Camouflaging rifles used to be problematic. After degreasing the rifle, a base coat of paint had to be applied with a spray can or airbrush. The base coat was followed by additional coats of different colors to eventually create the camo pattern. If you wanted a really nice job you could carefully mask areas of the gun with masking tape before spraying, or you could just “free hand” with a spray can over and over again until it either looked right or became a dripping, sticky mess. Guess which method I usually did? Paint laid on too thick starts chipping and peeling, and cleaning solvents eat through it quickly. It can gum up controls such as safeties and magazine release buttons. Doing the job right is time intensive and there is a lot of trial and error.
Now there’s a better way. You can camouflage your entire rifle by dunking it in your bathtub, using a process known as hydrographics. The heart of it is a sheet of film that looks like Christmas wrapping paper, in a camouflage pattern (as an official redneck I just repeated myself there). One side of the film is water soluble, and the film is placed in a tub of water with that side down. The film floats on the water until the other side of it is sprayed with an activator (think hairspray), which dissolves the top side of the film and makes it super sticky. Now the dissolved film is floating suspended on the top of the water, like motor oil. Slowly dunking your rifle into the water wraps the film around it, coating the entire thing in the camo pattern immediately. After giving it a bit of a stir to let any loose bits of film fall away, the rifle is carefully removed from the water, making sure not to touch any remaining film on the way out. Then the rifle is sprayed down with a clearcoat to help add some scratch resistance to the camo pattern coating. All done! The coating is durable enough to help protect the metal parts underneath it from rust, but also thin enough to not fill up the slots in screws or limit the travel of important pins and detents. It has proven to be very resistant to gun cleaning solvents, scratches and abrasions—resistant enough that dipped rifles are starting to be offered straight from high quality manufacturers.
Dozens of companies specializing in hydrographics have sprung up in the past couple of years, and the results obtained by professionals who get in a lot of practice with the process are going to be of the highest quality. For do-it-yourselfers like me, companies are now selling kits with everything you need to try dipping on your own. New hydrographic film patterns are being created all the time, so competition shooters have been using it to put flaming skulls and other crazy designs on their brightly colored custom guns. Of course, firearms aren’t the only items being coated either. Anything that can be safely immersed in water, and which the film will stick to, can be coated. The process is being used by the custom car industry to give car dashboards and other parts the look of being made with exotic wood or carbon fiber.
Of course, a lot of shooters will always prefer the classic look of blued metal and a checkered wood stock. To some, the AR-15 will always be “the black rifle.” But we all like to customize our guns sometimes, and hydrographic dipping allows you to personalize your firearm in a vivid way, without having to mess with paint at all!