To the general public, an AR-15 is a rifle. To many shooters, an AR-15 is a rifle. But dedicated firearm enthusiasts know that AR-15s can also be pistols. How? First, the lower receiver has to be built from the ground up with the intent to build a pistol. A lower receiver that has already been built or sold as a rifle can’t be turned into a pistol, but a freshly-built lower or 80% receiver finished at home can be intended for a pistol build. Then you have to attach it to a pistol-length (less than 16”) barreled upper receiver.
AR-15 pistols have traditionally had a pistol buffer tube, a buffer tube that allows for the operation of the buffer and buffer spring but that cannot have a stock attached to it. Attach a buttstock to a pistol lower receiver that has a sub-16” barrel upper and you have a short-barreled rifle (SBR) which is illegal to build or possess without filling out the requisite ATF forms, paying your $200 tax, and receiving your tax stamp. If you have an AR-15 pistol, however, you can just attach an upper receiver with a short barrel to your pistol lower receiver and you’re good to go.
Pistol braces have only hit the scene in the last few years, inspired by an inventor whose disabled friend was once asked by a range officer to stop firing his AR-15 pistol because he couldn’t control it. That inventor devised a solution, a rubber attachment that could be slipped over the pistol buffer tube, placed around the forearm and then strapped around the forearm to allow the AR-15 to be fired with one hand. Part of the definition of a pistol in federal law is that it is a firearm intended to be fired with one hand.
The new invention was submitted to ATF for its approval, and the bureau approved the SB-15 pistol brace for sale, judging it to be a device to allow an AR-15 pistol to be fired with one hand. Almost immediately, shooters began to realize that putting a pistol brace onto a pistol buffer tube also could assist with traditional shooting in which the rifle is placed on the shoulder. It’s not as comfortable or effective in taking up recoil as a shoulder stock, but most AR-15 calibers are relatively weak and don’t generate huge amounts of recoil.
Building pistol lower receivers and attaching a brace would allow shooters to purchase short-barreled upper receivers, attach them to a pistol lower receiver, and have the functional equivalent of an SBR, only without having to go through the months-long wait for tax stamp approval. The popularity of braces has been exponential since then, with numerous different models hitting the market, many of them mimicking the look of popular AR-15 buttstocks.
So are pistol braces just a passing fad, or will they define the future of AR-15 shooting? One thing is for sure, they certainly remain popular. They’ll continue to remain popular as long as ATF doesn’t try to reverse itself and ban them, which doesn’t seem very likely. For many shooters, they offer the opportunity for them to get their feet wet with short-barreled AR-15s, without the extra cost and hassle.
Many shooters who start out with pistol braces decide that they like short-barreled guns so much that they decide then to go through the SBR process. Now that it’s easier for many individuals to build or purchase SBRs, with wait times finally starting to decrease, and with the $200 tax no longer being a financial burden, SBRs are increasing in popularity too. What many AR-15 enthusiasts hope for is an understanding that the restrictions on SBRs are outdated, unnecessary, and easily sidestepped, hopefully leading to a wholesale rethinking of the 1934 National Firearms Act. That would make the debate over pistols vs. SBRs a moot point.