Short Barreled Rifle [SBR]: All You Need to Know

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SBRs and pistols, is your dog safe from the federal policeman?

This is a question that weighs heavily on the minds of many of us. While a short-barreled rifle like an AR-15 or AK sounds pretty awesome, there are some legal oddities that make it a little more complex.

We’ll break them all down and explain them as best we can so you can know what exactly you’re getting into and what is best for you!

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This is going to sound stupid, but I’m not kidding.

Both a pistol and an SBR have a barrel less than 16 inches.

A pistol doesn’t have a stock and starts its life as a pistol. It was built as a pistol configuration before anything else.

An SBR has a stock and/ or was built as a rifle before anything else. It is also registered with the ATF and has been issued a tax stamp proving that the ATF has given you permission to configure your rifle in this manner.

short barrel rifle

Top shows a Short Barreled Rifle. Bottom is a “pistol”. The only difference between them is the stock and brace.

A pistol will normally have a brace but a brace isn’t required. It just makes shooting a lot easier and can in most ways mimic the benefits of a stock.

An SBR can have a brace if you want it to but there is no legal requirement for it to have one and a stock is better in every way.

Legally speaking, the ATF defines a pistol as: “Pistol means a weapon originally designed, made, and intended to fire a projectile (bullet) from one or more barrels when held in one hand”.

A short barreled rifle is “a firearm with a rifled barrel and a stock where the barrel is less than 16 inches and/ or the overall length is less than 26-inches.”

Once A Rifle, Always A Rifle

You might be thinking of taking your old AR-15 that you don’t shoot much anymore and throwing a brace and a new upper on it to make it a pistol — well, don’t. That’s illegal.

If a firearm is built as a rifle as its first configuration, then it can only ever legally be a rifle. Even if you switch out all of the parts that would normally make it a pistol, it is still legally a rifle.

However, if a firearm starts as a pistol then you can change the barrel and brace between rifle and pistol configurations at will.

Why is the law the way it is? I have no idea.

Brace Or Stock?

Braces were designed not to exploit the law. But actually, it gives disabled shooters a way to safely and effectively fire rifles with only 1 hand. Most braces have some method of wrapping around the forearm to help stabilize the rifle.

short barreled rifle

However, since the discovery of their legal status — this is really a very secondary goal now and many “braces” are “braces” in name and look only.

Effectively, they are there to give you the legal definition of a brace and as many of the benefits of a stock as possible.

Since then, the line between braces and stocks has become very fuzzy.

While a stock is still the better device for shouldering a firearm, many braces are very close seconds.

Practically speaking, with the right brace you will lose almost nothing in terms of control when shouldered up.

Should You Shoulder Or Hover?

Something that limited the usefulness of braces for many years was the fact that the ATF considered a person shouldering them to be against their design intent and constituted using them as a stock. Ergo, making your pistol an illegal SBR because you raised your arms too high.

short barelled rifle

The ATF event went so far as to issue a letter in 2015 warning people to stop doing it in video and still photography.

Thankfully, the ATF stopped this nonsense in 2017. In 2017 the ATF changed their mind and issued a letter stating that it was actually totally okay for you to shoulder your brace.

This is what kicked off the brace revolution. 

But… now in 2021, the ATF is trying to change this as part of the current administration’s goals to make our lives harder.

For now, shouldering your brace is 100% legal — but this might change in the coming years.

Additional Restrictions On SBRs And Pistols

Besides being registered with the ATF and having the enjoyment of paying $200 for the right to have a stock and a short barrel, there are some more limits on what your SBR can be/ do.

Forward Grips

Angled forward grips are okay on both SBRs and pistols, but vertical forward grips are illegal on a pistol unless the pistol has an overall length greater than 26-inches. If under 26 inches, a pistol with a forward vertical grip becomes an “any other weapon” and requires a $5 tax stamp.

grip comparison

Travel Documents

If traveling across state lines with an SBR you must first inform the ATF using ATF form 5320.20. It takes 2-4 weeks for ATF to get back to you. Also, permission MUST be granted before you can legally take your SBR across state lines.

You can snail mail the form, fax it, or scan it in and email it.

Thankfully, pistols have no such restrictions.

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ATF Approval

As mentioned before, the ATF has to approve your short barreled rifle before you can build it. Using ATF NFA Form 1, you can E-File this form and get it approved fairly quickly — around 30 days.

Pistols do not have any such requirements.

Taxes

To make or buy an SBR, you need to not only file the right paperwork but also pay the ATF $200 for a tax stamp.

And you guessed it, pistols don’t need to do this.

NFA tax stamp

Your “Friendly” Neighborhood Federal Officer Is Watching You

One of the major drawbacks to an SBR is the amount of government regulation that comes with it. From the tax to the permission, to go on a road trip. And to the government having your every intimate detail for registration, it’s generally considered not a good thing.

Depending on how paranoid you are, this may or may not matter.

Personally, my tin foil hat isn’t on too tightly — but why does the government want to know what I own unless the government wants to take it later.

Just something to think about.

Local Limits May Apply

With both pistols and SBRs we have only covered federal law. State laws vary greatly.

In some states, nothing changes, and only the federal law is what you need to deal with.

In others, like California, SBRs are flatly illegal and pistols are heavily regulated and difficult to obtain.

california local limits

Make sure to double-check your local laws before embarking on either of these paths. Also, keep in mind that when traveling you’ll have to contend with the locals.

What Is Best For You – Our SBR Picks

So with all of this said and done — what is best for you?

Generally speaking, I strongly recommend pistols over SBRs. They are cheaper, offer more flexibility and freedom, do not require registering with the feds, and are 99% as effective.

That said, there are some niches that require an SBR or make SBRs a more attractive option.

If you have one gun that you want to be able to do everything with from 11.5-inch uppers to 20-inch uppers, registering it as an SBR makes things a lot easier.

Or maybe you have a strange gun that can’t mount a good brace or you just don’t want a brace like an MP-40 clone or an MDRx Micron, then the SBR idea is a great route to take.

However, if you’re not falling into one of those niche cases — a pistol is going to serve you a lot better.

Building And Buying

Buying a pistol is super easy and is no different than buying a rifle of the same type, whether that is an AR-15, an AK pattern, or anything else.

Building a pistol is also the exact same as building a rifle, just with a brace and a shorter barrel.

Buying an SBR is a lot more of a pain in the ass and requires a special dealer with special licensing. This might be the route you have to take if you really want something special, but normally it’s a lot easier to just build the SBR yourself.

Simply buy a normal rifle or rifle lower, submit your paperwork, and after approval buy and attach a short-barreled upper of your choice.

Wrapping Up

Hopefully, this has cleared this up a little, but more than likely it left you even more confused. Give it a few reads and try not to think about the logic behind all of this nonsense and it will start to sink in. Or you’ll become numb enough to not care.

Sadly, these are the laws we have to contend with.

Bottom line, pistols are awesome and you should totally get one.

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