Royal Nonesuch and something he calls "the Defibrillator." Image: RoyalNonesuch/YouTube

This Controversial 21-Year-Old Is Turning YouTube’s Homebrew Gun Scene Upside Down While Evading Censors

“This isn’t your granddaddy’s pipe gun.”

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Mar 28 2017, 2:30pm

Royal Nonesuch and something he calls "the Defibrillator." Image: RoyalNonesuch/YouTube

This is part of a series around A Smarter Gun, Motherboard's new documentary.

Somewhere in a backyard in middle America, a young man in a Hawaiian shirt straps a weapon to his chest. Large, unwieldy, necessitating earplugs and protective glasses, the weapon is equipped with four barrels and a laser to help with aim. The young man calls his creation "The Defibrillator."

In an eight-minute YouTube video our host, who goes by the handle Royal Nonesuch, loads the weapon and turns to face his targets. Rapidly, methodically, he takes out a line of metal cans, giggling as they explode in sequence. But before he does, he offers a disclaimer: "If this thing is going on YouTube," he explains, speaking directly to camera, "it's gotta be legal."

Each of the barrels of this weapon, we learn, is independent—if they were all able to fire at once, Royal Nonesuch informs us, The Defibrillator would be illegal under US federal law. "This isn't your granddaddy's pipe gun," Royal Nonesuch says. The sludgy green of the barrels contrasts with his turquoise shirt, which is printed all-over with pink hibiscus flowers.

The Defibrillator is one of an arsenal of weapons, each one as inventive as the last. The list includes a homemade booby trap, hardware store apocalypse gun, electric backpack flamethrower, and an exploding injection knife, which Royal Nonesuch tests by slicing—and exploding—fruit and vegetables on a table, conjuring the look of a hellish cooking demonstration.

In real life, Royal Nonesuch is Richard, a 21-year-old living somewhere near the Missouri River. Richard is recently married, and says he was raised by parents who were never particularly keen on firearms. "I didn't even like guns when I was younger," Richard told me recently over Skype. "I thought they were a bit scary and dangerous."

But early experimentation with fireworks was a sort of gateway drug for Richard, who found it hard to resist the call of the combustible. "I think that any boy in his right mind, growing up, is going to want to play around with explosives," Richard said, "and want to do dangerous things."

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In Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, "The Royal Nonesuch" is a theatrical show put on by a pair of con artists. The scammers put up a poster for their "thrilling tragedy," banning women and children from attending. As one of the con men says: "If that line don't fetch them, I don't know Arkansas!"

The show is intentionally terrible, so slapdash and tawdry that the audience are embarrassed to have paid for tickets. But rather than warning their friends about the show, audience members recommend it, so that everyone will be in the same boat and end up getting conned.

Is Richard's "Royal Nonesuch" playing a similar game on YouTube, satirising gun rights by pushing gun ownership and do-it-yourself gunsmithing to its limits? Or is he just having fun, a young man on a mission to explode as many bags of grain as he can?

Watch more Motherboard: Who Killed the Smart Gun?

Instructional videos for DIY firearms and other homemade weapons are common enough on YouTube. They comprise one of the more visible branches of a diverse community encompassing everything from apocalypse preppers to survivalists, seditionaries, trigger-happy trolls, and those intrepid souls who, for whatever reason, are plain bent on building their own AK. (Warning: clicking that link might get you in trouble at work.)

In other words, homebrew weapons unite fringe causes. You can find online tutorials on building them at forums for budding zombie hunters (their tagline: "Making dead things deader"), or learn from flamboyantly nerdy historical recreationists looking to make a "combination rapier, musket rest and warhammer." And there's always slingshot forums, Instructables tutorials for high-burning blue-ray lasers ("easy, cheap and focusable!") or the ever-popular custom-built assault shovel.

YouTube's DIY gun videos are often delivered in somber tones, as if to indicate that with great power comes responsibility. There is a sense that no one is having any actual fun here, per se. But Royal Nonesuch's videos are different. He's openly enthusiastic, and admits that what he's doing isn't always safe.

"People are taken aback by it sometimes," Richard told me. "They're like, 'this little kid is building all this stuff, and it's probably illegal.' It's whatever."

Read more: YouTube's Gun Reviewers Are 'Guns & Ammo' Magazine for the Internet Age

His videos follow a simple format. The first half explains how the weapon was made and how it works. Then, the money shot: The weapon is fired at a series of objects, usually including bags of grain, fruit and potatoes, which Richard buys from a local Amish shop that sells spoiled produce.

At the time of writing Richard's YouTube channel had amassed over 280,000 subscribers, who often send in requests like grappling hook gun inspired by one used in the Batman films. The exploding arrows Richard made are based on ones used by Rambo. And sometimes the weapons are just a product of his own frenzied imagination.

"It's often something I'll do off-the-cuff," Richard explained. "I just get an idea and work at it. I don't plan things too much."

"I just get an idea and work at it. I don't plan things too much."

Many of the weapons are hastily built, and Richard is sometimes criticised for their lack of polish. They are cobbled together from parts ordered online, the occasional 3D-printed missile, and scrap metal found around his garage at home. Each weapon is an experiment, a proof-of-concept fired at its creator's own risk.

The results are bizarre and occasionally delightful. These weapons appear just too odd to be used in real life, after all, and this is what makes them entertaining. There's a gigantic curved PVC pipe re-imagined as a shotgun (convenient, apparently, for firing around corners). There's a fire extinguisher, also repurposed as a shotgun. There's an almost frenzied genius to his videos, a pure and unique satisfaction that can only be found in watching things explode.

You get the sense there's nothing that Royal Nonesuch could not turn into a gun, that he has begun to see the world in terms of firearms. A trigger-happy young Midas, with everything he touches turning to guns who he claims none of his projects have seriously backfired.

"I've burned a lot of hair off my face, but luckily it grew back again," Richard said. (He added that he now makes an effort to test his creations before filming: "I hide behind some kind of substantial object, then use a string to set off the gun.")

A sort of sizzle reel. Video: RoyalNonesuch/YouTube/Patreon

Not everyone in the online gun community is onboard with the Nonesuch-style DIY home armory, however. "A lot of YouTubers who make gun videos have been really supportive," Richard told me, "but some aren't, and think I'm going to get our rights taken away by doing all this stupid stuff."

For example, a 2015 post on The Firearm Blog that referred to Richard as an "idiot" dismissed his behavior with annoyance and quasi-paternal concern. "At the rate this guy is going," the post reads, "he really is going to put one of his own eyes out."

Another gun site, Bearing Arms, posted a harsh takedown of his slam-fire pipe gun video. The post likened Richard to a "cocky amateur" and warned readers to not be a "nimrod" like him: "Don't EVER be this guy, folks."

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These are uncertain times for YouTube's gun community. "Hickok05," a popular gun channel with over two million subscribers, was temporarily removed last year on two occasions. While some members of the community have protested the threat of censorship, the consensus appears to be that keeping gun channels serious, informative, "drama-free and 'family friendly,'" as per Hickok05's current bio, is the best way to stay online.

For his part, Royal Nonesuch tries to avoid talking politics in his videos, and has opted out of the community's ongoing war with anti-gun activists. "I'm not so into it," he admitted. "I'm just trying to have fun and build stuff."

While not scripted, the intros to his videos are carefully phrased so as to be instructional but not overly so. "I don't go into much detail, because there are points where you can be held liable for things under law," Richard explained.

"I don't go into much detail, because there are points where you can be held liable for things under law."

The rules of gun content on YouTube are complicated and occasionally vague, enough that enforcing them ultimately rests with the platform itself. YouTube's guidelines for advertiser-friendly content encourages creators to avoid "controversial or sensitive subjects and events" and implied violence. There's also a policy on harmful or dangerous content where YouTube explains that while it's impossible to predict how a viewer might react to a video, "we draw the line at content that intends to incite violence or encourage dangerous or illegal activities." This includes "instructional" videos—"educational" ones are allowed, but not if they explain how to commit dangerous acts—and anything that could be easily imitated by children or people who aren't trained professionals.

Meanwhile, Adsense, the advertising placement programme run by YouTube-owned Google, states in its content policy that content relating to hunting, antique weapons, replicas, emergency flares, collectible knives, archery, and airsoft guns are permitted, but firearm sales and fireworks cannot be monetised. The same goes for "pyrotechnic devices" and "pages that teach bomb or other explosive-making or give instructions on how to harm or kill."

A YouTube representative said such site policies are only a small fraction of those used to address volatile material by staff, who rely on users to report offensive content, which their teams then review. "We quickly remove videos violating these policies when flagged by our users and we also reserve the right to stop monetising videos that don't cross the line but that might not be suitable for our advertising partners," the representative told me.

Flagging does not always lead to censorship—even after a video is flagged, the same clip reuploaded with additional commentary might be permissible. (The YouTube rep also pointed me to YouTube's blog post on this subject, which stresses that "Content is King".) In other cases the video stays online but is demonetised, meaning its creator won't earn any profit. Anything promoting the sale of weapons is instantly demonetised. The same goes for YouTubers who openly explain how to build weapons at home, or who risk death or serious injury in making their video.

Where do the videos of Royal Nonesuch fall on this list? Is he constructing "pyrotechnic devices"? Yes. Are they "intended to harm or kill"? Not unless you count the odd, accidentally singed-off eyebrow. Is Royal Nonesuch a "trained professional"? Yes, in that he's been making weapons on YouTube for several years, and can earn money from his videos.

But this state of affairs might not last long. Richard says his videos are being demonetised at a rate of one per day, the result of his channel being flagged and subsequently labelled "not advertiser-friendly." In response, he has set up a Patreon campaign and addressed the issue in a video titled "YOUTUBE HATES GUN CHANNELS!!!"

It seems inevitable that Royal Nonesuch, of all the YouTube gun channels, would run into trouble negotiating a maze of online policies and regulation, and provoking controversy within an already-controversial niche. That said, in YouTube's eyes he remains a hobbyist, a term Richard himself might not agree with but allows him to keep posting his videos without being censored completely.

Then there are real-world laws to negotiate. In the US it is legal to build a homemade weapon for personal use, though the types of weapon allowed—and what you can do with them—vary from state to state. There are IRL DIY gun-building parties and firearm blueprints are distributed online for free, utilising a loophole frequently exploited by criminals. While Richard states that the weapons featured in his videos are legal in his state (he decline to say which one exactly) he also advises any imitators to use caution. "It could be illegal where you are," he warned.

Even if it is legal, your DIY weapon might still attract the attention of police. Richard recalled a trip to Florida where he was pulled over for driving ten miles over the speed limit. A state with notably lenient gun laws, Florida has recently experienced a boom in gun manufacturing, to the degree that regulators are struggling to keep up. Current state laws permit weapons built at home without serial numbers, as well as the selling of lower receivers as long as they are technically "unfinished" when sold. (The lower receiver is the part of a gun that houses the firing mechanism—the thing that makes a gun "a gun" in the eyes of the law.)

But even in these times, the era of the untraceable "ghost gun", Richard said the officer appeared baffled to discover a range of unfamiliar, homemade-seeming firearms and weapons stashed on the back seat. Five more police cars and one K-9 unit later, it was concluded that the weapons were in fact legal. YouTube's Royal Nonesuch was sent on his way.

"It was crazy," Richard said. "They searched my whole car before they let me go. One of the guys was like, 'Holy crap, I've never seen anything like this before.'"