Story first appeared on Forbes.com.
Even Wilson himself says he’s not sure exactly how that’s possible. But one important trick may be the group’s added step of treating the gun’s barrel in a jar of acetone vaporized with a pan of water and a camp stove, a process that chemically melts its surface slightly and smooths the bore to avoid friction. The Dimension printer Defense Distributed used also keeps its print chamber heated to 167 degrees Fahrenheit, a method patented by Stratasys that improves the parts’ resiliency.
Defense Distributed’s goal is to eventually adapt its method to work on cheaper printers, too, like the $2,200 Replicator sold by Makerbot or the even cheaper, open-source RepRap. Even if a barrel is deformed after firing, Defense Distributed has designed the Liberator to use removable barrels that can be swapped in and out in seconds.
Wilson hasn’t shied from the growing controversy around his project. The Sandy Hook, Connecticut massacre in which a lone gunman killed twenty children and six adults only increased his sense of urgency to circumvent the anticipated wave of gun control laws. As Congress mulled limits on ammunition magazines larger than ten rounds, Defense Distributed created 3D-printable 30-round magazines for AR-15 and AK-47 rifles. In March, it released a YouTube video of a 3D-printable AR-15 lower receiver that can fire hundreds of rounds without failing. The lower receiver is the regulated body of the gun. Anyone who prints it can skirt gun laws and order the rest of the weapon’s parts by mail.
Much of the criticism has focused on Wilson himself, by far the most visible figure in Defense Distributed’s collection of 15 on-and-off volunteer designers and engineers spread across the world. He’s received more than a dozen death threats, along with many wishes that someone would use his own 3D printed weapons to kill him. Wired included Wilson in its list of the 15 most dangerous people in the world. The Coalition To Stop Gun Violence calls him a “hardcore insurrectionist” who advocates anti-government violence. ”This guy is basically saying ‘print your own guns and be ready to kill government officials,’” says Ladd Everitt, a CSGV spokesperson. “The fact that we’re not talking about [him in those terms] after the Boston bombings is incredible.”
But Wilson denies advocating any sort of violent revolt in America. Instead, he argues that his goal is to demonstrate how technology can circumvent laws until governments simply become irrelevant. “This is about enabling individuals to create their own sovereign space…The government will increasingly be on the sidelines, saying ‘hey, wait,’” says Wilson. “It’s about creating the new order in the crumbling shell of the old order.”
Wilson doesn’t deny that his gun could be used for murder or political violence. “I recognize that this tool might be used to harm people. That’s what it is: It’s a gun,” he says. “But I don’t think that’s a reason to not put it out there. I think that liberty in the end is a better interest.”
He prefers to think of his Liberator in the same terms as its namesake, the one built for distribution to resistance fighters in Nazi-occupied countries in the 1940s. That plan was conceived in part as a psychological operation aimed at lowering the occupying forces’ morale, Wilson says, and he believes his project will strike a similar symbolic blow against governments around the world. “The enemy took notice that weapons were being dropped from the sky,” he says. “Our execution will be better. We have the Internet.”
On a blazing Saturday afternoon, Wilson returns to the remote firing range where he first tested the Liberator. None of his Defense Distributed compatriots have joined him this time–John the engineer is away at the annual meeting of the National Rifle Association in Houston. But Wilson is accompanied by his father, Dennis, a lawyer from Little Rock, Arkansas who has flown in to witness a historic moment: His son plans to fire a fully 3D-printed weapon by hand for the first time.
Wilson has spent the last few days tweaking the Liberator’s CAD file and re-printing its barrel, hammer and body to realign its firing pin and solve the misfire issue. But he becomes quieter as the moment of testing approaches. His father asks how far it is to the nearest hospital: a 45 minute drive. We consider how to make a tourniquet if things go badly. “You guys are going to make me lose my nerve,” says Wilson, smiling nervously.
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.”