Future Tense

3D-Printed Guns Are Getting More Capable and Accessible

A man fires a 3D-printed semi-automatic rifle in a still image from a YouTube trailer for the FGC-9.
The FGC-9 is a 100 percent homemade semi-automatic rifle. CTRLPew/YouTube 

On Jan. 1, Chase Tkach—chair of the Orleans County, New York, Libertarian Party, also known as porn actor Molly Smash—uploaded two fast-flashing, dubstep-tuned theatrical trailers to their Pornhub channel. The videos were promoting cheap, untraceable, 3D-printed, plastic, DIY, semi-automatic guns. That’s because Tkach likes guns, specifically unregulated ones. And homemade guns are so hot right now.

People have been making 3D-printed guns at home since 2013. They used to be pretty low-tech, capable of one shot before busting. But they’ve come a long way in the past few years. Now you can print untraceable AR-15s, AKMs, semi-automatic pistols, and more—no serial number, no registration, no background check. Up until recently, however, the best you could do with a semi-automatic rifle like the AR-15 was 3D-print the lower receiver (the core part that’s regulated as a firearm). Users still had to buy real magazines, triggers, and barrels to complete the kit and build a working gun. That’s easy to do if you live in America, where most people can purchase gun parts (minus the receiver) online. But it’s a problem if you live in a country with strict gun control like Germany, where most people can’t easily purchase the necessary parts.

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All that changed in March, when 3D-printing and firearm enthusiasts publicly released the design for a 100 percent homemade semi-automatic rifle that not only shoots 9 mm ammo exceptionally well but is durable enough to withstand thousands of rounds. They called it the FGC-9, which stands for “fuck gun control 9 mm.” Most of the gun is 3D-printed, while the rest includes inconspicuous parts available at hardware stores. The files include detailed instructions to help anyone—even if they don’t have technical knowledge—build their own. They explain which 3D printer to buy, how to cast DIY ammo at home, and how to modify a metal tube in your bedroom to turn it into a gun barrel. The metal means the gun can’t sneak past metal detectors, but it also means there are no consequences for owning one in the U.S. 3D-printed guns are legal, as long as they can be picked up by a metal detector.

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If you already have a 3D printer (the recommended one is about $250) and basic hand tools, it costs about $100 for the rest of the tools to build the barrel, then about $100 in supplies for each gun after that. For reference, a Smith & Wesson M&P15 Sport (a popular midtier AR-15-style rifle) starts at about $750 off the shelf. A technically inclined builder could make an FGC-9 in less than a week. Someone with no experience could possibly learn everything they need and build it in a couple of weeks.

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The videos Tkach uploaded to Pornhub were cut by Alex Holladay, who has been producing content for Deterrence Dispensed, a big group chat administered by a few design collaborators including the designers of the FGC-9—an anonymous European who goes by JStark or Jacob and an American using the moniker Ivan the Troll. Jacob was the driving force behind the development of the FGC-9 and was featured in British journalist Jake Hanrahan’s short documentary Plastic Defence. Ivan, who designed the barrel and magazine for the FGC-9, is sometimes called the spokesperson of Deterrence Dispensed and has been interviewed about his gun designs in Wired and the New Republic. They are active figures in the user-made firearm subreddit, though not without pushback from the platform: Ivan has been suspended from Reddit several times and says he has lost count of how many profiles he has gone through, though he thinks it’s more than 10. He was also suspended from Twitter in 2019 after Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, an opponent of the free distribution of 3D-printable-gun blueprints, wrote a letter to Twitter urging the platform to ban Ivan. He has since returned under a new handle.

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I was able to verify Ivan’s actual identity and reach him for a phone call. He did not want his real name used because he says he has received death threats on social media and doesn’t want those reaching his family, so I will continue to refer to him by the pseudonym Ivan.

He’s 23 years old, graduated from college in 2020 with a degree in computer science, and lives with his parents in Southern Illinois. From the front, their house looks like any unassuming gray suburban home. Out back, his family has about 50 acres of fields and woods, where Ivan has a shooting range; inside, he has an entire room dedicated to designing and printing guns. He grew up in a gun-friendly Midwestern family and was introduced to 3D printing in a high school class.

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He didn’t have gunsmithing in mind when he bought his first printer. He drives a 30-year-old car and wanted to make plastic parts to spruce up the interior trim. The gun printing started a few years later, when he read online about people printing AR-15 lower receivers. It took him about five tries to get one to turn out right, and it lasted him more than 2,000 rounds. That inspired him to pursue 3D-printable-gun development to push the technology forward. He jumped into what he calls the “social media boom” of 2018, by which he means 2018 was the year 3D-printed guns broke out of niche circles and grew a sizable following online. It was when the infamous 3D-printed gun designer and now registered sex offender Cody Wilson of Defense Distributed (to which the name Deterrence Dispensed is a cheeky tribute) settled his lawsuit against the U.S. government affirming arguments that 3D-printable-gun files could be sharable as free speech without regulation.

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Ivan says his first time communicating with Jacob was on Reddit and Twitter, where they ran in the same crowds of homemade gun designers. Jacob recruited Ivan to teach him computer-aided drafting software so he could design what would ultimately become the FGC-9. Since then, they’ve worked together on a few builds, but Ivan says they still don’t know each other’s real identities.

Up until mid-January, Deterrence Dispensed operated on the encrypted chat platform Keybase—recently acquired by Zoom—where it grew to almost 27,000 members, though Ivan says only a few thousand were actively participating. At the beginning of the year, Keybase informed Ivan that the group would be shut down. In an email to me, a Keybase spokesperson said Keybase’s Acceptable Use Policy was updated following Zoom’s acquisition, and the company determined Deterrence Dispensed was no longer in compliance. The policy prohibits content involving weapons and instructions on making weapons. On Jan. 20, the Keybase group was locked, and Deterrence Dispensed moved to a new self-hosted chat platform. But Ivan says they were prepared for the move—they knew that Keybase was changing its policy—most of the active users have joined the new chat, and participation is continuing uninhibited.

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The goal of the chat is to build a collaborative community of designers and enthusiasts not only to advance home gunsmithing methods but also to get these guns into the hands of anyone who wants one. Ivan says the goal isn’t to make sure everyone has a gun but rather to make sure everyone has the technical capability to decide to have a gun. He is a proponent of gun freedom and believes citizens should have arms to defend and fight against tyranny. Ivan says the group has a romantic fantasy that their designs will reach oppressed groups, like Uighurs, who are facing genocide in China. But the designs are also favored by far-right extremists in the U.S., including those in the Boogaloo movement, who may want untraceable firearms to evade law enforcement, according to Wired.

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The release of the FGC-9, a major milestone for the Deterrence Dispensed coalition, was an improvement on a model called the AP-9 by an anonymous designer who goes by Derwood. The AP-9 uses a Glock barrel and magazine. But Ivan built a 3D-printed version of the magazine that uses a coiled metal spring. And he designed a homemade barrel by carving spiral grooves—the rifling that makes the bullet spin—inside a metal tube using electrochemical machining, which may sound complicated, but it’s a relatively simple DIY solution to etch steel using saltwater, electricity, and copper wire twisted around a 3D-printed mandrel. Deterrence Dispensed has a full tutorial (which I am not going to link to). The hardware has been converted to metric, to make it buildable outside the U.S.

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Ivan tells me the FGC-9 is the easiest, cheapest, most accessible, and reliable semi-automatic DIY firearm that he is aware of. It shows that it’s possible to build highly effective semi-automatic rifles with common tools. It certainly takes more work than going to Cabela’s to buy a gun in the U.S., but it’s easy enough that anyone who wants a gun and has the motivation to learn can build one at home while thousands of people online guide them through the process. It’s hard to imagine stopping it, short of banning 3D printers or metal pipes. Even regulating the distribution of the designs wouldn’t do much. The designs are distributed using a blockchain, so there’s no central server to take down. And the FGC-9 designs have already been viewed more than 44,000 times just on the original site they were uploaded to—they have been replicated elsewhere, for who knows how many people.

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It’s a volatile time for gun owners in America. On Feb. 14, the third anniversary of the Parkland school shooting, President Joe Biden called on Congress to pass stricter gun control, including a ban on assault weapons. The future of firearms in the U.S. may be one where assault weapons can only be obtained by purchasing them on the black market or building them at home. The latter is now a viable option.

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There’s an ethical question that comes up in writing this story—whether I’m giving Deterrence Dispensed a platform, potentially leading more people to a dangerous movement. But Ivan and his team already have a huge platform, making critical coverage ever more important. The hype is spreading, and not just on Pornhub and Reddit. The FGC-9 has been discussed on neo-Nazi forums on the dark web. Deterrence Dispensed has been featured in gun podcasts. And users on TikTok are teaching one another how to build rifles at home with some videos reaching millions of views. It’s happening, whether or not journalists like me cover it—and because it’s happening, people need to know about it.

“There is no sign of things stopping. Projects are only getting more ambitious,” Ivan says. The group is currently working on a second-generation FGC-9. Ivan says it will make the barrel and bolt manufacturing easier, and improves the ergonomics and appearance of the gun. It’s close to ready, they just need to finish documentation and a few minor details. They expect to release the designs to the public in the next few months.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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