No Assembly Transpired: What We Learned from Failing to 3D-Print a Gun

At long last, someone other than Defense Distributed has taken group's 3D-printable design and turned it into a working firearm and fired it. But, and I cannot emphasize this enough, this gun is not easy to make as it's been portrayed, nor as cheap, nor very legal, and the weapon itself is terrible—if you're not too terrified to pull the trigger. 3D-printable guns may be the future, but, after our own  fruitless tribulations attempting to duplicate the feat, we're ready to say they are not the present.

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Forbes' Andy Greenberg, who has been avidly covering the developments surrounding the "Liberator," the 3D design for a gun created by Defense Distributed, reported on Monday that a designer in Wisconsin, who he called "Joe," had printed and tested the weapon. As seen in the video below, filmed by Joe's friend Michael Guslick.

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Greenberg describes why Joe's experiment could be significant:

Joe’s proof-of-concept could raise the stakes another notch in the growing controversy over 3D-printed guns, an idea that threatens to circumvent gun control and let anyone download and create a lethal weapon in their garage as easily as they download and print a Word document. The first successfully fired 3D-printed gun that Defense Distributed revealed to Forbes earlier this month, dubbed the Liberator, was printed on an $8,000 secondhand Stratasys Dimension SST printer, a refrigerator-sized industrial machine. In testing, that prototype has generally only been fired once per printed barrel. The gun printed by Joe, which he’s nicknamed the “Lulz Liberator,” was printed over 48 hours with just $25 of plastic on a desktop machine affordable to many consumers, and was fired far more times. “People think this takes an $8,000 machine and that it blows up on the first shot. I want to dispel that,” says Joe. “This does work, and I want that to be known.”

Sorrrrrrrt of. Allow me to assure you, from recently acquired personal experience, this is not nearly as easy as it sounds. It was not even as easy for Joe as he implies. And there's a complicating factor that could add a bit of cost or complexity: the very possible chance that anyone who prints this gun could end up in jail.

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Printing a 3D gun, take two

When Defense Distributed first released its plans for the Liberator, I did my best to print it. Or, I should say, I did my best to have it printed. Being one of the vast majority of Americans who doesn't own a 3D printer, I tried to find someone in the greater New York City region who would help me print the parts.

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No one would. The first thing you learn when you discuss the prospect of 3D-printing a gun is that people who own 3D printers are deeply aware of the legal implications of doing so, and you probably should be, too. But we'll get to that.

A friend who has some experience with 3D printing decided to step in and help (after some pleading). He loaned me a MakerBot Thing-O-Matic, a machine so sophisticated and capable that MakerBot no longer makes it. As he handed me the device (cautioning about its idiosyncracies), he included an admonition: I would not be able to print the thing. He spent hours a day working on the device when he first got it, and only at that point was he able to get it to do what he wanted. But I, like Icarus on melted plastic wings, figured I knew better.

The printer on my desk in the living room, about which my wife was not pleased. Show labels.

The printer on my desk in the living room, about which my wife was not pleased. Hide labels.


A quick tour of the device: The large spool sitting on top of it is the filament, the actual plastic that gets melted by the extruder. That extruder is in the center of the device, wrapped in a heat-protecting film. The filament flows through the extruder, which melts it and places onto the heated print bed in precise coordinates. After a short while, you have your 3D-printed object.

This is how it works in theory. Granted, I didn't have a manual, so my set-up process was more arduous than most. But I spent hours getting it set up — getting the right cords, figuring out what software was needed, what version of each part I was dealing with, and so on. I had to clear out the old filament, which involved figuring out temperature settings and reversing the machinery in the extruder. I had to run the new filament in. I had to learn how to use the printing software.

Which got me to the point where I was ready to theoretically challenge the ability of the government to regulate guns. I was not alone. Last week, Caleb Kraft, an experienced 3D printer, tried to print the design. "I quickly found that just printing this thing was going to be a time consuming and frustrating task," he wrote.

1. The scale on the individual files was way off.

I suspect this has something to do with the printer it was designed for. It seemed very close to being 1 inch = 1 mm. Not a completely uncommon problem. Manually resizing got some files to look right, but I found many simply wouldn’t resize.

2. Almost every single item had errors.

If you’ve done 3d printing, you’ve found that a model can have all kinds of issues that will stop it from printing correctly. I found every single item for the gun had errors. I actually learned a lot about how to repair non-manifold items from this exercise, so it was good in the end.

Imagine that you're handed the keys to a car and told to head to town — but the car needs oil and the transmission sticks. You might write something like the above, as an experienced car user. "Well, it needed oil, so I learned to do that," etc. Now imagine you were handed those keys after having lived in the woods for the first 20 years of your life. That was my comparable experience with the Thing-O-Matic.

Printing a 3D object is not like printing a sheet of paper. It requires the placement of melted plastic in very precise locations in three dimensions. (On the Thing-O-Matic, the print bed moves side-to-side and forward and backward — through the X and Y dimensions. The extruder moves up and down. You can see it work in the video at right.) This means two things. One, it is very easy to give the machine the wrong information. Two, once a print job is messed up, it is ruined for good. You can't start reprinting at page 10. You have to restart printing at point one. And for a decently sized object, that could mean hours of work lost.

Things that went wrong for me: The temperature was set too low, so the filament didn't melt enough and wouldn't print fast enough to keep up with the print bed. The temperature was set too high, so the filament got very mushy. (The range between too low and too high was about 20 degrees Celsius.) The proper temperature changed from day to day. Every single time — every single time — the printed object would become detached from the print bed, sometimes after half an hour of printing. This meant that the X and Y coordinates were off as the extruder kept printing, meaning the piece was ruined.

But I did have some success. At right is one of the two parts that I ultimately printed successfully. It is a washer. It is neither big nor particularly deadly. Now you may be thinking. You're a novice. You made a lot of mistakes. This is true; I am and I did. (An aside: If you're a 3D printing expert whose first instinct is to tell me what an idiot I am and how easy all of these things were, give me a year or two to cool off before you tell me these things, or my response might not be gracious.) 

But this is where the terms of the Defense Distributed experiment become important. The point of the Liberator was not to demonstrate that a 3D printer can produce a firearm. As their manifesto reads, they want to "change the way we think about gun control and consumption. How do governments behave if they must one day operate on the assumption that any and every citizen has near instant access to a firearm through the Internet?" So, if the experiment is meant to show how easy and cheap this is, I can present at least some evidence that it is neither (unless you already have a $1,500 3D printer). And if you don't believe me, look at the example of Joe and his videographer, Michael Guslick.

The Lulz Liberator

After the Forbes story came out, I spoke with the men behind what may be the second 3D printed gun to be fired.

The first thing you should know is that the Lulz Liberator — named for the cheap, Lulzbot-brand printer on which Joe made his firearm — appears to have not been entirely made on that cheap printer. Guslick told me he printed some of the parts on his machines, a pair of Stratasys printers that each cost about $100,000 when they were new in the mid-90s (but that he bought used for much less). The Forbes article notes that a barrel printed by Guslick failed before the video was filmed, but doesn't mention that the springs printed by Joe on the Lulzbot apparently also didn't work right. "Joe was having issues with using all of his own parts," Guslick told me. "Not sure if the spring tension on the printed springs was as much as was actually needed to fire the primer."

Joe contests Guslick's version of events. Joe — who described his motivation for the project as an attempt to demonstrate that making it was "very, very easy" — claimed to have printed everything shown in the video on his own printer, except the screws used to hold it together (not part of the original design) and the metal pin Defense Distributed's plans include that's used to strike the bullet.   But if Guslick is telling the truth, the difference between a working Lulz Liberator and hunk of plastic was two really expensive 3D printers.

The second thing you should know is that neither Guslick or Joe are new to printing 3D objects. Guslick's been doing this for three or four years ("it's a hobby that certainly costs more than you get out of it"); Joe (who told me he doesn't have any "special experience") has been doing it for a year or so. Printing a firearm, Guslick said, is "not the sort of thing where an average person will go out and get a 3D printer and say, 'Oh, I want to make a gun.' It's a lot more difficult than it seems." I am intimately aware of this.

The third (and perhaps most important) thing you should know is that, as a gun, the Liberator sucks. The Daily Mail has been enthusiastically wringing its hands over the prospect of plastic guns breaching security points. We have no idea if the gun the Daily Mail printed is capable of firing a round. The Daily Mail didn't put in a firing pin, so for all we know, they created a crude plastic toy gun. But if it were a woking firearm, it would not be exactly the most intimidating weapon.

Notice the video of the Lulz Liberator being fired at the top of this article. It fires nine shots — the last two in near darkness. Guslick told me that the entire thing took "several hours," from the first shot at 6 p.m. to the last sometime after 9. Meaning that the reloading process took, at a minimum, several minutes. Part of the delay stems from removing the spent casing from the barrel. According to Guslick, the pair had to use a hex wrench to hammer out the used shell casings.

Two other things make the Liberator a bad weapon. The first is that the simple design leaves a lot of room for the gas created when the bullet is fired to escape. With less air pushing it down the barrel, the velocity of the bullet coming out of the barrel is, by Guslick's estimate, about a "quarter of the energy" of a normal gun. There is also no way to aim the weapon effectively, in part because of the tedious process of disassembling the device required for to reload it. "A plastic derringer would probably be an excellent description of it," Guslick said. "The whole design is basically intended to be, as far as we can tell, a proof of concept and not to be a gun."

This is also Joe's point, who spoke with me from a burner cell phone that he planned on abandoning in a few days. Joe is working on a rifled barrel that he hopes to release, emphasizing the importance of safety in the design. "Inevitably, someones going to print this thing out and blow themselves up," he told me. "I want to make sure that what's out there can be used safely."

The law

His design work is probably part of the reason that Joe demanded anonymity. He indicated that he wanted to see what happened with the State Department's dispute with Defense Distributed before releasing his own design. The anonymity may also stem from the fact that, by printing the gun, Joe is stepping into a very gray area of the law. (Which may also be why he disputed Guslick's claim to have made part of the fired weapon.)

According to the ATF, as soon as someone makes the frame for a firearm, he is in the business of manufacturing a weapon — assuming he sells it. It's the sale that triggers the legal stipulation, but the rather novel prospect of creating new pieces to guns from scratch makes many 3D printing shops wary of printing even a trigger.

There are any number of other legal qualifications. When Guslick and I spoke, he noted that the barrel used for the weapon they tested was rifled, meaning that its interior had engraved lines spiraling down its length, which adds spin and precision to the bullet. This was done not to increase its accuracy, he explained, but to comply with the law in Wisconsin, where the tests took place.

When I still naively thought I might be able to make a weapon, I spoke with Robert Gottlieb of the New York law firm Gottlieb & Gordon to figure out where the boundaries lay for me.

"There's no law that ever anticipated new technology," Gottleib told me. But the law in New York was clear: until the weapon could be fired, it wasn't a gun. I presented a case in which I was walking the streets of Manhattan with the gun assembled but without that one nail that was needed for the bullet.

I don't think there's any difference between what you just said and an individual that goes to the store and buys a plastic, toy gun that isn't capable of discharging a bullet — if the person then figures out a way to fire a bullet out of that plastic gun that's sold in Toys R Us by inserting a metal tack in it, then it's considered a firearm. Up until the use of the metal tack it's nothing more than a toy gun, and that's not illegal.

If the gun could be fired, however, I was in trouble. If stopped with the fireable weapon, there was a mandatory sentence of probation. If the gun was loaded (with that one bullet) or if I had a bullet on me, the mandatory minimum sentence would be from 3-and-a-half to 15 years.

It's not likely that Mayor Bloomberg needs to tell the NYPD to start stop-and-frisking every person in New York with a 3D printer, any more than he might tell them to chase down anyone purchasing a small length of pipe and some rubber bands — two legal components that could be used to make a rudimentary firearm. Despite the success of Joe and Guslick, despite the ready online availability of the plans to print the Liberator, 3D-printed guns are not going to be turning up at airport security lines with any frequency. They're just too hard to make, too expensive, too risky.

As the guy who loaned me the printer put it: "This is the stupidest possible way to get a gun." And it is. At least for now.

Photo: The extruder at work.