3D PRINTED WEAPONS
2 July 2023
Introduction & Details
3D printed weapons are a rapidly developing field of munitions that have only existed for a short amount of time. Evolving from simple, relatively unreliable single-shot pistols to battle-tested semi-automatic carbines within a span of a decade, we stand at the precipice of a revolution in how insurgencies are waged. Advancements in consumer-grade 3D printers, a steep reduction in entrance and production costs, and comprehensive blueprints delivered through a passionate
community have all contributed to the proliferation of these weapons entering the marketplace and battlespace. As state actors scramble to respond to the threat presented by 3D printed weapons, Pandora’s box has already been opened and there is no way to realistically remove them or stop the growth of its community. Examining where these weapons have been used, their purpose, their history, their capabilities, and what steps have been taken to limit their spread helps to understand the path that these weapons will shape the wars of tomorrow.
Past Uses & Renowned Cases
3D printed firearms are still in their early stages and have not had the chance to be implemented on a large scale. Despite this, their use has been documented in various insurgencies around the world, most notably in Myanmar in the wake of the 2021 coup. Various armed student and ethnic organizations – such as the All Burma Students' Democratic Front and People’s Defence Forces (PDF) – have been seen using them to engage Burmese state affiliated combatants (1). The usage of 3D printed weapons in crime has not come anywhere near the level that conventional firearms have, but that trend has been slowly changing. Throughout 2020, Los Angeles police had seized over 700 unserialized firearms (2), and authorities across the Western world have seized a similarly rising number of 3D printed weapons over the years, with one of the most common weapons seized being the FGC-9, or Fuck Gun Control - 9-millimeter (3).
The FGC-9 was designed and developed in 2019 by a small team from Deterrence Dispensed, which is a decentralized collective operating online and distributing open-source 3D-printed firearm blueprints. The team was composed of Americans Jeff Rodriguez, “Ivan the Troll”, and Kurdish-German “JStark1809” in 2018, and it heavily based off the design of the FGC-9 from the Shuty AP-9 by Derwood. It is the first ever semi-automatic firearm that could be completely manufactured without any external gun parts. The carbine is also remarkably cheap to produce, with the rough cost of materials coming out to roughly $100 USD for barrel making equipment and another $100 USD for the rest of the printed components (4). Due to Deterrence Dispensed protocols, the weapon was extensively evaluated and the files to create it were comprehensive to ensure safety and functionality, as well as making it as easy to build as possible. Since its creation, it has become a staple of the 3D-printed gun community, mainly due to Popular Front’s 2020 documentary. “Plastic Defence: Secret 3D Printed Guns in Europe.” (5)
Beyond Myanmar, the propagation of 3D printed weapons has been limited in scale but present nonetheless. During the 2022 Easter protests in Northern Ireland, armed members of Óglaigh na hÉireann, a paramilitary group ideologically aligned with the IRA, were seen brandishing FGC-9 during a statement in Belfast in which they threatened loyalist political figures (6). In Turkey, FGC-9 MkII Stingrays, a longer barreled carbine version of the standard MkII, have been seen off and on in Istanbul’s black market, with the going price usually falling around $1,500-$1,750 USD (7).
The usage and propagation of 3D printed weapons has only grown more as access to the technology and blueprints becomes more widespread, while costs associated with their creation continue to decrease. Moving forwards, it is highly likely that weapons like the Plastikov and the FGC-9 will be seen within a growing number of insurgencies across the world. Regions where conventional firearms may be scarce or areas where student or other general youth movements have a more militant attitude serve as fertile ground for these weapons to become more common in the asymmetric battlespace.
Purpose of Use & Details
3D printed guns are becoming increasingly more popular in the eyes of insurgent groups due to their ease of manufacturing, low cost, and increasing effectiveness. In the case of the insurgency in Myanmar, these weapons are easier to obtain than conventional firearms in certain areas (8). Given that many rebels are actual students, there is a knowledgeable base to be able to construct them. The internet is only partially required, as once the files have been downloaded off a forum like Deterrence Dispensed or DEFCAD, they can be transported to anywhere with access to a 3D printer via an external hard drive.
3D printed weapons started with the small-scale production of parts designed for Armalite rifle platforms, specifically AR lower receivers and magazines as part of the Wiki Weapon project. In 2013, Cody Wilson created the first true 3D printed firearm, the Liberator pistol, named after its spiritual predecessor from the Second World War. Like its namesake, Wilson’s Liberator was an inexpensive, single-shot pistol intended to be capable of being mass produced. The weapon was almost entirely 3D printed, with only the firing pin being externally sourced. Due to hardware limitations of commercial 3D printers in the early 2010s, the only printers capable of producing Liberators were expensive, high-end FDM 3D printers that were not easily available and which cost upwards of $20,000 USD (9). The Liberator was a technical failure, as the technology was neither practical nor qualitative. It was infamous for catastrophic weapon failures that warranted safety concerns for the shooter (10). However, the weapon served its purpose as a proof of concept that garnered international media attention, thus exposing the medium to a broader audience. To this day, most search results for 3D printed firearms will display Wilson’s Liberator.
The attention given to 3D printed weapons in the early and mid 2010s helped to develop a community around them. Cody Wilson created Defense Distributed, an open-source forum that served to centralize 3D printed models. Groups like DEFCAD and FOSSCAD also began popping up. Despite the early community formation, the first few years after the creation of the Liberator were lackluster as developments in 3D printing technology slowed down. Files for AR lower receivers and other untested designs proliferated, but ultimately lacked any practical function. While this era did little to yield pragmatic results, it nonetheless inspired people to become involved in the community.
Traditionally, the purpose of the 3D printed gun is similar in purpose to its progenitor, the WWII-era Liberator pistol; Close-range ambush tactics designed to kill an enemy combatant and procure their conventionally-produced and more reliable weapon. Despite the growth of 3D printed firearm technology, traditional logistical structures for both state and non-state affiliated actors favor objectively superior legacy firearms, leading acquisition of these weapons to remain an operational and strategic priority. However, since the introduction of more reliable hybrid designs, the role of the 3D printed weapon has evolved to being able suppress enemy combatants in a firefight situation.
In terms of function, 3D printed guns are best suited for close-range, urban environments. Despite the recent advances made in 3D printed weapons, large caliber variants are still only conceptual and have not seen any major designs arise to fill that role. This limitation in caliber leads to a reduction in operational range, effectively hindering it from providing a meaningful contribution at medium and long ranges. Furthermore, while PLA+ filament is strong enough to be implemented in firearms production, heat mitigation remains an issue, leading to damage to the weapons overtime (11).
However, developments in new carbon fiber-nylon blends seek to remedy both range and durability issues and are sure to see more development in the coming years.
There are three types of 3D printed firearms:
Partially Printed Production: Examples like Wilson’s Liberator fall into this category. Everything that can be printed is printed with as minimal external resources as possible. External resources consist of easily sourceable hardware equipment like screws and springs. Out of the three categories, partially printed firearms are the most unreliable but are seeing more improvement as techniques become more refined.
Unserialized Production: Examples of firearms made in this fashion are AR lower receivers, Glock frames, or any other part of the weapon that is typically serialized by the firearm manufacturer. The United States is the only location where proliferation of these models is viable. Federal registration only applies to the serialized portion of the firearm, whereas all external mechanisms like upper receivers, slides, and trigger assemblies can be purchased anonymously. Despite geographical limitations, the usage of aftermarket equipment makes these types of weapons more reliable and capable than partially printed firearms.
Hybrid Production: The FGC-9 is the quintessential example of the hybrid category. Weapons in this category can still be manufactured entirely at home and do not require any specific externally sourced parts. While the barrel and the bolt are the only components that cannot be 3D printed, everything else is. Hybrid firearms have proven to be reliable both in testing as well as combat.
The reduction in cost of equipment is continuing to transform the tools in which 3D gunsmiths are able to operate. Another developing technology which is still somewhat far away from being deployable at a consumer level is the stainless steel 3D printer. Direct metal 3D printers have existed in some form since the mid-1990s but haven't had the potential of being utilized in large quantities in workshops and forges until the late-2010s. These printers are complicated and require supplementary equipment, such as a wash and sinter. Such pieces of equipment often run the cost into the tens of thousands. While these devices are impractical for small-scale and decentralized insurgent activity, the potential lies in their uses by more organized and logistically-capable paramilitary organizations, or even state-level actors, as the technology matures.
The technology that has been seen so far is largely in its infancy and has not been around for longer than the late 2010s. An era of breakthroughs within the 3D printed gun world broke the years of stagnation since Wilson’s Liberator, beginning with Jeff Rodriguez’s new electrochemically machined (ECM) barrel design. This new process expanded the implementation of conventional items to be utilized in weapon manufacturing (12). At the same time, the Ender 3 3D printer was introduced by Crealty, revolutionizing 3D printing across the consumer market. The Ender was an intuitive and efficient alternative to the bulky, suboptimal FDM printers for a fraction of the price, entering the market at less than $200 USD (13). The final crucial breakthrough in 3D printing technology around this time was the introduction of PLA+ filament. 3D printers since the early 2010’s utilized two types of filaments, PLA and ABS. PLA was easier for 3D printers to utilize but more brittle, whereas ABS was stronger but led to more difficulties with non-enclosed 3D printers, which were more popular. PLA+ bridged the gap in strength and usability, paving the way for 3D printed firearms to become a reality past lower receivers and self-destructing single-shot pistols.
Popular Front’s documentary, as well as the rising popularity of YouTube channels like CTRLPew, galvanized the movement and introduced these designs to even more people. These channels have been credited for the introduction of 3D printed weapons to people like PrintShootRepeat, who have helped to highlight these weapons to hundreds of thousands of people since (14). In 2021, the FGC-9 MkII was released on DEFCAD, further improving JStark’s design. That same year, JStark died following a raid on his home by German police with details pertaining to his death remaining ambiguous (15). Although the death of JStark was a massive shock to the 3D printed gun community, development on new systems has seen no signs of slowing down.
More and more people continue to be exposed to content pertaining to 3D printed weapons with the appeal of not being isolated to any particular demographic. While right-leaning elements are undeniably present within the United States – considering their involvement in the conventional firearm community – left-wing activists like QueerArmorer and individuals affiliated with John Brown Gun Club chapters are also supporters of 3D printed firearm technology (16). Beyond conventional small arms, groups like Wild Arms Research and Development have begun to produce rocket launchers and mortars as well, while still complying with American firearm laws (17). Tim Hoffman’s ‘Orca’ rifle is one of the latest weapons to gain recognition within the community, developing alongside the FGC-9 and continuing to aid in awareness (18). Rather than being a matter of the possibility of the development of devices like larger caliber weapons using such technology, it seems to be a matter of time, especially regarding when such weapons can be reliably produced in a way that is cost effective.
The only response that authorities have been able to utilize to restrict 3D printed firearms has been through reactive legislative measures. While EU countries, the UK, and other Western countries have adopted strict gun laws, not much can be done to stop the creation of these weapons short of banning the possession of 3D printers. Even through the restriction of access to the forums where these blueprints are available, VPN users need only to set location services to a country that has less strict firearm laws like the United States. Within the United States, legislation has been slow and ineffectual in combating the rise of these weapons. Under federal law, the manufacturing of 3D printed weapons remains legal, with state-level restrictions varying in scale and only recently being pursued by a handful of states (19). In terms of proactive measures, these have manifested in the form of generalized weapon buybacks, targeting both conventional and privately manufactured firearms. The result has been for private manufacturers to produce shoddy or functionally-useless weapons to turn in at these events, sell them to authorities for a profit, and then immediately turn around and use those funds to create more weapons (20).
In Myanmar, for instance, where the usage of 3D printed guns has been most visible in action against junta forces, the government’s response has been a mix of both Western-style police raids on known manufacturers, as well as reprisal attacks against civilian targets in the wake of rebel attacks (21). Ultimately, the only effective way for a state entity to successfully combat the creation and expansion in popularity of 3D printed guns would be through the total prohibition of 3D printers and VPNs from public space, as well as a surveillance state large enough to subvert proliferation through intelligence, propaganda, and terror tactics.
Open-Source Intelligence & Field Examples
This video retrieved from the OurWarsToday OSINT Telegram channel shows rebels from the Myanmar People's Defence Forces (PDF) test-firing their 3D printed FGC-9 weapons.
Works Cited (Chicago-style)
(1) - Eydoux, Thomas. “How Rebel Fighters Are Using 3D-Printed Arms to Fight the Myanmar Junta.” The Observers - France 24, January 11, 2022.
(2) - Martinez, Christian. “LAPD Found 700 'Ghost Guns’ - Now It Is Getting $5 Million.” Los Angeles Times, May 31, 2023.
(3) - Vallance, Chris. “3D Printed Guns: Warnings over Growing Threat of 3D Firearms.” BBC News, November 9, 2022.
(4) - Schneider, Ari. “3D-Printed Guns Are Getting More Capable and Accessible.” Slate Magazine, February 16, 2021.
(5) - Popular Front. “Plastic Defence: Secret 3D Printed Guns in Europe.” YouTube, November 23, 2020.
(6) - Mooney, John. “Security Services Investigate 3D-Printed Gun at Republican Event.” The Times & The Sunday Times: breaking news & today’s latest headlines, April 26, 2022.
(7) - War Noir. “3D-Printed ‘FGC-9’ Firearms Emerge on Black Market in Turkey.” 3D-Printed “FGC-9” Firearms Emerge on Black Market in Turkey, September 1, 2022.
(8) - Eydoux, Thomas. “How Rebel Fighters Are Using 3D-Printed Arms to Fight the Myanmar Junta.” The Observers
(9) - “Why 3D Printing Is on the Rise.” OneMonroe, September 3, 2020.
(10) - New South Wales Police. “NSW Police Commissioner Warns of Dangers of 3D Guns.” YouTube, May 23, 2013.
(11) - Hoffman Tactical. “Print Shoot Repeat Melted My Orca.” YouTube, May 6, 2023.
(12) - ImproGuns. “DIY Barrel Rifling Using Salt Water, Electricity and a 3D Printed Jig -.” The Firearm Blog, March 2, 2017.
(13) - “Ender-3 3D Printer.” Creality.
(14) - “PSR.” YouTube.
(15) - C., Luke. “FGC-9 Creator JSTARK Passes Away Following Police Raid.” The Firearm Blog, October 12, 2021.
(16) - Puget Sound John Brown Gun Club. “Tweet.” Twitter, July 31, 2018.
(17) - “Info.” DEFCAD, n.d.
(18) - Hoffman Tactical. “Accuracy Testing The Orca 3D Printed AR-15.” YouTube, December 28, 2022.
(19) - Baldwin, Lauren. “State and Local Laws Regulating 3D-Printed Guns.” www.criminaldefenselawyer.com, November 16, 2021.
(20) - Rose, Janus. “Someone Made $3,000 Selling 3D-Printed Guns at a Gun Buyback Event.” VICE, August 2, 2022.
(21) - France 24. “Burnt Remains of Dozens of People Found in Charred Vehicles in Myanmar: Monitor.” France 24, December 25, 2021.