Since their release on the web on Monday, the Defense Distributed plans for a 3D-printable pistol have been downloaded 100,000 times. The number of weapons successfully printed from those designs, however, appears to be exactly 100,000 fewer. Although it's not for a lack of trying.
An (admittedly informal) overview of online conversations about the weapon turns up no evidence that anyone has actually made one yet. No one has uploaded a video to YouTube; no one has posted about it on Tumblr; no one has said they've done so on Twitter. People on Twitter have said they want to print a gun …
i want a 3D printed Gun— daddyerickk (@KOsondeck) May 8, 2013
… Or that they plan to print a gun …
Work wants to buy a 3D printer. I’ve already downloaded the Liberator printed gun files in anticipation.— Harley Bell (@HarlsB) May 9, 2013
… Or that they've thought about printing a gun and decided not to.
@thijswhoa Yeah it's crazy! I have a 3D printer and having looked at the designed for a 3D-printed gun, it really isn't worth the risk.— Black Mamba (@BlackMambaZa) May 9, 2013
But no one has actually printed it — at least not then talking about it on social media in English. As Forbes notes, many of the 100,000 downloads were in Spain. (How do you say "3D-printed" in Spanish?)
There are a number of good reasons why it's entirely possible that only Defense Distributed has printed one out so far. In my (futile) attempt to do so earlier this week, several things became obvious pretty quickly. The first is that very few people have 3D printers — at least, for now. The second is that 3D-printing an object is not a fast enterprise. There are hundreds of videos on YouTube showing objects being 3D-printed; it is to printing on paper what dot-matrix devices are to laser printers. The third is the point made in that last tweet above: there's a risk.
That risk comes in two forms. The first is legal. While Defense Distributed articulates its view of the legality in the download instructions — and while various legal experts told me that printing the parts exists at worst in a gray area — people are definitely skittish. And then there's the fact that you are creating a piece of plastic that's meant to be the only thing between a small explosion of gunpowder and your precious fingers.
After two British media outlets contacted his organization about printing the gun, Jonathan Rowley of Digits2Widgets wrote a blog post providing his opinion. "[O]ur responsible advice," he wrote, "to anyone who is contemplating printing, assembling a 3D printed gun is: PLEASE DON’T."
Even if the precise machine and material specifications are followed, the consistency of manufacture of industrial 3D printed parts is of a different order to those of traditional manufacturing. Therefore, even if your gun is printed to precisely the same specifications as the one demonstrated by [Defense Distributed], it may still not be entirely safe.
It has only been four days since the designs were made available to the public. According to experts I spoke with, printing the various parts that comprise the weapon would take at least eight hours. In other words, it's extremely possible that people intending to make a 3D-printed gun haven't quite finished doing so, or haven't quite finished the YouTube video. It is also possible that the hand with which they type now contains a lower number of fingers than it did on Sunday.
The zero-person standing Costa Rican army can rest easy for at least a little while longer.
Photo: The firing of the 3D-printed gun, as seen in a Defense Distributed YouTube video.