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Pistol braces were the subject of much attention in firearms media over the past year, especially as the ATF seemed to threaten mandatory registration or destruction of these devices as recently as December 2020. But if you’re new to the world of firearms, you may not yet understand what a pistol brace is and why they’re such a big deal.
Learn what a pistol brace is, what its intended purposes are, why they have been the subject of so much attention, and whether you can buy and use one legally today.
What is a Pistol Brace?
If you’re unaware of what these devices are and why they’re important, you may be asking yourself, “What is a pistol brace?”
A pistol brace, also known as a stabilizing brace or an arm brace, is a device mounted to the rear of a firearm (typically, a pistol) designed to anchor the gun to the shooter’s arm, helping them shoot it one-handed.
The first pistol brace was invented in 2012 by Alex Bosco. His intended purpose was to help a disabled veteran shoot his AR-15 pistol more accurately. He later founded SB Tactical and partnered with SIG Sauer to sell the first braces on the open market. Due to this partnership, they were also called SIG braces.
Most pistol braces feature one of two stabilizing devices: a soft loop fastener or a stabilizing fin.
Loop fastener braces feature a hole in which the shooter can insert their arm until the hand reaches the pistol grip. After getting a comfortable grip on the pistol grip, the shooter may tighten the straps around the loop to stabilize the gun properly before shooting.
Braces featuring stabilizing fins (also called blades) are intended to provide a solid anchoring point for the elbow pit. These fins or blades are typically flexible to account for the arm’s curvature. All the shooter needs to do is hold the pistol grip tightly and ensure the fin blade rests solidly against the shooter’s forearm or elbow pit.
Why Do These Devices Matter?
On paper, pistol braces are supposed to help disabled or impaired shooters use pistols more comfortably, especially when a two-handed grip is not an option.
However, these devices have garnered a lot of attention since they hit the market for other reasons, such as their resemblance to shoulder stocks and the fact braces mount to the same location as stocks would on AR-15 pistols and equivalent platforms.
According to the law, installing a stock on a pistol or rifle with a barrel length of less than 16” turns it into a Short-Barreled Rifle (SBR). SBRs are heavily regulated, requiring civilians to file registration paperwork (ATF Form 1), pay a $200 tax stamp, and wait for approval from the agency before legally owning one.
When Alex Bosco invented the first brace, he first had to seek a letter of approval from the ATF to ensure these devices are not shoulder stocks. The ATF determined that because braces are made of soft, rubbery materials, they do not qualify as shoulder stocks.
Shouldering the brace
Now that you know what a pistol brace is, an equally important question you should ask yourself is, “What is a pistol brace not intended for?”
Firearms media, and especially many prominent YouTube gun channels, started giving the device a lot of attention as soon as it hit the market. Many shooters recorded themselves shouldering the brace as a stock, effectively treating braced AR-15 pistols as if they were short-barreled rifles.
Although not as comfortable as real stocks, shouldering braces appeared to allow shooters to get around SBR laws, with many gun channels treating the matter with a certain amount of disdain or irreverence toward the ATF.
The situation led the ATF to issue a letter in 2015 stating that the mere act of shouldering a pistol brace constituted a redesign of the device into a shoulder stock, transforming an otherwise legal pistol into an SBR.
The gun community and the gun industry both reacted with ire, questioning the legitimacy of reclassifying a device based on its use (or misuse). Nevertheless, the situation regarding pistol braces remained unchanged for about two years, leaving them in a state of legal uncertainty.
In 2017, the ATF clarified its position on pistol braces in a follow-up letter, confirming that installing a brace does not, in itself, turn a pistol into an SBR, nor does “incidental, sporadic, or situational use” from a “firing position at or near the shoulder.”
Nonetheless, the community interpreted this specific wording to mean that, although not illegal, the practice is officially discouraged by the ATF. In response, content creators effectively ceased shouldering the braces whenever they featured them in videos and other media.
In 2020, draft ATF documents surfaced on the internet, with a rulemaking proposal to reclassify firearms fitted with shoulder braces as NFA items, which would make them as heavily regulated as SBRs or silencers.
The proposal became open for comment on the federal register between December 18, 2020, and January 1, 2021, garnering over 300,000 views. These documents led the industry to issue a response once again, heavily criticizing the proposal.
Are Braces Still Available Today?
As of May 2021, no laws regulating the possession of shoulder braces have been passed, and the 2017 ATF clarification letter remains the most up-to-date document interpreting their legal use.
Consequently, you can buy a pistol brace today and install it on any of your compatible firearms right now. Although you can technically shoulder it and treat your brace as a shoulder stock, you should err on the side of caution and avoid doing so, especially if you intend to record a video of your shooting and upload it online.
Stay Informed of the Law
Although the legal situation regarding pistol braces appears to be solved, it is your responsibility not to take the law for granted.
Laws and regulations regarding firearms are in a unique position. Not only do they seem to change frequently and without warning, but they are also subject to the ATF’s interpretations, which may seem confusing and contradictory at times.
One of the many responsibilities of law-abiding gun owners in the United States is to be aware of the frequently changing laws, especially when using cutting-edge accessories and devices such as pistol braces, binary triggers, or 3D-printed gun parts.