Shotgun Barrel Length: What’s Legal and What Isn’t
Welcome to the wonderful world of legal definitions as defined by the government! Thanks to the National Firearms Act (NFA) of 1934, firearms that fall below certain barrel or overall length requirements are referred to as either “short barrel shotguns” (SBS) or “short barrel rifles” (SBR). If a firearm is considered an SBS or an SBR, then it is subject to more stringent regulation than other types of firearms.
Like most things involving the government and firearms, finding the cold, hard facts on SBRs and SBSs can be a little bit elusive. This is because the ATF has started changing its definitions of certain items that fall under the NFA purview.
Don’t fret it, though; we’re here to help clear up any confusion you might have. Here’s what we’re going to cover:
What’s the Minimum Shotgun Barrel Length Required by Law?
A shotgun barrel must be at least 18 inches in length as outlined in the NFA. Any shorter (seriously – any tiny bit shorter) than that and it is considered to be an SBS. If this is the case and your shotgun barrel is less than 18 inches in length, then it’s an SBS and must be registered as an NFA item to be in compliance with the law.
How Length is Measured
This is really easy to do. Close the action on your firearm and then drop a wooden dowel or cleaning rod into the barrel until it touches the bolt or breech face. Mark the outside of the rod or dowel at the end of the muzzle crown or device. Do not measure to the end of any muzzle device that you may have on your barrel if you can remove it. If the muzzle device is permanently mounted on the barrel, then you should include that in the measurement. Remove the rod and then measure from the mark to the end of the rod. That is your overall barrel length.
What About Short-Barreled Shotguns (SBS)?
As we mentioned briefly above, SBSs are legal, but there are some extra hoops you have to jump through in order to stay legal and keep out of jail. If your firearm is classified as an SBS, then it must be registered with the ATF as an NFA item. This means that you’ll have to pay for a $200 tax stamp for the “privilege” of owning the SBS.
Rifle Length vs. Shotgun Length
In a logical world, the legal length for rifles and barrels would be the same. Unfortunately, government agencies do not operate in logical worlds. It’s kind of reminiscent of host Drew Carey’s introduction to the show Whose Line Is it Anyway? in which he says, “Everything’s made up and the points don’t matter!”
If it weren’t for the threat of heavy fines and/or time in prison, these idiosyncrasies and seemingly random determinations would actually be funny. But of course, it’s not funny, because there actually are different length requirements for SBRs and SBSs.
A shotgun is considered to be a short barrel shotgun if it has a barrel length that is less than 18 inches. A rifle is considered to be a short barrel rifle if it has a barrel length that is less than 16 inches. Government bureaucrats love splitting hairs, and barrel length measurements are no exception. Make sure you’re measuring properly because any discrepancy could lead to trouble.
Why are the length requirements different for SBRs and SBSs? That’s a great question. Unfortunately, there’s not really a great answer. Go back and re-read the first paragraph in this section. That’s about as good of an answer as there is.
Applying for a Short-Barreled Shotgun or Rifle License
You can purchase “off-the-shelf” SBRs and SBSs that came from the factory in that configuration, or you can build one yourself. Either way, you’ll have to obtain government permission before doing so. This involves two of Uncle Sam’s favorite things: paperwork and money.
If you’re buying a ready-made SBS or SBR, then you’ll fill out all of the Form 4 paperwork with your dealer, pay for the gun and the tax stamp, and then wait for approval before taking possession of your new firearm. This process generally takes seven to nine months on average at the time of this writing.
If you’re taking an existing firearm and converting it into an SBS or SBR, then you’ll fill out all of the Form 1 paperwork, pay for the tax stamp, and then wait for approval before actually making the SBS or SBR. This process generally takes four weeks on average at the time of this writing. It is crucial that you do not actually make the SBR or SBS until after you have approval.
No matter which route you take – Form 4 or Form 1 – for whichever type of firearm you decide on – SBS or SBR – you’ll have to pay $200 for the tax stamp that is required for these items. It makes no difference which type of route you choose.
When in Doubt, Ask the Experts
Hopefully, this answered any of the questions you might have. If it didn’t, don’t worry – we’re here to help. Check out the myriad posts on our blog; we’ve got other ones related to SBRs and SBSs as well. It’s possible that your questions are answered in one of them.
If not, don’t hesitate to reach out to us! We’ve been navigating the world of NFA firearms and devices for more than 15 years. We can help answer any other questions you might have about SBSs or SBRs. Plus, if you operate under the “in for a penny, in for a pound” philosophy, then you might as well make your SBR or SBS a “double stamper” and get a suppressor for it, too! We can definitely help you with that as well.Shop Shotgun Suppressors