Cody Wilson’s War: Saving the World from 3D Printed Guns

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The list of objects being 3D printed is impressive and grows by the day. Rocket parts, bionic ears, full buildings, food, meat and leather, and personalized prosthetics. As manufacturing goes, it could “revolutionize the way we make almost everything,” as Barack Obama pointed out in this year’s State of the Union. But how far will we allow this revolution to go? Some, like Cody Wilson, are willing to push it to its limits.

Cody Wilson is the controversial young founder of DEFCAD, a file-sharing platform that gives users access to copyright-free blueprints to firearms. He's made obtaining a firearm as easy as clicking “download” and “print”. No background check. No license application.

Marc Goodman, the track chair for Policy, Law, and Ethics at Singularity University introduced the world to the idea of printable files for weapons while onstage at last summer’s TED Global conference. “In the hands of the TED community, these are tools that can bring about great change for the world. I worry about those who would strap a bomb to their chest. How might they use 3D printing?”

Just one year later, Goodman’s unnerving vision is remarkably relevant. In July, journalists were able to demonstrate they could print and smuggle a functional plastic gun into the Knesset, home to Israel’s top legislators. The file for the gun, called the ‘Liberator’, came from Wilson’s DEFCAD.

Back in May, DEFCAD received a takedown notice from the State Department for the ‘Liberator’, but not before the file went viral. The handgun was downloaded over 400,000 times and made its way to popular file sharing sites including Pirate Bay. A printed version was eventually smuggled to within feet of Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s Prime Minister.

The DEFCAD debate isn’t so straightforward, and many have supported Wilson as a stalwart for the constitution. Wilson admits that he’s not some “gun nut” bent on shoving weapons into unwilling hands, but rather DEFCAD is merely a hyper display of libertarian politics. According to Wilson, a true and equal maker movement means being able to create whatever you like; free from government oversight. Whether or not you agree with his politics, he may be right to assert that attempts to prevent 3D weapon printing will be largely ineffective.

When I spoke to Marc Goodman about the issue recently, he told me, ‘There may be ways of developing new policy and some technical work-arounds, but ultimately the cat is out of the bag and this technology isn’t going away.”

Policy experts have argued that printed weapons pose little threat if bullets are hard to get. Several states have proposed sweeping legislation to regulate ammunition, and in California, proposed measures would limit the use of lead bullets. It’s certainly difficult to imagine how 3D printers might be used to fabricate ammunition given the complexity of using the chemicals involved. If 3D printing guns becomes widespread, lawmakers may face added pressure to regulate ammunition.

A more technical solution might come from Denmark’s Create it Real, who plans to distribute software that can recognize and block the printing of gun parts. In this way, a printer can sense if the user intends to print firearms and shut down the run. Ultimately, users may find ways around these sorts of digital blockades, and Create It Real has admitted that the measure is more of a risk management solution for 3D printer manufactures, rather than a viable measure for gun control.

Another remedy might come from Authentise, a Silicon Valley based startup, who recently filed a provisional patent to embed traceable information within 3D printed objects. (disclaimer: At the time of this writing I am a co-author on the patent, but not otherwise affiliated with the company.)


Given that 3D printers can build fully unique objects at no marginal cost difference, each printed gun can be slightly different than the last. In this way, Authentise hopes to insert identifying markers directly into suspected gun files. Forensics teams could then link the gun back to its designer, the location at which it was printed, and it’s use history. Additionally, bullets fired from such a weapon could theoretically be traced back to the weapon and ultimately the shooter.

A gun control solution may be more difficult than ever to come by as 3D printers continue to mature. The timing couldn’t be worse as public sentiment around gun control continues to sour. As the maker revolution marches steadily onward, Cody Wilson’s DEFCAD will continue to put pressure on lawmakers and enforcement agencies to adapt to the nimble environment of a digital world. It’s quite likely, however, that the unsettling reality is that Goodman and others are correct and “the cat is out of the bag.”

[Images: DEFCAD]

Aaron Frank
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Aaron Frank

Aaron is a writer and speaker at Singularity University and serves as Principal Faculty. His articles have appeared online in Wired UK and Vice’s Motherboard.
Aaron Frank
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Discussion — 18 Responses

  • Igor Chernyy October 1, 2013 on 10:04 am

    The fight with 3D blueprints maybe lost but government can simply outlaw or require registration of 3D printers (something that is already being discussed by some legislators).

    • Mike Lorrey Igor Chernyy October 2, 2013 on 3:24 am

      3d printers can be printed by 3d printers. The idea that you can legislate against technology is a quixotic delusion of the would-be tyrant and only exposes that those proposing such schemes should never be allowed near the levers of government if the people truly value their freedom.

      • El Borracho Mike Lorrey October 3, 2013 on 2:15 pm

        Your conception of the future is not one that everyone shares. You perhaps envision a violent, lawless time with technology used for defense in a comic-book style hero/villain world.

        Others look to technology to help bring about a future of peace, enlightenment, abundance and harmony. This vision admits that in order for our species and our planet to survive, we must work together as a society, which means accepting some government and some laws that exist to ensure society’s well-being. The reason our species thrived is that we learned to live in communities for safety and cooperation which substantially increased our chances of survival.

        Stephen Hawking has remarked that perhaps we haven’t encountered any other intelligent life in the universe because once a species reaches a level of technological achievement, i.e. nuclear weapons, they are destined to annihilate themselves. He has also said that we will be lucky to survive until the next century and will most likely destroy ourselves and our planet.

        In order not to succumb to that fate, we must work and behave intelligently for a peaceful world and we must overcome our violent and selfish simian instincts, and our knee-jerk paranoia concerning guns and the government. There are certainly areas where the government should have no authority, like freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Gun control, however, is a sensible solution, and necessary for a safe, functioning society.

    • Sardo_Numpsa Igor Chernyy October 2, 2013 on 9:01 am

      I built a reprap 3d printer in my garage, nobody needs to know about it.

  • Greendogo October 1, 2013 on 6:25 pm

    Wow, an obviously biased article written by a man who has his own horse in the game. Yeah, good journalism Singularity Hub.

    Just wanted to point this out to anyone who maybe doesn’t understand this, but you don’t need to use the software or drivers that come with your hardware. Software based restrictions on 3D printers will be totally ineffective at preventing 3D file piracy or gun files. Also, the author’s co-authored patent, which he claims will allow 3D printed parts be identified and traced is absurd. What idiot would agree to use a printer that has his tracking software installed?

    I’m thoroughly disappointed and disgusted with Singularity Hub for taking a stance on the subject of gun control. You’re supposed to be a source of news and information, not biased opinion pieces by special interest groups.

    • Kalani Hausman Greendogo October 2, 2013 on 8:13 am


      There will be hacks to bypass any controls that are implemented, as evidences by the Cubify’s requirement for an official cartridge for its filament – bypassed within hours of its release so people can just use cheap generic filament instead. The author’s patent that imposes “marks” in each printer requires too many additional factors to be effective outside of commercial-grade equipment, even if they could mandate it through legislation – it requires the printer to call home to an authentication service every time, cannot handle failed prints (or failed-on purpose to expose the desired final part with bits added in the original file), etc. Worthless effort to make money and try to impose controls on something that threatens the way things are done now.

      • Greendogo Kalani Hausman October 2, 2013 on 3:40 pm

        Totally agree with you.

    • nicholasv Greendogo October 2, 2013 on 11:05 am

      Yeah, I was going to write this comment, but you’ve already hit on it. Singularity Hub, you’re great for news and commentary on technological innovation and evolution – but you’re out of your element with this kind of stuff. In many ways that are actually central to the evolution of human society and technology, Cody Wilson and the DEFCAD project epitomize futurism. This article feels more like a 1997 political commentary than anything looking toward the future. The sad part is, this sort of politics – not maintenance state-centered politics, but an honest analysis of the trends within power structures over time and against a backdrop of increasingly advanced technological innovations – it’s important, and is absolutely key to understanding the evolution of *everything*. Futurism is about more than just gadgets.

    • Che Mort Greendogo October 2, 2013 on 1:44 pm

      wow, you only begining to see singularity hubs left wing biases now?

      • Greendogo Che Mort October 2, 2013 on 3:29 pm

        I’ve picked up on it before, but I usually just ignore it. But this was blatant.

    • Richard Cook Greendogo October 3, 2013 on 4:53 pm

      OMG, you mean they ventured an OPINION? God forbid. Don’t worry about it. Ignore it. It’s a very silly one anyhow — as if you can control what happens once 3D printers are out of the box. Which they already are.

  • dobermanmacleod October 1, 2013 on 10:10 pm

    3D printed (hand) guns at this point are no better than zip guns. If a repeater or a semi-automatic gun can be designed and printed, that will change things considerably. Sometimes people talk about things like they know what they are talking about, and 3D printed guns is one of those things – I suggest you save your anxiety for some other subject.

    • Kalani Hausman dobermanmacleod October 2, 2013 on 8:08 am


      There is a multi-shot version of the Liberator already – it is a rotating cylinder weapon similar to a revolver. Being made from plastic, it is much larger than its metal cousins so more difficult to conceal, but it exists and works just fine. I think the main concerns behind plastic firearms are the ability to walk through metal detectors with them and the ability to simply burn them after use to eliminate any potential evidence of wrongdoing.

  • Ond Rock October 2, 2013 on 4:45 am

    The term “Luddite” comes to mind. Your article “Stunning Progress in Technology” was almost identically misguided self-important way. My statement is backed by your “Ten Weeks To Change The World” article.

    Come over here, and I will set up a meeting for you to discuss your plans with Jamā’a Ahl al-sunnah li-da’wa wa al-jihād aka Boko Haram. What? No? Why? No hand holding circle dance, with government benevolent oversight?

    Oh. You mean what is good for me is not good for you?

    • Kalani Hausman Ond Rock October 2, 2013 on 8:04 am

      @Ond Rock,

      I used the example of Ned Ludd in my upcoming book “3D Printing for Dummies” to reflect the current state of things, where those in power now are trying to throw up as many barriers as possible in the way of additive manufacturing to block its transformative power. Bringing production to consumers eliminates the need for mass manufacturing based economies, cargo shipping lines and storage systems, and a host of other industries who are looking forward to the threat of this new technology with great fear and trepidation. Even modern manufacturers have a vested interest in blocking 3D printers, lest you decide to print a replacement part instead of buying the next year’s model they planned to sell you – or worse yet, you decide to 3D print an entire car from 1970’s parts no longer covered by patent protection instead of buying the new 2014 model they wanted to sell you.

  • Kalani Hausman October 2, 2013 on 7:59 am

    Current 3D printers can be created using common hardware, stepper motors from old discarded printers and electronics available from the local radio shack – all that if you don’t want to just build your own circuits from scratch. The 3D printed firearms I create for law enforcement investigators can be printed from PLA plastic formed from plant sugars (tapiocca, sugar cane, etc). There is no need to worry about “putting the cat back into the bag” on this one as it’s beyond the capability to control. But this is not a “new” threat to the world, as many firearms can be stamped from easily downloaded plans using sheet metal; you can make a gun using two sections of pipe, a cap and a screw; and I even demonstrated a functional firearm made from epoxy resin, a soda straw, nail and a rubber band. THIS IS NOT NEW – people that want firearms can make them for themselves many different ways.

  • toomosakekong October 18, 2013 on 9:14 am

    So, what if you could “smuggle” a gun into the Knesset (Israeli Parliament) ?! Having weapons like guns for self-defense is an unalienable human right. That’s why it is in the constitution of the USA. How can you be free if the government has more powers than you? In a free country, doesn’t the government derive its power from YOU? Shouldn’t YOU have all the powers that government has? In a dictatorship, the dictator has special powers you don’t have, but in a free country, everyone is treated the same under the law.

    In Texas, you could bring a handgun into the Congress (that’s our “Parliament”). You just show your I.D. (to prove you’re a citizen as only citizens are allowed to carry guns) and tell the officer you have a gun. The police officer then waives you through. You don’t get searched, jailed, and your gun won’t be confiscated. But nobody has ever been murdered with a gun in Congress. If guns are dangerous to congressmen, then all guns in Texas must be defective. As you think about like that you might be surprised to find that Cody of DEFCAD is a Texas hero who wants to bring freedom and human rights to the world.

  • Facebook - empty.strikeii January 6, 2014 on 8:07 am

    Well, I personally think there should be a complete ban on additive printing of weapons. We’ll all be safer that way.