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Ask Foghorn: Whats Up with AR-15 Pistols?

Alex writes:

What’s the deal with these AR pistols? A lot of people don’t seem to take them seriously; they just write them off as tacti-cool mall-ninja gear. If I’ve got my facts straight your ideal home defense firearm is a pistol because of it’s small size, it seems like one of these things is the best of both worlds. It’s small and maneuverable but still packs a “full size” cartridge. Please educate.

So, there’s three (ish) things going on here…

AR-15 pistols are indeed popular, and it seems to boil down to three reasons why people buy them:

  1. SBR without the paperwork.
  2. Fun while the tax stamp comes.
  3. Because we can.

The first and most obvious reason is exactly what you pointed out. The 5.56 round is a  perfectly adequate self defense round, and the gigantic magazines are rather appealing for providing enough rounds to put any target down. Throw in a 300 BLK barrel and things get even more interesting.

Beyond the ammunition an AR-15 provides tons of options for mounting stuff to your gun, like lights and lasers and holographic sights and coffee makers and pinball machines. A regular handgun might have some rail space under the barrel, but an AR-15 has rails everywhere. The appeal of more rail space on a small handgun-like firearm seems to be great, especially since SIG SAUER recently introduced their funky bolt-on adapter for handguns that turns them into a larger railified firearm.

Rifle length barrels on AR-15s do make them a tad large and less than maneuverable, especially in close quarters situations. That’s why the military and law enforcement like the short barreled versions. But for civilians who don’t want to go through the process of getting an SBR or whose state / CLEO doesn’t allow them to experience freedom an AR-15 pistol is the only way to get the short barreled goodness. Well, legally at least.

Speaking of the NFA, that’s reason #2 I hear people advocating for AR-15 pistols. The process to get a tax stamp can take MONTHS (7 for my first), and people generally don’t like waiting that long to play with their toys. That’s why for those who want to make a short barreled rifle out of their AR-15 can make it into a pistol instead until the stamp comes, allowing them to use their short upper in the meantime.

Legally speaking (and correct me if I’m wrong here), a rifle that is manufactured as a rifle and transferred as a rifle to you will always be a rifle in the eyes of the ATF. Even if you modify it to meet the legal requirements of being a pistol the ATF will still consider it to be a rifle. Dumb, I know — its the same logic keeping civilians from owning military surplus M-14 rifles that have had the giggle switches removed. But if you have a pistol or a stripped lower receiver (the ATF apparently sees them as equivalent) you can make it into a rifle at some point down the road without hitting any legal issues.

So while you’re waiting for that tax stamp to come in you can build an AR-15 pistol with your upper receiver of choice and go to town. And when the stamp eventually comes in the mail all you need to do is swap out the buffer tube and BAM! Instant rifle.

Which brings us down to reason #3. There’s no denying that AR-15 pistols are fun to shoot. They aren’t nearly as accurate as their buttstock-configured counterparts and much heavier than a standard handgun, but there’s something about them that makes them fun to pull the trigger. Not “new gun money” fun in my opinion at least, but fun nonetheless. The same kind of fun that comes from putting rounds downrange for no apparent reason. You shooters know exactly what I mean.

And let’s be honest — if something is fun to shoot, there’s no other reason needed to justify its existence. Even if it does look… odd. I’m not saying you’ll find one in my collection anytime soon, but I’d understand the appeal if I saw one at the range.

[Email your firearms-related questions to “Ask Foghorn” via [email protected]. Click here to browse previous posts]


  1. avatar Representative Carolyn McCarthy says:

    Isn’t the gun pictured at the top of the article an NFA violation? It’s a pistol that has a foregrip attached, which means it would probably qualify as an AOW (designed to be fired with two hands.)

    1. avatar Bart says:

      Its a product from Franklin Armory and somehow got the blessing of the ATF to mount a VG on a AR pistol. I think they get away with it because the length of the rifle/pistol is over 26 inches. Here is an article about it.
      Kind of cool.

    2. avatar Dave says:

      I believe if the barrel is over 10” in length a foregrip can be attached legally….the 8 inch barrel or anything under 10 inches with a foregrip classifies it as an assault weapon weapon and is illegal here in California

  2. avatar Tom says:

    I think the military ( Johnathan Weeks Small Arms of WWII ) played with such type of submachine guns in WWII and found things to be rather erratic without the shoulder stock furniture. I have sort of played with not placing the buttstock in my shoulder socket and firing without welding my cheek to the stock and things seem fairly erratic. I believe that TTAG had an article where it was learned at the Sig Academy, that long guns were much easier to aim and use than handguns. No real surprise for me. Just remember, there was a real reason the M1 Carbine existed in WWII, and it was because most of the troops were lousy with the 1911.

  3. avatar Chris Dumm says:

    Fun? Yes, but only until the novelty wears off. After that you’re stuck with a CHS (can’t hit sh!t) gag gift until the NFA stamp shows up. Or, for the other 97% of cases who never SBR them, until you sell it at a loss to some curious rube.

    AR pistols are often unreliable, since the Stoner system was designed for a 20″ barrel and these pistols beat themselves to death with excessive gas pressure and bolt velocity.

    1. avatar Dino says:

      How so, a 10.5 or 12 inch ar upper has a carbine length gas system it would be no more abuse to the gun then a regular carbine.

  4. avatar Aharon says:

    In the close-in confines within a house a zombie short sword might be as good or an even better choice. I would definitely lose any of those ghoulish green handles some of those swords come with. Micarta handles are good. Supposedly you can keep your grip on the micarta handles even with blood on them.

    1. avatar killer99 says:

      You’ve never been to have you?

      1. avatar Aharon says:

        No, I haven’t. I went to that site and it is parked at meaning someone has the name yet it is not active. There is a site called that looks um interesting.

        1. avatar SchomDog says:

          You cant be serious. A sword? Come on guys.

  5. avatar Stacy says:

    So it’s a “pistol” because it a) doesn’t have a buttstock, and b) the manufacturer called the lower a pistol when they reported the s/n to the ATF?

    1. avatar Tim says:

      Correct, but one more part for AR pistols:

      c. The barrel is <16" and the OAL is < 26"

      Exception goes to the Franklin Armory odd ball that managed to fall into some weird "not a rifle, not a pistol, not an AOW" with the ATF.

      1. avatar Richard W. says:

        Franklin did barrel 26″. Rifle length, pistol barrel = not either. Ok for the vertical grip.

  6. avatar Jason says:

    Don’t kid yourself. There’s no practical purpose. They burn a lot of powder in open air. Big fireball. Big noise. Big fun. That’s it.

  7. avatar Thomas Paine says:

    probably, people want SBRs. this is the next closest thing. but then realize it’s not.

    the market speaks.

    so why is it that sbr’s are regulated?

    1. avatar Elliotte says:

      B/c all the bad guys back in the gangster era and biker gangs like to use sbrs and sbs to conceal weapons.

      1. avatar Kevin says:

        No, it was because the National Firearms Act was supposed to cover pistols as well as machine guns etc. Essentially they threw in the SBS and SBR stuff because they didn’t want people using them in place of the pistols that the IRS wouldn’t give them tax stamps for. The pushback on the pistol proposal was enough to get it removed, but the rest of the NFA didn’t get fixed to match.

        1. avatar CarlosT says:

          And the NFA was written in the first place because gangsters were running rampant thanks to Prohibition. Without Prohibition, the NFA probably would never have happened in the first place.

      2. avatar CarlosT says:

        So, in other words, people hated the devil’s gin and now you either can’t have an SBR at all (because of your state law) or you have to go through a giant bureaucratic nightmare to get one. Thanks, Prohibition.

        1. avatar 101abn says:

          Whatever criminals use, you lose.

  8. avatar Matt Gregg says:

    If anyone is actually interested in a 5.56 semi-auto pistol then I would encourage you to consider the PLR-16. It’s dead reliable, uses AR-15 mags and happens to be crazy accurate(less than 1 MOA). And it doesn’t have that goofy buffer tube hanging off the back.

    1. avatar C. Walther says:

      It’s also one of those magic fairy-tale items that comes from the mythical land of Kel-Tec—everyone knows the stories, but you have a better shot at finding a unicorn carrying a tree nymph and a leprechaun at the same time.

      Unless you want to pay ridiculous private party prices, at least.

  9. avatar Guywithagun says:

    Can you put a sling on a pistol so you can loop it around your shoulder and push away (forward) for more control? Does that somehow make the pistol shoulder fired and illegal?

    1. avatar Chris Dumm says:

      You can try it, but it doesn’t help accuracy much of at all. Most of us shoot better one-handed with our weak hand than we’ll shoot two-handed with a rifle-pistol.

      If you really want to try one, get a cheap 9mm Ingram clone and waste a few boxes of steel-case Tula with it. When you finally decide to sell it for a loss, you won’t have lost as much money.

  10. avatar Brian says:

    Article seems to miss the point and makes inaccurate assumptions. For example “The 5.56 round is a  perfectly adequate self defense round” , no , it is not adequate when fired from such a short barrel. Heck there are plenty of M4 users out there who can tell you that.
    Another reason is that AR design doesn’t work well for pistols, due to reliability (explained in the comments) and the existence of buffer tube. Now, piston bass designs like Sig P556 , Keltec PLR16, etc work much better without the annoying buff tube, but they are still hindered in real life by the 5.56 round. If these guns are available in 300BLK or even 6.5SPC then yes, they would be very effective.
    There is always the Draco AK pistols. Unfortunately, they also have reliability issues, and the recoil of 7.62 round is a bit much from such a small gun.

  11. avatar Mark Horning says:

    Everyone I know who has owned an AR pistol did so as a prelude to converting it to an SBR.

    1) Buy AR-pistol
    2) Send off for Tax Stam
    3) Wait 6-12 weeks.
    4) Receive stamp and install shoulder stock.

    1. avatar Matt Gregg says:

      6-12 weeks is pretty optimistic these days. More like 6 to 12 months.

  12. avatar Wiebelhaus says:

    I’ve never seen nor shot one of these, what is that thing poking out the back of the rifle/pistol, isn’t that normally concealed within the butt-stock?

    1. avatar CarlosT says:

      It’s the buffer tube, and yes, it’s normally hidden by the stock of a carbine or rifle.

  13. avatar sdog says:

    since “machine pistols” are illegal in my state but SBR’s, i have never held one of these things, putting this thing up to your shoulder like standard ar sounds painful. how the hell does one hold one of these?

  14. avatar Sanchanim says:

    I don’t know if this is even legal in the Republik of Kalifornia! It is to black and scarey looking. Plus you can bolt at least 30 lbs of add on’s to it!!!

  15. avatar 07duallydog says:

    I’ll take my Rem 870 Magnum with it’s 18 1/2 inch barrel as my best home defense weapon anyday Hogue pistol grip fits my hand just fine

  16. avatar Southerner says:

    In states that prohibit loaded rifles in vehicles but sanction loaded handguns, AR-15 pistols can provide greater range than other handguns AND ready access.

  17. avatar IowaJoe says:

    Dumbest thing I’ve seen in a long time, just like the “Judge” ! Some people will people will buy anything new , just to be the first to have one .

  18. avatar Silver says:

    I really don’t get these at all. There aren’t many guns I have absolutely no desire to shoot, but the “AR pistol” is one of them.

  19. avatar Duray says:

    “They aren’t nearly as accurate as their buttstock-configured counterparts” Why would an AR lose intrinsic accuracy by removing the buttstock? You may have meant the ease of firing it accurately, but it sounds more like you’re spreading the barrel length=accuracy myth.

    1. avatar TTACer says:

      Your internet commando card should be revoked.

  20. avatar "gunner" says:

    this is not even new, i knew of a harley dealer down in massachusetts, with a small but well equipped machine shop who was building and selling ar-15 “pistols” almost 30 years ago.

  21. avatar armed geek says:

    Unless you will have time for hearing protection in a home defense situation, I would pass on a gun that wil result in immediate and permanent hearing loss, not to mention completely trashing your night vision in low light situations. I would far rather have ANY revolver or major caliber auto in a defensive situation than an AR pistol. And better yet, the above mentioned 870.

  22. avatar Gregg says:

    Ok, so some fud here all around.
    I have a 10.5″ 300blk pistol, and with 110gr barnes tac tx rounds, you will not find a more ballistically effective pistol round. It also isn’t any louder than a 5.56 ar with a 16 inch barrel.
    And it is effective with that round at 300 yards and will shoot 1 moa all day long.
    That “weird looking buffer tube” is what makes this a viable workaround for an sbr. You are allowed to use it in your shoulder, and it works identically to a entry stock. And it’s nice that the recoil impulse goes straight into your shoulder.
    5.56 7.62×39 6.8 and 6.5 are all great, but not in barrels shorter than 16 inches. Too much unburned powder. But all this trashing of pistols doesn’t make sense. If an sbr is great, and a pistol is the same thing with a smaller stock surface touching your shoulder… Unless you’re a tall guy, it works great…

  23. avatar robert says:

    Anybody who says they are not useful is drinking their bathwater.
    While the muzzle blast is a bit obnoxious and naturally it is not as accurate as a full fledged rifle, it is still a very viable package for defensive purposes. You can get a sembelance of a cheek weld on the buffer tube and out to a hundred yards it is quite accurate.
    For a truck/camp/ATV gun they fill a niche nicely.
    Hang a Noveske “Pig” on it and flash is virtually non existent and the recoil impulse settles down nicely.
    The ones I have built and run have been totally reliable, one customer has run his hard through classes and the only failure he had was because the gas key screws failed on a no name bolt carrier.
    Go shoot one, it will take a while to get that silly grin off your face.

  24. avatar Wes says:

    Many people don’t like the ar pistol because they try to shoot it like a rifle. I shoot a 300 blackout pistol with 10.5″ barrel for varmint hunting and I have no problem with accuracy. Keep your head and neck straight, rest your cheek on the buffer tube, line up your sights and pull the trigger. Almost everybody that tries to shoot my ar immediately tilts their head to the side and scrunches their neck down. When shooting the pistol properly, it is one of the most comfortable ways to shoot. Scopes should not be used on an ar pistol as the added weight and time to acquire the target defeat it’s purpose. 5.56 as a pistol is obnoxious and not near as effective as the blackout.

  25. avatar Joseph says:

    I have a AR pistol with a 10.5 inch barrel and it is extremely accurate. I shoot Hornady V Max .223 and with 3 jugs of water lined up in a row they destroy all 3.

  26. avatar 300Blackout says:

    I love my 7.5 inch Blackout pistol its very accurate, reliable, and easy to shoot!
    I have a half dozen handguns and this will out shoot any of them on paper at the range even out to 75 yards. I’ve chose this as a viable home defense gun for several reasons. Its compact, has a large capacity, offers a rifle caliber with a 220 grain weight which when fired has no supersonic crack, and i know i’m going to hit the intended target with more knock down force than handguns provide. FORGET trying to compare these to firearms with buttstocks! the characteristics are not the same. Use only a red dot sight (trust me nothing else works) bring the pistol up to your aim head straight, get a GOOD cheek wield and you will find that you can place rounds exactly where you want them to go…..everytime! The .300 blackout was carefully designed around short barrels and makes perfect sense to use it in a pistol. A mind boggling range of bullet styles and weights offered by countless manufactures make it a no brainer. Needless to say i’m a big fan of the ar15 pistol!

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