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How criminals are using 3D printing

Criminals are using 3D printing to make guns, reproduce keys and manufacture illegal drugs


3D printing allows felons to get guns without anyone knowing about it.

Photo/NSW Police via Facebook

By John Hornick

3D printing has the potential to transform the world in several ways.

It can:

  • Simplify manufacturing;
  • Shorten supply and distribution chains;
  • Democratize production;
  • Create and repatriate jobs;
  • Customize products to our needs.

3D printing can also be used for both causing crimes and solving them.

How 3D printing is being used to make guns

In 2013, Texas law student Cody Wilson made headlines by 3D printing a plastic gun and posting the blueprints on the internet. The gun was primitive but it worked, successfully firing multiple live rounds. The blueprints for Wilson’s gun were downloaded 100,000 times before the U.S. government forced them to be removed from the server.

In early 2014, the “ZigZag” plastic revolver was 3D printed in Japan. Because Japan has strict anti-gun laws, the maker of the ZigZag gun was sentenced to two years in prison for 3D printing several guns and posting instructive videos on the internet.

Since then, 3D printing of guns has flourished. In June 2015, police in Chiloquin, Oregon, made arrests for the illegal possession of an AR-15 assault rifle. Its lower receiver—the key to what makes it a weapon—was believed to have been 3D printed.

In early 2016, a gun and 3D printing enthusiast called Derwood 3D printed the “Shuty” semi-automatic handgun. Ninety-five percent of the weapon was 3D printed. It fired at least 800 rounds and Derwood later announced an improved version.

In August 2016, the TSA found a 3D-printed revolver in carry-on luggage at the Reno-Tahoe Airport. The gun was detected because it was loaded with live rounds.

A month later, a “Guy in a Garage,” as he calls himself, 3D printed the “Songbird,” which uses rubber bands for springs and a roofing nail for a firing pin, and fires multiple .357 rounds.

3D printed weapons need not be guns in the traditional sense but could be just as dangerous. In late 2015, a plasma railgun was made by an anonymous Imgur user known as NSA_Listbot, who used a 3D printer and commonly available parts to make a handheld electromagnetic projectile launcher that fires rods made of Teflon/plasma, graphite, aluminum and copper-coated tungsten at a speed of about 560 mph.

In March 2017, the U.S. Army announced its 3D printed grenade launcher, which it nicknamed “RAMBO” (Rapidly Additively Manufactured Ballistic Ordnance). The weapon was 100 percent 3D printed, except for the springs and fasteners, and fires 3D printed grenades.

Although the law prohibits the sale of guns to convicted felons, 3D printing allows felons to get guns without anyone knowing about it. In separate raids in Brisbane, Australia, and its nearby Gold Coast, police found 3D printed gun parts and a fully functioning, loaded 3D printed gun. According to Queensland Police Detective Inspector Scott Knowles, “We can identify most if not all of the major components of a weapon. To us, it appears that they are complete weapons just requiring assembly.”

How 3D printers are being used for criminal activities

In developments surely being followed by the underworld, a German hacker used a 3D printer to reproduce handcuff keys for high-security handcuffs. MIT students have CT-scanned locks and then used the scans to 3D print master keys. Skilled lock-pickers Jos Weyers and Christian Holler 3D printed a bump key, which can be used to pick almost any pin tumbler lock. In July 2016, hackers released 3D printable designs for TSA-approved master luggage keys. None of these uses are illegal, but criminals could adopt these methods for illegal uses.

A French man 3D printed fake facades for cash machines, which clone the data on users’ ATM cards. Criminals in Sydney, Australia, used 3D printers to make attachments for bank machines that skim bank card information from unsuspecting ATM users. By using 3D printers, the criminals make the skimmers look like they are part of the ATM machines.

Organized crime is jumping on board. In coordinated raids against gangs in Malaga, Spain, and the Bulgarian cities of Sofia, Burgas and Silistra, police seized equipment used to 3D print sophisticated skimming equipment, including fake card slots for bank machines.

A criminal who calls himself “Gripper” makes a skimmer by the same name, which he sells online. Gripper recruits other criminals to join his international network and offers round-the-clock tech support in Moscow, South Africa, the UK and the United States. The Gripper boasts, “Bare [sic] in mind we have the power to mass-produce these ATM skimmers with the latest technology…We have all files needed and printing facilities in China. Also, we have files to mass-produce MSRV [magnetic-stripe-reading] electronics.” The Gripper is a good example of the power of combining the internet and 3D printing.

The portability of 3D printers means illegal items can be made in constantly relocated stealth factories, while the internet can be used as an illegal information superhighway.

Various researchers are working on 3D printing legal drug-delivery devices and pharmaceuticals. It may not be long before 3D printers will also be used to print illegal drugs. In his article, “Can You 3D Print Drugs?,” Chris Gayomali wrote:

“But with all the useful and practical applications of 3D printed drugs comes an obvious dark side. Take, for instance, the potential for amateur organic chemists to engineer their own designer drugs. In Drugs 2.0: The Web Revolution That’s Changing How the World Gets High, author Mike Power envisions a near future where DIYers (mostly college grads with chemistry degrees) are using highly sophisticated techniques – including 3D printers – to render ‘controlled substances’ an obsolete relic of the past.”

This will be a boon to organized crime, which will be able to print illegal drugs at the point of need, thereby eliminating the capital investment and risks of shipping and storing large quantities of illegal drugs. And when personal printers are capable of printing your customized prescription at home, the same type of printers also will be used to make illegal drugs.

In fact, there is no reason why drug dealers will continue to sell drugs when they can sell the digital blueprints instead, which local dealers or users can use to print their supplies. But of course, drug dealers may also become obsolete relics of the past when free blueprints for illegal drugs become widely available for 3D printing by anyone with the right equipment.

About the author
John Hornick, author of “3D Printing Will Rock the World,” offers educational programs to the law enforcement community on both the dark side of 3D printing and on how 3D printing can be used to aid law enforcement. Contact him at