Center for Strategic Communication

Three weeks after a group of desktop gunsmiths had its leased 3D printer seized by the digital manufacturing firm that owned it, the weaponeers have quietly restarted plans to build a gun entirely of printed parts. The group has also begun expanding their operation with outside help, including space for ballistics testing provided by a mysterious firm involved in the defense industry.

Cody Wilson, founder of the Wiki Weapon project, tells Danger Room that the unnamed company’s owner “wanted to offer me a safe haven, basically.” Wilson describes the company as a “private defense firm” in San Antonio, Texas, but the company’s owner is wary of negative publicity and Wilson doesn’t want to reveal the firm’s name without consent.

“We’ve got basically a space where we can do experiments. Ballistics, basically. So it’s not quite a range — we’ve got a range — but we’ve got floor space where we can literally test the guns and set up instrumentation,” Wilson says.

A second unnamed company has also stepped in to volunteer manufacturing space. That company works with 3D printers and is based in a light industrial district in nearby Austin, where Wilson lives.

But the new assistance wouldn’t have happened had Wiki Weapon not first run into trouble acquiring a 3D desktop printer — which use layers of heated materials to create everyday objects. At the low-end, they can be used to print everything from silverware and jewelry to Warhammer miniatures. At the high-end, the printers are used in industries ranging from dentistry to aerospace. But Wiki Weapon intended to go much further by producing a working pistol.

The group was stymied in late September after a printer leased from desktop manufacturer Stratasys was seized by the company over fears the group was preparing an illegal and unlicensed gun undetectable by airport security scanners. The federal law Stratasys alleged Wilson intended to break – the Undetectable Firearms Act – provides an exemption for plastic gun prototypes made by licensed manufacturers. Within days after his printer was taken away, Wilson was also questioned after visiting a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms office in Austin. The group is now seeking a license from the agency.

Later, Wilson was approached by a licensed gun manufacturer who was apparently willing to let the group use his personal 3D printer. “But he got cold feet, so we walked away from it,” Wilson says.

The desktop gunsmiths are also forming a slew of corporations to protect Wiki Weapon against potential lawsuits. The online collective overseeing the project, called Defense Distributed, is being turned into a nonprofit 501(c)(3) engaged in “charitable public interest publishing,” Wilson says, which will distribute weapons blueprints online for free. A new research and development company created by the group called Liberty Laboratories is being incorporated in Texas and will be responsible for printing, testing and firing the guns. The group plans to start a third company for raising and protecting its private assets.

It’s not hard to see why. An early attempt at fundraising over Indiegogo was blocked until the group raised $20,000 over the online currency network Bitcoin. But the amount raised so far is fairly limited, and Wilson says the move is necessary to raise private capital.

Adding a sense of legitimacy to the project may also be a way to shield the group from some criticism. Ever since the group had its first printer taken, a raging debate has been carried out online over questions of gun control and the potential dangers regarding a future where anyone could potentially download a gun off the internet.

Gun control advocates slammed Wilson. Josh Horwitz, the executive director for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, called Wilson an “extremist” involved in a “blatant, undisguised attempt to radically alter our system of government.” Backing up Wilson and Wiki Weapon were a loose coalition of gun enthusiasts, techies, libertarians and Reddit geeks.

At the same time, however, hobbyists have continued to experiment with printed gun parts. Earlier this month, one at-home manufacturer produced a working fire control group — the component which handles a gun’s trigger motion — for an AK-47 rifle. The debate will likely resume if or when Wiki Weapon produces a fully printed gun. “We have a printer on standby right now,” Wilson says. But he added that the group is looking at another five to six weeks at minimum before they’re ready, and that’s a big maybe. When (or if) the group receives a firearms license is still indeterminate.

“We want to prototype a few things first,” he says. “I think there’s no rush for me to go ahead and get into renting an Objet printer or something more high-end until one of these first few prototypes shows it has a promise.”

The good news for the group is that they’ve found companies willing to associate with DIY gun makers. It hasn’t been easy, so far. But don’t say isn’t easy isn’t impossible either.