The Medieval Roots of Our DIY Gun Culture

Forget 3-D printers. The first garage gunsmiths date back to the late Middle Ages.

Testing a 3D printed FN SCAR 17s, California, May 2014.
Going medieval on your butt: A man tests a 3-D-printed FN SCAR 17S in California in May 2014.

Photo courtesy Mitch Barrie/Flickr (https://www.flickr.com/photos/simonov/)

Cody Wilson is a crypto-anarchist, a gun rights activist, and the founder of Defense Distributed, a nonprofit venture aimed squarely at the heart of the gun control movement. Wilson’s signature initiative, the Wiki Weapon project, provides online instructions for making handguns and rifles that anyone with the right equipment can manufacture at home.

The easy allure of such weapons is already evident in popular culture. A recent episode of The Good Wife opens with a graphics-heavy sequence that shows a man downloading schematics, sending them to his 3-D printer, and assembling a sleek plastic gun that paralyzes a bystander on a gun range. A gun expert then suggests that the malfunction may have been due to a feed tube that clogged after several coffee mugs were made on the same printer. 

Desktop milling machines, 3-D printers, mail-order parts left just unfinished enough to skirt regulation: These and other devices are transforming the underworld of gun trafficking into a new Wild West of entrepreneurial enthusiasm and legal ambiguity. Such new technologies allow anyone with a few thousand dollars to create homegrown equivalents of, say, the AR-15 semi-automatic assault rifle—and create them in quantity and without serial numbers, thus making them virtually untraceable.

The efforts of Wilson and other advocates of do-it-yourself gun-making are coming to fruition with dizzying speed. In 2013 a man named John Zawahri killed five people in Santa Monica using an assault rifle assembled from parts legally purchased online. In October in Kawasaki, Japan, Yoshimoto Imura became the first person prosecuted for making plastic guns on 3-D printers. And just this year, four men in Southern California were arrested for allegedly marketing dozens of homemade AR-15-style rifles on the black market.

Such cases are clearly just the beginning and threaten to sink reasonable efforts at regulating the traffic in “ghost guns,” as these weapons have been called. Unlike Japan, where strict gun laws prohibit even the private manufacture of deadly firearms, the United States allows most types of guns to be made at home provided they aren’t then sold or given away by their creators—hardly a disincentive to those already trading in the black market.

Federal and state authorities are groping for ways to halt this alarming trend. Last year California Democratic Rep. Mike Honda introduced the Homemade Firearms Accountability Act, which would subject homemade guns to many of the same regulations as firearms sold commercially—though the bill stands virtually no chance of passage in a Republican Congress heavily beholden to the NRA and the gun lobby. Already in 2013 the Department of Homeland Security had issued an intelligence bulletin warning that halting or even slowing the distribution of the new homegrown guns “may be impossible.”

While the technological ingenuity and legal maneuvering of makers such as Wilson and Imura may strike us as quintessentially modern, in fact the work of these garage gunsmiths hearkens back to the first experiments with gun-making in the late Middle Ages, an era before firearms became the province of corporations—and centuries before their subjection to any kind of government regulation or oversight.

The story begins with that most dastardly of medieval inventions, gunpowder, first developed in China probably during the Tang Dynasty before gradually making its way to Western Europe by the middle of the 13th century. Initially the use of gunpowder weapons on the medieval battlefield was limited to larger artillery pieces such as the pot-de-fer and the ribauldequin. Soon, though, gunsmiths began experimenting with smaller, increasingly portable weapons that could be carried more easily across a battlefield. 

Enter handguns—or handgonnes, as medieval record keepers in England referred to them. This momentous word enters written English in an inventory record from the Tower of London dating to the reign of King Richard II in the 1380s. The Tower arsenal in one year included bows, arrows, swords, spears, armor, powder, and “four small copper cannon, called handgonnes.”

A far cry from the efficient killing machines found in modern arsenals, these medieval handgonnes were at first little more than iron staves hammer-welded in the medieval smithy, or bronze tubes poured in the same foundries that manufactured church bells. The crude rifles didn’t fire particularly well, and they were nearly as likely to injure their bearers as slay an enemy. 

Beginning in the final decades of the 14th century, however, gunsmiths across Europe ushered in an age of relentless and often brutal experimentation that would forever change the character of weaponry, and thus the nature of human violence.

One of the notable characteristics of the culture of gun-making in this period was its decentralization, as local artisans in cities and towns slowly perfected their craft through a long process of trial and error that led to numerous technological advances, from the development of the first “triggers” in the form of matchlocks and serpentines to new techniques for making gunpowder that rendered it less volatile and more lethal.

England was particularly fertile ground for experimentation, sometimes in the form of armed attacks against institutional authorities. One of the first mentions of such guns in the historical record documents an assault in 1375 on the manor of Huntercombe by 40 men, several of them armed with small guns. Decades later, in 1465, an English merchant reports on the pillage of an armory stored in a church steeple, from which tenants and servants stole nine arrows, nine bows, and two “handgonnes,” along with the powder chambers, lead, and balls needed for loading and firing the weapons.

Writers of the period reacted with wonder to the visual and aural effects of the new gunpowder weapons. Geoffrey Chaucer’s poem “The House of Fame” describes a blast speeding out of a trumpet “As swift as pellet out of gun/ When fire is in the powder run.”

Modern experiments by historical gunsmiths suggest that the effects of medieval handgonnes went well beyond shock and awe. Trials have shown that it’s possible to penetrate steel plate thicker than most surviving medieval armor with a ball shot from a forged iron gun using homemade powder. Here in the United States, you can order a replica of a surviving medieval handgonne from any number of craftsmen employing some of the very techniques invented by their pre-modern forebears. Or you can download schematics from the Internet and make your own pistol using the same kind of 3-D printer my son uses in his high school engineering class.

Our culture has become obsessed of late with the virtues of the locally sourced: local vegetables, local meats, local soaps. We’ve heard much about the moral worth of do-it-yourselfism and the soul-enhancing virtues of shop class.

But there’s a darker side to locophilia and the DIY movement, a place where the self-reliance of the woodshop putterer meets the libertarian zeal of the garage gunsmith. If the growing black market in homemade firearms evokes a bygone era of small-scale experiment and chance invention, it presages a frightening future of proliferation and lethality that medieval gunsmiths could hardly have imagined.