Note from the future (August 5, 2018)
I interviewed Cody Wilson more than five years ago, before the Liberator, the 3D-printed design published by Defense Distributed, had seen the light of day. At that time the idea was a prize being offered for a crowd-sourced gun. I don’t know whether my mention of the WWII Liberator had any bearing on how the 21st Century model got its name — I rather doubt it; the name is obvious to anyone who knows the history of gun development. But I like being at least among the first to mention it.
My final thoughts on the then-conceptual Wiki Weapon still hold today:
The only way that the Wiki Weapon can be banned is to ban the expression of an idea. Should the government ever attempt to truly ban that expression, we’ll know that it’s time to start printing a bunch of the Wiki Weapons, as well as running off the tools described at thehomegunsmith.com and cncguns.com, for it is at that point that government will have crossed the line from merely a pain, into tyranny. The Wiki Weapon is a canary in a coal mine.
By Chris Knox
(May 10, 2013) For over a century, every advance in firearms technology has brought with it some measure of hysteria. In the 1860s, the threat of repeating arms falling into the hands of plains Indians caused writers of the day to spill gallons of worried ink. In the 1930s, it was the machine gun which led to the National Firearms Act of 1934. Around the same time, a “freakishly powerful” weapon was also considered for the prohibitively expensive NFA tax. It was the .357 Magnum. Today, we are on the verge of seeing a “printed” gun, one that can be produced on a 3D printer. In 3D printing, plastic is heated and sprayed, much like an ink jet printer, and the material built up layer by layer to produce a three-dimensional plastic part. The idea has not yet been fully realized – current 3D printed materials won’t stand the pressure generated by a gun, but those are current materials. Tomorrow’s materials will be better than today’s.
A group called Defense Distributed is raising funds to “crowdsource” and produce the world’s first fully printable gun. They call it the “Wiki Weapon.” They are sponsoring a design contest and hope to purchase or rent time on a 3D printer to create and test the various entries. Defense Distributed plans to make the printer files available on the Internet under an Open Source license, much like other freely downloadable software. The implications are profound in some ways, yet in others, nothing has changed. But first some context.
Back in the middle and late 1980’s a revolutionary new generation of plastic guns would, it was feared, defeat existing airport security checkpoints rendering air travelers vulnerable to terrorists. The press was in a panic. “Undetectable Guns an Alarming Issue,” intoned the Chicago Tribune. “Defend America: Ban plastic handguns,” shrieked the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. All this over a full-size duty pistol that contained more than a pound of steel but also sported a polymer frame.
The object of the press frenzy was, of course, the now-commonplace Glock, variations of which are today the standard duty weapon of a majority of police departments in this country, and are routinely used by civilians for sports and self-defense. The Glock was never undetectable using standard airport metal detectors, although the panic did illuminate the fact that in 1986 many airport checkpoints were running dated equipment that might not detect some compact metal guns. A federal bill ostensibly aimed at yet-to-be invented “plastic guns” was simply a warmed-over version of old “Saturday Night Special” bills that would have driven little handguns out of legal channels and into the underground market where they would, of course, be readily available to anyone who was willing to break the law. Polymer-framed guns are today offered by a host of mainstream manufacturers.
In recent years polymer technology has produced another revolution of sorts in firearms technology, but that revolution has been under the covers. This second revolution is happening in design shops. Designers routinely use 3D printers to create quick prototypes that don’t have to bear working loads, but can operate mechanically.
In one sense, 3D printing has already gone to the next level with at least one hobbyist maker producing a functional AR15 lower receiver. Under federal law, the lower receiver is considered the gun, so technically, a printed “gun” already exists. Being just a lower, it requires a bunch of parts, including a stock, the guts of the hammer, trigger, and magazine release, an upper receiver and barrel. The printed AR15 certainly would not be undetectable, nonetheless, it has the appealing feature of being free – not “free” like beer, in the sense that it doesn’t cost anything – the equipment and materials needed are fairly expensive – but “free” in the sense of being outside government control. The equipment needed to produce a functional lower receiver or pistol frame – legal firearms – now sits in the garage and basement workshops of millions of tinkerers, and manufacturing one – or a hundred – for personal use, is completely legal in most states.
The next giant step in this brave new world of 3D-printing is to print a complete, fully functional gun.
That brings us to the Wiki Weapon and Defense Distributed, fronted by University of Texas law student Cody Wilson. Chris spoke with Cody about the project recently. Here are some of the high points from that discussion:
Chris Knox: Why are you doing this?
Cody Wilson: There are so many layers. It’s about being able to literally and figuratively realize inalienable rights – in this case, self-defense. It’s technology, but it’s also a philosophical statement. And it’s a political statement. Anyone with any sense knows you can go to Home Depot and get the materials for a perfectly serviceable zip gun and have change from a $10 bill. The idea here is to put out on the Internet the intellectual capital that can create – in one or two steps – a functional weapon from nothing more than the printer. It makes realization of inalienable rights an in-your-face fact. It does away with the “liberal ennui” of shaded meanings to everything. This is a concrete, indisputable fact. Mao got a lot of things wrong, but he said “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun,” and he was right on that.
Knox: Among the things you’re raising money for is a reward for truly printable designs. What kind of requirements for the gun are you laying out?
Wilson: Really, it’s open-ended. We’re looking for a functional firearm that can be printed in its entirety. We’re talking the most basic elemental gun – single-shot, but no restrictions on caliber, or even cartridge. We’ve even thought of some non-cartridge ideas, like being charged with black powder and primed with match heads. We’re not even looking at durability requirements. If firing it once or twice destroys the gun, that might even be an advantage. It depends on what you need to do with it. There are so many things we haven’t thought of yet and they keep popping up.
Knox: It brings to my mind the Liberator pistol from WWII – it’s a gun to get a gun.
Wilson: Exactly. It’s a psychological operation on one level. The Liberator didn’t even get used like it was intended, but it made the occupying armies worry. Again, it’s a political statement. We want to put it out there in the face of the opposition that gun control is now obsolete.
Knox: There are those of us who think it’s obsolete already.
Wilson: Like I said, it’s an in-your-face statement. This is a shift in the whole perspective of the need for an infrastructure to create a weapon – and other things. It’s a move away from the idea of a centralized authority for everything and toward a decentralized world that gives power to the individual.
Nothing Cody says is truly new, nor even that revolutionary. Only the crowdsourced design of the Wiki Weapon project is new, and only in the sense that it is being applied to firearms. Using the Internet as a repository for firearms technology is also an old idea. The late Philip Luty’s wonderful site, thehomegunsmith.com has been around for at least a decade. Luty was an Englishman who, in the face of his government’s gun-banning ways, created his site as a repository of plans for all kinds of weapons, including zip guns and a submachine-gun. Likewise, posting operational computer files that will build a gun is not new. Another site, cncguns.com, offers data files to construct all sorts of guns on a computer-controlled CNC milling machine. Lock a billet of the right material into the vise and the machine will shape a perfect AR15 lower, an M1911 frame, or critical components of other guns.
In the final analysis, the Wiki Weapon project is not about gun control. It isn’t about revolution. It really isn’t even really about guns. It’s about ideas, especially those ideas that can be dangerous. On the Defense Distributed web site (defensedistributed.com/) the “Manifesto” contains a few dozen quotes from founders and other thinkers, plus a link to .Areopagitica, John Milton’s famous defense of unlicensed press. The only way that the Wiki Weapon can be banned is to ban the expression of an idea. Should the government ever attempt to truly ban that expression, we’ll know that it’s time to start printing a bunch of the Wiki Weapons, as well as running off the tools described at thehomegunsmith.com and cncguns.com, for it is at that point that government will have crossed the line from merely a pain, into tyranny. The Wiki Weapon is a canary in a coal mine. We’re watching it closely – we’re sure Eric Holder is too.