What About AR Pistols?

Two examples of AR pistol braces from SB Tactical.

You might be a little late to the game and are just now looking at an AR-15 type of firearm. But, the pickings are slim, and if they are available, they are often either of debatable quality, or expensive as hell. However, you may see something on the real or virtual shelves as an “AR Pistol“, or a “pistol build”. It looks a helluva lot like an AR-15 rifle, but they call it a pistol. What gives? What makes that AR-15 a pistol?

To start off, we’ll need to look at the legal definition of a pistol in the United States, as defined by the ATF.

The term “Pistol” means a weapon originally designed, made, and intended to fire a projectile (bullet) from one or more barrels when held in one hand, and having:

a chamber(s) as an integral part(s) of, or permanently aligned with, the bore(s);

and a short stock designed to be gripped by one hand at an angle to and extending below the line of the bore(s).

Aero Precision

So, basically the law describes a pistol as what you would think, i.e. something that looks like a 1911 or a GLOCK 19. And indeed, the first AR pistols looked like an oversized crossbreed of an AR and a traditional pistol.

A Little History On AR Pistols

The idea of the AR pistol isn’t new. As early as the 1970s, manufacturers toyed around with pistols chambered in .223/5.56mm, including the notoriously ugly Bushmaster Arm Pistol, produced from the 1970s until 1988. It was called the “Arm Pistol” because you literally had to brace it against your arm somehow. It was descended from a failed proposal for an Air Force survival weapon called the GUU-4P. The idea was to have a compact and powerful pistol for downed pilots to utilize while effecting escape. It wasn’t meant for tack-sharp precision. After it’s rejection, SF operator Mack Gwinn took the idea and ran with it, modifiying the design to accept standard AR magazines - birthing the Bushmaster Arm Pistol. Eventually, his company Gwinn Firearms, became Bushmaster Firearms, which we all know about today.

The Arm Pistol wasn’t terribly popular, since citizen users weren’t likely to be in a bail-out survival situation. Nonetheless, the idea of a “pistol AR” hung around, with most companies that waded into the pool basically mating a short-barrel upper to a stockless lower, and calling it a day. The buffer tube remained for functionality reasons, but legally a rifle requires a stock, so the pistol classification stuck.

Throughout the 80s, AR and other rifle-style pistols graced the covers of various gun magazines as “Mega Pistols”. Oversized and ungainly, they never really caught on, since the public really didn’t know what the use for them was, and if they wanted a pistol, they’d go buy a pistol. Most still had the buffer tube sticking out of the rear, though with the debut of Olympic Arms’ OA-93, buffer-less AR pistols started to pop up.

Of course, the law got involved, though outside of a few strange state-level rules, pistol ARs have never been subject to any relevant legislation or rulings up to that point. However, the invention of the pistol brace put that into question.

Enter The SIG Brace

Launched with little fanfare in mid-2013, Alex Bosco and his company, SB Tactical, launched the SB-15 AR Pistol Brace. Designed after a situation where a disabled friend could not safely control an AR pistol, the SB-15 was developd in order to anchor the weapon to the user’s forearm for greater stability. Since it happened to look like a stock, although made of rubber and plastic, Bosco approached the ATF to make sure his accessory was kosher and didn’t run afoul of NFA regulations.

The ATF ruled the brace as “good to go” as long as the intent of the design was to help a pistol user stabilize the weapon with his or her arm. With determination in hand, Bosco partnered up with SIG Sauer, who debuted the SB-15 under their own banner at the NRA show. The reactions were mixed, with most not seeing the point for this niche product. However, a few enterprising purchasers decided not to use the SB-15 as intended, and they promptly shouldered their brace-equipped AR pistols, as if they were a rifle. To get clarification, one Sgt Joe Bradley of the Greenwood, Colorado police department, contacted the ATF to see if shouldering a braced AR pistol constituted making them into unregistered short-barreled rifles. Remember, if a rifle with a stock has a barrel length below 16”, it’s a short-barreled rifle and is subject to registration and a $200 tax due to the 1934 National Firearms Act.

The ATF responded and basically told him that if someone chose to use Bosco’s device improperly, it wasn’t running afoul of any laws, and that people were free to do what they wanted to with the brace as long as they didn’t modify it. Bosco himself declared the SB-15 a rather poor “stock”, since it was rubber, didn’t adjust well, and flexed when the weapon was fired.

For a lot of people though, that was “good enough”.

Brownells

The AR Pistol Market Explodes…And Shudders

With the ability of SB-15 braced AR pistols to be shouldered, although not ideally, the market responded. Every manufacturer of AR-15s started making pistol configuration weapons, and short-length uppers. SB Tactical and other companies started cranking out pistol braces with abandon. Again, they weren’t proper stocks, so the ATF didn’t care. However, each manufacturer contacted the ATF, along with a lot of casual users, seeking clarification on the legality. They kept poking the bear. In early 2015, the ATF issued another determination, in that if someone shouldered a braced pistol, they were “modifying” it, and thus once shouldered, it became an NFA item and subject to the restrictions of that law. For a moment, everyone went into a panic. At the time, I owned an AR pistol with an SB-15 brace. I had just finished building it and was actually quite proud of my accomplishment. I remember gun ranges near me putting up signs that shouldering braced pistols was not allowed. No one wanted to risk liability.

However, the ruling was not enforced, and a few years later, the ATF issued another vague statement, that “situational” use of a braced pistol in a different firing position than normal did not constitute a redesign, and thus such use was kosher.

For now, the question about legality is settled. So, what is an AR pistol good for?

The Uses And Benefits Of An AR-15 Pistol

As has been discussed, an AR pistol is an AR-styled firearm with a barrel length below 16” and lacks a proper stock. Again, adding a proper stock turns the firearm into a short-barreled rifle, and thus it becomes subject to the provisions of the National Firearms Act of 1934, which requires the owner to register the weapon with the ATF, and pay a $200 tax.

If the weapon remains a pistol, it isn’t subject to those requirements, of course. Thus in a pistol configuration, with a brace or not, one can use a barrel shorter than 16 inches, which has many benefits.

Maneuverability In Close Quarters

Chances are, if you purchased your AR-15 recently, one of the uses is most likely for home defense. However, an off-the-rack AR-15 rifle usually sports a 16 inch barrel, which can prove problematic when trying to wrangle the rifle down a narrow hallway or stairwell, which tends to be a feature in more high-density living setups such as apartments, condos, and townhomes. Reducing that barrel length makes the firearm easier to manipulate in those narrow confines, especially if one has to move at speed. Coming around a corner in a condo may have you jamming that 16 inch barrel into the opposite wall. With say, a 10 or 11-inch pistol setup, you have a lot more clearance.

Of course the tradeoff is that with a shorter barrel, you lose velocity and range. However, in an indoor close-quarters situation, this isn’t an issue, since the distances being dealt with are well within the capabilities of the AR pistol. Even at 10 or 11 inches, a 5.56mm round is still effective out to a few hundred yards or more.

An AR Pistol Is A Great Interim Stop To An SBR

Despite the fact that modern pistol braces can be comfortably used in configurations other than what they are designed for, some still choose to go the short-barreled rifle route. They’re willing to pay the tax and register their firearm, just to put a proper stock on it. Now, the caveat of the NFA is that one cannot take possession of the SBR until the tax is paid and the transfer is approved. So, if you file your Form 1 with the ATF and pay the $200 tax, you legally cannot place a stock on the weapon until the ATF says “Go”. What some choose to do is build their new gun as a pistol, file the paperwork, pay the tax, and use their gun as a pistol while they wait for the ATF to approve the “transfer”. This is perfectly legal, so long as you don’t attach the stock to the gun until the tax stamp is in your possession. For greater legal safety, some recommend you don’t even buy the stock until the paperwork is approved, in order to avoid any “constructive possession” issues. Constructive possession is a legal term where one is in possession of something by the mere act of having the components for it. Most choose to not have the stock for their forthcoming SBR for this specific reason.

An AR Pistol Is Easier To Travel With

In both a practical sense and a legal sense, an AR pistol is a more versatile travel companion. In a practical sense, an AR pistol is easier to toss into a discreet diversion bag, and utilize as the proverbial “truck gun”. In the shorter configuration, the weapon can be stored easier than a full-size rifle, should the need arise for one to have an AR-pattern weapon in their vehicle.

Also, it simplifies the travel problem of NFA items. Under current NFA regulations, every NFA item except for suppressors are subject to travel restrictions. For example, if you own an SBR in Florida and wish to take a road trip to Georgia, you have to notify the ATF in advance, and file a Form 20. There’s some flexibility involved since you can specify a wide range of dates, but you still have to let the ATF know you’re on the move with your SBR.

There’s also some states where SBRs are not permitted, but pistols are OK. Basically, having an AR pistol greatly simplifies interstate travel, as you aren’t under any obligation to notify the ATF. State laws may still apply though - check handgunlaw.us for the current scoop.

What To Look For In An AR Pistol

Much like in a standard AR-15, the basic specs of a quality AR pistol are similar. The components should be mil-spec or better, with the upper and lower receivers being made of anodized 7075 T6 aluminum, the barrel should be treated for corrosion resistance and have a 1:8 twist rate or better, the bolt carrier group should be M16-style aka full-auto compatible, and your accessories should come from name American or European manufacturers.

As for the brace - SB Tactical remains supreme. They have an extensive catalog of brace configuratons, with one of my favorites even mimicking popular PDW stocks. Most of SB’s newer braces are adjustable, much like a real stock.

Another popular manufacturer of stabilizing solutions is KAK Industry, with their blade-like Shockwave brace.

One can build an AR pistol, or one can buy one. Most major manufacturers like Daniel Defense, Aero Precision, Spike’s Tactical, and Radical Firearms offer AR pistol configurations, and it isn’t terribly difficult to build one either. If the manufacturer makes a good AR-15 rifle, chances are they make a good AR-style pistol as well.

Note: While accessorizing an AR pistol is pretty flexible and open, do not put a vertical foregrip on an AR pistol. Even with a brace, this reclassifies the weapon into an SBR, with the attendant registration and taxation requirements. If you do this and it’s not on the NFA registry, you could face legal consequences.

Note 2: Legally you cannot convert an AR-15 rifle into a pistol. If the rifle left the factory as a rifle, it has to stay that way unless you go the NFA route. Once a rifle, always a rifle. You can go the other way though. If you have an AR pistol, and choose to throw a stock and a 16 inch or greater barrel on it, you’re good to go - just make sure the complete 16 inch or greater upper goes on first.

Note 3: You might see “plugs” for your pistol brace. The ostensible concept is to keep the brace in it’s normal shape when not in use by going in the void between the “blades” of the brace. However, this would most likely constitute a redesign of the brace - and run afoul of ATF rulings. My advice - don’t risk it.

Should You Get An AR Pistol?

Yes, yes you should. An AR-style pistol is an incredibly convenient firearm in a familiar format, and is eminently suitable for defensive purposes, especially at shorter ranges. If you have the option - take it.

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Two AR-15-style pistols.