Professionalism/Cody Wilson and the Liberator

This chapter details the creation and effects of the Liberator, created by Cody Wilson and the first 3D printed gun to have its designs made widely available online.

The Liberator


Cody WilsonEdit

Cody Wilson

Cody Wilson is a crypto-anarchist and gun rights activist from Austin, Texas.[1] Wilson graduated from the University of Central Arkansas in 2010, where he served as president of the Student Government Association.[2] Wilson began studying at the University of Texas School of Law in 2012, but left in 2013 to focus on his company Defense Distributed and developing the first 3D printed gun to be made widely available online.[1]

Outside of Defense Distributed, Wilson created a site called Hatreon to rival the crowdfunding site Patreon. The idea of Hatreon was to create a crowdfunding site with “an unlimited protection of speech” including hate speech. Personalities on the site included neo-Nazis and white supremacists, but Wilson maintained that they were “elements of a political speech that should not be censored.”[3] The site became inactive after Visa suspended its financial services in 2017.[4]

Wilson stepped down as CEO of Defense Distributed in 2018 amid charges of sexual assault of a minor.[5]

Defense DistributedEdit

Defense Distributed is a private defense contractor founded in 2012 by Cody Wilson with the purpose of promoting and disseminating 3D printed guns online.[6] The company was initially created to focus on the wiki weapon project: developing the first entirely 3D printed pistol.[7] Wilson claimed the project was made possible by freedom of speech, and said “Every citizen has the right to bear arms. This is the way to really lower the barrier to access to arms. That's what this represents.”[8]

Defense Distributed followed up with the DEFCAD project. DEFCAD is a website with “a comprehensive firearms reference model repository for the digital gunsmith,” where Defense Distributed posted designs for the Liberator and several other weapons and weapon parts. DEFCAD served millions of downloads despite only being active for days at a time amid legal battles.[7] The site has been taken down as of November 2018, when New Jersey criminalized online speech related to the manufacture of firearms.[9]

Ghost GunnerEdit

Although they were initially backed by Bitcoin donations, Defense Distributed wanted more reliable sources of income. In March 2013, the company applied and got a Type 7 license to make and sell guns.[10] This has given them a reliable source of revenue through legalized selling.

The company currently has found a loophole to indirectly sell lower receivers to people without licenses. The lower receiver is the base of the gun and contains the firing mechanism. This is the only regulated portion of the gun and each one has a unique barcode to trace its history. Purchasing a gun requires a license for the lower receiver. The other gun parts such as barrel, magazines, stocks, and silencers can be bought with few, if any, restrictions.

Defense Distributed sells a kit for making a lower receiver and a device called the Ghost Gunner to mill the gun.[11] The kit contains the frame and other components of a lower receiver. The Ghost Gunner is a CNC mill specialized to make lower receivers from the kits. Each of these tools individually don't require a license, but they can be combined together to make a lower receiver. Thus, owners can essentially circumvent the need for a license. Defense Distributed sells this openly and legally and it serves as an example to the loopholes in gun regulation.

The LiberatorEdit


The name and design of Wilson's gun was inspired by the FP-45 Liberator.[12] This World War 2 gun was mass manufactured but sparsely used. The Polish military attaché asked the US to design a gun that could be air-dropped in Nazi occupied areas. They wanted the rebels to have some form of defense, but more importantly, they wanted to deter the morale of the Nazi troops. Quantity mattered more than quality and so, the US manufactured a gun that was single shot and inaccurate, but very light, compact, concealable, and cheap to make in mass. Wilson's gun has the same design, perks, and firing mechanism. The FP-45 was nicknamed the Liberator as it would help rebels free territories from the enemy. Similarly, Wilson’s Liberator was a means to liberate people from gun restrictions through freedom of speech.


The Liberator is assembled from 16 small pieces which include the barrel, trigger, handle, hammer, and firing pin. Other than the firing pin, all the other parts are 3D printed.[13] The metal firing pin ignites the bullet (.380 caliber for this gun) and can be bought without a license. Defense Distributed printed the gun with the Starsys Dimension SST 3D printer. Although this printer costs $8000, any printer with a small enough resolution can print the gun. It uses additive manufacturing where melted polymer is added layer over layer. Finally, they add a 6 oz cube of steel to pass the Undetectable Firearms Act. The law requires a firearm to be detectable with a metal detector and the steel assures that. Although Defense Distributed added the steel to dodge litigation, regular users can easily avoid this step without getting caught.


In May 2013, Defense Distributed successfully fired the Liberator after many failed attempts. Although the liberator is inaccurate and unreliable, a successful shot opens up a Pandora’s box for 3D printed guns. The weakest point is the barrel which undergoes a lot of pressure and stress from firing. During testing, the barrel lasts about 10 shots before failing.[13] Firing a larger caliber bullet exploded the gun at first shot. The liberator has a long reload, poor range and sometimes misfires, but there is vast room for improvement. Advances such as 3D printing refinements, auto fire mechanism, and magazines will make the gun more lethal and there is a passionate online community who are willing to contribute.

Spread of the gun planEdit

After successful testing, Defense Distributed also posted the blueprints for the first time. They posted the files through Mega, a site which hosts files from millions of users.[14] Their website simply pointed users to the storage site. The launch was very successful and over 100,000 users downloaded the files in just two days. Surprisingly, Spain had the most downloads, followed by the US, Brazil, Germany and UK. Law officials caught on and the Department of State Office of Defense Trade Control asked them to remove the files. The department wanted to make sure that they were not breaking any arms export control laws. Defense Distributed complied and Mega also took down the files. However, the damage was done and many users downloaded and uploaded the files to Pirate Bay, a site where users upload all types of files anonymously.[15] Pirate Bay defended their users’ rights and refused to take down the files. The government cannot regulate the website due to its size and anonymity.


Government ResponseEdit


Wilson claimed to act in defense of various constitutional rights in creating Defense Distributed and disseminating 3D printed guns. But many of his actions violated standards set for professionals, in particular those set by the IEEE-CS/ACM joint task force for Software Engineering Ethics and Professional Practices.[16] While ethics codes are meant to only guide professionals, acting in violation of their standards is unbecoming of a professional.

First, Wilson did not act on behalf of any clients in particular and seemed to operate his company primarily based on his own beliefs about gun rights. There was also much controversy surrounding whether making 3D printed guns widely available was in the public’s interest. 3D printed guns have already put guns in the hands of dangerous people. Wilson intended for 3D printed guns to be used in defense, but they could also be used maliciously and the ability of mills, such as the Ghost Gunner, to abuse loopholes in gun regulations is concerning. Thus, Wilson may have violated the first principle for software engineers: “Software engineers shall act consistently with the public interest.”[16]

Wilson also broke the law on several occasions, as evident by his back-and-forth battle with the court system. Creating the site Hatreon directly supported neo-Nazis and white supremacists, associating Wilson with several groups in violation of several codes of ethics. Thus, Wilson violated several sub principles of the “Profession” principle: “Software engineers shall advance the integrity and reputation of the profession consistent with the public interest.”[16]

Ethics of 3D Printed GunsEdit

In 2016, Wilson claimed “It’s very unlikely someone’s going to buy a Ghost Gunner, make a gun and then go commit a crime. It’s never happened. A third of our entire market is upper-middle-class people in California that have expendable income and enjoy building handguns.”[17] While 3D printing guns is relatively expensive, the ability to print a gun without any background checks or documentation is concerning. In addition, the ability to print a gun without a serial number to trace it would be appealing to criminals. According to Phillip Cook, a gun policy expert from Duke University, “Over the longer term, if this form of manufacturing becomes cheap enough, it may become a major source of supply for street gangs and other criminals” including terrorists and insurrectionists.[18]


Given Wilson’s violations of the Software Engineering Ethics and Professional Practices set by the IEEE-CS/ACM, Wilson has not acted as a professional in his career as a gun rights activist. However, this case has many implications for future participants and professionals in the field of 3D printing. In particular, it will be a challenge to see if 3D printed guns can sustainably coexist with gun laws and be implemented in a safe, ethical manner.

In the future, this chapter could be updated with new events in Defense Distributed’s legal battle or new updates to laws regarding 3D printed guns. More information could be added on the capabilities of the ghost gunner mill and the risks it poses by exploiting loopholes in the law.


  1. a b Lindell, C. (2018, September 26). Meet Cody Wilson, the Austin man behind the fight over 3D-printed guns.
  2. Student Government Association. (n.d.).
  3. Brooks, A. (2018, August 1). Who is Cody Wilson, the man behind the 3D printed gun?
  4. Hatreon. (n.d.).
  5. Locklear, M. (2018, September 25). 3D-printed gun advocate Cody Wilson resigns from Defense Distributed.
  6. Greenberg, A. (2018, September 26). The 3-D Printed Gun Machine Rolls On, With or Without Cody Wilson.
  7. a b Defense Distributed. (n.d.).
  8. Greenberg, A. (2013, May 3). 'Wiki Weapon Project' Aims To Create A Gun Anyone Can 3D-Print At Home.
  9. DEFCAD. (n.d.).
  10. Farivar, C. (2013, March 17). 3D-printed gun maker now has federal firearms license to manufacture, deal guns.
  11. Defense Distributed. (n.d.).
  12. Jardim, F. (n.d.). FP-45 Liberator.
  13. a b Greenberg, A. (2013, May 5). Meet The 'Liberator': Test-Firing The World's First Fully 3D-Printed Gun.
  14. Greenberg, A. (2013, May 8). 3D-Printed Gun's Blueprints Downloaded 100,000 Times In Two Days (With Some Help From Kim Dotcom).
  15. Sar, E.V. (2013, May 10). Pirate Bay Takes Over Distribution of Censored 3D Printable Gun.
  16. a b c Gotterbarn, D., Miller, K., & Rogerson, S. (1997, November). The Software Engineering Code of Ethics and Professional Practice.
  17. Popescu, A. (2016, June 06). Cody Wilson: The man who wants Americans to print their own 3D guns.
  18. Lopez, G. (2018, August 29). The battle to stop 3D-printed guns, explained.