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THE RAMIFICATIONS OF 3D PRINTED WEAPONS

Updated: Nov 15

Annabelle Hueber, Owen Saturnia, Weapons and Tactics Team

Week of Monday, October 11, 2021


The Liberator 3D-printed gun[1]


With the growth of the 3D printer industry, countries will likely be at risk of attacks from 3D printed weapons as civilians can now privately manufacture firearms, explosive devices, and even drone components while evading law enforcement. The threat of 3D printed weapons will likely increase in nations like the US which constitutionally protect the right to bear arms and have a strong gun culture. However, the global accessibility of 3D printers and weapons’ blueprints online for private individuals indicates that even countries with strict gun regulations will likely not be immune to attacks from custom 3D printed weapons.

Individuals armed with 3D printed firearms and explosives can likely bypass security checks that rely on metal detection and attack targets previously considered secure, as these weapons can be manufactured with non-metallic materials. 3D printed firearms will almost certainly allow terrorists to enter secured locations with easily assemblable individual components. By using 3D printers to produce weapons, terrorists will almost certainly not need to buy suspicious components required to construct traditional weapons that would flag law enforcement. Terrorist organizations and private militias will likely be able to arm their members with untraceable weapons regardless of an individual’s criminal history that could legally prohibit them from possessing firearms. 3D printers will likely make homemade explosives a preferred tactic for terrorist organizations by allowing bombmakers to manufacture explosive components covertly instead of buying them and alerting authorities.


Terrorists have used 3D printing as a method of obtaining weapons in their attacks. In 2020, the Spanish police seized a 3D printing weapons factory operated by alleged far-right extremists, which had equipment capable of creating a gun barrel in two minutes.[2] Terrorist groups are very likely to expand their 3D printing weapon capabilities for conducting attacks. Terrorist leadership will likely distribute weapon blueprints online to local cells. Since purchasing 3D printing equipment is not illegal, 3D printing filament material will likely allow terrorists to obtain their supplies without attracting law enforcement’s attention.


In 2013, a private defense contractor and file-sharing platform, Defense Distributed, released designs for the first fully 3D printed handgun known as the Liberator.[3] The organization encourages sharing weapon blueprints online and hosts an extensive database of firearm schematics to assist gunsmiths in designing new weapons.[4] Their technical and legal support fraternity, Legio, aims to preserve and expand US Second Amendment rights.[5] The group is likely sympathetic to anti-government ideologies as their website displays the “join or die” snake cartoon insignia, which is associated with anti-government militias. Defense Distributed’s multiple legal disputes with the US government over the legality of disseminating weapon manuals online almost certainly highlight their resistance to authorities seeking to regulate digital blueprints. 3D printed weapon ownership will likely increase among Americans suspicious of the US government’s infringement of their Second Amendment rights because 3D weapons are not tracked by the government. However, law-abiding gun-owners are unlikely to construct 3D printed weapons, as learning how to build these weapons is more expensive and time-consuming than legally purchasing firearms.


3D printers can replicate and enhance factory-made weapons with customizations like interchangeable barrels and modified triggers.[6] Individuals with 3D printers can manufacture high-capacity magazines and bypass state and national governments’ restrictions.[7] Extremists will likely leverage these capabilities and equip themselves undetected, to match the firepower of law enforcement. 3D printers will almost certainly enable US civilians to create fully automatic weapons without a federal firearms license. Ownership of 3D printed fully automatic weapons will likely increase in the US as legally owning select-fire weapons is regulated by the government. 3D printers enable individuals to construct new models of ammunition without needing established firearm companies to test their designs for functionality.[8] Although 3D printers cannot create non-metallic ammunition that operates consistently without breaking or jamming the firearm, advancements in 3D printing material integrity and designs will likely lead to the development of more functional non-metallic bullets within the next few years.


3D printers enable individuals to craft explosive devices as 3D printers can produce intricate components, including hollow structural spaces, which allow explosive devices to detonate more easily.[9] This technology will complement terrorist and militant groups’ drone warfare as 3D printed drone parts will enable cheap and easy repairs of drones.[10] These capabilities will likely increase drone flight times, enabling longer surveillance operations and better-coordinated attacks with explosives strapped to drones. Extremists with explosives training will likely leverage these advances in drone technology to increase casualties. Terrorist groups will almost certainly expand their use of 3D printed parts for drones and explosives as these are increasingly used for remote attacks.


Marines inspecting 3D printer[11]


3D printing poses cybersecurity risks as the machinery's code can be tampered with during production and create defective weapons.[12] This will very likely shift the objective of cybercrime from data leaks to cyber-attacks, using malicious code to exploit organizations' cybersecurity vulnerabilities. Such code will very likely create malfunctioning weapons that could cause accidental bodily harm. The US military uses 3D printing for the production of rocket launchers, drones, and vital parts for submarines and armored vehicles.[13] Unauthorized individuals could insert malicious code into printing software and machinery and almost certainly endanger the lives of US troops and civilians operating these weapons. The US military will almost certainly be affected by cyber-attacks on their 3D printing machinery if the latest security measures are not implemented to address emerging threats. Government agencies should include necessary safeguards to the digital design and the physical product by monitoring their performance.


3D printed weapons have limitations without proper training or funding, such as quality control for safely operating weapons.[14] Civilians are unlikely to conduct quality control tests on their 3D printed firearms and check for safety and reliability like licensed gun manufacturers.[15] This will likely lead untrained individuals and professional 3D printing organizations to create defective firearms which can malfunction and injure their operators. In their early models, Defense Distributed showcased an AR-15 style rifle with a 3D printed lower receiver, but it failed to fire after six rounds.[16] Although Defense Distributed later retooled the firearm to properly function, professional gunsmiths will almost certainly be vulnerable to similar risks of weapon malfunctions while constructing 3D printed firearms. Inexperienced gun owners will likely prefer legally purchasing firearms since gun manufacturers like Glock or Colt have quality control measures. 3D printed explosives will likely encounter the same limitations, as individuals require training to manufacture explosives when utilizing 3D printed material. However, extremists with training in explosives and gunsmithing will likely benefit from 3D printers by leveraging their knowledge of safety protocols and ability to appropriately test homemade weapons.


The US Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) has declared that individuals manufacturing, exporting, or furnishing 3D printed firearms are now subject to Export Administration Regulation (EAR) since these firearms have both a civil application and a terrorist or military application.[17] Under the EAR, individuals without a BIS license are legally prohibited from posting technical information or software related to 3D printed weapons online.[18] The criminal and administrative penalties will almost certainly discourage individuals from producing 3D printed weapons. Making it unlawful to publish instructions of 3D printed weapons online will likely make it harder for such individuals to obtain unregistered firearms. The implementation of the 3D Printed Gun Safety Act and the 3D Firearms Prohibitions Act will likely aid the government in tracking untraceable 3D printed firearms and increase public safety and national security. However, individuals legally banned from owning traditional firearms can very likely construct 3D printed weapons and bypass the ban. The 3D Firearms Prohibition Act should be passed by the US Congress as the Act would help regulate the production of 3D printed weapons by imposing serial numbers on them.[19] Subjecting 3D printed firearms to the same regulatory processes as traditionally manufactured firearms would likely assist the US government in preventing the production and ownership of untraceable 3D printed weapons.


Between 2016 and 2020, US law enforcement estimated that around 24,000 unmarked firearms were recovered from crime scenes, highlighting the concerns associated with the unmarked nature of 3D printed weapons.[20] Individuals can purchase 3D printers on Amazon and find design templates and internal action components like a firing pin or extractor on websites like Deterrence Dispensed. Mordor Intelligence, a market intelligence and advisory company, predicts that the 3D printer market will grow by 30% over the next five years due to the advances in 3D printing technology.[21] This will almost certainly increase the popularity of 3D printed weapons among extremist groups. The increasing demand and easy access to 3D printers will likely lower the entry barrier, allowing inexperienced gunsmiths to manufacture untraceable and defective firearms. More individuals are likely to post and access instructions for building 3D printed firearms online.


Most amateur gunsmiths use 3D printers to construct the gun’s receiver domestically, which provides housing for internal action components, because it is the only federally regulated gun component.[22] Individuals can complete their gun by purchasing components like the Glock or the hammer from licensed dealers without a federal background check.[23] Implementing background checks on other gun components would very likely limit their sale to extremists. Such components undergoing the same regulatory process as the receiver would likely prevent extremists from constructing guns domestically. Law enforcement should monitor and regulate the distribution of receivers’ schematics online to track individuals constructing guns using 3D printers.


The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) recommends that law enforcement monitor the distribution of 3D printing materials to known persons of interest who are legally barred from acquiring firearms, both on online platforms and on the 3D printing market. Establishing a public-private partnership between regulatory agencies and commercial entities selling 3D printing material will likely help to promote information sharing and emergency response coordination. A partnership will advise the private sector on how to communicate with the authorities if they believe their products are being used for terrorism. CTG recommends that 3D printing vendors register their sales and mandate customer registration before selling products that can be used in constructing weapons. This will likely allow law enforcement to coordinate with the private sector to monitor potential domestic firearm production and identify malicious intent. CTG recommends that governments mandate weapon blueprint distributors to run background checks on consumers to ensure they are not legally restricted from owning firearms and exploiting the loosely regulated industry. Introducing penalties on unauthorized production will almost certainly discourage individuals from producing 3D printed weapons. CTG recommends that the BIS raise awareness about the limitations of 3D printed weapons, the potential operational flaws that could arise from constructing them domestically, and the effects of malicious code on citizens and operators.


CTG and the Weapons and Tactics Team (W/T) will continue to monitor the rising threat of 3D printed weapons and how a lack of regulation presents opportunities for the harmful use of 3D printing. W/T will analyze any further attacks and potential weapon developments which result from technological advances in the industry and increase in the accessibility of 3D printed weapons. Through the use of OSINT, CTG will further assess the availability of blueprints and software which result in weapon creation. CTG's Worldwide Analysis of Threats, Crime, and Hazards (W.A.T.C.H) Officers and Threat Hunters, who analyze terrorism, crime, and hazards on a global scale, will continue to provide timely reports on advancements of the threat.


The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) is a subdivision of the global consulting firm Paladin 7. CTG has a developed business acumen that proactively identifies and counteracts the threat of terrorism through intelligence and investigative products. Business development resources can now be accessed via the Counter Threat Center (CTC), emerging Fall 2021. The CTG produces W.A.T.C.H resources using daily threat intelligence, also designed to complement CTG specialty reports which utilize analytical and scenario-based planning. Innovation must accommodate political, financial, and cyber threats to maintain a level of business continuity, regardless of unplanned incidents that may take critical systems offline. To find out more about our products and services visit us at counterterrorismgroup.com.

________________________________________________________________________ The Counterterrorism Group (CTG)

[1]The Liberator 3D-printed gun” by Trayana Vladimirova licensed under Flickr

[2] Spanish police release pictures of 3D-printed gun factory bust in Tenerife, Euro News, April 2021, https://www.euronews.com/2021/04/18/spanish-police-release-pictures-of-3d-printed-gun-factory-bust-in-tenerife

[3] What Are 3D-Printed Guns, and Are They Legal?, TheTrace, February 2021, https://www.thetrace.org/2021/02/3d-printer-ghost-gun-legal-liberator-deterrence-dispensed/

[4] Defense Distributed, 2021, https://defdist.org/

[5] Join Legio Today, Legio, 2021, https://ddlegio.com/

[6] 3D-Printed Guns Are Getting More Capable and Accessible, Slate, February 2021, https://slate.com/technology/2021/02/3d-printed-semi-automatic-rifle-fgc-9.html

[7] 3D-printed 30-round AR magazine brings us ever closer to a fully 3D-printed gun, ExtremeTech, January 2013, https://www.extremetech.com/extreme/145664-3d-printed-30-round-ar-magazine-brings-us-ever-closer-to-a-fully-3d-printed-gun

[8] Ibid

[9] Explosive 3D Design, Los Alamos National Laboratory, March 2016, https://www.lanl.gov/discover/publications/1663/2016-march/_assets/docs/1663_26_explosive-3d-design.pdf

[10] Four Ways 3D Printing May Threaten Security, Rand, May 2018, https://www.rand.org/blog/articles/2018/05/four-ways-3d-printing-may-threaten-security.html

[11]Marines inspecting 3D printer by Amy Forsythe licensed under Public Domain

[12] Ibid

[13] 3D Printing Uses in the Military, 3DUniverse, October 2020, https://3duniverse.org/2020/10/21/3d-printing-uses-in-the-military/

[14] 3D-printed guns may be more dangerous to their users than targets, The Conversation, January 2019, https://theconversation.com/3d-printed-guns-may-be-more-dangerous-to-their-users-than-targets-103724

[15] Ibid

[16] “Download this gun”: 3D-printed semi-automatic fires over 600 rounds, ARS Technica, March 2013, https://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2013/03/download-this-gun-3d-printed-semi-automatic-fires-over-600-rounds/

[17] US Bureau of Industry and Security Imposes 'EAR' Restrictions on 3D Printed Guns, 3dprintingindustry.com, July 2021, https://3dprintingindustry.com/news/u-s-bureau-of-industry-and-security-imposes-ear-restrictions-on-3d-printed-guns-193254/

[18] Control of Firearms, Guns, Ammunition and Related Articles the President Determines No Longer Warrant Control Under the United States Munitions List, BIS, May 2021, https://www.bis.doc.gov/index.php/documents/policy-guidance/2572-faqs-for-the-commerce-category-i-iii-firearms-rule-posted-on-bis-website-7-7-20/file

[19] H.R.7115 - 3-D Firearms Prohibitions Act, Congress.gov, November 2018, https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/house-bill/7115?r=1

[20]The Feds Are Worried About Extremists Acquiring Ghost Guns, TheTrace, August 2021, https://www.thetrace.org/2021/08/ghost-gun-government-report-3d-print-extremism-terrorism/

[21] 3D Printing Market - Growth, Trends, Covid-19 Impact, and Forecasts (2021-2026), Mordor Intelligence, 2021, https://www.mordorintelligence.com/industry-reports/3d-printing-market

[22] What Are 3D-Printed Guns, and Are They Legal?, TheTrace, February 2021, https://www.thetrace.org/2021/02/3d-printer-ghost-gun-legal-liberator-deterrence-dispensed/

[23] Ibid

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