Camouflage painting a rifle is a technique used by professional shooters and hunters to break up the general shape and outline of the rifle to aid in concealment within a particular environment. Adding a camo finish is also an inexpensive and fun way to personalize a rifle so that it sets itself apart from the others. While some people might tremble at the thought of using $20 worth of materials to paint rifles and optics that cost many times that, using the process below can create a good finish without any damage to the rifle and its components.
Before getting started though you’ll have to collect some materials and choose a suitable place to paint the rifle. Ideally you’ll want someplace that is well ventilated with plenty of light so that you can adequately see what you’re painting. Painting outside is usually preferable since you can periodically check the pattern to see how well it is blending in with natural surroundings. However if the weather is uncooperative then a basement or garage will work fine; just remember to have plenty of ventilation. Here are some of the materials that you’ll need to complete a good camo paint job:
- Painter’s or Masking Tape
- Degreaser (Brake Cleaner, Acetone, etc…)
- Lint-free Rags
- Razor Blades
- Ear Plugs
- Spray Paint
- Painting Stencils
- Nitrile Gloves
- Blow Dryer
When choosing the paint to use on the rifle I recommend something like the Krylon Ultra-Flat Camo colors, however the Bowflage and Rustoleum brands of paint work good too. When figuring out what colors to use consider the area and time of year that you’ll be in, since this will help determine if your pattern will work or not. In general I’ve found that a combination of khaki, green, and brown seems to work in most areas of the United States and abroad. It’s also good to have some form of stencil that can create patterns that are similar to what can be found in nature such as leaves or grass.
Preparing the rifle to be painted is probably the most important and time consuming step of the whole process. Prepping the rifle involves degreasing the surfaces to be painted and taping off or plugging areas that shouldn’t get painted. I typically start with taping off the ejection port, bolt raceway, and gas port since these are the most accessible parts of the rifle. To streamline the process the bolt can be left in the rifle and the ejection port taped over like before. This will ensure the bolt and firing pin shroud have the same pattern as the rest of the rifle since they aren’t painted separately. After that the magazine well, trigger area, recoil pad, and muzzle get sealed up to prevent overspray from entering the internal areas of the rifle.
The scope is typically the last thing to get taped up and generally one of the more difficult pieces to do given the knobs and other moving parts that have to be protected. If the scope has flip caps I like to leave those on and usually pack the insides with cotton balls or cleaning patches to prevent paint from getting to the lenses and possibly damaging the coatings. The flip caps themselves can be roughed up with some fine grit sandpaper so that the paint will adhere to them a little better. If an ARD is going to be used with the scope I recommend attaching it to the scope and taping off the honeycomb portion in the front. After all of the paint has dried, remove it from the scope and dab some paint onto the surface of the honeycomb to help camouflage it. When taping off the turrets and magnification ring use a razor blade to trim off excess pieces of tape to form clean lines.
As you’ve probably noticed by now, there’s a lot of taping involved, which is perfectly normal for this type of operation but it’ll be worth doing it right. I usually don’t bother taping off the serial number, individual ring cap screws, or the cross bolts as I’ve seen some people do. I’ve painted over them many times and have never had a problem reading the serial number or removing the screws afterward. Once everything is taped off degrease the rifle and scope using lint-free rags using a degreaser like alcohol, acetone, or brake cleaner. I highly recommend that when using chemicals during the degreasing process to wear gloves to prevent the chemicals from getting onto your skin.
Applying the base coat is pretty straightforward and I usually like to start out with the lightest color that I’ll be using, which for me is typically khaki. When applying the base coat I use slow side-to-side or up-and-down movements using short bursts from the can about 6” away. This method helps to keep the paint from dripping and provides a nice smooth coat. The key is to start off slow by lightly dusting the surface of the rifle and let it build up slowly pass after pass. In between passes I also like to hit the surface with a quick blast of heat from the blow dryer to help the paint dry nice and flat.
People start to get a little flaky when it comes to painting their high-dollar optics. Just remember that the paint isn’t going to void the warranty or negatively affect its performance if you did a good job prepping the scope. Once I’ve completely applied the base coat, I’ll hit it with some more heat from the blow dryer and let everything set for a few minutes before proceeding to the next coat.
This rifle is about done having the base coat applied and ready for the next step in the process.
Applying a pattern over the base coat is what helps to break up the outline of the rifle and allow it to better blend in with its environment. Using a stencil, such as grass, leaves, cardboard cut outs, or netting can help create an effective camo pattern. It is important that when selecting a particular stencil to choose something that will work for the area that you’ll be in. Some people have used multiple stencils to create different patterns on the rifle that seem to work out well for them so it’s something to consider.
Leaves, grass (real and fake), cardboard cut outs, and netting can all be used as stencils to paint an effective camouflage pattern.
For the purposes of this article though I’ll be using a fake grass stencil since I’ve found it works well in both fields and wooded areas.
To create a grassy pattern, take the bundle of grass (real or fake) and splay it out with your hand and hold it up to the rifle. This is where the quality of the pattern comes down to one’s personal preference and the technique that they use. If I use short bursts of paint with the stencil right up against the rifle then I get the nice grassy pattern with distinct blades of grass. If I hold the stencil a little farther away from the rifle, say an inch or so, and use sweeping motions, it gives it a blend of splotchy patches of color with light blades of grass.
Which color to start out with when using the stencils is purely personal choice but I usually start out with green and use the brown sparingly since it can quickly make the pattern too dark. Remember that it’s easy to make something darker but almost impossible to make something that’s already too dark lighter. When using the stencils I’ve found that alternating their orientation on the rifle helps to produce patterns that go in different directions instead of them all going up and down or side to side.
After I’ve applied the first layer of green I’ll hit it with a blow dryer for a minute or two and then let it sit for about ten minutes to let the paint dry enough for the next layer. I like to use the blow dryer not only because it speeds up the drying process a little but in cooler weather I’ve noticed that greens and browns can turn out a bit shiny without the heat. The second layer of paint goes on with the stencil in much the same way as the first but typically with shorter bursts from the can. I’ve found that just a little bit of the darker colors like brown go a long way.
After the paint has set up for twenty minutes or so, take it outside and set it in the grass or in the woods to see how well it blends in. I’ve found that stepping away 10 or 15 yards will help identify areas in the pattern that are too light or dark and where I need to make adjustments. Remember that the paint is just a camouflage base for your rifle, much like a ghillie suit is, and it’s important to change the colors and pattern based on the terrain and environment you’ll be in. To get the most out of the pattern, attach strips of burlap and/ or local vegetation to the rifle to help break up the outline even further. The methods that I’ve outlined in this article aren’t the only way to apply camouflage paint to a rifle but it’s the way that has worked for me numerous times. These techniques don’t just apply to bolt guns though and can be easily used on gas guns and other shooting accessories as well. The important thing to take way from all of this is that if you do a poor job prepping the rifle or object to be painted, you will get a poor end result.
A couple more examples of rifles painted using this technique.
If you get to a point where the rifle has seen coat after coat of paint and want to strip it all off and start fresh there are some relatively easy ways to accomplish this. In many ways getting ready to strip the paint off of a rifle is similar to preparing it for painting, materials have to be gathered and a suitable work space is needed. To effectively and safely remove paint from the rifle and optics you’ll need the following things:
- Paint Remover
- Chemical Gloves
- Small Glass Bowl
I’ve found that when stripping paint from the rifle it works best to break everything down and separate the scope from the barreled action and remove the barreled action from the stock. This allows easy access to everything that was painted and makes sure that it all gets removed. When it comes to removing paint I’ve found that products like Acetone or Aircraft Paint Stripper are very effective at removing layers of paint. However, these products also give off noxious fumes and are major skin irritants so act accordingly. Products like Citri-Strip are safer to use indoors and anecdotal evidence points to them being a good alternative to the more traditional methods of paint removal.
Removing paint from the barreled action and stock is easily accomplished by rubbing the paint off using rags dampened with acetone. The acetone usually makes quick work of the paint, even if there are multiple layers. Products like the Aircraft Paint Stripper and Citri-Strip work by bubbling up the paint after it’s been sprayed on and can easily be wiped off with a rag. Sometimes it works faster than acetone soaked rags and other times I’ve found it to be quite messy, requiring a longer clean up. After I’ve removed most of the paint I usually go back with a clean rag and acetone to get rid of any residue that might be left on the stock or barreled action. From there I move on to the scope and this is probably the most time consuming part because of all the nooks and crannies where paint can latch onto. I pretty much only use acetone for removing paint from the scope and start at the objective bell and move backwards towards the ocular shell. The process is just about the same as removing paint from the barreled action except I’m a little more careful around areas with o-rings since the acetone could potentially damage them and compromise the seal. I use the q-tips and a little acetone in a glass bowl to help get the harder to reach areas around the turret globe and magnification ring, while the toothbrush works well to get the paint out of the knurling. The key with paint removal is to take your time and approach the task methodically. Once all of the paint is removed the components can be repainted or left as is, it’s up to the shooter.