The AT4 anti-tank weapon has seen action on battlefields around the globe because it’s simple and effective: a compact, cylindrical tube that launches a rocket packed with explosives. It can blow up an armored vehicle from a few hundred yards away, but it’s not cheap: the factory-made version sells for around $1,500 a pop to military buyers only—but perhaps not for long.
For those without a national defense budget or security clearance, a knockoff AT4 is poised to enter the market. Developed by hobbyist designers in Texas using a 3D-printer and other homemade parts, the weapon is not yet ready to take out a tank—or even a flimsy plywood target, as a recent test demonstration revealed. But the unveiling of the cloneable launcher and its powerful plastic rockets could have major implications for modern warfare, providing armies and insurgencies with easy access to cheap and disposable anti-armor weapons.
While untraceable “ghost guns” have stirred controversy and complicated efforts at gun control, advances in using 3D-printing technology to make heavier artillery have largely flown under the radar. Law enforcement documents obtained by VICE News show Mexican drug cartels are already developing their own improvised grenade launchers.
The AT4 is just one type of launching device currently being replicated or reimagined by an online community of arms enthusiasts that operate narrowly within the confines of U.S. law. Some are using 3D printers and metal tubes to build 37mm flare or signal launchers that can be mounted under the barrel of a rifle and look to the untrained eye like a grenade launcher. One person has used 3D printing and metal parts to replicate an obscure German anti-aircraft weapon and a rocket launcher made famous by the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie Commando.
While some say they simply enjoy building things that look cool and go boom (“This is fireworks for adults,” one hobbyist put it), the builder of the AT4 launcher told VICE News he and his partners have obtained special licensing to conduct research using high explosives and build weapons classified as “destructive devices” under federal law. Even though he says what he’s doing is totally legal, the AT4 builder asked to be identified by just his first name, Steve, because he doesn’t want to risk his day job, which involves an industry that frowns upon bomb building.
“To my knowledge, our rockets are the first in the world to be a fully 3D-printed legitimate anti-armor weapon,” Steve told VICE News. “Other guys have made ‘rocket launchers’ but they don't have a destructive warhead.”
Steve is a former Army mechanic who lives in Texas, and he partners with another ex-mechanic named Dan to form D&S Creations, as they are known on social media. Working with a YouTube channel called Ordnance Lab, they posted a video two weeks ago showing the test launch of 3D-printed explosive rockets. The devices still aren’t quite ready for primetime. For safety, they used a remote trigger with the launcher mounted onto a wooden frame, rather than having someone hold it and shoot from the shoulder as they would in combat. The precautions proved wise as one of the rockets misfired and blew the AT4 launcher tube to bits.
The videos run with a lengthy legal disclaimer and warning not to try it at home, and while they discuss the mechanics of their rockets and launchers, Steve says the designs are “entirely proprietary” with no plans for open-source sharing to the general public.
“We leave out key design elements and details because we don't want some self-stylized paramilitary weirdos being inspired to try to replicate,” Steve said. “Everything that makes it a functional weapon will not be made public domain.”
The team has built other types of recoilless launchers using rocket-propelled rounds of various sizes, according to their videos. Although the performance of the rockets is still not equivalent to commercially-made versions, the development has advanced greatly over the past year, Steve said, and currently the 3D-printed bombs could be effective dropped from drones rather than fired from a launcher.
“A plastic bomb can kill a tank and everyone in it,” Steve said. “We envision the government being able to harness the utility of new designs specifically made to accommodate cheap and fast mass production methods like injection molding to supply a battlefield with massive amounts of cheap and effective defensive weapons.”
Steve said he’s spent “thousands” of his own money on research, with plans to eventually capitalize. It’s illegal to export the technology without proper clearances, but a fighting force such as the Ukrainian army, which has been using drones equipped with explosives to combat the Russian invasion, could obviously benefit from 3D-printed bombs.
As Steve put it: “The governments of the world who wish to oppress their neighbors need to be aware that with tech like this, cheap drones and printed bombs can neutralize multi-million dollar equipment and kill the operators with little to no risk to the drone pilot.”
“Ass Blaster 202”
Not everyone making homemade launchers outwardly embraces the idea of the weapons being used in combat. And to stay on the right side of the law in the United States, most hobbyist builders avoid using explosives, sticking instead to inert objects or fireworks.
With nearly 30,000 followers on Instagram, Jonathan Wild is one of the most visible figures in this extremely niche world. Operating as “Wild Arms Research and Development,” Wild has published two books documenting his process of replicating a German single-shot anti-tank weapon called the Panzerfaust and a nine-barreled rocket launcher called the Fliegerfaust, which shoots a flurry of projectiles and was intended to be used against low-flying aircraft in World War II.
Wild declined to be interviewed for this story, but sent a message to VICE News that said: “All the launchers I make are legally registered destructive devices, ammunition is in compliance with ATF regulations,” a reference to the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives.
In his books and in a recent interview on a streaming channel dedicated to 3D-printed weapons building, Wild explained that he keeps the rockets below the legal thresholds for propellant and explosive payload. His latest project is recreating the M202 FLASH, a rocket launcher that lobs four “incendiary munitions” to set targets aflame. Hollywood made the M202 iconic by putting one on Schwarzenegger’s chiseled shoulders in the 1985 cult classic Commando, but it is also used in real-life by the U.S. and South Korean militaries.
Wild has teased his replica M202 on his Instagram page, sharing footage of a recent test launch that shows a nearly identical replica launching rockets with what appears to be an impressive range of several hundred feet. One person was accidentally hit during the test fire, according to media posts, and suffered a minor injury to the buttocks. Wild has since joked that his version of the weapon will be rechristened as the “Ass Blaster 202.”
Wild declined to discuss details of the accident, but said it was “the result of not following basic firearm safety rules,” and that the injured person is “fine now, he’s healing up.”
“It was a very lucky end result of what could have been worse,” Wild said. “Going forward I’m being way more strict with safety rules for folks attending. There was a series of events that led up to it that was preventable. We will address those going forward so it’s never repeated.”
“There's easier ways for bad people to do bad things”
Other amateur launcher builders described their own mishaps during early beta testing. A person who goes by the online handle Bitplumb is part of a group called Are We Cool Yet? (AWCY), which designs and tests 3D-printed firearms before releasing the files to the public.
The 40-year-old Bitplumb, who works in construction and lives in Colorado, claims he was “the very first person to shoot a 3D-printed launcher, that I know of.” He recalled testing a 37mm launcher tube designed to be mounted under the barrel of a rifle. Although the projectile itself was not explosive, something went wrong when he tried to glue a small camera onto it so that he could film the launch. When he tried to squeeze the trigger to fire, it blew up in his hands.
“The super glue was the problem,” Bitplumb said. “Complete user error.”
The injuries were not severe enough to stop him from continuing to experiment with launcher designs. In addition to the under-barrel version, he and his group have developed standalone 37mm launchers. He said the standard method is to use a piece of chain-link fence post as the barrel tube, along with widely available parts and 3D-printed plastic to make the launcher. For shooting, the most common projectiles are commercially available fireworks or flares, he said, which are legal so long as they are not aimed at another person.
“They sound like it's a grenade launcher but it is not,” Bitplumb said. “It is a glorified fireworks launcher. It is no different than buying a flare gun at Walmart to store on your boat.”
Asked about regulations on launchers and other “destructive devices,” a spokesperson for the ATF referred to an agency ruling that says 37mm launchers cross the line into illegality when they are “possessed with ‘anti-personnel’ ammunition, consisting of cartridges containing wood pellets, rubber pellets or balls, or bean bags.” There’s an exception for launchers that have been “redesigned for use as a signaling, pyrotechnic, line throwing, safety, or similar.”
Another AWCY member, who uses the handle Swarmtech, said he lives in Michigan near Lake Huron and built his 3D-printed launcher to have a signaling device on his boat at night, a requirement of the Coast Guard.
“They don't specify what sort of visual signaling capability you're required to have,” he said, and so he chose to create a civilian-legal replica of the M79 grenade launcher, inspired by one of his family members having used the weapon in Vietnam.
“A plastic bomb can kill a tank and everyone in it”
He insisted that he only uses his launcher for legal purposes, like shooting off flares, fireworks, and 3D-printed test rounds, and pushed back when asked whether he’s concerned about modifying the design to make it capable of firing actual grenades.
“While it is certainly possible that somebody could take that information and do harm with it, I don't see that as being any different than somebody learning the information necessary to make something with offensive capabilities from a basic hardware store,” Swarmtech said. “That information has been around since long before my time.”
An AWCY member who goes by the name Danny Meatball has been working on a 3D-printed semi-automatic launcher that shoots 26.5mm signal flares using a length of piping conduit as the barrel. He told VICE News he works as a U.S. military bomb technician, but that his job with explosives doesn’t actually have much overlap with his hobby building launchers, which he enjoys for the sake of tinkering and experimenting with new designs.
“How do I put this without sounding like a crazy person? There's easier ways for bad people to do bad things than with a flare launcher,” he said. While someone could theoretically develop a 3D-printed explosive grenade, he said: “It's just quite a bit of work, and it's terribly unsafe.”
The cartel’s clandestine weapons factories
There are several real-world examples of 3D-printed weapons and improvised launchers turning up in the wild. In Mexico, the 40mm under-barrel grenade launcher has become a common accessory for cartel gunmen, and ATF documents obtained by VICE News show that some are being manufactured in clandestine weapons factories.
“A homemade grenade launcher is manufactured with aluminum or, in some cases, a steel 37mm tube is enlarged to fit a 40mm grenade,” one ATF document says. Such weapons have been recovered in the states of Jalisco, Michoacán, and in Mexico City in 2020 attached to a rifle found at the scene of an attempt to assassinate the capital city’s police chief.
Mexican cartels are also making improvised 40mm grenades, according to another ATF document, which shows an x-ray of one of the devices filled with explosive powder and primed to fire with a regular bullet. The casings are typically manufactured with “computer numerical control” or CNC milling in clandestine workshops known as “hechizas,” the ATF document says.
Tim Sloan, the former top ATF official in Mexico, told VICE News that to his knowledge cartels haven’t yet turned to using 3D printers, but the technology and tactics are evolving rapidly.
“Mexican cartels are trying to perfect weaponized drone use,” Sloan said. “I searched several weapons shops and never saw a 3D printer. I’m more worried about drones than 3D printers. They started out with just hand grenades just basically taped onto the drone, but now they’re getting sophisticated.”
Rebel groups in Myanmar have been documented to use 3D-printed weapons, and Wild has shared several photos on his Instagram account of improvised mortars and launchers from the conflict. But while the homemade weapons have attracted attention, experts who follow the country say that, at least for now, factory-made hardware is still deciding the battles.
“This is a jungle,” said Richard Horsey, senior Myanmar adviser at the Crisis Group. “It's harder to get in the material and the equipment and everything you need for 3D printers than it is to just find someone who has got an AK-47 they'll sell you for a few hundred bucks.”
An ATF spokesperson declined to discuss “the techniques used to investigate and/or monitor” online activity related to homemade launchers, but one retired agent said he felt the risk of one being used in a domestic attack is likely low.
Rick Vasquez, who used to lead the ATF’s firearms technology branch and now works in private consulting, said it’s still difficult to master 3D-printing and obtain all the necessary items to make a functioning weapon—although it’s clearly not impossible.
“I don’t think personally there will be any issue with 3D-printed launchers,” Vasquez said. “But if you get the right barrel and right barrel liner and the right munitions, you might have a launcher capable of only shooting one missile, and that would still be a helluva bad situation.”
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