Black rifles are called black rifles for a reason. They’re black. And while most of us have simply accepted the color as part of the platform, AR-15s don’t have to be black. So if you’ve ever thought about painting an AR-15, there are some good options out there.
Why paint an AR-15?
Let’s jump right into why you might want to paint an AR-15. Some folks don’t care for black guns. Some just like variety.
The most common reason is likely to be the perceived need for camouflage. If you need to hide from something or someone, camo will be a compelling addition that just might keep you hidden. But keep in mind that painting camo can be complicated.
But there are more overt reasons for wanting a new paint job for your AR-15. Some of us want the guns to get noticed and so opt for candy colors or brilliant accents. Your motivations are your own, but we’re going to break out the basics.
What kind of paint can I use on my AR-15
Go to any gun show in the country and you’ll likely find a reasonably priced AR-15 with a terrible DIY paint job. Most look like they were done by children. The end results, though functional from a camo perspective, look heinous, and most of these owners end up selling the gun on rather than showing up with it at the range.
How do you avoid those basic pitfalls? Begin by understanding the composition of the paint you’re choosing and the composition of the gun you want to paint.
How hard is the paint or coating?
The term “paint” is often used rather loosely. Many finishes are sprayed on that are not, technically speaking, paint—even if those finishes are painted on to the surfaces you wish to cover. Here are some examples.
Cerakote is one of the best spray on finish options available. It is a slurry, of sorts, that contains ceramic particles that will coat surfaces in a thin and exceptionally protective layer that can also hold pigments for some dynamic color options.
Cerakote does needs to be baked to cure. This heat application doesn’t have a deleterious effect on the gun you might be painting, but it isn’t recommended for plastics or wood.
Most often, Cerakote is applied and cured by a specialist. There are ways to do it at home, and you’ll need the use of your oven, but expect to have some trial and error at first. Or simply outsource it.
Duracoat. Not to be confused with Cerakote, Durakote is a more traditional paint. Instead of ceramic particles, Durakote relies on resins and acrylic polymers. This is still a very hard paint, and one that can take a minimal amount of flex before it chips out.
Duracoat is much more forgiving in its application, too. It is more like a spray-paint than anything, and it is designed specifically for less-experienced users to do and do well. And Duracoat is a great company to go to for painting an ar 15 camo.
Epoxy resins. While the depth of color of epoxy is second to none, the material can be brittle. Very few are designed to flex, but this doesn’t mean they’re not good options for paints for guns; stick to the variants that have a proven track record on high-stress applications.
Spray-paint. If you’re wanting to go one step down, there are numerous options at gun stores and you local hardware store that will work. But know you’ll get what you pay for.
Most spray paint options are not designed to take heat. Look for paints that are designed for engine blocks, or barbecue grills. They’ll be marked as “high temperature.”
Spray Painting an AR-15 with Krylon or other brands
Krylon works well, and–like many other companies–they make a wide assortment. Look for the paint that can take the abuse.
Rust-Oleum is one of the most common brands. Like Krylon, Rust-Oleum makes paint for grills and other metals that get hot quickly.
Dupli-Color Engine Enamel contains some ceramic particles. As this is intended for high-heat environments, that heat takes care of the final curing of the paint.
Understand the make-up of your gun
Steel is hard, but it still flexes. This barrel is going to take a tremendous amount of heat, too, so this is one of the harder parts to paint. And be mindful of the gas port or other places where tolerances on the gun can be really tight.
Most AR-15s have a lot of aluminum in them. Aluminum is easy to paint, but the material isn’t as hard as steel, so tends to ding and dent a bit easier. Ceramic paints are sill a viable option for Aluminum, though, and can sometimes help to protect it.
Plastics come in many varieties. Some aren’t technically plastics, either, but nylon. This is the hardest part of any gun to keep paint on. These are also the most common materials for grips and stocks—the parts of the AR-15 that we aggressively engage with.
Painting AR-15 magazines
I don’t recommend ceramics or brittle epoxy paints for plastics, though many manufacturers would disagree with me. When it comes to painting mags, you need something with more flex. You can paint Magpul mags or even aluminum mags, as needed, though.
And there are lots of fun stencils that can make mags more personalized or more fun.
DIY AR-15 Painting Tips
Watch your workspace. The last thing you want to do is paint anything you don’t want painted with this stuff. These paints are harder to remove than others, so watch your cars or anything else that could be within the aerosol reach of the overspray.
Sweep it! Start your spray off of the piece you intend to spray and sweep of the length in a smooth, somewhat fast motion. It is far better to paint numerous thin coats than to get one fat coat that runs.
Watch curing times. Some paints have a window of opportunity for recoating just after the dry-to-the-touch phase. If you miss this window, you might need to wait for a coat to cure completely before applying more paint.
This is important. Many of these paints cure completely in a matter of hours, but some will stretch out for days—even weeks. Applying paint again, before the previous coats are cured, may prevent the coats from bonding correctly.
Build-up. Some coatings on guns penetrate and don’t change the physical dimensions in any appreciable way. Ceramic coatings, though, build up quickly. Do your homework and see just how this might change the way parts fit together.
Test it! If you’re left with any doubt, pick up a junker gun and try out your methods ahead of time. Some of the best options for this are available at pawn shops that carry those mid-century break action single-shot shotguns no one seems to care about any more.
Paint patterns. If you’ll be working with multiple colors, take the time to study how paint sprays. A pattern overlay and/or some good masking will greatly increase the sharp lines and patterns you want to create.
In the end, painting may not be your thing. There are other ways to get what you want that may be easier than painting, more protective than painting, or more visually appealing.
Coatings like nickel-boron are catching on. You can have rifles hydro-dipped with almost any kind of design imaginable. And there’s always surface treatments like cold-bluing and case hardening that produce some exceptionally beautiful results.
One Last Tip
If there’s anyone that knows the AR-15 platform, it’s the US military. As a special offer for our readers, you can get the Official US Army Manual for AR-15/M4/M16 right now – for free. Click here to snag a copy.