3-D printable guns giving Europeans fits


 Lee’s Note: This is a great read. Reminds me of how certain totalitarian countries struggled to keep out the internet.


c.2013 New York Times News Service

PARIS – The gun fired four shots into a gelatin block. Each 9-millimeter bullet punched deep into the substance, which was meant to mimic the density of a human body.

For the experts at the Austrian Interior Ministry performing the test, it was a clear sign: This was a deadly weapon.gun169

Yet it was no ordinary gun. The officials had downloaded the gun’s digital blueprints from the Internet and “printed” the weapon on a type of 3-D printer that any person could purchase online for about 1,000 euros, or about $1,360. It took the Austrian authorities 30 hours, and maybe 50 euros worth of plastic polymer, built up layer by layer according to the software instructions, to make the gun.

“Our interest was to see if the manufacturing of a working gun using this technology is possible,” said Karl-Heinz Grundböck, a spokesman for the Austrian Interior Ministry, which performed the test in May. “The answer was a very clear ‘Yes.'” Law enforcement agencies across Europe are on alert over the proliferation of gun-making software that is easily found on the Internet and can be used to make a weapon on a consumer-grade 3-D printer. So far, there are no reported incidents of violence committed with such weapons, but police officials worry that it is only a matter of time.

In May, after a 25-year-old law student from Texas named Cody Wilson posted designs for a 3-D-printed handgun online, the files were downloaded more than 100,000 times in two days before the U.S. State Department demanded that they be removed. Spain led the ranking of downloads at the time, followed by the United States, Brazil, Germany and Britain. A full version of the gun, called the Liberator, went on display last month in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

No wonder that in the European Union, which has much stricter gun-control laws than the United States, officials worry that it is becoming much easier to covertly obtain and carry potentially lethal weapons.

“In Germany and in most European countries, the possession of an unregistered weapon, even if it is manufactured at home, is illegal and punishable by law,” said Michael Brzoska, a security expert and director of the Institute for Peace Research and Security Studies at the University of Hamburg. “But the temptation to try, if it’s technically possible, is a great one.” Despite the State Department’s attempt to block them, the printing instructions for Cody’s Liberator have continued to spread and are available for free download on sites like The Pirate Bay, a popular file-sharing portal.

Stoking the anxiety have been well-publicized examples in recent months of people evading airport-style security scanners with 3-D-printed plastic weapons, whose only metal components are firing pins no bigger than a short common nail. Two reporters for the British newspaper The Mail on Sunday smuggled such a gun onto a packed Eurostar train from London to Paris. And a reporter from Israel’s Channel 10 television station successfully toted a 3-D-made handgun into the Israeli parliament, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was giving an address.

“The development of 3-D-printed weapons is still in its infancy,” said Troels Oerting Joergensen, head of the European Cybercrime Centre at Europol, the EU’s law enforcement agency. “But such guns can fire a bullet and they can probably kill. It is a very unwelcome development.” The gun designs are evidently getting better by the month. Although early versions of the Liberator could be fired only a few times before the barrel needing replacing, a YouTube video emerged in August that apparently shows a 3-D-printed rifle dubbed the Grizzly 2.0 firing 10 consecutive shots.

The manufacture of weapons using 3-D printers is banned by an EU directive to member nations. Enforcing that rule, however, may prove a challenge.

Following the example of their Austrian colleagues, German police officials are testing the technology themselves. Europol has purchased a 3-D printer to manufacture its own weapon. Authorities in Spain, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Britain said that they, too, were monitoring the developments of the 3-D printing technology.

“It is very difficult to do anything about it,” said Joergensen of Europol. “Of course you can say that it is illegal, but as with everything else on the Internet, you can always get it from somewhere.”

Many active users of the printing technology are skeptical about the extent of the real threat posed by 3-D firearms. A sampling of discussion forums of 3-D enthusiasts finds widespread cynicism about the capabilities of such weapons.

“3-D printing a gun or a knife is akin to building a car out of cheese – it’s just not going to work,” wrote someone posting as “thejollygrimreaper” on the RepRap forum, one of the biggest 3-D-printing online communities.

Another member of the same forum, who identified himself as Markus Hitter, 48, an engineering consultant from Germany, said he did not consider 3-D-printed guns to be a public threat. Still, he acknowledged in an email exchange that “certainly some gun nuts will try – using the quite modest material properties of 3-D printing.”

Although the technology, also called additive manufacturing, has been around as an industrial process since the 1980s, it has only recently gained broader currency with the arrival of affordable consumer-level printers. Some machines now cost less than 1,000 euros and can be ordered on Amazon.

But the number in use is still relatively tiny. According to Wohlers Associates, a 3-D printing research firm in Fort Collins, Colo., a total of 35,508 personal printers were sold worldwide last year, although that was up nearly 50 percent from the year before. Most of these machines were sold to hobbyists, do-it-yourselfers, engineering students and educational institutions, according to Terry Wohlers, the firm’s president.

A RepRap forum member identifying himself as a 21-year-old Finnish student from Tampere said he had succeeded in printing a working gun and in testing it. Since he considers his own actions to be illegal under the strict gun laws in Finland, he declined to reveal his name in a message exchange. The International New York Times was not able to independently verify his claim.

It was “for educational purposes and out of curiosity” that the student said he had downloaded the original Liberator model in May, shortly before the U.S. government ordered the files taken down. He said he had made the weapon on a friend’s 3-D printer and fired it. “The gun’s receiver got a crack after just one shot,” he said, referring to the firing chamber. “No sane person would fire the gun again.” They may not need to. “Even if these guns can only fire a couple of shots, they can still have a lethal effect,” said Brzoska, the security expert in Hamburg. “And you can easily build several of them.” The Austrian authorities, for instance, had to change the barrel after each shot. But “after the four shots, the gun itself was still working,” said Grundböck, the Interior Ministry spokesman.

A couple of deadly shots – and the ability to build more guns easily – might be enough to make this an attractive proposition for a “variety of lunatics, lone-wolf terrorists and people who want to draw attention to themselves,” said Michael Ashkenazi, a small-arms analyst at the Bonn International Center for Conversion in Germany.

While the choice of 3-D gun models is currently limited, improved designs are certainly in the works, experts said. “At the moment, both the Liberator and the Grizzly are little more than technology demonstrators,” Ashkenazi said, “but better design could make the guns extremely dangerous.” Tightening airport security might be one possible response, according to Rüdiger Holecek, spokesman of the German Police Union. “It is quite conceivable that this technical development will make full-body scanners at airports mandatory.” A Danish company, Create it REAL, which makes 3-D printers, says it might have another possible solution. It has developed software that looks for the characteristics of weapon designs and, when detected, blocks the printer from making a firearm. “If certain features align, the software will not allow the user to view and print the model,” Create it REAL says on its website.

“Our software works like a computer anti-virus,” said Jeremie Pierre Gay, the company’s founder. The software can be preinstalled on a 3-D printer by its manufacturer. Still, he acknowledged, “it is always possible to hack a software.” Pierre Gay would rather, of course, emphasize the virtues of the 3-D printing technology rather than its darker possibilities. “It is a great opportunity to boost people’s creativity and to change the world with beautiful inventions,” he said. “But, yes, it will also allow people to create dangerous things such as firearms. Threats and opportunities are often coming hand in hand.”


About Author

Lee Williams can’t remember a time in his life when he wasn’t shooting. Before becoming a journalist, Lee served in the Army and worked as a police officer. He’s earned more than a dozen journalism awards as a reporter, and three medals of valor as a cop. He is an NRA-certified law enforcement firearms instructor, an avid tactical shooter and a training junkie. When he’s not busy as a senior investigative reporter, he is usually shooting his AKs, XDs and CZs. If you don’t run into him at a local gun range, you can reach him at 941.284.8553, by email, or by regular mail to 1777 Main St., Sarasota, FL 34236. You can follow him on Twitter: @HT_GunWriter and on Facebook @The Gun Writer.


  1. There was mention of getting the liberator past security because the only metal was a small nail. Here’s a thought… what about ammo?! Pretty useless without it.

  2. Robin 'Roblimo' Miller on

    We covered this on Slashdot over a year ago: http://hardware.slashdot.org/story/12/09/04/1837209/should-we-print-guns-cody-r-wilson-says-yes-video

    And IMO it’s going to be quite a while before you can print an entire usable gun. But so what? You can make one out of the plumbing department of a hardware store or with basic machine tools that aren’t hard to use.

    And as Ted points out, your ammo is probably going to have metal in it. A 12 ga. shotgun shell with plastic or ceramic shot? Hardly any…. probably about the best you can do.

    Guns are easy to make. Really.

  3. Good. No government in the world should be able to deny the people their rights, including the right to bear arms. “And how we burned in the camps later, thinking: What would things have been like if every Security operative, when he went out at night to make an arrest, had been uncertain whether he would return alive and had to say good-bye to his family? Or if, during periods of mass arrests, as for example in Leningrad, when they arrested a quarter of the entire city, people had not simply sat there in their lairs, paling with terror at every bang of the downstairs door and at every step on the staircase, but had understood they had nothing left to lose and had boldly set up in the downstairs hall an ambush of half a dozen people with axes, hammers, pokers, or whatever else was at hand?… The Organs would very quickly have suffered a shortage of officers and transport and, notwithstanding all of Stalin’s thirst, the cursed machine would have ground to a halt! If…if…We didn’t love freedom enough. And even more – we had no awareness of the real situation…. We purely and simply deserved everything that happened afterward.”
    ― Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

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