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Click, Print, Gun: The Inside Story of the 3D-Printed Gun Movement

A week with Cody R. Wilson, a 25-year-old University of Texas law student working to build semiautomatic weapons using 3D printers.

Being a 3D-printing novice, I was once somewhat skeptical of the promise behind what's being billed as a truly game-changing technology. I saw Makerbot CEO Bre Pettis on the cover of Wired, and while the novelty of the process incited wonder in my inner 10-year-old, I didn’t think much about it after the fact.

Enter Cody R. Wilson. Wilson is a 25-year-old University of Texas law student working to build semiautomatic weapons using 3D printers. His name first came up in conversation with a colleague after Wilson posted an Indiegogo pitch video demonstrating his intended use for a newly-acquired Stratasys 3D printer, which Stratasys subsequently repossessed.


I was intrigued. Wilson seemed to be an articulate and tech-savvy mouthpiece for a movement that a large portion of the country would deem dangerous and off-limits. To find out more about his fight against gun control, we flew down to his home base of Austin, Texas, where we first met Wilson at his apartment. I wasn’t sure what to make of him. He checked his phone every 10 seconds. He had a hard time making eye contact. Every other sentence ended with “Do you know what I mean?” He spoke on topics ranging from progress in the 3D-printed gun movement to American politics to the inherent revolutionary nature of bitcoins.

Soon enough Wilson showed us the CAD file on his computer for his lower receiver. Over us, a five-foot American flag hung as a self-described ironic statement. He’s a knowledgeable guy, and spoke at length about the development of Defense Distributed’s lower receiver, telling me that failure was a part of the scientific process. As he said, every time one of his designs fails, it offers more insight into what designs work.

Social niceties aside, we were there to watch Wilson build some guns. To be clear, Defense Distributed doesn’t print entire guns--at least not yet. Instead, Wilson’s team focuses on printing AR-15 lower receivers, which house most of the operating parts of that firearm.

It is also the part of the gun that’s considered a gun by the government. Other parts like barrels and stocks, especially those for the highly-modular AR-15 platform, can be purchased online, and often with no age restriction or background check needed.


Wilson is also focused on 3D printing 30-round magazine clips in anticipation of Senator Dianne Feinstein’s assault weapon ban bill, which would limit magazine size. To Wilson, the work is partly an effort to expose what he considers the futility of gun regulation. “[Magazines] prove the point much better than the lower receiver that you can’t ban a box and a spring,” he said.

Printing a lower receiver takes seven hours, but there is something particularly ominous about seeing the ARS plastic begin to take shape as the lower receiver is born.

Whatever your thoughts on gun control, it’s impossible to deny that the 3D-printed gun movement is something that doesn’t fit into the current legal framework. It’s either exciting or scary–or perhaps both–and that polarity is something Wilson recognizes, and which he knows how to bend to his advantage. It all made for a rather confusing week in Texas, during which we were often alone with just Wilson, who appears to have few distractions outside of his work with Defense Distributed. He’s created his own world in this mission, where friends or law school grades take a backseat to the message.

It’s impossible to know where that mission will end, but just as it’s clear that 3D printing is set to boom, it’s clear that Wilson and company have changed the boundaries of what that boom will bring.

Update 3/27: It's come to our attention that some of the archival footage of the Sandy Hook shooting was mislabeled by our distributor, and is in fact aerial footage of a different school. While we don't feel it affects the content of the piece, Motherboard apologizes for the error, and we're currently changing the footage in the video.