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It feels like there’s a new controversy surrounding gun rights every week. “Ghost guns” and 3D printing are frequently involved. People love to be vocal on Twitter, but in reality, the level of understanding the average person possesses — whether pro-gun, anti-gun, brovet, cop, mom demanding action, journalist, or self-proclaimed expert — is almost zero.
We’re going to look specifically at one firearm in this article. That firearm is the Glock 17. We’ll look at the Glock 17 because it’s ubiquitous amongst gun owners, gun debates, and is also a commonly 3D printed gun. We’ll look at how these guns are obtained in white markets, secondary or gray markets, black markets, and through 3D printing (which can serve in any of those markets).
We’ll break up some of the common misunderstandings about 3D printed guns. We’ll also look at what it takes to produce a 3D printed Glock. And who knows? Maybe we’ll even help some folks build one.
What is a Glock 17?
The Glock 17 is a massively popular handgun. Over 5 million Glock 17 pistols have been made since being introduced in 1982. One of the first handguns to feature a polymer (plastic) frame, the Glock is widely used by civilians and law enforcement. The gun itself is a 9mm semi-automatic and features a ~4.5” barrel and 17 round magazine from the factory. Glocks are known for their reliability and ease of use.
Ways to Get a Glock 17
White Market: Licensed Dealers, ATF Paperwork
Walk into any gun store in America, and there’s a good chance you’ll see at least one Glock 17 on the shelf, ready to be purchased. So how does one buy a Glock 17? Well, it starts with some paperwork.
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A buyer must complete at the gun store’s counter an ATF Form 4473 (firearm transaction record), which records the customer’s name, address, physical attributes, racial and ethnic information, and asks a series of questions about the buyer’s criminal history (if any) and immigration status. The gun store submits the customer’s information to the government for a background check using this information. The customer’s background check must return ‘approved’ before taking possession of any firearm. (In some states, a permit or license to buy precludes the requirement for a background check).
This ATF Form 4473 also lists the firearm’s make, model, importer, caliber, and serial number (among other things). The ATF Form 4473 is retained after the purchase by the gun store for a legal minimum of 20 years. This record is accessible to law enforcement at any time without requiring a warrant or notification to the customer.
Your State May Vary
The requirements to buy are stricter in some states than in others. But the above outlines the minimum possible conditions for a gun store to make a legal sale in compliance with federal law. And after your waiting period, after paying sales tax, after paying for your background check, and after giving all your information to the government, you can walk away as the proud new owner of a Glock 17.
Free Men Don’t Ask Permission
But what if you don’t want to fill out a permission slip to record every gun purchase? What if you don’t want your private information sitting in a de facto firearms registry? Maybe it’s no one’s business what you defend yourself or your home with. What if the entire political class can go pound sand?
Secondary Market: Private Firearm Sales
One can always buy a Glock 17 via private sale from another person to avoid the government’s hassle. There’s no paperwork required (in most states) and no sales tax or background check fees either. The practice of private firearm sales is legal in many places and circumstances and illegal in some others. To ‘gun people,’ buying and selling guns via private sale is typical and normative behavior.
Nonetheless, there are still a few drawbacks and risks to a private sale. The Glock you’re buying is second-hand, so you don’t know its history. And it’s not a ghost gun because it has a serial number (which means there’s a record of it somewhere). There’s a risk you’re inheriting a ‘dirty’ gun that someone is unloading on you (knowingly or unknowingly). You could also be buying a broken weapon. And if you don’t know who you’re doing business with, the other party may or may not be of legitimate circumstance. Your counterpart may be an illegal possessor, or worse, an undercover cop.
Most of the time, a private sale goes smoothly. But the practice itself is frequently under attack from anti-gun politicians, and the law regarding private sales is constantly changing. Social media tools like private Facebook groups help keep the market facilitated, but these groups are constantly being shut down and popping back up somewhere else. It’s a hassle to keep up. There are alternatives like GunBroker or Armslist, but you involve at least one intermediary at that point.
Black Market: Unlawful Private Firearm Sales
A private firearm sale — which is generally legal — becomes illegal when one or more party involved is legally prohibited from possessing, selling, buying, or transferring a firearm. Such a restriction may be due to previous criminal history relating to an involved party, or private sales may be illegal in the specific jurisdiction in which the sale is occurring. These illegal sales are ‘black market’ sales, and there’s no use spending much time on them.
But if ‘hell is other people,’ wouldn’t it be nice to build your own gun, free of government interference and without the potential risks of a private sale?
Enter: the 3D Printed Glock
Note: I’m not going to discuss how to start 3D printing in this article. But if you're interested, here's a separate piece that can help you get started:
3D printed guns have been the subject of immense controversy for years. You can thank Cody Wilson and his team at Defense Distributed for laying much of the groundwork upon which today’s community treads. Wilson and Defense Distributed were (and still are) at the heart of the legal battle surrounding 3D gun design files and their legality of being published on the internet.
Wilson’s “Liberator” pistol was the first widely available 3D printed gun and indisputably changed the course of distributed manufacturing, as well as the struggle surrounding gun rights.
Let’s start by clearing up the biggest misconception about 3D printed guns.
Don’t Those Blow Up?
Take a look:
At this writing, a fully 3D printed gun like the Liberator is only good for a shot or two. That’s because it’s an older design and uses plastic parts almost entirely. The barrel is even plastic. That’s not going to hold up very long, of course. It’s more of a proof of concept, and in fairness, wasn’t designed to last.
Changing gears to a more modern approach, the 3D printed Glock 17 is a legitimate handgun that uses the same metal parts as a “real” one. It relies on factory metal components for most of the design. In fact, the “3D printed” Glock 17 uses the same metal parts, springs, slide, barrel, and locking block the factory Glock does.
The only thing 3D printed about the 3D printed Glock 17 is the frame, which houses the trigger, rail sections, and magazine. The pressure-bearing parts and rails are made from aluminum or steel. This design holds up well, and many test guns have hundreds or thousands of rounds through them.
The most significant risk to 3D printed Glocks is (ironically) heat. The PLA frame of a printed gun can become deformed by the heat that results from excessive rapid fire. After about 80 rounds of mag dumping (firing as fast as possible), the frame will start to melt. That’s game over. For everyday use, however, a properly-produced handgun is fine for a few thousand rounds.
In reality, a modern 3D printer can manufacture something pretty close to a factory Glock 17. These 3D printed Glocks are not serialized, and because they come to life in a garage or workshop, they are unknown to authorities. An added benefit is the low cost of production. It’s about $3 in material to produce a Glock 17 frame from PLA filament. The printer itself usually sells for ~$200.
Is that Legal?
In most places in the U.S., yes. The only part of a regular Glock 17 the ATF cares about is the frame; the frame is where the serial number is located. And, as the ATF sees it, the frame is the “firearm.” All the other parts — the barrel, slide, striker assembly, ejector, etc. — are not legally considered firearms and are not regulated. They can be shipped straight to your house or purchased over the counter with cash.
The frame that you are printing is probably legal too. Home gunsmithing is generally legal, and the second amendment historically protects the ability to produce one's own firearms. You only need a license to make these commercially or export them. Building one for yourself is kosher.
Shopping List for a 3D Printed Glock
You’ll need the following items to produce a 3D printed Glock 17. You will also need a few standard hand tools (like a set of needle-nose pliers, a drill, Allen keys) that you may or may not already have on hand.
- 3D Printer (~$200USD)
- eSUN PLA+ Filament (this is what the frame is made of, ~$23 a spool)
- Glock 9mm Gen3 Frame Parts Kit (~$80)
- Glock 17 Gen3 Slide Parts Kit (~$120)
- Glock 17 Locking Block (~$30)
- Glock 17 Gen3 Barrel (~$100)
- Glock 17 Gen3 Slide ($~170)
- Glock Night Sights (but any Glock sights are fine, ~$50-100)
You’ll also need a set of rails. These are metal parts that mate the 3D printed frame to the metal slide assembly. You can make these yourself by following the build instructions included with the gun files of the F17, or you can buy them from someone else who fabricated them. Popular sources for rails include Aves Rails and Riptide Rails.
How to Assemble Your 3D Printed Glock
Thanks to the devs at Deterrence Dispensed, the following assembly videos are available. After the Glock frame comes off your printer, you’ll need to clean it up and drop in the parts kit. The following videos show you how. If you’re well-versed in firearms, building the gun will take about an hour once the frame prints. If you’re new, give yourself a few hours.
Glock Build Instruction Videos
- Support Removal #1
- Support Removal #2
- Drill the Holes
- Thread the Frame
- Add Rails
- Install Parts Kit
- Install the Slide
One can misuse anything. I’d be lying if I told you there isn’t the potential for misuse here. But even so, there’s not a strong argument against 3D printed guns. Criminals could print a Glock. Sure. But it would be easier and faster to buy one illegally on the black or gray market.
However, even if 3D printing were the fastest and easiest way to obtain a Glock, it still wouldn’t make a ban justifiable or enforceable. The right to self-defense is inherent to all living things, and a government that seeks to weaken this right is no friend of anyone.
You can see by now that producing a 3D printed Glock is a realistic goal for those inclined to do so. But it’s not as simple as “just hitting the print button,” like many politicians and news outlets report. It takes all day to print the frame, and then you have to build the gun from there using parts kits. Producing a functional 3D printed firearm takes a lot more effort than many anti-gun pundits will tell you, but you’re also getting a much higher quality firearm than many people think.
The idea that a criminal can quickly print off a big scary gun and start shooting people isn’t realistic. There are easier ways to get guns than 3D printing. And the fact that you can get a gun illegally both faster and cheaper than you could via 3D printing means that these guns are rarely used in violent crimes.
3D printing is a legitimate undertaking that a free person should pursue without a challenge. The government’s ham-fisted attempts to prevent this hobby from developing have led to an explosion in both the number of people involved in the space and the quality of the gun files being created.
Bureaucrats can’t ban printers, and computer code is widely protected as free speech (because it is). Distributed manufacturing and 3D printing represent a strong example of modern technological and private sector innovation making slow-moving, sloppily executed government controls obsolete.
The politicians can pass whatever gun laws they want. But they don’t really matter anymore.
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