Plastic Casting: The Next Step For Homebuilt Firearms?

Nathaniel F
by Nathaniel F

Hognose at his home website WeaponsMan.com takes a look at the fascinating process of plastic casting utilizing a 3D printed plastic pattern to create, over and over again, firearms receivers that hopefully should last longer than existing 3D printed lowers:

There are still several technologies open to us, like metal injection molding (which probably made the fiddly bits inside your carry handgun, unless you’re old school). But even that has some complexities, even though it shows signs of integrating really well with 3D printing. Basically, you can do the prep work, but someone with an industrial setup needs to do the actual MIM for you.

How about plastic casting? There are plastics that are a pain to 3D print, but that can be cast at room temperature and atmospheric pressure. Fosscad experimenter FP gave it a shot, and produced some gratifying results: plastic AR lowers that appear to be superior in strength to 3D printed versions.

The difference between plastic casting and plastic injection molding which is how your Smith or Glock frame is made is that injection molding is done under pressure, and casting is done in atmospheric conditions. That means that casting will usually be less dense and will be done with materials that are poured and set at lower temperatures, as a rule of thumb. Molding is commonly used on Hollywood sets and props, for example, but it also has architectural and industrial applications. Both the silicon “rubber” for the mold and the plastic for the castings come in parts that react and solidify when mixed.

This page on imgur walks you through two complete batches of plastic casting multiple AR lowers using two different molds, one contained in a see-through plastic box and one in a wooden box.

The sequence of events is:

  • Print and prepare (i.e. strip off support material, acetone-vapor treat, etc.) your lower or other master part (called a “pattern” in casting).
  • Prepare a mold box and place your pattern in it. Include some material to form a pouring inlet, runners or sprues if needed, and an air release hole.
Source: weaponsman.com
  • Prepare and mix the mold RTV and pour it into the mold box. Let it cure. Beware of exothermic reactions.
Source: weaponsman.com
  • Once the mold has fully set, remove it from the box, and carefully cut the silicone away from the pattern, taking care to neither damage the pattern (you may want another mold; they don’t last forever) nor, especially, the mold. Cut apart, the mold will have four parts: left, right, bottom, and core.
Source: weaponsman.com
  • Reassemble the mold in the mold box.
  • Mix and pour casting plastic; let it set.
  • Open the mold and remove the cast lower.
Source: weaponsman.com
  • Repeat as needed.

Initial testing suggests that these lowers are stronger than printed lowers, and there are stronger, more exotic casting plastics available. Some of this testing has already begun.

Hognose sure knows his oddball manufacturing techniques. Polymer casting is a natural conclusion for anyone with a 101-level knowledgebase in manufacturing, but recognizing something is an interesting idea and getting it to work well are two entirely different things. It may be that polymer casting doesn’t work, or that it works only as a way to produce better components with cheaper 3D printers and media, but if it does shake out, that could be the push the home-grown polymer AR lower market needs to become truly practical.

At WeaponsMan, commenter Ratus adds to the discussion, posting a couple of polymer casting videos from the YouTube channel Tested, both embedded below:

Nathaniel F
Nathaniel F

Nathaniel is a history enthusiast and firearms hobbyist whose primary interest lies in military small arms technological developments beginning with the smokeless powder era. He can be reached via email at nathaniel.f@staff.thefirearmblog.com.

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  • Curtis Thompson Curtis Thompson on Aug 24, 2015

    I'm a mechanical engineering student, and I've done a lot with 3D printers in manufacturing these past couple months, and there are a whole host of methods that can utilize 3D printed parts to make parts out of other materials. For example 3D printed parts with hollow interior filled with epoxy or another resin can be used in hydro forming sheet metal. There is also investment casting, where you'd print a 3D part using FDM and cover it with ceramic cast that will become the mold. You then burn out the 3D printed part from the mold, and you have a ceramic mold that you can fill with molten metal, and have a really strong metal cast part with a known ash content. Alternatively, in the soluble core method, you can print the interior of a hollow part in dissolvable support filament, then you send it off to someone who can apply a composite material to the surface, like carbon fiber, and then just dissolve out the 3D printer interior. This gives you a solid, carbon fiber part in one piece, without any seams, and an intact internal matrix.

    And don't forget the ability to use 3D printing to make custom jigs and tooling such as fixtures and drill guides that take all the guess work and human error out of machining the parts you want from home.

    I could go on forever, but this presentation gives a lot of ideas on how 3D printing can be used to make parts from other materials. https://www.youtube.com/wat...

    I never thought about using all of these processes to make firearm parts before though...

    • Tassiebush Tassiebush on Aug 24, 2015

      @Curtis Thompson I really like comments like this. They are really good for folks like myself who wouldn't have a clue such innovations were occurring otherwise!

  • Scars-2-Prove-It Scars-2-Prove-It on Aug 25, 2015

    With all this DIY stuff going on--using these newfangled plastic-ma-bobs and all--I can report my own findings:

    Play-Doh does NOT work!

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