Since 2013, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) estimates that over 3 million stabilizing braces, or pistol braces, have been sold in the U.S. With over a dozen designs available on the market, they are mostly meant to be used with AR-15 style pistols. Pistol braces are devices meant to improve the shootability of large-format, intermediate caliber pistols, without shouldering a stock.
Putting a stock on a pistol, however, would require the possessor to have registered the item with the ATF in accordance with the National Firearms Act (NFA), since it would make the item a short-barreled rifle (SBR)—this also means paying a $200 tax stamp and going through an enhanced vetting process. See also 18 U.S.C. § 921(a)(8); 26 U.S.C. § 5821. These pistol braces have drawn much more attention from the public recently, as the President and the ATF have been eyeing them for increased regulation.
Whether you think pistol braces are a practical addition to an AR pistol, an attempt to skirt federal law, or a range-toy with drawbacks in real-world settings, it’s impossible to avoid the fact that they’re seemingly at center stage in the current gun rights debate.
What is an AR-15 Pistol?
Simply put, an AR-15 Pistol, commonly known as an AR Pistol, is an AR-15 platform firearm that has been modified to meet the legal definition of a pistol. Although there’s generally a buffer tube about 7.25-inches long projecting behind the action, as this is where the recoil spring is housed, it has no stock.
Prior to the introduction of pistol stabilizing braces, some people had put foam sleeves (or other coverings) on the end of their buffer tubes to facilitate shooting them more comfortably. However, it was debated as to whether or not this was legal to do.
Can I Make an AR Pistol into a Rifle, or Vice Versa?
This is one of the few simple questions surrounding this topic. A pistol can become a rifle, even a short-barreled one, but only once. A rifle can’t become a pistol, though it can become an SBR. To clarify, the path on this is a one-way street: if you want an AR pistol, you can’t use a lower receiver that has been configured for a rifle. This is an important distinction because if you put a pistol upper on a rifle lower without getting ATF approval and completing the necessary regulatory steps, you’ll most likely have manufactured or configured an unregistered SBR and committed a federal felony.
What is the Real Difference Between an SBR and a Braced Pistol?
In 2012, SB Tactical debuted the Pistol Stabilizing Brace, with multiple manufacturers first producing a model for either AK pistols or AR pistols in 2013. The AR model attached using the existing buffer tube, much like a regular stock, and the rear surface of it appeared large enough to provide a decent shouldering area, which was immediately noticed by consumers.
Eventually, in March of 2014, the ATF replied to an inquiry from law enforcement asking if it was legal to shoulder an AR pistol with a brace attached, or if it would reclassify that pistol as an SBR, and their reply was clear and straightforward.
The ATF addressed the brace in question, noting: (1) it was not classified as a shoulder stock; and (2) improper use did not change the classification of the weapon. As stated by the agency, firing a gun from a certain position, including while shouldering a pistol brace attached to a firearm, did not change the classification of the weapon. As such, while not what the manufacturer intended or recommended, firing an AR pistol in this manner did not change the classification of the gun from a pistol to an SBR.
This interpretation issued by the ATF helped provide clear and concise guidance to a subject involving pistol braces, one that had previously been dominated by vague suppositions.