Before “three” arrives, a shot reverberates across the overcast central Texas landscape. A tall, sandy blond engineer named John has just pulled a twenty-foot length of yellow string tied to a trigger, which has successfully fired the world’s first entirely 3-D-printed gun for the very first time, rocketing a .380 caliber bullet into a berm of dirt and prairie brush.
“F****n’ A!” yells John, who has asked me not to publish his full name. He hurries over to examine the firearm bolted to an aluminum frame. But the first to get there is Cody Wilson, a square-jawed and stubbled 25 year-old in a polo shirt and baseball cap. John may have pulled the trigger, but the gun is Wilson’s brainchild. He’s spent more than a year dreaming of its creation, and dubbed it “the Liberator” in an homage to the cheap, one-shot pistols designed to be air-dropped by the Allies over France during its Nazi occupation in The Second World War.
Unlike the original, steel Liberator, though, Wilson’s weapon is almost entirely plastic: Fifteen of its 16 pieces have been created inside an $8,000 second-hand Stratasys Dimension SST 3-D printer, a machine that lays down threads of melted polymer that add up to precisely-shaped solid objects just as easily as a traditional printer lays ink on a page. The only non-printed piece is a common hardware store nail used as its firing pin.
Wilson crouches over the gun and pulls out the barrel, which was printed over the course of four hours earlier the same morning. Despite the explosion that just occurred inside of it, both the barrel and the body of the gun seem entirely unscathed.
Wilson scrutinizes his creation for a few more seconds, then stands up again. “I think we did it,” he says, a little incredulous.
Last August, Wilson, a law student at the University of Texas and a radical libertarian and anarchist, announced the creation of an Austin-based non-profit group called Defense Distributed, with the intention of creating a firearm anyone could fabricate using only a 3-D printer. The digital blueprints for that so-called Wiki Weapon, as Wilson imagined it, could be uploaded to the Web and downloaded by anyone, anywhere in the world, hamstringing attempts at gun control and blurring the line between firearm regulation and information censorship. “You can print a lethal device. It’s kind of scary, but that’s what we’re aiming to show,” Wilson told me at the time. “Anywhere there’s a computer and an Internet connection, there would be the promise of a gun.”
On May 1st, Wilson assembled the 3-D-printed pieces of his Liberator for the first time, and agreed to let a Forbes photographer take pictures of the unproven device. A day later, that gun was tested on a remote private shooting range an hour’s drive from Austin, Texas, whose exact location Wilson asked me not to reveal.
The verdict: it worked. The Liberator fired a standard .380 handgun round without visible damage, though it also misfired on another occasion when the firing pin failed to hit the primer cap in the loaded cartridge due a misalignment in the hammer body, resulting in an anti-climactic thunk.
The printed gun seems limited, for now, to certain calibers of ammunition. After the handgun round, Wilson switched out the Liberator’s barrel for a higher-charge 5.7×28 rifle cartridge. He and John retreated to a safe distance, and John pulled his yellow string again. This time the gun exploded, sending shards of white ABS plastic flying into the weeds and bringing the Liberator’s first field trial to an abrupt end.
On the ride back to Austin after that first test-fire, Wilson seemed less than satisfied with the relative success of his 3D printed creation. He fixated on its misfiring and brooded about the tight deadline he’d given himself to work out its kinks before sharing the design on the Web. “I feel no sense of achievement,” he told me. “There’s a lot of work to be done.”
And the most significant test of the Wiki Weapon was still to come, a moment of truth that may have been looming in Wilson’s mind after watching his first prototype explode into plastic shrapnel: Firing the Liberator by hand.