John P. asks:
What is the best approach for an NFA newbie to make a Form 1 SBR? Is it better to start with a rifle, obtain the stamp, and then shorten the barrel? Or should I prefer to start with a pistol and, once approved, add a stock?
I’ve done it both ways now, and as with most things the answer is “it depends.”
First, a little background on the NFA regs. According to the ATF a rifle requires a barrel length of 16 inches or more, and a pistol cannot be designed to be fired from the shoulder. So you can have a fully functional shoulder-fired AR-15 if your barrel is 16 inches or greater, or if you start with something shorter you can’t have a shoulder stock. The day you get your approved Form 1 from the ATF you can slap a stock on your pistol or shorten your barrel, but as the current waiting time for a From 1 is about 90 days you’ll probably want to have a usable firearm in the meantime rather than just a pile of parts.
If you start with a rifle, you can have all the usability and features you want while you wait. The gun is a fully functioning rifle with all the usability that comes along with it, just a little longer than you’d like it. This option is the least annoying, since the rifle is good-to-go while you wait, but also the most expensive. Sure you can chop down the barrel, but for an AR-15 moving the gas port in the barrel to compensate for the shorter length is probably not within the ability of your local gunsmith. You’re going to need a new barrel, and that means a new handguard as well probably.
The best option for those starting with a 16″ AR-15 rifle is probably to get a completely new upper receiver. That gives you the most options, since you can either (A) keep the old 16″ upper for days when you want to cross state lines without asking the ATF first, or (B) sell it as a standalone upper, which is much easier to sell than just a barrel or handguard. Either way, you’re going to be shelling out about $700 more when the appointed day comes.
For a bolt action rifle, things are a little easier. Chopping down the barrel is completely possible (Tyler Kee is doing just that with his hunting rifle right now), but there are some risks involved. Any time you have someone work on your barrel it’s like sending someone in for major surgery — the gun might not survive or be the same on the other side. Internal ballistics are still a dark art, and when you start making physical changes to your barrel it can have a major impact on the accuracy of your gun. A good gunsmith should have no problem but there’s always a risk involved.
For an AR-15, the other option is starting with a pistol. This option allows you to have a firearm with the same dimensions and (most of the same) parts as the finished product, but not the same functionality. You can have a pistol arm brace but no proper stock without the paperwork. What that means is your firearm will be somewhat less useful while waiting, but when the paperwork finally comes in at most you’ll be out $150 for a new buffer tube and stock. Or if you started with a 10/22 Charger, you just need a new stock at about $100 a pop.
Having done this process both ways, I can say without a doubt that the expensive way is the least infuriating. There are few things less useful than an AK pistol without a stock, and at least when you start with a rifle you can get the full functionality of the firearm until the gun exits paperwork purgatory. Then again, the more expensive option is more expensive. If you’re OK with your gun being less than useful for three or four months while waiting for permission to have your ideal gun, then you can get away with not needing such drastic and costly alterations.
Then again, depending on what gun you start with, your options might be slightly more limited.