3D Printed Guns Aren’t Killing People, Yet

3d printed gun

Back in 2013 there was a sudden rush of hysteria about the impending 3D printed gun crisis in which anyone could make a gun in their kitchen or garage. By 2014, the consensus was that 3D printed guns were a week-long fad, and weren’t to be feared. However, with additive manufacturing advancing so quickly – especially in metal 3D printing – are we close to a 3D printed gun crisis?

Before we attempt to answer that question, it is necessary to talk about previous 3D printed gun scares, how easy they actually are to make, how effective they are, and the history of these guns.

3D Printed Gun History

To accurately articulate how the 3D printed gun will be a problem in the near future it is necessary to visit its past. 3D printed guns first made headlines back in 2013 when Defense Distributed hosted a file downloadable for free of a 3D printed pistol they designed called the Liberator. They had disclosed the designs’ existence since mid-2012.

This of course went viral, receiving over 100,000 downloads in 2 days (including a worrying amount from Spain, UK, Germany, and Brazil), causing the US Government to demand that Defense Distributed remove the file from their site. As anyone who has ever used the internet will know however, this means absolutely nothing. Hosting sites such as The Pirate Bay instantly began hosting the blueprints for the Liberator 3D printed gun instead.

3d printed gun cad file
An example of a 3D printed gun file which are hosted all over the internet.

3D printed guns are EASY to make

This 3D printed gun can be easily assembled after being printed from either ABS or PLA, two of the cheapest, most common plastic filaments. Anybody with an FDM 3D printer can print one of these guns, with the material cost estimated at just $25. All you need in addition to this is a simple metal firing pin, and these can be bought from general shops all over the world.

Then why aren’t they everywhere?

Here’s the reassuring part: they don’t work well. If they worked seamlessly as well as being as easy to make as they are, they would be everywhere already. They are prone to exploding when fired (dangerous to user), break and crack often, and are clumsy to reload. The fact they are made from thermoplastics like PLA and ABS creates reliability issues as these materials are simply not strong enough to handle the energy that shooting a bullet entails.

There is a high chance that any Liberator printed on a cheap 3D printer will fire less than 10 bullets before it breaks. What’s more, once fired the Liberator 3D printed gun requires the spent cartridge to be manually removed every shot. This is simply inefficient. Anyone trying to use one would be tackled in the 10+ second time between each shot could be fired.

Therefore, in their current state, plastic 3D printed guns are not a massive national security threat. We will get onto metal 3D printed guns further on.

3d printed gun liberator pistol defense distributed
The 3D printed Liberator pistol by Defense Distributed in its parts prior to being assembled.

Cody Wilson: 3D Printed Gun Liberator

Defense Distributed is fronted by articulate crypto-anarchist Cody Wilson, a 30 year old ex-Law student at the University of Texas. Wilson himself has a manufacturing and selling license from the US ATF bureau – he isn’t just a rebel on the internet.

After releasing the Liberator online in 2013, Cody Wilson didn’t stop there. He went to work, creating designs for 3D printed AR-15 rifles, M1911 pistols, and more. The most notable release since the Liberator is the Ghost Gunner CNC machine. This machine is specially designed for the manufacturing of guns. It can can create a M1911 handgun aluminium frame with ease.

What’s more, these are sold directly on his website for $1,650. They technically aren’t 3D printed and employ subtractive manufacturing methods instead, but the worrying point stands – these guns have no tracking number. They are untraceable. They’re ghost guns. This led to Cody being found in violation of International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) rules, though he has since filed a federal suit in response.

3d printed gun cody wilson
Cody Wilson aiming his 3D printed gun, the Liberator.

Defense Distributed

Despite quintessentially disagreeing most things he stands for, I respect Cody Wilson. He’s actually right about a few things too. Cody wants 3D printed guns to be treated the same way regular ones are treated in the USA. I agree with this. I disagree that guns should be allowed altogether, but since they are legal in the USA they should be treated the same whether 3D printed or not.

If Cody’s and Defense Distributed’s 3D printed guns pass the safety and standards set for guns, there is no reason for them not being allowed to be sold as normal guns – as long as they have displayed serial numbers and follow the rest of these other rules. This isn’t down to any fearmongering by media outlets, but simple economics and supply and demand.

If Cody Wilson has stumbled on a way to make guns cheaper, he should be allowed to sell them and make a bunch of cash based on Defense Distributed’s reputation as the first and premier 3D printed gun distributor. This is idealistic however as the guns are currently far from reliable.

3d printed gun ghost gunner
Defense Distributed’s Ghost Gunner CNC machine which creates aluminium shells for M1911 pistols.

3D Printed Gun Model Types

The Liberator 3D printed pistol is the most notable 3D printed gun, but others have been made. These include:

  • August 2013 – Grizzly .22 shotgun tested. It fired 14 pellets successfully before breaking.
  • September 2013 – Keprringer Pepperbox 3D printed revolver. The revolver can hold up to 5 bullets.
  • Solid Concepts’ metal 3D printed M1911 browning .45 pistol. Retailed for $11,900.
  • May 2014 – Zig Zag .30 3D printed revolver. Can fire 6 bullets before needing to reload.
3d printed metal gun solid concepts
Solid Concepts have created the most reliable 3D printed gun so far from metal using an industrial metal 3D printer.

Differences between a 3D printed gun and normal gun

There are several key differences between a 3D printed gun and the average gun. These include:

  • 3D printed guns are untraceable as they do not have a serial number tying them to a person. This makes committing crimes easier and catching shooters more difficult.
  • It is easier to 3D print a gun than machine one yourself. A lower learning curve and skill level is required to download an STL file and set it to print.
  • You can still make a 3D printed gun if you are a felon, mentally ill, or not in the USA. These are all factors that would usually bar you from owning a gun.
  • Plastic 3D printed guns don’t set off metal detectors. This means disassembled 3D printed guns could easily pass through airport and other forms of security.

3D printed guns in real life crimes history

There are three main events in which 3D printed guns have been involved. Firstly, in Australia during a raid on a meth lab, police found a loaded 3D printed gun during their search. In 2013 in Manchester, UK, police also believe they found parts of 3D printed guns that they believed this Manchester gang were assembling to use or sell. The found parts include a trigger, magazines and gunpowder.

The most notable event was a Mail on Sunday piece published on the 11th May 2013 in which they themselves 3D printed a Liberator pistol and boarded a Eurostar train with it. They 3D printed the gun on a £1,700 3D printer out of plastic filaments. Since the gun was plastic, metal detectors weren’t set off and the three men smuggled the disassembled gun by putting parts in each of their pockets. One man then reassembled the 3D printed gun in the Eurostar toilets in 30 seconds (including the metal firing pin), and captured photos of him holding the gun in public places such as in the train’s carriage. This shows how easy these guns are to get onto places where they can be used to kill many people quickly.

3d printed gun
Mail on Sunday smuggled a 3D printed gun onto a Eurostar train. Source: Mail on Sunday.

Metal 3D Printed Guns

Startups like Desktop Metal and Vader Systems have raised huge amounts of capital (Desktop Metal raising over $200M) claiming they are making metal 3D printing 10-100x faster than it used to be, whilst cutting production costs significantly. If these promises can be actualized then metal 3D printing becomes cheaper, faster, and more scalable – potentially being able to compete with traditional manufacturing.

Since 3D printed gun designs are all over the internet, you have to assume that anybody with a metal 3D printer will have the ability to print their own metal gun if they wanted to. Therefore, a serious potential problem in the future is that when metal 3D printing becomes cheap enough that most people can afford them, then in theory everyone could make their own ghost guns with ease. The cheapest good metal 3D printer is the Markforged Metal X which costs $100,000. But at cheaper than this, is it that outrageous that terror cells might be willing to purchase one to create unlimited guns?

Conclusion

Just because they aren’t killing people today, that doesn’t mean that the 3D printed gun shouldn’t be feared. The reality is that plastic 3D printed guns are unreliable, likely to break when fired, and just as dangerous to the shooter.

Metal 3D printed guns however are able to cause just as much damage as guns sold in shops in the USA. The current inaccessibility of metal 3D printing means that these guns don’t pose an immediate national security threat. But 3D printing is improving very quickly and is an exponential technology. Given how metal 3D printing companies are already claiming to offer ways to 3D print metal 100x faster than just a few years before, how long is it until metal 3D printing becomes as democratized as desktop FDM 3D printers? When that happens, and not if, these metal guns pose a serious threat to security. Guns are bad in the wrong hands, but untraceable guns in the wrong hands are worse.

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