3D printing is a fantastic technological innovation. Toys, shoes, eyewear, jewelry, aircraft parts are just some of the things they are capable of printing. Heck, they can even make chocolates and cakes.
But few people know that these printers can also print guns. No, not the toy ones, but the dangerous kind.
The topic of 3D printing guns evokes mixed emotions among people. While some vehemently oppose them, others champion the idea.
What are 3D printed guns?
These guns are often 3D printed with thermoplastics like ABS or PLA. Metal guns can also be printed using Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMSL) Method.
Some guns require additional parts to be purchased to make a fully functioning gun. Others can be fully printed from A-Z (except for the metal firing pin and bullets).
Different 3D printed gun parts include: grips, ammo boxes, lowers, magazine holders, triggers, grips, receivers.
History of 3D Printed Gun Parts
3D gun printing has had a turbulent history. People constantly debate whether 3D gun printing should be allowed or not, and a solid conclusion hasn’t been drawn yet.
The story began in 2013 with Cody Wilson. He was the founder of an open-source gunsmith organization called Defense Distributed and the Liberator was the first 3D-printed gun he designed.
What was surprising was the overwhelming desire for such a gun. People across the globe downloaded the design file 100,000 times in two days.
The US Department of State didn’t let this slide and forced Cody Wilson to remove his model from the internet.
The incident spawned a legal battle that lasted five years. Finally, in 2018, things turned in favor of gun advocates when the Trump administration legalized 3D-printed guns. Defense Distributed was back in business.
During the same time, Cody was charged with sexually assaulting a minor, and was forced to step down from the organization.
The tides once again turned late 2018 when a federal Seattle judge ruled 3D printed guns illegal once again. He ordered Defense Distributed to stop sharing gun blueprints.
Many weren’t pleased with this move which prompted Deterrence Dispensed, a new organization, to come up. Compared to Defense Distributed, this organization was decentralized, making it easier for them to avoid a lawsuit.
Deterrence Dispensed strove to give the public full access to their files. They often cite the Second Amendment in their arguments, propping it as the reason for the founding of their organization.
More recently, 20 states and the District of Columbia united to file a lawsuit against the federal government for allowing the files to be circulated publicly on the internet.
Three Categories of 3D Printed Guns (Anatomy of 3D Printed Gun Parts)
3D Printed Receivers/frames/parts kit completion builds
Printed guns with only a few 3D printed components come under this category. The majority of parts are purchased separately. After components are purchased and printed, they need to be assembled.
These guns last a long time. They have the capability of firing 1000s of bullets before breaking down.
3D printed hybrid firearms
3D printed hybrid firearms are mostly made of plastic printed components compared to the previous category. Other components are purchased separately.
If you look from the outside, these look fully plastic. However, they have many metallic parts in the interior.
Screws, springs, hydraulic tubing are just some of the parts 3D printed. Other components can be gleaned from commercial guns.
Fully printed firearms
Fifteen of the sixteen parts of the Liberator were made with ABS (a thermoplastic), and just one part was made of metal – the firing pin.
In an ideal scenario, The Liberator lasts a single shot. But in the worst case, they shatter in your hand upon pulling the trigger, according to several reports of unfortunate users.
PLA is another plastic used to make 3D printed guns. It’s more economical and safer than ABS.
Fully 3D printed plastic guns look unique. They usually have a lifespan of anywhere between 1-30 rounds, after which they stop working.
Metal guns can also be made, but they’ll cost you an arm or leg (possibly your brain and kidneys as well). The Solid Concepts 1911 is a fully printed metal gun using DMSL. It’s the 3D printed version of the M1911 pistol.
The first iteration of the gun was made of 34 3D printed stainless steel components.
Having the ability to print a 3D printed metal gun sounds fantastic right? Well, if you had $500,000 to $1,000,000 in your bank or back pocket, you could own these printers.
Unlike plastic guns, Solid Concepts 1911 can fire around 600 rounds without any damage to the gun.
Process behind 3D Printed Guns
Building a 3D printed gun is more than just downloading a blueprint and pushing ‘print’.
Firstly, you need to design the models with precision. You also need to print each and every component of the gun separately, all the while making sure the parts turn out very accurate.
You then have to assemble these parts carefully to get a fully working gun. The whole process is difficult and time-consuming.
We mentioned two types of plastics used in 3D gun printing – ABS and PLA. ABS is harder than PLA, but it can crack or break easily due to its brittle nature. PLA on the other hand tends to deform more than crack.
Risks associated with 3D printed guns
There’s a reason why many countries oppose 3D printed guns. These guns lack an identification code like normal guns do, so tracing them becomes an issue. Without serial numbers, it is hard for law enforcement agencies to do their job.
Anyone can print these guns, even grandma in her basement. While I doubt grandma would pose a big threat, her criminally inclined grandson could.
These guns also cannot be detected in airport or railway baggage scanners. To test this, two reporters from the Mail on Sunday boldly boarded a Eurostar heading from London to Paris with disassembled gun pieces. They reassembled these pieces in the washroom. And they weren’t caught.
There’s a small caveat though, these reporters didn’t carry the metal firing pin or bullet. So the verdict is still out there if these guns pose a threat to airport security.
Where are we now? Different Laws For 3D Printed Guns Parts in Various Countries
Different countries have different gun laws. We’ll look at each one of them.
Briefly hinted at before, there’s been a lot of back and forth on the issue of 3D printing guns.
Many states in the US do not condone them. But other’s that haven’t given the issue much of a thought.
Californian law states that people owning 3D printed guns must get them approved and registered.
20 states are currently suing the federal government over the Trump administration’s decision to allow gun blueprints to be circulated online. The issue has yet to be settled by the Biden government.
So you can still print these guns legally in many states. Just make sure the particular state you live in allows for it.
To possess a firearm in Australia, you need to have a license. However, many states don’t have laws against possessing 3D printed weapons. The exception is New South Wales.
The NSW government passed a law prohibiting individuals to own digital blueprints of 3D printed guns. If anyone is caught, they face a maximum of 14 years in prison.
When the blueprints for the Liberator were first released, people from all over the world downloaded them.
Take a guess which country downloaded the prints the most. No, it wasn’t the United States. It was Spain.
The other European country with a high number of downloads was the United Kingdom.
In the UK, laws as early as 2013 have been passed making it illegal to create, buy, or sell 3D printed guns.
Middle East and Asia
If you do plan to 3D print a gun, I sincerely hope you don’t live in Singapore. Possession of a gun is punishable by death. Additionally, owning 3D gun blueprints is considered a violation.
Japan has strict gun laws as well, which a gentleman named Yoshitomo Imura bore the brunt of. He was found in possession of 3D printed firearms which got him two years in prison. Yoshima later insisted he didn’t know these guns were illegal – he just downloaded the blueprints off the internet.
Debate and Controversy
Of course, 3D printed guns were bound to be controversial.
The main fear about them was their untraceability. On top of that, 3D printed gun owners aren’t subjected to the background checks that regular gun owners go through. This leaves the field wide open for mentally ill, psychotic or underage people to misuse these guns.
On the other side of the debate aisle, gun enthusiasts pooh-pooh the fuss, stating that regular guns are more dangerous than 3D printed ones. They claim that the latter is highly unreliable compared to the former. This is true as some 3D printed guns tend to blast in users’ hands, deform, or wear down quickly.
How to create 3D printed gun parts at home
This is a tricky topic, so I’d like to give a WARNING. Do this at your own risk. As stated multiple times in the article, these guns aren’t the most durable or stable. So if you do plan to be a daredevil, I’d suggest you take maximum caution.
Purchase the right filaments. The best filament types to print these guns are PLA, ABS, and PETG.
The cheapest option is PLA as it is safe and easy to print. The plastic is durable, but repeated firing in a short amount of time causes it to overheat and deform. So make sure you don’t overfire and allow time for sufficient cooling.
ABS, while stronger than PLA, is also brittle and can crack easily. They are also quite difficult to 3D print due to warping. But they can withstand higher temperatures than PLA.
PETG is comparable to ABS. Some types of PETG are more flexible or brittle than ABS whereas others are less.
It’s best to stick to PLA and ABS for best results.
You have two options – either make your own designs or download them from a site.
If you’re the ‘I hate designing, just give me the designs already’ kinda person, you can download designs from websites like GrabCad, Free3D, Cults3D, CGTrader. Later in the article, I’ll point to more sites where you can download blueprints.
Use a 3D printer that can get you a high level of print accuracy. A few budget 3D printers are the Creality Ender 3 Pro V2 (which has a big community of people who do just this) and the Anycubic Mega S. If you have a bit more cash I suggest the Artillery Sidewinder X1 V4 or the Qidi Tech-X Plus.
Slice the chosen design using a slicer software such as Cura which is free to download here.
Print the file.
Assemble the printed parts. Make sure all parts fit correctly, and there are no loose ends. If there are any issues, print the files again to be on the safe side.
Is it legal to 3D print a gun?
Unfortunately or fortunately, depending on which side of the gun debate you believe in, 3D printing is illegal in most countries.
In the US, it’s not (yet) illegal to own a 3D printed firearm for personal use. Just make sure you don’t sell your guns to other people. And there’s a caveat: not all states allow you to make guns by yourself. California, New York are some of those states.
Check the laws in your state/country before putting yourself at risk.
Do they work? Can a 3D printing gun kill?
The Liberator was a hit-and-miss kind of gun. It could only fire one bullet. Not only that, it required you to be in close range to cause any significant damage. The gun was a glorified and slightly deadly toy gun.
That is why many people shifted from 3D printing to CNC milling; the latter produced more effective weapons. CNC milling of guns involved milling unfinished lower receivers and mixing them with other 3D printed parts to make fully working guns.
Fully plastic guns like the Songbird can shoot repeatedly. If you want the gun to last longer, lining the gun’s barrel with metal makes them more effective.
Adamant about only 3D printing your gun? Then make hybrid guns that have a mix of both plastic and metal parts. These tend to be the most stable. Even so, treat 3D printing of guns and their parts as a hobby, as you never know when the whole thing might blow up in your face. Literally.
Are they untraceable?
Mostly. 3D printed guns were untraceable in the beginning. Lack of serial numbers aided in this. Individuals couldn’t be traced because they weren’t background checked.
However, researchers at the University of Buffalo, Rutgers University, and North-eastern University developed methods to trace a 3D printed object back to the original printer.
3D printers, while creating different layers, create small submillimetre wrinkles called in-fill patterns. Depending on the model of printer, filament, nozzle used, and other factors, these patterns vary. Think of in-fill patterns like fingerprints; they’re all unique. Hence you can trace the original printer of any 3D printed part .
Where to find 3D printed gun models and blueprints?
This link has a bunch of 3D printed gun files. If you’re eager for more, here’s another cool GitHub link with different 3D printed gun blueprints for gun-related items. And if you hate downloading files one by one, you can download all files in one go here.
People who advocate for hardcore gun control strawman 3D printing guns to be the next nuclear threat to civilization. On the other hand, gun lobbyists push for the uncontrolled spread of firearm blueprints to anyone and everyone. And that’s not a great option either.
It’s unlikely that an actual mass murderer will wave around his Liberator and gun people down; the gun would likely blow up in his hand. On the other hand, hybrid 3D printed guns do pose a level of threat, so regulations might have to be put in place.
But let’s be real, there’s plenty of custom gun makers who make regular guns, and no killer worth his salt would use a 3D printed gun. So as of now, these guns don’t threaten to shake society, but as technologies advance, things could change. Proceed at your own risk.