The first ever firearm to be made with a three-dimensional printer looks less like a deadly weapon and more like a Fisher-Price toy. Just slightly larger than the human hand, it has a triangular white plastic body with innocuously rounded edges. There’s a bright blue, ridged grip extending off one side and a short, removable cylinder at the other for the barrel. Its innocent outward appearance belies its inherent threat. The plastic printed gun was designed to fire bullets just as effectively as the standard metal version, yet it has no serial number and requires no permit. It also works.
In May 2013 at a nondescript location in a scrubby portion of the Texas desert, the first printed gun was mounted on a metal stand and a rope looped around the trigger. When the rope was pulled, a bullet flew out of the squat barrel with an explosive flash, leaving the plastic singed but unharmed.
The 3D-printed gun is the creation of Cody Wilson, a 25 year-old University of Texas law student and 3D printing’s first radical political revolutionary. In March of 2012, he founded an organization called Defense Distributed, its sole mission to develop a freely available, open-source blueprint for a firearm that could be made entirely on an affordable 3D printer.
3D printing is a new technology that’s fundamentally changing how our material world is made by breaking down the barrier between the virtual and the real. 3D printers turn digital files into physical objects the way a normal inkjet printer transforms a Word document into a printed page. It performs this trick by slicing up a three-dimensional virtual model into thin layers, which are then reproduced by the printer one on top of the next with the printer’s nozzle head moving vertically as well as horizontally.
The finished product is like a layer cake. The nozzle buzzes back and forth, up and down, extruding material until the volume of the object is filled. The most revolutionary aspect of 3D printing is that if you can design it, you can build it—it’s an entire factory in a box.
Wilson’s plan would allow anyone with a 3D printer to build their own firearm, avoiding the United States’ already loose system of identity and background checks meant to prevent deadly weapons from falling into the wrong hands. It would dismantle any efforts at gun control, proving top-down regulation useless. And that’s just what the gun’s inventor intended.
“In little, banal ways that we all agree with, we don’t realize it, but we’re all becoming anarchists,” Wilson told me in 2012, well before his Liberator firearm had launched, before the widespread controversy that made headlines all over the world from a little garage lab in Texas.
There is a moment forming today in the world of technology as the tools that we use are increasingly displacing ordinary sources of authority. We download MP3s, much to the chagrin of copyright holders; we use virtual currencies like Bitcoin to avoid banks and buy anonymously; we send emails and text messages that may seem harmless, but actually subvert the traditional domain of the U.S. Postal Service.
Call it digital anarchy—the Internet has exploded out of control of the government, and, as Wilson noticed, no one seems to mind. The story of Wilson’s gun, from philosophical idea to audacious symbol of political rebellion, is one of the early flowerings of this new, anarchic world. But like the very first plastic gun that Wilson printed, it won’t be the last. “I want to use this device to be a subversive tool, subversive in the grand sense,” he said.
On a Saturday afternoon in late May, Wilson decided to shoot his Liberator by hand, a risky proposition, considering that the gun had exploded in previous tests. Wilson inserted a .380 cartridge into the body of his Liberator and screwed on the barrel. He checked his earplugs and adjusted his sunglasses nervously, fiddling with the gun before staring downward for a moment and finally raising his arms abruptly in a shooting stance.
He was about to cross a legal line that he had been treading for the past year in the run-up to the gun’s release, and the anxiety of making the final leap was palpable. “I’ve had these ridiculous moments in the past few days when I’ll just like look around and think, ‘I really do like being free,’” he told me just before the test. “I sure would hate to go to prison.”
His jaw clenched tight, Wilson pulled the trigger.
Kyle Chayka’s “The Printed Gun: How 3D Printing Is Challenging Gun Control” is available from Nook Snaps for $1.99.