The world's first 3-D–printed metal gun aims to prove a point about the reliability of 3-D printing technology. But its makers don't plan on revolutionizing the manufacture of firearms by making the process available in every household.
The metal pistol made by Solid Concepts, a 3-D printing service based in Austin, Texas, represents a working 3-D–printed version of the famed 1911 pistol originally designed by John Browning. Solid Concepts created almost all parts of the classic gun through direct metal laser sintering (DMLS), an industrial 3-D printing process used to make metal parts in aerospace manufacturing and for surgical implants. (The gun's springs were made separately.)
"When we decided to go ahead and make this gun, we weren't trying to figure out a cheaper, easier, better way to make a gun," said Phillip Conner, DMLS project manager, in a video. "That wasn't the point at all. What we were trying to do is dispel the commonly held notion that DMLS parts are not strong enough or accurate enough for real-world applications."
The 3-D–printed pistol proved both sturdy and accurate during mounted and handheld firing tests showcased in a video posted on 6 November. Solid Concepts says it can 3-D print unique gun parts for any "qualifying customer" in five days—a service made legally possible by the fact that the company holds a Federal Firearms License.
But the 3-D–printed weapon that Solid Concepts built can't be replicated by any DIY gunsmith attempting to do so with a cheaper variety of 3-D printer costing less than $10,000—industry-grade DMLS machines cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. That's an important point that Solid Concepts emphasized at the very beginning of its blog post about its achievement.
"The industrial printer we used costs more than my college tuition (and I went to a private university) and the engineers who run our machines are top of the line; they are experts who know what they’re doing and understand 3-D Printing better than anyone in this business," said Alyssa Parkinson, a spokesperson for Solid Concepts, in a blog post.
In other words, the Solid Concepts gun still requires expensive, industrial-grade equipment that most DIY enthusiasts or homeowners can't afford. That makes the metal gun very different from the plastic guns of Defense Distributed, a Texas group that has developed an open-source design for guns intended for manufacture using home 3-D printers.
Defense Distributed's plastic guns haven't proven durable enough to survive more than a few shots. But the group's focus on plastic firearms produced by cheaper varieties of 3-D printers has raised fears that 3-D printers and open-source gun blueprints could theoretically allow anyone to make a gun at home—either legally or illegally.
Such fears have already driven lawmakers to propose laws that would restrict the manufacture of 3-D–printed plastic guns. Police in Manchester, UK went so far as to seize a 3-D printer and what they claimed to be 3-D–printed gun parts from a private home last month. (The police quickly backed off their claim after people pointed out that the parts displayed in police photos appeared to be printer parts.)
Photos: Solid Concepts
Jeremy Hsu has been working as a science and technology journalist in New York City since 2008. He has written on subjects as diverse as supercomputing and wearable electronics for IEEE Spectrum. When he’s not trying to wrap his head around the latest quantum computing news for Spectrum, he also contributes to a variety of publications such as Scientific American, Discover, Popular Science, and others. He is a graduate of New York University’s Science, Health & Environmental Reporting Program.