In a prime example of past meets future, a Texas-based company has used a century-old classic firearm as the blueprint for the world’s first 3D printed metal gun. Solid Concepts' use of a laser sintering method to create a fully functional Model 1911 automatic pistol is the latest demonstration of the potential of 3D printing techniques in industrial processing.
3D-printed guns aren't new, but most of those produced until now have been made of plastic. They may have given law enforcement and gun control advocates the hives, but at the end of the day they appear to be nothing but overpriced zip guns that are more dangerous to the shooter than the target. Some companies have produced metal gun components, but, to date, that’s as far as it’s gone.
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It’s ironic that Solid Concepts, one of the world leaders in 3D printing services, chose the 1911 45ACP for its model. The pistol is a classic and has long been a favorite of armies, law enforcement, shooting enthusiasts, and pulp fiction artists, but what made it stand out is that when it was designed by John Browning, he made the layout of its working parts two dimensional. In fact, he sorted out the arrangement by using cardboard cutouts of the parts on a table top. Its classic nature, and its design being in public domain, attracted Solid Concepts.
According to the company, the over 30 components were made using a laser sintering process in which powdered metals are melted by a laser in layers using a digital plan. In this, a layer of powder is fused, then the printing machine lays down another layer and the process continues. Once complete, the excess powder is removed as are any supporting structures and the component is filed and cold hardened.
The 1911 is composed of 33 stainless steel and Inconel 625 components and even the carbon-fiber filled nylon hand grip was printed. Unlike previous plastic guns, the steel barrel of the 1911 was rifled and by directly building the barrel. Solid Concepts is keen to emphasize that, though some hand tooling was used in finishing the gun, none of it was machined. Assembly of the 1911 took less than 7 minutes.
Solid Concept says that the point of the exercise wasn't to create a cheaper pistol, but to demonstrate that 3D printing had reached the point where it could take on real world applications as well or better than conventional techniques. In this case, the printed parts were less porous than cast parts, could be made faster than conventional machining, and could be made more complex.
"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 Kent Firestone, Vice President of Additive Manufacturing at Solid Concepts. "It’s a common misconception that 3D Printing isn't accurate or strong enough, and we’re working to change people’s perspective."
In the end, the printed gun barrel handled the 20,000 psi pressure of each shot with 50 rounds successfully fired, and even a few bullseyes hit at 30 yards.
"We’re proving this is possible, the technology is at a place now where we can manufacture a gun with 3D Metal Printing," says Firestone. "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."
Though the 3D printed 1911 is a breakthrough, it's not exactly a gun runner's dream and the company says that we won’t be seeing college kids cranking out Kalashnikovs in their dorm rooms. The printers used weren't the desktop sort using plastic filaments, but industrial printers that require expert handing and cost many thousands of dollars .
According to the Solid Concepts blog, "[T]he 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."
The company has not yet calculated the cost of the printed pistol.
The video below explains the printing project.