Danger in 3-D: The Rapid Spread of Printable Pistols


The more popular Wilson became in the United States, the more furiously he was attacked. On the Internet, gun enthusiasts accused him of being drunk on his own popularity. He was called a "traitor" because he was selling printed magazines in his new online shop instead of continuing to work on the first complete firearm. Wilson must have felt like a star professional athlete whose fans accuse him of neglecting his workouts.

Designing, Testing and Success

In reality, though, Wilson had long been working on the perfect entrance, determined not to unveil the weapon until it had passed its tests, until everything worked and everyone could see that it was capable of killing people. Wilson continued to develop his plastic gun.

During tests in March, the first round to be fired shattered the printed .410-caliber barrel of the gun. No one was hurt, though, because an assistant pulling a long cord from a distance fired the gun.

The trigger design was also causing problems. Its springs had to be hard enough to cock the gun, but not so brittle that they would break under stress. Another unresolved issue was how a weapon made of plastic was to ignite the powder in the cartridge.

Wilson discussed all of these problems in nightly conversations, especially with a man named John, a mechanical engineer who lives in his neighborhood. John is a talkative man who looks like a surfer, but he carries a loaded weapon in his waistband.

The two friends eventually concluded that the barrel had to be as short and thick as possible. For the next printing test, they designed a barrel for a 9 mm round, with thick walls and so short that it looked like a stump.

Wilson and John tested the barrel on a large, privately owned piece of land outside Austin. The barrel held up the first time the gun was fired. "Fucking A!" John shouted.

The barrel remained intact after the second round, as well as the third, fourth and fifth. By the tenth round, there was still no visible damage to the gun. Wilson and John decided that the weapon had passed the test.

In the next few days, they managed to print functioning springs. The two men designed a thick-walled housing and 12 other plastic parts -- the complete Liberator.

They had to make one compromise. They needed something made of metal to ignite the cartridge. They decided on a nail, which triggers the shot.

Nevertheless, the firearm remains invisible to metal detectors, because the nail is too small to set them off. Wilson tested this with his own detector, which he had ordered from South Korea. He also learned that individual cartridges could be easily hidden.

In early May, Wilson decided that his Liberator was ready for the world. It was the first time he held the weapon in his hand during a shooting test.

He had brought along his camera and earplugs. His father was also there, to serve as a witness to what was about to happen -- and to administer first aid, just in case his son lost a few fingers.

Wilson switched on the camera, took the weapon into his hand and steadied himself on the uneven ground. The he lifted his right arm, aimed at a hill and held his breath.

He pulled the trigger and fired the gun. Then he exhaled and lowered his arm.

His father came over to shake his hand and said: "Great, son! Congratulations!" Wilson packed up his things, drove back to his apartment in Austin and uploaded the video onto YouTube.

Unstoppable Dissemination

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