Is Technology in the Firearm Industry at a Turning Point?
Those outside the rather insular world of the gun industry and gun culture should be forgiven for not knowing that an AR-15 sold over a gun store counter in 2018 is functionally identical to an AR-15 sold over a gun store counter in 1968. The addition of electro-optical sighting devices, flashlights, lasers, and so on might give an impression that the weapon of today is very different than the civilian sporter rifle of decades past, but they do not modify the function of the firearm itself.
Indeed, if we are considering semi-automatic rifles in general, a Remington Model 8 hunting rifle from over a century ago offers much the same firepower, especially as it was often equipped with detachable magazines capable of carrying 15 or 20 rounds between reloads. This made it a good choice for law enforcement officers of the day, though it never saw the widespread popularity among police that the AR15 does today.
We can now see and identify our targets from farther away and in less ideal conditions than someone equipped with an “antique” rifle. However, the physical effects from being attacked by a person wielding a hunting rifle which predates World War 1 are effectively the same as those from being attacked by someone with the most advanced tactical rifle derived from those used in the Global War on Terror.
It can be safely said, therefore, that while the technologies surrounding firearms have changed greatly in the past century, the technology of firearms has nearly stagnated. To a total cynic, most “new” developments in the world of firearms are simply rehashed versions of designs or cartridges first seen decades or even generations before.
It may come as a surprise to the reader that the most promising changes in the world of firearms take this “drawback” and turn it into an advantage – that rather than attempt to integrate firearms and technology, they use technology to make firearms more accessible. To understand how this might be a stepping stone toward a larger integration of the two, though, we must look at the technological changes which have, of yet, failed to make a meaningful impact.
Failed Technological Advancements in the Gun World
Those few true changes in the world of firearms technology which have so far come to the fore have left us with nearly the speed of a bullet.
Take, for example, Remington EtronX primers and firearms, introduced in the year 2000. Essentially an electric rifle, the EtronX combined a 9-volt battery, a capacitor, and a resistor to ignite gunpowder in place of the mechanical design of a traditional rifle. From a performance standpoint, the EtronX delivered what it claimed to do: nearly eliminate lock time, or the amount of time between the moment a trigger is pulled and the moment the gunpowder begins to burn. Because lock time with traditional firearms was already measured in milliseconds, though, the gun world saw EtronX as a pointless exercise.
Even worse for some gun owners, the ability of an EtronX rifle to be turned off with a switch and the possibility that such a firearm might incorporate authorization or user identification features made it anathema to many of those who depend on these simple mechanical devices for hunting, home defense, or sport.
It should not be a surprise, therefore, that the potential emergence of actual “smart guns” on the market was met with remarkable opposition. In 2002, not long after EtronX hit the market, New Jersey passed a law which requires that the sale of traditional – read, normal – firearms be suspended 30 months after the first “smart gun” goes on sale anywhere in America. Gun enthusiasts have, ever since, vehemently opposed the sale of “smart guns,” both out of concern for their Garden State brethren and concern that such laws might take hold in their state or even at the federal level.
On a more practical level, I am personally opposed to the legislative requirement because even the best consumer grade fingerprint scanners and RFID tags cannot yet provide the level of reliability required to match that of a modern rifle or pistol. Thus, however technologically advanced they might be, they would be a step backward when integrated with a firearm.
Despite These Failures, Are We at a Turning Point?
One would be forgiven for thinking that technology in the gun industry will be as stagnant in the next ten years as it has been in the past hundred. However, I believe a number of developments are occurring or are about to occur which have the potential to combine technology and firearms in a way that will not fail.
These developments are not in the underlying technology of firearms themselves – they merely change the way in which firearms are made or acquired. The word “merely” might imply minor or inconsequential changes, but that is not the case. Rather, these are simple changes with decidedly complex impacts.
The first change is the rapid increase in popularity of 80 percent receivers and frames, pushed to the forefront most effectively by Polymer80 of Nevada. While it has been legal for many years to make your own firearm, and the very nature of building something yourself nearly eliminates the scrutiny of the law, the ability to do so was limited to few individuals with highly technical skills, like gunsmiths. Crude devices could be constructed which would perhaps fire one or two small caliber bullets without failure, but they could hardly be considered firearms in anything other than a legal sense, their utility constrained by their simplicity.
In order to fully understand this issue, one must understand why the term “80 percent receiver” is important.
No one would deny that a fully complete and functional AR15 is a firearm. No one would claim that every chunk of raw aluminum in the ground is a firearm. Where, then, does that chunk of raw aluminum become a firearm? At what point in its processing and machining does it need to have a serial number and subject to a NICS background check in order to be sold by a gun dealer?
The federal government, through its gun-regulating bureau, the ATF, has defined that exactly: up to 80 percent of the work to make the piece of metal, polymer, or other material into a firearm may be completed before it legally becomes a firearm. As long as the work does not progress to 81 percent by the hand of anyone other than the person who is to own the gun, it is not a gun. The remaining 20 percent, then, may be completed by the end user of the gun without any sort of background check or legal requirement.
Polymer80 takes this to a level not seen before in the gun world, for a while 80 percent receivers are not new, they have never before been as accessible, available, or affordable for popular firearms. What is functionally identical to, and capable of receiving nearly all parts for, a Glock handgun can be manufactured and assembled by an unskilled person with basic tools in less than a day.
It’s perhaps contentious to define this as a technological change within the gun industry because the mechanical design of the firearm remains largely unchanged, but its method of delivery and manufacture has required technological changes in manufacturing and even marketing which were not available in decades past. In fact, the advent of the Internet alone has probably facilitated more interest in firearms than any other factor in the past twenty years – save, perhaps, the constantly looming threat of political intervention.
A less contentious example of a technological change in the gun industry – even though it, too, changes nothing about the technology of the firearm itself and is at least initially based upon the manufacture of an exceedingly simple design – is Defense Distributed and its release of CAD files for the 3D printing of firearms. Combined with the rapid proliferation of 3D printing equipment and advances in materials which can be used for 3D printing, this promises to fundamentally change the way firearms are made and acquired, even in the face of stringent gun control schemes.
Defense Distributed recently came out of a years-long lawsuit against the Department of State with what is essentially a huge win: they will soon be able to, once again, distribute the blueprints needed by common 3D printing machines to create firearms. This has the potential to turn the methods by which just about everyone acquires firearms on its head. While some components, like barrels and bolts designed to withstand high pressure and high temperature and to last thousands of rounds, will for some time still need to be made in a traditional factory, the serialized portion of the firearm, called the receiver or frame, can be printed in one’s own home. This can be done without the permission or even the knowledge of the government, making gun control efforts nearly impossible. Imagine how much more difficult the War on Drugs would be if everyone in America could make at home all the drugs they could ever use.
Defense Distributed might be followed by other companies and organizations seeking to provide licensed versions of their own products. Perhaps, only when using an approved 3D printer and polymers, one could in the future make a gun part at home and expect it to be covered by a warranty from a gun “manufacturer” that never manufactures anything itself, instead of farming out that time-consuming and difficult process to the end user. Some gun manufacturers might exist as design houses only.
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