The right-wing extremist attacker from Halle had numerous homemade weapons with him on his shooting spree. But their quality was poor. Others, though, are perfecting the reliability of 3D-printed weapons – and have moved on to rocket launchers.
A man dressed in combat gear is standing in a sparsely furnished room, his face covered by a balaclava and eyes hidden behind mirrored sunglasses. In his hands is a submachine gun, and he pulls out the magazine and jams it back in, over and over again to the beat of the techno music overlaying the video. He then fires off several rounds to prove that this weapon – apparently produced by the 3D printer standing next to him – is fully functional.
To his fans, this man is a pioneer and innovator – a kind of Elon Musk of firearms. On the web, his fans know him by his screen name JStark – as the leader of the largest 3D weapons community. In internal chats, his acolytes have referred to him as the “daddy” of the community and many see him as a hero. His voice in the video makes him sound young, and he speaks fluent, slightly accented English, clearly enjoying his role as trailblazer. As a kind of phantom who is only interested in defending his ideals, a man battling for the disenfranchised and prepared to take up arms against the state if necessary. “Even if there had to be a lot of bloodshed to maintain the right to bear arms, I would still do it,” he said in an interview with DER SPIEGEL last year. Today, though, he is no longer alive.
The attacker from Halle also watched a weapons-construction tutorial from JStark and his accomplices on the internet. Saturday saw the observation of the second anniversary of that attack, in which a 27-year-old right-wing extremist sought to storm the synagogue in Halle on Yom Kippur and kill as many Jews as possible. When he failed to force his way inside the building, he shot at random passersby, killing two and injuring several more. The attacker used homemade weapons in the attack, and was also carrying one with parts from a 3D printer. His stated goal was that of proving the reliability of such firearms and motivating others to build them as well.
For years, a largely uncontrollable market for homemade and 3D-printed weapons has been developing rapidly, almost completely off the public’s radar – pushed forward with video tutorials and detailed instructions. It is nothing short of a nightmare for security officials: The development of increasingly robust materials and the growing interconnectedness of the online community are making it easier and easier for criminals to obtain weapons.
JStark was a key figure in this scene. He developed the submachine gun from the video clip together with an accomplice – a weapon that is said to be far superior to all previous 3D-printed firearms in both precision and reliability. The 9 mm weapon weighs 2.1 kilograms and instructions for building it can be obtained with just a few clicks on the web. From there, all you need is a cheap 3D printer and a quick trip to a DIY store or a couple of purchases on a platform like Ebay – and you can produce your very own, deadly automatic weapon at home.
The automatic weapon is made primarily from plastic out of a 3D printer. Certain elements are made of metal. The model presented here was changed sufficiently by DER SPIEGEL that it cannot be used as a blueprint for construction.
The barrel must withstand significant amounts of heat and pressure, and is thus made of metal. Previous models frequently required the barrels of industrially produced weapons, but the sale of such parts is controlled by weapons laws in Germany.
The trigger mechanism is likewise a central element of the firearm. It can be made completely of plastic or a modified system from freely available toy guns can be used.
The magazine, which accepts 9 mm cartridges, can be produced using a 3D printer.
The community hopes that 3D-printed weapons will allow them to circumvent Germany’s strict weapons laws, which clearly regulate precisely who is allowed to purchase a firearm: Namely sport shooters and hunters with a permit. Only licensed gunsmiths and industrial producers are allowed to build weapons. And those who violate the rules face a prison term of up to 10 years.
These days, though, there are thousands of people participating in weapons-related internet forums where they collaborate on construction blueprints and post the results of target practice sessions with new models. The scene is networked internationally and is extremely multifaceted. They are united, though, by a desire to break the state’s monopoly on power and view the ownership of weapons as a human right, allowing them to defend themselves should it become necessary. Also against the state.
In the Anonymity of Your Own Home
But why are people around the world exerting such effort to build their own firearms at home? There are plenty of rifles and pistols in circulation – up to a billion of them around the world, according to a rough estimate from Small Arms Survey, an independent research project based in Geneva.
Still, in many places it remains difficult to obtain a gun, while in others, they are simply too expensive. In war-torn countries in Africa, in the Philippines and in the Brazilian underworld, improvised, homemade weapons made of metal have long since become common. In Europe, too – such as in Portugal – self-made firearms are commonly used by criminals.
Others look for weapons on the darknet, like the right-wing extremist who shot nine people to death in a Munich shopping center in 2016 and injured many more. The darknet, to be sure, guarantees anonymity, but the chance of being defrauded is significant, as is the danger of running into an undercover police investigator.
The advantage presented by 3D-printed weapons is that the plastic parts can be printed layer-for-layer easily and cheaply. Indeed, it has never been easier to produce a firearm – and it can be done in the safety – and anonymity – of your own home.
It is an approach that the attacker from Halle found appealing. The only reason there weren’t more victims is because his weapons didn’t work all that well and constantly jammed. In the video streamed by the shooter, you can see him repeatedly pointing his weapons at defenseless passersby and pulling the trigger, only for the gun not to fire.
Investigative files obtained by DER SPIEGEL show the incredible attention to detail demonstrated by the attacker as he prepared his onslaught and the loopholes of which he was able to take advantage as he spent years building up an arsenal of explosives and firearms in his father’s workshop – completely under the radar of Germany’s security agencies. He began stocking up long before the attack, motivated by hatred of migrants and Jews – and of the German state, which he felt exerted control over everything, including gun ownership. He developed the blueprint for his weapons more or less on his own, though he based them on plans for popular firearm models that he was able to find on the internet.
Weapons Under the Bed
He was able to legally buy all the materials necessary for his murder weapons on the internet and in DIY stores, including chemicals for explosives and ammunition and the material for the weapons itself. He bought a 3D printer from China for around 100 euros to produce a submachine gun out of plastic.
The attacker had taken a few semesters of chemistry at university before dropping out, which helped him produce the explosives and the rounds of ammunition in his arsenal, but aside from that, he possessed no technical training. Once he had finished building a weapon in his father’s workshop, he would take it to his mother’s house, where he would hide it in the drawer under his bed – a process which went on for years.
During the attack in Halle, he was armed with seven homemade firearms, along with more than 1,000 rounds of ammunition and around four kilograms of explosives. He made use of three of those firearms. Shortly before he set off for the Halle synagogue, he uploaded his construction manual and 3D models to the internet.
“He used some weird, weak mixture for his reloaded cartridges,” JStark told DER SPIEGEL, speaking of the ammunition used by the Halle attacker. He was seconded by an accomplice of his named Ivan: “This might sound bad, but had he coordinated with us, his guns might actually have worked halfway decently.”
The two weapons developers agreed to speak with DER SPIEGEL on condition of anonymity. Because they refused an in-person interview, worried that doing so could help investigators find their trail, the discussion took place via Skype. A face-to-face meeting, said JStark, “would be extremely risky.”
The two had a detached, purely technical view of the murders in Halle. They insisted that they did not welcome extremists into their ranks. “We do kick people who are overtly racists from our channel,” he said. And it is true that in the chats established by Ivan and JStark to develop and disseminate their 3D models, there are very few politically tinged statements. Most contributions are exclusively focused on producing homemade weapons with the help of a 3D printer.
“Firearms for Everybody”
Those who do post a political opinion are warned: “We should prob avoid that kind of talk in here,” for example, or: “Guys no politics ples.” According to JStark, the attack in Halle engendered very little discussion in the digital firearm-construction scene and nobody really knew of the attacker or his gun models. But his approach to such excesses can be seen in the following statement: “Even if it means harm, I’d rather everybody, even criminals and crooks, have the ability to have firearms than to restrict the ability to have firearms for everybody.”
The community started by the duo has more than 10,000 members and is likely the largest and best-known in the scene. But there are plenty of other platforms out there, where you can find tinkerers who enjoy building firearms – and can do so quite legally in countries like the U.S. There are also plenty of extremists who are trying to illegally obtain weapons without being tracked down by security officials.
In the U.S., it is possible to buy online pre-printed sets that can be easily assembled at home. In weapons forums and via Telegram, sellers offer completely assembled firearms built according to the popular blueprints created by JStark, models that are increasingly seized in raids around the world – particularly in countries with strict weapons laws.
In May 2021, police in the English town of Keighley, just west of Leeds, took four suspected right-wing extremists into custody. They are suspected of spreading terrorist propaganda and sharing blueprints for the construction of firearms in addition to operating a 3D-printing workshop.
In September 2020, Spanish police on the island of Tenerife raided a workshop that was illegally producing 3D-printed weapons and arrested a 55-year-old man who possessed both Nazi memorabilia and chemicals for the production of explosives. Officers found 19 printed pistol frames, nine magazines and two silencers.
In June 2021, Finnish officials broke up a criminal network with help from the FBI as part of a large-scale raid. They confiscated drugs and discovered a 3D-printing workshop. The new models introduced by JStark have also been found in recent years in the U.S. and Australia, where some states have already criminalized the possession of 3D printers for the purpose of producing firearms.
“In the last two or three years, there have been massive jumps when it comes to 3D-printing guns,” says Nic Jenzen-Jones of Armament Research Services, a private organization from Australia which collects and analyzes data pertaining to weapons from around the world. “The newest hybrid models that are built from metal and plastic are significantly more advanced in terms of their capability compared to the firearms the Halle shooter used,” he says. Even rifled barrels, which improve accuracy, can now be produced relatively easily using an electrochemical procedure.
“Less Skill Every Year”
Jenzen-Jones has had his eye on the scene since around 2013. That was the year that the U.S. law student Cody Wilson developed the Liberator, a weapon which launched the era of homemade firearms. For the first time, it was possible to use a 3D printer to create a gun, without expertise and without having to spend a fortune. The only element made of metal was the firing pin, which strikes the cartridge to fire the bullet. He used a simple nail for the part. Security agencies around the world were alarmed.
The weapon, though, was hardly perfect. Poorly made Liberators could explode, injuring the hands or the eyes of the person firing the weapon. Since then, though, a lot has changed, with the scene having spent the last eight years working diligently toward the creation of new and more stable models. “You still need some skill for some of the more complex hybrid designs that use metal components besides plastic,” says Jenzen-Jones. “But even these require less skill every year.”
The Liberator can only fire a single shot and must then be reloaded, assuming that the pistol survives the first shot. These days, numerous modified models are in circulation.
Even odd-looking models like this six-shooter revolver are far from being playthings. This fully functional weapon was developed in 2014.
Weapons freaks were able to take the next step toward more reliable models with the development of hybrid, homemade weapons using 3D-printed parts. Those pieces that must withstand significant pressure and heat, such as the barrel, are made of metal. The rest is made of plastic.
Even weapons parts that are regulated by law in many countries are now produced using 3D printers. This Glock pistol frame is one example, along with the inconspicuous add-on (beneath the frame) which transforms it from a semi-automatic into a fully automatic weapon.
There will be no more models forthcoming from JStark. A few months after his interview with DER SPIEGEL, he suddenly went quiet. The scene quickly began speculating about what may have happened to him. The last traces of his online activity were from April of this year, with his profiles on social networks, messaging platforms and forums having since been deleted. Did he get cold feet? DER SPIEGEL reporting was able to determine what happened to the weapons fan, and the fact that the police had been on his trail for years.
As noted in a confidential memo from Germany’s Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA), German investigators received a message from England in December of last year. A British financial services provider offered a clue pertaining to a German man who could have been involved in producing and disseminating 3D-printed firearms. The trail led the authorities to Jacob D., a 28-year-old from Hannover thought to have Kurdish roots.
Officials involved in the investigation describe Jacob D. as an eccentric who had changed his first and last names two years before. Last summer, he moved from Hannover to a small apartment in the village of Völklingen, near the German border with France. A new name, a new city: It remains unclear what triggered Jacob D. to make the change. One investigator says that D. lived the life of a hermit in Völklingen, all by himself and isolated from others. After months of investigation, the investigators launched a raid in late June, with a commando storming his apartment. They found a 3D printer, several mobile phones, hard drives and a laptop, but no weapons. Jacob D. was allowed to remain free.
Two days after the raid, relatives found his body in a car parked in front of his parents’ home in Hannover. An autopsy was unable to reveal a clear cause of death, but coroners ruled out foul play. Investigators fear that Jacob D. could now be viewed in the scene as a martyr, with the strange nature of his death perfect for inspiring conspiracy theories. Coroners, though, believe he died a natural death, even though the official cause remains “undetermined.” D. apparently suffered from a weak heart from birth. “Perhaps the excitement was just too much for him,” says the investigating official.
Relatively Reliable Results
Either way, the death of JStark isn’t likely to slow down the 3D-weapons scene. But obtaining ammunition remains a challenge for the community in Germany. Without a permit, they are unable to obtain the powder necessary. The solution of the illegal weapons-building scene has always been to produce the stuff on their own, but that sounds much easier than it is. “The combustion speed of the propellant powder must be perfectly matched to the combination of cartridge and weapon,” says weapons expert Niels Heinrich. A university lecturer, Heinrich teaches weapons and explosives law at police academies. “Homemade propellant doesn’t usually work. If too much pressure is produced, the weapon could explode.” Should that happen, weapons-builders could easily lose fingers, or their eyesight.
But the illegal weapons community seems to have found a solution to that problem as well, taking advantage of the fact that munitions for special, powder-driven tools can be legally purchased. If you carefully break open the cartridges and fill the powder into previously fired weapons cartridges, you can produce new rounds of ammunition. The procedure isn’t free of risk, but according to the weapons builders themselves, it produces relatively reliable results.
Security agencies have thus far appeared largely impotent against the scene. Even in Germany, which has some of the strictest weapons laws in the world, there are still loopholes that can be taken advantage of. “As soon as one potential weapon of choice is banned, the perpetrators sidestep and use a different one,” says Heinrich. Still, he’s not pessimistic: “We have extremely strict laws, and if you think about the huge effort expended by the Halle attacker to obtain weapons, and the extremely poor results, that is a sign that we’re actually not in terrible shape.”
Jenzen-Jones, though, says: “Most control methods are doomed to fail.” Numerous components, such as the pipes that can withstand high pressure, are used for numerous legal purposes, he notes. How can their use be controlled? “If there is an outside force driving people to acquire a firearm and they can’t acquire a commercially produced firearm, people will find a way to manufacture one,” he says.
When contacted, the German Interior Ministry said it does not keep statistics on 3D-printed weapons. A spokeswoman said that there are also no current plans to make changes to the country’s weapons laws. “The German government sees no need to amend weapons laws since sufficient legal regulation already exists.”
JStark’s former accomplices aren’t particularly concerned about weapons laws anyway, and are no longer limiting themselves to the construction of 3D-printed firearms and the production of ammunition. They have moved on – to rocket launchers and experiments with armed drones.