eGuns: 3D Printing a Firearm?

When rapid prototyping and 3D printing first started to emerge, few people dreamed that one day we would be printing bones and human organs. Now a group is claiming it’s possible to print guns.

The Wiki Weapon Project is an effort by a group calling themselves Defense Distributed, and they claim to have succeeding in printing and testing a functional lower receiver for an AR-15. They’re trying to raise funds for the project, with the ultimate goal being to create a downloadable CAD file that will allow 3D printers to produce all the parts for a working gun.

There’s one problem with this: I’m pretty sure it’s BS.

People may have this idea of mythical “plastic guns” kicking around in their imaginations based on hysterical left-wing propaganda, but it’s not actually possible. It may some day be feasible, but when you get right down to it, a gun needs a metal barrel. Other parts may be plastic, but so far there is no viable consumer alternative to good old-fashioned metal barrels. Composite or ceramic barrels may be possible, and there has been some progress in this area, but the tech is way beyond the abilities of commercial 3D printers.

Even if you did have a “metal” printer, those lay down a kind of dust with a binder added to it. The finished object must then be fired at intense heat. The idea of “printing” a functional barrel that won’t blow apart with the first shot is beyond any current technology. You may be able to make a one- or two-shot throwaway, but I even have my doubts about that. They might be able to create a file that will allow a milling machine to make a barrel, but that’s not what they’re talking about. Besides, that’s industrial technology, which is not what this project is selling. They’re pitching it as something within the reach of the prosumer market.

If you want to get an idea of what’s really possible and what it takes to smith a gun, go here. It’s a lot more complex than this bit of vague balderdash would lead you to believe. The project lead talks about the need to explore the possibilities of thermoplastic. That’s idiocy. There’s no need to “explore” this at all. You can’t “print” a functional thermoplastic gun barrel. Period. He seems to acknowledge this when he says the printed weapon “only needs to fire once” and be lethal. Yeah, I’m pretty sure a “printed” thermoplastic gun barrel would be lethal … to the person firing the gun.

People who know what they’re talking about tend to go into details when they’re pitching a bold project like this and asking for donations. Most of the “Wiki Weapon” video is occupied with airy pronouncements about liberating data and fighting for freedom, followed by a request for money.

In any event, expect Democrats to introduce a law banning this in 3…2…1…


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About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.

  • victor

    Yeah, that is weird. 3D printing is only practical for prototyping one-offs or custom jobs, right? From my limited understanding, firearms (shotguns aside) really do need to be precision engineered and machined to some pretty exact tolerances — or, as you say, firing them is a danger to everyone involved — which is why they’re best left to the machine shops and factories that know what they’re doing. Designing your own firearm and then custom-printing it, even if it were possible, would be a Very Bad Idea.

  • Thomas L. McDonald

    It may be possible to do something like the little one-shot used in the movie “In the Line of Fire,” but even then I’m skeptical that it would have any stopping power.

  • victor

    Yeah and there are unfortunately plenty of other undetectable “one-use” weapons already in use today. So this is still in theory kind of like 3D printing a crescent wrench.

  • Joe

    There are indeed a number of metal additive manufacturing machines which produce fully dense metal parts with similar properties as a cast or machined material. See–15240 or and many other machine manufactures. It is also not just a prototyping technology these systems can produce production parts at a competitive cost. These machines used fine metallic powder melted with either a laser or electron beam. They do however come with a hefty price tag of £1/2m and up.

  • Thomas L. McDonald

    Yes, this is what I was talking about with the machines that lay down a kind of dust with a binding element, but those are for serious industrial use. I’d also like to know more about whether they’d ever be able to create a stable, accurate gun barrel.