SBR vs. AR Pistol: Know the Difference

SBR vs. AR Pistol: Know the Difference

SBR vs. AR Pistol: Know the Difference

In recent years two types of firearms have become increasingly popular, especially for owners of suppressors. They are the Short Barreled Rifle (SBR) and the AR pistol. Each one has its own advantages and disadvantages. Some shooters opt for both but many seem locked in a struggle over which one is the winner in the AR pistol vs. SBR battle.

This may even replace the rifle vs. carbine debate when shooters used to tout the advantages of a 20” barreled AR with a fixed stock over a 16” barreled carbine with a collapsible stock and vice versa.

Then as now, it all comes down to the shooter’s needs and preferences.

We’re going to break down the differences so you can make an informed decision for yourself. Here’s a preview of what we’ll cover:

What’s the Difference between an AR Pistol and an SBR?

While the two types of firearms may look similar to each other, there are a few differences when it comes to a pistol vs. an SBR. This is not simply the rifle vs. carbine debate rehashed, as the AR pistol and SBR are far closer in appearance as well as function than the carbine and rifle.

When it came to carbines vs. rifles, the carbine had a shorter barrel and usually a collapsible stock. In the case of the AR-15, a rifle barrel was 20” in length, whereas the carbine’s barrel length was 16”. This changed in the 1990s with the adoption of the M4 carbine and the barrel length became 14.5” for military carbines.

The chief difference between an AR pistol and an SBR is the brace vs. the stock. Rifle stocks were designed to be placed into the shoulder of the shooter to aid in accuracy and stability. They can be made of any hard, dense, or rigid material such as wood, plastic, or metal. Some stocks are in a fixed position, whereas others can be folded or otherwise collapsed to aid in storage or make them more easily portable.

A brace, on the other hand, was designed to aid in the one-handed shooting of a pistol. The design theory behind the brace was to aid disabled shooters by allowing them to strap the brace to an arm to counter the weight of an AR or AK type pistol.

An SBR must be registered with the Federal Government like a silencer or machinegun and the cost to make or transfer one is a $200 tax. Permission must be granted by the ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms) if the owner wishes to take it across state lines and the owner must complete a Form 20.

AR pistols, on the other hand, require no federal paperwork and may be taken to other states just as the shooter would transport a typical handgun.

What is an SBR (short barrel rifle)?

A short-barreled rifle is federally defined as a firearm with a rifled barrel and a stock where the barrel is less than 16” and/or the overall length is less than 26”. For purposes of measuring overall length when a folding or telescopic stock is attached, the measurement is taken from the crown of the barrel to the end of the stock when it is fully extended. Detachable muzzle devices do not count toward an SBR’s overall length.

Ownership of an SBR means that it has to be registered as an NFA item with the ATF. Just like owning a silencer or a machine gun, it requires payment for a $200 tax stamp, a background check, and the ordeal of fingerprints and a photo. These may not be as intrusive or expensive as they sound. Most SBR owners are more inconvenienced by the extensive waiting period which can take anywhere from 2 months to over a year.

Pistol Brace vs. Stock

A pistol brace outwardly resembles a stock but is typically made of rubber for the most part, although there are some newer ones made of plastic or even metal. They have a shorter length of pull and most often have straps of some type so that the shooter can attach it to their arm and fire it one-handed.

Stocks are designed so that the shooter can shoulder a rifle and thus aid in accuracy and stability. While the two are outwardly similar, in the AR pistol vs. SBR argument, the stock will almost always win from a design, comfort, and engineering standpoint.

Is it Legal to Shoulder a Pistol Brace?

This is a question that comes up quite often. As of this writing, the answer is, “Yes, it is completely legal to shoulder a firearm equipped with a pistol brace”.

That answer has changed a few times over the years, most notably with a January 2015 Open Letter from the ATF that appeared to say it was illegal and certain firearms celebrities were given warnings to not shoulder a brace on videos and in still photography.

A 2019 ruling clarified that it was legal to shoulder a braced pistol:

“To the extent the January 2015 Open Letter implied or has been construed to hold that incidental, sporadic, or situational ‘use’ of an arm-brace (in its original approved configuration) equipped firearm from a firing position at or near the shoulder was sufficient to constitute a ‘redesign,’ such interpretations are incorrect and not consistent with ATF’s interpretation of the statute or the manner in which it has historically been enforced.”

Of course, these bureaucratic rulings are always subject to change. They can be eliminated or reinterpreted by the whim of a non-elected department administrator or by an elected presidential administration.

Grip Type

Another issue with AR pistols and SBRs is the use of a vertical forward or forend grip (VFG). These are allowed on rifles, as the ATF defines a rifle as a weapon that is fired from the shoulder and generally requires two hands in order to shoot it.

Pistols are defined as firearms that were designed primarily to be fired with one hand so a VFG will run afoul of the law in most cases. A pistol with an overall length of 26” or less and a sub16” barrel would be considered an AOW (Any Other Weapon) with a VFG attached. Transfer of an AOW is the same as an SBR or machine gun, except the transfer tax is only $5. It is a $200 tax to make one, however.

Barrel Length

The length of a short barrel for either an SBR or an AR pistol can range anywhere from 2” to 15.5”, granted the shorter one would more likely be a single shot custom build. The most typical barrel length range is more realistically between 7.5” and 14.5” with 10.5 to 12” being the optimum length for pairing the SBR or pistol with a silencer.

Short Barrel Rifle Laws and Regulations

SBRs were classified as NFA items in 1934. Most people do not know that the NFA was originally going to restrict handguns alongside machine guns and silencers. In the planning stages, the committee decided to restrict long guns with barrels shorter than 18” to prevent people from making handguns out of long guns, which is where the length requirements came from. When they were told it would cost them politically, handguns were removed from the bill, but they never removed the verbiage concerning short-barreled rifles and shotguns. This is why they need to be registered.

It is hoped that someday SBRs will be removed from the NFA entirely. It is not a lost cause, as the NFA has been amended in the past. We mentioned the 18” barrel length in the previous paragraph. That is not a typo. In 1934 when the NFA was passed, that was the minimum barrel length for rifles. It was changed to 16” in the 1950s after the US Government sold over 1 million M1 Carbines as surplus to civilian shooters and their barrel length was less than 18”.

ATF Approval

All SBRs must be approved by the ATF for initial manufacture and registration as well as every time the SBR changes ownership. This requires fingerprints, photos, and filling out either a Form 1 to manufacture or a Form 4 to transfer ownership.

The only approval requirement about an AR pistol is on the manufacturing side if a brace is used.

SBR Tax Stamp

As mentioned previously, transfer or registration of an SBR requires payment of a $200 tax stamp with the NFA. This is a one-time tax per owner and it is not an annual fee. The tax must be paid every time the SBR transfers to a new owner. In the AR pistol vs. SBR debate, this is the pistol’s primary advantage.

Traveling with an SBR

One of the downsides of traveling with an SBR is that the owner must seek permission from the ATF to take it across state lines. This requires completion of a Form 20 with the ATF. The good news is that they are almost always automatically approved, are free of charge and they can be filled out 1 year in advance.

SBR Laws Vary by State

With the exception of Hawaii, New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and the District of Columbia; SBRs are generally legal to possess in the remaining 46 states. In the case of California, this can only be done with Curio & Relic (C&R) firearms and in Illinois, the owner has to have a C&R Federal Firearms license or other FFL. An AR pistol is not always an option in these states, either. Check your state and local laws before deciding on either one.

Which One’s Better for Me?

As far as SBR vs. a pistol, what may be the best for one person may not be the best for another. Every shooter has different goals with regard to their firearms. In the case of trying to determine whether to buy or build an AR pistol vs. an SBR, you need to evaluate why you need one more than the other or which one makes more sense to you as a firearms owner.

Benefits of Owning an SBR

The primary benefit of owning an SBR is to make a more compact rifle. Many shooters who run silencers or suppressors find the rifle can become unwieldy or lengthy when attached to a barrel in excess of 16”. A common workaround was to attach the silencer to a shorter barrel and pin and weld it in place. For example, a shooter might attach a 6” silencer permanently to a 10” barrel and have the magic 16” of legality.

However, this leaves the shooter with the disadvantage of having the silencer hosted on only one firearm and can make it problematic to service either one correctly.

Going the SBR route alleviates that issue.

Other shooters like to collect firearms based on historical examples, such as the CAR-15 type rifles of the Vietnam era or the Israeli Uzi or FN P90. These examples had 10” barrels and the factory equivalents available for civilian purchase do not.

An SBR also gives the shooter the benefit of using a dedicated stock as opposed to a brace. Let’s face it; even the best brace will not give a shooter the comfort and stability of a proper rifle stock.

Drawbacks of Owning an SBR

The biggest downside to an SBR is the NFA requirement and, as mentioned, taking an SBR across state lines. While the tax is not a huge financial burden and the wait time is a matter of patience, some shooters are not allowed to own them in the states in which they live due to an unconstitutional ban at the state level or the requirements of additional paperwork or licensing.

Another disadvantage, particularly if you rely on your SBR for self-defense is that many states, counties, and cities restrict transporting a loaded rifle – that is with a round in the chamber. This was part of anti-poaching laws passed during the Great Depression but they are still with us today.

Benefits of Owning an AR Pistol

Perhaps the biggest benefit of an AR Pistol over a dedicated SBR is that there is no NFA paperwork or taxes. Is a rifle with a barrel that is 15.5” as opposed to 16” worth paying a $200 tax?

Unlike an SBR, an AR pistol can be transported in a loaded condition with a round in the chamber and can be taken across state lines without a permission slip, unless the other state has prohibitions against AR pistols.

Drawbacks of Owning an AR Pistol

The biggest drawback of owning an AR pistol can be the configuration of the brace and the murkiness of rulings regarding shouldering a braced pistol. The other would seem to be the ATF declaring braces as stocks on a whim as has happened to a number of manufacturers.

As opposed to SBRs, pistol braces do not count toward overall length as they are deemed an accessory. This falls into the realm of using a pistol with a VFG. If the firearm has a shorter than 16” barrel and no stock and exceeds 26” in overall length it is considered a firearm by federal definition vs. a pistol or handgun and a VFG is allowed.

Lastly, an AR pistol can look a lot like an SBR to an uninformed police officer and a shooter could run into a hassle while shooting or even at a traffic stop. You may be completely legal and correct, which is why it is good to be educated in these laws and statutes. It is probably not a bad idea to carry the ATF approval letter for the manufacturer’s brace, either.

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We hope we have given you enough information and knowledge to make a sound decision with regard to purchasing or building your own AR pistol or SBR.

If we can be of any further help in the determination of either an SBR vs. an AR pistol please let us know.

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