Why all the fuss over the V&A's 3D-printed gun? It's a symbol - not a threat

The 'Liberator' 3D printed-gun has caused a furore in the press, but it's less dangerous than home-made pistols made from a metal pipe and nail

The 3D printed gun is nothing more than “a dangerous toy” according to one of the UK’s leading 3D print experts.  Jonathan Rowley is design director for the company that produced the controversial weapon for the V&A museum.  His team at London 3D print company, Digits2Widgets, are in no doubt about it.  The 3D printed gun is a clever publicity stunt, but in Rowley’s words “Just because you call something a gun, it doesn’t actually mean it is a gun”.

Few things have sparked more public outrage than this device, called the “Liberator”.  The designs (and Youtube video) made by Texan law student and libertarian activist Cody Wilson, claim it is the first firearm that can be freely produced and assembled by anyone with a 3D printer.  Naturally this caused panic because you can buy 3D printers for a few hundred pounds.  The logical conclusion is the grim prospect of every crackpot from Texas to Coventry manufacturing their own lethal handguns at home, with just a few clicks of a mouse. 

It’s nonsense. The 3D printed gun is not meant to be used as a weapon,  It is, however, being used as a publicity vehicle.

 The team who oversaw production of the gun for the V&A exhibit think it’s time we drew a line under the hype.  The example they’ve produced was created to be physically impossible to fire.  This was because, after an ethical debate with Cody Wilson on a BBC radio show, Rowley explains “I made rather pompous statements that we’d never make one, and then the V&A called up asking us to print one for them.  It was a bit of dilemma because I love the V&A.  So we worked out how we could make one without being hypocritical about it.”

The museum needed the gun printed because the example it had originally purchased from the USA had been impounded by customs.  Circumventing customs by printing their own replacement in London was a simple way to get around an otherwise disastrous last minute hitch for their highly anticipated London Design Week exhibition, featuring the item. That is an interesting story about the power of 3D printing, much more so than the actual gun itself.

The Liberator deconstructed: It take's all this plastic, but also a metal firing pin.

Combining the cultural symbolism of the gun with the hype surrounding 3D printing has turned this sideshow curiosity into a global news phenomenon, even though Cody Wilson himself admits this plastic device is little more than a political statement.  In reality, all this device can do is detonate the powder charge within a bullet casing.  A well aimed hammer could do that too, but that doesn’t turn your local DIY store into a gun shop.  The DIY instructions to produce a home made machine gun from bits of plumbing and such have been freely available for years but caused less fuss. 

The downloadable files to print one contain no information about the type of 3D print process and plastics required to replicate it, which renders them practically useless.  Without those crucial manufacturing details there is as much chance of the gun exploding as firing, and if produced on a home 3D printer, unlikely it would even fire at all.  There’s also little chance of hitting what you’re aiming at anyway, due to the simplistic design of the smooth plastic barrel.  “If your definition of a gun is a weapon with any degree of accuracy or reliability, this isn’t a gun ” says Rowley.

3D printing/firearm enthusiasts have not stopped at pistols - a 3D-printed rifle was recently unveiled.  

So if it’s not a gun, what is it? 

It is certainly a successful vehicle for Cody Wilson to claim his fifteen minutes of fame and waffle to the world’s media about libertarian politics. The Mail on Sunday caused plenty of badly informed panic when journalists smuggled one onto a Eurostar train, so it sells newspapers too.  Digits2Widgets’ Chris Sullivan suggests the object is a physical expression of technophobia and belongs in Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum of anthropological artefacts, in their collection of magical amulets and charms.  When compared to any conventional pistol produced in the last 200 years, it’s a red herring.

Given the Liberator’s impact in the public consciousness, the V&A was right to include one in its collection, but not as a landmark in the history of weaponry. It belongs in a museum because it’s the world’s first 3D printed urban legend.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Gadgets & Tech

    Investigo: Finance Business Partner

    £45000 - £50000 per annum: Investigo: My client, a global leader in providing ...

    Ashdown Group: Application Support Engineer with SQL skills

    £28000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly reputable business is looking to rec...

    Ashdown Group: Trainee / Graduate Helpdesk Analyst

    £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly reputable business is looking to rec...

    Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm - London

    £50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

    Day In a Page

    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project