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8 November 2013

There’s now a metal 3D-printed pistol, but it still isn’t the end of the world

So you've heard the dangers of plastic pistols are over-hyped, but surely a metal pistol is a real danger, right? Wrong.

By Ian Steadman

An additive manufacturing (that’s 3D printing to you and me) company in California, Solid Concepts, has managed to 3D-print a working pistol and successfully fire more than 50 bullets from it without it breaking.

Its technicians have used a process known as “laser sintering”, which is where fine powder metal is selectively melted by a fine, highly-powered laser so that it melds into a desired shape. It’s been in use since the 1980s as a way to prototype products, but is complex and expensive. It’s a kind of 3D printing, though, and as such Solid Concepts is proud to have managed to figure out how to overcome the usual weaknesses in sintered metal to make a working pistol. Here’s a cut from the press release:

Solid Concepts, one of the world leaders in 3D Printing services, has manufactured the world’s first 3D Printed Metal Gun using a laser sintering process and powdered metals. The gun, a 1911 classic design, functions beautifully and has already handled 50 rounds of successful firing. It is composed of 33 17-4 Stainless Steel and Inconel 625 components, and decked with a Selective Laser Sintered (SLS) carbon-fiber filled nylon hand grip. The successful production and functionality of the 1911 3D Printed metal gun proves the viability of 3D Printing for commercial applications.

“We’re proving this is possible, the technology is at a place now where we can manufacture a gun with 3D Metal Printing,” says Kent Firestone, Vice President of Additive Manufacturing at Solid Concepts. “And we’re doing this legally. In fact, as far as we know, we’re the only 3D Printing Service Provider with a Federal Firearms License (FFL). Now, if a qualifying customer needs a unique gun part in five days, we can deliver.”

The 1911 design Solid Concepts refers to was, for decades, the standard pistol issued to US armed forces personnel, and is still a popular design. Here it is in action:

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When the first 3D-printed plastic gun, the Liberator, was announced, it caused a panic that criminals were going to now be able to subvert any and all gun control laws. Those fears are largely overstated, but many of them are based on plastic guns being crap guns. But panic about a 3D-printed metal gun is justified, right?

Let’s list the advantages that a plastic 3D-printed gun, like the Liberator, is supposed to have over one manufactured the normal way:

  • Don’t need a license
  • Can sneak through metal detectors
  • Don’t need to buy from a store
  • Can be made by amateurs with non-specialist equipment
  • Impossible to suppress knowledge of how to make it, thanks to file-sharing
  • Authorities don’t know you have a gun

Now, as previously discussed when Greater Manchester Police misunderstood some printer components for parts from a Liberator, plastic guns are terrible. They melt and warp under the pressure of firing a bullet, and are liable to do more damage to the person holding it by exploding than actually allow accurate aiming.

The principle – that governments have no place regulating firearms – is defended, but as a physical manifestation of that principle it’s poor. You’d most likely be better off making a gun out of a pipe, a nail and a bullet. It’s not as easy to aim as a pistol, but it’s easier to aim than a plastic pistol with an unbored barrel.

What happens, though, when a pistol is 3D-printed out of metal is that much of the point of something like the Liberator is lost. You can’t sneak it through metal detectors, and laser sintering requires a degree of expertise and experience with expensive, dangerous equipment. The machine Solid Concepts used cost more than £500,000. If you have that kind of money it would be far, far cheaper to buy a gun on the black market, or even to hire a gunsmith to make a gun for you using traditional methods. As soon as those alternatives are cheaper it makes no sense whatsoever to go to the effort of 3D-printing your gun.

Focusing on the “3D-printed” aspect of this gun, then, is missing the point slightly if it’s meant as a scare tactic. As with most of the hype around 3D printing, it’s not the mechanism that’s important, but the infrastructure that supports it. That means a culture of subverting gun bans by swapping designs for homemade pistols that can be printed at home, not laser sintering in a dedicated workshop which complies with federal regulations.

All Solid Concepts claims to have done here is prove that laser sintering is a viable method of manufacturing a firearm, which places this firmly in the “advancements in metallurgy” category, not the “harbinger of revolution” one. That’s why they keep stressing that they have a firearms license, and why they say this:

The 3D Printed metal gun proves that 3D Printing isn’t just making trinkets and Yoda heads. The gun manufactured by Solid Concepts debunks the idea that 3D Printing isn’t a viable solution or isn’t ready for mainstream manufacturing. With the right materials and a company that knows how to best program and maintain their machines, 3D printing is accurate, powerful and here to stay.

They’re probably right.