“3D ‘Wiki Weapon’ guns could go into testing by end of year, maker claims.” Thus blares the headline of an article in The Guardian by Alexander Hotz. The subheadline: “The man behind a project to create the world’s first printable gun plans to test its first prototypes in the coming months.”
I can just imagine the heads of antigun types exploding at the thought. The article maintains the hyped tone while carefully avoiding the science underlying—or more accurately—not underlying it.
Apparently after word of the project leaked out, a company that was providing a 3D printer took it back. Now, one Cody Wilson, the man behind the plan, is waiting for BATFE approval in the form of a license to manufacture firearms. The article essentially begins with this teaser:
Prototypes of what would be the world’s first fully 3D-printable plastic weapon could go into testing before the end of the year, the organization behind the controversial project has claimed.
But thereafter, about 95% of the article focuses entirely on the business details involved rather than anything about the supposed technology, which it leaves to the imagination of readers. The most deeply the article delves into technology is:
Once Defense Distributed receives it’s federal firearms license, Wilson plans to start manufacturing prototypes immediately, working from four or five blueprints that were submitted to the group from independent designers.
That’s barely deep enough to wet the bottom half of a sheet of paper. What’s the reality of this sort of project? Hype or hope?
Three-dimensional printers are relatively new technology. Lacking Star Trek “Replicator” technology, they are limited by several factors, two being of greatest importance in this instance: size and materials.
Generally speaking the process works by creating layer upon layer of materials in the 100 micrometere range until the piece is completed. Various types of materials, including some metals, can be fashioned in this way, but of course, making complex parts of metal is very expensive and requires the incorporation of intense heat in the form of laser energy. The size of a finished piece, is, of course, limited by the size of the printer itself. Even relatively simple work on pieces such as small sculptures with no moving parts currently takes a great deal of time. In addition, such printers can currently work with only a single medium at once.
There is little doubt that a properly configured 3D printer could turn out a weapon that looked functional, but highly doubtful one could turn out a weapon that was truly functional. It is also highly likely that such technology would not be even remotely cost effective for production in any quantity.
Modern firearms are complex mechanisms that must be carefully engineered, particularly in parts like the barrel/breach assembly, the bolt, the gas system, and a variety of other small parts, many of which require specialized heat treatments to attain the requisite levels of hardness or flexibility. While 3D printers can reproduce things to tolerances in the 15 micrometere range, hardness and strength are far more important. Firearm parts not only have to survive great stresses, they have to last.
It is one thing to create a resin replica of a small sculpture with no moving parts, but quite another to create a handgun made of multiple materials with multiple interlocking and moving parts, parts that must interface flawlessly, time after time, round after round, for years under all manner of weather conditions. The kind of testing necessary to be certain a single important firearm part like a barrel/breach would not only hold together upon firing, but would produce the proper accuracy and longevity would be a lengthy and daunting project in and of itself. Understanding that the same quality and type of steel is not necessary in most other parts of the firearm, helps to point out the inherent flaws in this particular scheme.
While I could be mistaken, the technology simply does not exist to produce a complete, safe and functional firearm in one production run of a 3D printer. One cannot load the materials, pull up the design software, press the start button, and four hours later, pick up a completed Glock 26 that will eject its newly formed magazine, allow its slide to be cycled, and which, charged with ammunition, will fire as many rounds as the shooter chooses as quickly and accurately as they prefer. The cutout view of a Glock 22 above illustrates at least some of the involved difficulties.
Current mass production technology makes such weapons far faster, much more cheaply, and to a much higher degree of safety, functionality and reliability. This is particularly true where large numbers of weapons are being produced. However, this is precisely where antigun alarmism will be likely to take off.
Couldn’t the technology be used by criminals or terrorists to produce undetectable, “plastic” guns? Making things of cheap materials such as various plastics is one thing, making far more complex mechanisms that must, of necessity, stand extreme heat and pressures is quite another. Such fabrication would require very expensive and precise machines, and expensive and specialized metal alloys. Even if the technology existed to produce such weapons of a piece rather than the many component parts of a completed firearm, there would be no point in using it, as firearms are cheap and plentiful. What would be the point in smuggling a complex and expensive 3D printer, computer and all the supporting materials to produce a handgun or even a rifle many times cheaper, smaller and lighter than the machines and materials necessary to make them? When one considers the sheer amount of time required—and the fact that ammunition would still have to be purchased, not fabricated–it would make even less sense. And without federal licensure, making any firearm–and many specific parts–is a federal felony.
Place this one in the “plastic gun undetectable by airport X-ray machines” and “cop-killer bullet” categories. There is no such thing, and it’s unlikely there ever will be, certainly not in the practical sense the article and such technology implies.