There are two primary types of articles about 3D printed guns these days: frenzied warnings of impending doom from anti-Second Amendment partisans, and informational “look at the neat new technology” pieces in a variety of media. Unfortunately, most get the facts–and the short-term implications–almost entirely wrong. In most ways, 3D printing as it relates to firearms, is in its infancy, and that infant is particularly dangerous.
Among the problems with the technology are:
1) Size. In order to print an entire handgun or particularly, a rifle, very large, and very expensive, printers are required.
2) Materials. Modern firearms are made of a variety of materials, but many of the essential parts must be made of steel or similarly robust metals. Some must be tempered and/or hardened to varying degrees.
(3) Robustness. Many of the “guns” being printed now are not, in fact, complete firearms, and require manufactured metal parts to work at all. Most will hold together for only a few rounds–if that–before self-destructing. There exists, for the foreseeable future, no technology that will produce a complete firearm capable of long-term safety and service.
This doesn’t mean that 3D technology will never produce a complete and truly safe and useful firearm, but that’s not going to be tomorrow.
A case in point is available on Live Leak, and is billed as “3D printed semi-automatic pistol (Ruger Charger) test fire.”
The brief video doesn’t go into much detail, but it’s quickly apparent that the “semi-automatic pistol” is nothing more than the receiver of the ubiquitous Ruger 10-22 rifle, or in this case, the 10-22 based Charger, which was manufactured only from roughly 1998 to 2007. This is likely the case because the charger was a product in search of a market. There is simply little consumer demand for a long barreled .22LR semi-automatic pistol designed for optics and sporting a bipod. Ruger still has a webpage devoted to the Charger, but there are no models available.
Apparently, the printer used to make the receiver was very much size limited and it had to be made in two pieces–note the seam in the photo below–and bonded with “Crazy glue,” as the video notes. No doubt the very design of the Ruger stock and an optic clamped to the accessory rail would help to keep the receiver together, but surely the stress of firing, and the cycling bolt, would eventually–and sooner rather than later–break the Crazy Glue bond, potentially with dangerous consequences. The prototype is apparently able to fire 10 rounds, but that is all that is portrayed in the short video clip.
This particular 3D gun exists at all because every part but the colorful fluorescent green receiver was purchased on the retail market, including the barrel, the stock, the trigger group, the magazine and all related pins and screws. Complete Ruger 10-22 receivers are also widely and cheaply available.
Then what’s the point? This is obviously not a solution to any of the drawbacks I’ve previously mentioned. This text from the video suggests an answer:
“You may not condone the activity, but the fact remains that we are now living in a time when deadly weapons can be printed with the push of a button. The notion that any item so easily created could be eradicated from the Earth is pure fantasy. The capacity to defend my family is a fundamental human right. If you take my gun, I will simply print another one.”
Is this “gun” an answer to a government trying to disarm everyone? Not unless all of the related parts are also banned and unavailable, and again, it lacks the long-term reliability necessary to be a truly useful firearm. Such a gun would only be a short-range expedient that would theoretically allow one to seize a more effective firearm, but even that, given the limitations of the design, would be more than usually dangerous.
Another 3D gun that has received substantial press is the “Liberator,” which was named for the FP-45 Liberator of WWII. The Liberator was a crude, stamped metal .45 ACP pistol without a rifled barrel. It cost $2.40 to manufacture, and was intended to be used by insurgents against the Nazis in Europe. It was supplied with ten rounds of ammunition, a wooden dowel to push fired brass out of the chamber, and a comic strip-like set of instructions. Records suggest that it was little used or issued, and there is no record of it being used in hostilities. The WWII Liberator was also intended to allow the capture of more effective firearms, but it actually worked, and would not blow up in the shooter’s hand, though it too was not designed to be a long-term firearm and would likely have been unpleasant to fire, to say the least.
The contemporary, 3-D printed namesake of the WWII gun is also called the Liberator, but as the photo below illustrates, it is very different in execution and size. Forbes wrote about the first test of the modern reincarnation of a gun that made no difference in WWII:
Before ‘three’ arrives, a shot reverberates across the overcast central Texas landscape. A tall, sandy blond engineer named John has just pulled a twenty-foot length of yellow string tied to a trigger, which has successfully fired the world’s first entirely 3D-printed gun for the very first time, rocketing a .380 caliber bullet into a berm of dirt and prairie brush.
‘F*****’ A!’ yells John, who has asked me not to publish his full name. He hurries over to examine the firearm bolted to an aluminum frame. But the first to get there is Cody Wilson, a square-jawed and stubbled 25 year-old in a polo shirt and baseball cap. John may have pulled the trigger, but the gun is Wilson’s brainchild. He’s spent more than a year dreaming of its creation, and dubbed it ‘the Liberator’ in an homage to the cheap, one-shot pistols designed to be air-dropped by the Allies over France during its Nazi occupation in World War II.
Unlike the original, steel Liberator, though, Wilson’s weapon is almost entirely plastic: Fifteen of its 16 pieces have been created inside an $8,000 second-hand Stratasys Dimension SST 3D printer, a machine that lays down threads of melted polymer that add up to precisely-shaped solid objects just as easily as a traditional printer lays ink on a page. The only non-printed piece is a common hardware store nail used as its firing pin.
Wilson crouches over the gun and pulls out the barrel, which was printed over the course of four hours earlier the same morning. Despite the explosion that just occurred inside of it, both the barrel and the body of the gun seem entirely unscathed.”
Unfortunately, the relative success of firing a single, low-powered cartridge was short-lived. The laws of physics, it seems, cannot be ignored:
“The printed gun seems limited, for now, to certain calibers of ammunition. After the handgun round, Wilson switched out the Liberator’s barrel for a higher-charge 5.7×28 rifle cartridge. He and John retreated to a safe distance, and John pulled his yellow string again. This time the gun exploded, sending shards of white ABS plastic flying into the weeds and bringing the Liberator’s first field trial to an abrupt end.”
As one might expect, all of the usual anti-gun alarmists weighed in with hysterical rhetoric and policy prescriptions:
“By Friday at noon, photographs of the world’s first 3D-printed gun published on this site set off a new round of controversy in a story that has shoved one of the most hyped trends in technology into one of the most contentious crossfires in American politics. New York Congressman Steve Israel responded to Defense Distributed’s work by renewing his call for a revamp of the Undetectable Firearms Act, which bans any firearm that doesn’t set off a metal detector. ‘Security checkpoints, background checks, and gun regulations will do little good if criminals can print plastic firearms at home and bring those firearms through metal detectors with no one the wiser,’ read a statement sent to me and other reporters.
Update: On Sunday, New York Senator Charles Schumer echoed Israel’s call for that new legislation to ban 3D-printable guns. ‘A terrorist, someone who’s mentally ill, a spousal abuser, a felon can essentially open a gun factory in their garage,’ Schumer said in a press conference.”
Israel and Schumer are premature, and as usual, uninformed. Any firearm will require a hardened metal firing pin, at the least. And there is no such thing as a plastic gun that can’t be seen on airport X-ray machines. A Glock, which was demonized as such a magical gun when it was first introduced to the US market, looks precisely like what it is on X-ray machine display screens. Plastic is not invisible to these machines.
Computerworld has a more technically accurate view of the Liberator, and the state of 3-D firearm technology:
“A video released by the BBC showed in every case the 3D-printed guns broke or exploded under the chamber force of a bullet being fired. Pieces of the plastic gun were strewn around the firing range — even embedded in the ceiling.
The university conducted its test in collaboration with West Midlands Police’s National Ballistics Intelligence Service (NABIS).
Simon Leigh, a professor with the University of Warwick’s School of Engineering, printed and tested the gun based on downloaded CAD drawings of the Liberator gun, which was independently developed in the U.S. by Defense Distributed.
Speaking to the British newspaper The Independent, Leigh said the test results on the guns ‘ranged from small failure to complete catastrophic failure.’
NABIS Detective Chief Superintendent Iain O’Brien said there’s a ‘curiosity factor with 3D printers and those interested in playing around with the technology may not realize the danger they are facing.’
‘We need to make people aware that producing a firearm in this way is illegal and could cause serious injury to the person holding the gun,’ O’Brien said in a statement issued by the University of Warwick.”
The current state of technology is such that 3D firearms are little more than zip guns, crude guns that fire a single, low powered cartridge at very close ranges with poor accuracy and with significant inherent risk to the shooter. While the technology will doubtless improve with time, there is little reason to imagine that it will produce truly safe, complete, useful and lasting firearms in the near future.
Mike’s Home blog is Stately McDaniel Manor.