Pistol stabilizing braces — their application, usage and legality — are often the subject of a lot of confusion within the gun community. Why? The reason is simple: the federal government. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (BATFE) controls the legality of pistol stabilizing braces. There has been a total of four administrative letters issued by BATFE regarding stabilizing braces and their legal/operational status between 2012 and 2017. So let’s unravel some of that confusion … at least as it currently exists.

What Are Pistol Stabilizing Braces?

For a number of years, there have been various arms manufacturers that have modified the AR-15 rifle into a pistol configuration. (I tested an Olympic Arms KP23 and OA-93 back in 2015. The KP23 had a lightly padded buffer tube that extended beyond the rear of the receiver. With no buffer tube, the OA-93 was more of a true pistol.) It’s pistols like these that have paved the way for modern pistols with braces.

In 2012, SB Tactical developed the pistol stabilizing brace (PSB) for AK and AR platforms as a way to help wounded warriors shoot these types of weapons with more safety and control. BATFE determined that a PSB as invented by SB Tactical is not a stock. Therefore, it could be attached to an AR-15 and other modern pistols. SB Tactical is truly the leader when it comes PSBs. Check out the company’s website for the full product line as well as all of the information available.

A true stabilizing brace is not a shoulder stock. A pistol stabilizing brace should actually properly be termed “pistol stabilizing forearm brace.” This would better indicate its intended point of contact, which is a shooter’s forearm, not his or her shoulder. To stabilize a pistol without placing the flat portion of the brace on a shooter’s shoulder, a PSB is equipped with a Velcro strap. This wraps around the forearm to keep the pistol in place while firing. A PSB on an AR platform or other pistol, such as the Ruger PC9 Charger, is legal.

Are Pistol Braces Legal?

You cannot mount an actual rifle stock on a firearm that is legally classified as a pistol. This changes the classification of the firearm into a short-barreled rifle (SBR), which requires a $200 federal tax stamp to possess. Changing to a different PSB is permissible.

There are a number of potential legal pitfalls if you choose to build your own AR-15 with a stabilizing brace. There should be no problem if you purchase a factory-built modern pistol from a licensed firearms dealer that comes already equipped with a pistol brace.

An infographic showing AR-15 configurations by barrel length and stock or brace.

Here is what you need to remember before undertaking the building of an AR-15 based pistol:

  1. You cannot take an AR-15 rifle or M4-style carbine and replace the rifle/carbine upper with a pistol upper (one less than 16 inches) and the shoulder stock with a pistol brace and legally create an AR-15 pistol. This is true even though the lower half of a factory-built AR-15 rifle is exactly the same as a factory-built AR-15 pistol. While you end up with a mechanically functional AR pistol, you don’t end up with a legal one. The BATFE requires any AR pistol you build start with either a stripped lower receiver — never classified as originally being a rifle — or one originally titled as a pistol (the Olympic Arms pistols mentioned above, for example). Combining a rifle lower with a pistol upper would be creating an SBR. It is then subject to the tax stamp registration requirement. You can, however, start with an AR-15 pistol, convert it to a rifle with a 16-inch or longer barrel and shoulder stock, and then convert it back to a pistol again without a problem. The ultimate problem is pistol braces and short-barreled rifles are not defined by statutory law but rather by BATFE Administrative rules that can be changed on a whim by whoever is in charge.
  2. Prior to March 21, 2017 — the date of a reversal letter by BATFE concerning the redesign of factory-mounted PSBs — there were specific legal ways that any modern pistol could be fired. SB Tactical even had a series of videos demonstrating legal use. Besides shooting from the forearm with the Velcro strap, you could also utilize a sternum position. In this position, the end of the brace was placed on the sternum for control. There was also a cheek position where the brace rested against your cheek but did not touch your shoulder. And there were allowances for an incidental/occasional use of a pistol brace against your shoulder under exigent circumstances.
  3. The reversal letter of March 21, 2017 almost eliminated SBRs from the picture by causing a veritable sales explosion for modern pistols. That is because the letter stated it was acceptable to fire a modern pistol at will using a pistol stabilizing brace positioned against the shoulder. According to BATFE’s interpretation, the pistol brace is not designed to allow firing from the shoulder and is not “comfortable” to do so. However, if you take any of the following “affirmative steps to reconfigure the PSB for use as a shoulder stock,” you have, in fact, created an SBR subject to a tax stamp:
    1. Permanently affixing the brace to the buffer tube
    2. Removing the Velcro arm strap
    3. Otherwise undermining the ability to use the PSB as a brace, which is subject to broad interpretation

Stay Current on Pistol Brace Requirements

The biggest problem with the recommendations of the reversal letter is not what the BATFE is requiring of modern pistols owners at the moment but rather that any of the requirements are subject to future reversals and revisions without legislative hearings or testimony. Because of this potential, it is up to the consumer to keep track of the status of his or her modern pistol in order to avoid any potential legal pitfalls.

The legal status of the modern pistol is probably the most confusing one in history for the lawful user of firearms, as it has been in a state of flux. If you buy a modern pistol of any type — AR-15, AK or proprietary guns such as the 9mm Ruger PC Charger — you won’t run afoul of any current legal status unless the rules change. In the meantime, modern pistols are fun to shoot, useful for defense or sport, and easily maneuvered within a home no matter how you fire them.

Sources:

SB Tactical: SB-Tactical.com