The use of 3D printing, or additive manufacturing, has added a new element to firearms technology. For manufacturers it has opened up new development and production processes, while for hobbyists, activists and criminals more affordable ‘desktop’ 3D printers offer potentially unregulated access to firearms.
Craft-produced weapons have a long history of use for nefarious purposes and have characteristics that make them well suited to criminal activities. These types of firearms are unregistered on state weapon databases, are relatively easy to manufacture, and are disposable.
3D-printed firearms have added a 21st century twist to the history of craft-produced firearms. With access to a computer, 3D printer and printing materials a weapon can be manufactured with comparative ease. However, this ease is tempered by the weapon’s sophistication, capabilities, and the technology needed to produce the firearm.
Firearms technology has remained relatively static over the past century, with self-contained metallic cartridges, pressure bearing surfaces and locking methods continuing to be the basis for all firearms. In a firearm’s most basic form, such as a ‘slam-fire’ shotgun, it can consist of simply a tube and a striker to ignite the cartridge. 3D-printed firearms have evolved from this basis, with the technology development trajectory becoming increasingly sophisticated.
There are broadly two types of 3D-printed firearms: those produced entirely from printed polymer and other materials, and hybrids that incorporate printed parts with other more traditionally manufactured components. An example of the latter would be the 3D printing of pistol frames and non-pressure bearing lower receiver parts from polymers.