SHERIFF'S CORNER: Rifles, carbines and pistols

Lake County Sheriff Rich Martin

Lake County Sheriff Rich Martin

Courtesy of Lake County Sheriff's Office

With rifle hunting season in full force, I decided to discuss a little bit about rifles. 

Let’s talk about terms.

Rifles, carbines and pistols are all terms used to describe AR-15s and other firearms that are similar. Some of these terms have legal definitions and mean something under federal and/or state law, some of them are just terms used to describe a firearm.

In this edition of the "Sheriff's Corner," I describe the difference between rifles, carbines and pistols, and the possible change in definitions. 

(Note: The intention of this article is not on the acceptance or nonacceptance of any particular rifle or firearm. This is for informational purposes ONLY and to advise of a policy, law or legal status change.)

Carbine, as the example, just means a shorter rifle and has no legal definition you have to be worried about. If something is said to be a carbine, there is probably a longer version of it. The M16 service rifle and the M4 service carbine are good examples, the M4 is a shortened M16. 

Rifle and carbine are often used very interchangeably. You can say rifle or carbine and probably be right, but only rifles have a legal definition. 

The term “rifle” 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 the explosive in a fixed metallic cartridge to fire only a single projectile through a rifled bore for each single pull of the trigger. — Gun Control Act of 1968 (GCA)

(On a side note, a common misconception is that "AR" in AR-15 is an acronym for "assault rifle." The "AR" in AR-15 stands for "ArmaLite Rifle." The original ArmaLite AR-15 is the original patent of the then-Fairchild Engine and Airplane Corporation Division. ArmaLite sold the patent and trademarks to Colt's Manufacturing Company in 1959. After most of Colt's patents for the Colt AR-15 expired in 1977, many firearm manufacturers began to produce copies of the Colt AR-15 under various names. While the patents are expired, Colt retained the trademark of the AR-15 and is the sole manufacturer able to label their firearms as AR-15.)

There is very likely going to be a policy change in December from the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) that affects AR style pistols and changes what they legally are. For anyone who owns one, this might involve some paperwork online with the ATF to change your AR style pistol into a Short Barreled Rifle (SBR). The paperwork involved is an ATF E-Form 1, completed online. After it is complete and approved2, you can put a regular stock on your pistol and any grips, or sights or lights you want.

This federal change won’t change whether the state of Michigan considers it a pistol or not, if it was sold to you as a pistol with an RI-060 card (pistol sales record form) it will still be a pistol in Michigan’s registry. If you built one as a pistol then filled out and dropped off the RI-060 card, it will still be a pistol in the registry. An engraver must add a new small manufacturing mark to the firearm, as well. Rules for that mark can be found online by searching "making an SBR" or "marking an SBR."


Why the confusion in all of this? First, the federal and state laws do not say the same things on defining what a pistol is. They are very differently worded. 

Federal law, the GCA, says: The term “Pistol” means a weapon originally designed, made, and intended to fire a projectile (bullet) from one or more barrels when held in one hand, and having:

  • A chamber(s) as an integral part(s) of, or permanently aligned with, the bore(s); and
  • A short stock designed to be gripped by one hand at an angle to and extending below the line of the bore(s).

Michigan law, PA of 1931 Section 750.222, says, "Pistol" means a loaded or unloaded firearm that is 26 inches or less in length, or a loaded or unloaded firearm that by its construction and appearance conceals itself as a firearm.

In short, the state of Michigan cares about how short the gun is while the federal government cares about how it was built.

With a rifle, the federal government does care how short it is. Is it a rifle or a short barreled rifle? Michigan goes by the definition of what the federal government says it is, but will also want to know if it is short enough to be a pistol under Michigan’s definition.

The condensed version of defining a rifle, combining multiple laws:

It has a shoulder stock. It has a rifled barrel that is 16 inches or longer. Its total length is 26 inches or longer. That is a rifle. The ATF defines a rifle as a Title I firearm. Pistols and shotguns are also Title I firearms, as are receivers and frames to make a pistol, rifle, or shotgun. You can think of Title I guns as “normal” guns.

When referring to the barrel, it does not have to be rifled barrel length. The barrel can include anything that is permanently attached to the barrel that makes it longer, flash hiders or barrel shrouds that increase the length but are permanently attached to the barrel count in the length for both the federal and state of Michigan measurements. Anything that is not permanently attached to the barrel is not considered in the barrel length.

If the rifle’s barrel is less than 16 inches long and/or the total length of the rifle is less than 26 inches it will be a Short Barreled Rifle (SBR). The ATF calls a short barreled rifle a Title II firearm. Title II is then under the additional rules of the National Firearms Act of 1934. Title II Firearms, under that National Firearms Act, include short barreled rifles, short barreled shotguns, machine guns, silencers/suppressors, and AOWs (Any Other Weapon).

Is a short barreled rifle a Michigan pistol also? If the SBR at its shortest length is under 26 inches it is a pistol in Michigan and those rules, including an RI-060 and CPL, apply to the SBR. Be aware that this length is not the same length as the federal government measures. 

The federal government measures a gun at its longest while Michigan measures it at its shortest. AR-15’s and similar rifles often have adjustable length stocks and/or folding ones. The federal government wants the stock all the way extended to measure the length, Michigan wants it all the way shortened and/or folded to the firearm’s shortest length.


The rule change we are likely to see in December, from the ATF, will mean that many AR style pistols, which are Title I firearms like normal rifles and handguns, turn into Title II firearms and are short barreled rifles, especially so if they are wearing the popular pistol braces.

What is the difference between a stock and a pistol brace? A stock is specifically designed to be braced against the shoulder. A pistol brace is designed to stabilize against your arm, specifically your forearm, and allow you to shoot the pistol one handed easier. 

If you think that a stock being braced against your shoulder, which is part of your arm, and a pistol brace bracing against your arm sound similar, you aren’t wrong. Many owners have used the brace on different parts of their arms other than the forearm and not shot their AR pistols with one hand either. Most people don’t shoot regular pistols one handed, they use two because it is easier, safer, and more accurate. 

Easier, safer, and more accurate, do not make it into the legal rules and definitions though. The ATF and Michigan work from those legal rules and definitions, many of which do not precisely fit a given situation.

Pistol braces are one such item that doesn’t fit well into the current federal rules, that is why this rule change from the ATF is likely coming next month. There will be a process and directions for the paperwork, and it will probably not cost you anything. Normally a Title II firearm is taxed $200 when you make it or buy it. But because the ATF is changing the definitions of already owned firearms and you are not buying or building one it is expected that this will be free.

— This information is provided to you for clarification on specific laws, and not legal advice. This is not to be construed as a personal opinion, agreement or disagreement of any specific law. Topics covered are for educational and informational purposes only. As needed, excerpts from other articles are used for reference and/or content. Until final publication on any rule is issued from the ATF, the specific process, definitions, and any costs will not be confirmed.  If you have any questions on any specific topic, you may always email me your questions to