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February 29, 2024

3D printer used to manufacture firearms

By MELANIE HSU | November 29, 2012

Materializing weapons from a printer may sound like something from a computer game, but thanks to Defense Distributed’s “Wiki Weapon” project, this fantasy may soon turn into a reality. Defense Distributed aims to create a working gun comprised entirely of parts from a 3D printer.

These printers can construct objects from plastic, metal, or even food by building them up layer by layer, creating the possibility of transferring virtually any digital design into the real world.

Developed by Charles Hull in 1984, the technique of printing 3D objects from digital data was initially coined Stereolithography. Hull obtained a patent for this technique in 1986, then proceeded to found a company, 3D Systems, along with the first commercial 3D printing machines. Initially restricted to a select few customers, the technology was eventually made available to the public in 1988.

In 1995, the technique was coined “3D printing” thanks to the work of Jim Bredt and Tim Anderson, graduate students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Bredt and Anderson modified an inkjet printer so that it would extrude a binding solution onto a bed of powder, as opposed to ink onto paper. Their work led to a patent and the creation of two modern 3D printing companies: Z Corporation, which was founded by Bredt and Anderson, and ExOne.

Some gun experts doubt that a plastic gun could spit out more than one bullet, if anything, before sputtering and dying. However, the mere possibility that anyone — most alarmingly, secret agents and assassins — with a 3D printer could easily create an arsenal of firearms raises concerns about how U.S. law enforcement would enforce gun regulations.

Experiments with 3D-printed weaponry have already taken place. July this year, gun enthusiast “HaveBlue” documented using an old 3D printer to create working parts of a 0.22 pistol.

Through tests with gun parts such as the receiver, which holds the critical bolt, trigger, and magazine parts of the gun, he found that he could easily create replacement parts for worn out or damaged gun components. According to the American Gun Control Act, the printed receiver and its contents are essentially representations of the operational gun.

Of course, the days when average citizens gain the ability to mass-produce military-grade weapons are still far off. While “HaveBlue” was reportedly able to fire off 200 rounds using the modified pistol, he could not do the same with a full AR-15 rifle. Problems in other parts of the gun that complicated his efforts to properly load bullets and remove spent casings.

However, Defense Distributed was created for a different purpose. The “Wiki Weapon” project, which was created and organized by a group of eight friends, serves as more of a personal libertarian statement about what the government should or should not control.

Once the “Wiki Gun” makers manage to get the government to approve of their U.S. federal firearms license, they can proceed with their plans to begin constructing prototypes based on five gun blueprints submitted by independent designers.

Cody Wilson, a spokesman for Defense Distributed, expects that the license will be granted to the group within the next two or three weeks. Although the group initially planned to create prototypes without a license, complications arose after the media discovered the Wiki Weapon.

Unsurprisingly, this project has generated considerable controversy, which resulted in one 3D printing company, called Stratasys, withdrawing the use of its equipment. In addition, the website Indiegogo also froze the efforts of Wiki Weapons to raise funding through its online portal, which resulted in the return of almost $2000 worth of raised money to the donors.

Luckily for them, Defense Distributed received additional support from two Texas companies that volunteered 3D printing equipment and space for ballistics testing of the guns. These hurdles, as well as the controversy surrounding the project, have convinced Wilson to take a more conventional approach.

In addition to applying for the license, the group has undergone significant reforms. What began as a loose online collective of individuals, has now become three distinctive arms, all of which are registered with the federal government.

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