The Warhammer 40,000 universe is one of contradictions. It is a universe of terrifying, obscenely lethal ranged weapons, but it is also a universe where most races wear bright battle dress and seem to prefer fighting in hand-to-hand combat rather than at range.
"The best gun in the galaxy won't help if your opponent is bashing your brains out with a rock!" 2 3 4
The 40k Universe is a universe where you can be carrying an assault rifle (sorry, I mean lasgun), eyeing an enemy on foot, on open ground, way off in the distance, outside the range of your weapon, and yet somehow you just know that you will only be able to get off one, or if you're lucky, two shots before those tiny dots on the horizon will be in your face, slashing at you with a choppa, and there's absolutely nothing that you can do about it...
But I digress. The reasons the 40k Universe are like this are to appeal to the gamer and hobbyist. The wargame is fun to play, with wide variety in the way each army is played. The models are dynamic and colorful, designed to be visually appealing.
Despite the polychromatic flair of most armies, camouflage still has its place in the 40k Universe. That place is with the Imperial Guard. (and with the Tau and a few others, but never mind...)
Most Imperial Guard players are drawn to the army for their "real world" appeal. If a player really wants "sci-fi" soldiers, they'll play Space Marines. If a player wants Space Elves, Space Orks, or Aliens, he'll play Eldar, Orks, or Tyranids. But if a player wants an army of human soldiers with armor and artillery support, i.e., like a real world modern army, they'll choose the Imperial Guard.
Thinking about Camouflage
Every Imperial Guard Commander has to put some thought into camouflage. Other Army Commanders do too, notably Tau, but most armies seem to like being in bright colors, probably due to pride and confidence in their armor (Space Marines), numbers and bravado (Orks), fashion sense (Eldar), etc. But to the Imperial Guard, camouflage is as necessary as their flak armor.
The Imperial Guard player has to take many things into account when considering a camouflage pattern, for example, the "culture" of the regiment he wishes to field. Many Imperial Guard regiments, like the Cadians, are well equipped and wear camouflage battle dress. Some, like the Mordians and Pretorians, fight in their dress uniforms, and therefore do not make use of camouflage at all. Others, like some Valhallan or Tallarn regiments, dress more for their harsh environments, and camouflage is a secondary concern to protection from the weather--but regiments still make use of it when they can.
As I mentioned in the last article, boldly painted armies look better on the table. If you paint your Imperial Guard camouflage too well, they will blend in with the terrain and look dull. If this is what you want, then fine. But can you paint a bold, striking army, and yet still paint them in "realistic" camouflage?
An Anacostian guardsman and a Brazen Claws Marine. Clearly, the marine is more striking on the table. The guardsman's camouflage is very similar to the color of the table itself--in fact, the camouflage is almost too good.
In order to be realistic, your camouflage MUST match the terrain
No it doesn't. The camouflage of your troops does not have to match the terrain. In the real world, inappropriate camouflage is often a fact of life.
There are also plenty of stories where troops, due to supply snafus, lack of funding, lack of time, or plain stupidity result in the troops on the frontline not getting what they need. For example, in the fall of 1941, when the Germans were driving to Moscow, the soldiers were not issued cold weather gear because their commanders wanted to encourage them to capture the city before the arrival of winter. Issuing cold weather gear, thus implying that it would be a long campaign, was deemed to be bad for morale. As it turned out, this was a big mistake--but it happened nonetheless.
Imperial Guard units are frequently on long campaigns, fighting on planets with markedly different environments. Due to the requirements of war, including rapid redeployment and supply problems, units may not receive the proper camouflage for a given planet, or indeed, any resupply at all. The result is that camouflage a given regiment is equipped with may be wildly inappropriate for the environment in which they are fighting. So, your Imperial Guard Regiment may be painted in a color scheme that seems out of place for the terrain on the table, but rather than being "wrong", it can be argued that this is in fact realistic.
Anacostian guardsman and a Fafnir Ice Wolf. Here, both are wearing camouflage, but the Ice Wolf's camouflage is slightly more vivid. More importantly, he's wearing winter "overwhites", which make him stand out more. If you're fighting on a woodland tabletop or a city, the argument goes that perhaps the snow melted the day before. (This outfit might seem a bit impractical on a desert battlefield however, but then, so do Valhallan overcoats...)
In the real world, troops are constantly being resupplied, and the army is notorious for delivering units inadequate or inappropriate gear. Soldiers in the field frequently have to make do with what they have. Hence their gloves, boots, packs, and web gear, etc., may be improvised with whatever they can get their hands on. Frequently this means that their equipment doesn't match their camouflage pattern. For the hobbyist, this is as important to remember as the camouflage. In other cases, the camouflage uniforms may have been issued to troops, but none of their other gear is yet available in the new pattern yet, so they have to mix and match multiple patterns.
In this picture from the movie Black Hawk Down (2001), it shows a US Army Ranger unit wearing a mish-mash of camouflage patterns--and the Rangers are an elite unit, so you might expect them to get priority when it comes to supply. At the time this event took place the army was switching between desert camouflage schemes, phasing one out while phasing in another. Here the rangers are wearing 3-color desert BDUs, 6-color desert "chocolate chip" helmet covers, and woodland camouflage body armor. If you want to see better pictures, watch the movie! 7
Here is a selection of camouflage schemes I have tried out and their real-world inspirations. In some cases I intentionally deviated from the strict color pattern in an attempt to make the color scheme stand out more, and thus be more attractive on the tabletop. In other cases, I just experimented in order to see what color patterns might look like.
Kamouflage.net is a site with tons of samples of real-world camouflage patterns that can be used for inspiration.
Camouflage Schemes: An Essential Guide by Tammy Haye - An article on the GW Australia website.
http://www.militaryphotos.net/ - A large archive of military photos that show all sorts of camouflage.
1. White Dwarf, Issue 109, January 1989, The Imperial Guard.
2. Warhammer 40,000 3rd edition Rulebook, p62, 1998.
3. Warhammer 40,000 4th edition Rulebook, p38, 2004.
4. Warhammer 40,000 5th edition Rulebook, p34, 2008.
5. Photo taken from Games Workshop Website.
6. AP Photo.
7. Screenshot from Black Hawk Down, 2001.