There has been a lot of current media coverage regarding 3D printing and how it pertains to the ability to manufacture guns. The topic has revolved around the release of blueprints for gun designs from Austin, Texas-based Defense Distributed.
Defense Distributed reached a settlement with the US Department of State in June allowing it to make the plans for the guns available for download at the end of August 2018. A federal judge attempted to stop the release of blueprints for 3D-printed plastic guns, though the files had already been downloaded thousands of times worldwide. President Donald Trump questioned whether his administration should have agreed to allow the plans to be posted online. At the time of this article being published, the case is still being reviewed and on hold.
Backstory Of The Situation
Defense Distributed is an online, open-source organization that develops digital firearms files, or “wiki weapons,” that may be downloaded from the internet and used in 3D printing or CNC milling applications. Among the organization’s goals is to develop and freely publish firearms-related design schematics that can be downloaded and reproduced by anyone with a 3D printer or milling machine. This can facilitate the popular production of “ghost guns,” firearms that lack a serial number traceable to the last purchaser.
(Liberator 3D Printed Gun, Source: http://time.com/5354963/3d-printed-guns-hard-to-stop/)
Defense Distributed is best known for developing and releasing the files for the world’s first completely 3D printed gun, the Liberator. The gun derived its name from the FP-45 Liberator — a pistol manufactured by the United States military during World War II for use by resistance forces in occupied territories. On May 5, 2013, Defense Distributed made their printable STL files public, and within days the United States Department of State demanded they be removed from the Internet, citing a violation of the International Traffic in Arms Regulations.
On May 6, 2015, Defense Distributed, joined by the Second Amendment Foundation, brought suit against the Department of State in the Western District of Texas, which denied its preliminary injunction request. It subsequently appealed to the Fifth Circuit, which affirmed the denial, and then the Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case.
On July 10, 2018, it was announced that Defense Distributed and Second Amendment Foundation had accepted a settlement offer from the Department of State, effectively winning the case and restarting their work, which included making gun blueprints available online for all.
What Is 3D Printing?
In order to truly understand this hot-button issue, you need to understand 3D printing — or as it is more formally called, additive manufacturing.
At its most basic level, 3D printing is the process of creating a physical object from a digital file (known as CAD, or Computer-Aided Design, files). Every print job starts with a 3D design file that works like a blueprint for your object. Whenever you print out a letter or a report, the text file serves as the blueprint for what comes out; 3D digital design files are the same thing. But unlike text documents, these files are sliced into small layers before being sent to the 3D printer. Though the printer type or materials used may vary, the process is completed through additive manufacturing — a process in which an object is created one layer at a time.
The most popular method of 3D printing is FDM, or Fused Deposition Modeling. This process is a more technical application of the additive manufacturing process mentioned above. In FDM, the printer heats a thermoplastic filament to its melting point and then lays the filament down one layer at a time until the 3D object is fully created.
3D printing is largely made possible by STL, or StereoLithography, files, which are the digital directions sent to the printer. These files contain the actual 3D model that’s used by the printer to create an object.
3D printing is a technology that’s accessible to everyone because it doesn’t require an extreme amount of tech savvy or advanced digital skill set. Better yet, it drastically minimizes the gap between the end consumer and the manufacturing process. Never before has it been this easy for an everyday consumer to take ideas from design to manufacture so independent of professional assistance.
Different kinds of 3D printers
Though there are several 3D printers currently in use across the industry, there are a handful that are more sought after and more effective. MakerBot is the most accessible brand because its 3D printing models, like the Replicator, allow users to print their own objects right from their desktop. The company has positioned its consumer-grade 3D printers as a solution for at-home practice, as well as personalized manufacturing.
Many industries are using their own custom printers that target their specific needs. In fact, 45% of the 3D printing industry is controlled by small operations. For example, the aerospace and biomedical fields have been relying heavily on metal 3D printing since its inception. It’s only through recent developments in price reduction and process refinement that metal 3D printing is now expanding faster than any other part of the industry.
Comparison: 3D Printing or Milling A Gun?
Let’s circle back to the original topic of this article: that anyone can download a blueprint, pop it into a 3D printer, and have an untraceable firearm in a short while.
Is it that easy?
No, it’s not. Let’s dig into why.
Milling A Gun
For the purpose of this article, we are comparing the process for creating a polymer part. There are metal options online as well and just as easily accessible. We chose to compare the polymer option to the plastic 3D printed arms that are in debate currently.
Currently, one can navigate to websites online and purchase an 80% AR-15 Lower. This lower receiver of an AR-15 rifle is 80% complete in manufacturing terms and costs around $80.00.
(RL556v3™ 80% AR15 Lower, Source: https://www.polymer80.com/ar-15-lower/rl556v3tm-80-ar15-lower)
The kit includes:
- 80% Polymer AR15 Lower Receiver (Mil-spec)
- Polymer Jig
- Trigger Hole Drill Guide
- Drill Bits and End Mill
Once you receive your 80% complete AR-15 lower receiver, you would have to complete the remaining 20% of the receiver.
(Drilling into Lower Jig, Source: https://www.gunsamerica.com/blog/polymer-80/)
Utilizing a mill, the process is completed with relative ease.
(2 Speed Benchtop Mill/Drill Machine, Source: https://www.harborfreight.com/two-speed-variable-bench-mill-drill-machine-44991.html)
This whole 80%, 20% milling process is legal, to an extent.
The lower receiver is a registered part on a gun. When you buy an AR-15, the piece that makes it a firearm is the lower, which will have a serial number that is recorded. If you make a gun for yourself, one you don’t intend to sell, it is perfectly legal. This is a loophole in a system that has been established far longer than commercial 3D printing. As far as the ATF is concerned, 80% lower receivers are a block of raw material and are not considered firearms. This means they are not required to be serialized. According to the ATF’s definition of an AR-15, the lower receiver is not considered a firearm until it has the ability to accept a fire controls (trigger, sear, springs, etc.).
As you can see, the “untraceable firearm” aspect has existed long before the 3D printed firearms issue.
Utilizing a method that would cost under $100, assuming you have access to the machinery and tooling, the only required serialized part of an AR-15 can be created in a standard manufacturing material, and follow safety parameters very similar or even identical to those of off-the-shelf arms.
3D Printing A Gun
Recall that in order to 3D print anything, you need a digital file. Typically, a CAD file that has become an STL file.
The STL file is arguably what the proposed blueprints from Defense Distributed would contain.
A blueprint, or engineering/manufacturing drawing, is not a 3D printer ready file. It is a 2D schematic explaining the dimensions, tolerances and other details needed to manufacture something. Sometimes these drawings can be dozens of pages long, and be very complicated and difficult to understand if someone is not familiar with the standardization.
(AR-15 Engineering Drawing, Source: https://patents.google.com)
On top of knowing how to operate CAD software and interpret manufacturing/engineering drawings, there is a specific approach to designing for 3D printing.
A good majority of our clients come in to utilize 3D printing for prototyping or short-run production, but realize the CAD files they may have designed with another company are not optimized. As a result, their files will not work on the 3D printer.
While 3D printing lowers the cost of manufacturing and makes it more accessible to create physical products, it is not a plug-and-play solution.
It’s possible to find community-designed STL files for prints ranging from fun to practical, but they’re not always reliable because each designer varies in skill and knowledge. An online print is only as good as its designer.
(Lulzbot Mini 3D Printer, Source: http://halotechnologiesllc.com)
Back to 3D printing a gun. Let’s assume you have a 3D printable file, without any hesitation about its accuracy, and are ready to print.
We can just pop it on to print, right?
Sorry, not yet.
We still have to run the file through another program called a Slicer that converts the data into a machine language called GCode. There are dozens of slicer programs and each one has its own set of setting styles, layout, and results.
(A Screenshot of some slicer settings, Source: http://halotechnologiesllc.com)
Here it becomes important to have a strong technical background to understand the relationship of material, design and machining method. Every material you can 3D print with requires a different setting and adjustment.
Once you slice the file and have it ready for 3D printing, you still have to decide which method of 3D printing and material you are going to use.
Staying in the plastic or polymer realm of 3D printing, machines that would be able to be accurate and semi-reliable enough for a complex file like a receiver can easily run over $30,000.
There are off-the-shelf 3D printers in the lower cost range, but they are not designed for the accuracy and precision that is needed for something as complex and dangerous to manufacture as a firearm.
So, let’s assume you have now spent hours designing and reverse engineering, know the ins-and-outs of 3D printer software like a slicer and were able to acquire a $30k+ machine that may be able to come close to producing something with extreme accuracy, can you print your gun?
The final step before printing is deciding on the material to use.
There are many different materials for 3D printing and they all vary in properties.
For this analysis, let’s assume that you choose to move forward with some sort of 3D printable ABS plastic.
Now we are ready to print.
One more point: 3D printers are slow. Parts just a few inches in height and width can take hours depending on complexity. If a part needs supports to allow for overhangs to be printed, not only does this add time, but also adds post-processing time that will results in a rough surface that must be sanded or finished in a similar fashion.
You can see below that this movie prop Colt 1911 gun model (no internal features) acquired from Thingiverse, with only a 15% infill is still ~9 hours worth of printing at the most basic settings possible in one slicer analyzed:
(A Screenshot of some slicer settings, Source: http://halotechnologiesllc.com)
The point being made here is that even if you have everything perfectly aligned to 3D print a gun, receiver or anything else, you are not going to be pumping out hundreds of parts quickly or effectively.
To those close to the 3D printing world, failed prints are a commonality. 3D printers are susceptible to environmental conditions including temperature and humidity. The material, if not stored correctly, can deteriorate and not be detectable until you are 3D printing with it already. If you do not calibrate a build plate prior to printing, a part can be warped upon completion, if it completes at all. If a machine is bumped during a print, this can throw the whole accuracy off and possibly even result in a fully failed print. The list of potential issues goes on.
Summary Of Comparison
So, can you 3D print a gun? The recent news says yes. Can you 3D print a gun that is accurate, safe, economical and easier to acquire than existing commercial off-the-shelf options? No.
The time, effort, and knowledge required to accomplish a 3D printed gun makes creating one an immense endeavor. Using the already established methods of doing so is not only more economical, but safer.
Holding a clear discourse
Gun safety and education is a very important topic and should be discussed and evaluated. Likewise, the methods to create arms should be evaluated as well, but not objectified blindly.
3D printing brought awareness to the ability to create untraceable weapons, which was already possible. It simply is a different method to do so, and not an easy method, at that.
3D printing does a lot of good. It has allowed great strides in manufacturing and innovation. It’s important to be aware of how 3D printing works, and its limits, as well as the benefits it provides to society.
Let us strive for education and a deeper understanding of how all areas of concern can be optimized for both safety and innovation.
President & Founder of Halo Technologies, LLC
The views expressed in this publication do not necessarily reflect the views of the Halo Technologies LLC or its associates. For further inquiry, please contact Info@HaloTechnologiesLLC.com