A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Is it possible to make an undetectable nonmetal gun?

May 19, 1995

Dear Cecil:

In the film In the Line of Fire, John Malkovich plays an ex-CIA-operative-turned-psychopathic-assassin who manufactures a gun made out of polymer or some kind of plastic compound. He's able to smuggle the disassembled gun into a fundraising dinner for the President because the gun doesn't set off the metal detectors. (The bullets he conceals inside a rabbit's-foot key ring.) It's a terrific movie, but I did wonder whether the Secret Service's satisfaction in seeing a film in which they are portrayed heroically (in the person of Clint Eastwood) was offset by an horror of the training-film-for-assassins details featured. Is it in fact possible to make or buy a nonmetal gun similar to the one in the film that is capable of firing bullets with sufficient force to kill?

Cecil replies:

Official answer: no. So far as is now known (known to the federal Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms bureau, anyway), no gun made entirely of plastic is currently available. The closest thing is probably something like the Glock 17, an Austrian-made automatic pistol that has some plastic parts, including the grip and trigger guard. Training is required to recognize a disassembled Glock on an X-ray scanner. But it's still 83 percent metal by weight.

Are all-plastic weapons feasible? Some think it's only a matter of time. In 1986 Congress's Office of Technology Assessment reported that a 99 percent nonmetallic gun might someday be made using composite plastics, with metal used only for springs. In 1988 a small Florida company called Red Eye Arms claimed it was going to have a prototype plastic grenade launcher ready in 18 to 24 months. Congress got so spooked by the publicity about plastic weapons, even theoretical ones, that it banned their production in the U.S. Whether that scared off Red Eye or they were just hustling the gun industry equivalent of vaporware I don't know, but I can't locate the company now.

But who's to say what they're up to in those secret government labs? The June 1995 issue of Modern Gun magazine carried an article entitled "The CIA's Glass Gun," with the arch subhead, "The Agency Could Tell You About Its Amazing Ceramic Full Automatic Pistol. But Then, of Course, They'd Have to Kill You."  The article was sketchy — no sources, no quotes, no indication how the information was obtained. An editor's note said the gun in the accompanying photos was "a full-sized model made up for this article. The CIA declined to help. Strange …"  Modern Gun is published by Larry Flynt of Hustler magazine fame and calls itself "Entertainment for Gun Owners," so this is perhaps not the world's most reliable source. Still, one does want to consider all the possibilities.

The article implied that the CIA made several prototype nonmetallic guns using "a super-hard ceramic material" originally developed for the exhaust valves in General Motors auto engines. The stuff "literally has the strength of steel," the article said. "The agency considered the material so important to national security that it reportedly had its formula classified, thereby preventing GM from marketing it."

The gun depicted was a small automatic pistol. A magazine of bullets loaded into the handle. When you pulled the trigger, a plastic spring drove the bolt/slide mechanism forward, pushing a bullet from the magazine into the chamber and firing it. The bullet had no case and apparently was the equivalent of a cannonball with a powder charge behind it. The propellant ignited in two stages to keep the chamber pressure low enough that the gun didn't blow up in your hand. The bullet itself could be ceramic or aluminum.

"The Glass Gun's asse — its innovative material — also created legal problems for the CIA," the article said. "The Geneva Accords forbid the use by a nation's armed forces of anything but full metal jacket ammunition, and except for the aluminum bullets, no part of the gun or its ammunition was metallic. To save the Glass Gun project, Agency advocates argued to a Pentagon oversight committee that the Agency was civilian, not military, and the gun would be used by civilians."

The article went on to say that "counterterrorism, not assassination, was the goal of the nonmetallic pistols. Terrorists and foreign governments protecting terrorists use metal detectors just like we do. . . . [An agent with a glass gun] could get past magnetometer security into an area where hostages were being held and proceed to shoot the bad guys."

Was this legit? An attempt to reach the editor of Modern Gun was unsuccessful, so I phoned the CIA. You'll be interested to know the CIA actually has somebody in charge of public relations. Her job is to tell people like me "no comment," which is what she did. Next I called GM. They said they don't use ceramics in engine valves because it isn't cost-effective. Yes, but what about the CIA using your material to make guns? "You'd better ask the CIA about that." Uh-huh. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms said we dunno, but the CIA is exempt from the federal law banning nondetectable guns.

So who knows? Maybe there really is a nonmetallic gun. All I know is John Malkovich can't buy 'em at Kmart. Yet.

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