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Best (and Worst) Zip Guns: Improvised Firearms

Zip guns have been hitting the news a lot lately, between the one used in the Shinzo Abe assassination and the constant hand-wringing about 3D printed guns. 

But what exactly are zip guns, and why do people use them? We’re about to go into just that. We’ll talk about the good, the bad, and the ugly of zip guns, including some notable examples of zip guns in the real world. 

WHAT IS A ZIP GUN?

In short, a zip gun is a crude, homemade firearm. However, there isn’t really a hard and fast definition, and some people have looser definitions than others.

Generally, they’re made by improvising other products and materials to make the firearm, and “crude” is a pretty essential part of most definitions. Most zip guns aren’t particularly effective. The archetypical zip gun is a single-shot pistol, and, historically, zip guns were most commonly chambered for .22LR, which isn’t exactly known for its power. 

.38 Spl Knuckleduster zip gun… we know nothing else about it!

A completely homemade but well-constructed firearm generally isn’t considered a zip gun by all but the loosest definitions.  

For our purposes, we’ll mostly keep the “crude” part of the definition, though, in our examples below, we’ll mention some that toe the line simply because they get brought up in conversations around zip guns or because I just thought they were neat. 

But what’s the point of making and using a zip gun anyway?

WHY DO PEOPLE USE ZIP GUNS?

Sometimes they’re just built because they’re fun. Trying to MacGyver a firearm can be an interesting challenge for gunsmiths. 

Most commonly, though, zip guns are made and used by people who, for whatever reason, can’t obtain firearms legally. 

On the individual level, that can mean quite a few categories of people, like people with felony charges, people who are too young to legally purchase a firearm, or people who can’t afford one. 

On the other hand, there are also just people who want an untraceable firearm because they don’t feel like the fact that they own a gun is any of the government’s business. 

On a grander scale, zip guns are also used by various organizations around the world that operate outside the law. Generally, these will be organizations with fewer resources, so think more in the realm of insurgency groups and less in the realm of high-end drug cartels. Even street gangs can typically purchase illegal firearms, though they may rely on zip guns if they’re more accessible.

Zip guns were at the height of their popularity around the middle of the 20th century, when mass-produced firearms weren’t as affordable and when more people were good enough with their hands to craft a firearm out of whatever bits and bobs they could get their hands on.

3D printed Glock 17 frames

However, in the last few years, they’ve been making a comeback. Online tutorials and more affordable 3D printers have made making your own firearm a lot easier than it was even a decade ago. 

NOTEWORTHY ZIP GUNS

Because of the illicit nature of zip guns, most zip guns probably exist without ever becoming known by anyone but the person who made them. Still, we do have some examples that are well-known for various reasons. Let’s talk about a few of the—at least in my opinion—most noteworthy. 

This isn’t an exhaustive list, but these are the ones we found most interesting. Expect us to add more in the future!

Homemade Gun Used by Shinzo Abe’s Assassin

Full disclosure: we’re not talking about zip guns at this particular moment in time for no reason. The fact that Tetsuya Yamagami used one to assassinate former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on July 8th has meant that zip guns have been the subject of a lot of interest in the past few weeks. So let’s go ahead and get that particular zip gun out of the way.

Homemade Gun Used by Shinzo Abe’s Assassin

This gun is a perfect example of a crude zip gun. In fact, the 16-inch gun appears to have been made with wood and metal pipe and was held together with duct tape.

In many ways, this gun was closer to a directionally fired pipe bomb than an actual gun.

Gun control laws in Japan are very tight, which probably prompted Yamagami to make one. According to the Associated Press, Yamagmi had previously served in the Japanese navy, an experience that taught him about the assembly and operation of firearms in a country where civilian gun ownership isn’t exactly common.

Liberator

3D printing has allowed people to make all kinds of things for themselves that previously we’d have had to buy. Of course, you need a 3D printer first, but they’re becoming more and more affordable each year. 

One 3D project that has been quite controversial is firearms. Why should 3D-printed firearms be any different from mass-produced ones, I guess?

The Liberator ia a 3D printed, single-shot .380 pistol that is untraceable and can be made to be undetectable. Though the round and the hardware store nail it uses as a firing pin can be carried separately, a chunk of metal is supposed to be permanently epoxied in the frame to complete assembly, making the receiver itself detectable by electronic means.
The Liberator ia a 3D printed, single-shot .380 pistol that is untraceable and can be made to be undetectable. Though the round and the hardware store nail it uses as a firing pin can be carried separately, a chunk of metal is supposed to be permanently epoxied in the frame to complete assembly, making the receiver itself detectable by electronic means.

This controversy peaked around May of 2013 when the Liberator was introduced. The Liberator, named after World War II’s FP-45 Liberator pistol, was the world’s first entirely 3D printed firearm. Or at least the first to come into the public eye.

The gun was designed by Defense Distributed, an open source firm that also released the plans online on May 6, 2013. The US State Department forced Defense Distributed to pull down the plans just two days later, but the damage had already been done. 

The plans had already been downloaded more than 100,000 times, and they’d been reposted on all kinds of file-sharing websites. 

The Liberator is a single-shot .380 ACP pistol that can only fire 8-10 shots before shattering, making it more of a novelty than an effective weapon. Though, to be fair, that’s not all that different from most other zip guns.

But it was a proof of concept for a fireable, 3D printed firearm, obtainable without any screening or government intervention. That was enough to make some people very, very nervous and other people very, very excited. 3D firearms have been a hot topic in discussions of gun control and extra-legal firearm manufacturing ever since. 

Khyber Pass Copies

Khyber Pass copies are a category of improvised weapons.

These guns are made by a huge number of cottage gunmakers in the (you guessed it!) Khyber Pass region of Pakistan. These guns are made from whatever tools and materials the creators can get their hands on. Most are made with simple hand tools and common scrap metal, like train rails and old car parts. 

A Khyber Pass copy of a Martini-Henry rifle, made into a pistol.

Khyber Pass copies tend to be copies of British military firearms because the local gunsmiths are basing these designs on firearms obtained in the 19th century when there was a significant British military presence in the region. However, there are also plenty based on American or Soviet firearms due to these countries’ presence in the region in the 20th century. 

While some Khyber Pass copies are made with direct comparison to an original British (or American or Soviet weapon) it’s increasingly common for Khyber Pass copies to be copies of copies (and sometimes copies of copies of copies and so on) due to the difficulty of finding original weapons. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the quality of Khyber Pass copies varies wildly. Some are dangerously poorly made, while others are basically factory-quality. 

Darra-made STEN variants chambered in 7.62x25mm with a vertical magazine and an AK-esque front sight post, and an underfolding stock. Image via Khyber Armoury

Even good ones often have some mistakes though, particularly in the stamping. For example, it’s not uncommon to see the Cyrillic letter “И” in place of the “N” in Lee-Enfield, either because the gunsmith mixes up the letter or because the gunsmith doesn’t have a complete set of alphabet stamps so they make due with the closest stamp they do have. 

Another hint that a gun is a Khyber Pass copy is the marking “V.R.” which stands for “Victoria Regina,” a reference to Queen Victoria, on guns dated after 1901. Victoria died in 1901 and was succeeded by her eldest son Edward VII. For guns dated after 1901, the correct marking would be “E.R.” for “Edward Rex.”

While for some people, that’s a hint at poor quality, for nerds like me, a Khyber Pass copy with a detail like that would be a collector’s item. 

Błyskawica

The Błyskawica is another zip gun that should be particularly interesting for my fellow history nerds. Remember when I said that zip guns are sometimes used by insurgent groups? The Błyskawica submachine gun is a great example of this.

Błyskawica
Błyskawica

The Błyskawica was used by the resistance movement in Nazi-occupied Poland, Armia Krajowa (which translates to Home Army in English). It was one of only two covertly mass-produced firearms in occupied Europe during World War II, along with the Polish version of the Sten gun.

Wait, I said mass-produced. So why is it a zip gun? Because it wasn’t exactly produced by experts. In fact, that was the whole point of the Błyskawica. The engineer and Armia Kajowa member who designed it, Wacław Zawrotny, specifically made it simple enough that someone with very little engineering experience could still make it and do so with very limited resources.

The design was based on two other popular submachine guns. 

First is the British Sten gun. As I mentioned just three paragraphs ago, the Polish version of the Sten gun was the only other covertly mass-produced firearm in occupied Europe during the War. That’s not a coincidence. 

Błyskawica

The internal mechanisms of the Błyskawica and the Polish Sten gun are very, very similar, making it easy to manufacture both. The main difference is that unlike the Sten—either the Polish or British version—the Błyskawica had a free-floating firing pin and both a return spring and buffer spring behind the bolt. Why? Well, that brings us to the other gun the Błyskawica’s design was based on.

This design was specifically chosen to allow Armia Krajowa members to use whatever German MP40 ammo they could get their hands on. The magazine mount was taken from the MP40, as was the retractable butt. 

The Błyskawica had a key difference from both of these submachine guns, though:

It required no bolts or welding to facilitate easy manufacturing. Instead, it depended on screws to hold the gun together.

Oh, and the prototype had one last cool feature: a triple lightning bolt emblem carved into it, where the Błyskawica’s name comes from. It’s Polish for “lightning.” Why, because the designers worked for the second largest electrical company in Poland, Elektrit, before the start of the war. 

USFA ZiP

A savvy reader probably knows these aren’t really zip guns – kind of. Despite the name, the USFA ZiP was a mass-produced production firearm that was made by what was, at the time, a respected brand in the firearms world.

USFA ZiP
USFA ZiP

But it’s crude as can be, and it has “ZiP” right there in the name, so we’re nominating it as an honorary member of the zip gun club.

That said, what is it really?

Well, to set the tone, let’s start with how the gun was introduced to the public. 

The U.S. Fire Arms Manufacturing (USFA) ZiP was introduced with a publicity stunt. In 2012, a YouTube account called JOHN SMITH (yes, all caps) posted a video called “UFO-Unidentified Firing Object-!” ostensibly asking other users to help them identify the gun being shot in the video. As you’ve probably already guessed, it was a USFA ZiP. 

The gun was introduced with a gimmick, and that’s fitting since the gun itself is pretty gimmicky. It’s a .22LR semi-automatic bullpup pistol that accepts Ruger 10/22 magazines and is designed to act as the receiver for a larger modular weapon system. With the use of drop-in expansions, the shooter can build up the pistol as they’d like. You could even attach it to the underside of a rifle barrel.

Well, they could if the pistol was any good. And that’s where we get into how USFA’s choice to call this pistol the ZiP was an unfortunate coincidence. Just like most true zip guns, the USFA ZiP is notoriously poorly made. 

For one, to chamber a new round, the shooter has to put their hand right up next to the muzzle. Hopefully, you’re familiar enough with basic gun safety to know that that’s a deeply, deeply terrible idea.

Then there’s the fact that the USFA ZiP isn’t even that good at being a gun. You know, its most basic function? The ZiP is notorious for malfunctioning, even with the highest quality ammo.

Nearly impossible to hold, hard to manipulate, unreliable, and made from poor quality materials. This is a zip gun from front to back, but at least it takes 10/22 mags.

LOOSE ROUNDS

Hopefully, this has shed some light on the weird and sometimes mysterious world of zip guns. It’s always a problem when gun terms start getting thrown around without any knowledge behind them, no matter who is doing it, so we’re happy to set the record straight on this one. 

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