3D printed guns: are they as big of a threat as governments think they are?

If you have been following the news recently, you may have noticed a battle between an American company Defense Distributed and several factions of the US government over the right to publish the blueprints for a 3D printed firearm online. The legal battle began five years ago, when the founder of Defense Distributed, Cody Wilson, displayed several 3D printed firearm parts along with a test fire of an entirely 3D printed pistol, the so called “Liberator 9mm”. When Wilson published the files online, the government rapidly moved to take them offline under international arms trafficking legislation (known as ITAR laws).

On July 10th this year, the US Department of State lost the lawsuit and Defense Distributed had no federal boundaries to publishing the files, so, on the First of August they did so. Within a few hours they had been downloaded thousands of times, and a judge in the State of Washington issued an emergency restraining order demanding the files be taken offline, which DD complied with, and continues to comply with to this day.

The Liberator pistol isn’t the only relevant weapon part in this battle. DD also designed a so called “Lower receiver” for one of the most common weapons in America, the AR-15 rifle. Under American firearms law, all other parts of the rifle are completely unregulated, and you can actually purchase all these parts off the internet, except the lower receiver, which if you purchase must be given a serial number and you must pass all the requirements for owning a firearm in your specific state, because it is the backbone of the weapon that all other parts attach to.

Under American firearms law, all other parts of the rifle are completely unregulated, and you can actually purchase all these parts off the internet, except the lower receiver, which if you purchase must be given a serial number and you must pass all the requirements for owning a firearm in your specific state, because it is the backbone of the weapon that all other parts attach to.

However due to the design of the AR-15 it is not load bearing, so a plastic substitute, if made correctly, can work properly. One person even made a wooden lower receiver once and successfully fired the weapon. For decades gun stores have sold what is colloquially known as an “80% lower” which is an unfinished metal lower receiver. Such a piece can be converted into a full lower receiver with basic machining tools and some time at home, certain companies sell stencils, jigs and drill bits to simplify the process. Because making firearms in your own home is perfectly legal under US firearm legislation (so long as you do not sell the parts commercially) you do not have to serialise the weapon. It is known as a “ghost gun” as it is untraceable through it’s serial number, however there are other traces such as rifling patterns. The Philippines is a centre of ghost-gun production, especially of certain .45 caliber pistols which are then smuggled into the US and other countries and end up in the hands of criminals.

Ghost guns have been used in four noted crimes in California. in two of them the guns were made perfectly legally at home, in one of them the perpetrator was banned from possessing guns. After being banned from releasing the blueprints for their 3D printed weapons and parts, Defense Distributed struck out as a company working on other ways of making untraceable firearms, selling 80% lowers for AR-15 rifles and multiple models of handgun, along with a $2000 cnc machine called the “ghost gunner” designed specifically to turn these 80% lower parts into fully featured lower receivers.

When the Liberator files were initially published in 2013 they were downloaded tens of thousands of times, and like everything else on the internet, it is impossible to delete all versions of them. Eventually they found safe haven on The Pirate Bay, a website most commonly known for media and software piracy, but it is also possible to find the files elsewhere, including the open source software site GitHub. Many engineers and other designers have since taken the initial Liberator idea and vastly improved it, and there is now a repository of 3D printable weaponry, including mortars, entirely printed firearms, parts for conventional firearms and even more. People have also improved on the Liberator design itself, turning it into rifles, chambering it in different rounds, redesigning the barrel for greater lethality and multiple other modifications.

However there is a critical issue with the Liberator and other fully printed firearms – they are entirely made from plastic. The Liberator uses all plastic components except for the ammunition and a small roofing nail to strike the primer on the cartridge. The springs to power the hammer, the barrel, the hammer itself is all made from plastic. The issue with this is that when the 9x19mm parabellum cartridge used by the Liberator is fired, it generates pressures in excess of 30000 psi, or 1000 times the pressure of your average car tyre. This exerts incredible stresses upon the printed parts, especially the barrel, and as a result they fail very rapidly. Testing by the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms shows that depending on the material used for the barrel, you can get between one and 10 shots out of a Liberator barrel before catastrophic failure. The obvious solution is to replace the barrel with each shot, but that is costly, and the barrels take about 10 hours each to make on a regular desktop 3D printer. The solution found by 3D printed firearm designers was to make hybrid firearms, printing as many parts as possible, but using either unregulated firearm parts, or just conventional pipe and other such items you can get from your hardware store where needed to resist damage. This has led to firearms such as the “Songbird” a single shot handgun capable of firing .22 rifle cartridges endlessly with no damage, or about 20 far more deadly .357 revolver cartridges before the frame was damaged but repairable. Or the AP-9 Shuty/Gluty, a Handgun/Carbine using a few unregulated parts for Austrian Glock pistols and some very beefy printed parts capable of semi-automatic fire, with a short break after emptying a 19 round magazine to prevent melting the mount for the barrel.

The Philippines is a centre of ghost-gun production, especially of certain .45 caliber pistols which are then smuggled into the US and other countries and end up in the hands of criminals.

The other issue which applies to all 3D printed parts (not just for firearms) is tolerances. 3D printers tend to operate on a “maximum material” policy, which leads to holes being undersized and pegs being oversized and as result it takes a lot of final finishing to make parts fit together. A properly tuned printer can minimise this issue, but it is still impossible to just click print, wait a couple hours and slot together the parts for a lethal firearm. Some printing materials are also very susceptible to ambient humidity, and if you leave your printed gun out once you’ve made it will suffer significant losses in strength and changes in dimensions. So what might work flawlessly 20 minutes after you printed it will jam or explode a month or two after.
Furthermore in countries with strict gun control laws already, such as the UK, ammunition is just as tightly controlled as the guns themselves, and whilst possessing the blueprints and printing a single part or two isn’t illegal, assembling a completed firearm is. And even once you’ve done that you have to source ammunition, which would require either obtaining a legitimate firearms license and purchasing a firearm chambered in the same caliber as the firearm you have made (which requires that that caliber isn’t illegal in your country, as many countries outlaw rounds that are used by militaries), or turning to illegal sources for the ammunition, at which point you are liable for criminal prosecution and potential jail time.

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