January 11, 2023
By James Tarr, Handguns Editor
At one point or another, everyone wants to own a camouflage AR-15. Not only do camouflage guns look cool (which is perhaps the most important aspect for most people, let’s be honest), that non-black finish is functional in more ways than one. First, there is the, stick with me here, camouflage aspect of camouflage guns, useful whether you’re hunting, worried about the zombie apocalypse, or increasingly convinced our looming national divorce is going to go kinetic. Then there’s the heat aspect, lay a black gun down in direct sunlight, even on a mild day in the Midwest, and in short order it will get too hot to touch. This doesn’t just affect handling, but function. Cooler guns stay happier and run longer.
Perhaps you don’t have the money for a fancy Cerakote finish. Or maybe you just want to camo paint your rifle yourself. Personalize it. Even if you don’t have any artistic talent, you can quickly and easily and cheaply put a good-looking camo finish on your gun using simple spray paint, a “rattle-can camo” finish. Trust me, I have no artistic talent (NONE) and have produced several darn good-looking camo paint jobs. I’ll mostly be referencing AR-15s in this article, but these techniques aren’t exclusive to them. Recently, I camo painted my CZ Scorpion EVO pistol, and I’ve seen people paint AKs and shotguns using the same basic techniques.
First, for some of you, yes, you can spray-paint your AR-15. No, it won’t hurt it. And that’s what the pros are doing, Delta Force and Navy SEALs and whoever aren’t going with Cerakote, as it is apparently somewhat visible under infrared. They’re using spray paint. As long as you don’t get paint actually inside the gun, on the moving parts, it will have absolutely no impact on function. But, as with anything, there are pros and cons.
- Pros - Spray-painting your rifle is cheap, and easy, and you do it yourself, so you can do it however you want. It provides the ultimate in customization.
- Cons - Spray paint camo finishes are the least durable of any finish out there. If you want something that will stay perfect on a gun that is shot and handled, spray paint isn’t for you.
However, that lack of durability in your rattle-can camo finish might be a feature, not a bug. After a few vigorous range days, that spray paint will start to wear off in certain areas—instead of you paying for a “battle worn” finish, you’re doing it yourself, for free.
Tools and Prep
You want matte finish spray paint. Both Rust-Oleum and Krylon offer matte spray paint in “camouflage” colors, greens and browns and tans and black. You will also want masking tape to cover a few areas of your firearm. That is literally all you need, but I also recommend something to make a pattern—the go-to these days is the kind of mesh bag that apples are sold in, but you can also use maple leaves, long grass, pine needles, whatever.
You want to paint the outside of your gun, not the inside. You do not need to disassemble your AR-15. Close your dust cover and either tape off your magazine well or stuff it tightly with a rag, to keep the paint out. I recommend taking off any accessories (optics, lights, vertical foregrips). Even if you want them painted, paint them separately. You can pull off your stock, but leave that pistol grip in place. Make sure there is no oil/lube on the outside of the gun, or the paint won’t stick. Use masking tape to cover any controls you don’t want painted—I recommend the forward assist and trigger at a minimum, in addition to taping off your muzzle. You don’t want paint going down your barrel. And if your muzzle device is meant to mount a suppressor, you don’t want paint on it either, it might mess up your tolerances.
For most of the accompanying photos, you’ll see the most recent rifle I painted, my Geissele Super Duty. I love this rifle, but it came with an anodized green finish that I never liked, and sometimes hated. And, as usually happens with anodizing, just about every part was a slightly different color, it was truly six different shades of green. I taped off the charging handle on this rifle as well. You’ll see I left the flip-up sights, I don’t recommend this, but whoever put them on at Geissele apparently used nuclear-powered power tools, and I actually couldn’t take them off without stripping the screws, so there they stayed. Previously, I have taped off the safety and magazine and bolt releases, but this time I just left them uncovered.
And that’s it. That’s all you have to do. Now, you can take sandpaper and rough up all the metal parts on your rifle so the paint adheres better, but you don’t have to, and it adds a lot of work. And, truthfully, you really won’t see much difference in the end result. If you want to get fancy you can hang your rifle from a coat hanger, but all you really need is a piece of cardboard to lay it upon. I recommend using spray paint in a well-ventilated area, but hey, you do you.
Here’s the fastest and simplest rattle-can camo method. Take a can of brown, and a can of khaki, and paint alternating diagonal stripes about four to six inches wide across one side of the gun. You only need to apply enough paint to cover the underlying color, think less is more. You do not want drips or drops. Once that side has dried to the touch, flip it over and do the same to the other side. If you don’t want to practice on the rifle, practice on the cardboard first to figure how far from the rifle you need to hold the can, and how fast you should move it, to get the width and thickness of spray you want.
That’s it. You can be done there. Wait a few minutes and peel your tape off, work the charging handle to make sure it and the ejection port cover are moving freely, and in a day or so, after the paint cures, you’ll have a camouflaged rifle. Fifteen minutes of your time, and maybe $20 in supplies. But that’s pretty basic. You can do more. You can do better.
Try this, use that mesh bag I mentioned above. Lay it on your gun once the paint has dried to the touch, and spray tan paint through it onto the brown stripes, and brown paint through it onto the tan stripes, moving the bag each time. That will break up those stripes, and give them depth. You will be shocked at how good your rifle looks when you’re done. I recommend you practice on cardboard first. Don’t want to use the mesh apple bag? Use something else that will give you a pattern you like. Maple leaves. Elephant grass. Pine needles. A mesh laundry bag (the holes are much bigger). But if this is your first time, use the mesh apple bag. Apples are good for you. You should be eating more fruit. If you want your magazines to match, tape up the top third (the part that goes in the magazine well) and spray those as well. No disassembly required. If you’ve got mags with a window, you might want to tape those off so the window remains usable afterward.
That’s the beginner crash course on rattle-canning your rifle. But there are a few small tricks that will step up your game. First, you could add more color. When I spray-panted my Geissele, I did wide stripes of dark brown and khaki, but then I also did narrow stripes of Rust-Oleum Sand (which is brighter, with a hint of yellow) and Forest Green.
I’ve used the mesh bag trick a number of times for patterning and always liked the result, but wanted to try something different. I wanted to apply—by hand—color with texture to the rifle, and after trying a few things settled on a cheap kitchen sponge as my applicator. I sprayed paint onto the carboard, dabbed the puddle with a corner of the sponge, and then pressed the sponge against the rifle. I dabbed dark paint onto light, and light paint onto dark, for contrast. I added in some dabs of Rust-Oleum Army Green, which is lighter than you might expect. I’m very happy with the result. The end result was a color palette very similar to MultiCam. I wasn’t consciously trying for that, but I like it. Still not completely happy? Maybe your rifle is too…pale. That matte khaki color is darn bright. Wish you could somehow darken up those colors, like hitting them up with water? You’re in luck. Two words—Matte Clearcoat.
Spray the matte clearcoat on your painted gun and the colors will darken up as if they got wet, but they’ll stay that way. And that clearcoat will make your camo paint job slightly more resistant to wear. However…even though it’s called “matte”, you’ll notice the finish will have more of a sheen (more so on metal than on the plastic grips/stocks). Not shiny, but closer to satin finish paint than matte. You may like that better. If not, you can rough up that shiny finish. You probably don’t want to use sandpaper, unless it’s very fine it will go right through your paint. Instead, I recommend Magic Erasers. Your wife probably has some in the kitchen already. They are very fine scrubbers, and applied to that matte clearcoat will remove some of the shine without affecting the color.
Back in the late 1970s and 1980s, I used to spray paint some of my guns when the finish got chipped or worn. For this, I used a matte black spray paint and as soon as I was done spraying, I would use a hair dryer (set on low air speed and high heat) to heat/cure the paint. I found out that when high heat was applied, the paint was much more resistant to scratching, even on moving parts. The Model A UZI carbine I got for Christmas in 1981 always looked new! I don’t remember any color-painted MSRs back then except for AR-180s. For some reason, people had the compulsion to pain them green!
About the Author
James Tarr is a longtime contributor to Firearms News and other firearms publications. A former police officer he is a USPSA Production Division Grand Master. He is also the author of several books, including CARNIVORE, which was featured on The O’Reilly Factor. His current best-selling novel, Dogsoldiers, is available now through Amazon.
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