Can You Make an AR-15 With a 3D Printer?

Much has been made over the recent court settlement that allowed the Texas- based company Defense Distributed (DD) to legally upload gun “blueprints” on its website. Eight states have now sued DD, and President Donald Trump chimed in Tuesday with a tweet:

What did the court case actually decide? A press release from the lawyers representing DD explains:

SAF and Defense Distributed had filed suit against the State Department under the Obama administration, challenging a May 2013 attempt to control public speech as an export under the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), a Cold War-era law intended to control exports of military articles.

Under terms of the settlement, the government has agreed to waive its prior restraint against the plaintiffs, allowing them to freely publish the 3-D files and other information at issue.

Some outlets peddled the notion that the court case established that 3D-printing guns was suddenly legal or that the files/blueprints necessary would start to appear online for the first time; neither of these things is true. The files have been available online for years and the legality surrounding 3D-printed components of guns has not changed. Some outlets went further.

“Americans will soon be able to make 3D-printed guns from their homes,” USA Today reported last week. “Choices will include the AR-15.”

Can you now 3D print an AR-15? No.

Cody Wilson, a founder of DD, fired his first Liberator, a single-shot pistol made of mostly 3D printed parts, in 2013. But even this gun isn’t made of 100 percent 3D printed parts — for instance, you still need a metal firing pin (a small nail in the Liberator’s case) for the gun to actually fire. Careful though, you might blow your hand off while using it, especially if it’s built with low-grade plastics.

The plans for this and similar guns have been available on the internet for years, and the lawsuit against Wilson did not stop the internet from, well, being the internet. People have been sharing 3D gun “blueprints” via email, 3D libraries, magnet links, and so on all throughout this court case.

What about an AR-15? Cody Wilson gave TWS Fact Check the short answer, “Totally false. You can’t 3D print an AR-15.”

(Quick note: The “A” in AR does not stand for “assault” but for the brand “ArmaLite.”)

So, you can’t print out a complete AR-15 from the comfort of your own home. What can you print?

People have printed the lower receiver of an AR-15 as well as magazines (where the ammunition is held) and successfully fired several rounds without the plastic cracking or breaking apart.

What’s a lower receiver?

It is the part of an AR-15 that, in very broad and basic terms, holds the firing group. Think of it as the part of the gun where the trigger mechanisms are kept. It’s also what the magazine is loaded into and what the gun’s grip is fixed on.

A lower receiver is the part of the AR-15 that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives categorizes as the “firearm,” thus it’s the only part that requires a serial number from manufactures looking to sell or gift the component.

An individual can purchase what is known colloquially as an 80 percent lower, or “paperweight,” without going through a background check or requiring a serial number on the incomplete lower. The 80 percent lower is unfinished and requires a good deal of milling before it could function as a lower receiver.

If an individual makes an 80 percent lower into a completed lower receiver and does not sell or gift the component, no serial number or registration is needed (except in California). All of the other parts of the AR-15 can be purchased online without the need for a background check because they are not what the ATF considers as the firearm.

Note: It is unlawful for prohibited persons to manufacture a gun, even if the individual does not sell or gift the weapon.

What about 3D printed lowers? The same laws apply. If you are not a prohibited person you are not required to have an FFL or serial number if you are making the lower for yourself (again, the exception being California).

Certain lower receivers have been created using 3D printers with Polylactic Acid (or PLA, which is a common plastic for 3D printers to use) and successfully tested.

These blueprints have been circulating the internet for a few years now. The settlement, while important and interesting on its own merits, did not suddenly release gun blueprints for 3D printer production which were unavailable before.

Regarding 3D printed guns, the ATF clarifies that:

It shall be unlawful for any person to manufacture, import, sell, ship, deliver, possess, transfer, or receive any firearm—

(A) that, after removal of grips, stocks, and magazines, is not as detectable as the Security Exemplar, by walk-through metal detectors calibrated and operated to detect the Security Exemplar; or

(B) any major component of which, when subjected to inspection by the types of x-ray machines commonly used at airports, does not generate an image that accurately depicts the shape of the component. Barium sulfate or other compounds may be used in the fabrication of the component.”

(It should be noted that the blueprints of the lower receiver from — Wilson’s website — accurately depict, on their own, “the shape of the component.”)

What’s perhaps more interesting than the ability to 3D print your own lower receiver from plastic, which might crack or break after a few shots, is the ability to precisely mill your own aluminium 80 percent lower. DD sells the “Ghost Gunner 2,” a small Computer Numeric Control (CNC) machine that can mill an 80 percent lower. There are several videos online that demonstrate the process of building the Ghost Gunner 2, and assembling an AR-15 with the milled lower receiver. The cost, however, is significantly higher than purchasing a lower receiver from a licensed manufacturer.

Several individuals online have demonstrated 3D-printed bump-fire stocks, though it’s unclear if these were produced with an industrial 3D printer or something smaller.

To the gun-hobby community, the idea of making your own gun components is nothing new. Did you know you could make a lower receiver from soda cans? Or maybe out of wood? With one google search you can watch a few videos to help mill your own 80 percent lower, or create a zip gun that can fire a 12-gauge round for about $7. You can even use an oil filter as a suppressor. Or read one of the many, many books on homemade guns, ammo, silencers etc.

In summation, claims that you can 3D print a full and functioning AR-15 are, as of now, false.

If you have questions about this fact check, or would like to submit a request for another fact check, email Holmes Lybrand at or the Weekly Standard at For details on TWS Fact Check, see our explainer here.

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