Just six months after the first 3D printed firearm was successfully printed and fired, Solid Concepts, a rapid prototyping and custom manufacturing company, has revealed the first 3D printed metal gun. The gun, a Colt 1911-A1, has already shot over 50 times successfully—a marked improvement over the handful of shells the first 3D printed gun shot before failing. That weapon, called the Liberator, was developed by an organization called Defense Distributed.
Both guns were fabricated using 3D printing technology. The liberator, however, was manufactured out of ABS plastic which is also used to make the toy blocks Legos. The 1911-A1 is made with stainless steel and Inconel which are metal alloys conducive to 3D printing. All of the 33 parts that make up the newest gun are 3D printed, including the carbon fiber-filled nylon handle grip.
The success of the gun demonstrates that 3D printing is a viable option for commercial applications—not just for guns, but for many complex items that require small tolerances. The tolerance is the amount of space that can be left between two surfaces. “We’re proving this is possible, the technology is at a place now where we can manufacture a gun with 3D metal printing,” says Kent Firestone, Vice President of Additive Manufacturing at Solid Concepts. “And we’re doing this legally. In fact, 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.”
Solid Concepts downloaded the plans for the Colt 1911-A1 from the Internet, but had to make some small changes to the file so it would 3D-print successfully, explained company representative Alyssa Parkinson. The file for the gun is available in the public domain and free to anyone on GrabCAD, a popular computer-aided design (CAD) file-sharing website.
Solid Concepts constructed the gun using a metal laser sintering (MLS) process, which spreads metal powder in very thin layers and melts the layers together, very precisely, using a laser. The gun illustrates that MLS technology can create the tolerances required to construct a gun. According to Solid Concepts, 3D-printed metal also has fewer porosity issues than investment cast parts and better complexities than machined parts.
“The whole concept of using a laser sintering process to 3D print a metal gun revolves around proving the reliability, accuracy and usability of metal 3D printing as functional prototypes and end-use products,” says Firestone. “It’s a common misconception that 3D printing isn’t accurate or strong enough, and we’re working to change people’s perspective.”
Parkinson said this 1911-A1 was a side project and took about 2 months to construct. The company built the gun parts in between other projects, when time permitted. However, if a customer ordered a gun, the turnaround time would be as little as four to five days. Post-processing entailed only the removal of support material and stress-relieving the steel. This technique ensures the barrel consistently holds up to the 20,000 pounds per square inch (psi) force that kicks back each time the gun is fired. The weapon was then assembled and the first test shot fired.
Shortly after the Liberator came online in May, a number of other 3D printed guns were developed, each one slightly better than the last. But the Colt 1911-A1 by Solid Concepts retains its status as the most functional gun manufactured by a 3D printer to date.