Keeping Your AR-15 Pistol Build Within Legal Limits

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The modern AR-15 pistol, obtained complete at the time of purchase or assembled with user-selected components — is extremely popular these days. There are several good reasons for this:

  1. AR-15 pistols are compact, powerful and accurate.
  2. AR-15 pistols are not subject to a federal permit for a short-barreled rifle (SBR).
  3. Being compact makes AR-15s ideal in emergency evacuations or as survival guns.
  4. AR-15s are popular with law enforcement officers for personal purpose or special issue.

In my earlier tests of AR-15 pistols, I found them large, ungainly and difficult to maneuver and control. They didn’t sell well … until SB Tactical invented the stabilizing pistol brace. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) approved the design for use on AR-15 pistols. Without this development, the pistol configuration of an AR-15 would have remained a specialized oddity.

But ATF approval included a number of legal requirements for those who want to assemble their own pistol from select components. The restrictions apply to anyone who shoots any such pistol, including those purchased from the factory. Failure to understand these requirements could result in legal problems.

Firearms Terminology Guide

ATF Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives NFA National Firearms Act
SBR Short-Barreled Rifle PDW Personal-Defense Weapon
OAL Overall Length AOW Any Other Weapon
LOP Length of Pull

 

AR-15 Pistol Receivers

I contacted Jeff Creamer, president of SB Tactical in Manchester, New Hampshire, to get information on the key considerations for anyone building an AR or other platformed pistol. I was surprised by some of what I learned. But everything I learned was important.

Jeff informed me that the first consideration is the lower receiver. “Stripped receivers are transferred as ‘other’ versus long gun or handgun (Form 4473 designation),” he explained. “The other doesn’t become something until you attach a barrel and a stock or brace. Once a receiver has been a long gun (rifle), it cannot be built into a pistol without navigating the National Firearms Act.” This seems odd, since no matter what AR-15 lower receivers are titled, all are exactly the same whether they are built into handguns or rifles. But it is important to know to avoid legal headaches.

Jeff continued, “Handguns (pistols) can be built from other and pistol receivers.” Pistol lowers are typically purchased and transferred as either complete guns or complete lowers. Jeff gave the example of a Smith & Wesson M&P 15 Sport. If the owner removes the 16-inch upper receiver assembly and stock to put on a 10-inch upper and brace, it becomes an AR pistol. “[He or she has], in fact, just created an SBR,” Jeff said. “Always start with a stripped lower or a pistol lower,” he recommends. “Once a rifle, always a rifle.”

Measuring Up the LOP and OAL

Jeff also explained that the length of pull (LOP) needs to be kept in mind when building a pistol. The LOP is measured in a straight line from the face of the trigger to the rear of the brace. The rear of the brace is taken at its most extended position (if adjustable). “The ATF has advised that a braced pistol with a length of pull in excess of 13.5 inches may constitute a re-design of the brace into a stock.”

In addition to length of pull, overall length (OAL) should be measured. OAL is considered the muzzle — minus removable muzzle devices — to the rear of the brace (either collapsed or folded to be in its shortest form). “An OAL greater than 26 inches [has the potential to change] the classification of pistol to firearm. Firearms in excess of 26 inches OAL may have vertical grips installed and remain non-NFA. Pistols with vertical grips installed sub-26 inches OAL [can be] considered AOW and are subject to the NFA,” Jeff said.

In addition, “ATF is now advising that foregrips — angled or otherwise — may not be used on pistol builds.” Jeff also noted that those building AR and all large-framed or PDW pistols should be aware of states or jurisdictions that differ from federal law in definition and application. This means always check before transporting your AR-15 pistol into another jurisdiction.

Shooting AR-15 Rules

Once a builder of an AR-15 pistol has legally constructed his or her model, he or she needs to follow further legal guidelines when shooting. These guidelines also apply to someone shooting a factory-purchased AR pistol.

According to Jeff, pistol braces were designed to aid shooters in greater accuracy and safety. Pistol braces increase the control of a large-framed PDW pistol: “When shooting the pistol with one hand, the SB Tactical pistol-stabilizing brace was designed to allow the shooter to place [his or her] forearm through the bifurcated flaps of the brace and secure it with an adjustable strap. The brace also functions as a [third] point of contact when using two hands to fire the pistol.”

Jeff went on to explain that the typical points of contact when used in the manner above are cheek (known as a cheek weld technique) and sternum (known as sternum mounting). “In March of 2017, the ATF clarified [its] opinion relative to SB Tactical pistol braces wherein [it] said that ‘incidental, sporadic or situational’ use at or near the shoulder did not constitute a re-design of the brace into a stock,” Jeff said.

Your AR-15 Pistol Brace Is Not a Stock

“The ATF has been consistent in that use of a pistol-stabilizing brace to better control a large-framed PDW-style pistol does not change the classification of the host pistol. Building or buying a braced pistol with the intent of circumventing the NFA does, in fact, change the classification of the pistol to SBR.” Jeff pointed out that it is important to understand that a stabilizing pistol brace is not a stock!

There are great photos of legal usage of stabilizing pistol braces on the SB Tactical website for further clarification. SB Tactical features a wide variety of stabilizing pistol braces specialized for a wide variety of firearms other than the AR-15. I will review its brace on my AR-15 pistol build next week.

Sources:

SB Tactical: SB-Tactical.com

 

About Scott W. Wagner

Scott W. Wagner has been a law enforcement officer since 1980, working undercover in liquor and narcotics investigations and as a member, sniper and assistant team leader of a SWAT team. He currently works as a patrol sergeant. He is a police firearms instructor certified to train revolver, semi-automatic pistol, shotgun, semi- and fully automatic patrol rifle, and submachine gun. Scott also works as a criminal justice professor and police academy commander.

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