Looking Cool Matters—How to Paint Your Rifle

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Last Updated on May 19, 2021.
Looking Cool Matters—How to Paint Your Rifle

Spray paint is a low-cost and simple way of changing the color or pattern of your rifle. While it’s not as tough as other surface treatments or coatings, if you’re interested in a cheap paint job that will work for a while, this method works.


Rifle Paint

In the era of black rifles, you may want to try a different color scheme or camouflage pattern. There are many color choices to choose from, ranging from flashy to practical.

Modern tactical carbines and rifles, such as the AR-15, typically leave the factory with a mil-spec black anodized finish. Anodizing provides a corrosion- and wear-resistant finish to weather harsh and varied climates and environmental conditions. However, if black isn’t your color, you can try painting your rifle to add some personality.

The types of paints available on the market range from those you apply with a rattle can to those you must apply using a spray gun. Some require curing in an oven, while others can cure in the open air.


How to Paint Your Rifle

The process of how to paint a rifle should begin with preparation. You’ll need to ensure that you have the correct equipment to properly paint your weapon. 

You should first choose a suitable type of paint. Oven-curing (i.e., baking) paint on a rifle-length weapon isn’t a practical option for many shooters. That leaves air-curing paints. The paint that you choose should deliver a durable, long-lasting coat. It shouldn’t peel or chip easily. DuraCoat is an example of an abrasion-resistant, air-drying paint that you can buy in an aerosol can. 

Next, choose your color. If you want to paint your rifle to camouflage it, consider the environment in which you’ll be carrying/shooting. Desert tan is probably not appropriate if you’re trying to blend into the heavily wooded forests of the Pacific Northwest.  

In addition to paint, you’ll need tape — masking tape, painter’s tape, even duct tape — a knife for cutting the tape, tools for disassembling your rifle, and cleaning solvents/degreasers

Cleaning Your Rifle

Before you paint your rifle, ensure the exterior surfaces of your rifle are clean. Clean all parts that you intend to paint and degrease them using a residue-free solvent. When handling parts, consider wearing a pair of hypoallergenic gloves to avoid leaving corrosive oils on metal surfaces. If you use acetone or Brakleen, be careful applying these to polymer-composite materials. 

Tape Sensitive Areas

After you’ve cleaned your rifle thoroughly, you’ll need to cover every part that you do not intend to paint with painter’s masking tape. You may want to use a barrel stopper to ensure you don’t spray paint into the barrel. 

If you have a rifle scope attached to your weapon, you should cover the ocular and objective lenses and windage/elevation adjustment dials — including any clear markings and serial numbers. 

Particular areas to protect include the ejection port, the magazine well, the safety catch/selector, magazine catch/release, and bolt catch/release. Paint entering any of these areas can cause malfunctions, as it may build up and interfere with close tolerances. This also applies to the slot for the charging handle. 

You’ll want to tape the trigger/trigger guard and the muzzle device. Regardless of whether you have a flash suppressor, muzzle brake, or compensator, you don’t want paint entering the exhaust ports. If you’re using a muzzle device designed to work with a sound suppressor, you don’t want paint entering the threads or locking surfaces.

Time to Paint

Now it’s time to apply the base coat. You should always use spray paint either outside or in a well-ventilated indoor environment. If you can, you should also wear a mask

Begin painting by standing about one foot away from the rifle and spraying it in short bursts. Don’t worry about this being perfect — you can always repaint it if you have to. 

You should place your rifle on a sheet of cardboard, plastic, or another surface that you don’t mind getting paint on. If you want to create a basic camouflage pattern, simply space paint strokes apart and fill in the gaps with a different color. Start with broad diagonal strokes, preferably one hand-width apart.

More is not necessarily better. Don’t load the gun with paint — it’ll run, leaving streaks. Take it slow, ensuring even color distribution. 

Stencils

If you want to create your own camouflage- or grid-like pattern with greater precision, you can use a stencil. Netting works well in this regard. Another option is to use leaves, pine needles, and other foliage. Simply lay the net or template over the rifle stock and spray it. The purpose of stencil patterns such as this is to hide the silhouette of the rifle, allowing it to blend into the background more effectively. 


Other Options

If you don’t want to paint your rifle, there are other options. You can, of course, replace the furniture — e.g., the fore-end/handguard, butt stock, and pistol grip — with those sporting your preferred color scheme or pattern

If you want a non-permanent solution for a hunting trip or shooting event, consider camouflage tape. This is a type of fabric tape you can wrap around the barrel, receiver, and stock, which adheres to itself but doesn’t leave a residue on the weapon. 

Aside from offering field- or situation-specific camouflage without permanently altering the surface finish, this has another advantage: shock absorption. The fabric dampens the “clinking” sound of your rifle’s barrel or receiver colliding with your gear, as sometimes happens when hunting or trekking. As with matte surface finishes, the tape is also non-reflective, so you won’t spook game or otherwise disclose your position. 

Should I Paint My Rifle?

How to paint a rifle is only the first question. You may also ask whether you should. Aerosol-can spray paints are usually incapable of enduring the same kinds of abrasion and wear as, for example, Cerakote, parkerizing, or hard-coat anodizing. 

However, whether it needs to is a question worth answering. If you’re wondering how to change the color of a multi-thousand-dollar custom rifle, a can of spray paint probably isn’t the answer. This is a relatively inexpensive option for those on a budget or those wanting to experiment. 

If you’re satisfied with the black-anodized, blued, parkerized, or nitrided finish that your rifle had when it left the factory, by all means, leave it alone. No rule says you have to paint or modify the finish. These coatings/surface treatments are highly functional — that’s why they’re in common use.

Final Thoughts

Aerosolized, air-curing paints can be an inexpensive and simple way of customizing your rifle, letting you modify its appearance to suit your tastes or environment. While it’s easy to apply and can last a while, you shouldn’t expect paint from a rattle can to match the durability of parkerizing or anodizing.