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Whoever has been following both the specialized press and the news at large will be by now well aware what the fuss is all about with 3D-printed guns and gun parts. Ever since the DefDist - Defense Distributed company was forced by the U.S. Department of State to shut down its Websites following the on-line publication of the necessary files for the manufacture of their "Liberator" model − the first fully functional single-shot pistol that could be manufactured out of polymer through an average house 3D printer − Government entities and gun control movements worldwide tried to push further restrictions on guns and on the diffusion of information and technologies upon fear than "anybody" could "easily" manufacture "his own working gun".
Paradoxally, said attempts tragically backfired on the anti-gun lobbies, as the DefDist CADs continued to circulate over the Internet and the number of downloads boomed, while at the same time there was a sharp rise − particularly in the United States − of individuals designing and 3D-printing their own polymer guns and gun parts. The recent discovery of what seemed to be a clandestine workshop manufacturing 3D guns and gun parts in Manchester, in the tightly gun-controlled UK, appears to be nothing more, nothing less than yet another demonstration of how gun control failed in practice and will always fail more and more as technology and informations evolve and freely circulate in this modern era: all attempts at restricting the peoples' rights to keep and bear arms will only leave law-abiding citizens to be easy, unarmed preys of illegally-armed criminals.
The latest chapter − and frontier − in the history of 3D-printed firearms comes once again from the United States, more specifically from Solid Concepts Inc., a small start-up company headquartered in Austin, Texas.
Solid Concepts Inc. works in the field of rapid prototyping and custom manufacturing services, and has fully-developed capabilities capabilities in PolyJet, Stereolithography (SLA), 3D Color Prints, Selective Laser Sintering (SLS), 3D Metal Printing, Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM), CNC models and patterns, composites, and QuantumCast™ advanced cast urethanes.
Their know-how and technological levels are definitely way higher than the ones that an average citizen may enjoy with his/her own 3D printer at home, and these manufacturing capabilities are at a far cry from the couple thousand dollars required to purchase the necessary 3D printer type to manufacture a DefDist "Liberator" single-shot polymer pistol all by yourself. Nonetheless, it's still a more accessible level of technology than a fully-blown gunmaking company: anybody with enough funds to start a small-to-medium enterprise can easily access the required technologies to come out with something fantastic, like Solid Concepts did.
On November 7th, the company announced the world's first 3D-printed metal semi-automatic pistol; dubbed the M1911-DMLS, Solid Concepts' pistol has been based on the Century-old design by John Moses Browning, rather than on another commercially-available pistol or a proprietary design, for a plethora of reasons. First of all, the 1911 design is now on the public domain, thus it's free from exclusive patent, rights, or whatever; it's acknowledged as a global legend in firearms; is an industry standard; and has been around for so much that basically it's technically known under every aspect, so the operation and performance of the 3D printed prototype will be easier to compare with the industrial-grade versions.
Unlike DefDist, Solid Concepts didn't meant to demonstrate the uselessness of gun control measures in modern societies: their intents were merely technical. There's a common misconception about 3D-manufactured metal parts: according to many, including several industry professionals, these wouldn't be accurate and solid enough to withstand "real life" use. With the M1911-DMLS, Solid Concepts wished to prove that 3D printing isn’t just "making trinkets and Yoda heads". Theidea that 3D printing isn’t a viable solution or isn’t ready for mainstream manufacturing is thus basically debunked: with the right materials and a company that knows how to best program and maintain their machines, 3D printing is accurate, powerful and here to stay.
The Solid Concepts M1911-DMLS pistol composed out of 33 parts, made out of 17-4 stainless steel and INCONEL 625 nickel-crome alloy, manufactured through a peculiar 3D printing procedure dubbed DMLS, or "Direct Metal Laser Sinterizing". This process involves use of a 3D CAD model whereby an .STL file is created and sent to the machine’s software. The DMLS machine uses a high-powered 200 Watt Ytterbium-based fiber optic laser. The technology fuses metal powder into a solid part by melting it locally using the focused laser beam. Parts are built up additively layer by layer, typically using layers 20 micrometres thick. This process allows for highly complex geometries to be created directly from the 3D CAD data, fully automatically, in hours and without any tooling; being a net-shape process, it allows the manufacture of parts with high accuracy and detail resolution, good surface quality and excellent mechanical properties.
The grip panels on the M1911-DMLS have instead been manufactured by Solid Concepts by selective laser sinterization (SLS) of carbon-fiber-filled nylon. As a matter of fact, the only parts used on the M1911-DMLS and not manufactured in-house are the springs (which were obtained through COTS sources) and the magazine, since the pistol will readily fit all 7-rds or 8-rds .45 ACP commercial magazines available for M1911-A1 pistols.
The Solid Concepts M1911-DMLS semi-automatic pistol has been 100% legally manufactured: while other 3D-printed functional guns and gun parts may, or may not, have been technically manufactured illegally, thus potentially putting their makers in serious legal trouble − at least as per U.S. local, State and Federal laws concerning the manufacture of guns and gun parts − Solid Concepts Inc. is the only 3D printing service provider active in the United States today that has an FFL (Federal Firearms License), which allows the company to legally manufacture and sell guns and gun parts. This means that if a qualified customer requires unique gun parts in five days, and if said parts can be manufactured by Solid Concepts through their available technology, the company may satisfy the request.
The experiment may be called a success. Solid Concepts intended to demonstrate how the technology levels reached by DMLS and generally the 3D printing techniques now make them viable to be adopted by the industry for the manufacture of heavy-duty components. The M1911-DMLS pistol has been in existance only for a couple of days right now, and yet it has been tested with about fifty rounds of .45 ACP ammunition, in most of the available loads including some of the hottest out there, and the 3D-printed barrel underwent pressures up to 20.000 PSI per shot, with no signs of structural failure so far.
This may be the dawn of a new era for the gun industry: a cheaper, faster way to manufacture key components may lead to an overall higher availability at a lower price.
It may even be a new frontier for gun rights, and the end of the line for gun control. If anybody can access said manufacturing technologies (including criminal organizations, which notoriously have a lot of money to spend!), and given the fact that the diffusion of technologies and know-how can not possibly be stopped or limited in the modern era of information technology and global intercommunication, it's adamantly clear that authorities should totally re-think their approach to legally-armed citizenship. Neither national or international attempts at gun control will, from now on, be really effective in preventing anybody from getting a gun if he/she really means to, so it would be about time for governments and international organizations to focus their efforts into fighting organized crime and terrorist organizations for good, and leave honest, law-abiding gun owners alone, once for all!