Are Pistol Conversion Kits Legal?
As Independent Program Attorneys for U.S. LawShield, the lawyers at Walker & Byington, PLLC receive all sorts of questions about modifying firearms. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for people to already be in violation of the law by the time they call us.
One recent trend is the installation of a “pistol carbine conversion kit.” Can you drop your handgun into one of these pistol kits legally, or are you potentially violating the law? First, we have to understand what exactly is regulated, and what isn’t, before learning about how the conversions work.
There are types of firearms that are regulated by the National Firearms Act. These regulations prohibit an individual from possessing certain types of firearms without first registering that item with the ATF and paying the appropriate tax. Commonly used handguns and rifles are not governed by the NFA; short-barreled rifles, however, are regulated. In other words, short-barreled rifles require registration with the ATF and a tax to be paid, while handguns and rifles do not. What’s the difference between a handgun, a rifle, and a short-barreled rifle?
These three firearm terms are defined under federal law in 27 CFR 478.11. A handgun is any firearm which has a short stock and is designed to be held and fired by the use of a single hand (while many of us use a second hand for safety or additional control, this is not considered to be firing with two hands). Conversely, a rifle is defined as a weapon designed or redesigned, made or remade, and intended to be fired from the shoulder.
A short-barreled rifle is any rifle, or any weapon made from a rifle, with one or more barrels less than 16 inches in length, or the overall length of the rifle is less than 26 inches. This overall length includes any collapsible or folding stocks at full extension, and is measured from the extreme ends of the rifle. The exception is if the stock is easily detachable, in which case it is measured without the stock.
So, to determine what kind of item you have, ask yourself the following questions:
- Is it designed to be held and fired by the use of a single hand? If yes, then you have a handgun. If not, go on to question 2.
- Is it designed or redesigned, made or remade, and intended to be fired from the shoulder? If yes, go on to question 3.
- Does the barrel measure at least 16 inches in length? If not, you have a short-barreled rifle. If yes, go on to question 4.
- Does the item have at least an overall length of 26 inches? If not, you have a short-barreled rifle. If yes, you have a rifle.
Now that we have those definitions out of the way, let’s look at how these conversions play out.
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Rifle to SBR
If you turn your rifle into a short-barreled rifle, you have committed a crime unless you received ATF approval and paid the appropriate tax. So, unless you’ve gotten your tax stamp from the ATF, don’t saw off your barrel or stock if it is shortens the overall length under 26 inches.
Handgun to SBR
If you take your handgun and turn it into an item that is designed to be fired from the shoulder, and it doesn’t meet the 16-inch-barrel-length requirement or 26-inch overall-length requirement, you have created an item that meets the definition of a short-barreled rifle. This item will need to be registered with the ATF and have a tax paid before conversion, just like the rifle to short-barreled rifle conversion.
Pistol to rifle conversion
This is a perfectly legal transition to make, that requires no NFA compliance or registration. You are simply moving from one non-NFA firearm to another.
Rifle to Pistol
Think this is another legal conversion? Think again! This creates a short-barreled rifle, and requires prior approval by the ATF and a tax paid. Why? Because of the pesky definition of a short-barreled rifle. It includes any weapon made from a rifle, that doesn’t meet the 26 inches overall or a 16-inch barrel length. Therefore, if you take your rifle down to handgun size, you’ve created a short-barreled rifle!
Pistol to Rifle to Handgun
We know that handgun to rifle is legal; and we just saw that taking a rifle to a handgun (which is actually an SBR) is regulated. What happens if you turn your handgun into a rifle, then back into a handgun? Nothing, it’s perfectly legal! These can seem confusing for good reason, but the ATF clarified why they have taken this stance.
Ultimately, the weapon was born into the world as a handgun; it was then modified into a rifle, and back into a handgun. Therefore, it isn’t a weapon “made from a rifle,” but is instead originally a handgun. Even if this doesn’t make sense, just remember that how a weapon is born into the world matters. If it’s born as a handgun, you can turn it into a rifle and then back into a handgun. If it’s born as a rifle, turning it into a handgun creates an NFA-regulated item.
Honorable Mention: Handgun to AOW
One final wrench to throw in the works: What happens if you add a vertical foregrip to a handgun? We know the definition of a handgun is a weapon designed to be fired with a single hand, and that a rifle is designed to be fired from the shoulder. However, this item is not designed to be fired with one hand, as it has a foregrip, and is now designed to be fired with two! It isn’t a rifle, because it isn’t designed to be fired from the shoulder either.
So what exactly is this Frankenfirearm? Per the ATF, it is considered an “Any Other Weapon” or AOW that must be registered with the ATF and have the appropriate tax paid.
TCM Roni conversion kit
Now that we are all masters on conversions, let’s look at a real-life example: the TCM Roni Pistol Shell. This Roni conversion kit allows you to open a compartment, drop your pistol in, close the compartment, and essentially finish conversion. The overall length of the item is 22 inches with the shoulder stock extended, and the barrel is just a few inches long. If you put your pistol in this roni kit and close the compartment, you have created an item that meets the definition of a short-barreled rifle, and you are committing a crime if you haven’t previously registered the item with the ATF and paid the appropriate tax.
Accordingly, there is a warning on the TCM Roni Pistol Shell purchase page that a pistol, if converted, becomes a short-barreled rifle.
Compare this to the Glock Roni Civilian Pistol Carbine conversion kit, with a 16-inch barrel and 27 inches in overall length. This would be perfectly legal!
The world of firearm conversions can become convoluted and in it, you can potentially incur criminal consequences — so make sure you know what the law is before converting your firearm!
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Since this article was written (2017), RONI has come up with a conversion that has a stabilizer brace instead of a shoulder stock. With this design, would it still be considered a SBR?
This is a great question. If you’re a member, please call our non-emergency line to get an answer from an independent program attorney at 877-448-6839.