What is an AR Pistol and Why You Might Want One

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Last Updated on July 31, 2021.

Writer for Minuteman Review, handgun aficionado and artisan firearms reviewer. 

What is an AR Pistol and Why You Might Want One

An AR pistol provides you with rifle-caliber firepower in a compact, NFA-compliant package. So what is an AR pistol, and what are the advantages and disadvantages of buying one?


What is an AR Pistol?

The AR-15 is perhaps the most popular centerfire rifle platform in the United States. It is prized by gun owners for its utility, customizability, reliability, and parts availability. If you need a semi-automatic rifle or carbine for self-defense, hunting, or sporting purposes, the AR-15 is one of the best options on the market. 

But what about length? If you want to reduce the overall length of a rifle, the limiting factor is the law. A short-barreled rifle (SBR), which has a barrel less than 16” and an overall length less than 26”, is regulated by the National Firearms Act.

To lawfully possess an SBR, you must complete the same procedure as when buying a sawed-off shotgun, sound suppressor, or machine gun. However, the modularity of the AR-15 design lends itself to pistol adaptation.

What is a Pistol?

The ATF defines a pistol as the following:

“[A] weapon originally designed, made, and intended to fire a projectile (bullet) from one or more barrels when held in one hand, and having:

  • a chamber(s) as an integral part(s) of, or permanently aligned with, the bore(s);
  • and a short stock designed to be gripped by one hand at an angle to and extending below the line of the bore(s).”

While pistols do enable one-handed shooting, standard practice is to use a two-handed grip. A two-handed grip affords increased stability, recoil control and allows you to transition between targets more rapidly. 

But don’t let that distract you. The ATF’s definition is relevant for legal, rather than technical or historical, reasons. Many gun owners are not interested in filing ATF Form 1 or 4, paying the $200 tax, submitting fingerprints and photographs, and waiting 6 to 9 months for approval. 

One solution, then, is to buy an AR pistol. You may be asking, “What is an AR pistol?” An AR pistol offers an NFA-compliant alternative to registering an SBR.

By attaching a stabilizing brace to the receiver extension of an AR-15, the firearm becomes a pistol in the eyes of the law. There was some debate about whether a stabilizing or pistol brace could be used in the same manner as a dedicated buttstock without running afoul of the law. The ATF clarified this question, at least for the time being. As of this writing, it is lawful to use a stabilizing brace as a buttstock.

See Related Article: AR-15 Pistol vs Rifle Comparison Guide


Reasons to Own an AR Pistol

The same reasons you would own a short-barreled rifle are why you would own an AR pistol. The AR pistol is, in effect, the functional equivalent of a Commando-length carbine. The benefits of an AR pistol are that it’s:

Lightweight

AR pistols are usually lighter in weight than their full-length carbine or rifle counterparts, allowing you to carry them more comfortably.

Compact

Perhaps the most significant advantage of the AR pistol is that they’re compact. This is the primary reason for choosing this configuration. It increases the weapon’s maneuverability, especially where space is limited. Furthermore, due to the short barrel, the AR pistol is not front-heavy, which reduces fatigue when shooting or carrying the weapon for a protracted period.

Concealable

An AR pistol, especially with a folding stock, is sometimes so short that it can be concealed, allowing you to carry it concealed under a cover garment, such as a jacket.

Powerful

AR pistols are available in various chamberings, but intermediate-power rifle cartridges, such as 5.56mm NATO and .300 Blackout, remain common. On the other hand, if you prefer to own a particularly compact pistol-caliber carbine, you can find AR pistols in 9mm and .45 ACP.


Downsides of AR Pistols

While these weapons can be compact powerhouses, AR pistols also have their fair share of downsides. These include:

Noise

AR pistols typically have barrels between 7” and 11”. At these lengths, the powder propellant has not undergone complete combustion. The result is that the muzzle blast is more concussive and the flash brighter. 

When firing AR pistols on a shooting range, always wear adequate hearing and eye protection. You can use a variety of muzzle devices to reduce the muzzle blast or control its direction. It’s also worth having a high-quality flash hider to protect your vision in low light.

Blow-forward devices direct the muzzle blast forward, away from the shooter, to mitigate this effect. Alternatively, you can invest the $200 that you would have spent on a tax stamp for an SBR in a sound suppressor instead.

Recoil

The lighter weight and less efficient stock design can increase the recoil of these weapons, rendering them uncomfortable to fire. If you attach a muzzle brake or recoil compensator to dampen the recoil, you will intensify the already-loud gunshot.

Power

While this can be positive, it’s worth clarifying a point regarding power. In comparison with a traditional handgun cartridge, such as 9mm Luger or .45 ACP, an intermediate rifle cartridge is potentially more disruptive in soft tissue, even when fired from a short barrel. It’s also typically more penetrative regarding body armor.

However, when compared with a carbine (14” to 16”) or rifle (18” to 20”) barrel, the decline in velocity and kinetic energy is significant. 

When using .300 Blackout and 6.8mm SPC cartridges, the shorter barrel has a less detrimental effect on terminal performance. However, 5.56mm NATO M193 and M855 FMJ ammunition are highly dependent on entry velocity for its effectiveness. 

If you’re planning on using 5.56mm/.223 ammunition for defensive purposes, you should ensure that the bullets you’re using are optimized for comparatively low velocities.

Increased wear

Short barrels and pistol-length gas systems accelerate wear and erosion of the gas port hole due to the high operating pressures and temperatures. Furthermore, the actions of short-barreled rifles tend to open more quickly and cycle at higher velocity.

Pistol-specific buffer

The buffer and recoil spring assembly that you’ll need must be tailored to the cartridge and weapon configuration. 

Brace

If you use the stabilizing brace the way it’s ostensibly intended, you’ll find that the AR pistol is relatively difficult to hold and fire. Fortunately, many of the stabilizing braces that AR pistol and accessory manufacturers offer allow you to fold or collapse the brace and use it as a makeshift shoulder stock, providing an increased level of rigidity and comfort. However, these are still not as efficient as many dedicated buttstocks.


AR Carbines and Rifles

What is an AR pistol?” It’s a compromise.

The primary advantage of the AR pistol is that it allows you to own a non-NFA alternative to a short-barreled rifle. However, for long-range or precision shooting and parts longevity, an AR-15 carbine or rifle is the superior choice. 

Carbine and rifle-length gas systems cause less wear on the bolt carrier group. The longer barrel increases muzzle velocity, and the dedicated buttstock is more efficient than many stabilizing braces.

In Conclusion 

If you’d like an ultra-compact legal alternative to an NFA firearm, an AR pistol can be an excellent choice. However, these short weapons aren’t without their drawbacks. You’ll ultimately have to decide whether the advantages of compactness warrant buying one of these guns.