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Complete Guide To Short Barreled Rifles (SBRs): Build Or Buy [2022]

Short-barreled rifles are a hot topic right now, and with all the confusion and downright misinformation going around, we wanted to take a breath and dig into everything surrounding these often-misunderstood guns.

We’re going to start with the basics and go over what exactly the technical definition of an SBR is, why people want them, what specifically makes them different from pistols, and how that might be changing. We’ll also look at what that means for AR and AK pistol owners going forward.

Let’s get started with some basic background and legal definitions.

WHAT’S AN SBR (SHORT BARRELED RIFLE)?

According to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, or the BATFE, a short-barreled rifle is a “rifle having a barrel or barrels of less than 16 inches in length.” 

Now, if you’re like me, you had to take a second to think about the absurd lengths we could take the “or barrels” part to, but once we’re back on track, there’s a keyword in that definition that we’ll also need to look at the definition of: rifle.

The ATF says a rifle is “a weapon designed or redesigned, made or remade, and intended to be fired from the shoulder and designed or redesigned and made or remade to use the energy of the explosive in a fixed metallic cartridge to fire only a single projectile through a rifled bore for every single pull of the trigger.”

SIG Sauer MCX SBR in 7.62×39

Basically, a rifle is a firearm with a rifled bore that is made to be fired from the shoulder and fires a single projectile every time you pull the trigger. The “fired from the shoulder” part can get a bit mushy with pistol braces, but we’ll get more into that later.

An SBR, then, is just a rifle that has an overall length of less than 26” or a barrel of less than 16”. That’s really all there is to it. And, of course, an SBR is covered by the National Firearms Act and requires a tax stamp.

WHY HAVE AN SBR?

So why bother with an SBR?

Well, cool factor aside, they’re really handy for things like home defense and even for competition. Being able to maneuver a rifle in tight quarters is why we have things like the venerable and beloved MK18, after all. 

mk18 cover
Mk 18 clone build (pistol, but still)

An SBR gives you carbine/PDC/SMG levels of maneuverability but with intermediate cartridges. So, three times the velocity, similarly-weighted projectiles, and the controls and ergonomics you’re already familiar with. What’s not to love?

These guns are also great in competitions (that allow them) for similar reasons. It’s just so much easier to maneuver a shorter barrel around barricades, onto stage props, and when you’re moving from position to position. 

The velocity you lose only really matters if you’re trying to snipe a coyote at 500 yards, and that feels like a bit of an edge case for the average shooter. Our apologies to those of you reading this from horseback out on the ranch right now, but even the cowpokes out there have to admit there’s some appeal to an SBR. 

Having a shorter, lighter, more maneuverable rifle makes a lot of sense if you’re trekking over long ranges with your rifle, slipping it into an ATV gun rack or a saddle scabbard, or making your way through thick brush. All of these are very practical, sensible reasons to want an SBR.

The other thing to think about is the sheer cool factor of having a shorter rifle. It’s something different than what your buddies have, it’s something everyone is going to want to look at when you go to the range, and it has 90% of the functionality of a full-size rifle still.

I think it's worthwhile to keep in mind that it’s perfectly valid to have a gun just because you think it’s neat. You don’t have to depend on it to keep you safe, train with it eight days a week, or have any kind of specific need for it beyond just thinking it's neato.

Seriously, it’s okay to want cool things, and SBRs are just objectively cooler than full-size rifles. Sorry, not sorry.

HOW’S AN SBR DIFFERENT FROM A PISTOL?

Important Note: The currently accepted definitions for what separates an SBR from a pistol are being examined very closely by the BATFE, members of Congress, and the federal courts. At this time, things are in flux and subject to change, so make sure you consult a legal expert on anything you’re unsure of.

We are but humble gun folk, not lawyers, and nothing in this or any post in a humble domain contains legal advice.

Both of these firearms have 11.3″ barrels. The BSR has a stock, the pistol has a brace.

Having said that, the current understanding of an SBR is that it is designed to be shouldered, and a pistol can be shouldered as long as there’s nothing on the ass end of it that is specifically designed to be shouldered. 

This is where pistol braces come in. No matter how much they might look like or work as stocks under certain circumstances, they aren’t specifically designed to be shouldered, and therefore allow a shooter to have something like an AR-15 with a less than 16” barrel that is not technically a rifle. 

Now, this definition is, theoretically, changing at the end of 2022 (which we’ll discuss in a minute) so take all this with a grain of salt, but for now, that’s the way things are. 

POTENTIAL UPCOMING SBR LAW CHANGES

The change to this ruling is taking place in the form of an ATF decision that would change how pistols fitted with a brace are defined. The proposal that appears to be going through will change the way braces are classified, and will essentially curtail their use on pistols. 

We don’t know what exactly the new regulations are going to look like, but we’ll update you once we have confirmation. What we do know is that the current ruling looks like it is going to restrict braces that are “objectively designed to be shouldered” from being used on non-SBRs aka pistols.

This should leave room for the original braces that were designed to allow disabled shooters to still fire an AR-15 pistol, but it’s unclear what “objectively designed to be shouldered” will actually mean, how it will be enforced, and what exactly will be required of people who own currently legal pistols that are going to be reclassified. 

HOW TO GET AN SBR

So if you do want an SBR, then what do you need to do?

The easiest way is to use the ATF’s E-File system to file a Form 1 (for when you are making the SBR yourself) or a Form 4 (for when you’re purchasing an SBR from a licensed dealer. You can also mail in your application which might even work! But it won’t be fast. Do an e-file if at all possible.

Eform article EDITED 2
ATF eForm portal

The other option is to do an NFA gun trust, which essentially creates a trust that owns the gun rather than registering it to an individual. Historically this has been faster than submitting a Form 1 or Form 4, but that appears to be changing a little as the E-File system gets faster.

Once your application is in and your $200 is paid, all you have to do is wait for the ATF to get back to you, which could take over a year (but will likely be around 6-7 weeks if you E-File).

The process is almost the same step-for-step as filing for a suppressor, and we have a cool guide on that too!

RIFLE-TO-PISTOL CONVERSIONS

Of course, if you don’t want an SBR, you might think you can just convert your rifle to a pistol right? That would skirt the whole SBR thing and that long process I listed above. So can you convert a rifle to a pistol? 

In short: no!

In long: no, unless you want an all-expenses-paid tour of your nearest federal penitentiary or are willing to pony up for a special tax stamp. 

Seriously though, if a firearm was manufactured as a rifle, it will always be considered a rifle under the law, and you will have to jump through some hoops with the ATF to own it legally. 

iRay Micro RH25 Thermal
Custom SBR with all the toys

You can convert a pistol to a rifle, and that’s a-okay. And if you convert it to a rifle and then change it back to a pistol, that’s okay too. If the firearm started as a rifle, it becomes a “weapon made from a rifle” making it an SBR or AOW (any other weapon) if you have a barrel less than 16” or an overall length of less than 26”.

You can read the official ATF stance and explanation, but the basics are pistol to rifle is fine, but rifle to pistol needs a tax stamp to keep you out of jail.

The main thing to remember is what the gun was manufactured as. If it was originally built or registered (for those few states that register firearms) as a pistol, you’re fine. If it was a rifle, it must stay that way or get a tax stamp.

LOOSE ROUNDS

Short-barreled rifles are a hot topic right now, but unlike that fabled haven of edgy teens at your local mall, they aren’t going away anytime soon. These are fairly specialized guns, and they’re a bit finicky to get your hands on, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t worth the effort. 

If you want a short, ergonomic, but still very capable AR-15 or another semi-auto rifle, then an SBR can be a great choice. Provided, of course, that you’re willing to pony up for a tax stamp and wait 6-18 months for official approval to come back from the ATF. 

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