AR-15 Pistol or SBR (Short Barrel Rifle): What’s Best For You?

What’s better…an AR-15 pistol or an AR-15 SBR?

A common question discussed at length in gun stores, ranges, and forums the nation over.

AR9 SBR
Wilson Combat AR9 SBR

Everyone seems to have an opinion on the topic, and many people are looking for the answer.  The correct answer, like with so many other topics is, “It depends” and you’ll just have to decide for yourself in the end what is best for you.

Disclaimer:  While some of the information provided here is legal in nature, it is not to be construed as legal advice, and is for educational and entertainment purposes only.  

Size Matters

Before we can address the pros and cons of a Short Barreled Rifle (SBR), first we have to define one.  An SBR is a rifle with a barrel less than 16 inches or a rifle with a barrel of 16 inches or longer but an overall length of fewer than 26 inches.

sbr and pistol (1)

Pistols, on the other hand, are firearms designed to be gripped by one hand. Pistols can have any length barrel, though most commonly they will have shorter barrels ranging from 3 to 12 inches. 

While pistols cannot have a “stock” they can have a brace such as an arm brace, a stabilizing brace, or in some cases just a buffer tube with some padding or foam on the end.  We cover all of them in Best AR-15 Braces.

Best AR-15 & AK Pistol Braces
Best AR-15 & AK Pistol Braces
135
at Brownells

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

These are designed to be shot without shouldering the gun…

Devil is in the Details

At this point, you might be asking yourself why the buttstock versus brace is a big deal? 

To some, it isn’t – but for others, it is the difference between crunchy or smooth peanut butter.  This is one area that is simply preference. There are other factors that need to be considered though.

On pistols, you cannot have vertical fore-grips.  

This is probably one of the things that I see most overlooked at the range when I talk to guys shooting.  They have a nice looking pistol build, can shoot it, but then have a vertical grip on it that makes it illegal.

ATF Meme Guy

Angled grips are allowed on pistols, though I have talked to people who were told by the ATF they were on thin ice due to the angle.

SBRs, on the other hand, can use whatever grips you like.  Do you really like that sweet bipod fore-grip? 

Knock yourself out.  

Want something more angled?

Not a problem, the world is your oyster in this regard.  

Big Brother is Watching

One of the main arguments against SBRs that I see time and again is the amount of involvement with the federal government.

Whether or not the National Firearms Act is an infringement on the Constitution is a debate that will rage on longer than my lifetime I’m sure, but for the time being, if you want to stay in the legal realm, you have to comply with it.

That means that in order to make an SBR, you have to register it with the ATF and pay your $200 for the tax stamp.

It doesn’t end there though.  

If you have an SBR and need to take it out of the state you manufactured it in, you have to ask for permission first.  

ATF, circa 3rd Age (probably)
ATF, circa 3rd Age (probably)

The ATF Form 20 has to be filled out and sent in for approval before you can legally transport your SBR to another state (assuming SBRS are legal there).  There is a silver lining though, you can fill them out well ahead of time.

Thankfully, the Form 20s can be submitted for a year’s worth of travel at a time so that you don’t have to do one every few weeks if you go to the same destination over and over.

Pistols don’t require the Form 20 permission, which is a huge draw for some people.  Throw your gun in the car, make sure you are adhering to the laws of the states you are traveling in, and put some miles on the road.  

ATF, circa 2139 (probably)
ATF, circa 2139 (probably)

That brings me to my next point, knowing the law can save you a ton of headaches.

Check Local Listings for Details

Each state is going to have a different stance on SBRs and pistol builds.

After working and socializing with a ton of law enforcement officers, I can tell you that many of them simply do not know a ton about the differences between SBRs and pistol builds.  

Others still aren’t super informed on tax stamp laws, so your best bet is to make sure you know them well enough to explain. I am by no means bashing law enforcement officers, they simply have more pressing things to make sure they know.  

If you aren’t sure about the laws of a particular state, class3laws.com is a good site to start with, as it typically is updated regularly.

It is worth noting that as state laws vary, not all states will allow pistol builds, not all states will allow SBRs, and some will allow neither (sorry California, you have to sit this one out now).  

No Right to Bear Arms

If you aren’t sure of your state’s laws, contacting a local ATF field office can get you the answers you need – they are a lot more friendly and willing to help than most people would think!

Pistol builds are typically treated just as their name would imply, like pistols.  

Here in Nevada for example, I can have a loaded AR pistol in my vehicle without any issue.  I can even conceal one if it tickles my fancy, though if you try you will more than likely print enough that you get some insane looks.

SBRs on the other hand, are governed by the laws for rifles.  In Nevada, I can have a rifle in my vehicle, I can have a loaded magazine inserted, but I cannot have a round chambered.  

I can carry a rifle around under the same condition as transporting one in my vehicle, though again you have to determine what level of staring and questions you are willing to put up with.

The Grey Area is Where Some Choose to Live

I mentioned earlier about rifles being designed for shouldered fire, while pistols were not.  

As times change and parts and accessories evolve, so do the uses and applications that shooters come up with.  Shouldering a Pistol Stabilizing Bracer is one of those topics that has evolved, changed, and remains left in the dark.

The ATF has responded to this topic over and over, repeatedly saying that shouldering a brace (as of this writing) is not illegal.  See the ATF Letter.

SB Tactical Brace Yourself
SB Tactical Brace being used without shouldering it

That isn’t to say that it is entirely legal either though, as there have been court cases where ATF letters were not allowed to be admitted as evidence.  If you plan to use a determination letter at any point, your best bet is to write to the ATF and get one addressed to you specifically.

In the future this could very well change, so make sure you stay aware of the current status so you aren’t caught off guard.

SBRs on the other hand, offer a level of legal protection.  In the states that allow them, as long as you have the tax stamp and documentation to prove it, you can do as you please in a number of regards!

With an SBR you can shoulder your gun or fire without shouldering, have your barrel and overall length as short as you like, or use whatever furniture you like. You can also rest easy knowing that you have something more solid than a determination letter to rely on if you are confronted about your firearm.

Build or Buy

Building and buying an AR-15 pistol is basically the same as a normal AR-15, except with some different parts like a brace and a shorter barrel. Our guide to the Best AR-15 Pistols can get you started off right!

Best Budget AR-15 Pistol
549
at Palmetto State Armory

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

Buying an SBR on the other hand…that requires some extra work and you’ll need an FFL near you with the right licensing. That’s why, generally speaking, it’s a lot easier to buy a lower, start the paperwork, wait for your tax stamp approval, and then build or buy an upper to complete the rifle.

1147
at Rainier Arms

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

Parting Shots

To some people, SBRs are only for people making clone guns or wanting to play operator.  To others, pistols are for people too cheap or paranoid to get the tax stamp.

In the end, the person that can make the decision on which is better is you.  Each person’s needs and application are going to be different. Where you live, your budget, and at some point, your patience will all come into play when deciding which is better.  

Best AR-15 & AK Pistol Braces
Best AR-15 & AK Pistol Braces

So what did you choose – SBR or pistol? Tell us about it in the comments! If you want more great AR-15 content, check out the Best AR-15 Upgrades!

17 Leave a Reply

  • Daniel Cahill

    Extar EP9 solves the problem and is awesome

    1 second ago
  • Rick

    I ended up building a pistol for the "other" reason. Blew my right shoulder out, had to get it rebuilt. Shooting rifles off the shoulder can suck out loud, even in something as low impulse as 5.56. Shooting a pistol with a brace strapped around my forearm, elbow tucked into my hip, and using a laser as a sight sucks a whole lot less.

    2 months ago
  • Mac

    Fun article, covered all of the ins and outs of both that I mulled over when picking out a first build in 32 (!!) years—since our company armorer would let us play with parts when we were on alert on weekends. I went with a PSA pistol, because waiting for the stamp would have been agony, and my kids were excited to get started. Great price point for the upgrades from their standard 10.5” kit: NiB BCG, polished trigger (consistent 7lbs center, no grit), sweet can, SBA3 brace. It was a blast to get back behind a wrench other than a car or house. Kids had a ton of fun, especially finding the detent spring I let fly at one point. Thanks for the write up. The law right now is bizarro. When I tell folks about how the SBR stamp and pistol laws work, they are flabbergasted.

    2 months ago
  • Mr. Gray

    Thanks for respecting/not trashing LEOs who may not have the education of a lawyer. LEOs are the good guys and are the victims of ignorance in this country.

    2 months ago
    • Todd Gimian

      I will never trash LEOs, I work with and know too many of them. Nothing but respect coming from me toward the LEO community.

      2 months ago
  • Craig Childre

    I went the AK route... sort of... My setup is an M85NP with SBA 3 brace. AK platform pistol that takes AR mags chambered in 5.56. Midwest handguard with Magpul hand stop.

    2 months ago
  • Albert Viens

    I chose a 10.5 in 300 blackout pistol because in Missouri during the alternative season you can hunt with modern cartridge pistol

    2 months ago
  • Mike Grafton

    I would LOVE you to address the issue of getting an ATF approval to "manufacture" a suppressor/ SBR/ whatever. It appears to me, (based solely on hearsay & rumor) that I can get a manufactures stamp (whatever it's called) and then build my own suppressors/ SBR for use by my trust without having to buy endless $200 stamps. More pertinently, I am planning on modifying/ repairing mine because I have an idea on how to build a better designed one. Which would require me to "tune" & modify the length & diameter of the tube...

    2 months ago
    • Rick

      Yes and no. If you don't want to deal with the $200 stamp per, there is another route (sort of). A type 7 FFL will allow you to manufacture firearms and components for sale. Adding a Class 2 SOT will let you make machine guns and suppressors and whatnot. As a business, for profit. If you're just looking to build them for your personal collection, going the FFL route is not such a great idea. In any case, I'd check with a lawyer for better answers.

      2 months ago
    • Todd Gimian

      Mike, What would you like to know? The ATF form 1 is the form making a sbr/sbs(short barrel shotgun)/suppressor (making, not buying). You fill put the paperwork, submit it, pay for the tax stamp, and wait. Once approved, you complete the manufacturing.

      2 months ago
  • Joshua Barker

    You can have a vertical grip on a "pistol" if it measures over 26" (with the correct measuring, meaning fully extended brace unfolded and to the beginning of the muzzle device if it's not permanently attached). There's ATF letters talking about it and basically if it's over 26 inches it's considered a firearm instead of a pistol. That's one reason why some people will add a folding adapter or use a barrel an inch or two longer to meet the requirement. If that's not good enough, you can register it as an Any Other Weapon (AOW) for a $5 tax instead of the SBR's $200 tax and put a vertical grip on it. Also, you can convert an sbr back into a pistol and travel across state lines without a form. It's also mentioned in an ATF letter. To make an SBR, you can use the efile form 1 and mine just took two weeks for approval. All you do is fill it out, pay $200, and mail in 2 copies of your fingerprints. It sure beats waiting 8 months to buy one. You also have to get it engraved as you are the maker. I turned my CZ Scorpion pistol into an SBR with a Magpul Zhukov Yugo stock and it's well above and beyond what any brace that's made for it is. Getting the proper cheekweld, having adjustability in length of pull, additional QD points, having an actual buttpad, and being able to use risers to properly cowitness a red dot were key factors.

    2 months ago
  • TRUBRIT

    8" 300 Blackout for me. SBA 3 Brace with a Law Tactical folding stock adapter. We like overland travel and camping. I wanted more than my Glock 19 if I am broken down on a long and lonely highway out West. This fits in a backpack and is covered under my CC Permit. In a previous road trip of three weeks we did 5200 miles through 12 States. I can't imagine the paperwork I would have to do to get an SBR approved ahead of time.

    2 months ago
  • Derrick

    I chose the AR pistols over the SBR. It was just simpler to me. Although I do like vertical grips, I now run an angled grip on both my 300Blk and 7.62x39. Waiting for a tax stamp sucks. I do have a KAK flash can on the BLKout. I’m awaiting my tax stamp for a suppressor and hate it. Two pistol builds saves me $400. That’s a nice quantity of ammo that I can shoot now in my pistols, instead of waiting 8-10 months for a tax stamp.

    2 months ago
  • Mike Mishue

    I have this dilemma. My first AR after getting out of the Army was a gift from my wife. M&P Sport. You know, the first ones without a dust cover or forward assist and a solid trigger guard. Then, a year later, she gifted me a Magpul furniture kit. The one that looks like urban camo from a distance but it's actually skulls. Came with the butt stock, pistol grip, trigger guard, hand guards and vertical grip. For years I had the trigger guard in a parts box and eventually ended up using it on a 300blk build because of the whole solid trigger guard thing on the M&P. Of course my OCD finally got the better of me and I just had to take the kit off of the M&P. I couldn't stand not being able to have that trigger guard on the same rifle with the rest of the kit. So I went and got the black Magpul furniture and put it on the M&P. Now that problem is solved but I still have the awesome skulls furniture kit that I absolutely want to use on my next build. It was a gift from my wife so I have to right? Of course I do! Anyway, I have everything I need to do a pistol build but since this kit came with an adjustable stock, I'm leaning towards the SBR route. I don't want to build it as a rifle because then I will have two identical builds just one is skulls and one is black. Boring. Then I'd have to buy another barrel too. Why would I do that? I already have a pistol barrel. Absolutely hate the fact that I even have to worry about this is a violation of our Rights and just plain stupid as hell. Then on top of that I have to pay them and ask for permission! My goodness. What's a law abiding citizen to do?

    2 months ago
    • James

      You have other options though! You could build a standard rifle with ultralight hardware, or use an alternate material receiver (there's more than just aluminum and plastic out there), or hell, build an AR-10 - most of the lower parts are compatible anyway.

      2 months ago
  • Craig Hudson

    Nicely laid out. I have several pistols and am waiting on my parts in the mail for another 300 AAC 10.5" barrel for home defense. I will never build an SBR as long as it is restricted. Just my preference. Honestly, I only bought them for 2 reasons. One is my wife kept saying the rifles were to heavy and akward. She is 5'1. The second reason was to put in a backpack or something more easily concealable should I ever need it such as camping or whatever. To remove some of the blast at my face I equipped them all with blast cans. I knew my wife will complain about the blast. Personally I still prefer rifle length. Thanks for article. You guys are my favorite.

    2 months ago
  • Tom

    Don't forget that you can also build a AR Pistol from the start, add a longer barrel later, then switch back to a shorter barrel ....it's still a pistol. What you cannot do (legally) is start with an AR Rifle and swap to a shorter barrel without getting permission/tax stamp first.

    2 months ago
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