How to Paint Your Firearm

Stock doesn’t rock, if the images on Instagram and elsewhere of guns dressed up in limitless camo schemes are to be believed. From classic, simple camo patterns to intricate and crazy schemes that look like they belong in the latest first-person shooter game, people are not content with a plain, dull finish.

The material used to paint the guns is as varied as their patterns: Cerakote, Duracoat and good old spray paint among many others. Each has its advantages and disadvantages.

AR-15 painted in camo

While everyone has their own reasons for getting their gun gussied up, uniqueness and aesthetics sometimes first among them, there are better reasons to paint your firearms, chief among them being reduced visibility in the visual and infrared spectrums.

In this article, I’ll tell you how to paint your gun step-by-step, easily and cheaply, and walk you through several considerations when it comes to technique and camouflage potential that will get you maximum efficiency from your DIY paintjob.

Why Should I Paint My Gun?

Assuming you do not want a gun that is sporting competition livery in bright colors or some strange tribute piece to pop culture, you likely want to paint your firearm to reduce its visibility.

This is a fine idea, as a factory black, gray or, worse, bright steel firearm is highly visible in most conditions, even nighttime, and also more easily noticed with night vision devices. The general outline or shape of most guns also jumps out in stark contrast to the environment around it, so busting up that visual profile is a must.

To reduce this visual signature, both color and shape, we will use camouflage and typically apply it by way of paint of some sort or another. Specific camouflage techniques vary greatly, but the major principals of shape, silhouette and color can be addressed readily by paint alone with no other material enhancements needed.

By doing this, the gun is eliminated as a possible telltale in an otherwise competent camouflage system, and will greatly reduce overall visibility and chance of detection by direct visual observation. How many guys have you seen all camo’d or ghillied up with a black rifle?

Probably more than a few, yes? That’s fine if you want to cosplay a sniper and cannot bear to despoil your safe queen with peasant spray paint, but when lives or mission success is on the line you are taking all achievable action to increase your chances, you spray paint that thing.

What Pattern is Best?

That’s a simple question that requires a long winded answer. Your choice of pattern and color are largely dictated by your environment you will be carrying the gun in. Some patterns and colorways excel in one or two environments, others do pretty good in several, but there is no truly universal camo pattern.

Furthermore a given environment may require multiple patterns throughout the year based on season changes to the environment. A forest in the summer looks very different from the same one in the winter depending on where you are.

This necessitates a new paintjob most of the time. Lucky for you the method I will show you is very simple, quick and cheap to apply, so you will never want for optimal camo from lack of funds to send your piece off to a finisher.

There are plenty of specific patterns, both civilian and military, that offer varying degrees of performance. Some designs like the classic U.S. military woodland pattern are pretty simple. Others like Kryptek and many digital camouflages are extremely complex.

Many users who have a choice may prefer one or several, though you may be surprised to learn that many do not offer significant advantages over a freehand-applied paint scheme so long as care and attention to color choice and proportion is paid.

While quite a few of the more intricate and modern patterns are extremely cool looking and attractive, having them applied professionally by any means is often very expensive (we’re talking $300 plus for a long gun) and maddeningly complex and time consuming for a DIY user. Is that really necessary to achieve high-end concealment? Thankfully the answer is no if you are not too in love with your gun’s aesthetics.

What Finish Should I Use?

This is another hot-topic in the gun world. The current name about town for gun refinishing is Cerakote, and for good reason: it is a supremely rugged finish with excellent corrosion resistant qualities and also happens to be pretty easy to apply, though you must do so with a spray gun.

Cerakote is today available in nearly limitless colors and is a go-to choice for camouflage as well as other patterns. Cerakote depends on scrupulous attention to surface prep and application for best results and most DIY gun owners do not have the setup to ensure a fine job.

Other non-metallic finishes are Duracoat, Gun-Kote, Aluma-Hyde and many others, each with their own perks and flaws. For our purposes, we will be looking at spray paint. Before you dismiss spray paint as the choice of bottom-feeding knuckleheads and avow that you would never, ever disgrace your Precious with a plebian coating of mere paint, hear me out.

For the purposes of applying camouflage the old rattle can offers a host of benefits: it is common, inexpensive and available in nearly any color of the rainbow, including multitudinous earth tones. Spray paint application requires only modest prep for good results, is simple to apply and dries quickly.

Spray paint finished are easy to touch up when scratched or worn and in ideal conditions you can spray a gun and it is ready to handle in less than an hour. It is also far less toxic than other finish materials and easier to clean off of yourself and the gun should things go awry.

Remember our purpose: hide the gun. Not much more, assuming your gun has a modern finish with at least average weather resistance. If your gun is so badly neglected or has a finish so vulnerable to the elements that rust and corrosion is a serious concern, you should definitely look at having it finished professionally in something that will beat the elements. If your firearm is not in need of major refinishing, spray paint works fine for camo.

How to Paint your Rifle

Techniques and Supplies

There are a few techniques you can use with spray paint at home to get a good, functional camo paintjob. One is simply freehanding it and spraying your gun with two or more colors to produce a pattern.

Another technique involves the use of coarse stencils to help produce shapes and depth to, hopefully, better hide the gun. The last technique uses big chunks of sea sponge to blot paint onto the surface, quickly producing an irregular, mottled camo pattern. Any will help conceal the shape of the gun and helps it blend into the environment around it.

Your shopping list is below. You’ll need the same supplies no matter which technique you choose and for the techniques besides straight-up spray painting I have notated the special supplies accordingly. Buy what you need depending on which one appeals to you.

For all techniques:

Spraypaint in a flat finish, no glossy colors! The shine will betray the gun and ergo your presence. Pick shades of tan, khaki, brown, green and flat black. Or if you are in a snowy environment choose white.

As far as brand goes it does not really matter too much. Nicer brands typically last longer and dry faster, but I have used all major brands like Rustoleum and Krylon with success. My personal favorite is Aervoe brand, but it is hard to find on store shelves. If you are hard up for choices of color, get a brown, light tan and dark tan.

Clearcoat Spray in matte finish (optional), you can overspray the finished gun to help the paint hold up longer. Take care as I have seen several supposed matte finishes come out too glossy.

Painters Tape, any brand you want.

Drop Cloth for work area

Stand or hanger to suspend gun while painting alternately throw a line over a branch and hang the gun from that.

Foam earplug, to plug the muzzle.

For masking technique:

Masking Media, piece of camo net or mesh material large enough to cover gun. Alternately use heavy paper with random shapes cut in it or you can spring for die-cut stencils if you want, but they are not necessary for a good result.

For sponge blotting technique:

Sea Sponge, get a 3 or 4 medium ones or one large one you can saw into chunks that are about the size of a lemon.

Wax Paper and Cardboard, wrap the wax paper snugly around the cardboard to make a palette. Alternately grab a couple of waxed paper plates.

Preparing to Paint

Even though spray paint is more forgiving than other types of applied finish, you should still take care to prep the gun well to ensure adhesion of the paint and make sure you are getting the most mileage from your time and effort before touch-up is necessary.

Ask any pro painter and they will confirm how important surface prep is for professional results

Before you do a single thing, MAKE SURE THE GUN IS UNLOADED. CHECK TWICE VISUALLY AND BY FEEL. Now is the time to clean and/or degrease the gun. If the gun is filthy with carbon and oil seeping out of it, go ahead and give it a thorough scrubbing, but hold off on re-lubing it.

Once you finish that, fanatically degrease the exterior surfaces of the gun with a residue-free gun degreaser. Pay extra attention to nooks and crannies where oil or goo could be hiding.

Once that is completed, pay attention that you do not re-contaminate your surface with oily hands or cloth. Now is the time to seal the action and accessories against paint intrusion.

Start by removing anything on the gun you do not want painted, otherwise leave it in situ. Quick note here: I know many of you will balk at painting optics that likely cost as much or more than the host firearm they are mounted on. I’m telling you to go on and paint it. A big optic sitting there in all its glossy black glory is a big giveaway.

Mask off well any and all lenses on optics, lasers and flashlights. Close the lens covers if attached. I recommend you mask off rubber buttons and switched also; the paint won’t hurt it, but most rubbers don’t take paint well to begin with.

Close all actions, ejection port covers and any moving surfaces on the gun that will not benefit from increased drag. Things like action bars on shotguns, etc.

Take your foam earplug, roll it up tightly and stuff it into the muzzle. This will seal the bore.

All set? Good. Let’s paint.

painted shotgun

Instructions, Step-by-Step

The following instructions are largely similar no matter the technique, so I have broken the sets into phases. The first phase will basecoat the gun. The subsequent phases vary depending on your technique, so jump to those sections after your basecoat is applied.

Before you do anything, set up your work area, preferably in a warm, dry area with direct sunlight (to help the paint dry quick) and little wind. Shake your paint and clear coat, if using, thoroughly according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

For direct-spray techniques, always hold the can about 10”-12” away and use long, light, broad strokes. You want to mist the gun, not soak it. Don’t forget to shake your paint can regularly.

One more thing, you’ll see in the basecoat phase below that tan is the universal basecoat. This is with good reason as tan works well in mostly any environment to reduce visibility.

Think about it: how often do we see brown or tan plants and animals in nature? About the only time you will not want to use tan as a basecoat is in a snowy environment. The rest of the steps assume a generalist all-purpose camo, but substitute your colors based on your chosen palette.

Do take care that you go very, very easy on the black: black can add depth and some shadowing, but is very easy to overdo and spoil your camo job.

Basecoat Phase:

  • Hang gun or place on fixture. Make sure you can move around it or rotate the gun easily.
  • Spray with Tan. Lightly! Use broad strokes over the entire gun. Apply two light coats, waiting a couple minutes between each. You are not trying to completely coat the gun solid.

That takes care of the basecoat. See the below sections to finish depending on your chosen technique.

For Freehand and Masking Method:

The steps are the same for both with the only difference being you will rearrange your camo mask or template on the gun between color applications.

  • Spray with Brown. Again, lightly! Spray several large freeform patches on the gun.
  • Spray with Dark Green. Spray several large and small blotches over the gun.
  • Spray with Light Green. Mist the entire gun with a light green or khaki. This will help blend your colors and eliminate harsh transitive boundaries that may reduce your camo effectiveness.
  • Let dry. According to the paint’s instructions. This will happen faster in the sun, or a warm dry environment, and slower in a cool, humid environment. A hair dryer can speed this up.
  • Spray with Clearcoat. (Remove mask if using) Mist the entire gun with two light coats to help your paint last longer.

This whole operation should take no more than an hour once you are set up. That is minus dry time, of course. Any longer than that and you are probably going for a monumentally attractive paintjob. Depending on ambient conditions, your gun can be ready to shoot in as little as an hour.

For Sponge Blot Method:

For application of the sponge blot method, you’ll take your paints and spray them heavily onto your wax paper palette or paper plate heavily enough to make a small puddle. You then take a sponge for that color, dab it into the paint, dab off a little excess on a piece of scrap cardboard or whatever and then blot it onto the gun.

This is not as efficient a use of paint as simply spraying the gun, but some users like the highly irregular and deep texturing produced by this method. It is also more forgiving on windy days.

Take care that you are still lightly applying the paint. You don’t want big glops and drips. Be sure you use a new piece of sponge for every color, but don’t worry over a little color getting picked back up as you apply; this will only serve to blend your borders together.

  • Blot on Brown. Apply several large freeform patches on the gun.
  • Blot on Dark Green. Apply several large and small blotches over the gun, making sure your borders with brown overlap somewhat irregularly.
  • Blot on Light Green. Lightly blot random intersections of colors with a light green or khaki. Dab off most of your paint and tap the entire gun all over to deposit faint traces of light green everywhere. Again this will help blend your colors
  • Let dry. According to the paint’s instructions. Note that this will likely take longer than spraying the gun owing to a heavier volume of paint all the way around.
  • Spray with Clearcoat. (Do not use sponge) Mist the entire gun with two light coats to help your paint last longer.

This method takes a little longer, and depending on your orderliness can be a little messier. You may have to leave the gun to dry for several hours before you can handle it or even overnight.

Tips and Tricks for Rattle-Can Finishes

My favorite part of classic spray paint finishes is they are a cinch to re-coat or touch up if I need to. Paint worn or badly mauled? Spray or dab some more on and let it dry.

Season changing? No big deal, shoot a new pattern and colors right over the old ones. Only after several separate applications will you need to worry about stripping paint before starting anew.

Also keep in mind your color choices: anything, anything is better than black when we are talking concealment! Black is a poor choice even at night, as it is often darker than its surroundings and reflective to boot. Black would only be a good camo choice if you were fighting in a vat of ink

Similarly plant-like and olive green, while a natural color and dependably OK in a variety of environments, is not a good primary choice unless you are in an area that has dense, year-round vegetation that stays green all year. Greens that trend closer to green-brown or dark khaki are decent all-purpose choices if that is all you have, however.

Be sure to check your work against backgrounds in your area. How did you do? You’ll probably notice immediately that the gun is far harder to see than it would be in its factory color, but you might not have achieved your desired ends.

What went wrong? Is a color sticking out? Why? Too much of it, or is it just the wrong color? Is the gun shiny, or the contrast off? When in doubt, trend towards more tans and browns.

If your finish is not up to snuff, no biggie: wipe the gun down with a cloth lightly moistened with degreaser and re-spray it. In the event you need to take all the paint off the gun you can use any decent over the counter stripper but be sure it is safe on plastics lest your plastic components melt.

Also, some do attack aluminum, though that is rare. Consult the MSDS or manufacturer for specifics.


This simple guide has given you all the info you need to camo your guns using common spray paint simply, affordably and with tremendous versatility.

If all you need is enhanced camouflage, you can save beaucoup bucks on having your gun professionally refinished and apply that cash toward ammo, training or anything else your heart may desire.

So quit worrying, break out the drop cloth and learn to love the rattle-can.

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3 thoughts on “How to Paint Your Firearm”

  1. What about powder coating? I have a friend who does small metal work and finishes all his work with powder coating. He has tons of colors to work with and a set up like most production outfits would have. Just curious.

    • Be advised that powder coating has some thickness that may not work with a weapon with close tolerances. The parts need to be disassembled for this type of coating. I would not recommend this for a weapon. This works best for automotive parts.

  2. > “My personal favorite is Aervoe brand, […]”

    I absolutely concur with this preference. Many years ago I bought a case of Mil-spec, flat OD, *slow drying* enamel spray paint from what was then Aervoe Pacific to refinish a bunch of ammo cans. This paint just flat out shocked me – it went on like liquid glass (without the sheen, of course), and I had to bake it outside on a southern AZ summer day (~110 deg F peak) for *10 hours* before it finally set. It was the most tenacious and durable spray paint I’ve ever used.

    As you note, however, Aervoe is harder to find. You can buy case lot quantities direct from Aervoe Industries, but color selection is now very limited and there are no more slow dry products. What a loss! (Their Zynolyte paints are a good alternative.)


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