Who makes the best AR pistol?
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.
Nonetheless, if you keep a few things in mind, the choices soon become easy.
Quick List: The Top AR Pistol Brands
1. Palmetto State Armory
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
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
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
Running about the same price as a DB15 pistol but with an SB Tactical brace is Ruger’s AR556 pistol.
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
Announced in 2016, the compact RECCE 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
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
Tennessee-based Barrett won their laurels with .50 BMG precision rifles and followed it up with a line of very nice REC7 series ARs.
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.”
8. Diamondback Firearms
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
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.
Why a pistol AR?
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.
Shorter Barrels Win Favor
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.
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.
Optimal Barrel Lengths
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.
They’re fantastic performers in tight quarters and as truck guns.
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.
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?”
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