3D printing is a relatively new technology and has been making changes to many industries, including real firearms. The ability to quickly design and print either a finished product or a prototype for a mass produced item means that innovation can come fast and often. So how can we apply this technology to the airsoft market? Very easily, it seems, as all you need is either the ability to do basic 3D design work (or hire someone who can) and access to a 3D printer, which is becoming more and more commonplace. I’ve personally had a few unique items printed, so let’s look at the pros and cons of the process.
Before we go too deep into this, let’s talk about the basics of 3D printing. Current commercial grade 3D printers us a spool of filament, generally a plastic of some sort, to “print” a 3D designed object, one tiny layer at a time. The thinner the layer, the higher “resolution” the end product will have (noticeable printing lines appear at lower resolutions) but the longer it will take to print. A few years ago, you were limited in your materials, but now, you can have rigid or flexible construction in a variety of colors and chemical makeup. There are a few more steps in the process, but in simple terms, you put a 3D image in, and you get an accurate physical object printed a few hours later.
HOW CAN IT BE USED FOR AIRSOFT?
How often have you had an idea for a gun part or accessory, but not the know-how or skills to make it? I know I have, and that’s why I love the idea of 3D printing. On the consumer level, being able to make a one-off part to fit a specific project is invaluable. For manufacturers, the ability to go from idea to early prototype in a few hours instead of days or weeks, means they can take the time to perfect the product in the prototype phase faster and cheaper before moving into full production. For both users, the fact that the filament is dirt cheap means you can print more often without risk of blowing your whole budget on something that might not work.
We’ll be looking at both sides of the equation today; the consumer side and the manufacturer side, as we check out five separate items that were either directly printed or were originally 3D printed in the prototype phase.
Three examples that we’ll be looking at today are my compact battery box for my stubby M4 pistol, a lightweight rectangularmock suppressor, and the buttpad for my ASG SVU custom build. These are parts that didn’t have an “off the shelf” option, so I really had to have them printed. For the battery box, I wanted something that would fit my small LiPo battery on my stubby little M4 pistol without resorting to something like a PEQ box. I reached out to my friend at Milsim Labs who does excellent 3D design work, sent him a hand sketched idea, and a week later, a battery box had arrived at my door. It was originally longer than pictured here, as I was able to modify the design to fit a smaller battery now that I’ve switched it over to a Wolverine Inferno HPA system. It’s not pretty, but neither is the gun, and it’s functional as hell!
For the suppressor and butt pad, I worked with a gentleman who I found on Reddit’s airsoft subreddit who had put together a few 3D printed pieces. I loved his suppressor mainly because I love the look of the Osprey style cans, but I didn’t like the fact that they weighed a ton and negatively affected most pistols’ performance. This thing is lightweight and compatible with anything with 14mm- threads. Unfortunately, his 3D printer has a lower resolution than the one from Milsim Labs, and some touch-up work is required to get rid of those print lines. In these photos, I’ve done some rough sanding to start taking those lines down.
On the butt pad, I needed to replace a pistol grip from an ASG SVD-S with a bullpup style butt pad as I turned it into an SVU inspired custom build. I had done some work with another 3D designer but unfortunately, hadn’t ever received a finished digital file. Starting from the notes and diagrams that I had received, I was able to finish the design with the new designer who had me take a lot of measurements to make sure the thing turned out perfect. This time spent paid off, as the butt pad ended up pretty much drop in, only requiring some very small adjustments to the receiver before it locked in place.
If it weren’t for 3D printing technology, I wouldn’t be able to have these parts put together at all, meaning I’d have several projects at a total standstill. And economically, I was able to have all of these parts designed and printed for around $50 total, which is pretty damn low for one-off parts.
For manufacturers, the ability to quickly whip up a physical prototype is critical to putting out a quality product. The two items we’re looking at from this side of the industry are both made and sold by Milsim Labs. The first item is their MicroKey, a tiny rail mounted shotgun using Goblin Deuce gas charged shells. It’s a very simple device, triggered by pushing a small bar at the back of the launcher, but it gives you a lot of firepower strapped onto a compact gun such as a pistol. The item that I received is actually an item that was slightly misprinted, meaning I needed to do a little bit of work on it before it would function, but overall, the product worked as expected.
The other item is an M4 magazine adapter for Tokyo Marui compatible M3 tri-shot shotguns. These guns normally feed from a 30 round shotgun shell style magazine, giving you 10 usable shots per load. Realistic? Sure, but not exactly skirmishable against high ROF AEGs running hi-cap magazines. This lets you run higher capacity magazines, adding both a unique look as well as a much higher level of skirmishability. You’ll notice that I have it installed in my TM 870 Breacher, a product it wasn’t designed for, and some slight mods were needed before it would function. Now, this item isn’t actually 3D printed, it is cast in high impact semi-rigid urethane, but the mold is based on a 3D printed prototype. This shows how manufacturers can quickly iron out the kinks of a product in the prototype phase before moving it towards mass production.
THE NEGATIVE POINTS
Unfortunately, it’s not all rainbows and sunshine with 3D printing, and the current drawbacks are primarily related to the relatively young technology itself. The first issue is that it takes a LONG time to print large or complex objects. I’m talking eight to ten hours on some particularly complex pieces. During this time, the object could shift, or the filament could break, or a dozen other things could go wrong. This is improving as the printers themselves get faster and more reliable. The other main drawback is with the material itself, as you’re currently restricted to plastic based filaments with consumer grade machines. Sure, there are companies 3D printing firearms and components with metal printers, but these are currently proof of concept guns due to the high cost (a 3D printed 1911 costs almost $12,000!). As the technology progresses, you’ll see more consumer grade metal printers as well as more durable plastic based materials, and that’s when the technology will really take off. We don’t have Star Trek replicators yet, but we’re getting close!
3D printing is still in its infancy, but as the tech improves with each passing generation, the printers themselves get cheaper, and 3D design skills start to become basic high school knowledge, it’s going to be the norm to just print something you need instead of waiting for someone else to produce it. How this affects the world at large is yet to be determined, but as far as airsoft is concerned, it can only help advance the sport. We’ll see gun builds that were previously only possible in our imaginations. Smaller companies will be able to put together products that might just be the “next big thing”. If you strip a piston, you’ll be able to print a new one of your own design instead of ordering one from the store. It’s a future that has some kinks to work out, but it’s one that I’m excited for.