Can you 3D print a gun?
From the controversy surrounding near-mythic 3D printed firearms to the technical limitations of tested prototypes, this article covers everything you’ve wondered about 3D printing a gun.
3D printed guns have garnered massive international media attention since their debut in 2013 with The Liberator, which was the first well-known 3D printed firearm whose plans were widely distributed by Cody Wilson. Since then, they have continued to crop up in news headlines, and both print makers and lawmakers have been keeping an eye on this controversial trend.
There has been significant debate regarding the distribution of plans for 3D printed firearms online. Proponents believe that individuals should have the right to access the technology, regardless of the risk, while critics have aimed to limit the use and creation of 3D printed firearms by limiting the spread of plans and models to lobbying for local and national laws forbidding their manufacture and use.
In the United States, firearm legislation is already a topic of significant debate, and the introduction of a novel technology—3D printing—only complicates this issue further. How does conventional firearm legality translate to a weapon a hobbyist can develop, design, and manufacture for themselves? Can the same restrictions on firearms trade be applied to 3D model files for firearm components that do not exist yet? Is it even possible to 3D print a working firearm that fires more than a single shot? Trust us, you are not the only one wondering—that’s why we dove into this issue and covered everything you might be curious about.
3D printed guns: The basics
Do they even work?
Firearms have several complex mechanics that keeps them relatively safe for the user (when proper precautions are followed). However, 3D printed firearms are not made with conventional materials, which can complicate their function. Many people have heard about the problem of a 3D printed gun blowing up in the user’s hand—this occurs (often) due to the instability of the printed plastic when used with conventional ammunition. The explosion cannot be properly maintained in the firearm’s housing as it can in conventional weapons. When the firing pin hits the primer, the gun’s plastic casing can melt, crack, or burst from the heat and force.
Because of these issues, the safest 3D printed firearms either use special ammunition designed for use with these materials or require non-3D printed parts, which may still be licensed or assigned serial numbers to prevent the building of “ghost guns.”
A growing number of firearm parts plans have been released in 3D printed defense communities, such as Deterrence Dispensed, who hosts lower receiver, frame, and full gun plans requiring varying amounts of auxiliary metal parts.
Are they legal?
Similar to conventional firearms laws, 3D printed gun laws are strict in several countries outside the US. The distribution of 3D printable gun files and plans is illegal in Australia, Germany, Japan, and the UK, and legislators of other countries with strict gun-control laws typically consider 3D printed firearms to fall under the existing legislation despite a lack of legal clarity regarding their status.
Currently, the legal status of 3D printable firearms and plans in the US is dubious. The ongoing lawsuit focuses on Wilson himself, rather than 3D printable firearms as a whole. The existing Undetectable Firearms Act limits the legality of carrying a weapon that cannot be identified using a metal detector, but there are currently no explicit laws banning the ownership and manufacture of 3D printed guns. The legal battle over the CAD files has pushed most, but not all, hosted files underground. Many 3D printable firearm plans can be found on the deep web.
Are they untraceable?
Because there are no serial numbers on the parts used to assemble 3D printed guns and each gun is, presumably, assembled in the user’s home using their own machine, there are no explicitly traceable elements of a 3D printed firearm. However, 3D printed filaments do have traceable characteristics, which has incentivized some scientists to look more closely at the possibility of identifying 3D printer “fingerprints.”
Wenyao Xu PhD, an associate professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Buffalo, headed a study on analyzing the layer characteristics of an FDM-printed object to identify the specifications of the printer that created it. He likens the proposed PrinTracker to the technology used to source paper documents by law enforcement. Other researchers have proposed the use of mass spectrometry to analyze the polymers used to print the guns, which can help forensics experts trace the use of 3D printed firearms at crime scenes.
Sensationalist headlines and poorly informed news pundits make it difficult to keep up with the latest news on 3D printed guns. The most interesting and notable developments from the last year or so are presented below to give you an idea of what has been going on.
November 14, 2019: 3D printable gun CAD files banned (again)
Defense Distributed, an open-source hardware group that has been at the center of this issue since the beginning, was banned from distributing firearm plans for 3D printing online by a federal judge in Seattle, Washington in the US.
The online posting and distribution of firearm plans had been banned previously under the previous presidential administration soon after The Liberator’s debut in 2013. Representatives for the Obama administration reported that the sharing of these plans violated arms export laws because they could be accessed and downloaded by anyone regardless of location or legal status regarding US firearm laws. This was overturned by the overtly pro-firearm Trump administration in 2018, but federal judge Robert Lasnik overturned the reversal in 2019, upholding the original position regarding the potential dangers and legal conflict posed by the uncontrolled distribution of plans.
January 24, 2020: 20 states sued federal government over online access to 3D gun files
In 2020, a coalition of 20 states and the District of Columbia, led by the state of Washington, sued the US federal government for allowing the distribution of firearm plans online. The suit was filed on January 24 in Seattle, Washington.
This was the second time Washington headed an effort to limit the availability of 3D printed firearm plans. In 2018, a temporary restraining order was established to stop Defense Distributed from releasing their 3D printable firearm files.
Those supporting the 2020 lawsuit have expressed concerned that the unregulated distribution of 3D printable firearm plans and files will allow people to print and use untraceable guns, citing the danger with the notable gun violence faced in the US each year. Critics of the suit believe that free and unfettered access to the firearms plans that can be printed and constructed at home is connected to their second amendment rights, which reflects the ongoing gun control and access debates that have characterized the last several years of United States politics.
March 31, 2020: Defcad hosts premium 3D gun CAD files
Cody Wilson, the founder of Defense Distributed, aimed to address the legal trouble of the past few years by establishing an approval system that allowed verified US residents with the legal right to gun ownership (currently only in New Jersey) to purchase 3D printable firearm plans and files online. His repository, Defcad, aims to provide small arms technical data to US consumers within a (dubiously) legal framework.
Defcad users pay $50 per year to access the plans and can upload their own files as well. Defcad is certainly under scrutiny, but no other legal attempts at shutting down this site or Wilson’s operations seem to have been made yet.
So, can you make a 3D printed gun?
By 2020, most countries have banned the manufacture, ownership, and/or file distribution for 3D printable firearms. If you live in a country with legal grey area, you may be able to print your own firearm, but it is likely to be treated the same as an unregistered firearm and be subject to acquisition by law enforcement. DIY guns are highly unsafe for the uninitiated gun hobbyist as well, so we strongly discourage people who have not had extensive firearm training and education from trying to assemble a working 3D printed firearm.
Australia has notoriously strict gun legislation, which has prompted many people to turn to 3D printed firearms to skirt the law. This has led to significant legal trouble in the country, causing the government to amend its existing firearm ruling to include this new technology.
New South Wales passed a law that considers the possession of 3D gun files to be equivalent to the possession of a 3D printed gun. In 2015, the county amended its firearms act to include “A person must not possess a digital blueprint for the manufacture of a firearm on a 3D printer or on an electronic milling machine… [or face a] maximum penalty: imprisonment for 14 years.”
China has implemented careful safety measures to prevent the manufacture of 3D printed guns and other weapons from surfacing. In some provinces, companies with 3D printers over a certain capacity are required to register with the local authorities.
File download information for The Liberator indicates that, despite the gun-toting American trope, most users interested in making their own firearms are located in Europe.
A shooting at a synagogue in Halle, Germany by a neo-Nazi prompted swift action by the German government regarding 3D printed firearms in the wake of growing extremism. The UK has been specifically concerned with growing interest in 3D printable guns, and in 2013, the UK Home Office implemented regulations on 3D printed guns or parts, making it illegal to create, buy, or sell them in Great Britain.
After plans for The Liberator were distributed, Yoshitomo Imura designed his own firearm. He printed a six-shot revolver known as the ZigZag. He was sentenced for manufacturing a weapon, and his arrest has been considered a warning regarding the manufacturing of 3D printed guns.
Singapore has notoriously strict gun laws, banning the manufacture, use, and distribution of arms and arms parts. “Arms” is quite broad, including any gun (even a non-lethal air gun) that can be modified to launch a projectile that can harm or kill someone. In 2015, the government of Singapore clarified that existing gun laws include 3D printed guns.
As we noted earlier, the legality of 3D printed guns and the required CAD files remains murky in the US. Some states have issued 3D firearm–specific legislation despite the lack of federal control on 3D printed guns.
In California, for example, 3D printed guns must be approved and registered to be considered legal. Other states, like Vermont, have fairly lax gun laws that do not explicitly account for 3D printed firearms, but many of these states have joined in the suit urging the administration to assess and regulate these guns and files at the federal level.
Gun rights advocates are networking
Many people who support open access to 3D printed firearms in the US have begun establishing decentralized networks to share 3D printable firearm files, information, photos, and plans. Using anonymization protocols to keep their identities (and computer information) secret, users are operating in the legal grey area with an added layer of protection against law enforcement. Owing to the nature of these groups, law enforcement’s attempts to identify points of distribution or owners of firearms shown in photos have been generally futile.
The ability to print a gun is one thing, but SHOULD you is a better question. The 2nd amendment gives citizens the right to bear arms. It is to give every citizen the means and ability to defend themselves should the need arise. It is a right and a privilege to be able to defend one’s family and loved ones. This was put in by the forefathers as a protection for citizens to defend themselves and rise against a tyrannical government, something the U.S. fought for against England. It’s understandable that people would be scared that firearms would be so easily accessed if not regulated by an entity. This means that just anyone with a 3d printer can craft a gun, go out and start shooting. But is that really the case? Is it possible, yes. Is it likely, no. People with 3d printers aren’t going around printing guns and shooting people. 3d printers are being used for a broad spectrum of things far outside of just personal protection.
We’re still quite a ways away from being able to fully 3d print something similar to an AR-15 or a fully functional SMG. There are too many parts that just simply cannot be 3d printed. Also, the plastic from 3d printing isn’t strong enough to withstand the heat and impact from the recoil. Firearms are made with metal for a reason.
So Should you 3d print a gun? Well that’s entirely up to you. You don’t have to if you don’t believe in it, but it’s also not nice to ridicule people who do believe in it. Knowing that you can craft your own personal protection if you need to is a comforting and safe feeling. I should caution though, you should have a professional train you in weapons handling and safety before 3d printing any sort of weapon.
Can you 3d print a gun? Yes. Should you 3d print a gun? That’s entirely up to you.