Manchester police red-faced after 3D-printed gun turns out to be spare printer parts

Police in Manchester are examining what they initially claimed to be parts for a firearm manufactured using a 3D printer.

The Greater Manchester Police (GMP) at first alleged that the printer was being used to manufacture firearms based on 3D printed designs. Now their statements have become a lot more reticent.

This might be due to the fact that online commentators have jumped to the arrested man's defence. Since the first reports came in, other 3D printing enthusiasts have argued that the items in question are in fact spare parts for the printer, and the GMP seem to have taken this into account and avoided releasing any further statements.

Scott Crawford, the owner of 3D printing firm Revolv3D Ltd, said the parts were common to anyone who owned that particular model of printer. "It may be that someone has used that part in a gun design," he said, "but I'm confident it's an upgrade for the printer and not an actual gun part."

The arrested man, who has since been bailed, said: "It's nothing to do with a gun whatsoever... I have no idea why they think it is part of a gun. It's designed by the company that makes the printer to go in the printer to make it better."

Early reports from other 3D printer users seem to have backed this up. Pictures released soon after first reports of the arrest showed the alleged "trigger mechanism" alongside an "extruder plunger" freely available on Thingiverse, the online marketplace for 3D designs. Its designers claim that it will help users reach a "sweet spot" of plunger tension, and is described as a "very useful design".

The "magazine" is also thought to be a filament spool holder, used to hold the plastic cartridges in place.

When contacted, Assistant Chief Constable Steve Heywood provided the following statement:

"We need to be absolutely clear that at that this stage, we cannot categorically say we have recovered the component parts for a 3D gun. What we have seized are items that need further forensic testing by national ballistics experts to establish whether they can be used in the construction of a genuine, viable firearm."

Detectives said computers recovered at the scene will also be analysed in search of "any evidence of a blueprint on how to construct such a weapon".

The raid came as part of the GMP's Operation Challenger, designed to "dismantle" organised crime gangs. Counterfeit worth £2m, as well as more than £330,000 of drugs and £25,000 in cash have so far been seized as part of the crackdown.

The printer allegedly used to manufacture weapons was a MakerBot Replicator 2 Desktop 3D printer, which is available for £1099.99.

Nevertheless, the reports have highlighted how seriously British police are taking the threat of 3D printed weaponry.

Concerns about this kind of firearm making its way onto the streets of Britain have spread ever since Texas Law student Cody Wilson designed and successfully fired a pistol-like handgun made up of components created by a 3D printer. The Liberator, as the gun was called, was made entirely from plastic, apart from the firing pin, which was metal. Wilson and the company eh set up, Defense Distributed, posted the gun's designs online for anyone to download.

Wilson told the media that "I'm seeing a world where technology says you can pretty much be able to have whatever you want. It's not up to the political players anymore."

He received a manufacturing and seller's licence from the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), but was eventually shut down by law enforcement.

Nevertheless, his designs were downloaded upwards of 100,000 times, and more advanced 3D rifles are now available to print. In August, an unnamed American man fired 14 rounds from a 3D printed rifle.

Wilson has since opened the world's first search engine for 3D gun parts, Defcad.

Despite the slightly laughable claims of the GMP, perhaps they're right to be worried. 3D printing is no alien technology to the criminal underworld, after all. Printers have already been used by some crime gangs to create card readers, or "skimmers" that are as thin as a razor blade, and therefore more easily inserted into cash machines.

The technology is also becoming increasingly widespread. Once the domain of manufactures and enthusiasts, an out-of-the-box 3D printer, 3D Systems' Cube, recently went on sale at UK retailers Currys and PC World, designed specifically with non-technical users in mind.

It could well turn out that the arrested man has criminal connections, and even used his printer for nefarious purposes. However, at this point, it looks like the Police in Manchester have jumped to some unwarranted conclusions. Whatever the outcome, it's surely not long before criminal gangs pick up on the true potential of 3D printing, as the technology gets cheaper and gains wider acceptance among the public.

Images: GMP; Flickr (gastev)