Cody R Wilson's 3D-printed guns: the VICE documentary

Erin Lee Carr produced this VICE Motherboard documentary on Cody R Wilson of Defense Distributed (DD), who "figured out how to print a semi-automatic rifle from the comfort of his own home" and is now spreading the gospel of "wiki weapons." Yes, they even have a manifesto.

Wilson, who recently pitched his ideas at SXSW, is sharing the HOWTO online and encouraging others to join him.

This is a story about the rapid evolution of a technology that has forced the American legal system to play catch up. Cody Wilson, a 24 year old University of Texas Law student, is an advocate for the open source production of firearms using 3D printing technology. This makes him a highly controversial figure on both sides of the gun control issue. MOTHERBOARD sat down with Cody in Austin, Texas to talk about the constitution, the legal system, and to watch him make and test-fire a 3D-printed gun.
A related item at VICE by Adam Clark Estes reports on the reaction of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).
The government doesn't seem entirely sure what to think of Wilson's own institution. I talked to a number of ATF representatives, all of whom sent a similar message: 3D-printed gun technology has arrived, but it's not good enough yet to start figuring out how to regulate it. "We are aware of all the 3D printing of firearms and have been tracking it for quite a while," Earl Woodham, spokesperson for the ATF field office in Charlotte, told me. "Our firearms technology people have looked at it, and we have not yet seen a consistently reliable firearm made with 3D printing."


  1. I can’t tell what to think! Open source plans and freedom to 3D-print what you want: good; but assault weapons: double plus ungood! (This isn’t snark, I’m serious – do I applaud this guy or think he’s an a-hole? My brain is going to explode.) 

    1. He’s a maker; you applaud him. I think the point to be made is that with all the making going on, regulating 3D printing is ludicrous, because anyone with the brains, money and desire can make a 3D printer free of restriction or regulation. They could then print a gun or a knife or whatever their heart desires without interference.

  2. Newspaper editors are just itching to pull the trigger on the front page with

    Killer uses guns printed in bedroom


    It’s a bit scary, really.  Clever, but scary.

  3. Make it illegal to print them, but legal to have the source code. Individuals don’t then have to worry about hording assault weapons in case of invasion by North Korea or the New Black Panther Party.  They can print the guns when the Wolverines give the say so. 

    1. As a Brit (and therefore someone for whom there is a very different culture surrounding guns) this seems like a fantastic idea.

    2. That’s a mathematician’s answer.  You can’t test the manufacturing, nor train with the weapons, before you need them working and skillfully so.

  4. This is such a sticky problem that sci-fi authors (well, Greg Bear anyway) handwaved it away with consumer nanotech that couldn’t produce weapons, and military-grade stuff that could.  Which I thought was silly at the time; even if you take as given that only the military version can make high explosives, you can still construct a magnetic coil gun or compressed air gun for instance.


    1. Or instruct your consumer nanobots to manufacture the parts to make your own military-grade nanobots.

  5. There’s no conceivable way to fully prevent people from making 3D-printed weapons; there’s just too many possible ways to do so.  Hell, you can make a gun out of laminated metal that’s been bolted/riveted together!

  6. You can imagine nano-level inclusions in the input materials that … sci fi here … communicate with the printer to identify what’s being manufactured, and fail to print gun parts etc.

    Thing is, this works for AV media, but the attraction to overcome that on a massive scale just isn’t there.  Guns however deliver military power, so DRM etc – just going to totally fail even more than AV DRM.

    1. Doesn’t something like this already happen if you try to print something too similar to currency?

      1. No. Some printers print indentifying marks invisible to the eye, so you can tell that this fake banknote was made by HP Laserjet serial 123456789.

        This raises a privacy concern if you can identify other stuff (“Join the Union!” flyers) as easily.

        1. Yes. Most modern printers with the capacity to possibly print currency, sold in the US, have a piece of silicon dedicated to :
          Recognising currency being printed;
          Shutting down with a SERVICE REQUIRED cryptic error message;
          Phoning home to the manufacturer and the us secret service via the Internet.

          Iterate for your country of choice.

          Don’t photocopy/print realistic currency.

    1. We don’t have them for metal-working equipment, and that’s what you use to make real guns which could actually fire a bullet.

  7. Here’s where I stop caring: it’s plastic.
    There was a bit of rush to make a plastic gun in the 80s, but it never happened.
    Springs: nope.
    Firing pin: nope.
    Barrel: double-nope.

    These folks are willfully ignoring key physical requirements so they sound like a big deal. They aren’t. Every part of a gun that can be made from plastic has probably been made from plastic. You need better than that.

    The Poles did a great job on it with the Błyskawica submachine gun, a copy of the Sten made in underground workshops, used to fight against occupying Nazis.
    Want to something to be scared of? Engineers.

    Members of the tinfoil-hat brigade wielding plastic printers? I won’t hold my breath.

    Afterthought: the first time these people make an assault rifle with a plastic barrel, I want to be there when they fire it, so I can watch with my popcorn from behind a ballistic shield. It will explode, is what I’m saying.

    1. I think you’re missing what I think is the point. The story is about regulating 3D printing to prevent someone from printing a gun. ‘Gun’ being defined only as some few very specific parts of a complete weapon. The rest of the things, like the springs, firing pin, barrels, etc, are too easily sourced legally from a host of other industries. It’s impossible to ban springs as a form of gun control, so they narrow the parts of the weapon down to what could ONLY be used for a weapon, and impose regulations on the production of that.

      1.  Ah, that’s a good point.

        Where I’m from, you need to present a license to buy gun components, and even bullets for that matter, so I wasn’t thinking about it in those terms.

        US gun laws are insanely liberal, from my perspective.

  8. It’s perfectly legal to craft your own gun. That’s really all this is. Even with all the talk about 3D printing, it’s still in the realm or makers and hobbyists.. a pretty awesome hobby, but a hobby none the less. And as makers, they take pride in DIY whether it’s actually practical or not. ‘Just because you can’ is actually a perfectly good reason to do it in this case, and in the long run it will still be the only reason to do it.
    Unfortunately, they are bringing 3D printing into the vitriol of the gun control ‘conversation’. I am completely for gun control, but I’m also very in to this burgeoning technology and I’m afraid that it’s association in the media will seriously hurt that development.
    If it were actually a practical or realistic way to make guns I’m sure the gun manufacturers would be all over this. I’m not even sure they prototype using this technology.And now, Defense Distributed has a Federal License to manufacture guns, so it’s totally legal for them to do it, and sell them. It’s kind of defeating their ‘freedom’, ‘wikileaks’, ‘anarchist cookbook’ counterculture they are preaching.

    Instead of just proving you can, they should use their talents to design a safer, more responsible gun design. Then sell it to a manufacturer, or more to the idealism, license it for free.

  9. For a second I thought my link had been green lit, but it seems Xeni found this on her own.

    I like the guys attitude. He isn’t a gun nut – he’s a freedom nut. I like his take on high capacity magazines and how 3D Printing makes a ban futile – “You can’t ban a box with a spring.”

  10. It’s already legal to forge, cast, or machine your own gun. 3D printing isn’t really different in essence, except the resulting guns don’t currently work very well.

    1.  They seem to work all too well in the vid.  These mass / spree killers seem to favour being close in anyway, so range accuracy isn’t an issue.  Indiscriminate spraying seems to be a benefit.

      You’d need to be able to print a ‘proper’ gun only if you were going to be part of an organised militia.

  11. Don’t worry, just print your own body armor, or flak jackets once they figure out how to print bombs.

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