The concept of a company bundling an 80% completed firearm receiver with a kit to finish the product has been around since the ’90’s. The last 10 years have seen a massive increase in both the number of kits and the variety of firearms they’re available for. Defense Distributed (DefDist) is producing the Ghost Gunner 2, which is billed as “…the only affordable CNC solution for privately finishing your 80% lower receivers.” It attempts to be two things: a massive political statement, and an efficient method for knocking out finished AR lower receivers and 1911 frames (so far). Let’s take a look at how well the Ghost Gunner accomplishes these ambitions.
(Also, time lapse video of the machining process here.)
For the tech specs, I rely heavily on DefDist’s website. I came in to this project with no machining knowledge or experience more in-depth than heavy dremel work.
“Ghost Gunner is built from rigid plasma-cut A36 steel and 304 stainless steel. The machine part count is greatly reduced compared to traditional CNC machines, which both increases rigidity and decreases cost.
Ghost Gunner 2 employs a horizontal milling format, a 10,000 rpm ER-11 collet unibody machined spindle and has a machinable area of 8.25″ x 2.95″ x 2.35″, optimized for machining AR-15 and AR-308 receivers.”
Regarding the software:
“Beyond files of our own .DD format, Ghost Gunner is meant to accept TinyG code from any CAM program. The platform is open and the plans and files will be disclosed to the public domain.”
So it’s a 50 lb pocket CNC. While designed for AR platform receivers, it is capable of much more. The hardware has been available on the market for a lot longer than the software marketplace has been open to the public, due to legal entanglements with the Federal government. With that aspect cleared up (Federally, though it is contested in some states), DefDist has opened the public software marketplace and one can expect user-submitted projects to be in the works.
Furthermore, given the open source nature of the machine, aftermarket functions have already started popping up. One website in particular, is the GhostWriter Engraving webtool by Matthew Komar. It is a simple and detailed program that generates the code needed to engrave text, serial numbers or even photos onto your receiver using the Ghost Gunner. The program is free and easy, underscoring how one person with knowledge of coding can change the game for a huge number of end-users who (like me) are lacking the technical skills to manually program or engrave them myself. So whether you need a serial number due to state laws, or want to engrave a photo on your rifle, what was once a “send out” job now takes 20 minutes in the garage.
At the federal level, it is legal for people to produce firearms for themselves free of serial numbers. If someone were to sell one, they then become a “manufacturer” to the government and subject to additional licensing and regulations; there are additional considerations in some states and local municipalities.
DefDist was nice enough to send three receivers with the Ghost Gunner 2 for review, a pair of AR-15 receivers and one AR-308 lower. Also included was the software necessary to run the Ghost Gunner 2, jigs to hold the receivers in the machine and a collet, drill bit, end mill and an assortment of t-nuts and bolts.
I joined a Facebook group for Ghost Gunner users, hoping to get a bit of an education and avoid any new-user pitfalls. While the Ghost Gunner 2 doesn’t require a machining background to use, there is still a learning curve. A small mistake can ruin a receiver or damage the machine and a little studying and patience can prevent that.
The aptly named “.dd” files make the whole operation idiot-resistant. With a milling operation in .dd format, it breaks everything down into a step-by-step process that includes diagrams and extra details written in for clarity. You’re prompted to click “next” between every step and are even forewarned before the machine starts moving.
My first receiver took a pretty long time to finish because I stopped a couple times to second guess, research and restart the process. It still turned out great. The second receiver took just a few hours, with only about 20 minutes of hands-on time where I was setting up the next operation by changing the position of the lower.
In the end, both ended up looking mighty nice. Having learned a couple lessons along the way, I now know to slow the feed-rate (the rate at which the movements are performed) during certain processes to ensure a smooth finish. For example, running the drill through the hammer/trigger pin holes at 30% leads to a smoother finish and a tighter fit.
Speech is a code, code is a weapon:
So far we’ve discussed two of the main players here, Defense Distributed and Ghost Gunner. With DefDist being the parent company behind the Ghost Gunner project, founder Cody Wilson has one more aspect here: DEFCAD. DEFCAD is the online firearms file resource and marketplace at the heart of the multi-year court battle with the State Department. Essentially, Wilson wanted to host and publish a number of blueprints for firearms on DEFCAD, the State Dept. said that would be a violation if ITAR, the International Trade in Arms regs. What Wilson did that was so genius was to intertwine the 1st and 2nd amendments. If a weapon can be broken down to code, and code can be called free speech, the government cannot stifle access to schematics and blueprints without also violating a right to free speech. While the 2nd amendment has long been trampled and disregarded by anti-gun jurists, the 1st amendment has proven far harder to infringe upon.
The settlement with the State department was much more than just making the case go away and removing federal roadblocks for DefDist to publish DEFCAD, “the government expressly acknowledges that non-automatic firearms up to .50-caliber – including modern semi-auto sporting rifles such as the popular AR-15 and similar firearms – are not inherently military”. While a settlement is less potent than a legal ruling, the quote from State you just read does set a precedent within the agency. Two of the main arguments for gun control have been effectively neutered in one fell swoop. Files containing all data needed to produce a gun? Available for download. The argument that modern sporting rifles (such as the AR platform) are “military in nature”? Refuted.
It’s hard to review the Ghost Gunner without considering that it is also the financial engine that has funded one of the biggest proactive 2nd amendment victories in a fortnight. Are there less expensive ways to finish an 80% receiver? Undoubtedly. Are there other methods that produce a nicer finished product? Possibly, but not that I’ve seen. The Ghost Gunner does two things really very well. It lowers the technical barrier to enter a wider world of machining, allowing one such as me with no machining knowledge to produce a nicer end product (and many more of them) than a jig and drill kit. The second thing the Ghost Gunner does really well is give a giant “fuck you” to the entire anti-gun establishment. From politicians to hand-wringing news anchors, the Ghost Gunner is sending the clear message that those who defend the 2nd amendment will not be incrementally legislated into irrelevance.
For a consumer, the question is always “Is the juice worth the squeeze?”. For anyone who considers themselves a defender of the 2nd with an interest in finishing their own 80% receivers, the Ghost Gunner is worth a strong look. It has been around for a couple years, but the open-source software aftermarket is just starting to gain traction, as evidenced by Matthew Komar’s GhostWriter engraving webtool. It is a great shortcut that will get you ahead of the game, but only to a point. It will never replace a full-size CNC with a machinists education, nor does it cost nearly as much. It does quite a bit for the money, and will be doing more and more as time goes on. Now it’s time for me to order a 1911 frame to finish…
Defense Distributed, Ghost Gunner and DEFCAD continue to rankle enemies of liberty. Consider donating to DEFCAD’s fundraiser as they fight for the rights of all citizens.