Spray-Painting Things

This article is part of a series on the practical aspects of stealth. To see links to all of the articles on this topic, see the main page for The Stealth Fighter.

This article is on a simple, formulaic way to spray-paint gear in order to reduce target indicators.

By now, you should be picking up on a theme: Target Indicators. Eliminating target indicators is the key to staying hidden. When a trained observer spots you, he will not see a man hiding… he will see a perfectly straight, 4 inch line. Then, he and his friends will scour that area (possibly from 1000m away through a scope) in progressively larger circles until they find more target indicators. Consider the following story:

The scouting party stopped on the ridge just across the waddi, about 350 meters into the mid-morning sun. Most of the men drank water and stared at the ground. The trail man scanned your ridge with a pair of cheap binoculars. You sighed slightly as he scanned right over you, down to the bottom of the spur, upon the side of which you had been digging your team’s subsurface hide site about 60 seconds ago. You could hear every thump of your heart, firstly from the hard task of digging in the arid dirt, and secondly from the raw fear of your ghillie suit being critiqued by armed searchers as you lay helplessly exposed on a small hillside. Your ghillie was perfect. You’d spent hours perfecting it in the rear. But in your haste to flatten out, your black E-type shovel lay exposed only a foot to your right side. Did you dare reach out and pull it under your veil?

The trail man snapped his bino’s back toward you. Now the lazier soldiers had stopped murmuring to each other and were staring at your spur. Their movements took on urgency as they fanned out into a line. The man with the binoculars tossed them aside, and his boss was now yelling and pointing. Your chest tightened and you gasped for breath from the adrenaline surge. Should you call out to your two partners and start an immediate action drill? Is it possible the search party still didn’t see you? You felt the sand kicked into your face, and heard the thumping of machine gun rounds on meat before you ever heard the gunner let off his first string. The screaming and firing continued as your bright mid-morning faded to night…

This disaster could have been averted by not only camouflaging yourself, but also your gear. In this case, the searcher never saw you, the sniper, but he did spot a large target indicator in the form of a black, 30″ shovel. Let’s dive right into the solution:

The materials you need are as follows:

  • 2-4 flat camouflage spray paint cans. Olive green, tan, brown, and light green are good choices. I typically only use the first three.
  • A piece of netting for use in texturing. 1/4″ to 1″ squares is a good density. Don’t use fine mesh.
  • Masking tape for preparation.
  • Latex gloves, unless you don’t mind getting your hands camouflaged as well.
  • Somewhere to hang the item so you can walk around it, and not have to flip it on multiple sides.
  • A couple of pieces of vegetation common to the area.

The paint colors are designated as Base, Primary, and Accent. Primary is the general color you want the item to be. In the case of a shovel in an arid, rocky environment with space vegetation, I want it to be tan. Base color is the least important color. It fades into the background, and is really just for diversity. I’ll use green for this arid desert. Accent is what you use to add details to the item. Brown will work in this case

For a mountain situation, I would use green for Base, brown for Primary, and tan for Accent. In the woodlands, I would use tan for Base, green for Primary, and Brown for accent. In the desert, I would use green for Base, tan for Primary, and brown for Accent. For the example outlined below, we’ll assume a desert environment.

And now, the procedure:

  1. Before painting, you should prepare the piece of kit. In the case of firearms, tape up the sights and stuff an earplug down the barrel. Close dust covers, and consider taping off rubber-like pieces. Some petroleum-based materials aren’t harmed by paint, and some are. Tools should be sharpened. Items that collapse should be extended. In the case of the shovel you neglected to properly camouflage, I sharpened it with a file and extended it out.
  2. Next, hang the item up, and paint it with your base coat. Don’t be alarmed that this coat doesn’t look much like the intended environment. It will be mostly obscured. I have noticed that a surprising percentage of people cannot properly spray-paint. The correct technique is to make steady passes from about 12 inches away. It’s okay, and even preferred to “dust” the object multiple times in route to achieving the desired coating. If your paint is running down the object, you are wrong. If the item looks wet, you are laying it on too heavy. Back off, and speed up your passes. See my olive green shovel below.
  3. Now, we will add texture. Hold your piece of netting up to the object as flat as you can get it. Dust it with your Primary color. Be a bit more aggressive. Dust from 8″. You want to get start contrast between the netting and the item. Keep the netting flat, or the paint will go around it and just coat the whole item, without leaving the snakeskin pattern behind. You will have to do this piecemeal. See my mostly tan shovel below:
  4. Now, it’s time for accents. Grab some vegetation (at least two samples) that is representative of the area you will be going, and at the vertical level you and your equipment will be operating. What that means is that you should not use a grassy pattern for a piece of equipment that will be emplaced in a tree. Likewise, don’t use big tree leaves for something that will be on the ground. Use the Accent color, and spray over the leaves and grass.  If vegetation isn’t appropriate, use the Accent color to make a few broad tiger stripes across the item. Those broad stripes will cut it into smaller pieces, making the big target indicator into smaller ones. In this case, I’ll use leaves and grass. Take a look at these brown accents:
  5. Now, the shovel is just a touch too brown and dark. The final step is to rotate back to your primary color, and finish the piece of kit with a good dusting. Be careful not to simply paint the whole thing. In the case of this shovel, the idea is just to lighten the whole thing slightly. My background is fairly dark, and I don’t want it to be pure tan. This dusting is one last chance to smooth over lines and fix mistakes. See the final result below, after a slight tan dusting:

I cannot recommend enough that you spray paint your kit. It doesn’t hurt anything. It’s cheap, and easy to change. If you mar the finish, it’s easy to fix it. In the case of cloth items, you can use light, broad strokes to help break them up without saturating them with paint. Also, paint protects metal. And, as we saw from the introductory story, sometimes small remaining target indicators can cause major headaches.

19 Replies to “Spray-Painting Things”

  1. I must have bought a hundred cans of spray paint, while I was in the Army, for this very thing. We would base them green, (Germany) and ad a bit of black and brown.I still do that with my gear. I’ve told the people I’ve trained in this, that camouflage may save you, but what it really does is give you some time before the enemy figures out you’re there. Time is life, in a combat area. I mostly smelled VC or NVA before I ever saw them, and that helps too. I’ve painted the rifles I mainly use, the basic black background adapts easily to a torn piece of sponge, dabbing brown, green and tan all over it. If your piece of sponge is long and thin, you can easily simulate leaves and vines. The hardest part of all this is waiting (2 weeks, minimum) for the paint to really set and cure, before firing it again. A good pointer is to tell troops to be very deliberate about where you set camouflaged gear down, as the woods are full of equipment that was done so well the owners couldn’t find it again.

  2. “Time is life.” Very true words. The first to see will often win. What of the NVA did you smell? I noticed while overseas that I could often smell civilization from a ways off (goats, smoke, etc).

  3. Sadly, some armies are more concerned with “damaging” equipment than stealth. Thank you for putting your life on the line. Have you read the Chris Cocks book on the RLI? I enjoyed the read, and am curious as to what your take on it is.

  4. Clayton, imagine what a pair of sandals made from auto/truck tires smells like. That’s the easy part. Now imagine those sandals with a liberal amount of piss and maybe a little excrement on them. Then, those same sandals worn for months at a time, in mud and rain, and always getting drenched in sweat. Imagine the wearer of those sandals not coming into contact with any soap or cleaning for those many months, and often staying in damp underground bunkers, and associating with lots of other people wearing those same kind of sandals. Many of these people are carrying infectious disease. Then the wearer of these sandals, who lives on a diet of mostly rice and a little fish now and then, is lolling in the hot sun, next to a river, eating the same stuff. You can smell them before you see them, and I did, almost every time. You also learn how to move your selector switch to “fire”, noiselessly. It becomes a habit.

  5. This will come as a surprise to anybody outside the desert southwest but, A good black T shirt, a bottle of bleach and a bunch of rubber bands will turn that black T shirt into a more than passable piece of camo, suitable for disappearing against the stone and desert varnish in this country. Give it a try.

  6. Wash with unscented soap. Your enemy will smell a stinking human body LONG before you can see them in heavy bush. Keep yourself and your gear clean. If you are paranoid, fox cover scent is cheap and everywhere. The human eye can’t detect objects much smaller than 1 MOA. At 500 meters your shovel pattern will be a brown shovel shape instead of a black one. The pattern is too small to have much effect at anything over 100 meters. I have spotted dozens of people because I saw there field gear(canteens) or boonie hat. A “Sniper veil” over your back with garnish and foliage and a net with scrim and veg. over your hat will do more to hide you than every rattle can ever made.

  7. You are absolutely correct, Ray. This shovel will look brown and not black at 500. But that’s better than black. The pattern itself comes into play if somebody is closer than that, or using optics. Good comment.

  8. Nasty. The smell of the people in the ME is 2 parts BO, 2 parts excrement, 1 part patchouli, that weird cologne stuff that hippies use.

  9. In step 4, I include this bit to address those situations where small patterns don’t make sense: “If vegetation isn’t appropriate, use the Accent color to make a few broad tiger stripes across the item. Those broad stripes will cut it into smaller pieces, making the big target indicator into smaller ones.”

  10. Appreciate the suggestion of the order of colors applied. I have a couple weapons need paint or repaint.

    I’ve seen gen I – III night vision photo’s of how the color black such as your unpainted AR looks like. Might as well have a road flare going in your hands.

    It amazes me how well rattle can camo works. Take your camo painted rifle and lean it against a tree near ground vegetation, walk aways off and circle around, at some angles it is all but disappeared.
    Thats the one thing about the earlier .mil woodland camo does very well. If your still and there is even the slightest vegetation between you and somebody watching for you, that woodland camo works spectacular. In WV here its an excellent color blend in the bush.

  11. I am absolutely a fan of woodland as well. In a forest climate, it’s great. In a bit of shadows or behind vegetation it’s especially strong.

  12. I’ve noticed if there is any bit of vegetation between somebody and observing the US Army woodland they are wearing it has this uncanny property of being very difficult to pick up when you scan, though as soon as the person moves it looses that amazing blend in.
    A buddy and me did a little impromptu field experiment because we only own mil spec surplus Woodland camo gear. I’m very satisfied how well it works. MossyOak in the mark II and III versions is decent.
    Next thing we are planning is some snow woodland. Funds are always an issue, so we are planning on a lightweight synthetic, quiet type white cloth, and spray bombing it with couple shades of gray, maybe a bit of dull brown, see how that works.

    BTW, you might find this of interest.
    Couple years back my wife asked me what I wanted for Christmas, told her about always wanted a woodland camo smock. I love the GI poncho’s, the Wooby too. Bless her heart, she designed/sewed up a smock with a hood using Woodland .mil surplus poncho’s. She did a bang up job, gave it open large sleeves, and doubled up the shoulder area for a bit more water resistance, left it un-sewed along the lower lateral so it doesn’t bind up, plus little velcro squares using one of 3M’s course ruggedized versions. The kind that doesn’t pick up every fiber or debris. The way she cut it, the smock hangs closed naturally, the open baggy nature of the arms, kind of like angle wings, lets out a lot of moisture from sweat as you move. She might sew in belt loops like the WWII german type smocks have.
    I did a 3 day SUT course at Max’s in Late November in a weekend snow storm, used the smock all weekend, only a wife beater T shirt and light flannel woodland long sleeve shirt underneath and was almost too hot at moments when we where running live fire drills.
    After she makes us the winter smocks, she is going to sew up a Wooby that is removable, see how that works. Should be awesome for sitting in a hide or when its deep cold. Lot of protection in a small light package. Oh yeah, and a couple of belt loops and simple tie out of camo materiel.

    The physical specs: smock drops to the middle of my thighs, I’m 6ft and 265lbs. The smocks fits over my MOLLE 1 universal combat vest with 13 30rd mags in pouches, one 1qt & one 2 qt MOLLE canteens, a MOLLE Sustainment Bag, a 128 inch camp knife I forged, a lensatic compass, a Mora Knife, a small Molle, blowout kit and tourniquet pouch, a 2meter Handi-Talki pouch with a hanging type Ladder antenna, plus a Atlas MOLLE Battle belt with a XDS45, four 7 round mag pouches, extra sheath knife, a roll up Nalgene water bladder and filter in a MOLLE canteen pouch, 1 30rd 5.56 mag, and a MOLLE pouch for a #1 level minimum get back home kit. The smock design works well with a Medium Alice thats sporting Tactical Taylor Alice straps.

    We are going to try making up a few, selling them off my blog and Ebay sometime after the holidays, see if there’s interest in them.

  13. And I’d be happy to test and review the smock if you don’t mind having one tied up for a couple of months.

  14. Boom. I’ll be by. That is for the money. Can’t argue about the Woodland. I probably have a gun in all the other camo I’ve tried out and buddy tested. Still come back to it.

  15. I’m slowly working thru your blog. So much good stuff! Wow. You have given a treasure trove of what I see as priceless information free for the asking.
    Far as I’m concerned, it would not be a free trade of equality from my end to gift you a smock in return, not even close. But it is a start. When my old lady gets back from Missouri she will be fabricating some smocks and the first one she completes it is yours.
    I ordered half dozen Rothco Mil Spec knockoff Woodland Ponchos. They are the dull nylon ripstop. It is quieter, and a bit more supple materiel too.
    That work for you?