The first 3D-printed gun was successfully fired on Sunday (May 5) by Cody Wilson, founder of Defense Distributed, an organization committed to the distribution of open source firearm designs for 3-D printers . The Liberator, as it is called, can fire a single .380 real bullet without apparent damage to the plastic gun. Anyone can download the plans for free from Wilson's site.
But some remain unconvinced. "Big Joe" Checchio, a lifelong hunter who grew up in Philadelphia and now resides in Salt Lake City, was not impressed.
"A weapon like this would just be a novelty," Checchio told TechNewsDaily. "It couldn't be used for hunting and not even for target practice."
Still, the manufacture of a plastic barrel, the part that must withstand extreme pressure when a gun is fired, represents the first technological breakthrough in firearm production in a long time.
"Firearm technology, other than little doohickeys here and there, has remained stagnant for 150 years or so," Clark Aposhian, chairman of Utah Shooting Sports Council, the state's primary gun lobbyist, said. "Since self-contained cartridges were the last innovation."
Aposhian said Wilson's Liberator is a leap forward, but not an enormous one.
People have been making their own guns for a long time, and it's perfectly legal, he said. "The ATF does not regulate the manufacture of a firearm of your own (with the exception of military-style guns, such as machine guns), as long as you don't sell them," he said.
All the same, the prospects of a working plastic gun have some lawmakers worried. The 3D-printed gun test took New York Rep. Steve Israel by surprise.
"When I started talking about the issue of plastic firearms months ago, I was told the idea of a plastic gun is science-fiction ," Israel said in a released statement. "Now that this technology is proven, we need to act now."
The concern over plastic guns stems from their ability to pass through metal detectors at airports and other security checkpoints. Israel has called for the renewal of the 1988 Undetected Firearms Act, set to expire this year, before "these weapons are as easy to come by as a Google search." Reauthorization of the act would extend it for 10 years.
Wilson's Liberator design includes instructions on affixing a 6-ounce piece of steel inside a hole in the gun's frame to comply with the law. The files can be downloaded from a link on defcad.org to Kim Dot Com's Mega file-sharing site. The download include 16 .stl files (stl stands for Stereolithography) that can be read via CAD software running a 3D printer. Wilson used an $8,000 secondhand Stratasys Dimension SST printer. [See also: Are 3D Printers Worth It? ]
But even if makers were to ignore the instructions and make an illegal plastic gun without the metal insert, they'd still face a big challenge. "Sure, you can smuggle a plastic weapon through security, but ammunition is not easily hidden," Checchio said.
Further, he said he doesn't see why criminals would bother with 3D-printed guns when $100 "Saturday night special" revolvers are so easy to come by, can shoot a full round and are less conspicuous.
"Just look at the bulk of that weapon — it would be hard to hide," Checchio said. "Pull it out and someone might start laughing."
As for the proliferation of cheap 3D-printed guns, that's unlikely to happen anytime soon.
"Unless you get a federal firearms license, you can't offset the cost by selling them," Aposhian said. "And even then, you'd still be at double or triple the cost of a regular gun at best."
However, Aposhian was intrigued by the 3D-printing technology. We asked him if he would allow a 3D printed gun to be used in one of his firearms safety classes. The liability would pose too great a risk for use in classes and at the firing range, he said. He said he won't do it until the technology has been thoroughly tested and becomes commonplace. [ See also: 3D-Printable Gun Part Fails on Sixth Shot ]
"I would love to try one out, but I won't," Aposhian said. "It would be like a test pilot in an untested airplane design."
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