The first widely distributed 3D-printed gun poses more danger to the shooter than their intended victim, according to tests by Britain’s leading forensics unit dealing with gun crime.
The gun – known as the Liberator and developed by a US libertarian group – has suffered failures ranging from the minor to the “catastrophic” during a dozen test firings by UK experts. In only a few of the tests would the “victim” have been killed.
Recent improvements in home-made gun design and printing technology have prompted researchers to prepare for their potential deployment on the streets, despite the belief that criminals are more likely to use smuggled guns, other rudimentary forms of homemade gun, converted weapons and antiques, rather than the printed weapon.
Plastic Liberator guns seem capable of firing only once before they become useless. A test this week at a police testing centre in the West Midlands saw part of the plastic barrel left embedded in the roof of the range after it broke up on firing. The bullet was fired – but without any accuracy.
“It has ranged from small failure to complete catastrophic failure,” said Dr Simon Leigh, a 3D printing expert from Warwick University who has been involved in the tests.
None of the 3D plastic guns has so far been discovered or believed to have been used by British criminals. Police in Manchester believed they had discovered gun parts but they turned out to be spare components of the printer.
The cost of the technology is rapidly reducing with the price of printers that mean that a gun can be made in two to three days cut from several thousand pounds to several hundred, said Dr Leigh. He said that new designs were emerging, including a metal-printed gun, from a £250,000 printer, that had been made legally in the US and successfully fired repeatedly, according to its makers.
Officials at the National Ballistics Intelligence Service said they believed that the likely criminal use of plastic 3D-printed guns was currently “extremely low” since a steady supply of firearms still reached Britain through different routes and sources.