With the AR-15 commonly described as “America’s Rifle,” the more recently introduced pistol variant of the iconic firearm is rapidly gaining attention, making selecting a good one from the now-crowded field a challenge.
Pistol ARs give you more mobility, a lighter package, and an arguably more capable close-quarters platform than the traditional AR rifle. There’s no single best option, so what you’ll want will depend on how you intend to use the gun, your budget, and what you’re ultimately looking for in your new pistola.
Nonetheless, if you keep a few things in mind, the choices soon become easy.
Table of Contents
AR Pistol Comparison
Below is our list of the 10 best AR pistols for 2021. We start with the top 3 overall choices, then go into the reviews and best options for different needs.
Daniel Defense MK18
Why an AR pistol?
Although Eugene Stoner’s AR-15 is an excellent platform, with millions of the popular guns in circulation, it is a rifle that is both more than capable of performing in a huge variety of situations and supporting thousands of accessories and modifications — from red dots to flash suppressors, pistol grips and free floating handguards — users have tried to shrink it across its existence to make it more compact and maneuverable in tight spaces, such as when moving through buildings or exiting a vehicle.
A need for mobility
The original circa 1963 Colt SP-1/R6000, with its 20-inch barrel and 40-inch overall length, almost was instantly supplemented by the R6001 Carbine with a shorter 16-inch barrel.
Likewise, the military sliced their standard 39.5-inch M16 rifle first to the more compact Vietnam-era XM177E1, then to the M4 which used both a shorter barrel and a collapsible buttstock, to drop the length down to 29.5-inches.
Smaller Footprints & Maneuverability
Following on this vein, the AR-15 pistol, fitted with a rifle caliber barrel as short as 5.5-inches and no provision for a stock, could move into the neighborhood as tight as 17-inches overall– making it able to fit in a backpack or other tight spots.
This factor allows quick use for those not only in dense brush such as hunting wild hogs, but also for those seeking some fun on the range, a gun easy to carry in the backcountry, or one quick to provide serious home defense at bad-breath distance.
Further, they have been popular for some time now.
What to Look for in a Quality AR Pistol
1. Barrel Length
You draw the line between an AR Rifle and an AR Pistol at a 16-inch barrel length. Any barrel under 16 inches has to be classified as an AR pistol. But you can’t just go swap out your longer barrel on a rifle to a sub-16-inch barrel without some paperwork first. Your lower has to be declared as an AR pistol, and you have to pay an ATF fee called a tax stamp, but more on that later.
There is a limit to how short you can go on an AR pistol. The shortest viable length is right around 7.5 inches, and you really wouldn’t want to go any shorter with blowback, the safety of your hand near the muzzle, recoil, and accuracy. Not to mention noise.
On the maximum side, the longest barrel you can use for an AR pistol is 24 inches, but at that point, why even consider a pistol (which requires a brace rather than a stock) when long-range shooting isn’t the goal?
No matter what barrel length you choose, you need to decide early on if you’re building the AR pistol since that will help determine the handguard length, the gas system, the brace length, and more. They’re all connected.
Velocities & Barrel Length
Studies by experts in the firearms field have shown that, while the 5.56mm NATO in most loads will break over 3,000 fps velocity when fired from any barrel length over 14.5-inches, this speed starts to dump rapidly to the point that barrels just 10-inches long will lose about a fifth of that, running about 2,400 fps.
By the time you chop a barrel down to the 7.5-inch mark, which is about the minimum length that is still practical, you are good to wring 2,000 fps out of standard AR ammo with lower velocity leading to a less gyroscopically stable bullet and lower energy in the bullet when it reaches the target.
Another side effect of shorter barrels is that the stubbier they get, the more powder remains unburnt, which gives the gun a higher uncorking pressure at the muzzle, translating to a bigger and more distracting muzzle blast or fireball.
In short (excuse the pun), the longer the barrel on an AR-15 pistol, the more accurate, useful, and easier to shoot it will be.
On the other side of the coin, the shorter the barrel, the more the ammunition’s performance envelope will decline, and the user will observe a more pronounced muzzle flash, the latter of which can be smoothed out with muzzle devices such as flash cans or through the use of suppressors.
While, in theory, AR pistols can have a barrel of almost any length over 4-inches– which is the minimum gas port dwell required to work Stoner’s direct gas impingement action– about the shortest marketed have been 5.5-inch barrels. Likewise, there have been some downright near-rifle-length models.
Subtracting these extremes produces a happy median of between 7.5- and 11-inches, a zone which has proved the most appealing for these handguns, especially as this span allows for a more reliable carbine-length gas port system with a low-profile gas block rather than the shorter and dirtier pistol-length system.
In the end, the AR-15 pistol offers a lot for the discerning firearms collector and fills a niche that generations of gun buyers have been looking to satisfy. These days, the question is not, “why do I need one?” but more so, “why don’t I have one?”
2. Barrel Profiles
Barrels are designed with different profiles, or essentially, metal thickness. A thick profile means the barrel has the same profile (thickness) from end to end. These barrels are heavier but are also more accurate and take longer to wear down. A thin profile, or pencil profile, is lightweight but may wear out sooner. These can also be referred to as contours. The shape of the barrel may change contours but still perform its duty.
3. Barrel Linings
Wearing out a barrel refers to wearing down the linings. This is the rifling of the barrel. When a barrel heats up and is fired continuously, this can dramatically destroy the lining. Interestingly, just because a thick profile has more material to be more durable, it’s also harder to cool down. Thin profiles heat up faster, but they cool faster.
Barrels are forms in three ways: through cutting, button rifling, and forging. Cut rifling is when a machine cuts each rifle groove one at a time. Button rifling is where a plug is forced from one end of the steel blank barrel to the other end. As it passes through the steel, it creates the grooves. Forging uses a tungsten “negative,” inserted into a steel “blank” as a large machine hammers the steel around the tungsten. This creates the rifling pattern.
4. Bolt Carrier Groups (BCG)
The best part about building or buying an AR pistol is that the bolt carrier groups for them are the same as any AR-15 BCG. The BCG is what needs to be cleaned often. Each component that makes up a BCG is important. The parts include a bolt, ejector, ejector spring, ejector roll pin, extractor, extractor pin, extractor spring, 3 gas rings, bolt carrier, bolt cam pin, bolt carrier key, 2 bolt carrier key screws, firing pin, and firing pin retainer pin.
When the trigger is pulled, the firing pin ignites the primer, and the round takes off. The gas is funneled back into the gas key and down into the BCG. The three gas rings create a chamber by blocking off access to the rest of the group. This forces the bolt carrier back against the recoil spring as the cam pin twists the bolt to let the BCG move rearward. Then it all resets as the cartridge extracts and chambers the next round.
DI vs. Piston Gas Systems
An AR pistol can be built with direct impingement (DI) or new gas piston technology. If you’ve never heard of direct impingement, and you own an AR-15, your rifle was most likely built with this gas system. DI has been tested and proven reliable for years as its the original technology devised by Eugene Stoner. Take a look at your barrel. There should be a small hole located in the barrel that then lines up with the gas tube to direct the gas to impinge on the bolt carrier mechanism. This is what causes gas blowback, but it is how your entire rifle functions. This gas pressure allows the empty cartridge to eject and the next one to seat in the chamber. (This is also why your rifle builds up with carbon).
The gas piston technology is only similar in that the gas is diverted through the barrel, but instead of a gas tube, it’s contained within a cylinder with a piston. The gas moves this piston which performs the ejection process of the spent brass. The bolt carrier is pushed forward by a spring to close. If you own an AK-47, you most likely have a piston system.
You’re probably thinking, what’s better? Well, that depends on what you want to accomplish with the gun. The DI system is more common, which means parts are easy to find and relatively inexpensive. However, the bolt carrier will heat up and needs to cool down before it can be removed from the rifle. Regular cleanings are also recommended.
The piston gas system keeps the rifle’s action cool, meaning the bolt carrier can be removed and held in your hand immediately after firing. This system does increase recoil and can decrease accuracy, especially with multiple shots fired in succession. Lastly, parts are not interchangeable between piston guns, so if you use this system, it’s wise to buy replacement parts simultaneously for that specific gun.
An AR pistol should have an optic that is easy to pick up and use quickly. The last thing you want to mount on this gun is a scope. Red dots will be the most advantageous optic to use in close-quarters combat. While not an optic, another consideration is a laser or a laser/light combination. Lasers have to be sighted in just like any other optic but can allow a person to set the laser on an attacker without ever having to look through an optic. While many defensive situations happen in daylight, many more occur at night. Without an optic, laser, flashlight, or something you can see, aiming will be more difficult in low light.
You must choose a handguard length that makes sense with the length of the barrel you choose. Your hand should never come into contact with or grip your barrel, which is where handguards come in. There are two types of handguards, free-floating and fixed.
A free-floating handguard is directly mounted to the upper receiver. It’s essentially a long tube that never touches the barrel. The accuracy of a barrel can easily be impacted if anything touches or comes in contact with it while firing. That’s what makes the free-floating handguards so popular. They also can be longer than the length of the gas system when using a low-profile gas block, extended the useful area of the guard.
A fixed handguard is usually not so fixed. These handguards are held in place by the delta ring and the plate behind your front sight post. If there’s any wear on the delta ring, these handguards can tend to move around — and even the smallest bit of movement can impact your ballistics.
When it comes to a rail system, you need to envision your setup before making a choice. If your AR pistol needs an optic on top, a backup optic on one side, a laser on another side with a flashlight, you may need a quad rail system to mount everything on it.
For most free-floating handguards, they use either a Picatinny rail, M-Lok, or Key Mod. These are different designs for mounting hardware. Key Mod looks like keyholes, for example, which is how it got its name. One isn’t necessarily better than the other, so much as your optics, lasers, lights, etc., have to match the rail mounting system to be compatible.
7. Muzzle Devices
Muzzle devices are used for a variety of reasons. They can direct gas outward to decrease blowback and recoil. They can act as flash hiders. A quality muzzle device will direct the gas outward evenly to prevent moving the gun in any one direction, giving the shooter the ability to make a more accurate follow-up shot.
A muzzle brake is more commonly used as a gas diverter and to lower felt recoil. Flash hiders were built to reduce the visible signature while firing by cooling the gases that exit the muzzle.
Picking out a trigger is a personal preference and also a skill/safety check. Triggers can come in a two-stage configuration or single stage. A two-stage trigger has two stages – the take-up stage and the wall stage. A single-stage trigger has one consistent pull for the entire trigger pull. Single-stage triggers are used more in competitive landscapes. Because they are so lightly set up, they can cause accidental discharges, especially in high-stress situations.
Again, triggers can also be flat or curved, a personal preference on what feels most natural to you.
9. AR Pistols and the ATF
At any given moment in time, this sentence could become obsolete as the ATF has either tried to or has made laws that affect the legality of AR pistols or their parts. As mentioned earlier, before ever building or buying an AR pistol, you have to go to an FFL to have the serialized lower classified to be used as an AR pistol. This comes with a tax stamp price of $200 as well. How they classify what is a pistol vs. a rifle is barrel length. Any barrel under 16 inches is considered a pistol.
10. Users & Uses
If you’ve never had to clear a house with a rifle, you probably don’t know how tough it is to swing a long, heavy barreled rifle in and out of doors, up staircases, and around rooms. AR pistols are a necessity when it comes to law enforcement and military applications. The maneuverability of them is what makes them so popular. They’re also used for defensive situations, and ranged accuracy matters less in close-quarters combat.
As for civilians, AR pistols make great truck and home defense guns. If you don’t want to pepper your house with a shotgun when an intruder breaks in and shoulder a scattergun’s high recoil, an AR pistol should be your weapon of choice.
The Best AR Pistols Reviewed
1. Palmetto State Armory (Best Value)
Palmetto State is serious about their guns, sourcing the components for them from their vast network, which ensures you get an American-made firearm that is backed with a full lifetime warranty.
The PSA-15 pistol comes in a variety of configurations but the PSA-15 pistols pair 7075-T6 aluminum forged lowers and completed with a MOE EPT lower parts kit and SB Tactical SBA3 Adjustable Brace. A lot of AR possibilities packed into an affordable pistol package.
2. Daniel Defense (Premium Option)
Georgia-based Daniel Defense scored huge gun culture points when their MK18 rifles were adopted for use by groups like the Navy SEALs.
Looking to give the people the closest thing to it without talking to a recruiter, Daniel Defense introduced their DDMK18 pistol in 2015 complete with a RIS II rail system and a 10.3-inch government profile barrel. You almost have to wear a dive mask to shoot this one.
3. Springfield Armory (Most Innovative)
Springfield Armory has long been best known for the semi-auto M1A series M14-style .308 caliber rifles but has recently been branching out into the AR market with their SAINT line which includes a couple of pistols.
This line includes some interesting characters, such as the EVAC, which is a take-down gun a side-folding Tailhook brace.
With its barrel and handguard removed and the brace folded, the largest portion of the handgun is just 18-inches long. Only the old Olympic Arms OA-93, which does not use a buffer tube, is shorter and that is just by an inch.
4. Ruger Firearms (Budget Option)
Featuring a 10.5-inch hammer-forged barrel and an M-LOK free-float aluminum handguard, this affordable AR-pattern handgun checks a lot of boxes for under $1K and has a lot of name recognition.
5. Bravo Company (Also Great)
Announced in 2016, the compact RECCE (rek-eey) series AR-15 pistols by Bravo Company use an enhanced profile barrel with a reliable carbine-length gas system and M4 feed ramps as well as (go figure) lots of BCM accessories for not a lot of cash.
6. Sig Sauer (Modern Brace Option)
No old-school SB15 brace here
Sig can be credited with making the AR pistol mainstream today their top-shelf model is the MPX Canebrake piston gun while the people’s champ is the more practical M400 Tread which comes standard with the more modern Shockwave Blade multi-position brace rather than the now old-school SB15.
Using an 11.5-inch nitride-coated barrel, it is one of the longest such pistols on the market but brings with it a lot of solid performance. Really tough to go wrong with this one.
7. Barrett Firearms (Premium Runner-Up)
In 2017, the company introduced a direct impingement pistol variant that includes a milled billet receiver, advanced trigger, and nickel-boron BCG, proving the adage of “you get what you pay for.”
If I was in the market for the Daniel Defense pistol and didn’t want to wait around, I’d grab a Barrett in a heartbeat.
8. Diamondback Firearms (Budget Runner-Up)
Diamondback jumped into the AR pistol game back in 2013 when it was still a small pond and has since matured into an increasingly larger fish as the pond expanded into a downright lake.
Today, their DB15 line includes pistols in 7.5- and 10-inch formats and with Gearhead Tailhook braces. Further, other than building your own gun or going with an option that uses a polymer lower, it is hard to find an AR-15 pistol anywhere for a better price point.
9. FN Firearms (Also Great)
While Colt popularized the AR-15, it was FN that ran with the design and has been a key government supplier of first the M16A4 and then the M4 for decades.
While Colt popularized the AR-15, it was FN that ran with the design and has been a key government supplier of first the M16A4 and then the M4 for decades.
Also, while Colt hasn’t dipped their toe into the AR pistol pool, FN has embraced it and has been marketing a 10.5-inch chrome-lined model with an SBX-K brace for the past few years.
If the military was looking to buy crates of semi-auto AR pistols, they would probably call FN direct.
AR Pistol History
While the AR-15 series of carbines, a product of Fairchild Aircraft’s ArmaLite subsidiary, have been around since 1957, the AR-style handgun is a much more recent animal. In fact, the AR-15 existed for three decades before a semi-practical version of the gun in pistol format first gained real traction on the consumer market.
While the Gwinn/Bushmaster 5.56mm NATO “Armpistol,” a compact 20-inch-long bullpup handgun that utilized some AR-15 parts, was around back in the early 1970s, its internals were pretty far and away from being that of the Eugene Stoner’s original ArmaLite work.
By 1986, the Australian Automatic Arms Corp, based in Tasmania, was exporting their SAP pistol to the U.S., an AR-15-ish handgun with a fiberglass receiver and forearm along with a 10.5-inch barrel.
An American AR Pistol
The first American-made AR pistols debuted in 1993, the Rocky Mountain Arms Patriot and the Olympic Arms OA93, the latter of which going on to live in gun culture forever as being used the same year by William Dafoe as CIA super spook John Clark in the film Clear and Present Danger.
Unfortunately, the 1994 Federal Assault Weapon Ban largely froze commercial AR-15 development for a decade from 1994 until it expired in 2004.
Expiration of the Federal Ban Helps the Pistol Market
However, once the federal ban went the way of the dinosaurs, the market began to voraciously expand, with the 20 or so AR-15 rifle makers in 2005 growing to over 200 today.
Still, while Olympic Arms rebooted their OA-93 and new pistols such as the Bushmaster Carbon 15P and Hesse HAR-15 began to circulate, it was the initiative of firearms giant Sig Sauer that broke the mold and took the AR-15 handgun mainstream by introducing their P556 in 2009, later adding their P516 to the lineup in 2011.
Then, Sig introduced a serious game-changer.
AR Pistol Braces
In 2013, Sig Sauer debuted their PM400 series AR-15 pistol complete with the SIGTac SB15 Stabilizing Brace billed as being able to “Dramatically improve the single-handed performance of buffer tube equipped pistols.”
Not a Stock, No Paperwork
Patented by Alessandro Bosco of SB-Tactical, the Sig Brace was blessed by the ATF as not being legally a “stock” thus avoiding changing such handguns it was attached to into a short-barreled rifle, which would require a tax stamp and NFA paperwork.
Such arm braces and follow-on models like the KAK Blade, SBA3, Gearhead Tailhook, and others have continued to evolve the AR-15 pistol market, allowing essentially a “poor man’s SBR” without the hassles of extra ATF paperwork.
The Brace Market Explodes
The appeal of these new braced pistols kicked off a surge in demand and by 2019 more than 50 gun makers were cranking out an AR-pattern handgun including big names like ArmaLite, Barrett, Daniel Defense, FN and Wilson Combat.
Nonetheless, keep in mind that AR pistols using just a buffer tube padded with just a simple foam sleeve or neoprene sock can still provide a decent cheek weld without having to be further supported except by the hands– while shaving a few inches overall length by not including a brace.
It is a solid shooting method for these guns that can prove very effective with practice but one that too many shooters, used to handling the AR-15 as a rifle and seeking firm shoulder support from a stock, fail to try.
While AR pistols offer a lot of upsides, they’re designed to play a specific role in the firearms world. This means that they are better for certain applications than others.
Lack of ranged performance: a pistol being a pistol, you’re certainly not going to get accuracy much beyond 100-yards (or possibly a little more). If you want to reach out to 200, 300 yards or more you’re better off picking up an AR-15 or bolt action rifle to get truly long-ranged performance.
Limited calibers: most rifle-caliber cartridges weren’t designed for the short-barreled world of AR pistols, which means they don’t achieve optimal ballistic performance in pistol-length barrels. Some calibers are designed specifically for short-barreled performance (see: the .300 Blackout) but you simply won’t get the same breadth of caliber options with an AR pistol as you will with rifles.
ATF Complications: the pistol brace is not without its fair share of controversy. The ATF has signaled to revisit the issue of brace legality, without actually changing policy or position. This inconsistency can make it hard for people to determine if they’re on the wrong side of ATF policies, which makes navigating the world of AR pistols even more complicated than other firearms. Far too many potential AR pistol owners jettison their research before gathering everything they need to make a purchase decision. Also, once you have an AR pistol registered with the ATF, that configuration is semi-permanent. There is no swapping out lowers out once that lower is registered as a pistol. You’ve got a pistol for life.
- ATF, Gun Control Act Definition – Pistol
- Congress.gov, 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban
- ATF, Rifles Configured from Pistols
- The Trace, Why the ATF canceled its review of Pistol Stabilizing Braces, March 30, 2021
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