The Liberator – the world's first 3D printed handgun

Technologies often develop faster than the laws that govern them. When libertarians (those that uphold liberty as a core principle) in Texas exploited 3D printing technology to make their own gun – and especially when they started sharing the files to make it – it unleashed a panic about unregulated design. It was also the day that 3D printing lost its innocence.

The Liberator, 3D printed hand gun, Cody Wilson/Defense Distributed, May 2013, Texas, US. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Cody Wilson, a former law student from Austin, Texas founded Defense Distributed in 2012, to defend the civil liberty of popular access to arms. On 6 May 2013, Wilson took a crucial step in his crusade for popular access to guns when, on a private shooting range in Austin and in the presence of BBC3, he fired the world's first 3D printed gun. The next day, he released the design drawings of the gun online, open source. In the first two days of their release, 100,000 people across the world downloaded the drawings. The invention of this so-called wiki weapon sparked intense debate. It transforms the way we think about new manufacturing technologies and the unregulated sharing of designs online.

The Liberator, first fired 3D printed prototype hand gun, Cody Wilson/Defense Distributed, May 2013, Texas US. Museum no. CD.40:1-3-2014. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Wilson's motivation is a sincere, but very literal and libertarian interpretation of the US Constitution's Second Amendment: the right to bear arms. The ultimate moral and legal authority of that document, for Wilson, justified his actions. He christened the gun 'The Liberator'. Wilson says of his work that he "never thought of it in terms of design" – the design and distribution of the Liberator is for him a political act.

The Liberator is made of fifteen parts of ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene) plastic, printed individually on an industrial grade Stratasys Dimension SST 3D printer. The printing process takes around 20 hours, and the pieces can then be assembled to make a fully functioning firearm with the addition of a single metal component: a standard nail for the ring pin.

The Liberator, 3D printed hand gun, designed by Cody Wilson/Defence Distributed, manufactured by Digits2Widgets, 2013, US. Museum no. CD.1:1 to 16-2013. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Liberator STL files were made freely available on Wilson's own search engine for 3D-printable models, DEFCAD. In Wilson's view the Liberator, in its robustness, strength, and refinement, showcases "everything that is great about 3D printing in this one design; the great tour of what is possible in 3D printing".

On 8 May 2013, Wilson and Defense Distributed were ordered by the US Government to remove a number of files from DEFCAD. The Department of State began investigating whether Wilson had willfully violated the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR). These regulations implement the provisions of the Arms Export Control Act (AECA). According to a letter issued by the State Department, by allowing the download of the design files for the Liberator, Wilson could have been contravening US export regulations by "transferring technical data to a foreign person, whether in the United States or abroad".

DEFCAD was ordered to cease hosting and distributing the STL files for the Liberator and a number of other designs. Wilson was not breaking any laws in the production of the firearms themselves. Wilson is fully licensed to manufacture both Title One (rifles, shotguns and handguns) and Title Two weapons (improvised weapons and machine guns). But suspicion revolved around Defense Distributed operating a not-for-profit exchange of information – one of the problems was that Wilson was not seeking to monetise the Liberator.

The potential punishment enforced by ITAR for each violation of the AECA is a ten-year prison sentence. If only 0.1 percent of the 100,000 downloads were to non-US citizens, Wilson was looking at spending the rest of his life in prison. The gun he designed has come to exemplify what Wilson calls an 'empty space in the law'.

The V&A has acquired three Liberators as part of it's Rapid Response Collection: one in its component parts, one assembled, and one that had been fired by Wilson. We have also acquired the CAD files and some 3D printed AK47 and AR15 lower receivers and magazines that show the development of Wilson's thinking from making replacement parts for existing semi-automatic rifles, to the development of the Liberator itself.

This article is an edited extract from '3D Printing an Empty Space in the Law' by Louise Shannon, and was originally published in Volume 38: The Shape of Law, January 2014.

Background image: The Liberator, 3D printed hand gun, designed by Cody Wilson/Defence Distributed, manufactured by Digits2Widgets, 2013, US. Museum no. CD.1:1 to 16-2013. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London