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The Implications of 3D Printed Weapons Technology


Additive Manufacturing, commonly known as 3D printing, is a process in which an object is constructed digitally using a Computer-Aided Design, and is printed in 3D. 3D-printed weapons first emerged in the US in 2013. Cody Wilson and his company Defense Distributed created the first 3D printed gun, the 'Liberator.' He also published the weapon's blueprints online, allowing anyone who wanted to build a firearm of their own to do so. The State Department demanded that Defense Distributed take down these blueprints because they might violate the International Traffic in Arms Regime and the Arms Export Control Act, which prohibits the transfer or sale of arms or related technical data outside the US without an export license. This disagreement led to a series of legal battles. In the end, an appellate court ruling allowed 3D-printed weapon blueprints to be more readily accessible. These blueprints are still available online.

The greater challenge to security comes not from the ease of acquiring a 3D-printed firearm. Instead, it comes from the implications of such technology and the avenue for actors to expand the creation of guns at home to the creation of WMDs. It comes from the illicit trade and acquisition of such materials by people who are not supposed to have them - and the challenge that poses to the global order. Before diving into those challenges, however, it is useful to outline the current state and future projections of such technology as well as some laws and regulations governing its use.

Current State & Future Projections

The US government currently employs the use of AM technology. For instance, in 2021 the US Department of Defense released its proposals to incorporate 3D printing into its framework. In 2020, for the first time, the US Army also provisioned a 3D printed part for use in its weaponry. They both cited this as an opportunity to use 3D printing to fill in supply chain gaps.

Currently, AM can be used to print small items such as firearms or drones, but 3D printers cannot yet print bullets or metal products. The printers needed for bulkier weapons are also expensive, making them unlikely to be used for mass production of weapons, at least in the near future. The 3D firearms that already exist can be lethal but they often malfunction or disintegrate after one use. There are already unregulated, homemade weapons circling the market, and those who have money to buy a 3D printer & make weapons could just as easily go and buy a regular weapon on the black market. The addition of 3D-printed weapons may not pose much of a threat. However, the threat could potentially expand in the future, making it worthwhile to explore its implications.

Experts estimate that in a few years, 3D printers will be able to produce much bigger and more complex items, with the cost of production staying the same. As this technology develops further, the ability to locally source/ manufacture will also increase. It would be easier for non-state actors to acquire weapons (potentially even WMDs) and use them. It is also estimated that the cost of metal printing in 3D will decrease, which would make it easier to build weapons and harder to regulate them [current 3D-printed weapons are mainly plastic]. Currently, however, it is hard to manufacture durable products using 3D printers, and accuracy, precision, and high costs remain a problem, especially for bigger systems. Additionally, at present, a 3D printer cannot create a whole weapon at once. Instead, the separate parts are printed and assembled together manually. This makes it hard to know how the individual components will be used.

Laws and Treaties

Some countries have strict legislation on the manufacture of weapons by individuals, while others do not have such laws, or are in the process of making them. US regulations allow for individuals to make firearms at home for personal use, but weapons that do not contain any metal components (or a serial number), and would therefore not be detected by a metal detector, are unlawful.

At the international level, there is the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), which went into force in 2014. The ATT established standards and regulations for international trade in arms. It includes small and light weapons and most ammunitions, but it does not include WMDs. It also does not regulate internal "transactions or acquisition of arms" by individuals within countries. The treaty does not say anything about 3D-printed weapons specifically. There is also the Firearms Protocol (Protocol against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, their Parts and Components and Ammunition), which went into effect in 2005. It aims to "control and regulate licit arms and arms flows" and facilitate "investigation and prosecution" of offenses, while fostering the legitimate transfer of arms. A big problem, therefore, is that while there are rules and regulations, laws could apply to some 3D printed weapons or their parts, but not to their blueprints. Thus, in 2021, Congress introduced the 3D Printed Gun Safety Act of 2021. This would prohibit individuals from "intentionally distributing… digital instructions" in CAD files "or other code that can automatically program a 3-dimensional printer or similar device" to print a firearm or its parts.


One challenge posed by 3D printing technology is ease of access for the acquisition of WMDs by states and non-state actors. According to some estimates, in a few years, 3D printers may be able to print objects using the most elemental blocks, potentially allowing non-state actors to print chemical or biological weapons. Additive Manufacturing is already being used to create parts for nuclear reactors, and dual-use distinguishability is an issue. 3D printing might make it easier for actors to get the necessary components to build a nuclear weapon. Current arms control and monitoring/ regulation measures will be obsolete against such threats. Additionally, when states acquire this capability, if it is hard to distinguish whether the components are being used or transferred for peaceful energy use or for weapons programs, it could increase the security dilemma between states. The increased nuclear latency and harder to distinguish [or signal] motives could increase the risk of conflict and cause a potential arms race.

Shifting Balance of Power in the International System

3D-printed weapons could also change the balance of power between state and non-state actors. Recently, 3D-printed weapons or weapon parts have been used in various conflicts around the world as a way for parties to gain leverage. For instance, many of Myanmar's rebels are using 3D-printed weaponry to fight the military junta. In the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war, Russia is said to have used 3D printing to manufacture aircraft parts to enhance their air weapons systems, and 3D printed gear is also being used on the Ukrainian front lines. Thus, the use of 3D printed technology in warfare can help one side gain an advantage over the other, or allow non-state actors/ insurgents to acquire enough power to be a more formidable opponent to their state counterparts.

There have also been other illicit uses of such technology. In October of 2019, 3D-printed weapons were first used as a weapon of terror in the Halle Synagogue Shootings. The perpetrator used "steel, wood, and 3-D-printed plastic components" to manufacture a gun, with which he killed 2 people. Over the years, attempts at building weapons for such purposes have also been discovered and thwarted in other western countries.

Increase in Extremist Activity

The rise of 3D printed weapons technology and its ease of acquisition could also lead to an increase in terrorism and extremist activity. For instance, in the 2019 Halle Synagogue Shooting in Germany the perpetrator stated his goal was to "'prove the viability of improvised weapons'—and [to] inspire like-minded extremists to research, develop and deploy 3-D-printer technology as a new tool of terror." His move was symbolic, signaling others to do the same. States could thus see a rise in lone wolf attacks. Some estimates claim that casualty rates with the use of such weapons would most likely not be the same as those with regular WMDs, but they are still significant. Instead, these weapons could be used by actors to exploit vulnerabilities and serve strategic interests in ways regular weapons do not. Non-state actors acquiring 3D-printed weapons could make states more susceptible to their demands and to terrorist or extremist attacks.

3D printed technology could also cause a rise in extremism and social unrest due to inequality, "unemployment, isolation, and alienation" that would stem from automation and the use of 3D printing in manufacturing.

Sabotage of Critical Components

Another issue is the sabotage of critical materials. Since a lot of materials for manufacturing products are outsourced, someone could secretly build flaws into the system. Hackers could gain access to design blueprints of 3D printed materials and implant flaws, causing devices to malfunction. For instance, in an experiment titled "dr0wned," researchers exposed one such flaw. They hacked into the 3D design blueprints for the propeller of an unmanned drone and changed some of the code. From the outside, everything looked fine as the drone was printed and assembled; however, the drone crashed mid-flight due to the tampered flaw. Thus, AM also opens up vulnerabilities and attacks in the supply chain, as sensitive information about the design or the location of facilities might be exposed during the digital transfer of files. This leaves the system vulnerable to cyber attacks for someone to steal data or to cause malfunction. In this way, almost anything could become a weapon.


There are various suggestions as to what should be done to mitigate the risks of AM technology. Some argue for the "precautionary principle," calling for the government to make policies to regulate 3D printing technology before it poses any adverse risks. Others argue for "permissionless innovation." This approach calls for creating target regulations only if/ when a problem or threat arises, rather than doing so preemptively.

The proposed recommendation in this paper is that policymakers take a middle ground. They should understand the technology and establish regulations and safeguards that protect against these threats. However, these policies should not be too broad or too constricting to avoid hindering progress or R&D in the AM space.

The "3D Printed Gun Safety Act of 2021"- which attempts to prevent the spread of CAD files and weapons online- is a step in the right direction. Congress should start by passing the S.2319 bill that would make this act a law. Next, Congress should create more legislation regarding the possession of 3D printed weapon parts, their blueprints, or their manufacture by unqualified individuals. This is certainly a challenging task, as it is hard to control the spread or possession of files on the internet. However, it should be much more manageable to control the final product and to determine the laws regarding its possession. Another suggestion is to update existing treaties or to create a new one to codify the laws, expectations, and rules governing AM technology. They should also address how to regulate 3D-printed weapons or their digital blueprints on an international stage. Policymakers also should be aware that while they can create laws to mitigate future risks, some actions will be reactive when a threat is more imminent in the future.

Second, the US government should strengthen its export controls, cybersecurity, and other safeguards to prevent the illicit spread or use of 3D-printed WMDs. The Commerce and State departments should decide which 3D-printed weapons and their parts go on the US munitions list so their movement can be traced. There should also be safeguards that make it harder for someone to acquire or print certain raw materials to feed into a 3D printer. Identifying factors or procedures that make it obvious what a certain component is being used for will make it easier to track illicit activity. Increasing cybersecurity measures to strengthen IT systems and protect against sabotage is also crucial.

Lastly, policymakers must increase awareness among the public and among companies about the negative risks of AM. This is not to discourage innovation or the use of AM technology, but to help companies themselves think about ways to safeguard their technologies and for the public to assess the long-term implications of their use. There should be education programs about the drawbacks of AM technology, and organizations should incorporate this training into their framework.


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