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.
By Friday at noon, photographs of the world’s first 3-D-printed gun published on this site set off a new round of controversy in a story that has shoved one of the most hyped trends in technology into one of the most contentious crossfires in American politics. New York Congressman Steve Israel responded to Defense Distributed’s work by renewing his call for a revamp of the Undetectable Firearms Act, which bans any firearm that doesn’t set off a metal detector. “Security checkpoints, background checks, and gun regulations will do little good if criminals can print plastic firearms at home and bring those firearms through metal detectors with no one the wiser,” read a statement sent to me and other reporters.
On Sunday, New York Senator Charles Schumer echoed Israel’s call for that new legislation to ban 3-D-printable guns. “A terrorist, someone who’s mentally ill, a spousal abuser, a felon can essentially open a gun factory in their garage,” Schumer said in a press conference.
Israel and Schumer are hardly the first to oppose Wilson’s gun-printing mission. Last August, Defense Distributed’s fundraising campaign was booted from the crowdfunding platform Indiegogo . In October, 3-D printer maker Stratasys seized a printer leased to the group after it found out how the machine was being used. And Wilson says he’s lost access to two workshop spaces after those renting to him learned about his mission. Instead, Defense Distributed has had to move its workshop to a 38-square-foot room at the southern edge of Austin that’s about the size of a walk-in closet, hardly larger than the refrigerator-sized 3D printer it houses.
But at each roadblock, the group has found a detour. It’s raised funds from donors through the digital currency Bitcoin, which thanks to that crypto-currency’s rising value now accounts for 99 per cent of Defense Distributed’s assets, according to Wilson. In March it received a federal license to manufacture firearms, which Wilson has framed and posted on the wall of the group’s miniscule workshop. And it’s complied with the Undetectable Firearms Act by inserting a six ounce chunk of non-functional steel into the body of the Liberator, which makes it detectable with a metal detector – Wilson spent $400 on a walk-through model that he’s installed at the workshop’s door for testing. “Our strategy is overcompliance,” he says. (There’s no guarantee, of course, that anyone who downloads and prints the Liberator will insert the same chunk of detectable steel.)
The group’s initial success in testing the Liberator may now silence some of its technical naysayers, too. Many skeptics (include commenters on this blog) have claimed that no plastic gun could ever handle the pressure and heat of detonating an ammunition cartridge without deforming or exploding. But Defense Distributed’s design has done just that. After the test-firing I witnessed, Wilson showed me a video of an ABS plastic barrel the group printed attached to a non-printed gun body firing ten rounds of .380 ammunition before breaking on the eleventh.
Even Wilson himself says he’s not sure exactly how that’s possible. But one important trick may be the group’s added step of treating the gun’s barrel in a jar of acetone vaporized with a pan of water and a camp stove, a process that chemically melts its surface slightly and smooths the bore to avoid friction. The Dimension printer Defense Distributed used also keeps its print chamber heated to 167 degrees Fahrenheit, a method patented by Stratasys that improves the parts’ resiliency.
Defense Distributed’s goal is to eventually adapt its method to work on cheaper printers, too, like the $2,200 Replicator sold by Makerbot or the even cheaper, open-source RepRap. Even if a barrel is deformed after firing, Defense Distributed has designed the Liberator to use removable barrels that can be swapped in and out in seconds.
Wilson hasn’t shied from the growing controversy around his project. The Sandy Hook, Connecticut massacre in which a lone gunman killed twenty children and six adults only increased his sense of urgency to circumvent the anticipated wave of gun control laws. As Congress mulled limits on ammunition magazines larger than ten rounds, Defense Distributed created 3D-printable 30-round magazines for AR-15 and AK-47 rifles. In March, it released a YouTube video of a 3-D-printable AR-15 lower receiver that can fire hundreds of rounds without failing. The lower receiver is the regulated body of the gun. Anyone who prints it can skirt gun laws and order the rest of the weapon’s parts by mail.
Much of the criticism has focused on Wilson himself, by far the most visible figure in Defense Distributed’s collection of 15 on-and-off volunteer designers and engineers spread across the world. He’s received more than a dozen death threats, along with many wishes that someone would use his own 3-D printed weapons to kill him. Wired included Wilson in its list of the 15 most dangerous people in the world . The Coalition To Stop Gun Violence calls him a “hardcore insurrectionist” who advocates anti-government violence. “This guy is basically saying ‘print your own guns and be ready to kill government officials,’” says Ladd Everitt, a CSGV spokesperson. “The fact that we’re not talking about [him in those terms] after the Boston bombings is incredible.”
But Wilson denies advocating any sort of violent revolt in America. Instead, he argues that his goal is to demonstrate how technology can circumvent laws until governments simply become irrelevant. “This is about enabling individuals to create their own sovereign space…The government will increasingly be on the sidelines, saying ‘hey, wait,’” says Wilson. “It’s about creating the new order in the crumbling shell of the old order.”
Wilson doesn’t deny that his gun could be used for murder or political violence. “I recognize that this tool might be used to harm people. That’s what it is: It’s a gun,” he says. “But I don’t think that’s a reason to not put it out there. I think that liberty in the end is a better interest.”
He prefers to think of his Liberator in the same terms as its namesake, the one built for distribution to resistance fighters in Nazi-occupied countries in the 1940s. That plan was conceived in part as a psychological operation aimed at lowering the occupying forces’ morale, Wilson says, and he believes his project will strike a similar symbolic blow against governments around the world. “The enemy took notice that weapons were being dropped from the sky,” he says. “Our execution will be better. We have the Internet.”
On a blazing Saturday afternoon, Wilson returns to the remote firing range where he first tested the Liberator. None of his Defense Distributed compatriots have joined him this time – John the engineer is away at the annual meeting of the National Rifle Association in Houston. But Wilson is accompanied by his father, Dennis, a lawyer from Little Rock, Arkansas who has flown in to witness a historic moment: His son plans to fire a fully 3-D-printed weapon by hand for the first time.
Wilson has spent the last few days tweaking the Liberator’s CAD file and re-printing its barrel, hammer and body to realign its firing pin and solve the misfire issue. But he becomes quieter as the moment of testing approaches. His father asks how far it is to the nearest hospital: a 45 minute drive. We consider how to make a tourniquet if things go badly. “You guys are going to make me lose my nerve,” says Wilson, smiling nervously.
Everyone but Wilson falls back behind him. Wilson opens the case holding the newly-printed pieces and assembles them, then loads the gun and inserts ear plugs into his ears.
He inhales sharply, aims the Liberator, fires it, and then exhales, in quick succession.
“Outstanding,” says Dennis Wilson. “Congratulations, my son.”
Wilson visibly relaxes. He shakes his father’s hand with his own fully-intact digits. Later he’ll examine the gun and find no obvious signs of damage other than a cracked pin used to hold the barrel in place.
For a few moments, Wilson seems lost for words. His expression is hidden behind his sunglasses. Then he says the first thing that comes to his mind. “Well, there are going to be some changes around here.”