Recently, you may have seen more and more references to “AR-15 Pistols” over social media and other news sources. So what’s the difference? at face value, they can sometimes look pretty similar. But surely there isn’t a distinction for no reason? This begs the question – what are the functional differences between using an AR-15 pistol vs a rifle? To answer that question, we need to first break down what exactly an AR15 pistol is. Then have a look at some of the key differences between it and an actual rifle.
What Is An AR-15 Pistol?
An AR-15 Pistol is any pistol that’s been built up with ArmaLite Rifle parts.
This may seem like a confusing statement if you’re not entirely clued up on firearms, so the simple explanation is this: the receiver of a firearm is the part which contains the entirety of the firing mechanism for that device. Rifle receivers are significantly larger and more powerful than pistol receivers – which is partially why rifles have better range than pistols. Receivers come in two parts – upper and lower. The upper receiver can of either a pistol length or rifle length, obviously in this case we’re dealing with a pistol length receiver.
So when you install AR parts on a pistol receiver, you still effectively have a pistol in terms of power and barrel length. You just have the comfort of the rest of the parts that have contributed to AR’s becoming one of the most popular firearms in the world.
You can buy AR conversion kits for your pistol or you can source the parts individually. The end result is roughly the same. You end up with what effectively looks like a “dwarf” version of an AR-15. The barrel is much smaller, resulting in a stubby appearance.
You can’t have what is conventionally considered to be a “stock” on these pistols. They’re supposed to be fired as if they’re actually just a pistol.
Legality – What Class Of Weapon Is This?
In the 1930’s a national firearms act was passed that declared that rifles of a specific size and designation (under 26 inches with a barrel of under 16 inches and a shoulder stock) be designated as “short barreled rifles” (SBRs).
Because registering a short barreled rifle is a lot more expensive and waiting times are a nightmare, the AR pistol was born. As it technically does not have a shoulder stock, it narrowly avoids the classification of a short barreled rifle and is technically still a pistol. It’s funny to see how quickly the firearms market can adapt to legislative changes – it’s a particularly unique industry in that respect.
The next question you might have is “are they legal everywhere?”. For the most part, yes, they are regulated in much the same manner as pistols. States with harsher gun control measures such as California do have some legislation surrounding them, though. So you should definitely double check with your specific municipality before investing in a conversion kit.
Finally, even owning a stock and your pistol in the same house can be considered a crime. It’s called “constructive possession” – it is where the state believes that you are simply assembling and dissembling your device whenever you go out shooting – to protect you in the event of a raid.
What Are The Benefits Of An AR Pistol?
The most obvious benefit is the entire reason they exist in the first place – they’re cheaper and don’t need to be registered as rifles.
They’re also much better suited for CQB situations. The smaller overall length of the barrel means that it is much easier to maneuver and navigate through narrow environments. As a result, it’s a particularly popular choice for home defense.
Another benefit that may spring to mind is the recoil factor. You’re dealing with the recoil from a pistol, not a rifle. Rifle receivers have bigger cartridges that contain much more propellant than pistols. This results in a more powerful firearm but also a lot more recoil. Using a pistol receiver instead of a rifle receiver means that you’re going to find recoil management much easier – especially if you’re already accustomed to shooting real rifles.
Another upside is that many states only allow concealed carry with a pistol. States that allow you to store your concealed carry weapon in your vehicle will technically allow you to concealed carry this incredibly powerful close combat weapon. You might have a hard time explaining this to a police officer if they haven’t brushed up on their firearms knowledge, though.
Another key upside (and also downside) is how easy it is to convert your firearm into a short barreled rifle. You simply need to affix a proper stock and apply for the correct registration. This means that you can apply for the registration, continue shooting your gun as normal and when you get the all-clear simply install your stock and get to work.
Please Remember: Whilst you can convert an AR pistol back and forth from SBR to pistol by removing the stock, you can not convert an AR RIFLE back and forth. This is because the upper receiver will be above the maximum requirement to be classified as a pistol receiver. So don’t think you can simply buy up an AR15, rip the stock off it and show your friends your cool new pistol.
What Are The Downsides To An AR Pistol?
Remember that we mentioned it’s really easy to slip into the legal categorization of a short barreled rifle with one of these? That can be a bad thing too. If you’re particularly forgetful, or just not clued up on the proper legislation – you can get in trouble. Using an AR pistol with a real stock without registering it as a short barreled rifle is a criminal offense. Remember – if it says “pistol” in the name, it’s probably not meant to be fired from a shouldered position.
Quicker component degradation is also another issue you have to worry about. Because AR pistols have shorter barrels than conventional rifles, the gas cycles MUCH quicker than in a rifle. This creates a problem known as “overgassing”, which can result in you having to replace components at a faster rate. Picking a good quality receiver can definitely help to offset this issue, though.
Building one can be pretty confusing too. Manufacturers of lower receivers no longer actually label these items as “pistol” or “rifle” receivers (although they used to.). Any lower receiver can now technically be classed as a pistol OR rifle receiver depending on the surrounding components like the upper receiver.. You should purchase an AR-15 receiver and combine it with an AR-15 pistol buffer tube to ensure you’re compliant. Luckily, apart from this, everything is pretty much the same with the exception of the whole shoulder stock issue. We’ll address some of the specific components you should look out further below.
We advocate all of our users follow the law to a tee. An issue we’ve seen popping up is constantly changing regulations. National tragedies and other shifts in the political landscape can prompt big changes, seemingly overnight.
Specific laws surrounding pistol attachments spring to mind. For example, in the past, you could attach a cheek rest. This let you rest your cheek whilst aiming down your sights.
But if you took that same cheek rest and propped it up against your shoulder, the ATF would be particularly unhappy with you. They claimed that you were now operating an unlicensed short barreled rifle.
This is a little bit of a confusing law in terms of enforcement, as it’s almost impossible to verify how someone is shooting their rifle unless you actually watch them shooting at a range or spy on them.
Regardless, they have since repealed this law. But you should probably be conscious of how erratic the regulatory landscape is – in case they decide to change it again.
If you’re not interested in building one from scratch, we’ve compiled a list of some complete builds you can look into. Whilst building one from scratch can be a more intricate experience and generally teach a good bit about the firearm you’re handling, it isn’t for everyone. Whether you’re pressed for time or simply not interested, you don’t need to tinker away at your firearm to know it’s going to be reliable and great to shoot.
PSA 8.5″ PISTOL-LENGTH 300AAC
This is an excellent product brought out by the legendary PSA. The 8.5″ barrel is perfect for anyone looking for a relatively compact pistol design. It chambers .300 AAC Blackout rounds, which are designated as 7.62x35mm and travel at subsonic speeds. The barrel extension is in a classic M4 style with a relatively heavier overall barrel weight. As you might expect based on the overall aesthetic of the gun so far, the flash hider is built to mimic the appearance and functionality of an A2 flash hider.
It’s compact enough to fit in just about any car trunk and pairs excellently with a crossfire red dot sight and a magpul angled foregrip.
Similarly, if you’re interested in building out and assembling your firearm but don’t want to source individual components, you might be interested in a pistol kit. These kits are designed for people who already possess a lower (which is the only part of a firearm that must be registered.). If you’ve already sourced a really nice lower from a specific company and you simply need to have it, one of these kits is a great way to quickly build out your faux-SBR.
PSA 8.5″ PISTOL-LENGTH 5.56 NATO
This kit provides you with absolutely everything you need to build out an 8.5″ AR-Pistol. It’s a little bit different from the complete build above – not just because it’s disassembled, but also because of the chamber size. It takes a standard 5.56 NATO round, which is what you’d come to expect with most regular AR15s.
The only “key” component you’ll need was already mentioned above – you’ll need a lower. Manufacturers often sell these kits separately without the lowers because the lower is the section that requires the most amount of paperwork to acquire and sell.
In terms of accessories; it doesn’t have any sights or optics either. So if you have anything specific in mind you’ll have to source something. There’s a suggestion down below in the assembly section of this article if you’re stuck for ideas.
Building An AR Pistol – What Do I Use And How Do I Do It?
As you’ve probably guessed by now, it might be a little bit difficult to select the correct components for your build. We’ve picked out some possible options you might want to consider. We have also compiled them in a top to bottom fashion to give you an idea of how each component compliments one another.
When it comes to compatibility – this shouldn’t be too much of an issue. Most upper receivers are generally going to work with most lower receivers provided they’re designed for the same style of gun (in this case an AR 15). You’re going to struggle to get an ar10 and ar15 upper/lower receiver combination to fit together at all.
Listed below is an example build to give you an idea of what kind of components you’re going to be shopping around for. There’s also some optional extras listed if you’re interesting in something a little less vanilla.
The Lower Receiver
The first thing you’re going to have to worry about when constructing this build is the lower receiver. There are a huge variety of lower receivers on the open market and if you’re not particularly clued up, you could end up picking one that will degrade rapidly. Since lower receivers are also no longer labeled as pistol or rifle, they have all kind of merged together and wading through these waters can be tricky.
PSA AR-15 “M16A4” Stripped Lower Receiver
Our top recommendation for a receiver is probably a Mil-Spec 7075-T6 lower receiver. This kind of receiver is built out of a tough aluminium base and it’s constructed to military specifications. This makes it significantly better than the civilian variants – particularly when it comes to degradation. It’s not just a marginal difference either, it’s literally twice as strong as the civilian variant. The only downside to this receiver is the higher pricing point – but you’ll make your money back when you don’t have to replace it constantly.
One particularly great example of a lower you could use for this purpose is the PSA AR-15 “M16A4” STRIPPED LOWER RECEIVER. They have a handful of different “clone” builds. But if you’re looking to steer clear of this aesthetic they also manufacture generic lower receivers to the exact same quality.
If you’re planning on building an upper receiver on your own, you need to MAKE SURE you pick an upper receiver that has a pistol length barrel. Otherwise you’re just building a rifle, which kind of defeats the point.
PSA 8.5″ Pistol Length 5.56 NATO 1:7
Palmetto state armory do a 7075 T6 hardcoat anodized aluminum receiver which is a perfect pick for anyone looking to for a solid fit for a pistol build. It even has a prefitted flash can to reduce the level of muzzle flash you encounter when using your firearm.
One of the important things to note when you’re sourcing an upper receiver is the hand-guard type. You don’t necessarily need to base your purchasing decision off of this, but note it down. You’ll need to know what your hand-guard type is when and if you decided to pick a foregrip. M-Lock is a great beginners handguard system to have because it’s effectively an “open source” guard system. All the specifications are available for manufacturers to easily design products in accordance. This gives you the advantage of having access to a great deal of various accessories for your rifle.
The pistol buffer tube is the next thing you’re going to have to worry about. If you’re unsure of what this component does, it’s simply a means of ensuring a shoulder stock can not be attached to your rifle. You’re not just confined to a pistol buffer tube though. There’s a few key ways of getting the aesthetic you’re likely routing for.
SBA3 Pistol Stabilizing Brace
There is also a variety of different pistol braces out there that are designed to aesthetically mimic a shoulder brace without actually technically being one. One key example of this is the adjustable SBA3 pistol stabilizing brace. It can be extended to five different positions to give you a greater level of choice and comfort. You can currently purchase the SBA3 brace from brownells.
Optional – Foregrip
You can ONLY use an angled foregrip with your gun. Vertical foregrips are simply not allowed to be combined with pistols. Luckily – angled foregrips aren’t that bad. They can still greatly increase the level of control and maneuverability you have with your firearm.
Our top recommendation for most pistol builds will almost always be the magpul angled foregrip. It has excellent compatibility with any and all M-LOK compatible systems. It’ll also fit well on any system with an M-LOK conversion system in place. It’s made from some seriously durable polymer materials and it has an excellent and comfortable low profile.
Optional – Picatinny Rail Segment
If you’re planning on putting any kind of optic or similar accessory on your rifle, you’re gonna struggle. Optics aren’t designed to just mount straight on an M-Lok hand-guard. Most optics are designed for picatinny rail systems. Luckily, it’s easy to stick a picatinny rail on your guard without much hassle. It’s also not too expensive either.
TROY M-LOK 5.5″ RAIL SECTION
This is a great example of a picatinny rail section. It’s designed to be compatible with a wide variety of M-Lok style hand-guards. So you should be able to avoid worrying about compatibility issues if you place an order. This will greatly increase your options when it comes to rifle accessories. It’s always a good idea to have one ready – even if you don’t immediately plan on investing in an optic.
Optional – Holographic Sight
Many people opt for this style of firearm because of it’s sheer ruthlessness in CQB. It’s a legal concealed carry weapon and it’s ideal for home defence. Either way, that means one type of optics is absolutely perfect for it – a reflex sight. Reflex sights are designed for quick target designation so that they can be used quickly and effectively.
SIGHTMARK ULTRA SHOT M-SPEC 1X33MM X 24MM REFLEX
This is an ideal example of a mid range holographic sight. It’s 1x33MMx24MM lens, meaning that lens diameters are 33 millimeters and 24 millimeters respectively. This also means that there is 0 magnification, the image you see through the lense is the same as you would see without a lense. The only difference being that there’s now a powerful, illuminated, 65 minute-of-angle adjustment crosshair. It’s made from a tough 6061-T6 aluminum variant so it should be able to withstand a few knocks and drops here and there.
As you would probably expect from a sight, it’s shock proof. This means it’ll be able to withstand you putting a good deal of rounds down range without incurring any damage. It’s also waterproof rated up to an IP68 rating and dustproof, too.
The battery life for a single CR123A battery will last a minimum of about 200 hours but is capable of lasting longer depending on your level of use. There’s even a low battery warning to give you an idea of when you should change the batteries. There’s also a motion sensor that determines whether to switch your sight on based on recent movements. If you leave your rifle for too long with the sight still on then the illumination should eventually power down.
Of course, all of these individual components have only been picked to give you a rough example of compatibility. Any M-LOK compatible foregrip is going to work with an M-LOK style hand-guard. Likewise, most AR-15 upper receivers are generally gonna be compatible with lower receivers of the same kind.
The biggest, and most important thing about any build is that it’s legal. If you’re planning on venturing far from the components listed above, double check the legality of each and every one of them. Especially in the state you currently reside in. It might take a few extra minutes – but 5 minutes on your computer is a pretty good trade off if it helps you avoid a fine or even prison time.
It really isn’t that hard to accidentally order a rifle upper, or a shoulder stock instead of a “pistol brace”.
If you live in California, importation and registration laws are heavily different from most other states. So be particularly vigilant if you’re based there.