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World's first 3D-printed metal gun blows through 50 rounds

The 45 caliber, semi-automatic pistol was fired at a target more than 30 yards away; several rounds hit the bulls-eye

November 8, 2013 02:58 PM ET

Computerworld - A 3D printing services company has built a fully functioning, semi-automatic pistol and shown that it works just as a traditionally manufactured gun.

Built by Solid Concepts, the pistol is a replica of the storied .45-caliber, M1911 semi-automatic that served as the U.S. military's standard-issue sidearm for more than 70 years. Solid Concept demonstrated the gun by firing 50 rounds with it.

The accuracy? At more than 30 yards, the gun was able to strike a target bull's-eye several times, Solid Concepts said.

Solid Concepts
Solid Concepts' 3D printed .45 caliber M1911 pistol (Image: Solid Concepts).

Previously, the only 3D printed gun was The Liberator, a single-shot plastic weapon made by Defense Distributed. That weapon didn't prove to be reliable after multiple rounds were fired through it.

Solid Concepts' intentions should not be misconstrued, according to Pete Basiliere, research director for Imaging and Print Services at Gartner. Unlike Defense Distributed's founder, 25-year-old founder Cody Wilson, Solid Concepts is not trying to promote the right to bear arms under the Second Amendment.

By 3D printing a gun, the Solid Concepts is proving its engineering prowess and equipment quality, not a method for the masses to make their own guns, Basiliere said.

"If their [3D printer] is what I think it is, it's probably a device that costs in excess of $500,000," Basiliere said.

Solid Concept's pistol was made with industrial-grade 3D printers using the Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) and Direct Metal Laser Sintering techniques (DMLS). Both DMLS and SLS use lasers to melt metals, even titanium, at temperatures exceeding 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The 3D printers work by laying down a fine layer of powder and then using a laser to fuse granules together, building an object layer by layer from the ground up.

The difference between the two techniques is that DMLS tends to be used with alloys.

3D printers that use metal sintering techniques function differently from desktop 3D printers or other prototyping machines that use stereolithography, which melts plastic filaments and pushes them through a small extruder to build objects layer by layer.

"The industrial printer we used costs more than my college tuition (and I went to a private university)," Kent Firestone, Solid Concepts' vice president of additive manufacturing, said in a statement. "The engineers who run our machines are top of the line; they are experts who know what they're doing and understand 3D Printing better than anyone in this business. Thanks to them, Solid Concepts is debunking the idea that 3D Printing isn't a viable solution or isn't ready for mainstream manufacturing."

Solid Concepts' gun is composed of more than 30 3D-printed components. The slide, frame and many of the internal components are made of stainless steel. The main spring, the hammer and part of the upper grip's handle was made with a nickel-chromium-based alloy called Inconel 625.

Solid Concepts
Solid Concepts' pistol is composed of more than 30 3D printed parts (Image: Solid Concepts)

"Laser sintering is one of the most accurate manufacturing processes available, and more than accurate enough to build the 3D Metal Printed interchangeable and interfacing parts within our 1911 series gun," Solid Concepts stated. "The gun proves laser sintering can meet tight tolerances."

According to the company, 3D metal printing means fewer porosity issues than are seen with the traditional method of casting metal parts.

Solid Concept said its gun's barrel experiences chamber pressure above 20,000 psi every time the gun is fired. By comparison, a factory-made M1911 pistol is rated for 17,000 psi chamber pressure.

"We're proving this is possible, the technology is at a place now where we can manufacture a gun with 3D Printing," Firestone said. "As far as we know, we're the only 3D printing service provider with a Federal Firearms License (FFL). Now, if a qualifying customer needs a unique gun part in five days, we can deliver."

The 3D printing service provider space has done a robust business throughout the history of the technology, according to Gartner's Basiliere. Customers send 3D computer-aided drawings to the service providers, and they manufacture the part and ship it -- often the very next day.

By printing a gun as historic as the M1911, Solid Concepts is demonstrating the value of distributed parts production. "This could be an example of how the military and also the private sector could enable remotely print spare parts," Basiliere said. "It's a form of long-tail manufacturing where items out of inventory are made on demand sometimes off site."

As its name suggests, the Colt M1911 pistol became the military's sidearm in 1911, after legendary gun designer John Browning developed it more than a decade earlier. Since that time, many manufacturers have copied the design.

Brian Evans, an assistant professor of spatial media at the Metropolitan State University of Denver, said even on an industrial level, it doesn't make sense to 3D print guns.

3D printing (also known as additive manufacturing) does make sense in cases like Invisalign braces, where each mass produced object (a retainer in this case) is individualized to the customer, said Evans, who works with 3D printers to create art. But for guns, "it's just too expensive."

"I don't see a huge market for the mass-customization of designer firearms," Evans said. "It's a great example of the capabilities of the technology but I think that's where it goes."

Solid Concepts demonstrates its ability to 3D print an M1911 .45 caliber pistol.

Perhaps the most remarkable achievement with the 3D printed M1911 was its barrel. As with the barrels of most modern guns, the M1911 contains rifling -- helical grooves that put a corkscrew spin on a bullet as it is fired. The spinning movement of the bullet increases its accuracy and distance as it "drills" through the air.

Solid Concepts' M1911's rifling, which requires a high degree of precision, was built directly into the barrel using 3D printing. The rifling was in no way machined, as guns are traditionally made.

"We did not machine this gun," the company stated. "It's born this way."

covers consumer data storage, consumerization of IT, mobile device management, renewable energy, telematics/car tech and entertainment tech for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at Twitter @lucasmearian or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed Mearian RSS. His e-mail address is lmearian@computerworld.com.

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