Police discover 3D printer parts, suspect gun making factory

Filed Under: Featured, Law & order, Security threats

Police officers in Manchester, UK have discovered a 3D printer which they initially believed criminals may have been using in an attempt to manufacture a gun.

3D TriggerDuring a raid on a local property in Manchester's Baguley area on October 24, officers discovered what they thought was a trigger mechanism as well as another part that was originally identified as being a magazine capable of holding bullets.

The 'gun parts' were found alongside a 3D printer, leading to fears that those responsible may have been planning some sort of gun factory.

3D printers can by used to fabricate very intricate plastic objects, including knives and firearms.

Back in May, blueprints for the first ever gun that could be produced on a 3D printer - the Liberator - were downloaded over 100,000 times in the first 4 days after they were posted online. The U.S. State Department later ordered the website to remove the schematics because they could violate export regulations.

Following the raid and seizure of printed parts in Manchester one man was arrested on suspicion of creating gunpowder. He currently remains in custody for questioning.

Detective Inspector Chris Mossop, an officer from their Organised Crime Coordination Unit, is quoted on The Greater Manchester Police website explaining the significance of the find.

If what we have seized is proven to be viable components capable of constructing a genuine firearm, then it demonstrates that organised crime groups are acquiring technology that can be bought on the high street to produce the next generation of weapons.

In theory, the technology essentially allows offenders to produce their own guns in the privacy of their own home, which they can then supply to the criminal gangs who are causing such misery in our communities.

Because they are also plastic and can avoid X-ray detection, it makes them easy to conceal and smuggle.

These could be the next generation of firearms and a lot more work needs to be done to understand the technology and the scale of the problem.

If what we have seized today can, as we suspect, be used to make a genuine firearm then today will be an important milestone in the fight against this next generation of homemade weapons.

Further developments during the day, however, would suggest that what the police actually found was something less sinister entirely.

When Gigaom reported the story one of their users, Nuno Gato, was quick to suggest a plausible alternative purpose for the fabricated parts:

...just search mk8 on thingiverse.com and you will see that it’s a upgrade part for a printer.

Searching further on thingiverse.com highlights an image of a filament spool holder which looks almost identical to the part that police had originally thought was a magazine.

PC Pro spoke to Scott Crawford, head of 3D printing firm Revolv3D, who instantly identified the parts seized by the police as upgrades for the 3D printer.

I instantly thought 'I know that part' ... I'm confident it's an upgrade for the printer and not an actual gun part."

Greater Manchester police released a second statement about five hours after their first that would suggest that by that time they were also having some doubts about what they found.

Clearly the fact we have seized a 3D printer and have intelligence about the possible production of a weapon using this technology is of concern. It is prudent we establish exactly what these parts can be used for and whether they pose any threat.

What this has also done is open up a wider debate about the emerging threat these next generation of weapons might pose.

The worrying thing is for me is that these printers can be used to make certain components of guns, while others can be legitimately ordered over the Internet without arousing suspicion. When put together, this could allow a person to construct a firearm in their own home.

Although it looks like this episode might have been an embarrassing false alarm the sensitivity of the police is perhaps understandable, particularly in a country like the UK which has extremely tight restrictions on firearms.

With printers already available to buy in the UK for around £1,000 and the cost of producing a Liberator estimated at around £16, 3D printing could yet prove to be a stealthy and affordable means for criminals to acquire lethal weapons.

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20 Responses to Police discover 3D printer parts, suspect gun making factory

  1. Am I the only one who thought Blake's 7 when I read "Liberator"? Now *that* would be a cool thing to get 3D-printed.

  2. It certainly would Graham, though i think I'd print Orac first!

  3. Brian Shorten · 712 days ago

    I can understand that a process to produce a dangerous weapon is of great concern, but I don't understand why the police found it necessary to put the details on the Greater Manchester Police website saying, essentially, that they don't know what they have found but think it may be part of a gun.

    Full marks for finding the part, but perhaps it would have been better to wait to identify the part before going into print.

    But then, "police find 3D parts for a printer" isn't a sexy headline is it, or am I being cynical??

  4. Adam · 712 days ago

    I'm unsubscribing from Naked Security after this article. It's not the first one I've had quibbles with, but it's by far the worst. The sequence of events here is, "Police discover 3D printer parts, believe that they are actually gun parts, release a public statement to that effect, then five hours later release another statement saying, 'Not actually gun parts! Our bad!' "

    That's the entire story. The lesson here is "Don't issue a press release about a suspected gun factory if you don't actually know what it is that you've found." Does the article even mention media discipline as a concept? No. Does it call for greater dialogue between makers and law enforcement? No.

    [Comment edited for length]

    People all around the world have been making their own firearms out of lengths of pipe and whatever other BS they can cobble together literally for CENTURIES now. Many established "improvised" designs which far pre-date 3D printing are both more accurate and more reliable than the Liberator. Covering the rise of 3D printers as though "criminals making their own guns" is a new threat is exactly the opposite of what journalism is for.

    You guys seem to be trying to bring technical comprehension to the masses. That's a laudable goal, but this is the way CNN covers stories like these. Actual experts can and should do better.

    • Paul Ducklin · 712 days ago

      Ah, the good old Liberator, eh? Q. Why is it called the Liberator? A. Because it frees you from your thumb when the receiver explodes!

      I think you can stand down from high dudgeon (is that a mixed metaphor?) - our British writers may not know an awful lot about firearms, but they are masters (and mistresses, if you are still allowed to say that) of understated humour.

      It's probably safe to assume that this piece (ha! a gun pun!) of Lee's is satirical rather than credulous, wouldn't you say?

      Well, *I* laughed.

      I loved the bit where they thought it was "a magazine capable of holding bullets." Just in case you confused it with some other sort of magazine - like the sort you get at a newsagent's, for instance - that is not capable of holding bullets.

      In short, I think Lee was as critical as he needed to be without rubbing it in. (He didn't need to labour the fact that the cops made a PR blunder. I think they sussed that themselves :-)

      We thought it was funny, so we implore you to treat this piece as it was intended, a little light fun for the weekend, and to re-subscribe at once...

      • Adam · 712 days ago

        I mention in the part of my comment which was "edited for length" that this article repeats a false claim by authorities without seeming to notice that said claim is false.

        [Comment edited for length]

        You also end with a two-paragraph apologia for the absurd police behavior in this case. The actual story here is "Police, irrationally terrified of 3D printer technology, make fools of themselves."

        Your conclusion is that the police were CORRECT to be terrified.

        It's true. This article is a joke. But it isn't funny.

        • Paul Ducklin · 712 days ago

          Y'know, when someone has made a fool of themselves, you can either treat it with a touch of wry humour and leave the reader to decide what they think of said foolishness, or you can rub it in, even though that would be stating the obvious.

          (I'm not sure that the police were "terrified" at any point, nor that we concluded they were. What they said may have been wacky, and very unfortunate - oh, dear! how unfortunate indeed!), but I don't see any "terrified coppers". I may be stereotyping here...but Manchester rozzers don't frighten easily.)

          [This thread is now closed.]

  5. Stoat · 712 days ago

    It's a hell of a lot easier to fabricate a gun in any decent metalworking shop than with a 3d printer. Are the police going to demand licensing for home lathes and bench clamps?

    • Paul Ducklin · 712 days ago

      Stranger things have happened. (I mean in terms of things you need a permit for these days, not in terms of what's come out of the average metalwork shop.)

      Actually, crooks are finding uses for 3D printers, it seems, and I'm not talking about AR15 lowers:


  6. Randall · 711 days ago

    Plastic gun? Does it use plastic bullets?
    Simple ballisitics would indicate that the thickness of plasic needed would be significantly more than the metal it was imitating.
    probably reading e mails and linking to printer purchases

  7. Even if they were making guns using the printer, the parts are still plastic. Guns create heat when they fire, and plastic can only take a certain amount of heat before melting, making a weapon from a 3D printer very limited.

    • Ocean Midge · 709 days ago

      It only takes 1 bullet to make someone's life really, really bad - or cause the cessation of it.

      • Machin Shin · 709 days ago

        I think Gordon's point was more that a plastic gun has major limitations. Yes, it can still shoot a bullet (In theory, you see the designs were made and tested in a lab that had quality controls, a cheap home printer is likely a lot lower quality).

        You see a plastic gun has a lot of drawbacks. Plastic is not as strong as metal making it not able to handle the stress of repeated use. Also this would be a "smooth bore" weapon. Anyone who has shot a pistol knows a short barrel hurts accuracy, now when that barrel is not rifled..... you have even less accuracy. You also will likely melt the plastic and have some of it attaching to the hot bullet making it even more inaccurate.

        Basically the liberator is probably on about the same level as those old flintlock pistols. Yes, it shoots a bullet, at least some of the time. Other times it just blows up in your hand, and when it does shoot, you best be no more than a few feet from your target if you want any chance of hitting it.

        I guess it could just be that I'm from the US and used to guns, but these all plastic guns do not really worry me that much. Maybe in a couple years after 3D printing becomes higher quality. For now though I don't see these being that practical.

  8. Randy · 710 days ago

    Police don't have to worry about plastic printed gun factories. When the factory's first customer loses his fingers or his hand firing the gun you can bet there will be no more customers.

  9. Randy · 710 days ago

    I don't want to cause worldwide trouble, but..........
    If a 3-D printer can make accurate guns parts, couldn't it make an accurate set of printing plates? Maybe scan a $100 bill (both sides) and make a set of 3-D plates? The only other hurdle would be appropriating the proper paper stock to print your bills with.

    • Machin Shin · 709 days ago

      I hate to burst any world domination plans or anything, but you do realize there is a HUGE difference in gun parts and printing plates right?

      Gun parts need to be somewhat accurate but we are talking millimeters. On the other hand printing plates for money would need to be a LOT more accurate. For printing plates we are probably talking more like nanometers.

      Also, you do realize you would also have to get the printing press, the special inks and so on. So not really something your going to do with a little home 3d printer.

      Although, I do have to give you credit for jumping straight to evil uses for a 3d printer in the world of James Bond.

  10. anoany · 709 days ago

    Looks like a GCHQ - NSA fishing expedition to me.....

  11. Sandra Poore · 708 days ago

    This is very troubling. They may be able to use 3D-printed guns and get inside airports or other public transports without detection. There is a downside to the advent of 3D printing after all.

    • Paul Ducklin · 708 days ago

      Maybe. But if you dig a bit deeper, as other commenters have suggested, you will find that the all plastic Liberator "pistol" is probably less dangerous than a stiletto heel (which I have seen people wearing on planes, usually two at a time) that contains a long, hardened steel spike.

      To be all plastic, the Liberator lacks a barrel, so the bullet - and it fires just one shot and then runs out of ammo - sort of plops out of a hole, assuming the "gun" doesn't burst and cut your hand to pieces.

  12. OC Decals · 707 days ago

    3-D printing technology has a HUGE upside, but as this story makes painfully obvious, the public still has a lot to learn about what these printers can actually offer.

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About the author

Lee Munson is the founder of Security FAQs, a social media manager with BH Consulting and a blogger with a huge passion for information security.