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Today, a landmark in improvised engineering was reached. Plans for an (almost) entirely 3D printable firearm went up on the Internet, able to be freely downloaded by anyone.

The reactions around the Net are predictable. Libertarians and gun nuts are ecstatic, gushing all over themselves about how this will be the "end of gun control" and usher in some kind of "new age of freedom" or something.

Law and order types, gun control advocates, and the government are wetting themselves with the prospect of legions of terrorists printing up virtually undetectable firearms and taking over airplanes or something.

And it's all completely ridiculous. Neither a new age of freedom nor a new age of terror are in the works; in fact, I'm quite confident in predicting the total impact of this technology will be statistically undetectable. Self-congratulatory (on the one side) and paranoid (on the other) ravings aside, this thing simply does not make any meaningful difference whatsoever.

First, let's see this harbinger of freedom end of civilization toy for rich white kids:

It's printed from ABS plastic on an $8,000 3D printer. Almost everything is plastic, including the barrel; the only non-plastic parts are an ordinary nail (for the firing pin) and the bullet itself (in this case, a .380 caliber).

Now, I've owned firearms and shot recreationally for most of my life,1 and the first thing I can say upon seeing this thing is that I wouldn't want to fire it. My instinct is that it's probably about as dangerous to whoever's on the trigger end as whoever's on the business end.

The one shown here was test-fired three times. The first time, it misfired. The second time, it successfully fired a .380 round without destroying itself. The third time, when the .380 was replaced with a 5.7×28 cartridge, it exploded.

Could it survive multiple shots with the smaller round? I don't know. Maybe. I wouldn't bet my life on it. Doesn't really matter. Not only is this thing not a game changer, I reckon it's about as significant in terms of its overall impact on society as whatever toy they choose to put into a box of Cracker Jacks next week.

For starters, what you're looking at here is not only a shoddy firearm of dubious reliability and ruggedness; it's an $8,050 $9,000 shoddy firearm of dubious reliability and ruggedness. This prototype was printed on an $8,000 3D printer with about $50 worth of materials, making it arguably the single most expensive zip gun that's ever been fabricated. A person looking for cheap, untraceable guns would be able to buy an arsenal on the street for less than the cost of the printer that produced this thing. (Edit: It turns out that this gun actually requires $1,000 worth of plastic toner to print, making it arguably the most expensive zip gun ever made even if the cost of the 3D printer isn't factored in.)

Now, I already know what you're going to say. The cost of 3D printers is dropping quickly. People can rent one or use one at a school. Companies will 3D print parts for you.

All of which is true, but irrelevant; the ability to make crude, cheap firearms for a lot less than just the cost of the plastic alone for this thing has existed...well, for about as long as firearms have existed. Prisoners have been known to build guns from parts available in prisons.

It has never been lack of availability that has kept people from using small single-shot firearms like this. The reason every criminal in town isn't sticking up convenience stores with zip guns isn't that they have been languishing in wait for a Libertarian college student to design one that can be 3D printed and put on the Internet; it's that these things are virtually worthless as weapons. They tend to be used in prisons but few places besides, because they're unreliable, prone to failure, inaccurate, and dangerous to the operator.

Just like, ahem, the 3D printed version.

Seriously. Even when they work, you have to be at point-blank range (or better yet, in contact with your intended target) for them to be terribly effective.

Which leads to the next hand-wringing objection: OMG this is made of PLASTIC you can take it onto an AIRPLANE through a METAL DETECTOR!

Which is, err, only kind of true. It's a bit bulky to hide on your person, and there's still the fact that the firing pin and ammunition are metal. Now, you might be able to get a nail through security on some pretext or other, but I doubt many folks will let you carry ammunition onto a plane.

If they notice it, which is a different matter; I've had friends who've carried brass knuckles and switchblades onto planes without difficulty. The reality is that few people actually want to, and have the means to, attack an airplane; nearly all of what happens at the airport is security theater, not security.

But let's assume just for amusement that you can get one of these onto a plane. So what? What of it?

If I wanted to attack an airplane with a weapon I made on a 3D printer, it wouldn't be this gun. Even if it works, it only works once, and I doubt the other passengers would sit around idle while I reloaded it and prepared to fire again. Assuming that the first shot actually did any good anyway.

The guy who designed this says “You can print a lethal device. It’s kind of scary, but that’s what we’re aiming to show,” as if this is the first time that's been possible. Sorry, kid, but you're a ridiculous wanker; a 3D printed knife or spear is actually a lot more lethal than this toy gun. (There's a reason shivs rather than zip guns are the preferred weapon in places like prisons, and it's not all down to scarcity of ammunition; given how easily drugs flow into American prisons, ammo isn't that much of a stretch if there were a demand for it.) The 9/11 hijackers, who were well-funded, used...box cutters.

But I wouldn't carry a 3D printed knife, or even a cheaper and better ceramic knife, onto a plane with mischief in mind either, because I'm not suicidal. Post 9/11, one thing has actually made air travel safer: the fact that the other passengers aren't about to sit quietly by and hope for the best if someone tries to take a plane. All the other security changes that have happened since then have paled in effectiveness next to passenger attitude.

So, here's the million-dollar question. You take a plastic gun onto an airplane, and...what, exactly? What in the name of the seven holy fucks and the twelve lesser fucks do you do then? What's your plan?

If your goal is to destroy the plane, you can't do that with this thing. If your goal is to take over the plane, well...good luck with that. You might survive what the other passengers do to you, maybe, if you're lucky. Everybody is shrieking about how this thing can defeat airline security...and then what?

In fact, that million-dollar question can be extended to just about any possible use for this thing. You've bought yourself an eight-grand 3D printer, or somehow got access to it. You download the plans like an eager little hacker and you print this out, and then you...um, what do you do then? Go online and brag to your Maker friends?

You aren't going to use this for home defense. I mean, seriously. A baseball bat or a tire iron makes a better home defense weapon, and the baseball bat probably has a longer effective range.

You're not going to use it to outfit your secret militia that's pining for anticipating the day that the Federal government starts rolling the tanks down Main Street. You aren't even going to use an AR-15 for that, because, listen, seriously? The government has drones. They can blow your ass to hell and gone and you'll never even see someone to shoot at.

You aren't going to take it down to the range and pop off a few rounds in the general direction of paper cutouts of zombies or Trayvon Martin. No gun range is going to let you anywhere near the firing line with this; it's too dangerous to the other shooters.

And please, please tell me you think you can go hunting with this thing. Bring a video camera and let me know when the video is up on YouTube. You can't get enough of that for my entertainment dollar.

So you're going to print it out, you're going to put it together, and then...what, exactly? I'm still not clear on that.

Now, if you designed it, what you'll do is obvious: you'll get media exposure for congratulating yourself on what a clever Libertarian you are. And as near as I can tell, that's really this thing's only usefulness.

1 Full disclosure: I've been a private firearm owner on and off since 1988. I like guns, I like target shooting, and I'm neither opposed to nor afraid of guns. All that being said, I still won't fire one of these.


( 31 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 6th, 2013 08:35 pm (UTC)
I don't really have much to comment WRT the significance of 3D printed guns, but I do want to give a correction on the current state of the art. I'm not sure where Forbes got their info, but lousy, fully 3D fabbed guns have been in existence since at least December. Obviously the world hasn't been turned on its ear by this.

However, 2 months ago the Rachel Maddow show had this segment. It's not fully 3D printed, but quality has improved to the point where a home fabbed lower receiver can reliably fire at least 650 rounds in rapid succession:

Again, this was 2 months ago, and again, the world hasn't unravelled.
May. 6th, 2013 08:36 pm (UTC)
Is it me, or does that gun in the photo have a broken trigger? Speaks wonders about its durability.
May. 6th, 2013 08:56 pm (UTC)
Your comment on the drones actually reminded me of a ST:TNG episode where Data was tasked with trying to convince a small colony that they needed to move because a treaty had placed their planet in another race's territory, and they weren't going to share. The colonists were all for staying and fighting . . .and then Data took out their entire water pumping station with one phaser, and calmly pointed out that the aliens on the way? Would not even need to land to wipe them out. I believe the line was, "You will never see the faces of your killers."

May. 6th, 2013 09:26 pm (UTC)
Normally I like your writing. However, I think you've missed about as many points here as it's possible to miss.

I don't think this is the Apocalypse, the Revelation, the Singularity, or anything like that. But I do think it's at least somewhat important.

Why? Because it lowers the bar, at least theoretically. I realize that this particular gun doesn't work terribly well, and that it's probably of little practical use. I also realize that it's been theoretically possible to build firearms at home for a long time. But it requires at least some specialized knowledge (gunsmithing, machining...) to do so conventionally, whereas making a 3D-printed gun (at least once a better one is designed) merely requires downloading shapefiles that someone else has designed, printing them out, and assembling them. (IMHO it's rather like the difference in end-user accessibility between packaged software and self-written code: even a pretty non-technical person can download an application and run it.) Assuming the availability of suitable shapefiles (which may or may not be these particular ones), this has the effect of making it far easier to obtain firearms without going through the usual distribution channels. (BTW, why the $8000 figure for the price of a 3D printer? You can get a Solidoodle for 10% of that price.)

Whether this particular gun itself is well designed or not is irrelevant, I think. I would assume that it's possible for the design to be improved to the point where this becomes a little less of a proof of concept and a little more of an actual usable weapon. And I think that's a very good thing: regardless of its actual usability now, it will force legislators and concerned citizens to realize that the chimera of gun control now includes the specter of censorship. In other words, I don't think that projects of this sort are as significant for their actual feasibility as they are for forcing a debate that we, as a society, really need to have.
May. 7th, 2013 12:31 am (UTC)
It's been possible to build firearms at home since forever, and it doesn't require special knowledge, skill, or tools at all. A rubber band, a nail, a piece of pipe, and a block of wood will work just fine.

Even as a proof of concept, this isn't a game changer. If you get the 3D printer for free, this gun is still more expensive and less reliable than something you can make for $3 worth of parts at Home Depot. The most lethal weapon you can make with a 3D printer is still a knife, even though it's less vivid and therefore less scary.

You can get a cheaper 3D printer for a fraction of the price of the one that was used here. The problem is they have lower resolution (especially on the z-axis) and lower repeat ability. Long parts made on them tend to have a rough, striated texture, and they're weaker. I'm sure that someone will sooner or later try to print this on a RepRap or a Makerbot. It will be interesting to read that person's obituary.

There are a lot of conversations that need to happen around 3D printing, not the least of which is about intellectual property. But trying to legislate 3D printed weapons based on this--which some people in Congress are already calling for--seems a bit like trying to regulate computer networks in 1977. Nobody back then could have anticipated the Internet today, and I don't think that anyone today can reasonably anticipate the real challenges that we're going to end up facing when this technology matures.
(no subject) - 1cmf - May. 7th, 2013 01:33 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - tacit - May. 7th, 2013 07:56 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - khall - May. 7th, 2013 08:13 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - marnen - May. 8th, 2013 11:46 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - khall - May. 7th, 2013 08:18 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - marnen - May. 8th, 2013 11:36 pm (UTC) - Expand
May. 6th, 2013 09:36 pm (UTC)
Hmm. I semi-disagree, while agreeing 100% in spirit.:P

First, you can make a homemade 3d printer for about $500. Not really relevant, but...

Second, now these things are pretty iffy, yes. However, with 10 years more development and/or stronger plastic...there's no reason they can't be just like any other gun.

The awesomeness of this is...we could be on the cusp of a new world. Imagine if you want plates, you go online and download a Martha Stewart pattern, and print it out on your home 3d printer. Want a lawnmower? A car? A jet? A DVD player? Print it out. That is awesome. The fact that the first few things that come out of the printer are shit...well, the model T wasn't that great of a car, frankly. *shrugs*

May. 6th, 2013 09:38 pm (UTC)
Also? RE: the second amendment. They don't even need drones. One tank, even an apc with a .50 or a 20mm cannon will conquer an entire city, and you could give every single person in there an AR-15 and they could all pour fire into the tank and it still won't make any difference. Let alone things like A-10 warthogs and whatever, whatever.

(no subject) - khall - May. 6th, 2013 10:00 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - james_the_evil1 - May. 7th, 2013 02:29 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - tacit - May. 7th, 2013 08:13 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - khall - May. 7th, 2013 08:22 pm (UTC) - Expand
May. 7th, 2013 01:23 am (UTC)
However, with 10 years more development and/or stronger plastic...there's no reason they can't be just like any other gun.

It won't require 10 years & stronger plastics. It was possible 2 months ago. See link above.

Edited at 2013-05-07 01:23 am (UTC)
(no subject) - tacit - May. 7th, 2013 08:03 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - khall - May. 7th, 2013 08:11 pm (UTC) - Expand
May. 7th, 2013 02:26 am (UTC)
But I wouldn't carry a 3D printed knife, or even a cheaper and better ceramic knife, onto a plane with mischief in mind either, because I'm not suicidal.

To be fair, the 9/11 hijackers WERE suicidal... but not WASTEFULLY suicidal. They wouldn't do it again now in a way almost guaranteed to get them killed while accomplishing nothing, they'd do something else. Suicidal=/=stupid*, necessarily.

Separate point of questionable relevance, the "box cutters" thing is one of those myths we don't really know. The bits of reports we have from cell phone calls from the planes describe a variety of weapons, only one really mentioned "some kind of knives or box cutters," others mentioned other weapons. The "box cutter" narrative is one that's gotten a lot of play but is likely inaccurate.

*for some definition of "stupid"
May. 7th, 2013 09:01 am (UTC)
It's not really an $8050 gun though is it? that's like counting the cost of running an entire gun-making factory in the cost of *every gun*. Sure, if you only want *one gun* and have no other use for a 3D printer then that's what it costs; but if you want lots of guns, or you also have other things you want to print... then the price per unit is going to eventually get pretty close to materials + electricity.

It is possible of course to rent time on other people's 3D printers; there are even people who will sell you this service online. However my understanding is that at present they will refuse to print guns - indeed I recall a story from a while back where some gun-printing enthusiasts (possibly even this lot) were told to piss-off by a 3D printer company whose business model was more like renting than selling because OMG GUNS, which is presumably why they had to find the $8000...

There are also MUCH cheaper 3D printers available; a friend has a RepRap which was definately in the "shiny toy!" price category, although I have no idea if it would print this gun (probably not; or this lot would have used one and saved themselves a bunch of money).
May. 7th, 2013 08:15 pm (UTC)
It's an $8050 gun in the sense that the people who download the plans for it will be people who already have, or have access to, 3D printers. As 3D printers become more commonplace, this will change, but right now the only folks who are going to be making these are folks who are financially well-off to begin with.

You could print this on a RepRap, but at best it wouldn't fire and at worst it'd kill the operator. Cheap 3D printers don't have the resolution or the repeatability to make something like this strong enough and smooth enough to function.
(no subject) - blaisepascal - May. 7th, 2013 09:08 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - naath - May. 8th, 2013 12:45 pm (UTC) - Expand
May. 10th, 2013 07:24 pm (UTC)
So it turns out the gun is rather expensive even if you don't factor in the cost of the prnter.

The $50 in materials I'd originally quoted was from an unsourced estimate. According to this article, the gun requires $1,000 worth of plastic toner, assuming you make it flawlessly the first time. That makes it, I think, by far the most expensive zip gun I've ever heard of.
(no subject) - naath - May. 12th, 2013 08:03 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - tacit - May. 12th, 2013 08:51 pm (UTC) - Expand
May. 7th, 2013 06:51 pm (UTC)
Wake me up when somebody prints out self-replicating killer robots (with knives)...
Aug. 16th, 2013 03:17 pm (UTC)
Well, I've just wasted an hour reading Franklin's pros. Now I'm off to waste another hour reading Franklin's pros. I'll be back to write more sarcastic remarks in an hour.
( 31 comments — Leave a comment )