Ruger Ar-556 Pistol

Best AR Pistol: A Complete Buyer’s Guide

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The world of AR-15s has exploded in size and popularity in the past 10 years and now with more options than ever. One of those options is the AR Pistol. But what is it, and what place should it have in your collection?

To figure this all out, we need to look at federal laws, the NFA, angry politicians, and guns that look the same but are legally wildly different.

We’ll cut through all of this confusion and break it down as simple as possible to help you choose the Best AR Pistol!

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Pistol Vs. Rifle

Pistols are federally defined as “a weapon originally designed, made, and intended to fire a projectile (bullet) from one or more barrels when held in one hand”.

Rifles also have a pretty simple federal definition: “a weapon designed or redesigned, made or remade, and intended to be fired from the shoulder”.

It sounds so simple when they put it that way…

Okay, there are some more legal definitions between the two, but that’s the big picture at least.

What Makes an AR-15 a “Pistol” Or A “Rifle”?

An AR Rifle always has a stock. Period. If it has a stock, it is a rifle. On the other hand, if it has a barrel under 16” then it is a “short-barreled rifle” and is subject to the National Firearms Act (NFA). If the barrel is 16” or more then it is not an NFA item and is simply a rifle.

AR-15 pistol

A pistol cannot have a stock. Normally, an AR-15 pistol will have a brace of some kind — these are nominally designed to strap to your arm for one-handed shooting.

Some AR pistols don’t have a brace and just have a buffer tube.

Legally, the lower is the “firearm” and so it is what carries the legality of being a rifle or pistol. But the upper is what has the barrel and taking a legal lower and putting the wrong upper on it can make it an illegal configuration.

If your lower is a pistol, it must start life as a pistol. Either from the manufacturer as a complete pistol or built by you first as a pistol. That means a barrel under 16” and NO stock.

As long as the lower was built first as a pistol, it can switch between being a pistol and a rifle anytime you want.

A selection of braces, image via 80 Percent Arms
A selection of braces, image via 80 Percent Arms

However, if it was built as a rifle first — then it is always a rifle. Even if you take the stock off and put a brace on it, it’s still legally a rifle.

I know this sounds complex and clear as mud, but this is the legal reality we live in.

If you want to make it easy — just buy an AR-15 pistol from a manufacturer.

Right now AR-15 pistols are legal (in most states). However, the current administration has blown a lot of hot air about their desire to ban these pistols and others like them. 

They’ve gone so far as to put out a wishlist of things they want to happen and banning AR-15 pistols is high on that list.

The ATF is also looking at reclassifying what a “pistol” is so that AR-15 pistols as we know them right now may fall under the NFA instead. That said — none of this is happening yet.

The ATF Tax Stamp is literally… a stamp
The ATF Tax Stamp is literally… a stamp.

The administration has gone quiet on the topic lately and the ATF received a huge amount of pushback over the changes they suggested.

Even if the administration does try to pass a law against AR pistols or the ATF waves a magic wand (as they are known to do) something I know for sure is that there will be a huge legal battle long before any of those new rules/laws go into effect.

So, for now, I strongly recommend buying an AR pistol. They are great tools and a lot of fun. They are legal right now and making them more commonplace helps protect them in the long run.

Practical Applications

Home Defense

Short barrels are great for maneuvering around walls and through doors. Sure, grunts have been clearing huts in the desert overseas with a 20” barrel for a long time — but you’re not limited by who was the lowest bidder.

5.56 NATO, a great home defense round.
5.56 NATO, a great home defense round.

Being able to safely move around your home is a major gain for defending it. And it lets you have room to add things like a suppressor without making your AR crazy long.

Hunting

A short barrel might not be what comes to mind first for hunting, but I’ll make a solid case that the old days of 20, 22, and 24-inch barrels are long behind us.

Half the country hunts in areas where 50-150 yards is the max, the rest of us are either in open country or farmland where 300-400 is about the max.

Anything past 400 yards is extremely rare and arguably unethical regardless of your ballistics.

5.56 NATO Vs. 6.5 Grendel
5.56 NATO Vs. 6.5 Grendel

If you’re looking for 1,000 ft.lbs from an AR with a short barrel, you can find it depending on your caliber. 

5.56 NATO is kind of a non-starter since it’s slightly under 1,000 even at the muzzle.

300 BLK is good to go for at least 75 yards.

But 6.5 Grendel in a 12” barrel can reach out to 200+ yards while still delivering over 1,000 ft.lbf on the target.

A 12” deer slayer that can take game out to 200 yards? That’s a pretty nifty pistol.

If you’re hunting smaller things like boar, coyote, bobcat, etc. then even a standard 5.56 NATO pistol hits with over 800 ft.lbf at 100 yards, more than enough for most small things.

Ranch Rifle

If you work a piece of land or maybe spend a lot of time driving from worksite to worksite, an AR pistol is a powerful tool to keep with you.

Better than a pistol, smaller than a rifle — you have some real firepower for any threat that comes around. Be it four-legged or two-legged, you have a real option to defend yourself with.

When you’re a long way from help, 30 rounds of 5.56 NATO in a pistol that you’re accurate with to 300+ yards is a lot of insurance. 

Bug Out Bag / Get Home Bag

We could do a huge article on the idea of bug-out bags and the right guns for them, but to keep it short for now — an AR pistol of some kind is one of the best options.

Small package that can fit in most backpacks, lots of firepower, and easy-to-find parts/ammo make an AR pistol very hard to argue with.

Best AR Pistol Calibers

5.56 NATO

The classic 5.56 NATO is, of course, the king. If you want to stop here, you can. 

5.56 NATO can do it all decently well. For hunting, self/home defense, and plinking at the range, you can get it done with 5.56 NATO. 

The only thing it falls a little short on is hunting. Game needs to be on the smaller side or ranges need to be shorter, but it can work especially if you’re out of options.

300 Blackout

If you’re looking for short ranges or very quiet pistols, 300 BLK is the cartridge for you. Designed for barrels as short as 9” and built to be suppressed, 300 BLK is in every way the perfect pairing with an AR pistol.

300 Blk 125 gr, 300 Blk 150 gr, 300 Blk 220 gr, 5.56mm NATO, 7.62x39mm
300 Blk 125 gr, 300 Blk 150 gr, 300 Blk 220 gr, 5.56mm NATO,  7.62x39mm

Downside is ammo is not cheap, but it isn’t breaking either. You also have very limited range since 300 BLK drops like a rainbow after about 250 yards.

6.5 Grendel

As we discussed, this would be my pick if you’re interested in a hunting AR pistol. Grendel is a great cartridge that has a lot of legs under it when you need to extend distances.

It is also decent in CQB, Grendel magazines normally hold about 25-27 rounds and that is more than enough for almost any situation.

.458 SOCOM/.50 Beowulf

Two more cartridges that are designed for short barrels, these are really big thumpers. Ballistically they are basically the same, so choose what you fancy most and go for it.

You’ll get a lot of energy at close range, but rounds that drop quickly.

450 Bushmaster, 458 SOCOM, and 50 Beowulf. Image via Big Game Hunting
450 Bushmaster, 458 SOCOM, and 50 Beowulf. Image via Big Game Hunting

If you want something that can literally shoot out an engine block in the palm of your hand, a short AR pistol in .458 SOCOM or .50 Beowulf is the ticket.

Just be ready to spend real $$ on ammo, every trigger pull is going to cost you about $2.

Ballistics: Pistol Vs. Rifle

Let’s talk about real meat and potatoes for a moment.

I know this can get complex so let me give you a very, very loose and wildly inaccurate way of guesstimating your rifle ballistics.

Please, take this with a pound of salt.

Very generally speaking, for 5.56 NATO you should expect to lose about 30 FPS per inch of barrel you chop.

With 300 BLK, speaking broadly, you can expect roughly 35-40 FPS loss per inch of barrel.

Keep in mind with both of these that they are not actually linear, ever. Going from 20 to 18 inches will lose less velocity than going from 12 to 10 inches.

300 BLK for example going from 6 inches to 10 inches can gain about 200 FPS.

That said, here are some real ballistic charts:

real ballistic chart

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Best AR-15 Pistols

1. Palmetto State Armory 10.5”

Before we get into the big dogs, let’s look at something far more likely to be within all of our budgets — the Palmetto State Armory PSA 10.5” with an SBA4 Pistol Brace.

There is nothing fancy about PSA guns, they don’t have proprietary parts, they don’t come fully ambi, and they won’t turn heads at the range.

What makes PSA great is its mission to put an AR-15 in the hand of every person who wants one.

This is as basic as it comes, but it’s reliable, trustworthy, and very affordable.

While I upgraded my home defense AR a couple of years ago, there was a time when I lived in a bad area and trusted a PSA-made AR as my last line of defense. And I’d do it again.

2. Daniel Defense DDM4 VP (Law Tactical)

Daniel Defense is a legendary name in the AR-15 world and has had multiple contracts for both USSOCOM and the UK Ministry of Defense. When you’re looking for a duty-grade gun, Daniel Defense is one of the top names to consider.

The DDM4 V7 (Law Tactical) is another great iteration from DD that delivers everything you’d expect from them, plus a little extra.

What sets this one apart is that it comes with a Law Tactical folding brace already installed. While the Law Tactical won’t allow you to fire an AR while it is folded, it does make for a very small package when tucked away.

This is perfect for any kind of ranch rifle, truck gun, or if you’re trying to save as much space as possible in a go-bag.

You can save a little money and get the standard DDM4 V7, but I think the extra couple of bennies are totally worth it.

3. LMT MARS-L Pistol

I’m a huge fan of LMT and their pistol is no different. Really, it’s no different… just shorter.

The LMT MARS was designed for the New Zealand rifle trials and was adopted as their primary combat rifle, the MARS-L is the exact same firearm — just shorter.

11.5” barrel, DI gas, monolithic handguard, and LMT’s custom 2-stage trigger — all on top of their legendary fully ambidextrous MARS lower.

LMT doesn’t mess around when it comes to quality and durability, these are bomb-proof guns with a proven track record in combat conditions.

They won’t be cheap, but if you can snag one — I strongly recommend it. For a firearm you can rely on when the world ends, this is my pick.

4. Sig Sauer Switchblade

Sig Sauer is a brand that often gets a little overlooked, in my opinion. While they are very well known for their pistols like the P365 and M17, their ARs just don’t get a lot of press for some reason.

I’ve gotten to shoot a lot of them and I really like them.

Sig makes guns that run, always. They have military contracts with the US military, the Indian army, and dozens of law enforcement departments. These guns have to work, always. They bring that same level of quality to their civilian lines.

The Sig M400 Switchblade is pretty new but it brings a lot to the table while still staying fairly kind to our wallets.

Taking a normal AR and giving it a load of upgrades, the Switchblade is kind of awesome. Even if I’m not crazy about the color.

11.5” barrel, abmi safety, ambi bolt release (not catch), and an ambi magazine release, plus their 2 Stage Matchlite Duo and a Magpul BSL Brace combine to make one seriously good AR pistol.

If you want ambi features without spending over 2 grand on your gun, the Switchblade is the contender I would pick.

5. BCM RECCE Pistol

BCM might look kind of basic, but it’s the quality that matters. No fancy extras like ambi anything, but you do get a BCM Gunfighter charging handle — so that’s nice.

11.5” barrel, a rock-solid BCM Mod 0 compensator, MCMR handguard, and Mod 3 pistol grip, this is BCM at it’s finest and a small package.

What makes BCM really stand out are their quality control processes. That might not sound sexy, but what that delivers to you is a gun that is as close to perfect as it can be, every single time.

Almost every part is hand-inspected to be perfectly in spec, perfectly made, and perfectly assembled. Lemons from BCM are basically unheard of.

If you want the basics, but the best basics ever made, BCM is the ticket.

6. Ruger AR-556 Pistol

Another budget friendly option, Ruger’s AR-556 is almost a household name at this point and their pistol version is just as great!

10.5” barrel, nothing ambi, this is about as basic as it comes — but it’s Ruger. It’s well made, affordable, and a gun you can trust.

While I would recommend you try to push your budget if you want a SHTF gun that will last generations, this is not a bad option at all if you’re looking for a gun that simply works.

Plus… it’s Ruger. Sometimes a name that you’ve been shooting all your life just feels safer and better.

This comes in at a little more than the PSA options, but a lot less than most of the other options. If you want a Goldilocks AR pistol, give the AR-556 pistol a close look.

Wrapping Up

From budget options to fighting zombies after WWIII, we’ve covered a range of options. If I had to pick one and only one, it would be the LMT MARS-L Pistol. The features and quality just can’t be beaten.

If you’re not ready to spend used car money, Sig Sauer’s Switchblade is my runner-up.

No matter what you pick, these are great pistols. Buy knowing that you’ve got a gun you can trust.

Relevant articles: Best AR-15 Pistol Lowers and Best Gun Cleaning Kits [AR-15, Pistol & Universal].

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