By Sam Hoober, Alien Gear Holsters
3D printed guns have been all over the news in the past few years, especially those involving plans devised and posted to the web by Cody Wilson. Wilson’s plastic 3D printed pistol plans have been enjoined by federal court order at the moment, resulting in his website – defcad.com – having all content removed.
3D printed guns are a sticky wicket.
On the one hand, preventing or at least making it real hard for felons and otherwise violent criminals, spousal abusers, drug addicts and the mentally ill to get their hands on a gun is a no-brainer. Granted, many of them get their hands on guns anyway but the idea still stands. Such people shouldn’t have guns, and everyone knows it.
Ostensibly, being able to 3D print a firearm makes it easier for some of them to obtain one. They can just print their own “ghost guns” and don’t even have to bother with typical channels of getting a firearm. Cause for alarm, right?
Well, maybe not as much as you’d think.
CNN and the New York Times probably won’t get into the finer points, partially because they need to conserve space but also because circumspection makes sensationalizing things difficult.
First, about 3D printing, aka rapid prototyping or additive manufacturing. The quick version of how it works is you upload plans (a computer-aided drafting/computer-aided design or CAD file) into the machine. The machine “prints” the object by stacking tiny bits of a filament feed stock onto each other until it forms a solid object.
Sounds pretty straightforward, but that’s not the whole story.
Most 3D printers only work with plastic feedstock. Some work with wood filler and metal – some even work with chocolate! – but the garden variety machine uses plastic. Now, the thing about plastics is that some are very strong (Glocks and other guns are made with a polymer, usually glass-filled nylon) but most 3D printers don’t or can’t work with a polymer that’s strong enough to tolerate the mechanical stresses involved in firearms.
Even stuff made by professional-quality rapid prototyping machines breaks easily. The industrial/professional-grade machines cost a lot of money (decent used car money in most cases; BMW money in others) and still turn out a flimsy product.
The sort of desktop models that let hobbyists print toy forks for their kids? Let’s hold those horses for now.
What about people who want to print lowers out of metal?
Well, the machines capable of doing so are significantly more expensive than printers that use plastic stock exclusively. Not “late model Toyota” expensive; “new Lamborghini” is more like it. Then you need the know-how to put the gun together and then diagnose any issues with function or fitment.
Wilsons’s other company – Ghost Gunner – will actually sell you alloy 3D printed lowers or, if you want to put down a $250 deposit ahead of a $2,000 final purchase, an actual CNC machine capable of making your own when the design is finished. You still need additional tooling (jigs, mills and drill bits capable of the work) and the CAD files, but they have those too. You would be able to mill your own 80 percent lowers for AR-15 or AR-10 rifles, or – for those with great taste – 1911 pistols.
So far, Defense Distributed produced plans for an AR-pattern lower receiver and a plastic pistol called The Liberator, in reference/homage to the cheapo pistol dropped to resistance forces behind the lines by the Allies in World War II. People have been losing their minds.
Thing about their Liberator is that it is large, bulky and a single-shot pistol. Concealment will be difficult. Wilson prints his guns using a professional quality printer; the typical civilian who owns one has a model of lesser quality. That means people could print guns, but they’d only be good for one at a time and are liable to break in the process.
So, what’s the point here?
The point here is that making a firearm with the same kind of function as a factory gun with a 3D printer isn’t necessarily difficult in theory. However, there are some significant barriers. The first is economical (costs a lot) the second is logistical (you need the right materials) and the last is practical, namely the technical knowledge in building and fitting firearms as well as diagnosing malfunctions.
Now, keeping guns away from violent criminals and so forth is obviously a good idea. Should we worry about 3D printed guns in their hands just yet? On paper, it’s potentially a problem. In the real world? It’s likely not time to gnash teeth or rend garments just yet.
Sam Hoober is Contributing Editor for AlienGearHolsters.com, a subsidiary of Hayden, ID, based Tedder Industries, where he writes about gun accessories, gun safety, open and concealed carry tips. Click here to visit aliengearholsters.com.