AR “ARt”: Eugene Stoner’s Black Rifle as an Artistic Medium

By Will Dabbs, MD

As the 19th century Irish novelist Margaret Wolfe Hungerford once opined, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Some gentle readers will perhaps find the following prose and accompanying photos to be inspirational. I hope that you might feel compelled to try your hand at a custom AR project. Yet others will undoubtedly find it viscerally repugnant that somebody might dare deface such a revered icon as Gene Stoner’s magnificent black rifle. To the former, bon appetit. To the latter, I am truly sorry.

We are a nation of unabashed individualists. As evidenced by our polychro-matic cars, t-shirts, tattoos, sneakers and handbags, the precious freedoms we enjoy foment both individuality and artistic expression, sometimes in deplorable excess. It was after all the United States that gave us the airplane, the light bulb, the microchip, the Pet Rock, pressurized cheese in a can and, for good or ill, the likes of Lindsay Lohan, RuPaul and Paris Hilton. Freedom of expression, manifest in its many countless guises, is the foundational bedrock upon which our great nation was formed. As we are also a nation of gunmen, it should be no surprise that our firearms have become reflections of our personalities.

Were we to be completely honest, we might admit that we diehard gun nerds are not altogether different from a typical 13-year-old girl. We customize our carry guns, trick out our competition rifles, optimize our home defense arms and dump an aggregate holy fortune on variegated gun-related widgets. Our insensate enthusiasm for gun swag is adequate to support a booming business in guns and accessories so expansive as to boggle the mind. The annual SHOT Show in Las Vegas attracts around 60,000 gun dealers, manufacturers and media folk. After walking the whole thing I would conservatively estimate the size of the SHOT Show to be roughly twice the surface area of Delaware. We gun guys do so love our toys.

Virtual Reality

In case you’ve been living under a rock, the youth of America simply live for video games. In 2014 the video game industry brought in nearly $84 billion worldwide, more than movies and music combined. First-person shooters are timelessly popular, and they come in literally countless forms. Much hay has been made over the pervasive violence that characterizes these pursuits, and there is likely some merit to these concerns. Nonetheless, violent fantasy play has been an integral part of normal human childhood ever since the first Cro-Magnon toddler hefted a stone and imagined himself out bagging wooly mammoths alongside his dad.

As we hurtle ever deeper into the Information Age we find that the philo-sophical chasm that separates us from our kids grows ever broader. I struggle to comprehend such stuff as click bait, trolling, flaming and emoticons. Letter homophones like LOL and CUL8R accelerate our capacity to tweet but to what end? Grand scheme, my own kids were undoubtedly left frustrated by the pathetic nature of their Luddite dad, yet they nonetheless still help me decipher the intricacies of my smart phone with little more than a sigh and a discreet eye roll. In such a sordid and dichotomous technological milieu we parents can find it a challenge to conjure activities adequate to bring common enjoyment to both parent and child.

One of the coolest projects we undertook back when my own kids were at home was to build our own customized black rifles. The tools are available at any local auto parts store, and the guns are themselves not terribly expensive. As a basic chassis, we began each of our three respective projects with a civilianized M4.

Classy Chassis

The M4 Carbine is itself an evolutionary derivative of the original AR-10 that sprang forth from the inimitably fertile minds of Eugene Stoner and a few others back in 1955. Tweaked, revised, polished and improved over some 60 years, the current iteration renders proper service with our warfighters downrange defending the cause of freedom as you read these very words. No other American shoulder arm has served longer.

Today’s civilian version of the M4 is both easy to build and ubiquitous. The barrel is 1.5 inches longer than those of Uncle Sam’s guns, and the rifle obviously lacks a full-auto Happy Switch, but any reasonably talented ape can accumulate the parts needed to build one of these guns at home with minimal fuss. Though the lower receiver sports a serial number and must therefore be transferred through an FFL dealer, the rest of the parts are available online from dozens of sources. Palmetto State Armory offers proper quality and phenomenal prices. I have built a dozen or more guns using their parts and have yet to be disappointed.

Spike’s Tactical lowers sport the Punisher logo or Jack Rackham’s Jolly Roger on the magwells along with some unique selector choices. Spike’s produces several other variants, all of which vary in relative hilarity. If you just can’t decide there are even companies out there that will engrave your own custom image on the side for a price. Google is your pal.

Raw Materials

Building the gun is almost comically easy. Uppers come pre-assembled and headspaced these days so it really is tough to mess one up. The best part is picking out colors. A little random tan or brown buffed lightly with some sandpaper leaves your shooter looking like it was carried by DevGru when they introduced Osama bin Laden to his 70 dark-eyed virgins. For our part we turned to movies and video games for inspiration.

There are several reputable companies out there offering factory-grade gun finishes that can be applied at home and provide combat-capable protection for the exposed surfaces of your weapon. However, the guns we explore today are for fun, not humping the Hindu Kush. We got our paint at the local auto parts store. This heat-resistant canned spray paint designed for engine blocks is available in a variety of colors. However, mind the directions as different brands have different curing schedules.

Bake-on ceramic engine block paint runs a bit less than $10 a can and, once properly cured, is shockingly durable. There are scads of colors, and the application instructions are on the label. These finishes have to be cooked for proper durability, but the process is not complicated.

I wired a discarded oven left over from a friend’s kitchen upgrade into my workshop for just this purpose. Most parts will fit into a cheap box-store toaster oven in a pinch. You can use your wife’s kitchen oven, but you will have eaten your last chocolate chip cookie that doesn’t taste vaguely like a toxic waste repository. Follow this sordid path at your peril, but fret not. I have a couch upon which you may crash until the divorce papers are finalized. What else are friends for?

Planning the Project

My boys and I computerized an image of the gun and schemed the design digitally. If computer imagery is not your gig then you can do the same thing with pencil and paper. If you simply cannot channel your inner Picasso just wing it. For certain applications a rough, rugged, random design can look really cool.

Decide whether you want a gun that looks weathered or showroom new. The desired look drives surface preparations—thoroughly degreasing with brake cleaner or mineral spirits will leave a smooth uniform finish. Be sure to give plenty of time for the residue to evaporate before slinging paint. Leaving the surface raw will typically bubble the paint a bit. With a little attention you can use this to your advantage to create a gun that sports a nice been-there, done-that vibe.


Mask off interiors as well as mating surfaces with masking tape. Many of these parts have tight tolerances and will not fit together well with an additional layer of paint. Be especially mindful of threads.

If you choose to depict a weathered gun then some attention with a little sandpaper and a metal tool can look great. We used dental picks to scratch around on the paint before we cooked it. If you don’t like the result just let it dry thoroughly, sand off the paint and repaint the part.

One of my sons opted for a “Star Trek”-sort of clean unmolested tidy look. The angles are sharp and the edges crisp. The other made his rifle look like it was toted through the badlands for a generation. He used scraps of t-shirt tied around the foregrip and buttstock to lend a certain “Mad Max” ambience.

For my “Star Wars”-themed build I picked up a little window dressing at our local Home Depot. The braided lines are toilet parts, and the cooling fins started out at simple extruded aluminum stock bolted in place. NCStar sourced the forearm rail and optic. The clubfoot stock came from Choate.

Cook only up to the least heat tolerant part. Avoid cooking springs if possible. Getting springs too hot will cause them to lose their temper and fail. The key is to cook the parts and then assemble them carefully afterwards to avoid scratches.

Turning Ammo into Noise

If properly executed, the resulting rifles may look way weird but are just as effective as factory guns. They will reliably turn heads at the range, and, when the time is right, both my boys will use their creations as legitimate home defense tools. I put a Hiperfire target trigger in my gun, and it shoots like a dream. All three of these weapons will group inside a juice can lid at a football field so long as I do my part.

Take care that none of your modifications interfere with the important bits like the selector switch or bolt release. Include as much functional kit-like optics and forearm bling as you wish. My gun is a bit heavier than standard, and the 4X NCStar combat optic will reach out farther than you might ever really have to shoot in a real-world defensive encounter. Both my boys’ guns sport red dot sights and are room-clearing machines. They also each look like they stepped off the set of a cutting-edge video game.


This project is both fun and reasonably cheap. It makes a great father–son undertaking and can actually serve to bridge that thorny generational gap between a gun nerd dad and his video gaming kid. If your wife or daughter is interested, the field is comparably open. Some of the fairer sex might choose unicorns and butterflies or gravitate toward flaming skulls or stylized splattered zombie goo. It takes all kinds to keep this weird old world going round. The resulting rifles look cool, reflect your individual personality and remain imminently functional.

Finding the “ARt” in your AR is indeed a delightful way for a proper family to bond. The same safety rules that govern all live firearms drive these projects, but I can attest that the pursuit is simply great fun. We did a custom rifle for each member of our brood who showed any interest. The capacity for individualization is limited solely by your imagination, and the subsequent smoke poles are easy to differentiate at a glance. At the end of the day this project indeed blurs the lines a bit between the real world and that of movies or video games. This undertaking really does lend credence to the truism that art is where you find it.



This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V22N6 (June 2018)
and was posted online on April 20, 2018


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