Before “three” arrives, a shot reverberates across the overcast central Texas landscape. A tall, sandy blond engineer named John has just pulled a twenty-foot length of yellow string tied to a trigger, which has successfully fired the world’s first entirely 3D-printed gun for the very first time, rocketing a .380 caliber bullet into a berm of dirt and prairie brush.
“Fuckin’ A!” yells John, who has asked me not to publish his full name. He hurries over to examine the firearm bolted to an aluminum frame. But the first to get there is Cody Wilson, a square-jawed and stubbled 25 year-old in a polo shirt and baseball cap. John may have pulled the trigger, but the gun is Wilson’s brainchild. He’s spent more than a year dreaming of its creation, and dubbed it “the Liberator” in an homage to the cheap, one-shot pistols designed to be air-dropped by the Allies over France during its Nazi occupation in World War II.
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.”