The 3D printed gun is something that has crossed the mind of many 3D printer users and if one does exist, just how well does it work? I’ve wondered the same thing myself so I decided to look into this question and answer it as good as I can.
3D printed guns definitely do work in many ways, some a lot better than others. Early designs of 3D printed guns haven’t been so great and were known to only be able to fire one bullet. After much development, they work pretty well but they need to be created properly and with the right instructions.
I’ve looked through a good amount of information regarding 3D printed guns such as their effectiveness, legalities, the advantages and disadvantages along with some cool videos. Keep reading if you want to find out more about 3D printed guns.
The Liberator – The World’s First 3D Printed Gun
‘The Liberator’ is the world’s first official 3D printed gun, created by Defense Distributed and headed by Cody Wilson.
This impressive goal was achieved in 2013 and out of the 16 pieces used to create this gun, 15 of the pieces were created by a 3D printer, the only other piece being the firing pin (a common hardware store nail).
The early reports of this 3D printed gun go back to 2013 by CNN.
When you think about just how long 7 years of development and progress can take you, especially in the field of 3D printing where communities come together to solve issues efficiently, we can see just how further things can be brought.
The field of 3D printed guns has seen some serious strides compared to the one shot bandit they call The Liberator. There’s always a first, original piece but now we’ve surpassed it’s capabilities.
A metal handgun was 3D printed first in 2013 by Solid Concepts Inc. so it could be fired multiple times rather than just the once.
Do 3D Printed Guns Actually Work?
As you can tell from the previous section, 3D printed guns do work and they are getting more detailed, complex and equally simplified as time goes on. Users from all around the world have worked on fine-tuning 3D printed guns in ways to make them more reliable and lasts longer than a few shots.
The video below by the 3D Printer General goes into great detail, even with one of the ‘industry insiders’ about just how far along we’ve come in the quest of creating a seamless 3D printed gun.
Well, that answers that question! You can see the effectiveness of 3D printed guns in these videos and over time, I can only imagine they will get better.
There are some designs out there that are pretty unreliable and won’t last very long, so keep this in mind, definitely from a safety point of view.
There is a basic framework that a gun uses to be able to work and it can easily be replicated to a certain standard, using a 3D printer.
Since a 3D printer can mimic almost any shape, it isn’t too difficult to print each piece of a gun, or recreate a model of one that works well for the material you have better access to.
Most people don’t have metal 3D printers that use a laser sintering process, but rather have the standard 3D printers that print different types of plastics and other reinforced material.
You can get composite plastic with carbon fiber reinforcement but it doesn’t have the same characteristics that metal has, so it can only go so far.
I’ve written an extensive list of 3D printing materials, I’d say PEEK is one of the strongest 3D printing plastics out there, but it’s very expensive!
The Songbird – A 3D Printed Pistol
The video above showcases The Songbird, which is a 3D pistol in a very similar realm to The Liberator. All the parts are 3D printable except for the springs and the firing pin, but in this case, The Songbird actually uses rubber bands as the springs.
It is also good to know that several caliber barrels are available but a lot of them will need a barrel liner.
Now this 3D printed gun is made up of:
- The gun frame
- The barrel
- The hammer
- The trigger
- The Firing Pin (nail)
- Firing pin stopper
- Barrel stopper
- Rubber bands
It’s fairly easy to put together as you can see in the video but you can run into small issues such as getting the correct size firing pin, getting enough tension on the rubber bands and making sure you have good angles on your barrel liner.
Unlikely that these can be put together perfectly the first time but after a few attempts it should be fine.
How Well Does a 3D Printed Gun Work?
Now that we’ve established that 3D printed guns do exist and have been around for some years, many people also wonder just how effective they are compared to a real gun.
This is a quick, short video showing test fire from a Mac 11 3D printed gun.
Some 3D printed guns will work better than others. The Liberator worked fairly well for it’s time, but it wasn’t so durable or reliable.
Force wise, these won’t be comparing too closely to a real gun but in their own league, they are definitely seeing improvements.
You want to avoid using weak plastics that don’t have much tensile strength like common PLA.
For example, a gun made out of ABS-M30 which is a version of ABS that has more tensile, impact and flexural strength managed to fire eight .380 caliber rounds in a row without failing.
On the other hand, some guns, after firing just one round managed to explode and shatter into several pieces so it really does depend on different factors whether a 3D printed gun will work well.
Some people have 3D printed their guns using the wrong levels of infill and these are the ones you’ll likely see exploding. When infill percentages are properly followed, the guns are more likely to be reliable and bend/melt rather than explode.
The good thing about 3D printing is its ability to adapt, overcome and make more efficient, so compared to the original models of these guns, there will be developments that make them better.
There have been many developments with 3D printed guns and they are becoming a lot more durable than before. Check out the video below by The 3D Printer General who tries shooting many different types of 3D printed guns at an event in Texas.
How Are 3D Printed Gun Parts Made?
The best method for 3D printing a gun is to reverse engineer it to figure out the process, then print each part one by one and put that together. Once you’ve done this a few times, it will become easier to make small adjustments to make things more efficient.
In the video above, they describe a specialized process to create a 3D printed gun out of metal.
This printing method is called DMLS or Direct Metal Laser Sintering which works by using a laser to sinter together metal powder, layer by layer into each piece. It’s by no means a simple process, and took these guys a machine worth many hundreds of thousands of dollars to make real.
Can a 3D Gun Fire Real Bullets?
Yes, 3D printed guns are designed to and can fire real bullets, but in some cases they can only fire one or two bullets before becoming faulty. It really depends on how well-made the 3D gun is. If you use durable thermoplastic materials like PEEK or Polycarbonate, along with a good file, you should be able to.
In the videos above, you can see just how well these 3D printed guns can withstand the force and pressure of a bullet. Lower caliber bullets are much easier to be fired from rather than something with much more power.
As previously mentioned, a 3D printed gun created through DMLS will work almost just as good as a standard gun because it shares a majority of the necessary properties.
Can You 3D Print Bullets?
Plastic Bullets Have Been Tried & Tested
If you print a plastic bullet and put it into a real gun, you might think the plastic would not be able to withstand the force, pressure and temperature of shooting out the barrel of a .45 ACP or .223 Rem.
You might be surprised at just how well 3D printed bullets can perform!
The video above shows a pretty sweet display of firing 3D printed 9mm bullets.
He managed to fire 14 3D printed 9mm bullets without any issues and great accuracy potential.
- Material: PLA (Polylactic Acid, biodegradable)
- Extruder temp: 195°C
- Bed temp: 70°C
- Layer height: 0.2mm
- Nozzle diameter: 0.4mm
- Bullet weight: 13 grams
For shotgun shells it seems to also be printable because all-plastic ones are already out there. You could print the wads and cups out of common 3D printed plastics.
It’s a better idea to print off some type of pellet or using ball bearings for slugs.
Using a Metal 3D Printer for Bullets
You’ll have quite a hard time printing complete bullets because there are many components that just can’t be 3D printed, but you can definitely print out the individual parts. The powder has to be supplied to complete the bullet but they aren’t too hard to come by.
The metal parts of a bullet can be 3D printed using a sintered metal process but not the usual plastic PLA or ABS that most 3D printer users are used to.
Unfortunately, sintered metal casings aren’t great from a practical point of view because there needs to be a certain amount of flexibility and expansion element so that the gun cartridge can seal the chamber properly.
Most ammo casings are made from mild steel, ductile brass or aluminum because of this, but sintered metal tends to be pretty brittle, similar to ceramic.
You can alter your materials and techniques to take this into account, like using sintered copper allows as they are more flexible but it won’t be very cost-effective.
Is it Legal to 3D Print a Gun?
This question can get quite complicated because laws differ country to country and even state to state if you’re in America. There’s been a lot of back and forth between lawmakers and citizens whether their freedoms should extend to be able to legally 3D print a gun.
As detailed in this article by E&T, there seems to be a back and forth legal battle about allowing for the distribution of blueprints for manufacturing handguns with 3D printers.
The Obama administration had banned it, then the Trump administration unbanned it, and now a federal judge has banned it again.
It has been a long-running legal case to determine the legality behind design files which allow individuals to print lethal weapons without governmental checks and balances. The people who got the first ban overturned were the same Defense Distributed company who created The Liberator.
This legal battle first stemmed from 2013 where 100,000 downloads of 3D printed gun CAD files occurred and were then removed after possible violations of the International Traffic in Arms Regulations.
According to CriminalDefenseLawyer.com there are no federal or state laws that specifically prohibit the possession or manufacture of 3D printed firearms, but steps have definitely been taken to stop the download of the CAD files.
The Undetectable Firearms Act is something that also comes into play here. The Liberator, being the first 3D printed gun by Defense Distributed made sure to add a chunk of metal to the gun so it would comply with the law.
There is a matter of public safety at hand when discussing 3D printed guns, but it’s a legal battle that will last many years to come. You have to balance rights and freedoms with restrictions and the potential of weapon abuse by unlawful individuals.
In the UK, this is covered by the 1968 Firearms Act where it states in Section 5 2A(a), ‘A person commits an offense if without authority – he manufactures any weapon or ammunition specified in subsection (1) of this section (which is a long list of prohibited firearms); 3D printed weapons are described in this list.
The Telegraph reported a story about a university student who was the first person in the UK to be convicted for being in possession of 3D printed gun components after a tip-off. He faces a five-year statutory minimum sentence for possession of a firearm.
Advantages & Disadvantages of a 3D Printed Gun
- Can be made at home
- Relatively quick to print (some done in 36 hours)
- You can customize your 3D printed gun (colors, signs, symbols)
- Some designs are very durable and reliable
- It can be dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing
- They are not easy to put together and usually requires specialized experience
- Many designs not durable over a long period of time
- Carries potential legal problems as it’s in a gray area
Why Are People Against 3D Printed Guns?
Now you have a whole host of people who are against normal guns, but there are even more reasons why people might not be a fan of a 3D printed gun.
Due to the fact that these guns can be printed at home, they do not have serial numbers. This means that people printing them would not have to undergo background checks, and the weapons would virtually be untraceable.
They also will be undetectable by a metal detector for obvious reasons. It can present many security risks and can be obtained by potentially dangerous people.
Are 3D Printed Guns Safe?
This is a question which can be answered easily but isn’t so straightforward, it that makes sense. 3D printer guns are safe if it is put together properly and is in proper order.
If a 3D printed gun is put together poorly without following the instructions precisely, it is prone to be dangerous and in some cases, even exploding.
There’s no shortage of videos of 3D printed guns, especially The Liberator firing off one shot, not a few split second before exploding into hundreds of tiny shards, almost like a grenade going off. We can safely say that isn’t safe at all.
More modern versions of 3D printed guns have been fine-tuned and carefully developed to a point where you are very unlikely to see such displays.