Best AR-15 Pistol Brace and Answers to All of Your Questions About Them
AR-15 pistol braces—where to even begin with this one gang… Well, I’ll start off by saying I love pistol braces. They have tremendous utility, although not for the reasons you might expect.
These are some of the oddest accessories in today’s AR-15 market. Even the name "AR-15 pistol brace" sounds paradoxical: An AR-15 is a rifle; why would it need a brace? More specifically, why the hell would it need a pistol brace? Let me explain.
For those just looking for our picks, click here to jump to our list of the best AR Pistol Braces.
What is a Pistol Brace Anyway?
Pistol stabilizing braces are accessories that can be added to the buffer system of AR pistols, AK-47s, or pistol caliber carbines to provide extra support and control. The first pistol brace was designed in 2012 by USMC and Army vet Alex Bosco. The story goes that while Bosco was on a trip to the range with another vet, one who happened to be disabled, the range master requested that Bosco’s friend stop firing due to safety concerns regarding his apparent lack of control over the firearm.
This unfortunate event inspired Bosco to find a way to help his friend and other disabled combat veterans. He produced the first pistol stabilizing brace prototype in his garage, and after testing the concept with disabled vets, Bosco sought approval from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).
Here is an example of a pistol brace being used the way it was originally intended.
That year, the ATF approved Bosco’s Pistol Brace and in a letter to Bosco stated, “the submitted brace, when attached to a firearm, does not convert that weapon to be fired from the shoulder and would not alter the classification of a pistol or other firearm. While a firearm so equipped would still be regulated by the Gun Control Act … such a firearm would not be subject to NFA controls.” (Remember this for later.) Following the ATF’s approval, Bosco founded SB Tactical with Grant Shaw, and the first pistol stabilizing braces for the AR-15 and AK-47 would hit the market in 2013.
SBA3 - Our Choice for Best AR Pistol Brace
$129.99 at Brownells
Prices accurate at time of publishing
If pistol braces are designed to primarily help disabled shooters handle their firearms more effectively, why are they so popular and why would I want one?
Good question! Pistol braces are awesome, but the first thing you need to know about them is that very few people actually use pistol braces as pistol braces. In fact, these handy tools have become popular replacements for standard AR-15 stock systems for reasons having nothing to do with their intended purpose.
(We've also covered the best AR-15 Stocks here)
Staring Into the Legal Abyss - The Legalities of Pistol Braces
Disclaimer: The information provided here is NOT legal advice. It is the responsibility of consumers and readers to understand and comply with all federal, state, and local laws regarding purchasing or building a firearm. It is YOUR responsibility to comply with all applicable laws.
The following points are simply what I've gathered from my own personal research and what practices I follow at the time of writing this, as a U.S. citizen. This is not necessarily a complete description of the legalities surrounding pistol braces, and I am not a lawyer; so again, take responsibility and do your own research.
Here’s why you might choose a pistol brace over a traditional stock:
A rifle must have a minimum barrel length of 16" and a minimum overall length of 26". A rifle is any weapon designed and intended to be fired from the shoulder. Recent ATF approval letters have stated that a pistol brace does not redesign a firearm such that it is intended to be fired from the shoulder.
This becomes a particularly interesting legal issue when it comes to short-barreled rifles. The NFA is responsible for U.S. regulations on automatic weapons, short-barreled shotguns, suppressors and short-barreled rifles (SBRs). According to the NFA, an SBR is defined as a rifle with a barrel of less than 16”. SBRs are great for several reasons: at the most practical level, they are lighter and easier to carry than their long-barrel counterparts. They can also be easier to handle and shoot.
The trouble is that purchasing or building an SBR will require you to submit a "Form 1" through the ATF and pay a $200 tax stamp. You will then need to wait around 6-10 months for approval. Note: You cannot possess or build an SBR without completed approval from the ATF.
BUT (perhaps you see where I’m going with this), you are legally free to build an AR-15 pistol with a barrel shorter than 16” without any paperwork, taxes, or government approval. Therein lies the beauty of the pistol brace.
Above is an AR pistol we recently built here at GunPros. With its 11.5” barrel, you may think it would be considered an SBR. However, with the pistol brace replacing the stock (and an angled foregrip rather than a vertical foregrip), this is actually an AR-15 pistol and not a rifle at all. This is both cool, stupid, fascinating, and ridiculous all at the same time.
What You Need to Know Before Building an AR Pistol
If you are interested in building your own AR-15 pistol there are some additional legalities you should know about. We suggest beginning with a factory-new stripped lower. If you are building an AR-15 for yourself, a stripped lower receiver is the only portion that needs to be handled by a firearms dealer with a Federal Firearms License (FFL), as this is the serialized portion of the firearm. A factory-new stripped lower receiver can be used to build a rifle or pistol in any caliber, so long as you can legally own what you are building. You can then purchase all of your other parts online and have them shipped directly to you.
Here are some of the most important things to understand when it comes to building your own AR-15 pistol:
- It's legal under federal law for law-abiding individuals to assemble a firearm for personal use, so long as that person is legally able to own the firearm they've built. You cannot manufacture firearms with the intent to sell them without being properly licensed.
- If building an AR-15 for yourself, a stripped lower receiver is the only portion that needs to be handled by a firearms dealer with a Federal Firearms License (FFL), as this is the serialized portion of the firearm. You can then purchase all of your other AR-15 parts online and have them shipped directly to you (in most locations).
- A factory-new stripped lower receiver can be used to build a rifle or pistol in any caliber, so long as you can legally own what you are building.
- If at any time, a lower receiver has previously been used as part of a firearm, you cannot necessarily use it to build a pistol.
- If a stripped lower receiver is first used to build a rifle, you can no longer use it to build a pistol or handgun. A good rule of thumb is "first a rifle, always a rifle".
- So long as a receiver is new, it is not necessary to have any caliber marking on it, and any caliber markings are irrelevant. Most manufacturers today mark their stripped lower receivers as "Multi-Cal" or something similar to avoid any confusion.
- To be safe when building a pistol, you can contact manufacturers and ensure your FFL transfers your stripped lower as an "other" item on the Form 4473 or any other relevant forms.
- AR-15s with barrels shorter than 16" or with an overall length of less than 26" cannot have a stock or vertical foregrip attached to them if you are building an AR-15 pistol. In the above picture of my AR-15 build, it does NOT have a stock or vertical foregrip. It does, however, have a pistol brace and an angled grip attached to the handguard, both of which have letters from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, and Explosives (ATF, BATFE) stating that they are able to be used on AR pistols (here & here).
- If you wish to build a short-barreled rifle (SBR)—a rifle with a barrel under 16" or an overall length under 26" that also has a stock or vertical grip—you must complete (and receive approval for) a Form 1 through the BATFE and pay a $200 tax stamp. You cannot build an SBR until being approved to do so.
- If you're building an AR-15 with both a barrel length of 16" and an overall length longer than 26", you can attach a stock and/or vertical foregrip—the same way you would be able to purchase a complete rifle with those accessories attached (no additional paperwork or legalities). Remember though, you cannot then use that lower receiver to build a pistol in the future.
On the Legality of Shouldering a Pistol Brace
Ok, so we’ve established that pistol braces are technically intended to help disabled shooters. However, they are more commonly considered as a great way to avoid having to file the litany of legal documents required to build a short-barrel rifle. Alternatively, some gun-owners use them as interim stocks while waiting for the Form 1 on their SBR builds to clear.
With all that said, there is one last legal issue we should discuss before we get into our list.
I’m, of course, talking about shouldering, or the question, “Can I shoulder my pistol brace?”
The answer to this question requires some further explanation, as the ATF has at times appeared to changed their position on the legality of shouldering, and the language used in describing their position hasn’t always been clear.
In 2014, the ATF stated in a letter regarding the use of a SIG SB15,
“For the following reasons, we have determined that firing a pistol from the shoulder would not cause the pistol to be reclassified as an SBR:
FTB classifies weapons based on their physical design characteristics. While usage/functionality of the weapon does influence the intended design, it is not the sole criterion for determining the classification of a weapon. Generally speaking, we do not classify weapons based on how an individual uses a weapon."
The above statement seems to me to indicate that you are free to shoulder your AR-15 pistol as you would a rifle, and that you are not doing anything illegal by doing so. However, in 2015, the ATF wrote an open letter which suddenly brought the legality of shouldering a pistol brace into question.
The ATF wrote,
“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."
This caused confusion among SB Tactical and pistol brace owners. Was the ATF saying that by using a pistol brace as a stock, you are “redesigning” the device, thereby committing a crime?
The confusion surrounding the "redesign" issue persisted, and further explanation from the ATF was not given for nearly two years. However, during that time SB Tactical continued to develop new products, all of which continued to be approved by the ATF. These new products even included new length-of-pull adjustable technology, making SB Tactical’s pistol braces even more like stocks than they were before.
Finally, in 2017, the ATF attempted to clarify its previous statement, writing,
“To the extent the January 2015 Open Letter implied or has been constructed to hold that incidental, sporadic, or situational ‘use’ of an arm-brace (in its original approved configuration) equipped firearm from a firing position at or near the shoulder was sufficient to constitute ‘redesign,’ such interpretations are incorrect and not consistent with ATF’s interpretations of the statute or the manner in which it has historically been enforced.”
What the general firearms community seems to believe this translates to is that shooting from the shoulder using a pistol brace does not constitute a “redesign” of the firearm into an SBR. However, you will be legally liable if you attempt to do anything to alter the original design of the pistol brace and then shoot it from the shoulder.
General Consensus Among Firearms Users
Again I have to remind you that I am not a lawyer and it's up to you to research, understand, and follow all laws pertaining to the use of a pistol brace yourself.
To MY knowledge, there has never been anyone convicted of using a pistol brace illegally. In 2018, the ATF prosecuted an Ohio man for using an AR pistol brace; however, he was found to be not guilty after a short deliberation from the jury. Hopefully this serves as a good precedent if any other cases like this arise.
I can also say that I've seen countless people at numerous ranges, including multiple ranges in Ohio actually, do so without any issues.
You can also find most of the popular firearms YouTubers shouldering pistol braces regularly, none of whom have been hunted down by the ATF.
With all of that out of the way, it's time to actually talk about the different available options. Here are our choices for the best AR-15 Pistol Braces:
SB Tactical SBA3 - Best AR-15 Pistol Brace
SB Tactical has continued to make many of the highest quality and most popular pistol braces on the market since launching in 2012. The SBA3 is a 5-position adjustable brace (lengths 6.1”, 6.75”, 7.5” 8.25” 9.5”) with a minimalist design. It includes a mil-spec carbine receiver extension (buffer tube). It also features an integral, ambidextrous QD sling socket. The brace itself uses an adjustable nylon strap.
You might notice that we used the the SBA3 on the AR-15 pistol shown earlier, and it has indeed become a favorite brace among the members of our team.
Personally, I love it for its simplicity. It has a thin but effective rubber padding on the buttplate and an ergonomic cheek weld.
All the padding is minimalistic, but it’s enough to provide you with countless hours of comfortable shooting. The SBA3 weighs in at 6.75 oz and is available in black or flat dark earth (FDE) colors.
SB Tactical SBPDW
Now let’s turn our attention to one of SB Tactical’s higher-end braces—the SBPDW. The SBPDW was designed in partnership with Maxim Defense, and is a 3-position adjustable brace (length 6.75”, 8.125”, 9.375”). It comes as a complete assembly, with a ready-to-install buffer tube (does not include buffer & buffer spring).
The SBPDW features a 3D sling attachment point at the 6 o’clock position of the housing. This brace is nearly 3 times as heavy as the SBA3, weighing in at 18.14 oz, and comes in black or FDE.
On the whole, I still prefer the SBA3, especially considering the SBPDW’s price tag. My one drawback to the SBPDW’s design is that, depending on where you set the length of pull, it can sometimes be difficult to find a flat surface to rest your cheek on. With that said, this brace is widely celebrated, and it's got a great look.
Kak Industry Shockwave Blade
If you are looking for a simple budget item with no frills, check out the Shockwave Blade Pistol Stabilizer from Kak Industry. This brace is made from high-strength glass-reinforced polymer.
If you need a buffer system, KAK offers their complete Shockwave Package for $77.40, which includes the pistol brace, a KAK tube, a mil-spec receiver endplate, a carbine buffer spring, and a standard carbine buffer.
The brace itself is easy to install and weighs in at only 5 ounces. It comes with 3 different sling attachment points and is available in different colors, including black, FDE, grey, and OD green.
$149.99 at Brownells
Prices accurate at time of publishing
Gear Head Works Tailhook MOD 2
The Tailhook MOD 2 is the latest update to Gear Head Works’ pistol brace series and features a lightweight, extremely compact, minimalist design. The MOD 2 is 5-point length adjustable up to 12.75” and features a unique shelf brace functionality, which I consider to be one of the best brace designs currently on the market. The brace itself is made with reinforced polymer.
The MOD 2 is lightweight (6.7 ounces) and has a very cool, tactical look. It comes in black, flat dark earth, and OD green. It’s perhaps not as well known as some of the other pistol braces on our list, but the MOD 2 is a great product with a set of unique features not available among the more popular braces on the market.
For those actually wanting to use a pistol brace for its originally intended use, this is quite possibly the best option.
And that wraps up our list of the best AR pistol braces. Pistol braces are ensconced in one of the weirdest legal loopholes in the gun world. But these tools can be extremely helpful. Whether you don’t want to bother going through all the legal work needed to own a short-barrel rifle, or you’re simply looking for something to use while you wait for your Form 1 to clear, there are countless reasons to invest in a pistol brace. Hopefully this article provided you with some helpful information and pointed you towards a product that fits your needs.