Dangers and Benefits of 3D Printing

By John Hornick, J.D.

Stock image of a laptop, 3D printer, and plastic handgun.

The introduction of 3D printing—also known as additive manufacturing—has the potential to affect the world by simplifying construction, shortening supply and distribution chains, democratizing assembly, creating and repatriating jobs, and customizing products to persons’ needs. This technology has many applications, as well as the potential for abuse—people have employed it to illegally manufacture dangerous weapons. However, 3D printing also offers benefits to law enforcement and the military.1

Illicit Production

Recent History

A Texas law student and employees at his nonprofit company made headlines in 2013 by 3D printing a plastic gun dubbed the “Liberator” and posting blueprints on the Internet. They employed an industrial 3D printer that retailed new for about $25,000 to $35,000; however, their used machine cost a fraction of that price online. Although primitive, the single-shot weapon fired multiple live rounds. Well over 100,000 individuals downloaded the blueprints before the U.S. government intervened. The gun features a metal piece—although potentially removable—and firing pin to make it detectable.2

Shortly after this time, a Canadian gun maker 3D printed a plastic, single-shot, .22-caliber rifle called the “Grizzly.” After firing one round, the gun’s barrel split. A nail serving as the firing pin constituted the only detectable component. The maker later upgraded the weapon to shoot 14 rounds; he posted the design in an online forum and a video of the test firing on YouTube. Apparently based on its new policy of not featuring instructions on how to make a gun, YouTube removed the footage.3

John Hornick

Mr. Hornick is an attorney, author, and speaker who educates the law enforcement community on 3D printing and its threats and advantages.


In early 2014, an individual in Japan 3D printed the “Zig Zag” plastic revolver.4 Because the country has strict antigun laws, the maker of the weapon received a 2-year prison sentence for producing several guns and posting instructive videos on the Internet.5

Since then, 3D printing of such weapons has flourished. Police in Chiloquin, Oregon, arrested two individuals for illegally possessing an AR-15 assault rifle in June 2015. Authorities believe its lower receiver—the key to what makes it a gun—was 3D printed.6

A weapon and 3D-printing enthusiast produced the “Shuty” semiautomatic handgun in early 2016. He made 95 percent of the weapon in plastic on a machine that cost less than $5,000. It fired at least 800 rounds, and the individual later announced an improved version.7

At the Reno-Tahoe Airport in Nevada in August 2016, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration found a 3D-printed plastic revolver in carry-on luggage. Authorities detected the gun because it contained live rounds.8

One month later, a YouTube vlogger 3D printed the plastic “Songbird,” which uses rubber bands for springs and a roofing nail for a firing pin. This gun can shoot multiple .357-caliber rounds.9

During early 2017, an individual received a 3½-year prison sentence for unlawfully manufacturing and dealing firearms. He used 3D printers and a computer numeric control (CNC) milling machine to make the lower receivers for AR-15 rifles.10


Other individuals continue to push boundaries on what they can produce with this technology. For instance, in late 2015, an anonymous person used a 3D printer and commonly available parts to make a handheld electromagnetic projectile launcher, or railgun. The weapon fires rods made of Teflon, graphite, aluminum, and copper-coated tungsten at a speed of about 560 mph.11

While the law prohibits convicted felons from obtaining or producing guns, 3D printing allows such individuals to secretly make undetectable weapons.12 In separate raids in Brisbane, Australia, and its nearby Gold Coast, police found 3D-printed plastic parts and a fully functioning, loaded gun.13 According to an investigator, “[W]e can identify most, if not all, of the major components of a weapon. To us, it appears that they are complete weapons just requiring assembly.”14

Untraceable “ghost guns”—those lacking serial numbers—represent another type of potentially illegal weapon that individuals can 3D print. In October 2014, the Texas company began offering the “Ghost Gunner”—a compact CNC milling machine. People can use it to produce any metal part for any purpose. However, its marketing focuses on making such pieces for untraceable weapons. It comes with digital blueprints for an AR-15 lower receiver. Preorders of the $1,500 device sold out in just 2 days.15

Throughout history, people have disguised or concealed guns in such items as tobacco pipes, cameras, canes, umbrellas, and pocket watches. One of the strengths of 3D printing—customization—makes this practice possible in a broader range of products. Thus, a 3D-printed gun might look like a shoe, hairbrush, or soda can. The look of such a weapon depends only on the designer’s imagination, skill in using software and 3D printers, and choice of machine.16

Legal Enforcement

High-Profile Case

The Texas company sued in 2013 after the U.S. Department of State (DOS) forced the removal from the Internet of the blueprints pertaining to the Liberator. Both parties later settled, which allowed the reposting of the blueprints on August 1, 2018.17

However, just before that date, several states and the District of Columbia sued DOS in federal court in an attempt to block the company from reposting them. This effort succeeded when a judge ordered DOS to put the settlement on hold pending a trial. Moreover, the court’s injunction stated that “the files cannot be uploaded to the Internet, but they can be e-mailed, mailed, securely transmitted, or otherwise published within the United States.”18 Thus, the company’s owner announced that he would sell the blueprints via mail to anyone who wanted them. He had received hundreds of orders before stepping down as the company's director.19

“…individuals continue to push boundaries on what they can produce with this technology.”

Regulatory Efforts

Lawmakers face challenges in regulating 3D-printed weapons, but they have made strides. For instance, in November 2013, Philadelphia became the first city to enact legislation related to such use of this technology. The law forbids making or owning these weapons.20

In December 2013, following the production of the Liberator and related media coverage, lawmakers extended the Federal Undetectable Firearms Act—which forbids manufacture or possession—for 10 years.21 As a result of the settlement with the Texas company, the U.S. Congress also has begun considering legislation to ban the online posting of 3D-printable weapon blueprints, as well as the 3D printing of some weapons.22

California enacted a law that went into force on January 1, 2018. It requires 3D-printed guns to have a serial number and permanent metal component. Owners must register the weapons, and they cannot sell or transfer them. Violation constitutes a misdemeanor.23

Unfortunately, such laws prove difficult to enforce unless authorities catch someone with an untraceable, undetectable, or unregistered 3D-printed gun.

Lawful Application

Police Benefit

This technology also can help law enforcement agencies perform such functions as recreating crime scenes and accidents, duplicating footprints and fingerprints, and making detailed models for raid planning and courtroom use. At least one private company offers such services to the police community.24

In May 2015, detectives and prosecutors in the United Kingdom used a combination of 3D scanning and printing to obtain a conviction in a notorious killing involving a dismembered body found in a suitcase. Using this technology, police showed that a piece of burned broken bone located in the suspect’s backyard matched a fragment found in the luggage.25

A year later, researchers at Michigan State University 3D printed plastic fingerprints to unlock smart phones.26 They also found that they could produce plastic hands capable of bypassing fingerprint scanners.27

In late 2016, the Greene County, Ohio, Sheriff’s Office partnered with Ohio State University to identify the remains of a woman located in the woods near Dayton. A 3D-scanned and -printed model of the victim’s skull was fleshed out with clay. Authorities released images of it to the public, and the victim was positively identified. The police investigation resulted in suspects being identified, arrested, and charged a short time later.28

University of South Florida researchers and police use this same strategy to help identify victims in many cold cases.29

“Lawmakers face challenges in regulating 3D-printed weapons, but they have made strides.”

Government Innovations

The U.S. military also has employed 3D printing for its purposes. For example, the Army announced its grenade launcher, R.A.M.B.O. (Rapid Additively Manufactured Ballistic Ordnance), in March 2017. Completely 3D printed except for the springs and fasteners, the weapon fires 3D-printed grenades.30

Personnel in the FBI’s Terrorist Explosive Device Analytical Center (TEDAC) employ 3D printers to study whether terrorists can use the technology to make bombs.31 The agency aims to think ahead and prepare for this modern horror.


People with unlawful intent can misuse 3D printing, but this does not mean that the technology is inherently flawed—people are. Although the size of the problem could increase, this only holds true because 3D printing is so revolutionary and disruptive.

Governments and law enforcement agencies must learn the risks of this technology, plan accordingly, and also use it to solve crimes and serve other noble purposes.

“This technology also can help law enforcement agencies….”

Mr. Hornick can be reached at john.hornick@outlook.com. 


1 For additional information, see U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice, The Next Generation of Crime Tools and Challenges: 3D Printing, Ruby J. Chase and Gerald LaPorte, NCJ 250697, December 2017, accessed April 18, 2018, https://www.nij.gov/journals/279/Pages/next-generation-of-crime-tools-and-challenges-3d-printing.aspx.
2 Rachel Park, “Cody Wilson Unveils the ‘Fully’ 3D Printed Gun to Andy Greenberg at Forbes,3D Printing Industry, May 4, 2013, accessed April 12, 2018, https://3dprintingindustry.com/news/cody-wilson-unveils-the-fully-3d-printed-gun-to-andy-greenberg-at-forbes-10724/; Andy Greenberg, “3D Printed Gun’s Blueprints Downloaded 100,000 Times in Two Days (with Some Help from Kim Dotcom),” Forbes, May 8, 2013, accessed April 12, 2018, https://www.forbes.com/sites/andygreenberg/2013/05/08/3d-printed-guns-blueprints-downloaded-100000-times-in-two-days-with-some-help-from-kim-dotcom/#34137dfc10b8; and John Biggs, “What You Need to Know About the Liberator 3D Printed Pistol,” TechCrunch, May 6, 2013, accessed April 16, 2018, https://techcrunch.com/2013/05/06/what-you-need-to-know-about-the-liberator-3d-printed-pistol/.
3 Carl Franzen, “World’s First 3D Printed Rifle Gets Update, Fires 14 Shots,” The Verge, August 4, 2013, accessed April 16, 2018, https://www.theverge.com/2013/8/4/4588162/worlds-first-3d-printed-rifle-the-grizzly-updated; and Hadas Gold, “YouTube Restricts Gun Videos,” CNN tech, March 22, 2018, accessed April 16, 2018, http://money.cnn.com/2018/03/22/technology/youtube-gun-videos/index.html.
4 Davide Sher, “Them Crazy (Japanese) Cowboys Have Gone and Done It Again,” 3D Printing Industry, February 19, 2014, accessed April 12, 2018, https://3dprintingindustry.com/news/crazy-japanese-cowboys-gone-done-23836/.
5 Michael Molitch-Hou, “Japanese 3D Printed Gun Maker Sentenced to Two Years,” 3D Printing Industry, October 20, 2014, accessed April 12, 2018, https://3dprintingindustry.com/news/japanese-3d-printed-gun-maker-sentenced-two-years-34941/.
6 Michael Molitch-Hou, “AR-15 with 3D Printed Lower Receiver Seized in Oregon,” 3D Printing Industry, June 29, 2015, accessed April 12, 2018, https://3dprintingindustry.com/news/ar-15-with-3d-printed-lower-receiver-seized-in-oregon-52234/.
7 Scott J. Grunewald, “The Shuty MP-1 is the Latest 3D Printed Working Semi-Automatic Handgun,” 3DPrint.com, February 4, 2016, accessed April 12, 2018, https://3dprint.com/118279/shuty-mp-1-semi-automatic/.
8 Clare Scott, “TSA Discovers 3D Printed Gun in Carry-On Luggage at Reno Airport,” 3DPrint.com, August 9, 2016, accessed April 12, 2018, https://3dprint.com/145323/3d-printed-gun-reno-airport/.
9 Hanna Watkin, “3D Printing Gun ‘Songbird’ Uses Nails and Office Supplies,” All3DP, September 30, 2016, accessed April 12, 2018, https://all3dp.com/songbird-new-3d-printed-gun/?utm_source=Newsletter&utm_campaign=0cfba5b13f-Newsletter&utm_medium=e-mail&utm_term=0_9dffeeddae-0cfba5b13f-375754205.
10 For additional information on CNC milling machines, see “What Is a CNC Mill and How Does It Work?” CNC.com, accessed April 17, 2018, http://www.cnc.com/what-is-a-cnc-mill-and-how-does-it-work/; and “Dr. Death Sentenced to Prison for Selling 3D Printed Gun Parts,” Microfabricator, March 2017, accessed April 12, 2018, http://microfabricator.com/articles/view/id/58ac908531394404628b4567/dr-death-sentenced-to-prison-for-selling-3d-printed-gun-parts.
11 Zach Epstein, “3D Printing Used to Make First Real Handheld Railgun, Which Fires Plasma Projectiles at 560 mph,” Yahoo! October 19, 2015, accessed April 12, 2018, https://finance.yahoo.com/news/3d-printing-used-first-real-handheld-railgun-fires-134325053.html.
12 Molitch-Hou, “AR-15 with 3D Printed Lower Receiver Seized in Oregon.”
13 Michael Molitch-Hou, “Aussie Police Raid Home Stocked with Cannabis, Rifle, and 3D Printed Weaponry,” 3D Printing Industry, February 10, 2015, accessed April 12, 2018, https://3dprintingindustry.com/news/aussie-police-raid-home-stocked-cannabis-rifle-3d-printed-weaponry-42077/; and Bridget Butler O’Neal, “Australia’s Gold Coast: Loaded 3D Printed Gun Found in Raid of Sophisticated Meth Lab,” 3DPrint.com, December 10, 2015, accessed April 12, 2018, https://3dprint.com/110370/gold-coast-3d-printed-gun-raid/.
14 Molitch-Hou, “Aussie Police Raid Home Stocked with Cannabis, Rifle, and 3D Printed Weaponry.”
15 Tarun Tampi, “One Gun & Three Ways to Make It—A Ghost Story,” 3D Printing Industry, June 7, 2015, accessed April 16, 2018, https://3dprintingindustry.com/news/one-gun-three-ways-to-make-it-a-ghost-story-50570/.
16 Chase and LaPorte.
17 Defense Distributed v. United States Department of State, 15-CV-372-RP, 2018 WL 3614221 (W.D. Tex. June 29, 2018).
18 State of Washington v. U.S. Department of State, 318 F. Supp. 3d 1247 (W.D. Wash. 2018).
19 Jim Vertuno, “Texan Says He’s Selling 3D-Printed Gun Plans, Despite Ruling,” Associated Press, August 28, 2018, accessed September 14, 2018, http://www.ktuu.com/content/news/Owner-of-3D-printed-gun-company-selling-plans-online-despite-court-order-491902341.html; and Tiffany Hsu, "3D Printed Gun Advocate Cody Wilson Quits Company He Founded," New York Times, September 25, 2018, accessed October 22, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/25/business/printed-gun-cody-wilson-defense-distributed.html.
20 Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Municipal Code, Title 10, §§2001-2003 (2013); and Alexis Kleinman, “Philadelphia Is the First U.S. City to Ban 3D Printed Guns” Huffington Post, November 26, 2013, accessed April 16, 2018, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/11/26/3d-gun-philadelphia_n_4344733.html.
21 To Extend the Undetectable Firearms Act of 1988 for 10 years, H. Res. 3626, 113th Cong., accessed April 16, 2018, https://www.congress.gov/bill/113th-congress/house-bill/3626.
22 Jordain Carney, “Senate Dems Introduce Bill to Block Release of 3D Printed Gun Blueprints,” The Hill, July 31, 2018, accessed September 14, 2018, http://thehill.com/homenews/senate/399710-senate-dems-introduce-bill-to-block-release-of-3d-gun-blueprints.
23 Cal. Penal Code, §§11106, 16520, 23910, and 30105 (2016); and Katie Armstrong, “California Passes New 3D Printed Gun Laws,” 3D Printing Industry, July 27, 2016, accessed April 16, 2018, http://3dprintingindustry.com/news/california-asses-new-3d-printed-gun-laws-90177/.
24 J.P. Buntinx, “Top 4 Reasons Why 3D Printing Can Help Solve Crimes,” The Merkle, March 1, 2017, accessed April 17, 2018, https://themerkle.com/top-4-reasons-why-3d-printing-can-help-solve-crimes/.
25 Tarun Tampi, “Suspect in Brutal Murder Convicted with Help of 3D Technology,” 3D Printing Industry, May 7, 2015, accessed April 12, 2018, https://3dprintingindustry.com/news/suspect-in-brutal-murder-convicted-with-help-of-3d-technology-48522/.
26 Hannah Augur, “Cops Use 3D Printed Fingerprints to Solve Murder Case,” All3DP, July 22, 2016, accessed April 12, 2018, https://all3dp.com/cops-use-3d-printed-fingerprints-to-solve-murder-case/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=cops-use-3d-printed-fingerprints-to-solve-murder-case&utm_source=Newsletter&utm_campaign=87146b2082-Newsletter&utm_medium=e-mail&utm_term=0_9dffeeddae-87146b2082-375754205.
27 Clare Scott, “Could 3D Printed Fingerprints Help Criminals Break Through Security? MSU Researchers Demonstrate It’s Possible,” 3DPrint.com, October 21, 2016, accessed April 12, 2018, https://3dprint.com/153234/3d-printed-fingerprints-security/.
28 Sarah Saunders, “Ohio Cold Case Update: Jane Doe Identified and Alleged Killers Behind Bars, Thanks to 3D Printing and Facial Reconstruction,” 3DPrint.com, January 11, 2017, accessed April 12, 2018, https://3dprint.com/161323/3d-printing-jane-doe-identified/.
29 Debra Thimmesch, “3D Printing Plays Critical Role in Solving Decades-Old Cold Cases in Florida,” 3DPrint.com, October 28, 2015, accessed April 12, 2018, https://3dprint.com/102606/3d-print-solving-cold-cases/.
30 Sarah Saunders, “US Army Successfully Tests 3D Printed Grenade Launcher with 3D Printed Grenades,” 3DPrint.com, March 10, 2017, accessed April 12, 2018, https://3dprint.com/167567/3d-printed-grenade-launcher/.
31 Scott J. Grunewald, “The FBI Wants to Use a Stratasys Objet24 to Study the 3D Printed Bombs of the Future,” 3D Printing Industry, June 18, 2014, accessed April 12, 2018, https://3dprintingindustry.com/news/3d-printed-bombs-fbi-stratasys-objet24-28438/.