AR-15 Pistol vs Rifle: Which Should You Choose?
There is a great deal of confusion and debate in the firearms community on the subject of AR-15 rifles vs AR-15 pistols. How practical is an AR pistol? Is it worth it? What do you gain and lose by going with a pistol over a rifle and vice versa?
We’re going to take a deep dive into all these questions (plus a few other considerations) to help you make the right choice for your firearm needs, preferences, and budget.
Let’s start with some basic definitions and technical differences.
What is an AR-15 “Rifle”, Technically Speaking?
The defining characteristics of an AR-15-style rifle are the 16-inch barrel (or longer) and the stock that is designed to be shouldered. Those are really the only things you have to worry about in terms of the AR-15.
Now, there are other things that make a rifle according to federal law and ATF's regulations, such as a rifled barrel, but obviously, all AR-15s come with a rifled barrel. Technically, there are some AR-style shotguns out there, but that’s getting a little too into the weeds.
All you need to know is that if it has a 16-inch or longer (rifled) barrel and a stock designed to be shouldered, then it’s an AR-15 rifle.
So, What is an AR-15 “Pistol” Then?
An AR-15 pistol is classified as a pistol because of its shorter barrel length, specifically 16 inches or less.
On top of that, an AR pistol is unique because it will use a pistol buffer tube or stabilizing brace on the rear of the receiver. This is instead of the rifle stock, an addition that would quickly transform your pistol into a short barreled rifle, which requires a tax stamp in the United States.
Stabilizing braces aren't specifically designed to be shouldered, though legally and practically they can be (at least for now, check all applicable laws because brace rules may be changing).
Key Performance Differences Between an AR-15 Pistol & Rifle
As mentioned before, the main differences between an AR-15 pistol and a rifle are going to be the overall length of your barrel and the legal classification of the thing you’re putting to your shoulder (stock, pistol buffer tube, or pistol brace).
These differences are going to cause some pretty big changes in the performance of your weapon, which should drive your decision on which is best for you.
We'll discuss this in more detail below, but generally, the pistol is going to be lighter and much more maneuverable, while the rifle is going to provide greater accuracy and velocity.
In terms of accuracy, for most calibers, you’re going to be better off with a full-sized barrel that will give you more velocity and provide enough space for the complete combustion of every last grain of powder.
With the longer barrel of an AR-15 rifle, you can get up to 30% more muzzle velocity out of the 5.56 platform, which translates into significantly less drop and drift at longer ranges, and you’ll maintain supersonic speed for much longer.
When a round drops from supersonic to subsonic speeds, there’s a significant disruption to its flight path, so this is definitely something to consider if you’re shooting at the limits of the 5.56’s range, especially for something like sniping prairie dogs or whatever other small pest.
Beyond that, a longer barrel with the same twist rate allows more spin to the round, which also helps to keep more stable as it flies through the air towards the target.
Where you’ll really notice a difference is when you try shooting an AR-15 pistol at those longer ranges, especially without a pistol stabilizing brace. Without a pistol-specific stabilizing brace you’re likely to have the least effective and least ergonomic firearms experience you’ve seen.
If you can’t get a brace (or if the laws have changed by the time you’re reading this) then we don’t really recommend an AR-15 pistol for anything but fun times at the range.
The benefits of maneuverability don’t outweigh the downsides of having to fire the thing commando-style without something pressed to your shoulder in a defensive situation. For accuracy purposes, we'll say to go with the AR rifle, or if you’re that worried about maneuverability indoors, get an SBR tax stamp.
The muzzle blast from any firearm within the AR-15 platform is going to be loud, but you'll find the pistol to be a good bit louder. It’s not pleasant. We highly recommend a suppressor on a home defense gun to avoid blowing out your ears. It’s not a tactical, John Wick-type of thing, it’s simply going to keep you from going deaf in the event that you, God forbid, do have to defend yourself indoors.
If you can’t swing the suppressor, at least go with something like a linear compensator or blast mitigation device to throw most of the sound and pressure of the blast away from you, especially if you’re going with an AR-15 pistol.
Definitely don’t go with a competition-style muzzle brake or compensator for home defense unless you’ve always wanted to have a reason to learn sign language. Firing one of those indoors can do permanent damage to your ears.
The other thing to consider is that with a short 4-inch, 7-inch, or 9-inch barrel on a standard 5.56 AR-15, you’re going to get a massive fireball at the muzzle from all the unburnt powder. This flash can be blinding to the user and those nearby (especially in the dark), which is something to think about when choosing a caliber for an AR-15 pistol.
One last performance factor to keep in mind is the fact that the longer handguard on your AR-15 rifle is going to give you more room for accessories. More accessories will provide capabilities you might not be able to accommodate on the short barrel.
Plus, adding certain accessories to your pistol, like a vertical foregrip, will cause you to violate ATF regulations and bring some unnecessary complications to your gun.
Which is Best for You?
So, which one is best for you? At the end of the day, it comes down to your goals for your gun and the intended use of your weapon.
Best Use For an AR Pistol
For self-defense, a shorter AR is generally preferable as it’s lighter, more maneuverable, and still plenty potent for dealing with threats at any reasonable self-defense distance that a civilian (or law enforcement officer) is ever likely to face.
Even Special Operations forces and S.W.A.T officers are moving to shorter, more maneuverable ARs for working in close quarters and for transitioning in and out of vehicles so I think we can defer to the experts and say that an AR-15 pistol, with its shorter length, is the better option for that kind of work.
An AR-15 pistol is also easier to store and makes for a great “truck gun” or even a backpacking gun if you build it the right way and save weight where you can.
Best Use For a Full-Size AR
Where we still see longer-barreled, rifle-length ARs in use, and always will, is in applications where accuracy, velocity, and damage to a soft target at long range are more important than being able to maneuver in tight spaces.
For general shooting at medium to long range, especially hunting and tactical applications where the extra velocity has a big impact on the amount of soft tissue damage you do, a longer barrel is always going to be preferred. A longer barrel is going to result in more accurate shooting and improved damage against a living target.
Overall, these are both great options that excel in different ways. At the end of the day, all we can really say definitively is that you should do your research on the legal side of things, and then go with whichever one makes the most sense for the shooting you’ll be doing.
Or just splurge and get both so you don’t have to worry about it. Historically, not having enough firearms has always been more lethal than having too many firearms. Better safe than sorry, right?
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