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First 3-D-Printed Metal Gun Shows Tech Maturity

The 3-D-printed metal pistol showcases 3-D printing's maturity rather than enabling home weapon manufacturing

2 min read
First 3-D-Printed Metal Gun Shows Tech Maturity
A 3-D-printed metal gun made by direct metal laser sintering.
Photo: Solid Concepts

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.

Solid Concepts

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

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The Bionic-Hand Arms Race

The prosthetics industry is too focused on high-tech limbs that are complicated, costly, and often impractical

12 min read
A photograph of a young woman with brown eyes and neck length hair dyed rose gold sits at a white table. In one hand she holds a carbon fiber robotic arm and hand. Her other arm ends near her elbow. Her short sleeve shirt has a pattern on it of illustrated hands.

The author, Britt Young, holding her Ottobock bebionic bionic arm.

Gabriela Hasbun. Makeup: Maria Nguyen for MAC cosmetics; Hair: Joan Laqui for Living Proof

In Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, members of the fictitious Baltimore Gun Club, all disabled Civil War veterans, restlessly search for a new enemy to conquer. They had spent the war innovating new, deadlier weaponry. By the war’s end, with “not quite one arm between four persons, and exactly two legs between six,” these self-taught amputee-weaponsmiths decide to repurpose their skills toward a new projectile: a rocket ship.

The story of the Baltimore Gun Club propelling themselves to the moon is about the extraordinary masculine power of the veteran, who doesn’t simply “overcome” his disability; he derives power and ambition from it. Their “crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms, steel hooks, caoutchouc [rubber] jaws, silver craniums [and] platinum noses” don’t play leading roles in their personalities—they are merely tools on their bodies. These piecemeal men are unlikely crusaders of invention with an even more unlikely mission. And yet who better to design the next great leap in technology than men remade by technology themselves?

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