NOPE was painter(me) rushing prep. now 99% of what I paint is with Krylon rattle cans. and I have rifles that have been in service for four to five years and nominal wear on finish.. now I have expanded my horizons I play with Parkerizing and all the other finishing materials but that’s a whole different monster.. honestly I prefer the finish of krylon to duracoat as 85% of the time Krylon finish is a lot more flat with no sheen. no where near as durable as Dura-coat but rattle cans are lot less expensive too. as someone else said in this article… the sky is the limit on this issue. but it is real easy to hit the over kill and believe me(I’ve seen me do it) one simple push of the rattle can and poof its over kill and your starting over… I always set item on a table and look at it for a awhile before applying any additional colors. slow is better never rush…. oh well enjoy and have fun…..

  5. mo says:

    I just did this on a 30.06 and its beautiful. I wasalso wondering if this would be possible to do on a gamo big cat. It’s made out of sturdy plastic. It’s also black.

  6. David says:

    Hey, we’ll done article. Just picked up a cheap Rem 597 for my son. Going to give it a shot! Thank you…

  7. Josh says:

    Sanding before with 480 grit will help paint stick better adding a clear coat would help last longer

  8. archangel says:

    When painting a bolt action rifle do you paint the bolt?

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