If you're new to the AR pistol game (or black rifles in general), it's important to know a few laws and ATF regulations concerning how firearms are classified, lest you wind up in legal hot water:
- An AR-15 rifle must have an overall length of no less than 26".
- An AR-15 rifle must have a barrel that is no shorter than 16".
- An AR-15 pistol can have any barrel length, but no buttstock.
- An AR-15 with a barrel shorter than 16" and a buttstock is an SBR.
- An SBR (short-barreled rifle) is an NFA item and requires a tax stamp.
Can you shoulder an AR pistol stabilizing brace?
Yes. In 2014, the ATF argued this was illegal. But in 2017, they reversed their opinion and now state "sporadic, incidental, or situational" shouldering of a pistol brace is legal.
To answer that question, here's a little background: In 2012, Sig Sauer unveiled their new SB15 Pistol Stabilizing Brace. This is the original brace that sparked the whole debate. It was intended to be strapped around the forearm, improving stability when firing. Some pistol owners saw an opportunity to instead use the pistol brace like a buttstock, pressing it up into the shoulder and using it as a cheek rest like you would with a rifle.
2014: ATF rules against shouldering braces
Angry politicians started crying foul over the Sig shoulder brace saga. So, the ATF released a statement that said shouldering a pistol brace would make your pistol an SBR, which is illegal:
"Consequently, the attachment of the SB-15 brace to an AR-type pistol alone; would not change the classification of the pistol to an SBR. However, if this device, un-modified or modified; is assembled to a pistol and used as a shoulder stock, thus designing or redesigning or making or remaking of a weapon design to be fired from the shoulder; this assembly would constitute the making of a 'rifle' as defined in 18 U.S.C. Section 921(a)(7).
"Further... in the designing or redesigning or making or remaking of a weapon designed to be fired from the shoulder, which incorporates a barrel length of less than 16 inches; this assembly would constitute the making of "a rifle having a barrel or barrels of less than 16 inches in length"; an NFA firearm as defined in 26 U.S.C., Section 5845(a)(3)."
Basically, the ATF said you can install a pistol brace, but you can't shoulder it. If you do, you've redesigned your pistol into a rifle with a barrel less than 16", making it an SBR. This would make your pistol an illegal NFA item since you did not file the appropriate ATF paperwork nor obtain the $200 tax stamp required to own an NFA weapon.
2015: ATF defends stance on "illegal shouldering"
Naturally, a lot of gun owners took issue with the idea that simply shouldering a weapon meant you've somehow redesigned it. So, Max Kinger, Acting Chief of the ATF's Firearms Technology Criminal Branch, issued another letter reiterating the agency's position:
"The pistol stabilizing brace was neither “designed” nor approved to be used as a shoulder stock, and therefore use as a shoulder stock constitutes a “redesign” of the device because a possessor has changed the very function of the item. Any individual letters stating otherwise are contrary to the plain language of the NFA, misapply Federal law, and are hereby revoked. Any person who intends to use a [pistol] stabilizing brace as a shoulder stock on a pistol (having a rifled barrel under 16 inches in length or a smooth bore firearm with a barrel under 18 inches in length) must first file an ATF Form 1 and pay the applicable tax because the resulting firearm will be subject to all provisions of the NFA."
2017: The ATF reverses, finalizes its opinion
Gun owners and manufacturers did not back off the pistol brace argument. The ATF began receiving letters from the industry challenging their opinion. The ATF probably realized it would be next to impossible to argue that simply holding something differently than intended would convince a judge or jury that it constitutes redesigning a product. SB Tactical, a pistol brace manufacturer, hired a lawyer who contacted the ATF.
When contacted by SB Tactical, ATF reversed its opinion and issued a final letter in March, 2017:
" With respect to stabilizing braces, ATF has concluded that attaching the brace to a [pistol] as a forearm brace does not make a short-barreled rifle because the configuration as submitted to and approved by the ATF is not intended to be comfortably fired from the shoulder. If, however, the shooter/possessor takes steps to configure the device for use as a shoulder stock -- for example, permanently affixing it to the end of a buffer tube (thereby creating a length that has no other purpose than to facilitate its use as a stock), removing the arm-strap, or otherwise undermining its ability to be used as a brace -- and then in fact shoots the firearm from the shoulder using the accessory as a shoulder stock, that person has objectively 'redesigned' the firearm for purposes of the NFA."
"To the extent the January 2015 letter implied or has been construed to hold that incidental, sporadic, or situational use of an arm brace (in its original approved configuration) from a firing position at or near the shoulder was sufficient to constitute 'redesign', such interpretations are incorrect and not consistent with ATF's interpretation of the statute or the manner in which it has historically been enforced."
That's a long-winded, wishy-washy answer. Here's the simple summary:
- In this letter, the ATF claimed they never said shouldering a pistol brace was illegal (which, in fact, they tried to).
- The ATF clarified that modifying a brace in any way and then shouldering it constitutes making an NFA item.
- The ATF said that occasional use of an unmodified brace does not constitute making an SBR or NFA item.
- Sporadic means, "Occurring at irregular intervals or only in a few places; scattered or isolated."
- Situational means, "Relating to or depending on a situation."
- Incidental means, "Unplanned."
Can I still shoulder a pistol brace?
Yes, as much as the ATF doesn't want to admit with plain English. But there's one big caveat: Don't show it off.
Including the words "incidental","sporadic", and "situational" when saying shouldering a brace is legal is the ATF's way of backing off the issue without just saying "yes, it's legal, go for it." Using such language is the ATF's way of trying to sway gun owners from doing this utterly harmless task consistently in order to satisfy the complaints from uninformed anti-gun politicians. So, you can do it. But in the strange, small chance you're standing in front of a zealous ATF agent at your local gun range, we don't recommend you do it consistently. Only occasionally.
- In 2014, the ATF said that shouldering a pistol brace meant your pistol would be classified as an SBR.
- In 2015, the ATF defended their opinion, claiming using a brace as a stock constitutes a weapon “redesign”.
- In 2017, the ATF reversed their opinion, saying use of an unmodified arm brace as a buttstock isn't illegal.
- As of 2020, the ATF has not changed their last opinion. You can still shoulder a pistol brace.
- We don't recommend shouldering your brace all the time, according to the ATF's vague language.