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

PHOTO: Cody Wilson poses with the plastic pistol that he created with a 3-D printer, at his home in Austin, Texas, May 10, 2013.
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A student from Texas has invented a plastic pistol that anyone can make with a 3-D printer. It is undetectable by metal detectors and capable of killing. And it is spreading unchecked across the continents.

A few days after Cody Wilson's invention had been created, the United States Department of Homeland Security issued a warning to the rest of the world. The officials, responsible for fending off terrorist attacks, wrote three pages about the dangers of a weapon against which they are powerless. They wrote that public safety is threatened. They also wrote that, unfortunately, it is impossible to prevent this weapon from being made.

When the police in Australia heard about Wilson's invention, they decided to build the weapon themselves. It took them 27 hours to produce all the parts, but only a minute to assemble the gun. Then they fired a bullet into a block of gelatin. After that, the police commissioner of the state of New South Wales said in a press conference that the device was capable of killing people, and that he expected it to sooner or later be used in a crime.

Wilson's invention has also attracted the attention of Germany's Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) and intelligence agencies. There was reportedly a meeting at the Federal Chancellery in mid-May to discuss the matter. The Germans aren't issuing any warnings yet, nor are they shooting at blocks of gelatin. Instead, they are trying to downplay the issue, under the assumption that it will attract attention on its own. A spokeswoman for the BKA merely says: "We are working on being able to reproduce the manufacturing process."

Cody Wilson is a do-it-yourselfer from the United States. His invention, a pistol, is small, white, oddly clunky and has a ridiculously short barrel. It consists almost entirely of plastic. But what looks like a toy at first glance is actuality a new threat to security across the world.

You don't need a license to obtain this weapon, it can't be bought, there is no official market for it and it isn't regulated. In fact, anyone who wants to can make this weapon without assistance. All you need is an ordinary computer, an Internet connection, a roll of plastic, a nail and a 3-D printer.

In his last State of the Union address, US President Barack Obama said that 3-D printing "has the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything." That was in February, when the American president didn't yet know about Cody Wilson.

Before Wilson invented his gun, 3-D printers were modern tools of industrial production. They were often used to make prototypes out of plastic, a process in which thin streams of melted plastic flow out of nozzles to produce an object, layer by layer. The printers became cheaper over time, and today they stand in the workshops of do-it-yourselfers, who use them to make garden gnomes and all kinds of useful household items.

It all starts with data stored in a computer, which 3-D printers then convert into objects. Some technology specialists claim that 3-D printers will transform our lives as fundamentally as the personal computer did over the last two decades.

By using the instructions for Wilson's invention, within a few hours, it is possible to make a weapon capable of killing people. Wilson calls it the "Liberator."

Arms and the Man

It isn't difficult to meet Wilson. You write him an email, he replies within a few hours and several days later he amiably opens the door to his apartment.

Wilson is in his mid-20s, slim and fashionably unshaven. He loves weapons and likes to talk. He is no dummy. He recently suggested to conservative TV host Glenn Beck that he read the works of the post-structuralist philosopher Michel Foucault.

Wilson lives in Austin, Texas, where he attends law school -- with moderate enthusiasm. He seems to feel unchallenged at the university, and probably the only reason he sticks with it is that he believes in the importance of knowing the laws of your opponent if you hope to defeat him. Wilson wages his fight from a duplex apartment in an upscale neighborhood of Austin, with tree-lined streets, only a few minutes from the university. His BMW convertible is parked outside.

Inside, Wilson, after closing the door, begins the conversation by talking about freedom. He says that his pistol is intended to humiliate governments, both democratic and undemocratic. He says that it is intended to start a revolution. And if innocent people die in the process, he adds, it's an acceptable consequence because, "after all, freedom itself is in under siege."

For someone who is willing to bring terror and suffering to his country in the name of freedom, Wilson is surprisingly accommodating. He offers water and chocolate cookies.

He says that his weapon was downloaded from the Internet more than 100,000 times within two weeks, so that copies of the files are now on computers in countries like the United States, Russia, Egypt, Spain and Germany.

Exactly how many?

"I have no idea," says Wilson. "It isn't possible to determine that anymore."

Once something is online, it can spread like the bird flu.

Wilson likes to spend his free time at shooting ranges, and he proudly shows the rest of his apartment and the weapons he owns.

An AR-15 semi-automatic assault rifle is in a carrying case under the kitchen counter, plenty of ammunition sits on a table in the living room, and books on the fracture strength of polymers share a chair with the works of Proudhon and Baudrillard.

In the combination bedroom and office, an American flag hangs on the wall, socks and underwear lie on the floor, a matte-black AK-47 stands against the wall next to the bed, a Mossberg 500 pump-action shotgun, also black, is leaning against the AK-47, and there is an old Mosin-Nagant, the rifle with which Soviet soldiers fought the Germans in World War II, is propped against his desk. Wilson is particularly fond of the Mosin-Nagant. Commenting on the fact that a piece of wood in its stock was replaced, Wilson says: "It's possible that it was once used to smash someone's skull."

The tour ends at the desk and the bed, with Wilson, surrounded by guns, socks and underwear, standing there with a look of expectation on his face. For him, a day without provocation is apparently a lost day.

Plastic Pistol Pioneer

Whey you ask Wilson why he does what he does, and whether his motives are perhaps political, he says that he is a libertarian. Radical adherents to this political movement see governments as the stuff of the devil. Wilson also refers to his weapon, the Liberator, as the "great equalizer" and claims it proves that gun control by the government is an illusion.

Wilson could be seen as a lunatic. But he's more than that: He has introduced a new danger into the world, one that's invisible and free. His story illustrates the risks that accompany technological advances -- not those occurring in the secret laboratories of dictators and warmongers, but in a neighbor's living room.

Wilson's project began more than a year ago in his apartment. The idea took shape during several phone conversations with like-minded friends fascinated by the possibilities that the Internet and related technologies offer.

Wilson and his friends aren't the first people to try to circumvent gun laws with the aid of 3-D printers. But others have only managed to produce technically unsophisticated components, such as a magazine, which is little more than a narrow box made of plastic, or pistol grips. Before Wilson, no one has seriously tried to print an entire weapon. It was considered impossible to design a housing with a barrel that could withstand the pressure and heat released when a gun is fired.

But Wilson disagreed. Although he knew nothing about making guns, he believed that it would suffice to go online and study a few tables, information about various calibers and the pressure resulting from firing a gun. He believed that it would be enough to compare these figures with the data he found in the technical specifications of plastic manufacturers.

Then he estimated the costs. First, he needed a 3-D printer, not an entry-level model, but something professional with which the results can be controlled more effectively. He also needed printing material, preferably acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene copolymer (ABS), a thermoplastic also used to make Lego bricks. Legal and Technological Hurdles Wilson estimated legal fees and costs for outside experts that he and his friends might have to hire seeing that all the members of his group were novices and no one had ever made a weapon. A few were engineers, and others had studied machine-building. When the list was complete, the figure at the bottom was $20,000 (€15,100).

It was more money than Wilson and his friends had, so they decided to place their campaign on Indiegogo, a crowdsourcing platform for raising money, hoping for donations -- charity for a deadly weapon.

About two weeks after Wilson had published his "Wiki Weapon Project" on Indiegogo, he received an email from the site's legal department, informing him that his call for donations had been deleted "because of unusual activities." Wilson filed an objection.

In a second email, he learned that Indiegogo's terms and conditions prohibit soliciting donations for weapons or the production of weapons or their components. Indiegogo returned the roughly $2,000 that had already been received for the project to the donors. Wilson was back at zero.

He programmed his own website and called it "Defense Distributed." He asked for donations -- and he got them. They were mostly small amounts, but there were many of them -- two-figure proof that there are many people in America who think the way Cody Wilson thinks.

When he had finally raised enough money for a decent printer, he leased a model called "uPrint," made by Stratasys, for three months. The printer was shipped to him in several packages. But before Wilson could even open them, he received an email from the Stratasys legal department.

It informed him that the company was canceling the lease because Wilson intended to use the 3-D printer to produce weapons. Since he had no license to produce weapons, the letter read, the company was demanding that he return the printer.

Wilson objected, writing that he didn't need a license, because he merely intended to make prototypes for personal use. But the company still sent a team to confiscate the printer.

Teamwork Leads to a Breakthrough

Wilson wrote about it on his website. He didn't know what to do. But a community that was growing by the day, a community of people who wanted to print their own guns.

The community included Brian Bauman, a 10-year veteran of the printing industry, familiar with the idiosyncrasies of many devices and adept at mixing together perfect plastic granulate. Bauman, self-employed, lived a somewhat secluded life in a gated community in the town of Liberty Hill, about an hour's drive from Austin. His printer was in a shed next to the garage. When Wilson paid him a visit, Bauman said that he would help him. He said that he had "strong feelings" about the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution, which says that "the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed."

Other entrepreneurs also contacted Wilson, offering him knowledge and equipment. The first complete weapon made with a printer began to become a reality.

Wilson was now able to experiment, and he gradually became an expert at using 3-D printers. He printed his first "lower receiver," the part of the firearm that houses the operating parts. He quickly improved the design, strengthened the receiver at key points and rounded corners and edges so that they would no longer be predetermined breaking points. Although the first receiver broke after firing only five rounds, another printed receiver was still operating perfectly, without visible damage, after firing more than 600 rounds.

Fame, Fear and Support

The receiver was Wilson's first major success. To this day, the component has been downloaded more than 140,000 times from Wilson's website. The file is valuable for American gun enthusiasts, because a receiver identifies an American firearm, not unlike the vehicle identification number found in the auto industry. Whenever someone buys a gun in the United States, the receiver is recorded in a national registry. All other parts of the gun can be purchased in stores or online without having to provide identification. In principle, a printed receiver offers any amateur an opportunity to make a non-registered, semi-automatic assault rifle. Actual knowledge of how to make weapons is no longer necessary.

Wilson's receiver made him into a public figure, and talk-show hosts and politicians were suddenly taking him seriously. New York Democratic Congressman Steve Israel called for new legislation to criminalize the printing of such weapons, and New York Senator Charles Schumer voiced the concern that terrorists, the mentally ill and rapists would soon be able to make their own weapons in their garage.

Wilson's success attracted new allies, supporters and donors. He was soon running a growing network of sympathizers who, scattered across the United States, were digitizing magazines and other firearm parts for him. Sometimes new files were sent to him unsolicited. Two of these files made it possible to print hand grenades, and Wilson published them on his website.

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

The instructions for making the Liberator went online on the night of May 5. Weeks earlier, Wilson had said that he didn't expect the files for the weapon to be available on his website for long. "If the Liberator works," he wrote, "it's only logical that government will fight it."

He received a letter from the US Department of State on May 9. The head of the criminal prosecution arm of the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs accused him of violating the terms of the Arms Export Control Act. Until the charges had been fully investigated, Wilson was ordered to remove the files from his website immediately. Wilson complied. For him, whether or not the files are available for download is no longer important, nor is the State Department's final decision. He has achieved what he set out to achieve.

At this point, the files for the Liberator are not just on more than 100,000 computers around the world. They are also part of The Pirate Bay, a file-sharing network that can be described as a criminal special economic zone of global proportions.

Since the site was established nine years ago, pirated copies of all sorts have been distributed very successfully and made available for easy download. So far, no government in the world has been able to do anything about it.

The Liberator became part of The Pirate Bay on May 6, at 9:53 a.m. and 44 second, Central European Time, when the first copy appeared on the network. There were 3,500 copies two weeks later, and they continue to spread.

A few days later, journalists with the British newspaper Daily Mail reported that they had printed and assembled a Liberator. They also managed to smuggle the weapon onto a Eurostar train, whose passengers are required to pass through metal detectors before boarding.

A few days later, one of Wilson's supporters distributed a new video. It depicts a Liberator that was supposedly not printed on a semi-professional printer, but on a home device. Although the individual parts are still held together by metal pins, the good news for Wilson was that the barrel and the receiver were holding up.

Wilson disseminates the links to such videos on Twitter. He says that the story of the Liberator is like Wikipedia: an individual's project becomes the cause of a global community.

He is already thinking about new project. He recently heard from another Texan who wants to collaborate with him. The man makes do-it-yourself drones.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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