Of course you'd download a car. Or a gun!

Publication date: 6 December 2014
Last modified 07-Dec-2014.


A little while ago, everybody from hacker blogs to Forbes Magazine was abuzz about the fact that you can use a 3D printer to make a firearm.

Liberator pistol

A plastic firearm, even, whose only metal component is one tiny little steel nail for a firing pin. So any metal detector that won't detect a navel ring won't detect this gun, either.

(And before you ask, yes, you could feasibly smuggle at least one round of ordinary ammunition past the metal detector as well. A walk-through airport-type metal detector probably won't trigger for a single pistol cartridge, or possibly even several. If you're planning to murder that cop who gave your car a defect notice for no reason at all, though, then to be thorough you should probably make some bullets and casings out of glass and plastic, or something, and then wait until the winds are favourable and stealthily approach the police station in a hot-air balloon.)

I've written about affordable 3D printers - the single item most symbolic of the modern "Maker" movement - on several occasions. I, like everybody else who has even cursory interest in this rapidly-moving and fascinating technology, was surprised only that it took so long for an oh-my-god-they're-printing-guns scandal to erupt.

You can use 3D printers to make all sorts of wonderful things. Replacements for your old stove knobs, a cheap filter holder for your expensive camera lens, parts for your model plane, spare parts for your space station, or a shower head of your own design inside a T-Rex skull that someone else made and kindly released for other people to use.

Exactly that rabbit your niece saw on Thingiverse in her choice of colour, or a pencil-holder distinctly different from any the stationery shop can sell you, or a 3D representation of an audio waveform or your Twitter activity.

You can recreate prosaic widgets that shouldn't be as expensive as they are. Or make astronomical telescopes. Physical visualisations of abstract code or audio waveforms. Molecular models. Jewellery. Parts for vintage cars (or, at least, forms for parts to be sand-cast and finished in the traditional way.) Puzzles. Prostheses optimised for children. Or for dogs! 3D models of astronomical phenomena. Rubber-band guns, which 3D printers are much better suited to making than the lethal kind. A small castle.

It's even possible to print LP records now, though not very well at all. (Laser-cut wooden records, also mentioned in that article, are as yet similarly underwhelming. But c'mon - wooden record!)

But we always knew it'd be guns that'd make the headlines.

There have, you see, been plenty of previous panics about plastic pistols. It's not difficult to use home-handyman tools to make a single-shot or primitive multi-barrel firearm out of any reasonably sturdy material. Hardwood, nylon, polypropylene, even cement or pottery reinforced with fibres, are all workable materials. As long as you don't want much accuracy, high-powered ammunition or a gun that'll fire even a dozen rounds without breaking, all sorts of improbable materials will do the job. This definitely includes the plastics that home 3D printers extrude.

There'd already been one minor printed-gun scare, about making the "receiver" for an AR-15 rifle on a printer. But the receiver is just the central component of the weapon, which under US law is arbitrarily defined as the registerable firearm. Beyond this legal technicality, a receiver is not a gun. All of the actual machinery and stressed components of that "printed" AR-15 - magazine, ammunition, trigger group, barrel, feed system, et cetera - was made in normal factories.

(The AR-15's a very popular and highly modular weapon; you could probably build one out of functional components from twelve different manufacturers, and then stick another twelve manufacturers' worth of tacticool add-on crap on it.)

You could carve an AR-15 receiver out of wood and probably end up with a more reliable result than the 3D-printed version.

(This is a common phenomenon in the 3D printing world at the moment. For every object that would have been very hard to make without a home 3D printer, someone prints at least ten objects that you could make with a few basic hand tools, and/or magic low-melting-point plastic stuff not extruded by a printer, in less time than it took to print. But as with all fields that haven't yet crossed over from "enthusiast" to "mainstream", it's the printing itself that's the fun part here.)

In contrast, the "Liberator" pistol truly is a printed gun, unless you rely on another technicality and say that it's not 100% printed, because of that one nail it uses as a firing pin.

The new Liberator was named after the FP-45 Liberator, a stamped-metal single-shot 45-calibre pistol that the Allies sprinkled over occupied France in World War II. The idea was that civilians could use this crappy giveaway gun to kill an unsuspecting German and then use his, much more effective, gun for further Resistance mayhem. Later on there was a shotgun design also named Liberator, intended for the same purpose.

So far as anyone can determine, none of the more than 20,000 Liberator pistols distributed in WWII were used for this purpose, despite France actually being an occupied nation containing millions of angry civilians and hundreds of thousands of distinctively-uniformed targets. This was probably because it was difficult to find anyone in occupied France who wanted to be a German-killer, but didn't already have some gun better than an FP-45 with which to do that job. Which is to say, almost any gun at all, arguably including flintlocks.

Like the old WWII Liberator pistol, the new 3D-printed one is a single-shot weapon of questionable reliability and very poor accuracy. Its extraordinarily chunky barrel is so fat because it's made of soft 3D-printed plastic, which may actually be a worse material to make a gun out of than wood. The Liberator's barrel can only barely withstand the pressure from a relatively feeble .380 ACP cartridge, and every shot it fires will chew the smoothbore barrel out a bit more, reducing accuracy and muzzle velocity even further every time. Even in ideal circumstances, a .380 has only roughly two-thirds the muzzle energy of the globally common 9mm Parabellum, and I wouldn't be a bit surprised if the plastic Liberator halved its muzzle energy with each successive shot.

But even a low-velocity low-accuracy .380 is not something you want shot at you - plenty of people have been killed most effectively with even weaker rounds, like .25s or .22 Shorts. If John Wilkes Booth had loaded his little Deringer with an unwisely large amount of powder, it would have struggled to achieve a quarter of the muzzle energy of a .380 ACP. But it nonetheless pushed a lead ball almost entirely through Abraham Lincoln's head.

So it's not crazy to feel a bit nervous about your neighbour who believes the Mossad have implanted radios in his teeth whipping up a plastic Liberator in an afternoon. Especially if ammo is freely available where you live.

Your nutty neighbour wouldn't have any trouble getting hold of the printer-program files to make a Liberator, either. This is because the US government demanded the files be taken down, whereupon the Streisand Effect immediately propelled said files onto zillions of computers across the world. The printable gun's instant notoriety led to it now being called a "Wiki weapon", and it's now the flagship pseudo-product of "Defense Distributed"! (...who have fortunately now dialed down their early almost-caricatured libertarian pomposity...)

As that "wiki" thing may have suggested to you, some people have improved the Liberator design now, making the gun printable on something other than the expensive Stratasys machine used to make the first version, and even adding a rudimentary magazine.

Great job banning that info, boys!

If you can't get ammunition, of course, then it doesn't matter how many guns you've got. And 3D printers can't print ammo.

(Well, home 3D printers can't, at any rate. It'd be theoretically possible to hack a very expensive multi-material commercial 3D printer to create some kind of firearm cartridge, and if the odd variety of 3D printer that outputs food ever takes off, then it'd probably be able to help. If I were you, I'd not stand around near the printer with the fulminate/azide feedstock. I would also house it in a shed with very solid walls and a very flimsy roof.)

Not to go all Anarchist Cookbook on you or anything, though, but it must be said that it's not very difficult to make ammo without fancy additive (3D printer) or subtractive (conventional machining) equipment. All you need is ball, patch and readily-formulated powder if you're willing to settle for making yourself a musket, and separate cartridges aren't hugely more difficult.

(Again, trekking back through the history of the firearm helps, here. The earliest cartridges were made out of paper.)

Even the primers aren't a problem. You can buy everything you need for those in a toy shop. And if you're not quite up to making whole one-piece cartridges, there's always cap-and-ball.

The malleable nature of 3D-printed firearms mean you could easily adapt them for different ammo types. The Liberator's not the only 3D-printed gun, either. A chap in Japan called Yoshitomo Imura recently got two years for printing guns, including Liberators and a pistol of his own design, christened the "Zig Zag" revolver. The Zig Zag is a different flavour of ungainly plastic gun, with a distinctive grooved pepperbox magazine/barrel based on an old Mauser. And now the Zig Zag is, of course, itself being crowdsourced into a more effective weapon, to the great excitement of the usual panicmongers.

(Other 3D-printable pistols are trickling onto the market. And by "market", I mean "The Pirate Bay".)

All of this is not really a big deal, though, because if you live in a country with hardware stores and neighbours who aren't itching to earn themselves a slightly higher place in the nine-year queue for a can of beans by narcing on you to the secret police, using a 3D printer to make a gun is almost as silly as using one to make ammo. Perhaps one day home 3D printers will output advanced materials truly suitable for gunsmithing, but in the meantime the home-made-firearm enthusiast has plenty of much better options. Like, say, making an actually fully-functional, if inaccurate, submachine gun in their garage.

We know this, because large nations have applied themselves to making it possible. The single-shot WWII Liberator may have been a failure, but there are several proven designs of considerably more complex but far more effective weapons suitable for clandestine manufacture by resistance groups, or for arming the boys and geriatrics who're supposed to be defending the last particles of your disintegrated Reich but who're actually just trying to break through the Soviet encirclement so they can surrender to someone who won't confiscate their clothes and then march them to Siberia.

More simply, if you have two nesting pieces of steel pipe, an endcap and a screw, about half an hour later you can be enjoying your brand new single-shot 12-gauge shotgun. (If you simply must print something for it, print some nice handgrips and a stock. Congratulations on your new guerilla gun!)

Garage-built multi-barrel shotguns are perfectly possible, too. And it wouldn't take much of a machine shop to make a Pocket Pal, with all the ironclad reliability of the real thing.

Countless people, some of whom went on to be famous gunsmiths, have knocked up shonky killing machines in the garage. Look at Evelyn Owens' triggerless, safetyless, thoroughly alarming .22 Machine Carbine, for instance. It had bits of other rifles in it, but at a cost to accuracy could have been all home-made, with a piece of pipe for a barrel.

People manage to make functional firearms in prison, for heaven's sake. The guys who do that are not Tony Stark. It is not that hard.

Oh, and good news, everyone! Bombs aren't hard to make, either!

The abovementioned Anarchist Cookbook is famously inaccurate, but there are a thousand ways to make something that goes bang, and much of the data on random Web pages on this subject is quite accurate, if unsafe.

And if you want an un-metal-detectable knife then I suppose you could make your own somehow, but it's easier to go to the supermarket and buy a ceramic one, especially one of the tougher black ones. I think the nice cheap eBay ones are less likely to have a bit of metal in the handle specifically to make them detectable!

But there has not been a sudden outbreak of ceramic-knife attacks in courtrooms and prisons and aircraft and so forth since ceramic knives became commonly available in the Nineties, or even since they became cheap eBay items much more recently. Likewise, improvised bombs and firearms are not actually a problem in the Western world. Compared with any number of things that people do not usually worry about - for instance, the large number of poorly-maintained cars on the road - the number of First-World zip-gun fatalities rounds down to zero.

When I try to calm people down about stuff like this, I tend to say things like, well, like what I just said there.

For some reason, this often seems to make people more alarmed than they were in the first place.

But the ready availability of implements of mayhem is tempered, even in societies with high-quality commercially-manufactured guns all over the place, by the natural human tendency toward civilised behaviour without which we would have had trouble developing fire and the wheel, never mind the Internet and 3D printers.

If suddenly a 3D printer came out that cost twenty bucks and could turn out a Sten gun and a big box of ammo in an afternoon, that might actually make a difference to the amount of shooting going on in your neighbourhood. But we've always had weapons close to hand, and it's always been possible to make more and better weapons at home. Panicking about some newfound source of deadly weaponry, or drug alleged to turn its users into cannibal sex monsters, or particular kind of bomb and bomb-maker, and decide that everything was pretty much OK yesterday, but today civilisation is in danger, because of whatever they just discovered.

An essential ingredient for terrorist attacks and non-political random violence (it may be too late to rescue the definition of terrorism as "violence against civilians in pursuit of a political goal", since it's now been defined in legislation as "anything that terrifies someone"...) is someone who actually wants to perform such an attack. The very existence of civilised societies that are peaceful almost everywhere almost all of the time demonstrates that terrorists, psychotic murderers, violent religious fanatics and every other kind of slavering death-junkie are, thankfully, in short supply. People are basically civilised. If that weren't the case, the waiter wouldn't bring you the bill at the end of your meal and then go away, leaving you with a clear path to an unlocked exit.

Even if someone widely distributed magic machines that spat out an AK-47 and a thousand rounds of ammo whenever you dropped some scrap metal in the top and pressed a button, said machine would not manufacture any more loonies willing to use said instant gun to do terrible things. Those instant AKs would see use in domestic violence, suicides, accidental deaths due to drunken gunplay and/or trying to look badass on Facebook, and all the other things that gun owners' guns are much more likely to be used for than defending their family and possessions. But weapons are only one part of the crime-and/or-terrorism recipe, and you can't bake that cake without the other ingredients.

(Chief among these ingredients is "a supply of people with nothing left to lose". This is the biggest problem with the "we need guns to protect ourselves from government harassment" line of argument, which is difficult to believe when it comes from someone who does not seem very likely to give up their job, their family and all of their assets to become a peripatetic guerrilla harasser of Government operations.)

This same argument applies to all the other devices and technologies that modern spy-on-everyone, your-papers-please governments want to keep out of civilian hands.

People can, for instance, use encryption to keep secret their planning of terrible crimes. Almost nobody uses it for that, though, because people are basically civilised.

I suppose it's even barely possible that some dude taking a picture of a bridge or police station is planning some kind of attack, though this is really pushing it. It's difficult to find a single example of this happening outside active warzones, though, because people are basically civilised.

And people can use 3D printers to make weapons, and then use those weapons to do dreadful things. But, et cetera.

The human mind and human societies have evolved over millennia to make almost everybody behave in a basically civilised manner.

This is good, because there are an infinite number of ways to do something bad. The project of demonstrating one's Toughness On Crime by banning every way to be evil one by one is about as sensible as declaring one's intention to reclaim a million hectares from the sea and build upon it a perfect society, by assiduous application of one shovel and one wheelbarrow.

It's impossible to outlaw every kind of bad behaviour. And outlawing outlandish and alarming-sounding activities with vote-trollingly specific legislation almost invariably only actually manages to stop harmless fun and/or gainful employment. In fact, it frequently makes the actual base problem worse.

If you're concerned about the toxicity of certain drugs, for instance, outlawing those compounds and thus forcing people to fall back on not-yet-illegal compounds that don't work as well is not what I'd call a big win.

Even in the USA, where half the population seem to actively enjoy shooting each other, total firearms deaths including suicides and justifiable homicides only add up to two-thirds of the road-accident death toll. In Australia, where I live, you're ten times as likely to die by falling off something as you are to be shot dead - and that's including the more than 70% of gun deaths that are suicides. Leave out suicides and you're 37 times as likely to die by falling than you are to be shot.

A plastic gun that can barely hit a barn if the shooter's standing inside it won't raise these numbers any more than hardware-store Mad-Max zip-guns have. Even if people do print them all over the place and carry them everywhere they go, you'll still probably protect your life more effectively by being more careful when climbing ladders, rather than dropping large amounts of taxpayer money into an anti-printed-gun program.

There was no headline news about people computer-printing currency at home when the state of the 2D-printer art was the 24-pin dot-matrix. And printing your own money is a much more attractive prospect, for most people, than printing your own gun. So regulatory action may be required if 3D printers manage to output reliable submachine guns and their ammo, but there are good reasons to believe that won't be possible until the Technological Singularity. (And then we'll of course need all the guns we can get to fight the killbots.)

I think most people understand this, but most people also don't make laws.

So if you hear a political candidate attacking 3D printers on law-and-order grounds, make sure they're in favour of banning metal pipes, nails, cap guns, garden supplies, construction paper and fishing sinkers as well.

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