Unlike the original, steel Liberator, though, Wilson’s weapon is almost entirely plastic: Fifteen of its 16 pieces have been created inside an $8,000 second-hand Stratasys Dimension SST 3D printer, a machine that lays down threads of melted polymer that add up to precisely-shaped solid objects just as easily as a traditional printer lays ink on a page. The only non-printed piece is a common hardware store nail used as its firing pin.
Wilson crouches over the gun and pulls out the barrel, which was printed over the course of four hours earlier the same morning. Despite the explosion that just occurred inside of it, both the barrel and the body of the gun seem entirely unscathed.
Wilson scrutinizes his creation for a few more seconds, then stands up again. “I think we did it,” he says, a little incredulous.
Last August, Wilson, a law student at the University of Texas and a radical libertarian and anarchist, announced the creation of an Austin-based non-profit group called Defense Distributed, with the intention of creating a firearm anyone could fabricate using only a 3D printer. The digital blueprints for that so-called Wiki Weapon, as Wilson imagined it, could be uploaded to the Web and downloaded by anyone, anywhere in the world, hamstringing attempts at gun control and blurring the line between firearm regulation and information censorship. “You can print a lethal device. It’s kind of scary, but that’s what we’re aiming to show,” Wilson told me at the time. “Anywhere there’s a computer and an Internet connection, there would be the promise of a gun.”
On May 1st, Wilson assembled the 3D-printed pieces of his Liberator for the first time, and agreed to let a Forbes photographer take pictures of the unproven device. A day later, that gun was tested on a remote private shooting range an hour’s drive from Austin, Texas, whose exact location Wilson asked me not to reveal.
New York Congressman Steve Israel responded to Defense Distributed’s work by renewing his call for a revamp of the Undetectable Firearms Act, which bans any firearm that doesn’t set off a metal detector. “Security checkpoints, background checks, and gun regulations will do little good if criminals can print plastic firearms at home and bring those firearms through metal detectors with no one the wiser,” read a statement sent to me and other reporters.
But at each roadblock, the group has found a detour. It’s raised funds from donors through the digital currency Bitcoin, which thanks to that crypto-currency’s rising value now accounts for 99% of Defense Distributed’s assets, according to Wilson. In March it received a federal license to manufacture firearms, which Wilson has framed and posted on the wall of the group’s miniscule workshop. And it’s complied with the Undetectable Firearms Act by inserting a six ounce chunk of non-functional steel into the body of the Liberator, which makes it detectable with a metal detector–Wilson spent $400 on a walk-through model that he’s installed at the workshop’s door for testing. “Our strategy is overcompliance,” he says. (There’s no guarantee, of course, that anyone who downloads and prints the Liberator will insert the same chunk of detectable steel.)
The sixteen pieces of Defense Distributed's printed handgun, including spiral springs for its hammer mechanism and a nail used as its firing pin. Click to enlarge. (Credit: Michael Thad Carter for Forbes)
Everyone but Wilson falls back behind him. Wilson opens the case holding the newly-printed pieces and assembles them, then loads the gun and inserts ear plugs into his ears.
He inhales sharply, aims the Liberator, fires it, and then exhales, in quick succession.
“Outstanding,” says Dennis Wilson. “Congratulations, my son.”
Wilson visibly relaxes. He shakes his father’s hand with his own fully-intact digits. Later he’ll examine the gun and find no obvious signs of damage other than a cracked pin used to hold the barrel in place.
For a few moments, Wilson seems lost for words. His expression is hidden behind his sunglasses. Then he says the first thing that comes to his mind. “Well, there are going to be some changes around here.”
Pretty damn interesting - with significant implications.