May 25, 2017
I'm not sure when the first AR-15 pistol was built, but it was at least 25 years ago. However, AR-15 pistols for most of their existence were never more than a niche item. That odd buffer tube sticking out the back like a vestigial tail helped make them unpopular.
AR-15 pistols take a classic that is beautiful in its efficiency and make it ugly and awkward and embarrassing — they are the Die Hard 2 of firearms. Or rather, they were.
Everything changed in 2013. In that year, SIG (www.sigsauer.com) brought to market the SB15 PSB, "pistol stabilizing brace", and it shook the foundations of what people thought they knew about the utility of AR-15 pistols. That earthquake started in the internet forums and by now has made its way into just about every gun shop in America.
SIG didn't design the SB15, or even make it, they just sold it in partnership with SB Tactical (www.sb-tactical.com).
The brace was designed by Alex Bosco in 2012 after a trip to the range with a disabled veteran friend who only had the use of one arm. The veteran was trying to shoot an AR-15 pistol and having so little success they were asked to leave the range.
Bosco, a Marine Corps veteran, thought he could design something to help his friend shoot better, and the SB15 was born. The SB15 was and still is manufactured by SB Tactical, which in 2015 began selling directly to consumers.
The original arm brace is a rubber piece that slid over an AR-15 pistol's buffer tube. The shooter's arm slides through a cuff, and there is a strap to tighten the cuff around the shooter's forearm. Bosco sent the prototype of his initial design to the BATFE, and the ATF approval letter that was provided by SIG with every SB15 sold was the letter sent to Bosco, with his name at the top whited out.
The ATF approval letter states that installing this product on your pistol does not change the legal definition of the firearm — it remains a pistol.
What galvanized the attention of the American gun owner was how this brace resembled a stock in profile. Shooters had already been modifying their pistols, wrapping the buffer tubes in 550 cord or putting rubber cane tips on the end, but the brace took that to a whole other level.
And shooters quickly discovered that using one of these braces in a manner not intended by the designer suddenly turned awkward AR-15 pistols into ersatz SBRs both in appearance and functionality (more on that at the end of this article).
Ignoring the shooting side of the equation, AR-15 pistols have a lot to recommend them when compared to SBRs — they're easier and cheaper to obtain, and you don't need to file special paperwork to transport them across state lines.
And no matter what they look like, legally they are still pistols. Hmmâ€¦they look like one thing, but are another. I guess that makes AR pistols with arm braces the first transgender firearms.
Today, it's hard to find an AR manufacturer that doesn't offer a pistol version of its own. SB Tactical is now just the first, not the only, pistol brace manufacturer. And the number of pistol arm braces on the market has grown from AR versions to those designed to fit AKs, CZ Scorpion EVOs, the KRISS Vector, HK MP5s, and other firearm platforms.
SB Tactical is the original brace company, and been making the SB15 brace since day one. SB Tactical continues to sell braces to SIG and other companies as the OEM (original equipment manufacturer), and being first out of the gate, they have the largest selection of products. Every one of them has been approved by the BATFE before being offered for sale.
The SB15 is the first brace, and as such it is the biggest and the bulkiest — but is better than any other design in working as an arm brace. The rubber wings to go around the shooter's forearm are curved for comfort, so as a result, this brace is one of the widest.
Not long after SIG started selling the SB15 for ARs, Century Arms began selling the SB47 — a very similar rubber brace, made by SB Tactical, mounted on an adapter for use on AK pistols. The SB47 features two Velcro straps to secure the brace to the shooter's forearm.
When using one of these braces as intended, you will find that you often must hold the firearm at an odd angle to see the sights, but it is very securely mounted to your arm. If you only have the use of one arm, this brace will allow you to shoot a "long gun handgun" much more safely and accurately.
As great and innovative as the SB15 was and is, however, there are always those people who aren't satisfied. They complained that it was big and bulky and heavy, and so the SBX was born.
Originally intended for use on the SIG MPX, the SBX has a reduced, streamlined profile. It still slips over the buffer tube, is made of rubber, and has a strap to tighten the brace over the shooter's forearm.
To mount the SB47 to the AK or any other firearm that does not need or use a buffer tube requires the brace to be mounted on a buffer tube-like receiver extension. You may even need an adapter between the tube and receiver. The ATF expressed no problem with this.
The rush was then on, and adapters to fit these braces to other types of guns started popping up. CZ offered an adapter and tube made by KAK Industry for their Scorpion EVO pistol which accepted PSBs. Several companies came out with different adapters to fit buffer tubes on the back of HK MP5-pattern pistols.
While SB Tactical braces have wide variations in design, they all function the same. The rubber rear portion has two wings and a strap. Slip the hand through the rubber wings and tighten the strap down over the forearm.
The big news about 18 months ago was that SB Tactical was designing both a folding brace and a collapsible model for the SIG MPX. A length-adjustable model only makes sense, as people have different length forearms, but an adjustable brace flew in the face of the people who were sure the AR-15 pistol brace's days were numbered.
The ATF approved that brace design, the MPX PSB, which also fits the SIG MCX and is available now. It was only the first adjustable-length brace offered by a manufacturer, not the last.
SB Tactical came out with several new pistol brace designs last year, specifically styled to fit and look good on various firearm platforms. There are four different models specifically designed for MP5s, two that in profile resemble fixed MP5 stocks, two that are skeletonized and fold to the side and resemble the famous folding MP5K stock made by Bruegger & Thomet.
I have the SBT5K on my Zenith MP5K clone, and with it installed, the pistol very much resembles the storied MP5K PDW — although I can't install the K's original vertical foregrip. Vertical foregrips on pistols are verboten according to the ATF, although angled foregrips are okay.
SB Tactical's SBM4 model is designed to mimic a standard AR-15 M4 stock in profile. It also came out with the SOB model (Son of Brace), a slimmer version of the original SB15 that looks like a traditional skeletonized stock in profile. Versions of these braces are available for AKs as well — the SBM47 and the SOB47.
SB Tactical has a model designed to look good on the KRISS Vector pistol, and people have found it looks nice on other pistols as well, such as the CZ Scorpion EVO. SB Tactical also has a new PDW-styled brace. As it was designed closely in partnership with Maxim Defense, I'll provide the details below.
PDW stocks are the new hot thing for ARs. Featuring shorter than usual buffer tubes and collapsible buttstocks, they take the AR-15 envelope and make it even shorter. Brand new on the market are adjustable-length braces styled like PDW stocks.
Maxim Defense (www.maximdefense.com) is well known for its CQB Stock. This is a nicely made PDW-style stock with a short buffer tube and multiple sling swivel attachment points. They are now offering two pistol brace versions of this stock.
The first has been made in partnership with SB Tactical, the CQB Pistol PDW Brace. After testing this brace for several weeks, I'm convinced it is the best pistol brace on the market — but then again it better be, for a starting price of $395.
The Maxim Defense CQB Pistol PDW Brace features a shorter than Mil-Spec fluted buffer tube that extends 5.375 inches from the receiver. Because the buffer tube is shorter than standard, it comes with a special shorter and lighter buffer as well as a stronger buffer spring. It works with a standard bolt carrier. If you want to upgrade this brace, Maxim Defense offers it in FDE for an additional $40, or with a silent captured spring system with variable weights The MSRP can rise as high as $550.
The aluminum housing that mates the brace to the lower receiver has QD sockets on either side, and in fact the housing and buffer tube on the pistol brace are identical to what is found on Maxim's CQB Stock.
The only difference is that instead of an aluminum buttstock, the pistol brace features a rubber SB Tactical brace with tensioning Velcro strap, styled to look very much like the CQB Stock.
Closed, the brace extends only 5.5 inches from the rear of the receiver, and unlike side-folding AR adapters, the pistol can be fired with the brace totally collapsed.
The brace rides on two steel rods and locks in the closed and open positions. There is also a third locking position in the middle. Length is adjusted using a serrated button on the bottom of the aluminum housing. When fully extended, the rear of the brace is 9.25 inches from the rear of the receiver.
If at some point, you want to Form 1 your pistol and turn it into an SBR, all you have to do is buy the buttstock portion of the CQB Stock and swap it for the brace, which can be done in five seconds using only your fingers.
Maxim's other pistol brace is the CQB Pistol EXC. It is basically the PDW stock with the bottom two-thirds of the adjustable aluminum buttstock removed.
The adjustable extension, which isn't much bigger than the buffer tube, is meant to be placed against the shooter's cheek for an extra point of contact. Apart from the slider at the rear, this unit is identical to the CQB Stock and the PDW Brace, and priced identically.
SB Tactical has its own PDW-style brace based on the Maxim Defense stock, the SBPDW. If you don't want to spend the money for the Maxim Defense but like the looks of a PDW-style brace, this might be the one for you. Suggested retail is $299.99, and add $20 if you want an FDE unit.
The SBPDW features a full-length buffer tube, so it uses a standard buffer and spring. It is smooth, so it doesn't look as sexy as the fluted Maxim Defense unit. The aluminum housing does not feature QD sockets on the sides but rather one on the underside.
The rubber brace on the end of the SBPDW is the same as found on the Maxim Defense unit, and it is three position-adjustable, but because the buffer tube is longer, the collapsed length is different. Closed, the back of the brace is 6.75 inches from the rear of the receiver. At full extension, that stretches to 9.25 inches, the same as the Maxim unit.
None of these PDW-style braces, with their aluminum, rubber, and steel construction, are light, or inexpensive, but they offer the ultimate in compactness and adjustability.
The main complaint about the original pistol arm brace, the SB15, didn't have to do with its function but rather its size and weight. It was wide and relatively heavy at 12 ounces, heavier than several polymer stocks on the market.
Enter the Blade, from Shockwave Technologies (www.shockwavetechnologies.com).
The original prototype was rubber, but current production models are made of high strength glass-reinforced polymer and weigh just 5 ounces. From the side, the Blade has a profile like an AR stock's. In fact, from the side it resembles the MagPul SL stock. Viewed from the rear, it is clear where the name Blade originated.
Below the buffer tube, this brace is but a flat quarter-inch-thick piece of polymer that extends a total 3.75 inches from the bottom of the tube. The Blade has several slots for mounting slings. It is designed to fit standard buffer tubes up to 1.25 inches in diameter and is offered in black, FDE, OD green and gray.
This flat piece is referred to as a "vertical fin." It is designed to press against the inside of the shooter's forearm during shooting, providing more stability. Or the top of the unit can be pressed against the shooter's cheek.
The Blade has a set screw to keep it from sliding on the buffer tube. Because some users have overtightened the set screw, causing the buffer tube to deform and interfere with the travel of the buffer/spring, the Blade is often sold with the KAK Industry Shockwave buffer tube, which features multiple dimples for the set screw. The dimples allow the user to adjust the distance between the Blade and the receiver.
One reason for the Shockwave Blade's popularity is price — just $42.95 for the blade alone, which is less than a third of the cost of the cheapest SB Tactical product. While it is offered in different colors, there is only one model of the Blade, and it has been approved by the ATF for use on pistols. I've seen them mounted on AR-15s, MP5 clones, and everything in-between.
Gear Head Works
The Tailhook is the newest pistol brace on the market from Gear Head Works (www.gearheadworks.com). Anyone who has ever tried to shoot a long gun-based handgun with one hand knows that they can get very heavy, especially at the muzzle end. The Tailhook was designed to address that problem.
The Tailhook MOD 1 should be available by the time you're reading this, and GHW has an ATF approval letter for the design. It's a simple oval, machined from billet aluminum so it is strong even though it is only an inch front to back.
The top of that oval clamps to the end of your pistol's buffer tube (tubes 1.17â€“1.2 inches). There is a button at the top of the oval, and pushing it lets one arm of that oval swing down. That arm then supports the shooter's firing hand to counterbalance the weight of the pistol.
The Tailhook is reversible, so the arm can swing down either to the right or the left, shooter's choice. It also features a limited rotation QD socket for mounting a sling.
As a brace, the Tailhook is an even more streamlined design than the Shockwave Blade, and at 4.5 ounces, weighs less. Suggested retail is $119, but that does not include a buffer tube.
Gear Head Works has plans to introduce the Tailhook MOD 2 later this year, which will be injection molded polymer and five-position adjustable for length. The entire package, including a proprietary receiver extension, is expected to sell for $199.
The stabilizing brace reinvigorated the small and stagnant AR-15 pistol, and the success of the brace has energized accessory manufacturers as well.
For example, at the time of the introduction of the SB15, only a few companies made pistol buffer tubes. One of the most well regarded was the fluted model from Rock River Arms, because it looked good and was really sturdy.
However, arm braces are designed to slide over buffer tubes, so those tubes need to be near a certain diameter (roughly 1.2"). The RRA buffer tube was a bit thick.
When I was testing a CMMG 9mm AR pistol a few years ago I discovered the OD of their buffer tube was so narrow the SB15 spun around on it. CMMG very shortly thereafter enlarged the outside diameter of their pistol buffer tube to properly fit these arm braces, that should tell you how many long-gun based handgun owners are now mounting braces on their firearms.
If you search "pistol buffer tube" on Brownells' website right now (www.brownells.com) you'll get 82 results, a far cry from the handful available prior to the introduction of the arm brace. A product that didn't even exist before the invention of the stabilizing brace is the pistol buffer tube with a shoulder to adjust the standoff of the brace from the receiver.
I've used such tubes from KAK Industry and Phase 5, two small companies that have seen great success by recognizing the inherent possibilities of PSBs.
Time On Target
Over the past few years, I've spent a lot of time behind brace-equipped pistols. I personally own an SB Tactical SB15, SBX, SB47, SBT5K, Maxim Defense PSB Brace, and a Shockwave Blade, most of them currently mounted on personally owned pistols including several ARs, a CZ Scorpion EVO, Zenith Z-5K, and a Century Arms Zastava PAP M85NP (5.56 AK fed by AR magazines). So, as they say, I know whereof I speak.
Of all the SB Tactical braces, I've found the original SB15 the most comfortable and functional when strapped to my forearm. Users sacrifice a little comfort for improved styling on the newer models. You'll have more Velcro strap and less rubber hugging your forearm on the new designs.
When it comes to shooting these pistols, using the braces as intended, the SB Tactical products provide much more stability than the Shockwave Blade. The SB Tactical braces straps to the shooter's forearm, compared to the Blade, that just presses against the inside of the forearm. The original design of the Blade also featured a strap, but that was discarded by the manufacturer some time ago.
Back before the ATF penned its Open Letter in 2015 stating firing one of these brace-equipped pistols from the shoulder redesigns the pistol into an NFA item (which would be a federal felony without the proper paperwork), I spent a lot of time shooting a pistol mounting a Shockwave Blade from the shoulder. For that it works great, if it's not on a hard-recoiling pistol. Then you might find the narrow blade a bit uncomfortable, but on 9mms and .223s it worked very well.
The Tailhook is so new that I have not had a chance to try one. I do know that long-gun handguns can get very heavy, especially muzzle heavy, and the Tailhook's design seems to be a very good solution to that. However, because the Tailhook does not actually attach to the shooter's arm, when the handgun is fired and the muzzle rises, the Tailhook will drop off the shooter's forearm. How much will of course depend on the pistol, and how much this affects its functionality is still to be determined.
I had no personal experience with PDW-style stocks, and was curious about the reliability of a shorter buffer tube and non-standard buffer and spring weights. So, I used the Maxim Defense PDW Brace in a new pistol build. The Maxim Defense unit went on an Anderson Manufacturing lower receiver, paired with a new 11.5-inch BCM top end with KMR Alpha handguard.
When installed, this brace is rock solid on the receiver, and the button to adjust the length works very well. I'm very impressed with the quality and design of the Maxim, although my eyes still pop a little at the $395 price tag.
The buffer spring is noticeably stiffer, but at the range I have not had any problems with the new pistol. In fact, it is now my new current favorite AR pistol, and I just took it with me on a cross country trip filming the next season of Handguns & Defensive Weapons for The Sportsman Channel. I'll detail this pistol at length in an upcoming article on short barrel ballistics.
Where We Are Now
The original brace got approved by the BATFE during the previous administration, which on a good day held the American gun owner in contempt. The glass-half-empty types have been all over the forums taking bets on when the ATF would change its mind and outlaw pistol arm braces.
That has not happened; in fact, the opposite seems to have occurred (see sidebar on the ATF partially reversing its opinion on shouldering). So, the likelihood of these types of pistol arm braces disappearing is very rapidly descending towards zero.
The pistol brace train keeps on a'rollin.
In the past year, the number and type of pistol braces being offered, all approved by the BATFE, has exploded. The number of gun companies offering AR pistols equipped at time of purchase with some brand or type of brace has skyrocketed. In addition to that we now have a new administration which seems to be very pro-gun.
As a product, they are still in their infancy. Designs are changing and improving, new manufacturers are jumping on the bandwagon, and some members of the general gun-buying public still aren't yet aware they exist. And at least one patent infringement lawsuit is in process.
But the genie is out of the bottle, and the firearms landscape has been permanently changed.