Whether you like firearms or not, you might agree that they can serve the purpose of maintaining order when used in the proper way by the proper people. In order to be effective, and in the right hands, firearms need to first and foremost be reliable. If an “operator” has to press the trigger, he or she needs to be sure that the gun will fire. In that sense, any homemade gun, whether it involves 3D printing or not, cannot offer this guarantee, making it de facto useless for any legitimate purpose. Here opinions differ greatly. But even in the case of guns that are 3D printed for fun, or for the pure thrill of going against gun control regulations, where such regulations exist, how functional are 3D printed guns that are entirely or partially made of plastics?
A recent episode made the headlines begging exactly that question. According to a story that appeared on Click2Houston, social media users sounded off after a person allegedly received more than $3,000 for turning in “ghost guns”, including several fully 3D printed ones, at a gun buyback program hosted by Houston and Harris County officials. The 3D printed guns were all considered to be non-functional and received the minimum $50 rate which multiplied by more than 60 units, amounted to over $3,000. Now the question arises once again: can 3D printed guns even be considered to be functional at all?
This writer has previously argued that the debate around 3D printed guns serves little purpose other than creating fear and paranoia around a new technology that has many other uses. We think that is still the case but, in light of more evidence that has emerged, it may not be entirely useless, especially in terms of understanding what parts of guns can actually be 3D printed and why. It is in fact possible to 3D print some parts of guns using low-cost home 3D printers and affordable materials. While certainly able to fire several (even hundreds of) shots, these homemade devices appear to be far from reliable. they also still require a high amount of skills and regulated metal parts to actually work. A fully 3D printed plastic gun is very unlikely to ever function proficiently. While there are many degrees to which 3D printing can be implemented in a gun, the fact remains that any homemade firearm cannot be compared to an industrially manufactured one.
Some questions should be asked
The “no questions asked” One Safe Houston program provided gift cards valued between $50 and $200, depending on the condition and type of firearm, to those who turned in the weapons. All guns were to be unloaded prior to arriving on-site, officials said.
According to the original Houston Chronicle story, authorities collected a box of ghost guns during the buyback event held Saturday at Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church. A social media user, @ModeratorGeorge, posted the amount received was more than $3,000. An image published on social media, showed several of these to be 3D printed guns made entirely out of plastic. The irony of it all is that, according to the post, they were all bought back as non-functional.
The post reads, “Hey so we talked with the gentleman who sold these back they bought them back as non-functional for 50$ each [SIC] with 63 sold back. So 3150$ [SIC] for an investment of 6-12$ [SIC] per Harlot and Cabfare.” And, we may add, a few more dozen dollars in filament and machine time. Some commenters began to make jokes, saying the city was seemingly outsmarted by accepting the homemade firearms, which were made for less than what they were returned for, but city officials said getting all unwanted weapons off the streets was the goal.
So, how real were those guns?
Since our coverage of 3D printing at Beretta, one of the leaders in the global firearms market, 3dpbm received reports and comments pointing to user communities of 3D printed gun enthusiasts 3D printing different test models of semiautomatic and even automatic guns, based on designs that are freely available online.
The very first 3D printed gun model, the Liberator by Cody Wilson’s Defense Distributed, dates back almost a decade and it is still popular today even if it can hardly be described as reliable or even functional. Many of the 3D printed guns collected by Houston officials were models of the Liberator but today’s gun 3D printing communities use more powerful firearms. “Hobbyists have been printing functional firearms for years now,” said one reader comment, “and not just wimpy, one-time use, political stunts either. These are nearly fully 3D printed guns, rifles, pistols, and submachine guns. They can be built to be robust and reliable.” However, the reader goes on to admit that “they are not very easy to print and often require fine-tuning of the slicer and high-strength PLA or in rare cases Nylon/CF.”
Some examples of the free gun 3D models can be found on collaborative communities on Reddit and videos of guns being fired are available on YouTube channels. From the videos, it appears fairly clear that these are relatively rudimentary guns and that, as the author of the comment clarified, “the long-term reliability is almost yet to be completely understood as many designs have only been available for a relatively short period of time.”
According to another comment, “one of the most common filaments used to print guns is PLA+ from ESUN. this is a stronger PLA with a slightly different composition. It prints at a higher temperature and has the ability to be annealed […] Usually, the guns fail after a certain round count or how many bullets have been fired from the gun. This is often inconsistent and relies on factors such as print quality, build quality, type of ammo fired, design, and environment.
“Most good designs printed to spec can last anywhere from 1000-5000 rounds without major issues. Nylon/CF are still pretty new to the gun community so we don’t have enough data to really get an idea of longevity for those. We do know it is much stronger, just not sure how that applies to age/round count.”
One of the key issues, however, is that a fully 3D printed, functional and reliable plastic gun is implausible, if not outright impossible. Metal is a requirement for the barrel and other parts that ensure the gun does not explode in the user’s hand when fired. The barrel of a gun needs to have detailed and specific features that ensure the bullet exits in a straight line. Firing a few (or even several) random shots is not impossible (with a 3D printed gun as with any other rudimentary homemade firearm), but repeatedly and reliably firing shots in a time of need seems to be a very different matter.
Most 3D printed guns community members agree that “the use of metal parts in 3D printed designs is essentially required. All designs use metal parts to some extent. In some models, this may be as little as just a few screws, a tube, and a U.S. 10-cent coin whereas other designs require full kits designed for a given firearm. Usually designs that are built to be accessible to those who live in areas where guns are illegal, and purpose-built parts or parts kits are not legally source-able (or economically not feasible), are made from easy-to-get, legal, simple parts that would be impossible to ban (for example, you can’t ban a pipe that plumbers use every day just because it can also be used in guns). These designs, such as for example the FGC-9 model are actually aimed at lessening the effectiveness of gun control.
The FGC-9 was designed and built in the EU specifically because guns are hard to get there. It has (reportedly) been used to fight back against the oppressive government in Myanmar (Burma). However, its effectiveness has not been independently verified. In fact, at least one YouTube video shows the gun melting during use.
The upper and lower receivers of the FGC-9 are fully 3D printed, as are the pistol grip and stock. The structure of the magazine, based on the Glock magazine, can also be printed. For the MkI, an AR-15 or modified airsoft trigger system is needed for the fire control. In the MkII release, the developers released a package to 3D print the AR-15 trigger. The barrel can be rifled polygonally through electrochemical machining. The tooling cost for a completed FGC-9, including the price of the printer, is estimated to be about $500 (with electrochemical machining equipment. It can take an expert user between 1.5 to 2 weeks to build.
Fun in the gun
Now, if we shift our attention to those who build these guns out of entertainment as opposed to necessity, we see a lot more designs with purpose-built gun parts and parts kits. These would be the more popular AR-15 builds and Glock builds. The only required 3D printed parts in these builds are the receivers (which is the only part the U.S, government regulates). Some examples include the scorpion Evo, Mac-10/11, tac daddy. Despite the ability to print other required parts for the guns to function, in these cases it is easier, cheaper, safer, and more common to use off-the-shelf parts.
There are also hybrid designs that use generic metal parts and more 3D printed parts. These parts can be sourced easily using hardware supply stores online and online gun parts stores for the purpose-built gun parts. Many parts have to be shaped by hand and instructions are generally provided alongside the 3D printed files.
According to a user comment, “about 25% of the community designs, prints and contributes purely for going against gun control. Another 25% of the community is purely there for the sport and fun of it and taking it like a hobby and stretching the limits of 3D printing. Then I’d say the remaining 50% is somewhere in the middle where they have varying feelings about each side.”
But the bottom line, this user agrees, is that “[3D printing] guns still take time, knowledge, and trial and error just like gunsmithing with metal guns. You cannot just download a gun and print it in a few hours and go use it right away. It often takes days of printing (100% infill for strength), hours of assembly, and hours of tuning. It is not practical for the majority of criminals to use 3D printed weaponry hence it’s rare to see it used for committing crimes today.”
Back to the Houston buyback, it should be noted that the issue is relative to all ghost guns, not just 3D printed ones. Ghost guns are privately-made firearms without serial numbers. Generally, firearms manufactured by licensed companies are required to have serial numbers that allow officials to trace the gun back to the manufacturer, the firearms dealer and the original purchaser. Purchases of kits or individual parts do not require a background check, meaning they can essentially be bought by anyone, including children. Some ghost guns can be fabricated using kits and parts purchased online in as little as 30 minutes.
The mayor did acknowledge receipt of the weapons, noting that, in the future, more guidelines may be put in place. “One of our primary goals in this gun buyback program and any future event is to establish a safe and secure environment for citizens to turn in unwanted guns. As a part of my One Safe Houston initiative, this is a major component that allows the community to proactively assist us in getting unwanted guns off the street that could find their way into the hands of those committing violent crimes.
“The community response was robust and we also learned that in future gun buybacks, we will need to establish some guidelines regarding Privately Manufactured Firearms (more commonly referred to as Ghost Guns or PMFs). These firearms can come in many styles and configurations and thus, in the future, we will communicate well in advance if PMFs will be accepted during the buyback program. This program was not designed to establish a place for PMFs to be profitable but rather to get unwanted firearms off the streets of Houston that could become crime guns.”