28 February 2023

Short Barrel Firearms and Their Practical Application

 The National Firearms Act of 1934 set very stringent and prohibitive restrictions on firearms with specific features here in the US. Rifles with barrels under 16 inches are regulated via a $200 tax paid to the ATF as a Title II weapon. The currently accepted origins of the NFA 1934 was to regulate in such as way that no one would easily afford to purchase pretty much any firearm that isn't a firearm with a long barrel and prohibit machine guns as a reactionary action against sensationalized criminal activity. It turned out that handguns would have been regulated into oblivion which was unacceptable and handguns were removed from Title II regulations as handguns are a preferred weapon by many civilians. Incidentally, handguns would be considered a Constitutionally protected class in the 2008 Supreme Court Heller case. Additionally, handguns are by and large to be the preferred weapon of criminals. The sad part is that Congress never bothered to stop and think about other non-machine gun weapons like rifles and shotguns with short barrels and the efficacy of the law if handguns aren't prohibited. Why would you restrict rifles and shotguns with a pistol length barrel when you can still have pistols? It doesn't make any sense. 

Today, people have figured out how to navigate the bureaucratic non-sense that is NFA paperwork to buy or make their own short-barrel rifles and shotguns. A quick Google search can pull up the various weapons that have been configured in such a way. I suggest looking up "short barrel lever action" or "Winchester 1892 SBR" to show you some of the more historical rifles with barrels under 16 inches. I also recommend watching Iraqveteran8888's video on the Henry Mare's Leg lever action pistol they registered and made to a rifle. If I was going to register an SBR, that is close to what I would do though I'd like to have one in .22 LR and 44 Mag. I'd also have a bolt-action 300 Blackout Remington 700 and an AR-15, probably in 9mm. Additionally, I would put a stock on my Remington 870 TAC-14 to make a short-barrel shotgun. I don't see anything crazy or nefarious about any of those. The video is imbedded below.

Back before Congress pursued the NFA 1934, guns with shorter barrels were factory options from brands such as Winchester. 14 inch and 15 inch "Trapper" models were available, today these weapons are extremely collectible. This link here shows a great example of one of these factory SBR's. 

But what's the point of having a gun like this? Ease of use and smaller platforms for more powerful cartridges than you would have with most handgun but more importantly, more accurate platforms than a handgun. Shorter firearms are easier to manipulate in tighter environments. If you live in an apartment, a handgun makes sense for maneuverability but if you observe how far out you push that pistol in front of you, you'll see that the muzzle ends up being around 26 inches away from you. If you have a firearm such as a B&T TP9 with the folding stock, the muzzle is a bit closer at around 20 inches. Reducing the reach but keeping that same capability makes for a better CQB weapon since you aren't banging a longer barrel into walls and door frames. Shotguns with 30 inch barrels make for terrible CQB guns in my experience. 

You'll see many CQB oriented weapons such as the P90, MP7 and MK18 in their natural form in many law enforcement and military applications. Self-defense is, as far as I'm concerned, an acceptable application but all the above weapons in their natural configuration are legally considered machine guns. However, while the MP7 isn't commercially available, both the MK18 and P90 have civilian, semi-auto versions that can be registered as SBRs. Both of these weapons are used in defensive applications and would be suitable for home defense as demonstrated by the Secret Service using weapons (though they don't implicitly use the MK18 that I've seen, I do know they are deploying AR-15 based guns which is what the MK18 is). 

But modern weapons are not the only SBR's that we are seeing. As stated above, IV8888 has their SBR lever gun and they aren't the only one out there. Clearly, sub-16 inch lever action rifles have been in existence for a number of years long before the NFA 1934 with that one example in the link having been manufactured in 1908. The ATF some years back posted a list of historic guns that were exempt from the NFA and that list was fairly long. I'm trying to find a link I can post here to the PDF I had read. 

Since, I've somewhat established that rifles having short barrels can be demonstrated long before the enactment of the NFA 1934, I think we should explore anecdotally the utility of these guns by comparing the utility of similar firearms. 

The Heart of The Gun

The heart of every gun is the barrel. Without the barrel, the weapon is useless. Depending on the cartridge, the barrel length can greatly impact the range and thus, utility of the weapon in question. A 4 inch barrel 9mm handgun seems to be generally considered useful as the Glock 19 with it's 4 inch barrel is, or was, one the most purchased handguns in the last few years. A pistol with a 4 inch barrel chambered in the 45-70 cartridge, however, seems to have limited usability as there may not be enough length to get the bullet up to speed for most practical applications such as hunting. That said, I see that many pistols with longer barrels, such as 10 inches, are available in 45-70 as hunting handguns. See the BFR hunting revolver from Magnum Research. The basis for this is due to the larger cartridge of 45-70 benefiting from the longer barrel length. Another popular rifle cartridge commonly found in large frame pistols is .223 Remington / 5.56 NATO. While shorter barrels do exist for commercial applications, the US DoD found that around 10 inches is the shortest length barrel while still allowing the bullets used in their ammunition to be useful for war fighting out to around 50 yards. That would indicate that a 4 inch barrel .223 Remington firearm wouldn't have much utility other than being loud. On a side note, according to BBTI, a .223 Remington firearm with a 4 inch barrel would drive a 45 gr bullet around 1700 fps. That's actually much faster than a .22 LR rifle with any barrel length firing a 40 gr bullet can ever hope to do and is about as fast as .22 mag is ever. That would, incidentally, make a firearm in .223 Remington with such as short barrel be potentially useful as a small game hunting rifle as the ballistics clearly beat a 40 or 45 grain .22 LR in every barrel length. It would be massively loud and the overpressure would be unpleasant so I would have to put a suppressor on it to make it usable. That said, Colt had short barrel AR-15s since the beginning, with guns like the Colt Commando, so the Navy's MK18 is nothing new. I also don't personally see the utility in a 4 inch barrel .223 Remington small game rifle and would stick with .22 Magnum or .22 LR for simplicity reasons but if all I had access to was .223 Remington then it would be all I could use. That said, I'm starting to think that a Thompson Center Contender in .223 Remington and a 6 inch barrel with my Dead Air Primal could be a really fun varmint gun project. If I build one, I'll post it. As an addition, the current US standard issue rifle for our Uniformed Services is the M4 which has 14.5 inch barrel and the Army's new rifle, the M7, uses a 13 inch barrel. The US Government sure finds short barrels useful. 

Henry Repeating Arms does make a Mare's Leg lever action pistol in .22 LR and .22 Mag. I would be very interested in purchasing one of those and later replacing the grip with a proper rifle stock. This would make for a 12 inch barrel .22 rifle. Is that useful? I believe so. Hunters and woodsman have demonstrated the utility in small game harvesting of handguns such as the Heritage Rough Rider or the Colt Woodsman for decades. These guns have shorter barrels at 4 and 6 inch or similar. Since these pistols can be used successfully to harvest small game, then how would putting a stock on that pistol make it suddenly unusable? It doesn't but according to the ATF, and Congress, they become magically a gangster's gun and need to be regulated. I personally fail to see how a lever action or semi-auto rifle in .22 LR with a barrel under 16 inches is a gangster gun. If you take a Ruger 10/22 with a 16 inch barrel then cut it to 15.5 inches, does it make you a gangster and make you rob a bank like Bonnie and Clyde? I don't see how it would but making that cut does make you a felon if you didn't register and tax the gun first. I think that's just dumb. What about said lever action rifles? I have a 16 inch barrel 357 Magnum Marlin 1894. I also have a Taurus model 66 with a 4 inch barrel. Congress and the ATF doesn't think these are gangster guns but if I put a stock on the Taurus 66, it becomes an SBR and is now a gangster gun. If you think no one would ever put stocks on pistols feel free to look up "stocked pistols" in Google. There is a very long history of stocked pistols in the US and around the world. Moving back on topic, if I cut the Marlin's barrel down to 4 inches then its just as powerful as the Taurus revolver but it's now a Title II gun and needs registered? Absurd. Some people have made the claim about concealability but you can conceal the revolver just fine. Why do we care so much about if I could conceal the Marlin? 

Would that cut down Marlin still be useful though? Well, I know I wouldn't cut the Marlin down to 4 inches. I would, however, cut it down to the edge of the current handguard. By trimming down the magazine tube and barrel to match, I would cut the magazine capacity to around 5 rounds and give me about a 12 inch barrel. The 4 inch barrel revolver has utility for hunting and defensive applications, so having a barrel three times as long give me more powder burn and faster velocities. The stock would make it easier to be accurate too. If I can take a deer with the revolver at 50 yards, the rifle should give me enough reach out to say 100 yards with the correct ammunition at that range. I don't have any math to support it but I can say that I am comfortable with using the 16 inch barrel to take a deer at 125 yards with my current ammo and setup. I think it could go further but the red dot and my eyes limit my ability to make a good hit. If I changed to a magnified optic, we can talk about further distances. 

Let's summarize the above. If a 9mm pistol is acceptable for home defense, then why would a stocked version of that same pistol not be acceptable? There are stocked pistols in 9mm currently on the market as SBR's. Most of these guns are based on PDW type weapons designed literally for defensive applications. It's like saying, you can't have the stocked version of the gun because it's better than the non-stocked version. It would be better for you to have the stocked version because you'd more control over the gun with the stock than with a two-handed grip on the pistol. Historically, stocked pistols existed. Colt's black powder revolvers have provisions for stocks. The Browning Hi Power had provisions for stocks in the back strap. More modern guns like the B&T TP9 and USW have thin folding stocks that lock into the frame. They let you carry the gun like a pistol in a holster then draw and flip out the stock making for a more controllable gun. I see no issue with this. Three and four points of contact with the gun make for more control over the two-handed grip of a traditional pistol.

Some anecdotes: 

I came across an article on Outdoor Life in the OL+ section. The story was from an article ran in 1952 in the June edition of the printed magazine. The story is about a hunter tracking a cougar called Bloody-Foot. In the story he uses a 38 Special Colt revolver. I bring this up because the writer talked about shoving a stick under his arm along the revolver for stability. The quote from the article is "Or if I’m shooting up into a tree, I shove a good stout stick under my arm and along the side of the revolver. That helps a lot."  That would be an early brace or you could look at it as making a stock like device to help with aiming a pistol. Even the old timers found use in such devices. 

Editor's Note: Small updates have been made for corrections in spelling and continuity. 

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