Cody Wilson is standing on red Texas dirt jamming ammunition into an M-16 magazine. It’s a cool December evening at an outdoor shooting range about 45 minutes from downtown Austin, and he’s giving me a lesson in Firearms 101. Lying on a wooden table in front of him is the rest of the M-16, a fully automatic weapon, all black save for one component: a reddish-orange lower receiver, one Wilson designed, that is completely plastic.
This particular receiver has had about 1,200 rounds fired through it. The receiver houses the rifle’s trigger assembly, holds the magazine, contains the safety key and connects the stock and barrel. It is what U.S. gun law regulates—which is precisely why Wilson started 3D printing his own receivers through his company, Defense Distributed.
He hands me the M-16 and I fire a round, a noise that sounds like an aluminum baseball bat striking a two-by-four. Wilson picks up the other weapon in tow—his AK-74, the successor to the famous AK-47 rifle—kneels to my right, takes aim at one of two targets down range, and starts shooting. “Now we’re killing them together!” he shouts. An hour later, we’re out of .223 ammo. Dusk has fallen and the range is closing anyway, so we pack up and leave in his BMW coupe with a broken right running light. “Do you smell that?” he asks giddily, cupping his hands to his face, savoring the odor of gunshot residue.
For three days I’ve shadowed Wilson, the 27-year-old techno-anarchist known for 3D printing a pistol and posting its design files online. Past news coverage had made his victory over gun control seem imminent. U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer had characterized his ideas and company as “stomach churning.” I wanted to know if this vision was really coming to pass.
Wilson is of average height and trim. When I meet him he has close-cropped dark hair and a tidy beard over his cleft chin. His strong jaw line is the sort a ghoulish-chinned Habsburg duke might pine for. Covering his eyes: Tortoise-shell Ray-Ban Wayfarers, prescription shades he wears incessantly because he doesn’t want to buy new eyeglasses.
In person he’s rather mellow, but the shooting range jolted him to life. He’s like an exuberant teen who just found out he was no longer grounded, perhaps because running Defense Distributed, which aims to bring guns and gun components to the masses, has been an altogether adult affair. Insurance snags and shipping headaches—not to mention planning his legal case against the U.S. State Department—occupy the bulk of his days. It seems most reputable companies shy away from his business, throwing up roadblocks he hadn’t anticipated.
Perhaps his brash speech deters them. Wilson invokes political theory as if it’s second nature, calling forth images of America’s Revolutionary War at regular intervals. “We had a radical republican founding, which was suspicious of a standing army, state control, state garrisons of arms,” he lectures me at one point. “The state would marshal the militia, teach you how to use the guns. But there was a belief it was up to the individual, as a sovereign individual, to have these weapons.”
After the shooting range, we head to a Mexican restaurant where he lays out his philosophy in stark terms: “This is a battle rifle—this is to do battle,” he says, referring to his Kalashnikov. “Don’t mince the words. Your birthright isn’t for the feds to have a gun.”
As I listen to him, I’m trying to reconcile the three Wilsons I’ve encountered on my trip—the political theorist, the smalltime shopkeeper and the would-be destroyer of all we hold dear. And after three days, I think I know what Wilson’s after. In his pitch, he’s just a guy who hopes to change the world by making guns easier than ever to obtain. But what I think he truly wants is a chance to lash out at the system and leave a mark—a digital graffiti artist with national ambitions, who rationalizes it all with a mishmash of political philosophy.
But in order to go big, Wilson first has to go very, very small. During my visit I either watched Wilson as he worked the phone and banged out emails at the factory or accompanied him on dozens of errands around town, a steady stream of anti-government rhetoric spouting from his lips. Here was the anarchist gangster reviewing his shopping list, paying his bills, collecting his mail. He was the model middle manager, properly wrangling with the small realities of dismantling federal gun control. What’s it really like to launch, and then run, the country’s most dangerous, heretical startup? Slogging, dull agony, mostly. But at least there’s the firing range.
When Wilson launched Defense Distributed in July 2012, he said the goal was to design a working gun that could be “printed” in a matter of hours from digital instructions and through a successive layering of thermoplastic resin. His Austin-based company began 3D printing gun components that fall: first the lower receiver for the semiautomatic AR-15 rifle—a variant of which was used in the December 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting—and then magazines. The radical thing about this was simple. The receiver, being the key to assembling a working rifle, is the only part the government requires to have a serial number. Wilson’s invention meant that anyone could make one, or many, without this detail. It was a recipe for criminals to make untraceable guns.
Defense Distributed successfully fired the world’s first 3D printed, single-shot pistol in May 2013. It was practically a coup. Called the Liberator, the gun’s digital design files were downloaded more than 100,000 times. Two days later, Wilson dropped out of University of Texas law school to pursue Defense Distributed full-time and continue uploading design files for 3D printable guns.
“It was like a global thing on an $18,000 budget,” he says.
Then Wilson received a letter from the U.S. State Department, citing arms export law, that ordered him to take down his design files. Because the files were online, they could be downloaded in other countries, as well, possibly circumventing the U.S. Arms Export Control Act. DEFCAD.org, the website Defense Distributed had been using to host those files, shut down. By May 2014, after spending a year trying to raise money to run DEFCAD and get his files approved, Wilson moved back to his hometown outside Little Rock, Arkansas.
But late last year, Wilson and Defense Distributed reemerged. In October 2014 Wilson revealed his biggest project to date: the Ghost Gunner, a miniaturized CNC milling machine small enough to sit on a desktop. It’s thousands of dollars cheaper than big CNC mills—computer-programmable industrial tools for cutting away material—and capable of producing aluminum lower receivers compatible with the AR-15 rifle. Some gun owners buy “80 percent lowers,” inexpensive, solid pieces of incomplete receivers that fall just below the threshold of what the federal government considers a legit firearm. Wilson’s machine allows novice machinists to mill an aluminum receiver to completion. U.S. law doesn’t prohibit making your own receiver for personal use.
Defense Distributed sold out a pre-order of 500 machines, collecting nearly $700,000 in the process. Wilson moved back to Austin. By December, Defense Distributed was assembling Ghost Gunners in a new, 1,800-square-foot factory. In January, gun rights activists used the Ghost Gunner to mill an AR-15 lower receiver on the steps of the Texas state capitol building. While he preps his legal case to get his 3D-printable gun files back online, Wilson is focusing on proliferating weapons through the Ghost Gunner.
“We’re not interested in making you a machine where you have a more productive life,” he tells me. “We’re interested in multiplying the problem.”
Defense Distributed’s factory is a mostly empty garage in a drab business park. The name of the old tenant, a vehicle inspection school, is still faintly visible on the front door. Positioned near the front door are tables loaded with the motors that will power 500 Ghost Gunners. In back there’s a large garage door where Defense Distributed takes in shipments of parts.
When I arrive on a Tuesday afternoon in early December, the would-be harbinger of digital doom is dealing with an important, if dull, problem: The insurance agency he thought would cover the factory just declined. “They saw the website,” he says. Not getting insurance is a minor setback for now, as long as none of the three guys he’s hired at Defense Distributed — two part-timers, one full-timer, Wilson says — chops off a finger.
The lack of insurance is just the beginning of Wilson’s woes. He tells me that Stripe, the payment processor, closed him out a month earlier. And now he’s working feverishly to get Ghost Gunners shipped before Christmas. Defense Distributed’s 29-year-old engineer, John Sullivan, is testing the machine, but they are weeks behind schedule.
An 18-wheeler has arrived out back with a shipment of shelf organizers, bins, carts, and one 1,200-pound straddle stacker, a forklift you can stand on to maneuver heavy objects around the warehouse. There’s no way his employees can lift the straddle stacker, so Wilson hurriedly arranges for redelivery on a different truck. It’s 10 minutes past one, and he and Ben Denio—his current roommate and the person with whom he formulated the original idea for Defense Distributed—are due at a milling class at 1:30 p.m. He dashes off, leaving me behind at the factory.
When we catch up later, I start to get a sense of Wilson-the-former-law-student. His diction is polished and deliberate. When he speaks, he borrows the argot of philosophers—Michel Foucault, Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean Baudrillard. His arguments pour out of him as manic bursts of full paragraphs interrupted by laughter.
As with many a Silicon Valley founder, he’s not only a school dropout but also an adherent to the virtue of disruption. “If you can print it, then you leak a gun onto the Internet, what does that do?” says Wilson. “And that’s its political dimension — undermining the basically perceived legitimacy, or even potency, of the state structure itself.”
That night Wilson and his compatriots stay at the factory until 2:30 am, sorting 100,000 bolts into their respective bins.
On Wednesday I tag along with Wilson on several errands. After renting a pickup from U-Haul, we find ourselves parked outside a UPS store while Wilson leafs through a stack of envelopes.
“Maaaaaaan. Why do I wanna worry about shit like this?” He has just opened a letter from the Texas Workforce Commission demanding he hang up federal and state labor law posters in his shop, for which he must pay $84 by Dec. 19.
“All right, so this is just a shakedown,” says Wilson, impersonating the federal bogeyman. “‘By the way, fuck you! Send us $84, or you go to jail.’ Or, wait, no, ‘fines up to 17 grand.’ I don’t want that. Nooobody wants that.”
After two other trips to Home Depot and a downtown furniture warehouse—four pairs of work gloves, three tables, three spike strips, a stud finder, a level, a 50-foot extension cord, and one three-foot, yellow crow bar—we return to Defense Distributed headquarters, where Sullivan is plugging the battery into the 11-foot-tall Straddle Stacker.
“Yes!” Wilson yells. He walks with purpose up to the forklift and stands on the load center, one foot on each side of the lift. As Sullivan starts raising the lift, Wilson stretches his arms out like an evangelical preacher, stares at the ceiling, and breaks into a belly laugh. Warehouse equipment secured.
In these moments, Wilson assumes the mantle of optimistic startup founder. He becomes elated, maniacal, and eminently quotable all at once.
“You’re not able to stop these Ghost Guns. All you’ve done is define the thing that scares you the most,” says Wilson. “This is the machine that multiplies the firearm, which is heebie jeebies—you’re not even supposed to have one. And now the Eye of Sauron can’t even see them being produced?” A look of cultivated contempt flashes across his face.
For Wilson, Defense Distributed is a formal challenge to the U.S. government. It’s the Tree of Liberty, soaked in blood and updated for the 21st century. What the typical American voter who casts a ballot every presidential election takes for granted as civilization — say, taxes, the two-party system, a feeling of security that a gunman won’t ambush you inside a shopping mall — is what Wilson and his band of digiphiles hope to smash to pieces. Giving someone the means to create a firearm counts as genuine politics in Wilson’s world.
Consider what he told Popular Science following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting: “Understanding that rights and civil liberties are something that we protect is also understanding that they have consequences that are also protected, or tolerated.”
This kind of language is shocking the first time you hear it. After a while he starts to seem remote and performative. Much of what he shares sounds like rote political theorizing. “There’s no startup that’s allowed to be out there promoting the idea of the multiplication of death,” he muses at one point. “Silicon Valley, that culture is a poisonous one. It’s more than a circle jerk — you’re not allowed to think evil.”
He talks, and I listen. And I go with him on some of what he says: We banter about the English Revolution, the Federalist Papers, District of Columbia v. Heller. But when it comes to the propagation of evil, I don’t know what to say.
For some perspective I turned to Mitch Berman, who had Wilson in his criminal law class at the University of Texas. “I liked him as a student,” he tells me in late December. “He was smart. He was engaged.” But Berman wasn’t enthused by Wilson’s project after fielding his question about the legality of Wilson’s 3D-printed gun, the Liberator. “To me, it seemed a little bit like he was enamored of the technology, and he realized it could be done and he could do it, as opposed to stemming from a deep ideological commitment,” says Berman. “I asked him why he was doing it, and he answered something along the lines of ‘Because I can.’”
Before he can disrupt the government, though, Wilson will have to first best it on its own terms. Wilson disputes the idea that he violated arms export law by publishing the files for the Liberator, the AR-15 lower receiver and the magazines.
“This is Joe Schmo, working in his garage, drawing up some prints for something, and the government’s coming in there saying you can’t hold that up in public and you can’t talk to people about it,” says Matt Goldstein, Wilson’s lawyer in Washington, D.C.
Wilson says now he’s just asking for permission to place his files online again, although he frames this impending battle as something more. “There will be a Defense Distributed v. United States that those bastards at UT law will have to read one day,” he says.
In such moments he steps outside of himself, and speaks of founding Defense Distributed as a fateful event, one for which he’ll be remembered a long time. “When I was in high school, I read Robert Payne’s Life and Death of Lenin… And something about Lenin as a figure was just,” Wilson’s voice trails off. Then he completes the thought: “The zeal of a man who doesn’t just have the idea but can inflict the idea. I want that.”
For the moment, the infliction of the Ghost Gunner on America has been stalled by FedEx and UPS, which refuse to deliver it. In a February email to those who had purchased Ghost Gunners, Wilson kept up his bluster: “I will find another way to ship the machine.”
Yet when we talk again in early March, he sounds jaded. “It’s a massive enterprise of deterrence and prevention in which we are subsumed,” Wilson says by phone. “It’s like the nightmare of a startup with the added complication that no one will allow you to do it anyway.”
There’s a quotation attributed to Jean Baudrillard, the French sociologist and philosopher to whom Wilson owes some credit for his present ideas, that reads: “The great person is ahead of their time, the smart make something out of it, and the blockhead, sets themselves against it.”
Whether done consciously or not, Wilson had moments where he reflected Baudrillard’s thinking. “Besides the song and dance and ‘Cody Wilson’s a big clown,’ there’s a deep dissatisfaction and yearning on the part of all these badasses I work with,” he told me the night I’d arrived in Austin. “We just want something else. We’re cowboys of the digital era—what a grand synthesis on our part.”
It’s Wednesday night, the end of Day Two, and we go to Freedmen’s Bar for cocktails and barbecue. He orders smoked sausage and brisket, and as we wait for the food, he starts reflecting on the article I’m writing.
“To make this a profile doesn’t do us any favors in the end,” he says, guzzling a gin and tonic. “It’s more successful when it’s like, well, who is he? What does he want? We can’t reason with him!” Wilson lets out a full-bellied laugh, then goes on: “When there aren’t answers to the questions, the radical incompleteness. He wants nothing!”
I don’t buy that. He wants to build a mythology and elevate Defense Distributed beyond the role of anarchist federal foil and infant startup. He wants a world where he’s viewed a champion, not just in his own eyes and the eyes of his supporters, but also in the eyes of everyone who would prevent what he’s doing now. He wants to prove he is the great person, ahead of his time, waiting for us to catch up.
Our food arrives. We dish it out and dig in. And then Wilson pauses. He sits up, looks across the table, and says, “What we should do tomorrow is get drunk, and go shoot machine guns.”