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GunsA license to print: how real is the risk posed by 3D printed guns?

By Thomas Birtchnell

Published 7 December 2016

3D printed guns are back in the news after Queensland Police reported last week that they had discovered a 3D printer in a raid on what appeared to be a “large-scale” weapons production facility as a part of Operation Oscar Quantum. But the fact is that 3D printing technology is not yet at the stage where it can readily produce weapons. Although it can be used to help rogue gunsmiths work their shady trade. And we should remember that it’s not only 3D printing that enables people to build illicit firearms. With the right tools, a skilled gunsmith can make a weapon in their back shed. However, 3D printing can make that process easier and more accessible to less skilled individuals.

3D printed guns are back in the news after Queensland Police reported last week that they had discovered a 3D printer in a raid on what appeared to be a “large-scale” weapons production facility as a part of Operation Oscar Quantum.

According to police, the raid uncovered homemade weapons and ammunition in a workshop manufacturing facility “containing equipment used in the production of fully automatic machine guns, including a 3D printer, lathes, drill presses and other tools”.

The Gold Coast Bulletin reported that Detective Superintendent Jon Wacker, of the Drug and Serious Crime Group, said the “Uzi”-style guns, thought to be made with the help of a 3D printer, were “fairly close” to factory quality.

One of the home made weapons was captioned in one media report as being a “3D-printed submachine gun”. This could certainly raise alarm and hint at a new era of disorganized and decentralized weapons production, and a burgeoning “reshoring” of weapon manufacturing as an alternative to importation from overseas.

But the fact is that 3D printing technology is not yet at the stage where it can readily produce weapons. Although it can be used to help rogue gunsmiths work their shady trade.

Impracticalities

The fact is that today’s home or consumer grade 3D printers are not able to produce durable metal objects, such as would be required to print a gun. The standard nozzles used in the process of fused deposition modelling (FDM) simply do not get hot enough to melt pure metals.

There are certainly efforts to bring metal FDM 3D printers to market. One of the future contenders for mass adoption is a prototype open source FDM metal 3D printer, much like a home welder. At the moment this does not really compare to the resolution of plastic printers, although the concept is claimed to be at least proven.

However, there is constant innovation with 3D printer materials. There are currently efforts to make metal-infused filaments in bronze and copper. These are certainly a promising development for budding home jewelry designers and makers, but not gunsmiths, as firearms require stronger and purer metal feedstocks.

One of the key hurdles for gunsmiths is the extremely high temperatures needed to melt or sinter metals. For example, iron sinters at between 1,100℃and 1,300℃, whereas a general FDM 3D printer can reach 195-220℃.