Review: "Come and Take It" by Cody Wilson
The Gun Printer's Guide to Thinking Free
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Come and Take it: The Gun Printer’s Guide to Thinking Free, by Cody Wilson. (Amazon Associate Link)
The history of meaningful dissent on the internet and digital resistance to the state so far is defined by two great eras, what I distinguish as the First and Second Crypto Wars.
The First CryptoWars: 1991-1996
The first Crypto Wars are widely discussed and known as such. Culminating in the 1990s Crypto-anarchists, privacy advocates, civil libertarians, and futurists clashed repeatedly with the US government and other nation states over the use and distribution of encryption software.
Cyphers and encryption methods were still defined as munitions and subject to distribution and export controls in the 90s. Though largely technologically illiterate, politicians and “defense” bureaucrats understood what a powerful advantage this was. By default they had inherited from cold-war arms regulations a means to restrict all civilians and the internet itself from any form of cryptographically secure communications the state couldn’t crack. Indeed laws were explored mandating backdoors and clipper chips so that no matter what the agents of the US government could crack any code and secure any data from any device (“subject to due process” they said, trying to stifle their laughs). Against this daring computer scientists and activists such Phil Zimmerman starred down federal criminal investigations and imprisonment under the Arms Export Control Act for publishing the PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) encryption program, a tool that still has no known means of cryptographically or computationally breaking and is still used, both in various protocols and directly by users sending encrypted messages. The height of the conflict over application of the Arms Export Control Act came when Zimmerman published the PGP protocol (thus exporting it) as a physical book in which the code was written. Thus forcing the Department of Justice to prosecute a person for literally publishing a physical paper book… They blinked and dropped the charges.
These legal battles and stunts would continue throughout the 90s, and for a while fashionable Cypherpunks sported T-shirts with code-written on them proudly proclaiming “This shirt is a munition”.
Eventually in other cases US appeals courts ruled that software source code is protected by the First Amendment, and for all intents a purposes the First Crypto Wars were over, straining under both the legal challenge and pressure from the US Ecommerce industry, the laws were changed to make it official. With most of the relevant events and battles being decided between 1991 and 1996.
The Second CryptoWars: 2006-2015
What I call the Second CryptoWars were vastly larger in scale and it is still far to early to tell their impact.
Loosely dating from 2006 when, Julian Assange founded WikiLeaks to about 2015 and the sentence of Ross Ulbricht to double life + 40 years without parole. The Second crypto wars, at-least in my mind, is defined by 5 major figures:
Julian Assange and Wikileaks, obviously. Assange, a veteran Cypherpunk of the first CryptoWars, waged a war of revelations on the US and other governments publishing hundreds of thousands of pages of classified secrets submitted anonymously to them via the TOR network and cryptographically secure methods.
Satoshi Nakamoto the anonymous creator of bitcoin. Allowed cryptographically secure transactions to take place outside the control and (with the right technique) outside the observance of the state.
Ross Ulbricht, “The Dread Pirate Roberts” combined Bitcoins uncensorable transactions with the TOR network’s cryptographically anonymized traffic to create The Silk Road The world’s first internet dark market.
Edward Snowden revealed the extent of NSA and US government collection of personal information and bulk meta-data, confirming innumerable conspiracy theories about mass government surveillance and spying on every intimate detail of everyone’s life, while also dooming himself to a life on the run… but also proving by example that it was still possible for a competent person to evade leviathan.
And then there is Cody Wilson. The man who invented the 3d printed gun.
Its truly incredible to note that of these 5, Wilson is the only one who remains both active and unscathed.
Assange, for committing the grievous crime of journalism, is detained in Britain as of writing and is awaiting extradition to the US. Meanwhile regime journalists, who publish leaks of classified intel almost weekly, cry for his blood since he dared to question America’s ethics with leaks instead of merely propagating lies or starting illegal wars. Satoshi has disappeared into his cryptographic anonymity. Ulbricht is spending the next 2 of his lives + 40 years in supermax. Snowden is a hero/traitor denied his homeland and now resident of the Russian Federation.
And Cody Wilson is still in Austin, Texas… making and selling devices meant to render gun control impossible.
“Cody Rutledge Wilson exists in the world of antigovernment extremists as a product of a sort of extreme post-libertarianism, informed by an ideological fusion of the broadest possible interpretations of the First and Second Amendments. “ -Southern Poverty Law Center
Wilson’s book Come and Take It: The Gun Printer’s Guide to Thinking Free by rights should be 5 or 6 times the length of its 320 pages, or rather it should have a number of interesting sequels.
Wilson has had one of the most varied, interesting and extreme careers of any figure in the culture war, or indeed the 21st century in general.
Wilson made the first 3d printed gun and reaped the whirlwind as the justice department and states’ Attorney Generals tried to prevent him from publishing the design docs… A moot point since the files where already plastered across torrent sites, this rather was process as punishment and an attempt to limit the first amendment rights of Wilson specifically.
Wilson was then involved in the attempted development of DarkWallet along with Amir Taaki between 2013-2015 . A bitcoin self custody wallet protocol that would further anonymize bitcoin transactions through a series of stealth addresses and native bitcoin mixing. “Money-Laundering as a software”, as its critics might say. While DarkWallet fizzled, these features have become standard in many privacy focused wallets and cryptocurrencies since. Monero in particular has a native ring signature and stealth wallet functionality that mirrors much of what Wilson and Taaki discussed.
Wilson was also involved in the Hatereon project. A Patreon clone meant to support all users irrespective of ideology and without the extralegal “Hate speech” restrictions of Patreon. Wilson his supporters and the rest of tech where shocked when this project was killed by VISA and MasterCard barring the processing of payments through Hatereon, and proving the extent to which cartelized government created monopolies are used to snuff out constitutionally protected political activity and speech.
Wilson was also infamously convicted of second degree felony sexual assault after hooking up with a girl on Sugardaddy.com… only for her to reveal she had used a fake ID to set up her account and was underaged. (whether or not this was a honeypot targeted at Wilson specifically remains unclear (though probably best to avoid dating apps when you’re a famous dissident))
But Wilson remains remarkably unscathed. His Defense distributed project is still running and now sells CNC machines, the “Ghost Gunner”, which make Gun parts such as AR-15 and Ak receivers out of solid blocks of aluminum.
“Wow” you might say “that’s all incredibly interesting! I want to know so much more!”
Me too! And too bad!
Wilson’s book Covers none of this.
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Come and Take It: The Gun Printer’s Guide to Thinking Free, Was written in 2015 and covers barely any of the things Wilson was known for even then. The Legal fights, DarkWallet, his bitcoin involvement, are all just barely hinted at.
So what is the book about?
Come and Take It covers exactly 1 year of Wilson’s life: 2012-to early 2013. The time in which Wilson went from being merely another law student at the University of Texas at Austin up until his Wikiweapon project produced the first 3D printed gun: The Liberator.
That is it. Even the legal battles that erupted around the Liberator files and blueprints aren’t covered.
Hell the reason its taken this long to even get to the book in this review of the book is that if you haven’t followed Wilson’s story in the news or across various internet forums, you could honestly read the whole thing and still not really know who Wilson is.
The book is far more concerned with the minutia of managing an micro-NGO’s funding, handling the technical problems of hardware rental licensing, dealing with hostile media interviews, the conference circuit, and the eccentricities of other thinkers in the wider libertarian/anarchist/”Move fast and break things” tech space…
So is it worth the read?
Well I’ll try to remain unbiased since I’m a massive Wilson fan, but in my personal opinion, taking several factors into…
OH MY GOD YES!
I told them their fathers had rebelled for less.
Wilson has this incredibly unique voice. Not in his tone or inflection (he sounds very subdued) but everything else. Anyone who’s heard him speak knows what I’m talking about. (The media would describe him as monotone, or radically ideological and try to imply psychopathy.)
His every mannerism and sentence oozes the precise word choice and daring yet guarded statement that only truly dangerous thinking produces. His every word and sentence inflected with philosophical reference, classical allusion, and violent implication. One could imagine him a 60s revolutionary turned to a 70s guerilla or 80s terrorist quoting Plutarch’s Lives amidst some radical direct action, or a cyberpunk of violent resolve using the metaphor of the panopticon correctly and with proper attribution to Bentham as he mocks the police amidst some future totalitarian dystopia.
Our topic was “Emancipatory Terror.”
Why did they feel like they needed so much more cover? I asked my brothers and sisters, What held them back? Was it “legitimacy,” the unripeness of the moment, or was it simply fear of violating the law?
I spoke as fast as I could, looking past them now and again. The words were increasingly for my own instruction.
The speech became a homily on progress. Why were we, brothers—if you are indeed my brothers—so comfortable as the defeated subjects of other men’s ideals? You say you have no gods, but there you stand immobile in the gaze of some Big Other—some outside point of reference used all the same to judge the final meaning of your actions. As if at the End there will be a report.
The students tittered and looked at me with sure smiles. But I saw the growing discomfort and fascination. The fast-breeding insult.
The media struggles for a description of Wilson and often fumbles into describing him as a “Super-Villain” beclowning themselves in their illiteracy, but they are not wrong.
Wilson’s style exactly follows the educated radical style that generations of Americans have associated with the communist subversive or ideological terrorist, or the evil genius of their sub-ideological action shows. The educated great man come out of memory of a pre-G.I. bill world… the memory of the learned natural aristocrat come to remind them of their inferiority, dressed in the garb of revolutionary come to overturn every institution propping up their unearned station. This is a man you could imagine besieging Nakatomi plaza or bestriding amidst the social credit state undetected yet in open warfare. The Specter of history, ideology, youth, and excellence come to overturn the post-historical “reasonable” dinosaurs and their cults of mediocrity.
He is the type of student generations of self-imagined “radical” and “dissident” academics dreamed of producing, someone utterly fluent in all the jargon and thinkers, in Foucault and Marx, Xenophon and Locke… and yet embodied within an open active resistance those academics themselves had proven themselves incapable or too busy in the resistance of ideas to pursue.
Of course the ideology he emerged with quickly revealed the farce so many generations of “Revolutionaries”, “anarchists”, “Free thinkers”, and “opponents of the ruling class” had been participating in. How closely their “Rebellion” hewed to regime orthodoxy, how sacrosanct they found the authority and morality of their rulers.
Feeling ill, I took another interview call in the basement stairwell. As I waited to speak, I watched the latch windows above and the plunging darkness below. I took in the filth, as the phone filled the spaces with its tinny soundings. At last I grew impatient with the reporter’s standard liberal shit.
“Look, you’re a good socialist, right?” I thrust out my arm toward the grimy ceiling dropping above me. “Well, we finally got the means of production! What the hell did you think it would look like?”
In 2020 Another Figure in the 3D gun space. Jstark the founder of Deterrence Dispensed ( not to be confused with defense distributed), died shortly after doing this interview and introducing his FGC-9. A far more advanced and practical weapon that Wilson’s 2013 Liberator.
The ideological coherency and daring of the 3D printed/homemade gun world is remarkable. You can see this same phenomenon across the web in the stiffened backbones of post-Brexit, post-Trump, post-COVID radicalization of various ideologies across the spectrum, but this ethical/political clarity from a young law student… in 2012-13? There is an incredible prescience to Wilson’s radicalism.
“Yes. Yes. We get it.” I hear you exasperate, “ You have a crush on the man and think he’s a bad boy. He’s hateful and half-crazed just like you.”
“What’s actually IN the book!?”
Glad you asked.
Come and Take It might just be one of the single best books on an early startup ever written. And written in the golden age of startups at that.
The issue with almost every book on startups is you are given these broad exciting strokes: the creative vision, the individual skills of the founders, the founding mythos of their first embarrassing office, the dramatic moments of the rise, the inevitable power struggles…
And then by the end of the book you still know very little of what the founders were actually doing day to day. Even if you were in the same field, even after having read the book, you’d almost certainly be incapable of replicating the success even having read the book on how it was done, were you time-warped back the early 2010s in the founder’s shoes. So much of the actual start-up process is minutia, dealing with regulations, wrestling with vendors, gaining funding, handling personalities… How does one go about registering their enterprise or renting commercial real estate? It sounds dumb but there are thousands if not 10s of thousands of individual things like that which could individually burn hours or days of a a founder’s time and cumulatively could devour a founder’s entire runway… And of course its usually boring as sin to read about.
But with Wilson’s Defense Distributed the raw simplicity of the vision combined with the political extremity and danger makes this minutia riveting. What do you do when a critical vendor not only withdraws their service but also formally reports you to the ATF? How important is the correct zoning of your commercial real estate when a slight variance could mean the difference between being a legal FFA approved firearms manufacturer, or a multiple felon? How about when yet another one of your prospective investors is an exiled Russian oligarch who may be high up in the Russian mafia? What about when your every press release is met with a flood of hit pieces and hostile media, any individual day of which would be a major crisis in any other business. These could be whole chapters of a normal startup biography… but for Wilson its Tuesday.
The Maxim “Move fast and break things” permeates every corner of the book. The idea that real, often revolutionary, change could just be enacted by brilliant inventers and entrepreneurs choosing to cleverly disregard norms and often laws. Uber and Airbnb could be, and had been by their competitors, described as criminal conspiracies.
Airbnb disregarded every law that ever regulated the hotel business to undercut their competitors, every local ordinance on short term rentals and proper registration of “hotels” and “boarding houses” they simply ignored, banking on their ability to spread and establish factions of Airbnb renters who could resist the enforcement of said ordinances faster than local governments could crack down. Likewise Uber broke the regulations and medallion systems governing taxis in almost every jurisdiction they operated, on many occasions taxi drivers got out of their vehicle and attacked Uber drivers for cutting in on their business. In New York alone billions of dollars in taxi medallion investments, assets the New York government had created as almost a guaranteed investment for their crony friends, went near to zero as Uber destroyed one of the most crooked and heavily regulated markets in the country. This was also the time when Ross Ulbricht was still known only as “The Dread Pirate” and The silk Road, his hidden online market where drugs were listed like Ebay items still had a mythic quality to most people. This was the era when bitcoin was first being learned about by even in the know tech gurus.
Of course Wilson reserves his worst scorn for those still trapped in the old model of technological development. Who couldn’t or wouldn’t see the inherently political and combative nature of technological development. The worst offenders he identifies in the early “Maker Movement”
On another night spent plowing through paperwork, I found an email from a self-identified Maker accusing me of “Open Source Terrorism.” The Maker Movement’s ethic of access, openness, and inclusivity still didn’t mean you could ruin it for everybody. I liked his reasoning. I saw it a lot.
Obviously democratization is too important a task to let just anyone do it.
He was completely serious, of course. Most of them were. The more banal your position, the more sacrosanct it’s allowed to become. But what to make of these Makers? You could say they were almost radically apolitical, and yet there was this spiritual complicity with power—a need to have legitimized their new Industrial Revolution. This pop talk about “access” was like that of “tolerance.” Everyone had the right to an uninterrupted voyage to a fabricated future free of all negativity.
Maybe I still wasn’t taking my work seriously enough. I set myself to digesting the Maker Movement manifestos, some literally so titled, but each seemed to read more like an advertisement or the marketing paper for some startup. One of these thin pieces of cheerleading almost had to be paid for by TechShop, which as far as I could tell was a new kind of gym. Come one, come all, to hack, craft, tinker. I’m sure there was a startup struggling for even softer euphemisms than these.
The Maker battle cry: “To make stuff ! Together!” Press a Maker enough and he says he wants to change the world. But a tinkerer’s manifesto manifests a tinkerer. His is no Luciferian revolt. And who was to lead his “Next Industrial Revolution”? He might tell you Bre Pettis of MakerBot Industries, whose first product was named the Cupcake CNC.
Yeah, these revolutionaries were out for blood.
Playing for keeps.
I got no further when I considered the phenomenon that is Maker Faire. Perhaps that was the better object of study. On makerfaire.com’s homepage, they revealed nearly everything I needed to know:
Maker Faire is the Greatest Show (and Tell) on Earth—a family-friendly festival of invention, creativity and resourcefulness, and a celebration of the Maker movement. Part science fair, part county fair, and part something entirely new, Maker Faire is an all-ages gathering of tech enthusiasts, crafters, educators, tinkerers, hobbyists, engineers, science clubs, authors, artists, students, and commercial exhibitors. All of these “makers” come to Maker Faire to show what they have made and to share what they have learned.
This insistence on the lightness and whimsy of farce. The romantic fetish and nostalgia, to see your work as instantly lived memorabilia. The event was modeled on Renaissance performance. This was a crowd of actors playing historical figures. A living charade meant to dislocate and obscure their moment with adolescent novelty. The neckbeard demiurge sees himself keeling in the throes of assembly. In walks the problem of the political and he hisses like the mathematician at Syracuse: “Just don’t molest my baubles!”
This is why Wilson attended Bitcoin tech conferences to talk about his 3D printing project, not material design conferences. The basic connection of technological capability with meaningful political contest was understood there. “we finally got the means of production! What the hell did you think it would look like?” Of course even there Wilson was often regarded as a dangerous radical… but a fascinating one.
And it was at one of these bitcoin conferences that Wilson met Amir Taaki.
Wilson goes to many conferences throughout the book, he gives his speeches and he is an object of great curiosity, the audience leaves a mix of scandalized, fascinated, insulted, and invigorated… but they all leave with self satisfied conviction that they’d seen something. They’d followed the the rabbit-hole of libertarianism and crypto-anarchy into alt-tech space and witnessed something, especially to his European audiences, that was truly hardcore. They’d followed their path upriver and successfully heard one of the rarified sermons of Mr. Kurtz…
Amir Taaki fulfilled much the same relationship with Cody Wilson.
"The society that separates its scholars from its warriors will have its thinking done by cowards and its fighting by fools" follow Amir @Narodism or at his website dark.fi
Amir is a truly incredible figure. As stated, after the events of the book he and Wilson worked on the DarkWallet project. He was also involved in the DarkMarket (later OpenBazaar) project to create a decentralized, open source crypto-market (and had the potential to be a final successor to Silk road)… then in 2015 he went to Rojava to fight ISIS with the YPG, and as if one geological struggle wasn’t enough in 2018 he went to Catalonia to assist the Catalan independence movement.
However in 2012-2013 Taaki was a punk programmer who’d spent the previous couple years as a professional poker player, Wilson meets him towards the end of the book… and my God! Left-wing “revolutionaries” and “radicals” wish their movements were still capable of producing people like Taaki and his cohort.
It comes to a point where Wilson is visiting Taaki at the illegal squat he and his comrades have taken over in London, seized from some absentee foreign owner who made their money serving some corrupt regime…
I walked Old Street again in the rain, lingered at a bus stop to make a call to Amir, and pulled my coat over my head. Santi cracked open a white door near the street corner. We ascended the stairs and passed through a hole in the wall into a separate terrace. At last we found him on a higher floor. On the whiteboard were bitcoin bounties for breaking high-profile windows about the city. A larger bounty for tagging the bitcoin symbol on the Bank of London. In his command center, Amir was wearing a fresh mohawk.
“Ah, you’re back.”
Amir said it like I had only just stepped out.
“I’ve been writing about costs and living. The way I see it is, like every time we give money to our enemies, we empower them.”
“I’m here to say good-bye, Amir.”
I studied the papers and garbage tossed about the room, and Amir lording over it all in shoeless comfort. The crazed rebel at ease stepping through the rubble of his dissolute civilization. The gothic journeyman, inspired to go on fashioning weapons from the ruins; willing to use them. He was the deadly fruit of a criminalized generation. I think he wanted the nobility of a death that only some ancient tyrant could have given him. He smiled at me a bit differently, just before I left, as if to say we had worked together after all.
(I hope to evetually track down enough of Amir’s writings and resources to do a full piece on him)
But anyway I can’t give away the entire book.
On May 6th 2013 Wilson distributed the files for the liberator online, having already demonstrated its operability. It was now just barely possible to build a full functional pistol using almost entirely 3d printed parts.
Wilson had his years of legal battles ahead of him, but the most decisive battle had already been won. It had been proven possible and more importantly an expansive community was already emerging to push it far beyond what Wilson had demonstrated.
Wilson and Defense Distributed now sell CNC milling machines "Ghost Gunners” which are able to mill Receivers (the regulated part of the firearm) from solid blocks of aluminum rendering any regulation on partially finished receivers, the til now ubiquitous 80% receivers almost entirely pointless.
Jstark died after being brutalized by the German police, but he’s become a symbol and patron saint for the movement. His FGC-9 (Fuck Gun Control 9mm), a fully function 9mm carbine or submachinegun (depending on how you bend a piece of metal in it) is now a status symbol to possess amongst both the home gun maker community and various criminal organizations, an Item that cannot be merely bought, but a testament to either your craftsmanship or connections.
And the movement as a whole is breaking new grounds monthly. The people at Ctrlpew and Deterrence Dispensed (not to be confused with Wilson’s Defence Distributed) Have a massive catalogue of files, guides, and “how-to”s, just recently I saw this indepth guide (30 minutes) to Electrochemically machining properly rifled, chambered and necked barrels of any bore size from common hydraulic piping using maybe $80 worth of equipment in your bathroom:
This is incredible since barrels are by miles the hardest part of the rifle to manufacture at home. Indeed most builds just assumed you’d order the barrel online (they aren’t widely controlled) or borrow one from an old gun (or use hardware store piping for a lower caliber gun).
Some who read Wilson’s book (or this review) will be disappointed the ideological substrates of his ideology aren’t plumbed, that he doesn’t justify his actions, that he doesn’t debate the challenges and moral opprobrium of his detractors, that no great ethical theory of the gun-printer is laid out for the already persuaded or hostile cheer and sneer in equal measure… that Wilson despite some solid hints and references does not dedicate 30 pages to a full throated ethical defense of the American founding values, the second amendment, the necessary connection between it and the first, and his projects literalization of the metaphorical equivalency.
That to be armed, to be able to defend one’s self, and to possess knowledge are one and the same. That all entailed by the second amendment are implied by the first, and that one cannot restrict a persons ability to arm themselves without restricting their ability to educate themselves… that controlling the proliferation of swords necessitates restricting the knowledge of blacksmithing, restricting the distribution of explosives necessitates restricting basic knowledge of chemistry, and restricting guns necessitates restricting 3d printer files, YouTube videos, and the knowledge of CNC machining, electrochemical machining… knowledge of the Luty SMG and P.A. Luty’s book itself.
Either this is obviously true to you, or you equally think its an obvious conflation.
What Wilson did, and what the other Crypto-anarchists did was act, and move this from the realm of “democratic” debate to the realm of meaningful political contest. They changed the bare reality of the world, seized their freedom as they saw it, and dared authoritarians and tyrants to come and take it.
Come and Take it: The Gun Printer’s Guide to Thinking Free, by Cody Wilson. (Amazon Associate Link)