References - How to tell the good from the bad

Developing beyond blindly following kit instructions can seem daunting at first, and enthusiasm to learn can be quickly dampened upon learning that there is a lot of contradictory information out there. How does one tell the good from the bad?

There is no easy answer, but there are always clues to good quality references which you can look for.

First though, let's understand the difference between a colour system and a catalogue. 

A colour system is an attempt to represent the entire visible spectrum of colour in evenly spaced increments. Older examples are the Munsell Book of Color, but here is a more modern system, the Natural Colour System 1950, or NCS1950 for short. This contains 1,950 different swatches with a coding system. Published coordinates for each are provided.

These differ from Colour Standards, which are simply catalogues of colours held, typically, by a national institution. Examples of these are the British Standard BS381C first published in 1930, the German Reichs-Ausschuß für Lieferbedingungen (National Committee for Delivery and Quality Assurance) "RAL" Classic catalogue first published in 1927 or the American Federal Standard 595 first published in 1956. It must be understood that in their early years, these publications did not dictate what national armed forces branches used. In the case of BS381, the British Standards Institute merely attempted to keep up with what the British armed forces themselves decided to use. Laterly, armed forces tend to select colours from these publications to use on equipment.

So, what's the problem?

The widespread ownership of FS595 in particular has resulted in many enthusiastic people to compare artifacts which predate the 1956-onwards FS595 with a collection of colour chips which other people own. There's nothing wrong with this, but the qualifications often get lost as the references are repeated. Furthermore, compared to the NCS1950 colour system above, FS595 has 950 chips in total, a full 1,000 fewer than NCS1950. Worse, FS595 is split into three sections; FS1xxxx caters for gloss finish chips, FS2xxxx caters for satin finish whilst FS3xxxx caters for matt finish chips. Of the modest 950 chips in total in it, many colours are duplicated or triplicated even across the different finishes. This results in an extremely limited number of discreet colours to compare things to, such that the closest match in FS595 may not actually be very close at all! Somewhat amusing anomalies arise when the same FS reference is given for  distinct American WWII paints. Here's an example:

From Maj John M Elliott's The Official Monogram US Navy & Marine Corps Aircraft Color Guide Vol 2 1940-1949; FS25042 is often cited as a match for ANA606 Semi-Gloss Sea Blue, which it isn't, and FS35042 is often cited as a match for ANA607 Non-Specular Sea Blue. Similarly, FS15042 is often cited as a match for ANA623 Glossy Sea Blue which, for WWII, it isn't, and the reason for that is that ANA623 changed shade slightly in 1947 when its formulation was revised to address premature fading. When FS595 was collated in the 1950s, it was the newest version of ANA623 which was incorporated as FS15042.

Tip Number 1: If a source quotes FS595 references for anything pre-1956 and wasn't made in the United States of America, look for either a qualification as to how the colour compares to the FS595 reference, or a statement that FS matched paint was indeed specified on the original. FS595 references for the Royal Air Force during WWII should set your alarm bells ringing!

I've just counselled you to be suspicious of invalid specifications. Clearly, the German Luftwaffe did not cross dimensions to America two decades later to bring back a copy of FS595 to the mid 1930s to work from. What should one do then? The answer is simple - Google is your friend. Simply Google what specifications the national service of interest used. If they used a widely recognised standard, you'll find confirmation within a few hits. If this is the case, the colour coordinates for all the widely recognised standards are well known and easily available.

For all those services which do not follow the widely recognised standards, what does one do? Usually we must turn to books, but alas, the enthusiasm to write a book does not guarantee that the author has a way of thinking that is to be admired. Some individuals gather facts, lay them all out, and draw conclusions based upon the evidence. These individuals write good reference material. Other individuals set out with preconceived ideas, then seek evidence which supports their point of view. These individuals write books which perpetuate myth.

Tip Number 2. How does one tell them apart? Good authors tend to do some or all of the following things which you should look for:

  • Provide a clear bibliography of sources
  • Quote primary source references (i.e. genuine contemporary official documents)
  • They tend not to make absolute statements, or will highlight areas of uncertainty
  • Detail their methodology
  • Where comparisons to modern references are made, they are qualified with descriptions of how close they are or in which way they differ

Here are some examples of good references which exhibit some of the above qualities.

Luftwaffe Camouflage and Markings 1933-1945 by Ken Merrick and Jürgen Kiroff. These are an excellent piece of work, and Kiroff provides a separate booklet enclosed detailing the methodology by which the original machinery, formulae and ingredients were used to recreate fresh un-aged batches of the RLM paints. Painted colour chips are included.

Japanese Army Air Force Camouflage and Markings WWII by Donald W Thorpe - this book contains printed chips which are not especially useful, and some details contained herein have been superseded since however it remains a useful starting point.

The Official Monogram US Navy & Marine Corps Aircraft Color Guide Vol 2 1940-1949 by Maj John M Elliott. This book contains painted chips, matched to copies of the original chips owned by the author however these can be validated by cross referencing the Munsell values tabulated within.

British Aviation Colours of World War Two - The Official Camouflage, Colours and Markings of RAF aircraft, 1939-1945 by Arms and Armour Press. This book contains painted chips and quotes numerous primary source documents throughout. The book carries the endorsement of the RAF Museum. It is considered by most people to be the default reference for the RAF in WWII.


US Air Force Colours 1926-1942 by Dana Bell. This book does not contain any chips, but it does contain good comparisons of the contemporary colour specifications with FS595A, detailing the differences where FS595A does not provide a good match. We were kindly loaned an original copy of US Army Spec 3-1 by Mike Starmer some time ago and compared it with these comparisons to assure ourselves it was sound.


We will update this blog as we go, but we hope that we have if nothing else encouraged the reader to be critical of references, and where conflict between two exists, that the reader finds themselves siding with that which gives them some assurance that the author isn't afraid to tell you how to verify what they show you.




Sold Out