Cody Wilson claims to be doing something revolutionary. And television news reporters, who have one, maybe a couple of days to try to understand the complexity of 3D printing technology, of course have fallen for his pitch. (3D printing sounds simple, but experienced users will tell you it’s not load and click simple.) The results are stories that news media love, a new issue they can use to get your attention because it causes fear and panic in the average person.
This story is how you can 3D print a gun and it will be untraceable.
After all the hype goes away, it will be realized that Wilson isn’t doing anything all that revolutionary, and that, today, a fully 3D printed gun is not a useful weapon.
Some who have been asked to opine on this subject claim a $300 3D printer will print a fully usable gun. Wrong! Those printers will not deliver the tolerances and fit-part accuracies to actually project a bullet through a firing chamber. A gun from such a printer will fall, or be blown apart in your hands. The plastic layers will not bind together sufficiently to hold up to any kind of sustained use.
And Wilson is not using just 3D printers to make the guns. He’s also using mini-mills and other desktop machining equipment to machine the metal parts of his AR 15 style gun. So, what he’s done is taken some weight out of a gun, which may or may not improve its operation. He’s shown you can use materials other than wood or metal for some parts of a gun. The rest of the gun is made like any other gun, with machines. And, by the way, it’s legal to make your own gun in the U.S. In the U.S., there are about 300,000,000 guns, most not made by individuals but by companies.
As of today, you cannot 3D print a gun that’s fully operational. As I mentioned earlier, plastic is not a good material to use for certain parts of a functional weapon. Nearly all 3D-printed plastic guns, that are only plastic, so far have fired one or two shots before falling or blasting apart, and in many cases injuring the shooter.
Here’s just one reason why: typically, the gun barrel and firing chamber must withstand momentary impulses of pressure of more than 50,000 lb psi. Bits of plastic extruded in your desktop 3D printer in your garage are going to be pretty much useless under those pressures. As of today, you would need to spend roughly $10,000+ on a better-quality 3D printer.
And there’s the question of the bullets — will you print plastic ones for your plastic gun, or will you buy real bullets? Real bullets will most likely not work in a plastic 3D printed gun. The attempt will destroy the gun. What the reporters won’t mention is how much engineering, physics, and math go into the design of propelling a small projectile at high speed to accurately hit a target. It’s not simple to design a gun.
Much of the fear about 3D printing and guns revolves around airplanes. The pitch is that plastic is not easily detectable. Except that it is and TSA has been checking for plastic explosives for several years now. With a 3D printed gun, first it would have to be disassembled and placed in on-board luggage, because a fully assembled gun would be a big tipoff to security. TSA already looks for assembled and disassembled real guns. TSA will likely catch it.
Let’s move on to 3D printing a metal gun, which will at least be a bit more stable. But it will cost. There are metal desktop 3D printers with prices ranging from $8,000 to $20,000, minimum. Then you must add in the cost of metal powder, the environmental protections to use the metal powder safely (most of which is highly combustible when exposed to oxygen) and so on. According to gun fans, it’s a whole lot cheaper (and easier) to buy a gun.
There are arguments that attempting to 3D print a gun is an excellent exercise in technical exploration, and that these efforts will eventually improve the technology in some way. Fair enough.
Those who understand 3D printing and additive manufacturing, though, are not really concerned about 3D printing guns, other than how it might tarnish the image of 3D printing.
Critical thinking is needed here. Now that the media have raised this to alarm levels, politicians and others will find ways to regulate “3D printed guns.” Wilson claims he wants anyone to have the freedom to build their own gun and that 3D printing now makes this possible. U.S. citizens have always had the right to build their own gun; all that is needed is the tools and the skills to do so. 3D printing has not removed the need for skills. And most inexpensive 3D printers are really not the right tools, despite Wilson’s assertions.
There will come a time when you can affordably build a complete 3D printed gun. Now is the time to explore policies and ways to prepare for that day.
As a side note, we’ve covered this issue before when Wilson was making claims five years ago.