One evening late last week, a Wisconsin engineer who calls himself “Joe” test-fired a new version of that handgun printed on a $1,725 Lulzbot A0-101 consumer-grade 3D printer, far cheaper than the one used by Defense Distributed. Joe, who asked that I not reveal his full name, loaded the weapon with .380 caliber rounds and fired it nine times, using a string to pull its trigger for safety.
The weapon survived all nine shots over the course of an evening, as you can see in the YouTube video below. (The clip was filmed by Michael Guslick, a fellow Wisconsin engineer who helped Joe with his tests and who is known for printing one of the first working lower receivers for AR-15 semi-automatic rifles.)
Joe’s proof-of-concept could raise the stakes another notch in the growing controversy over 3D printed guns, an idea that threatens to circumvent gun control and let anyone download and create a lethal weapon in their garage as easily as they download and print a Word document. The first successfully fired 3D-printed gun that Defense Distributed revealed to Forbes earlier this month, dubbed the Liberator, was printed on an $8,000 secondhand Stratasys Dimension SST printer, a refrigerator-sized industrial machine. In testing, that prototype has generally only been fired once per printed barrel. The gun printed by Joe, which he’s nicknamed the “Lulz Liberator,” was printed over 48 hours with just $25 of plastic on a desktop machine affordable to many consumers, and was fired far more times. “People think this takes an $8,000 machine and that it blows up on the first shot. I want to dispel that,” says Joe. “This does work, and I want that to be known.”
Eight of Joe’s test-fires were performed using a single barrel before swapping it out for a new one on the ninth. After all those shots, the weapon’s main components remained intact–even the spiraled rifling inside of the barrel’s bore. “The only reason we stopped firing is because the sun went down,” he says.
Just how the Lulz Liberator survived those explosions isn’t exactly clear. Joe claims that the plastic he used, the generic Polylac PA-747 ABS fed into most consumer 3D printers, is actually stronger than the more expensive ABS plastic used in a Stratasys printer. In fact, before using a Lulzbot-printed barrel, he and Guslick tested one made on Guslick’s Stratasys printer. That barrel exploded on firing, though Joe blames the problem in part on its having been printed with a smaller chamber, the space at the back of the barrel into which the round is inserted.
Joe’s printed gun contains a few more pieces of metal hardware than the original Liberator. Rather than print plastic pins to hold the hammer in the body, for instance, he used hardware store screws. Like Defense Distributed’s gun, the Lulz Liberator also uses a metal nail for a firing pin, and includes a chunk of non-functional steel designed to make it detectable with a metal detector so that it complies with the Undetectable Firearms Act. The rifling that Joe added to the barrel is designed to skirt the National Firearms Act, which regulates improvised weapons and those with smooth-bored barrels.
Still, Joe’s cheap homemade gun isn’t without its bugs. Over the course of its test firing, Joe and Guslick say it misfired several times, and some of its screws and its firing pin had to be replaced. After each firing, the ammo cartridges expanded enough that they had to be pounded out with a hammer. “Other than that, it’s pretty much confirming that yes, Defense Distributed is correct that this functions,” says Guslick. “And it’s possible to make one on a much lower cost printer.”
It’s not yet clear if or when Joe or Guslick plans to release their modified blueprint for the Liberator online. That kind of publication may be legally tricky: When Defense Distributed put its CAD files online earlier this month the State Department responded with a letter demanding that it take the files down until they could be reviewed for export control violations. But that didn’t stop the Liberator files from being downloaded 100,000 times in their first two days online and then spreading further on filesharing websites like the Pirate Bay.
When Defense Distributed founder and anarchist Cody Wilson set out to create the world’s first 3D-printed gun last year, he told me at the time that his focus was on making guns as widely accessible as possible via the Internet, a move he believed would demonstrate governments’ inability to control digital objects. He planned to eventually adapt his model to be printable on a sub-$1,000 printer known as a RepRap. “Anywhere there’s a computer and an Internet connection, there would be the promise of a gun,” Wilson said at the time.
Joe’s experiment brings that idea of a universally-available gun with uncensorable online blueprints one step closer to reality. “I’m trying to do the same thing Cody wants to do. I’m not an anarchist, but I don’t like the idea that the government is telling us ‘You can’t have that,’” he says. “I agree with Cody’s idea that this is a perfect fusion of the first and second amendments.”
Of course, there’s a certain thrill of pioneering a new gun design, too, Joe admits. “I may be the first person in the history of mankind to fire a bullet through a plastic rifled barrel. It’s an interesting feeling,” he says. “I feel like Samuel Colt.”