I’ve noted several journalists flipping out about the “end of gun control” because of a bit of 3D printing experimentation done by a gunsmith and presumed hacker going under the amusing alias of “HaveBlue.”
Without getting to terribly detailed, HaveBlue took a CNC machining program used to build AR-15 lower receivers, and tweaked it to talk to his 3D plastic printer. Once he did so, he was able to “print” an AR lower receiver.
To the best of my knowledge, there isn’t any reason to doubt HaveBlue’s claim that he was able to attach other conventional AR-15 parts to the plastic printed lower and fire 200 rounds through it. After all, Cavalry Arms made a combination plastic lower and stock and sold it for years.
The most substantive difference between the Cav Arms lower and HaveBlue’s is that the CA guns were made by a licensed FFL, and HaveBlue’s could be theoretically made by anyone with a computer, a 3D printer, and some instructions. But that’s a far cry from a working firearm, a fact even Popular Science couldn’t help but fudge over in their misleading headline about the story.
The truth of the matter is that the lower receiver of an AR-15 is the single most irrelevant part of the firearm, and I’ve heard the gunsmiths joke that you could make a cardboard AR lower and as long as the dimensions were correct, the gun would work. The AR lower is the part that the functional moving parts of the firearm and the furniture the shooter holds latch on to, but does not have to be particularly robust.
Mark Gibbs and some others having a bit of a freakout over HaveBlue’s experiment are perhaps right to be worried about the ability to print AR-15 lowers, as the lower is the serial numbered part our government arbitrarily decided was the firearm. All other parts can be obtained without restrictions, and it theoretically could mean that the government would have no way of knowing how many of these guns exist. Also theoretically, I could fly if I held fans and flapped my arms fast enough, but that isn’t a practical reality either.
Gibbs seems to think that the ability to print other guns parts is just around the corner, and to a certain extent, he might be right. If had the equipment to print all the parts to an AR-15 rifle, they may very well be able to fit it together, load a 5.56 NATO cartridge, pull the trigger, and have the cartridge go off… most likely, along with a decent part of their head and hands.
There are parts of a firearm that can be printed with relative ease, but the all important barrel and bolt are not among them. It is these parts that are forged and or cut from the strongest steels to contain the controlled explosion of gun going off repeatedly without failure. No 3D plastic printer is capable of making such parts, turning the act of firing an entirely 3D-printed centerfire rifle into a very short game Russian roulette. That may change in the future if metals and polymers used in 3D printing become much stronger, but that isn’t likely to happen in the near future.