Tech Spec: V20N4

By Rick Vasquez

Shotgun VS. Firearm


Certain commercially-produced pistol-grip shotguns and firearms made from a shotgun receiver with butt extensions, do not fall within the definition of a “shotgun” under the National Firearms Act (NFA) or Gun Control Act (GCA). These smooth-bored firearms, designed to fire shotgun shells, are made with pistol-grips in lieu of buttstocks, and are not “shotguns” under the NFA or GCA. This analysis and conclusion is because they are not made from a system designed or intended to be fired from the shoulder. Provided that the overall length remains at least 26 inches, the length of the weapon’s barrel is immaterial. Such weapons are classified simply as “firearms” and are subject to all of the provisions of the GCA.

Under current law, if a person has a pistol grip firearm with a smooth bored barrel over 18 inches in length and an overall length exceeding 26”, that person can legally reduce the barrel length of a pistol-grip firearm to less than 18 inches. This modification cannot result in a firearm with an overall length of less than 26 inches. However, a shotgun that once had a buttstock attached but had the barrel shortened to less than 18 inches and a pistol grip added will be classified as an NFA firearm. A shotgun, having been designed and manufactured to be fired from the shoulder, having a barrel length of less than 18 inches, requires classification as a “weapon made from a shotgun.”

Regulations and statutes pertaining:

This classification is confusing, and it is important to understand the regulations to determine how the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) reached this classification. Especially since the design for the SIG Arm Brace, that is now being attached to shotgun receivers that appear to be “AOWs” or “weapons made from a shotgun”. According to the GCA, the term “shotgun” 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 an explosive to fire through a smooth bore either a number of ball shot or a single projectile for each single pull of the trigger. Additionally, under the definition of firearm 921(a) (4)(B), the term “destructive device”(DD); any type of weapon (other than a shotgun or a shotgun shell which the Attorney General finds is generally recognized as particularly suitable for sporting purposes) by whatever name known which will, or which may be readily converted to, expel a projectile by the action of an explosive or other propellant, and which has any barrel with a bore of more than one-half inch in diameter. Therefore, a pistol grip firearm designed to fire shotgun shells with a bore larger than .50 caliber could not be classified as shotgun because it would have to be classified as a DD.

It is also important to note that the pistol grip firearm is not defined in the GCA or the NFA. So how did this firearm get a classification in which it would be a GCA firearm and not a DD? Simple, it was an ATF counsel opinion that pistol grip firearms designed without a buttstock, though not classified as shotguns and having a bore larger than .50 caliber, would be considered
sporting firearms.

Definitions that would apply under the National Firearms Act if this firearm were classified as a shotgun:

As defined in the NFA, 26 U.S.C. Section 5845(a), the term “firearm” includes:
(1) a shotgun having a barrel or barrels of less than 18 inches in length;
(2) a weapon made from a shotgun if such weapon as modified has an overall length of less than 26 inches or a barrel or barrels of less than 18 inches in length;
(3) a rifle having a barrel or barrels of less than 16 inches in length;
(4) a weapon made from a rifle if such weapon as modified has an overall length of less than 26 inches or a barrel or barrels of less than 16 inches in length;
(5) any other weapon, as defined in subsection (e);

The term “any other weapon” (AOW) as defined in Section 5845(e) includes any weapon or device capable of being concealed on the person from which a shot can be discharged through the energy of an explosive. In terms of AOWs, ATF has a longstanding policy setting an overall minimum length of 26 inches as the determining factor on whether a weapon (other than a pistol or revolver) is capable of being concealed on a person. No such policy has been established for a minimum length standard on a barrel even though 18 inches exists as the standard for barrels elsewhere in the NFA.

It has been determined that a firearm that has never had a buttstock attached—and has only been assembled and distributed as a pistol-grip firearm, designed to fire a shotgun shell, can never be classified as a “short-barreled shotgun” or “weapon made from a shotgun,” regardless of the modifications performed. However, this pistol-grip firearm would be properly classified as an AOW if the overall length is reduced to less than 26 inches. If only the barrel were reduced below 18 inches in length, but the overall length remained more than 26 inches, it would remain only a GCA firearm, and not an NFA firearm. Conversely, a pistol-grip shotgun that, at some point, had a buttstock attached, is properly classified as a “weapon made from a shotgun” when either the overall length falls below 26 inches or the barrel length falls below 18 inches. This creates a situation in which legal possession of a firearm depends only upon whether that firearm has ever had a buttstock attached. See below.

Description: Weapon originally manufactured with a pistol-grip in lieu of a buttstock
Barrel Length: 17 inches
Overall Length: 27.5 inches
Classification: GCA “Firearm,” not an NFA firearm, despite the 17-inch barrel

Description: Shotgun originally manufactured with a buttstock. The buttstock has been removed, a pistol grip added and barrel length reduced.
Barrel Length: 17 inches
Overall Length: 27.5 inches
Classification: NFA “Weapon Made from a Shotgun” (barrel less than 18”)

Firearms designed to fire a shotgun shell that utilizes a SIG Arm brace:

Enter the SIG Arm Brace. When you first view a firearm designed to fire shotgun shells with a SIG Arm Brace and a short barrel, you immediately scream, “How is it legal?” and “Why is it not an AOW?” The definitions in the GCA, NFA and regulations have been laid out to explain this final classification.

To manufacture this firearm so it will be regulated only by the GCA it can be accomplished as follows, in this order:

1. Start with a receiver that has never been a firearm.
2. Attach an extension to the rear of the firearm receiver to mount a SIG Arm Brace.
3. Attach a SIG Arm Brace.
4. Assemble a firearm designed to fire a shotgun shell with an extension on the receiver and an 8.5 inch to 17 inch long barrel.

The combination results in a firearm designed to fire shotgun shells with an overall length over 26 inches, not designed to be fired from the shoulder, and barrel of 8.5 inches (or other length between 8.5 and 17 inches). Since it is not a pistol, adding a forward pistol grip does not make it an AOW. (See ATF/FTIB classification letter on
Balk Aces website)


If you purchase a pistol grip firearm designed to fire a shotgun shell, it can generally be determined by the model, such as a Mossberg Persuader or a Winchester Defender, that it is a legal firearm. If you are purchasing one of the newer variants that appear to be NFA with short barrels and SIG Arm Braces, and you want peace of mind, ask for the ATF opinion letter.

Mr. Vasquez was a former Marine and State Department employee for 24 years prior to joining ATF in 1999 where he was intimately involved with regulations governing firearms manufacturing, the National Firearms Act and firearms import and export policy for the past 15 years. While with ATF at FTB (where he served as a Specialist, Assistant Branch Chief and Branch Chief), Mr. Vasquez developed their Standard Operating Procedures, created firearms identification courses for law enforcement, wrote, reviewed and approved numerous firearms rulings, and provided firearms briefs for Congress. Mr. Vasquez was also instrumental in reviewing the National Firearms Act Trade and Collectors Association (NFATCA) for accuracy, and trained Customs and Border Protection (CBP) on the intricacies of importation guidelines and the recognition of unlawful imports.

This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V20N4 (May 2016)
and was posted online on March 18, 2016


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