(Continued from Part 1. This concludes the article.)
What is the actual material you are printing with? Filament. It comes in a roll, usually 1 kg, and is 1.75mm thick. It is what is extruded out of the nozzle onto the print bed and makes your object. Filament comes in many different materials.
The most common and inexpensive filament is poly lactic acid (PLA). Better yet is PLA+. Both of these are made from corn as a feedstock, and do not use petroleum as an input. So if supporting corn growers of America as opposed to oil companies is something that resonates with you, so much the better.
Of note, PLA is easy to work with on a printer, does not give off dangerous fumes when heated, and can actually be composted as a waste product, if done so in an industrial composting type facility (needs the high heat to break down). As a downside, it does degrade over time in direct sun, and can deform in high heat. Don’t go shooting a PLA printed firearm full auto, or leave it on the dash in your car in the summer with the windows up, as it may warp. PLA also comes from a variety of manufacturers with other materials incorporated, such as wood, ceramic, copper, glow-in-the-dark materials, and more. These other materials can contribute useful or aesthetic characteristics depending on what you are printing. There are also magnetic iron PLA filaments, and electrically-conductive PLA filaments. Nearly all of the firearm components I refer to have been developed and tested with PLA or PLA+, and those that are not will be noted in the print instructions when you download the file.
Other materials commonly used to print are ABS, which you may be familiar with as a type of plastic used in pipes, and PET, a food safe type of plastic that is recyclable. Others include TPE (flexible and bendy), carbon fiber (light and stiff) and nylon (super strong but not as easy to work with as it requires high temps to print properly. And the list goes on, depending on your application there is likely a filament material best suited to it. All my prints so far have been with PLA+, as it is easy and inexpensive (about $20/kg) and comes in a variety of colors and is most forgiving to work with.
Controlling The Printer
How do I tell the machine what to print? With a file. Specifically, you need an stl format file. You can find stl files that other people have created at web sites like Thingiverse.com and Yeggi.com. There you can search by category or key word(s) and find a whole galaxy of things you can print, and download the stl files that someone else took the time to create. Often there are pictures of the final products, and instructions on how to print the best results (parameters like temperature, nozzle speed, in-fill density, etc). Many of these files are free and open-source, and many can be customized before you download them to adjust size, shape, and angles. Some of them have a cost, a price you pay to the developer who created the object file for their effort, usually just a few dollars.
Perhaps you want to create your own designs from scratch? If so there are plenty of open source software and tutorials available online for you to investigate (openSCAD), but that is beyond the scope of this article, which as I said at the beginning is targeted to the non-techie, cheapskate Luddite like me.
Now you have your stl file, you need to slice it. This means opening the file in a software program called a slicer, which allows you to tell the printer where and how you want it printed. Maybe that glock frame prints best with the top rails down, but the magazine body prints best bottom down. Maybe this material prints best at 210 degrees, but that one is better at 240. Maybe this is a protoype only and can get by with 5% infill, or maybe it needs all the strength and ridigity it can get and needs 100%. All these parameters are set by you in your slicer. Cura, by Ultimaker, is a free to download and use product that is easy to use and fairly intuitive.
Once you have your settings in your slicer and hit the “slice” button, it chews up the image and spits out a g.code. This is a file with your specific parameters for your machine which you save to an SD card and plug into the machine. The machine can then read the information from the card and print your object. When you are done you can remove the card, and the machine has no memory of what it has just created, as all the information is stored on the SD card.
“Wait a minute, I recall you saying this was supposed to be for cheapskates…how can I possibly harness this incredible power on a cheapskate budget?” Here is the price breakdown:
- Printer: Ender3 printer, by Creality. $190-to-$290 shipped, depending on options
- Upgraded build plate and springs $20-to-$25
- 1 kilogram of PLA+ filament $20-to-$25
And with the holiday shopping season lovingly inflicted on us by retailers, you may be able to beat these prices. Will other printers work? Of course, but the Ender 3 is generally recognized as the best bang for your buck in terms of the most functionality for the best price, and using the same machine everyone else is using makes it easier for one person’s setting to be used successfully on another person’s machine. If your budget allows it, getting a model that will allow you to print at higher nozzle temperatures will make it easier to print with nylon filament, giving vastly more durability to your toothpaste couplers or Glock frames or whatever you decide to print. The Prusa 13 and FlashForge are well-regarded in that category, but I have no personal experience with them, so I cannot comment further.
The other upgrade you don’t need upfront but you will need if you intend to print nylon is a Microswiss Hot End ($60-ish) which allows you to print at higher temperatures. I have no relationship, financial or otherwise, with any of these products or companies. I’m just passing on what has worked for me and what I have been taught by others.
More, I need more info, and files, and everything else… (there is more even beyond what I can describe in this article).
Deterrence Dispensed is the name of a loosely organized group of people around the world who are committed to the free and open sharing of information about firearms printing.
You can find detailed step by step instructions on getting and setting up and using your first printer here, from two of the godfathers of the 3D printed firearms community. See their Getting Started Guide.
You can find firearm component and receiver files that have been developed and actually tested by Det_Disp members before being released.
Lbry, by the way, is a decentralized publishing and file sharing platform that offers a useful alternative to the Amazon/Google/Facebook/Apple type outfits. (It is spoken: “Library.”) They host a variety of files and apps you may not have found elsewhere, and they are hard to shut down; you can’t just de-platform someone and take down the video when it is user-owned and decentralized.
Keybase is an end-to-end encrypted chat program that is used by the Det_Disp team for research, development, troubleshooting, and problem-solving. It is also a program used by many businesses and organizations that need to have a secure chat option. Download the program and search for Det_Disp and you will find it. Listen and read, and only after you have done your due diligence, ask questions. But don’t misconstrue it as an online site to gripe about politics, conspiracy theories, or recruiting for your local prepper cell. As they will tell you repeatedly, they are there for the guns. Do work or be gone. It is a working group, but you can get technical help there if you need it, and get an idea of what other folks are working on, or even post a bounty (reward) if there is a particular something you would like to see developed.
Perhaps having by now read this, you are thinking to yourself: “Well, if a cheapskate Luddite like this guy can crank out Glock mags and rifle lowers from his bedroom all day and all night long with materials perfectly legal and easy to obtain, doesn’t that make gun (and magazine) control obsolete?” The answer is, of course it does. But the anti-gun crowd doesn’t know it yet. Use this time before their consciousness is awakened to educate yourself, and stock up on a few key parts.
A Printed Receiver
Receivers are not too hard to print with a little practice, but you still need the rest of the parts of the gun (or mag spring), and while they are not yet regulated. That could happen. Enter the FGC-9. It is the first functional practical, useful firearm fully 3D printed and finished using hardware store parts and an electro-chemically etched barrel, and it can be made entirely at home with off the shelf non-firearms related materials. I haven’t yet produced my own yet, but when I do so, I hope to bring another article about it forward. I mention it here as a teaser of things beyond the scope of this article. A little research here on the part of the reader may yield surprising options.
A few of you reading this might say to yourself “hey, I’m pretty handy, and I have a shop full of machinist tools and any tool I don’t have, one of my buddies does. I’m sure we can build our own guns if we wanted to…and all that other silly stuff about hose couplers and pipe brackets and tool organizers. Heck, I can make that stuff with my lathe and welder and drill press and angle grinder and … Yes, you can, and thank goodness for you, because a 3D printer can’t do everything, but it can do a lot and it can put some of that means of production you have in your shop full of tools and years of knowledge and experience into the hands of the cheapskate Luddite in his studio apartment. That is some power.