This article was written by Arsenal Attorneys' Firearms Technology Expert Rick Vasquez, for informational purposes only. Contact Arsenal Attorneys with your questions about firearms law.
For pistol grip firearms designed to fire shotgun shells, and with the invention of the arm brace designed for rifle caliber pistols such as the AK and AR pistols, there is much confusion on what is the proper classification of these firearms. Such a firearm could appear to be a “short barreled rifle” or a “short barreled shotgun”, either of which would create concerns about proper registration and handling.
To properly understand the opinions ATF has provided on these firearms, the definitions of ‘firearm’ under the Gun Control Act (GCA) and the National Firearms Act (NFA) must be studied carefully. Certain commercially-produced pistol-grip/palm-grip firearms do not fall within the definition of a “shotgun” under either the NFA or the GCA. Although these firearms shoot shotgun ammunition, their use of pistol-grips in lieu of buttstocks means they cannot be “shotguns” under the NFA or GCA because they are not designed or intended to be fired from the shoulder. Provided that the overall length remains at least 26 inches, the length of the weapon’s barrel is immaterial. Such weapons are classified simply as “firearms” and are still subject to all of the provisions of the GCA.
Under the provisions of the GCA, an individual can legally reduce the barrel length of a pistol-grip firearm of this type, to less than 18 inches, as long as the overall length of the firearm remains at least 26 inches. However, a shotgun that once had a buttstock attached but had the barrel shortened to less than 18 inches and a pistol grip added would then be classified as an NFA firearm, as a “weapon made from a shotgun.”
According to the GCA, the term “shotgun” means 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 an explosive to fire through a smooth bore either a number of ball shot or a single projectile for each single pull of the trigger.
As defined in the NFA, 26 U.S.C. Section 5845(a), the term “firearm” includes:
(1) a shotgun having a barrel or barrels of less than 18 inches in length;
(2) a weapon made from a shotgun if such weapon as modified has an overall length of less than 26 inches or a barrel or barrels of less than 18 inches in length;
(3) a rifle having a barrel or barrels of less than 16 inches in length;
(4) a weapon made from a rifle if such weapon as modified has an overall length of less than 26 inches or a barrel or barrels of less than 16 inches in length;
(5) any other weapon, as defined in subsection (e).
The term “any other weapon” (AOW) as defined in Section 5845(e) includes any weapon or device capable of being concealed on the person from which a shot can be discharged through the energy of an explosive. In terms of AOWs, ATF has a longstanding policy setting an overall minimum length of 26 inches as the determining factor on whether a weapon (other than a pistol or revolver) is capable of being concealed on a person. No such policy has been established for a minimum length standard on a barrel, even though 18 inches exists as the standard for barrels elsewhere in the GCA.
A firearm that has never had a buttstock attached and has only been assembled and distributed as a pistol-grip firearm designed to fire shotgun ammunition, can never be classified as a “short barreled shotgun” or “weapon made from a shotgun,” regardless of the modifications performed. However, this pistol-grip firearm would be properly classified as an AOW if the overall length is reduced to less than 26 inches. If only the barrel were reduced below 18 inches in length but the overall length remained more than 26 inches it would remain only a GCA firearm, and not an NFA firearm. Conversely, a pistol-grip firearm that, at some point, had a buttstock attached, is properly classified as a “weapon made from a shotgun” when either the overall length falls below 26 inches or the barrel length falls below 18 inches. This creates a situation in which legal possession of a firearm depends only upon whether that firearm has ever had a buttstock attached. See below.
• Description: Weapon originally manufactured with a pistol-grip in lieu of a buttstock
• Barrel Length: 17 inches
• Overall Length: 27.5 inches
• Classification: GCA “Firearm,” not a NFA firearm, despite the 17-inch barrel
• Description: Shotgun originally manufactured with a buttstock. The buttstock has been removed, a pistol grip added and barrel length reduced.
• Barrel Length: 17 inches
• Overall Length: 27.5 inches
• Classification: NFA “Weapon Made from a Shotgun” (barrel less than 18 inches)
A new variant is called a “Palm grip” versus a pistol grip:
AK and AR pistols (and other types) with an arm brace attached are still classified as a handgun. Through several different written opinions ATF has concluded that the arm brace is not a stock, therefore, a handgun with an arm brace is not designed to be fired from the shoulder. Consequently since it is not a butt stock, a pistol with an arm brace is classified as a handgun, not an SBR.
For the Federal Firearms Licensee, the issue now becomes how this firearm should be recorded in an A&D book and on the 4473. ATF has taken this into account and updated instructions on the 4473. Review instructions on page 4 “section B, Question 16 types of firearms”, in this instance it should be “other”. Additionally, Section D Questions 27 “Type of Firearm”; To accurately identify these firearms, entries regarding the “Type” of firearm may be recorded as “Pistol (Palm) Grip Firearm,” “PGF,” or “PG.” In addition, this firearm type may be recorded as “Other.