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Wiki Weapon project: Make a 3-D printed gun at home

Posting in Design

Last month, a series of shocking photos published on an online forum demonstrated how 3-D printers can indeed be used to produce some of the essential parts found in working firearms. Now, a gun rights activist named Cody Wilson wants to go one step further and come up with a design that anyone can download and use to print a fully functional gun.

To that end, the University of Texas law student, along with a small group of his friends formed a collective known as Defense Distributed to launch an initiative dubbed the Wiki Weapon Project. The group estimated that they would need to raise at least $20,000 to accomplish their goal and had to collect donations through IndieGoGo, a crowd-funding website that uses a platform similar to Kickstarter. But it didn't take long for the those in charge of the site to notice that the controversial listing violated the company's terms of service and quickly pulled the plug on the group's fundraising campaign and also returned money back to the supporters.

Here's the posted description of the project prior to being suspended:

The WikiWep project is to produce a CAD file for distribution and sharing across the internet. This CAD file will be a schematic for a modest, 3D printable plastic firearm. In a world where 3D printing becomes more ubiquitous and economical, defense systems and opposition to tyranny may be but a click away… Let’s pull the world toward this future together.

Now you're probably asking whether producing an effective firearm using plastic material is even plausible. After all, besides guns with plastic components, such as the semi-automatic Glock 17 pistol, there hasn't been a non-metallic model on the market. But a report on The Straight Dope suggests that has been speculation for several years now that a number of manufacturers -- and even the CIA --- have figured out a workable design:

Some think it's only a matter of time. In 1986 Congress's Office of Technology Assessment reported that a 99 percent nonmetallic gun might someday be made using composite plastics, with metal used only for springs. In 1988 a small Florida company called Red Eye Arms claimed it was going to have a prototype plastic grenade launcher ready in 18 to 24 months. Congress got so spooked by the publicity about plastic weapons, even theoretical ones, that it banned their production in the U.S.

And here's the bit referencing a potential model being developed by the CIA:

The June 1995 issue of Modern Gun magazine carried an article entitled "The CIA's Glass Gun," with the arch subhead, "The Agency Could Tell You About Its Amazing Ceramic Full Automatic Pistol. But Then, of Course, They'd Have to Kill You." The article was sketchy--no sources, no quotes, no indication how the information was obtained. An editor's note said the gun in the accompanying photos was "a full-sized model made up for this article. The CIA declined to help. Strange . . ." Modern Gun is published by Larry Flynt of Hustler magazine fame and calls itself "Entertainment for Gun Owners," so this is perhaps not the world's most reliable source. Still, one does want to consider all the possibilities.

The article implied that the CIA made several prototype nonmetallic guns using "a super-hard ceramic material" originally developed for the exhaust valves in General Motors auto engines. The stuff "literally has the strength of steel," the article said. "The agency considered the material so important to national security that it reportedly had its formula classified, thereby preventing GM from marketing it."

Thus far, the rumors haven't been dispelled nor confirmed:

Was this legit? An attempt to reach the editor of Modern Gun was unsuccessful, so I phoned the CIA. You'll be interested to know the CIA actually has somebody in charge of public relations. Her job is to tell people like me "no comment," which is what she did. Next I called GM. They said they don't use ceramics in engine valves because it isn't cost-effective. Yes, but what about the CIA using your material to make guns? "You'd better ask the CIA about that." Uh-huh. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms said we dunno, but the CIA is exempt from the federal law banning nondetectable guns.

Either way, the folks behind Wiki Weapons Project certainly think it's achievable and has continued pushing ahead despite the latest snag. The group claims to be working on a prototype and plans on testing it soon. They'v also since switched to raising funds directly on the group's page, primarily through Paypal and Bitcoin.

“Wiki Weapon project has received $12k, as well as the promise from one angel investor to match all contributions received above $10k dollar to dollar. There are some big offers potentially coming down in the week upcoming as well. We’ve begun prototyping as well," Cody Wilson told BetaNews.

Probing the issue further, CNET's Rich Brown asked gunsmithing expert Ryder Washburn, who serves as vice president of prop weaponry manufacturer Specialists Ltd., about the likelihood of producing a working weapon using lower-pressure ammunition such as .38 Special Ammo or .45 Long Colt.

"Using lower-pressure ammunition sounds like a good decision, but it depends on how you define success. If his goal is to fire a bullet and not blow his hand off, I give him a 50 percent chance." Washburn said.

Meanwhile the legalities of people DIY-ing their own guns seem to be a bit fuzzy. Wilson, for one, claims that, with the proper compliance, the design can be freely distributed and utilized for personal use.

“We consulted with a pretty prominent firm in Richmond, VA early on,” he told Betabeat. “The legalities actually involve a broad range of issues, from future products liability issues, ip export problems, and then your basic statutes like the undetectable firearms act. But no, our research and counsel suggest we do not need licensing to print the firearms unless they would be considered class II weapons (autos, etc.). Our main concern is detectability, so when we print we’re adding x-ray signature blocks.”

However, gun control advocates don't necessarily agree. As part a report on the 3-D printed Glock pistol, one legal expert told Wired:

“The laws were written assuming people could make their own guns … the law still does regulate and restrict that,” Daniel Vice, senior attorney at the Washington-based Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, tells Danger Room. Guslick likely didn’t violate any laws surrounding the manufacturing of the gun without a license, as it’s only for personal use. If he attempted to sell the pistol, or opened up a factory producing the weapons, he’d need authorization from the government.

But Vice said the weapon could possibly be illegal under the Undetectable Firearms Act of 1988, which bans the possession and manufacturing of firearms that can pass undetected through airport security. But U.S. law is unclear whether this would apply to a gun with metal parts. The Glock pistol, for example, uses plastic parts.

There's currently no need for concern over how the issue would be raised with printed steel guns -- at least not yet.

The latest on the gun controversy:

Learn more about innovative weapons technology:

— By on September 5, 2012, 9:43 PM PST

Tuan Nguyen

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Tuan C. Nguyen is a freelance science journalist based in New York City. He has written for the U.S. News and World Report, Fox News, MSNBC, ABC News, AOL, Yahoo! News and LiveScience. Formerly, he was reporter and producer for the technology section of ABCNews.com. He holds degrees from the University of California Los Angeles and the City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure