Makers of 3D-Printed Guns Follow In DIY Tradition of Ammunition Reloaders

Reloaders and DIY gunmakers alike are motivated by innovation and a willingness to make for themselves what the government doesn't want them to have.


Lannis Waters/ZUMA Press/Newscom

To the disappointment of control freaks, DIY gunmaking is rolling along strong despite Defense Distributed's Cody Wilson facing charges that he had sex with a 16-year-old. One man does not a movement make, not when he can be replaced by a British convert to the cause such as Paloma Heindorff, who has stepped in to lead Defense Distributed. But not only is home gunmaking doing just fine without the man who launched it into national headlines by making the first 3D-printed gun, what is perhaps the biggest DIY weapons community—that of ammunition reloaders—is surging along, too.

With roots dating back to black powder shooters casting bullets by the campfire, and spurred by ammunition shortages and regulations, people who make their own ammunition quietly demonstrate a desire to place themselves beyond the reach of the state. That ethos should ring a bell with anybody who has ever contemplated purchasing a 3D printer, just in case.

"About five million out of roughly 43 million hunters and sport shooters in the United States make their own bullets and shells," The New York Times reported earlier this month, in one of the media's periodic rediscoveries of this expression of the spirit of self-reliance.

The estimate of the number of shooters is probably on the low side for a country that the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey tells us owns about 46 percent of the world's 857 million privately held firearms. But the popularity of reloading is unquestionable.

I saw it myself at a gun show a few years ago when attendees vacuumed up brass cases, powder, and other reloading supplies in response to a shortage of commercially available ammunition. (Fortunately, I'm pretty well-stocked at home.) That shortage spurred plenty of people to rediscover their inner craftsmen. "[T]he scarcity of ready-made bullets has frustrated shooters to the point they're spending between $200 and $1,000 to get into the hobby known as 'reloading,'" NPR noted at the time.

If you're a serious hobbyist shooter, that cost might not seem all that daunting. It's not difficult to blow through the equivalent expense in commercial ammunition in a few sessions at the range. Loading your own doesn't eliminate the expense, but it can lower it—and provide increased access not only to ammunition, but to loads customized for personal needs.

Those are do-it-yourself benefits discovered a very long time ago.

"Prior to the development of the cartridge case, shooters usually kept a possibles bag that contained black powder (often in a powder horn), flash powder or caps, a bullet mould, patches, lubricant and other necessary items to reload and maintain their guns," Handloader magazine related in a 2016 history of the practice.

Early shooters' skills remained relevant with the introduction in the 1870s of self-contained center-fire cases. Commercial ammunition was expensive when it was available at all. But brass cases could be reused, lead melted, primers hoarded, and powder acquired from a variety of sources. Powder and other components improved in sophistication, but the basics of reloading were in place in the 19th century—there's little a shooter at a bench can do today that wouldn't be recognizable to Wild West-era counterpart.

"More retro than futurist, more low-tech than high-tech, casters and reloaders tend to be older and often retirees," the Times piece pointed out. "In contrast, those interested in creating printable guns are often younger and more internet savvy."

But reloaders and DIY gunmakers have rather more in common than that characterization suggests.

Both "share a staunch skepticism of the government and an ideological individualism that have long been hallmarks of the broader American gun ethos," the Times continued. "many in this group think of themselves as social disrupters, questioning the relationship between citizens and their states. In their view, guns are not just a constitutionally protected right, but also a socio-historical symbol whose very purpose is to level the playing field."

Whether or not they're the actual offspring of the reloaders casting bullets and measuring powder on a garage workbench, the people tinkering with 3D printers and CNC machines are the philosophical heirs to men and women laboring over reloading presses. The chosen means of expression may have more to do with the fact that, until recently, the cost-savings and customization of reloading were more compelling to most shooters than the sense of accomplishment in home gun manufacture.

Politicians have set themselves to changing that dynamic though. While gun laws in some states have loosened to respect individual rights, others have tightened in an effort to choke off civilian access to the means of self-defense. And officials sponsoring those restrictions recognize the threat DIY efforts pose to their plans.

"These 3D-printed weapons will be used to evade Massachusetts' strong gun laws, and my office and our law enforcement partners will do everything we can to keep deadly homemade weapons off our streets and out of our schools," Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey sniffed in August.

The same logic applies to the ammunition that feeds those weapons, as is apparent to shooters. Several sellers of reloading components explicitly argue that "by reloading your own firearm, you can avoid ever-changing, restrictive gun laws."

Logically enough, the DIY gun and ammo worlds are bridging whatever cultural gap may ever have divided them. The Times described a reloading enthusiast who believes he has designed a round that will work better than traditional ammunition in relatively fragile 3D-printed guns. He even envisions a future in which printed firearms are disposable, like current pepper spray canisters.

That may or may not come to pass. But it illustrates the point that it's not gee whiz technology that drives weapons tinkerers. Rather, reloaders and DIY gunmakers alike are motivated by innovation, self-reliance, and a willingness to make for themselves what the government doesn't want them to have.

NEXT: Joe Arpaio Sues for $147 Million Over New York Times Op-Ed Slamming His Cruelty

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  1. Reloaders are people who shoot a lot and are motivated by the desire to save money. Aummunition gets expensive if you shoot a lot. Also, ammunition for certain calibers can at times be difficult to find.

    1. exactly i have some unique caliber guns that are almost impossible to get ready made ammo, I often have to buy old ammo when I can find it. I haven’t started loading but I soon may have to and since California is outlawing where you can use lead ammo those unique calibers will never be made to updated materials by major manufactures.

      1. Care to share with us what kind of unique caliber guns you have?

        1. An old 38-55 Winchester of my grandfather, for one. You can find ammo, at times, but it’s pricey, as are the 255 grain bullets. Casting and reloading is the only method to shoot this old timer economically.

        2. Sorry I won’t share that info over the internet teh government knows enough already

    2. Amen to the expensive bit.

      Back when I was in grad school we would shoot one box of the bigger stuff and then quickly switch to cheap .22lr rounds in the “bucket o’ bullets” container from Wal-Mart. There’s no way we could have spent more than 10 minutes at the range if we were just shooting .44 rounds.

      And don’t get me started on the good stuff. My old boss bought himself a really nice ($15k) .50 caliber sniper rifle. That thing cost as much as $7 per round to fire, and that was like 15 years ago.

    3. Yeah. Almost everyone reloads either to save money, to make super accurate target loads, or because they want to shoot something obscure enough that commercial ammo either doesn’t exist or is extortionately priced (see #1).

      I’m not sure I’ve ever heard anyone suggest they did so to get out of reach of the State, though I’m sure a few threeper types think that way.

      But that’s irrelevant rounding error, really.

      (Because unless you make your own gunpowder, well, the State can still stop you from reloading, eventually.)


  3. I could tell from the title of the article on the H&R blog page that “Reason Staff” was 2-Chili in this case.

  4. many in this group think of themselves as social disrupters,”

    Wrong those words “social disrupters” implies anarchist or militant views when most loaders I know do it for fun and cost issues. they do not have anti-government ideals and are very patriotic but they do believe in protecting their rights

  5. For the last point about disposable, fragile printed guns…

    This may not be a permanent state. Laser sintering is already being used to make very high quality parts for use in environments as extreme as SpaceX’s rocket motors. It is possible that this technology will make its way into the home maker community, allowing makers to 3d print strong, heat resistant alloy guns with previously impossible designs, rendering the need for rounds that adapt to fragile guns moot, but opening up the possibility of designing rounds for as yet un-dreamed-of types of gun.

    1. This may not be a permanent state.

      It’s not a permanent state now. You can by a CNC milled gun for cheaper than a 3D printed one. You can also buy a 3D printer, print your part in plastic, and cast it into steel today for a smaller price point than laser sintering will be at whenever it becomes available.

      The only thing that makes the state ‘permanent’ is mental retardation.

      1. DIY steel casting is … awkward, though.

        (And sending it out to someone else makes them a weak point in a “going around laws” situation, eh?)

        1. DIY steel casting is … awkward, though.

          (And sending it out to someone else makes them a weak point in a “going around laws” situation, eh?)

          OK, sorry for not connecting all the dots. Laser sintering is, pretty much by definition, even more awkward, especially for the lay person. Further, as Cody Wilson demonstrated, if sending it out for CNC milling is too cumbersome in whatever dimension and steel casting is too awkward, the solution lying between these two points, now and into the future, isn’t laser sintering.

          Space X and its advocates like to herald the fact that the engine they 3D printed took only 2 days to print and that to have it cast or milled would’ve taken months. Nevermind the fact that it took them months to find the right printers and tune them and the alloy to print the parts and that the actual amount of time the mill would be running or the cast would be cooling would be well less than 2 days. It’s quite a bit of comparing the logistics of breeding rabbits vs. pulling them out a hat.

          Again, my point isn’t to say that laser sintering isn’t a thing and will never work as much as people routinely like to adapt their problem to the solution and/or go out and find lots of driving screws and tightening bolts problems to solve with their shiny new hammer.

          1. The real trick is the cost of the machines.

            All the metal 3D printers are crazy expensive. If a remotely cost effective one ever came into being, even merely several thousand dollars… It would be a bit step up.

            The thing with 3D printers is you spend the money, and can just download a file to print from. You don’t need to be an expert about anything. So if you could buy a $7K printer, and then crank out endless real metal gun designs, it could be done by a fairly non technical person, and possibly even become cost effective versus buying factory stuff… Even if it’s not cheaper, it’s easier and private, which has PLENTY of value in and of itself.

            Not to mention being able to print metal stuff would actually make 3D printing awesome for all kinds of stuff. I like the concept, but I’ve never been interested in tinkering with buying one because I hate plastic stuff. But REAL metal… I’d actually be into that.

            1. You don’t need to be an expert about anything.

              This is fundamentally incorrect and is the reason the industry is the joke that it is. Non-technical non-experts with copious access to 3D printers is how you get a world full of bottle openers and useless tchochkis. Even the store-bought printers require a fair amount of expertise to use, maintain, and repair. It’s a big reason why Home Depot doesn’t really sell them anymore.

              You only *think* you’d be into REAL metal. If you really were into real metal, you can spend less than $100 on a welder at lunch and be sculpting stuff out of REAL metal by dinner time and $7K would get you at least one, maybe 2 desktop CNC mills that would crank out endless real metal handgun designs. Similarly, I kinda question whether you’re really into firearms, if you were you’d realize that arguably the biggest breakthrough in gun technology in the last half century has been polymers.

              1. Yeah, you can’t be a grandma that doesn’t know how to change the time on the VCR… No kidding.

                But to use a 3D printer, you don’t have to know how to create your own 3D models, or a number of other things. Somebody who is mildly tech savvy can deal with them fairly easily. If/when they break or malfunction somebody like that might not be able to deal with it, but people mostly don’t know how to change the Ram on their computer either… But they can do 10,000 other things on a computer still.

                As for me and metal printers… I just don’t like plastic. I like metal, glass, leather, wood… Basically any material OTHER than plastics. I obviously own plenty of plastic things, but avoid it for lots of stuff where others might buy plastic versions. I just don’t like it for practical and aesthetic reasons. I probably wouldn’t run out and buy a metal 3D printer the second one hit the market at a decent price point any which way, but I’d be a lot more likely than with plastic. I actually DO know how to weld okay, and have used CNC machines a bit too. Both in shop classes in school. They’re cool, and can do plenty of things… But not as easy as downloading a file and hitting print in a theoretical machine that could do the rest for you.

                1. Your argument is somewhat like “What do you need a GUI interface for a computer for? All you need to do to do anything on a computer is learn all these command line instructions! It’s easy bro!” Well yeah, it’s not that hard… But it’s a lot easier for most people to just have an intuitive GUI interface. 3D printers are the GUI that makes it a fair amount easier than learning how to weld, drill out, dremmel, etc materials into something useful. It’s not that the other way is impossible, but it requires more skill, even if it’s not NO skill for the printer.

                  As for plastic guns… They have their pros and cons, as materials choice always does. As I said above, I prefer metal. Plastics on guns tend to be quality plastics (as in they don’t break/crack/melt all the time, which is one of the main reasons I avoid plastics for many items), but I’d still rather have a nice metal and wood firearm in most cases, as a matter of preference. I’m not a total gun nut, but know more than a good chunk of people, but far less than many folks too. Are modern Glocks sweet? Yep! But I still kinda like the idea of a nice original design 1911 with wood grips myself. Old school yo!

  6. From where do they get the gunpowder? I guess you can make your own, but kind of dangerous, right? When will gun control enthusiasts go after that?

    1. As a shooting, reloading afficanado I’ve always felt government control of firearms will come by way of the primer. It’s the one most necessary component that’s hardest to fashion for the DIYer. You can make a semblance of gunpowder with reasonably common ingredients, but when the time comes, the government will control the supply of primers.

      I should think the next revolution in shooting will come by developing an electronic detonating system that eliminates the primer, but this might make firing conventional arms obsolete.

      1. ATF would go ape shit about something like that.

        Electric ignition would be simple to make function fully automatic.

        1. It’s super easy to make a machine gun now, so that’s not really a big stopping point.

          (It’s harder to make a semi-auto than a full-auto, after all; just don’t have a disconnector, so to speak.)

          1. It’s a bit of “This cart will be easy to pull once we get the horse out of the way.” thinking.

            The primer and hammer are side effect of (semi-)automatic fire, not the direct effect. Resetting the hammer as a direct effect of firing the weapon is known as ‘double-action’.

      2. I should think the next revolution in shooting will come by developing an electronic detonating system that eliminates the primer, but this might make firing conventional arms obsolete.

        Actually, even with electronic detonation systems, primers are still the problem.

        More overarchingly, you can’t effectively make a chemical propellant ‘electric friendly’ or electric/hammer functional without effectively making all the propellant ‘primed’; which makes every round more like a little stick of TNT than a conventional cartridge.

        I don’t mean to say it’s impossible to pull off a primerless propellant system. Just that you’ll have to literally and figuratively bottle lightning if you’re striving to rebuild firearms technology from the ground up.

      3. Or we could go back to the old days of flintlock guns. Unless the government tries to control the supply of flint.

        1. What’s crazy is with modern technology, you could probably create a caseless gun system that was pretty awesome, and indeed didn’t need a primer.

          Imagine something like a “tank” of gun powder on the side, that gets automatically deposited after every fire. A tank/clip/whatevs of just the slug likewise gets placed in front of the powder automatically. You could then fire electronically, or perhaps with a steel/flint spark setup of some sort. No casing, no primer.

          Making that all work from the gas power itself might be tough… It would require complicated mechanisms… But a small little electric motor or something to measure and load the powder? Drop in the slug? I mean it’d be a gun that needed batteries, but probably eminently workable if a competent engineer wanted to get it done. Might not be able to make it work for super rapid fire, but a second in between rounds I can easily imagine being doable. Would be interesting/novel.

      4. Hell, they already have electronic ignition systems and have had them for decades. I still remember building model rockets and launching them. While crude, that is a simple ignition system. I’ve also used numerous other methods in my military career. It is not hard to imagine when one considers simple electronic lighters operate in a similar fashion.

      5. During the Indian Wars of the late 19th century, the Apaches used match heads to make primers. They also melted the solder from old tomato cans to mold bullets.

    2. Commercial smokeless powder is sold at sporting good stores, at gun shows and by online retailers. Reloaders do not make their own gunpowder

  7. I reload to try to make the most accurate cartridges I can, and to save money on some types of ammo. Never knew I was being a rebel. Cool.

  8. Why not just make a rocket gun? I know their lousy at close range but , They made model rocket out of plastic even in the 70 if not earlier. It should not take much work to make one with a 3d printer and have it shoot more than once.

    1. Because we learned from the Gyrojet?

      It’s hard to make tiny, useful, accurate rocket rounds, and they’re useless at short range.

      (And it’s not like it’s trivial to make tiny rocket motors, either…)

      1. It’s hard to make tiny, useful, accurate rocket rounds, and they’re useless at short range.

        I think this is a bit of arcane or narrow thinking. You’re trying to fit the rocket round into the firearm model rather than using it as it is designed/intended.

        Lase the target and fire the rocket from home.

        Being clear: I’m not leaving my sidearm at home but the idea that it’s my defense against tyranny is folly.

      2. Most firearms are basically tiny artillery guns. We’ve had tiny rocket motors used for model rockets for decades. We also have numerous types of electronic ignition systems like pocket lighters, stun guns, etc. for years too.

  9. I almost for got you can find any gun plan you want at the U.S.A patent office online, plus plans for land mine,flame throwers and tanks too :). Had a guy from Australia once showed me. So if the government bans gun plans online you can always get them from the government patent office online.

  10. I learned to reload ammo in 1969 with my dad, who was using equipment he acquired in the early 50’s. He learned from his dad.

    Reloading is nothing new to American gun owners.

  11. Another way around a primer or powder shortage is to use air – there are air guns available that will take down big game – I think it will be a long time before the control freaks figure out how to ration air –

    1. I’m sure there are numerous ways to propel a projectile. When I singled out primers as the weak link I was inferring controlling guns for the MASSES.

    2. Yo. I tripped out on some of the super powerful air guns that are available for a night a year or so ago. IIRC some of them are around .45/9MM levels of power. Not just little .22 plinkers or anything! They of course do not require any gun licensing, background checks, etc either since they’re just oversized BB guns as far as the law is concerned 🙂

      1. Some States treat some, or all air guns as firearms actually.

        Illinois for example, it the projectile is larger than .177 and the speed of the projectile exceeds 700FPS, its considered a firearm and requires a FOID.

        NJ is unsurprisingly idiotic when it comes to air guns. All air guns are considered firearms. Yes, even the $30 spring-piston Red Ryder BB gun that Ralphie wanted so badly requires a firearms license.

        1. Holy crap! I had no idea any states did that. That’s ridiculous. Even my home state of California wasn’t that insane 15-20 years ago. I wonder if they are now?

          I remember REALLY wanting to buy a certain model of .22 pellet gun they had at Big 5 when I was a kid, because it was about as powerful as an actual .22, but wasn’t a “firearm” legally speaking.

          In any event, in most of the US, you can get some wicked powerful air guns that can be bought without checks or anything else.

  12. I started reloading when I inherited my father’s 41 magnuum. Rounds for a 41mag cost from $1.50-$2.00 per round. Handloading them costs me about 62 cents. I also load 9mm, 45 ACP, 45LC, 223 and 308. Reloading lets me shoot as much as I want, as often as I want because of the money I save. It is also a great way to relax because since you have go concentrate on what you are doing, all the other BS of daily life gets pushed aside, at least for a little while.

  13. Sadly I wondered how long it would take for anti gun government officials to get around to labeling those of us that reload as off the radar, anti government loons. I am a gun rights supporter and avid reloader, but I am not anti government. I am against leftist, intrusive, anti – freedom government that progressives want to create by destroying or
    Rewriting the Constitution but the notion I am social disrupter
    Is idiotic.

  14. Guns made from scratch by traditional machine tools and off-the-shelf supplies are actually easier-to-make, of better quality and perfectly legal. The whole 3D-printed thing is just bait for low-information readers.

  15. I’ve been meaning to get myself .38 Special (and .357 Magnum) and .45 Colt dies. I have quite a few guns that fire those rounds, and as they date back to black powder times (except .357 which is derived from .38 Special) they are very flexible about how you load them. Black powder and equivalents would probably be the last allowable propellants if the government started to crack down, and there are plenty of videos out there about how to make your own black powder.

  16. He even envisions a future in which printed firearms are disposable, like current pepper spray canisters.

    Lol, all current 3D printed firearms are already disposable due to not being able to withstand long-term exposure to the pressures of firing the rounds for which they are designed.

  17. So is Reason gonna do an interview with this quirky British chick or what?

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