3-D printers are a nightmare for the NRA.

The NRA’s major constituency isn’t their individual members, but gun manufacturers. We are entering the era of 3-D printers (I have several friends who own them), and it’s entirely possible to print a gun. Including counterfeit guns. The stock, the barrel, the receiver—everything. Adam Penenberg explains how this is liable to to have the NRA begging congress for regulation of the indstury, rather the opposite of the present situation. 

Published by Waldo Jaquith

Waldo Jaquith (JAKE-with) is an open government technologist who lives near Char­lottes­­ville, VA, USA. more »

6 replies on “3-D printers are a nightmare for the NRA.”

  1. Adam Penenberg is now in charge of some random website rather than a reporter for an actual newspaper. This looks like a sad end to a brilliant career.

    Anyhoo, I have a hard time believing that one could make a centerfire weapon work for very long using parts 100% from a 3d printer. There is no heat-treatment of the components. The barrel and receiver would fail before long. I think that a .22 LR could be produced from such a system, but even in that case I think it would be a close range proposition. The wear against plastic rifling on a plastic barrel would be constant. There would be no consistency. Accuracy would be crap beyond a few yards.

    Guns made wholly from 3d printers for the next decade at least will be the equivalent of the old liberator pistol. Something that goes bang a few times when you need it to, killing at close range, with the tactic goal of killing a soldier in order to obtain a better weapon.

  2. First, it’s not necessarily a demotion to move from a newspaper to a Web site. Or so I’ve heard…

    Second, this is going out of my lane, but from what I’ve read Jack is right about the inherent unreliability of most 3-D-printed gun parts. For example, this post makes what seems a pretty solid case against them, but I’d like to see your response: http://scottlocklin.wordpress.com/2012/08/11/bad-engineering-journalism-reporting-on-3-d-printing-of-guns/

  3. Rob,

    Yes, that piece that you linked to covers it pretty well. Adam Penenberg is a smart guy and usually a good reporter, but in this case he has no idea what he is talking about.

    Mechanically, people could have built something like an AR-15 a thousand years ago. They could have shaped metal or wood into the right pieces and put them together. But there would have been little point to it, because the thing would have jammed up or exploded very quickly. The materials available just weren’t right for the job.

    The technologies that allowed modern firearms to exist are really in metallurgy and chemistry. You can’t safely shoot something with the energy of a centerfire rifle cartridge from a barrel made of just any old metal. You need steel with exactly the right carbon content; without impurities in it; heat-treated to reach a particular hardness. Otherwise you are putting a pipe bomb on your shoulder.

    The ‘guns’ that could be made 100% by 3D printers would be the equivalent of a 10th century engineer carving an AR-15 out of a piece of wood. It would be a lot of work to make something that looks cool but would fail so quickly as to be useless.

    We will be able to make some simple electronics with 3D printers by putting metallic powders into the plastic to make circuits. But gun barrels and receivers will never be made this way. Plastic with metal dust in it will still only have the strength of plastic.

    And before someone tries to use the Glock as an example, I want to point out that it is a myth that Glocks are made completely out of plastic. The barrel and everything that encloses the cartridge through ignition are made of steel.

  4. wouldn’t it be a billion times easier (and possibly cheaper) just to illegally buy a gun on the ‘black market’ ?

    i’ve never looked into it myself but i understand there’s quite a lot of guns out there, and a significant market for people who can’t legally buy one but want one, and more than a few people who make a business of selling them illegally.

    the only time i could imagine it being necessary to fax someone gun parts rather than just illegally buy a gun is some sort of “mission impossible” -type far-fetched spy-fiction scenario, where you’d need to sneak a gun inside a building that was heavily guarded but had a 3d printer inside. i can imagine tom cruise doing this. but not a real person.

  5. James, it depends on what one’s goal is and what sort of person one is. A drug dealer would buy one on the black market. A hobbyist would want to make one. Someone who was not otherwise a criminal but who believed that they are still entitled to Second Amendment Rights after a theoretical gun ban would prefer to make a gun and in fact would probably not even know anyone involved with black markets.

    By the way, lots of working parts for a rifle could be made on a 3D printer. The stock, some trigger parts, perhaps the sights. Parts of a magazine – but not the whole magazine. A magazine needs a spring and there is no way in hell that anyone could print a spring with proper tension from a 3D printer.

    A 3D printer paired with even a low-end metal lathe would be simplest way to set up a little DIY gun shop in someone’s garage. Making accurate barrels would be the hardest part, but people do it. I think that if you were trying to make a semi-automatic rifle on very basic equipment at home then it would make much more sense to build AKs rather than ARs. You can make an AK receiver out of a piece of sheet metal. Cut out a flat, drill holes with a drill press, bend it into shape, heat-treat it. Spot-weld it if you have the equipment, otherwise you can rivet an AK receiver together if you must. Hobbyists are already doing this in their garages. Again, its making the barrels that would be the hard part.

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