Here’s What We Know About the ‘Homemade’ Gun that Killed Shinzo Abe

The former Prime Minister of Japan was assassinated on the streets of Nara on Friday.
Shinzo Abe, the former Prime Minister of Japan was assassinated on the streets of Nara on Friday.
Image: Getty Images

Shinzo Abe, the former Prime Minister of Japan, was assassinated with a gun on the streets of Nara, Japan. The killing shocked the world and, especially, Japan—a country with strict gun laws and tight control over ammunition. It appears that the killer used a homemade gun to carry out the attack. 

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Officials in Japan, journalists, and firearms experts have all called the gun used to kill Abe “homemade.” Typically this refers to a 3D printed weapon, but the weapon used to kill the former Prime Minister appears more crude than that.

Abe was in the streets delivering speeches as part of a political rally when the killer approached so there were a lot of cameras in the area. We have a clear view of the killing, its aftermath, and the weapon used. In video of the attack, two loud bangs ring out followed by large plumes of white smoke. The attacker was immediately wrestled to the ground.

Images of the weapon show a crude device wrapped in black electrical tape. It appears to be a piece of wood with two barrels taped on top of it. Electronic components are visible below the barrel.

The gun appears to be a classic homemade gun or “zip gun,” crafted using basic materials available to almost anyone. Outside of the 3D printed gun space exists an entire craft and hobby dedicated to the making of improvised guns. In America, many of them post about the hobby on YouTube. Some are elaborate and use machined parts, others are as crude as sliding two pipes together to fire a shotgun shell. On this cruder end of the spectrum, a pipe has a small firing pin at the end of it and another pipe has a shell. The shelled pipe slides down and brings the ammunition onto the firing pin, which triggers the firearm.

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“It’s a bit more complicated than a slam fire shotgun as he’s had to basically make an open ended pipe bomb with some from of improvised slug or ball bearings or similar,” Calibre Obscura, an arms researcher, told Motherboard. “The electrical circuit would be used to donate the presumed black powder, similar to a pipe bomb.”

The electronics hint at an electrical firing mechanism which would take a bit more time than machining two pieces of pipe to carry a shotgun shell. The reason for this might be because of Japan’s restrictive gun laws and the potential need to use homemade ammunition as well as a homemade gun.

Based on preliminary analysis by firearms experts, the weapon that killed Abe appears to be an older style weapon with some updated structures. It looks as if it was muzzle loaded and fired using a small electrical charge. Think of a matchlock musket that uses electricity to spark the firing mechanism instead of a fuse.

In Japan, owning a weapon requires a battery of background checks, interviews with family members, and clearance by a medical doctor. Prospective gun owners then have to pass a firearms safety test and purchase a special locker for the weapon. The sale of ammunition is also tightly controlled, making bullets and shells of all kinds hard to come by.

The large amount of smoke present after the discharge of the weapon hints towards homemade ammunition. “The prominent end caps towards the rear of the barrels may indicate a muzzle-loading design using separate-loading propellant and projectiles,” firearm expert N.R. Jenzen-Jones said in a tweet. “Of course, it is too early to be definitive.”

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“This appears to be a craft-produced, electrically fired, muzzle-loading firearm,” he said later in the thread. “Almost certainly smoothbore.” Smoothbore means the inside of the barrel is smooth and not “rifled,” a common firearm design that spins a bullet as it exits the barrel and lends it stability in flight.

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Image via Twitter.

Later in the day, Japanese police raided the home of the assassin and confiscated explosives as well as another homemade weapon that looks like something from Fallout. The pictures of the object show a tangled mass of black electrical tape, wood, electronics, and 9 barrels.

“To reiterate, it’s still too early to be definitive on any of this—these are just my initial impressions,” Jenzen-Jones said on Twitter. “A less likely design (e.g., breech-loading, electrically initiated 3-D printed or modified cartridges, ECM-rifled barrels, etc) remains a possibility.”