The Reality of 3D Printed Firearms

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A relatively new form of technology, 3-D printing, has been reported by the media as a method by which a user can “click to print” a firearm via their home computer and what is known as a 3-D printer. Last week a company in Texas used an advanced 3-D printer to “print” a working Colt M1911-style pistol made of stainless steel. There has been no shortage of legislators rushing to write new bills to potentially restrict the use of 3-D printing or its use in manufacturing firearms.
 
The technology behind 3-D printing has existed since the early 1980s. It has been used by numerous companies within the firearms industry as a way to craft prototypes for parts, accessories and even the basis for molds used in investment casting. This 20-year old technology has recently been garnering attention because prices on the 3-D printers have become more affordable, decreasing from $20,000 per unit to $1200 within the past three years.
 
Although some would insinuate that it is just a matter of pushing a button and having a working firearm pop out of the printer, it is more complex than that. The object to be rendered must first be drawn up in a CAD (computer-aided design) type of program. Depending on the complexity of the design and the material used it can take several minutes to several hours for the printer to render one part.
 
Earlier this year 3-D printing made headlines because a company produced a working AR-15 lower receiver and another company made a replica of the famed OSS Liberator single shot pistol and released the CAD drawings for the parts for distribution on the internet. The US Department of Homeland Security raised some concerns in a memo stating: “significant advances in three-dimensional (3-D) printing capabilities, availability of free digital 3-D printer files for firearms components, and difficulty regulating file sharing may present public safety risks from unqualified gun seekers who obtain or manufacture 3D printed guns.”
 
The all steel version of the Colt 1911 has been widely touted as a raise in the stakes of manufacturing. According to RECOIL Magazine’s David Reeder, the pistol was not made on the commonly available home versions of 3-D printers available on the market: “The pistol’s 30+ gun components (except for the internal springs) were manufactured with a laser sintering process. The grip is an SLS (Selective Laser Sintered) carbon-fiber filled nylon hand grip. So far it has had over 50 rounds through it without incident. Magazines used were commercially purchased.”
 
SLS is a form of 3-D printing for use in metals and is how the company in question, Solid Concepts, makes surgical instruments. These types of “printers” for lack of a better term are in the low to mid 6-figure price point, not to mention that they are difficult for the average person to put to use. 
 
3-D printing is really no different from manufacturing a firearm or receiver using traditional methods such as milling, machining, Wire EDM(Electrical discharge machining), CNC (computer numerical control) machining, investment casting or forging.