Biker Gang Leader's DIY Guns Are Part of a Predictable Prohibition Story

From Australia to Massachusetts, illegal gun makers step in to supply what legal markets aren’t allowed to produce.


As a convicted felon, Bruce Sartwell isn't legally allowed to own firearms. But the regional president of the Outlaws Motorcycle Club obviously isn't the kind of guy who cares about what he's legally allowed to do; when he was arrested in East Bridgewater, Massachusetts, he was found to be in possession of a rifle he'd made himself, as well as unregistered "silencers" (sound suppressors), parts, and the equipment needed to manufacture more weapons.

The story of a criminal making guns that he needs for his "trade" is all very predictable if you've been paying attention to events around the world. It also casts further doubt on the claims of gun control advocates that their favored restrictions will make the country safer.

According to the U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts:

On Oct. 30, 2019, a search warrant executed at Sartwell's residence resulted in the recovery of an AR-15 styled 'ghost gun' – a firearm without any manufacturing or serial numbers – and firearm manufacturing tools and assembly parts including milling equipment, buffer spring, buffer tube, air-powered water dremel polish and a drill press. Two firearm silencers concealed in false bottom compartments, a guide for assembly and disassembly of an AR-15 rifle, 20 knives, a black powder handgun, a flare gun, and various ammunition compatible with the AR-15 styled rifle were also found. In the basement of the house, a floor-length mirror concealed the entrance to a hidden storage area that was found to contain a safe with silencer parts and a firearm assembly instruction book.

The "up to 10 years in prison, three years of supervised release and a fine of $250,000" that Sartwell faces applies to possession of unregistered sound suppressors, but could also indicate that the rifle he made is fully automatic and therefore subject to (rather silly) special rules and penalties. After all, if you're a professional criminal and you've committed to off-the-books firearms manufacturing, the sky is the limit.

That's certainly been the case in Australia, whose relatively restrictive gun laws make many American political hopefuls swoon over dreams of licensing and confiscation. There, motorcycle gangs have evolved into sophisticated crime syndicates, and they've taken to manufacturing their own weapons. That often means submachine guns, sometimes in wholesale lots, as well as firearms disguised as pens and key fobs.

"Drivers for domestic illicit manufacture of (submachine guns) include their lethality, compact size and the fact that fully functioning submachine guns are not, and never have been, available to licensed firearm owners in Australia," according to the Australian Crime Commission (now folded into the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission). "The simplicity of design of single-shot pen guns and key rings and the potential for concealment will continue to act as a driver for continued illicit manufacture of these firearms."

"Sub-machine guns are perhaps the most widely documented craft-produced small arms in circulation," reports the Switzerland-based Small Arms Survey. "Their high rate of fire and low cost make them attractive to organized criminal groups."

Ease of manufacture is another attraction of submachine guns. Many designs dating to World War II were specifically intended to be knocked out under the crudest possible conditions.

"A drill press, some welding equipment and blueprints from the internet are all that's needed to create one of these potentially devastating weapons, a fact that presents a real challenge for Israel and countries around the world that are trying to prevent such guns from winding up in the hands of terrorists and criminals," the Times of Israel noted three years ago about the proliferation of illegally manufactured submachine guns.

Submachine guns are the products of choice for Brazil's underground manufacturers, who have developed a remarkably supportive community despite their competitive efforts.

"Amateur gunsmiths exchange experiences, tips, and information about parts, weld types, and techniques openly in forums and comment sections. Knowledge exchange contributes to improved weapons manufacturing. In some cases, the differentiation between an artisanal weapon and an industrial weapon only comes from expert work," the BBC reported earlier this year (translated from Portuguese).

That the Outlaw Motorcycle Club's Sartwell didn't choose to make a simple submachine gun but built at least one AR-15 instead is probably an indication of the nuances of American culture. The AR-15 holds an iconic status in the United States, vilified by gun-haters and flaunted by supporters of self-defense rights. It's the default choice of long gun for many Americans.

Partially as a result of that preference, Americans have done a lot of groundwork for the informal manufacture of AR-15s (as well as other guns)—legally at the moment for most people. Eighty-percent receivers, necessarily unregulated (at some point it's just a hunk of metal, not a gun) but ready to be finished into an operating firearm component, are widely available. So are tools that could be used in any workshop for a host of projects—including making a firearm. Making guns has become a hobby, fueled by America's contentious politics.

And now we have 3D printers and CNC (computer numerical control) machines that ease firearm manufacture. That includes the Ghost Gunner CNC milling machine, which "is specially designed to manufacture a growing library of mil-spec 80 percent lowers to completion," according to its vendor, Defense Distributed.

None of this knowledge or capability is going away if authoritarian politicians follow through on their promises to impose tighter restrictions on firearms including so-called "assault weapons" like the AR-15.

Sartwell was caught because, as a gang leader with a criminal record, he was on law enforcement radar and he received dozens of packages from China that raised officials' suspicions. Upon opening a shipment, agents found a sound suppressor—a simple device that pretty much anybody can make at home but that's highly regulated and a crime for a convicted felon to possess. They subsequently raided his house and discovered his gun-manufacturing operation.

Most Americans haven't attracted that kind of attention and are perhaps less inclined to order felony convictions to their home addresses via international mail. Many thousands of people already have the skills and equipment to do what Sartwell did, but quietly and unobserved.

If politicians follow through on promises to further restrict the legal manufacture of firearms, they'll find Americans more than ready to emulate the defiant efforts of people around the world—often criminals, but also regular people unwilling to be disarmed by their governments. Rather than reinforcing the rule of law, tighter restrictions will unleash an uncontrollable underground firearms industry.

NEXT: Mick Mulvaney Wants a Federal Judge to Tell Him If He Has To Testify Before Congress

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  1. Who would have guessed?

    1. Anyone with more than two brain cells to rub together?

      1. So, you’re saying that our Elect Officials had to be TOLD about this?

        1. Yes.

  2. “A drill press, some welding equipment and blueprints from the internet are all that’s needed to create one of these potentially devastating weapons”

    Why does anyone *need* a drill press?

    1. I have a couple of pre registration drill presses, they will be as valuble as bullets some day

      1. Serious question, where in the US (or is it federal?) is requiring the registration of drill presses? It seems like that’s an exercise in futility given everything they get used for.

        1. your sarcasm meter needs re-calibrating – make sure you register it first!

      2. That’s why we need universal background checks for drill bits.

    2. Silly question. I’ll answer you like this…Why does any one need anything?

    3. Why does anyone *need* a drill press?

      Because they need to make holes in things?

  3. Owens SMG FTW! Make Australian Guns Again!

  4. they’ll find Americans more than ready to emulate the defiant efforts”

    Most gun owners have already started the process from simple repairs on cheap guns or modifications to them, to stocking up, to concealing and even manufacturing

  5. Some guy on Youtube made an AK reciever out of an old shovel put in a Bulgarian parts kit and Bob’s your uncle.

    1. Too many rivets, welding, and cutting to make an AK; an AR is much simpler, modular, and interchangeable. And in the coming years keep it simple will definitely be a thing.

      1. Well, the point is that you can easily manufacture a fully automatic receiver, which the AR is not. As to whether or not that’s valuable, hard to say. Modern military squad tactics has mostly phased out automatic rifles (assuming you exclude burst-fire modes from the automatic designation) in favor of squad support weapons, but in modern combined-arms armies you’re only a radio away from artillery or air support, so I dunno. WWII infantry units often did without fully automatic fire of any kind, but they had an awful lot of grenades . . .

      2. Casting and milling an aluminum AR reciever is simpler? Maybe if you 3D printed one.

        1. Casting AR-15 lowers seems pretty simple:
          AR15Mold even has instructional videos to help.

          If you know how to uses taps and dies then you’ve got most of the milling covered.

    2. Bob was my uncle before YouTube was a thing.

  6. Prohibition has worked out so well for drugs, I can’t see any reason why it wouldn’t work just as well for firearms. /sarc

    1. The people who run the government are simply incapable of stopping or learning from history.

      Prohibition failed with Alcohol.
      It is failing with drugs.

      Let’s try prohibition on guns, what could go wrong?

      1. They’re about to discover how true Mark Twain’s aphorism on the subject is, as well as how many Americans are comfortable flouting the law when they feel that interferes with their rights.

  7. Much of the gun control fervor we’ve seen and heard to date is moral in nature; not so much directed at actually reducing violence and crime as to demonize guns in general, starting with the much maligned and easily recognized AR. In actuality, if guns could be outlawed they will feel that they have won by driving them from the sight of their polite society. If you make one yourself your a bad person, and that is what the virtue signaling is mostly about. That and being a political talking point. Violence of course will continue, but they would have “done something about it” if only to make non violent law abiding persons into felons.

    Floyd Ferris to Hank Rearden [Atlas Shrugged] quote follows.

    1. Edit: You’re a bad person.

  8. OMG! this is unprecedented and disastrous!

    Oh, wait. We were making zip guns in the fifties. The biggest complaint was that the low quality was dangerous, following far down the list was “it’s illlegal”.

    1. My brother and his friends made those from galvanized pipes with ball bearings for bullets and an M 80 for a charge. I still can’t believe he survived his teen age years intact.

      1. How did he set off the M80?

        1. Wooden strike anywhere matches were for sale to anyone – – – – – – – –

          1. See now, I was wondering if he had managed something clever that would actually function somewhat like a modern gun, or at least something like an 17th-19th century muzzle loader, rather than the oldest known hand cannons.

            1. Don’t underestimate hand cannons. Not all that different from a matchlock.

              1. Very different from a matchlock. The hand cannon has no “lock” at all.

                The gunner has to hold the burning match in one hand and the gun in the other. A not insignificant number of hand gunners blew themselves up due to errors in juggling gun, match and ammo during the reloading process.

  9. Next time I need to hire a machinist, I’m going to look up one of these gangs.

    1. Yeah, the real headline here for me was that these guys were evidently skilled enough that their guns were commonly in demand. Obviously Trump’s agenda is working, if american manufacturing is recovering like this.

  10. Modern guns are 19th century technology, maybe mid-20th century at best. Think about what the 47 in AK-47 means. The AR-15 was developed about a decade later. Pistol designs have barely changed in a century, at the underlying functional level. If you have the technology to make bicycles, you have the technology to make guns.

    Ammunition, especially smokeless powder and non-corrosive primers, are much trickier. That’s some chemistry that’s hard, and potentially deadly, to do at home.

    1. Black powder killed people just fine for 400 years.

      1. It’s not really compatible with semi or full automatic actions, as you don’t get the pressures you need. If it’s a gas based action, it would foul up way too quickly.

        Black powder would definitely be fine for lever actions, since that was what was used during the heyday of the lever action. I think you’d could be okay with pump actions and bolt actions, but I’m not as sure. For anything “modern” (e.g. semi-auto handguns and rifles), black powder won’t work.

        1. The original Gatling gun used black powder loads. Yes, it’s technically not a full auto by modern standards, but it works.

          1. Gatling guns are even legal under the FFA.

            1. FFA->NFA

          2. Gatling guns don’t rely on any power from the cartridge to run the action. Even modern versions use electrically driven motors.

            1. You could build a hand cranked Gattling gun using modern ammo/barrels and it would be legal. You could probably even make it belt fed if you knew what you were doing.

              I wouldn’t be able to compete with a electrically driven mini-gun for rounds down range / unit time, but I bet it would be competitive with most recoil or gas driven full auto weapons.

    2. That’s some chemistry that’s hard, and potentially deadly, to do at home.

      Not as hard or dangerous as making methamphetamine, and there’s plenty of that going on.

      1. Oh, and the first production semiauto rifle was the Mannlicher model of 1885.

        Or, as mentioned in the article, go the SMG route, say with a M-3 (Grease Gun):

        1. SMGs are definitely designed to work with smokeless powder. It would be an interesting experiment to see if a black powder loaded SMG would cycle.

        2. And by the way, from the first article I found about the Mannlicher:

          “It was a designed doomed to fail despite Mannlicher’s formidable design talents, simply because the cartridge he based it on was the M1877 11mm Austrian black powder round used in the Werndl rifles. Self-loading weapons would not become truly practical in any form until the invention of smokeless powder, which drastically reduced the amount of fouling and residue from each shot. However, Mannlicher was able to at least make a reasonable attempt despite the use of black powder, and he was the first to do so.”

      2. A lot of primer compounds require multiple heavy metals. Some of them, if manufactured incorrectly, will react to slightest inputs.

  11. Don’t worry, Democrats will fix this by making unlicensed ownership of metal working equipment a crime and track and investigate every purchase of drill presses and lathes. Just like they are already doing for basic chemicals and glassware.

  12. Democrats need to Fix this as soon as possible and take all gun.. Seriously, something like this no need to argue anymore. we need a peaceful life..

    i present this word on

    1. Move to North Korea then, I hear it’s real “peaceful” there…

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