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AR-15 Pistols – Clearing Up Some Misconceptions

The BATFE has been telling NFA applicants that their approvals could take as long as 15 months from the date their application enters the “pending” status. Those who have been through the process before know that it can take a few months to even get to the pending status. These new revelations coupled with recent gear developments have me reconsidering my stance on AR-15 pistols.

I wouldn’t say that I am anti-AR pistol and I also wouldn’t say that I think they are a great idea. I guess that I am somewhat agnostic toward them. However, what always bothered me was casual way that they were written off by many “experts” who sneered that they were toys without ever really backing that up with actual data. So, in an effort to find out what is really up with AR pistols, I am planning on building one and putting it through the wringer. I’ll report back with quantifiable data in regard to how they perform against a similarly configured rifle. That sort of project takes some time and while I have been preparing for it, I came across a lot of misinformation about AR-15 pistols that I would like to set straight in this article.

Photo courtesy of AR15News.com

Photo courtesy of AR15News.com

Before I get too deep into the weeds, I should say that am not a lawyer. This is not legal advice. You should also familiarize yourself with your local laws to ensure compliance. Understand that while many BATFE opinions are cited in this article, they are just that – opinions – which are apt to change.


The 4473 form that you complete at the point of purchase seems like a good place to start since it is where you AR pistol adventure will start. It is no longer necessary to have the lower transferred to you as a handgun. Receivers are now transferred as a “receiver.” This is stated directly on the current form 4473. You can build the receiver into whatever you like as long as it meets legal definitions of a handgun or rifle.

Cite: BATFE Form 4473

Once a Rifle, Always a Rifle

The BATFE has made it very clear that once a receiver is built into a rifle, whether by a factory or by you, it is always a rifle and converting it to a pistol is illegal. However, it is perfectly legal to build the receiver into a pistol first and then convert it to a rifle. If the receiver is built into a pistol first, you can configure it back and forth from handgun to rifle and back again as much as you want. However, you must be vigilant to ensure that a shorter than 16″ barrel is never on the receiver at the same time as a stock.

The proper order for converting an AR pistol to a rifle is to remove the short barrel (usually done by removing the entire upper receiver group), installed the 16″+ barrel (usually done by installing an entire upper receiver group), and then installing the stock. I repeat, the stock and short barrel must never be on the receiver at the same time or you will have created an illegal short barreled rifle (SBR).

The proper order for converting a rifle BACK to an AR pistol is to remove the stock, remove the 16″+ barrel, and finally install the <16″ barrel.

There is some wisdom in building every AR-15 lower receiver that you purchase into a pistol first. That way you have the maximum versatility should you want to convert it to a pistol later.

Cite: BATFE on converting pistols to rifles

Receiver Extensions

Speaking of removing and reinstalling the stock… One of the most widely spread gun-counter dogmas regarding AR pistols is that you must use a receiver extension (buffer tube) that cannot except a stock. People often cite “constructive intent” when discussing why you must use a receiver extension that can not accept a stock. They state that if you were to own both a stock and an AR pistol that could accept the stock, you could be cited for the intent to create an illegal SBR. This is not necessarily true.

Owning a buttstock is not illegal as long as you have a legal use for it. Installing it on an AR pistol to create an unregistered SBR is illegal. Owning a car that is capable of exceeding the speed limit is not illegal. Exceeding the speed limit is illegal.

In my opinion (for whatever it’s worth), a wise way to approach the situation is to say that if you only own an AR-15 pistol, don’t also own a buttstock. It will save you the temptation of installing it and prevent the appearance of illegal intent. If you own multiple other AR-15s that can legally accept a buttstock, feel free own as many buttstocks as you like. Just like if you own a legal SBR, you don’t have to register all your ARs as SBRs in order to own an upper with a short barrel.

“Constructive intent” is a boogeyman that has prevented a lot of people from doing perfectly legal things. Use common sense and follow the law as it is written. Using a standard receiver extension is legal and actually very handy if you plan on converting your AR pistol to rifle configuration as detailed above.

I do acknowledge that this is perhaps a gray area and even the cited letter below says that owning a stock with an AR pistol that can accept it “may” be breaking the law. So, without a doubt, the absolute safest way to go is with a receiver extension that cannot accept a stock.

Cite: BATFE on receiver extensions

Cite: More information here

Photo courtesy of HausofGuns.com

Photo courtesy of HausofGuns.com

Pistol Lowers Must Be Marked as Pistol Lowers

There was a time when having a pistol marked lower receiver made some sense but it has never really mattered what the lower says. It has always mattered how it was transferred. It is a pistol if…

  • It was transferred as a pistol (receivers are no longer transferred as pistols).
  • It was transferred as a receiver and then built into a pistol first.

Vertical Grips and Similar

Installing a vertical grip on an AR pistol is illegal. It, by classification, creates an illegal Any Other Weapon (AOW). However, recent BATFE clarifications have created some options you should be aware of.

The BATFE has clarified that it does not consider angled foregrips like the Magpul AFG a vertical grip and therefor it is legal to install on an AR pistol.

Additionally, if the AR pistol has an overall length of 26″ or greater (the BATFE’s definition of not easily concealed) and lacks a buttstock (not an SBR), you may install a vertical grip because it does not fit the BATFE’s definition of a “handgun”. AR pistols in this configuration do not fit any BATFE definition and thus are classed generically as a “firearm”. Guns that are classified as “firearms” may have vertical fore grips installed. To be clear, in this case the term “firearm” is an actual BATFE classification of a gun that meets certain criteria not a general term used for all guns.

The overall length is measure from the tip of the bare muzzle (the muzzle device does not count unless it is permanently attached) to the back of the receiver extension.

It should be noted that if you are carrying an AR pistol legally by virtue of a concealed handgun license, adding the vertical grip makes it something other than a handgun.

Cite: Franklin Armory compiled info on vertical grips

Cite: BATFE on AFG

Cane Tips and Buffer Tube Bumpers

The BATFE has clarified that a rubber cane tip placed on the receiver extension (buffer tube) does not constitute a stock. This can make the AR pistol easier to stand up in a safe and protect the rear of receiver extension.

Cite: BATFE on cane tips

Shooting an AR Pistol Certain Ways is Illegal

Some people will tell you that shooting an AR pistol with the receiver extension against your shoulder is illegal because the receiver extension then becomes a shoulder stock. That is incorrect. The AR pistol is a pistol by virtue of the way it was transferred, initially built, and the fact that its features meet the definition of a pistol set forth by the BATFE. Its classification can not be changed by shooting it a certain way.

This would be like saying that a 1911 or Glock become illegal if they are shot while pressed against your body. Again, use common sense and follow the laws as written.

Due to a recent reversal to the ATF’s position on the Sig SB15 Brace and the legality of using it against the shooter’s shoulder, this section may no longer be up to date. I am awaiting further clarification.

Wrap Up

AR-15 pistols don’t have to be complicated. Just do a little research, follow the laws as written, and enjoy yourself. If you are looking for more information, check out Haus of Guns’ ongoing coverage of what he is learning from his recent AR-15 pistol build. You can also check out AR15News.com’s recent build for some inspiration. Both sites offer good insight into what makes these guns work.

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