Mail & Guardian
Future gun control shot down
In less than a decade, 3D-printed firearms have become functional and can be made quite easily in your kitchen
Firearm manufacture is an ancient technology. Dated designs go back to China in the 12th century, while more “modern” mechanisms appear as early as the 13th century. Manufacturing firearms has never been particularly difficult, but an effective and reliable build requires some technical knowledge. Industrialisation yielded benefits — improvements in quality at a lower cost, which was almost impossible to match with any non-industrialised process. Well, that is, until 2020.
From 2013 to today, 3D-printed firearm technology has moved to the point where a gun that is semiautomatic, accurate, and reliable to several hundred if not thousands of rounds, is easy to manufacture.
In 2013, Cody Wilson as part of Defense Distributed, a digital printing and firearms company, showcased The Liberator — a fully 3D-printed firearm that was single-shot, almost single use, highly unreliable, difficult to replicate and too expensive for mainstream manufacture.
The subsequent backlash against Defense Distributed, primarily driven by “ghost gun” fearmongering, included the ineffective shutdown of the company’s servers by the US department of state. But The Liberator was downloaded more than 100 000 times before it was removed from online — and by then the files were shared on other networks. It also generated fantastic publicity and acted as the catalyst for the 3D-printed firearm revolution.
Followers of Defense Distributed and other designers, engineers and publishers began collaborating on the manufacture and design of 3D-printed firearms in an agile and decentralised manner, analogous to open-source software development. The collective, currently under the banner of Deterrence Dispensed, improved on existing designs, developed new ones and began tackling major barriers to the reproducible home production of reliable firearms.
From 2013 to date, we’ve seen the printing of AR (Armalite Rifle) lower receivers, a range of full and hybrid pistols, magazines and other components, which by their very design and ease of manufacture circumvent the legislation designed to prevent their proliferation. For instance, the AR lower receivers first printed in 2013, and consistently improved upon, are the main regulated component of AR-15 rifles in the United States and are available for print online.
The limitation of most released firearm designs almost always boiled down to the need to use some factory components to ensure successful operation. In 2016 the Shuty 9x19/9mm semiautomatic pistol carbine required a Glock 17 factory barrel and an AR fire control group for successful operation.
This meant that the stated goal of these firearms — to overcome and fully circumvent regulation — was, as of 2016, still a work in progress.
Fast forward to 2020 and the release of the FGC- 9, a hybrid 3D-printed firearm that requires no regulated or factory components to manufacture — and it includes a build manual, video tutorials and online help forums.
From a technical perspective and for clarity, it’s technically a hybrid 3D-printed firearm in that some of the components are metal and require some minor technical work for incorporation into the design:
1. The receivers, magazine catches, grips, stock and bolt carrier are
2. The firing pin and bolt are made of steel, the type you can pick up at almost any hardware store.
3. The fire control group is compatible with and obtainable from airsoft toy guns, with plans to release printable versions.
4. The barrel is made from common hydraulic piping and is athome machined through a DIY electrochemical process that can be done in your kitchen sink.
Making the FGC-9 is easy. Almost all of the handiwork has been done by the team at Deterrence Dispensed. Designs and files for printing are available for download and only require you to print.
The step-by-step manual and guide for manufacture and assembly covers in detail how to make the firing pin, barrel and any other components that may require some non-printing work, and if you still run into trouble, there are online platforms and successful builders ready to assist you.
Although there are some capital costs (mainly the printer and power supply for the barrel manufacture), most other tools are readily available. You probably own some, or could borrow or rent them. The printing can also be outsourced as there are countless shops and individuals who specialise in it. You just share the STL file (a 3D-printing file format) and specify a material for print.
The estimated unit cost to print is about R2 850 (including thermoplastic resin for the body, steel for bolt and barrel and springs/screws for assembly and operation). A full capital investment with the printer and power supply would be about R8 550.
In about two weeks one could, in theory, make a fully functioning, reliable semiautomatic firearm at a relatively low cost.
Compare this to commercially
available firearms, which range in cost from between R5 000 and R13 000 and require a R2 200 competency and firearm licensing process, a safe at a minimum of R1 000 to store the weapon and a wait time of three to six months.
It’s clear that the economics and ease of access to own a gun favours home manufacture (ignoring legal implications, of course).
Aside from the fact that there are plenty of “good” reasons to own a firearm, such as self-defence, hunting, collection or engineering curiosity, how much longer will it be before criminals and transnational criminal organisations realise that it’s far cheaper and easier to print locally than to transport firearms across borders, provinces and states?
At what point does it become easier for gangsters in the Cape Flats to manufacture their own firearms rather than go through the expensive process of bribing police officials at the SAPS Central Firearms Registry? I refer here to investigations carried out by the late and honourable Lieutenant-colonel Charl Kinnear.
When will we start seeing disenfranchised job seekers turn to the manufacture and sale of firearms to cover the cost of living, as so many have done in other industries, such as drugs, to name but one?
Will the average citizen resort to home manufacturing to avoid the lengthy licensing process currently available, especially in a country such as South Africa, which is plagued by high levels of violent crime?
I don’t know how firearms should be regulated in a world where they can be made in one’s kitchen without much technical knowledge, but it is quite clear that prohibition of legal firearm ownership will only encourage a move to home manufacture. There is evidence of 3D-printed firearms in Australia, and a reasonable amount of evidence to suggest they’ve been made and tested in several European countries that have archaic firearm legislation.
For the Americans in the 1920s, the prohibition of alcohol was a failed exercise, just as the prohibition of cigarettes in South Africa was during the Covid-19 lockdown. What occurred instead was a burgeoning of alternate markets.
The reality is that the fundamental forces of supply and demand always triumph over the law. We need to move beyond can-and-cannot-own models of regulation to making ownership work in a safe way. This could potentially act as a catalyst for improving trust between citizens, the police and other state institutions.
3D-printed firearms have changed from being barely useful to being functional and easy to make. The technology will keep improving, so the cost will continue to decrease and reliability, functionality and ease of manufacture will increase.
Regulating these firearms is impossible — it’s naive to think we can control the flow of information on the internet and even more absurd to assume that we can start to regulate basic building materials when we can barely control already regulated substances.
The facts speak for themselves — technology has pushed us into an era where the notion of gun control as we know it is dead.
Zain Yousuf is an independent arms analyst with a focus on the evolution of policy and doctrine in a rapidly evolving technological environment. This article first appeared on the Mail & Guardian’s Thought Leader website