Pistol Kits: Beware or You’ll End up Afoul of the Law!

By Woody published on in General, Legal

As Independent Program Attorneys for Texas Law Shield, 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 “carbine conversion kit.” Can you drop your handgun into one of these 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.

What’s Regulated?

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?

Rock Island Armory RONI 1911 TCM Pistol

The Rock Island Armory RONI 1911 TCM Pistol to Carbine Conversion Stock, $551, converts an RIA A1 or A2 1911 pistol into a compact rifle within seconds. Fits A1 and A2 GI Serrated TCM Pistols. If you own a host pistol and install this product, your pistol will become a short-barreled rifle. You must first register your pistol with the ATFE using ATFE Form 1. Photo courtesy of Rock Island Armory.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Is it designed or redesigned, made or remade, and intended to be fired from the shoulder? If yes, go on to question 3.
  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.
  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.

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.

Handgun to Rifle

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 Handgun

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!

Handgun 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 Pistol Shell

Now that we are all masters on conversions, let’s look at a real-life example: the TCM Roni Pistol Shell. This 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 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!  ~ by Gordon Cooper, Contributing Legal Editor for Texas Law Shield and an attorney at Walker & Byington.


Walker & Byington is a law firm of experienced criminal defense lawyers located in Houston, Texas. They specialize in weapons and firearms charges, gun crimes, DWI cases, aggravated assault cases, and moreIf you have questions about these firearms, call Walker & Byington at (281) 668-9957 or email them at questions@walkerbyington.com.

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Comments (43)

  • David

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    What if a person uses the RONI 1911 conversion but installs a 16 inch 1911 barrel? Wouldn’t that be as legal as the 16 inch Glock conversion is?

    Reply

  • fair

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    This article and attached comments perfectly illustrate what we have, based on the so-called “Nation of Laws” fiasco. The “Nation of Laws,” fiasco was invented by government lawyers to persecute the people. Somewhere in la la land a legislator writes a few “suggestions on paper” and calls the suggestion a law. But it’s not a law until some neophyte judge interprets the suggestion’s meaning. To learn the true meaning of the suggestion, one must challenge the suggestion in court. Are you willing to make that challenge. The costs will be very high.

    This is the way government neophyte’s make a living, and draw six figure salaries. How else can government make criminals without first establishing laws that cannot be explained or understood, and are purposely written to make criminals out of the citizens. As a side note remember this truism, “Legislators do not write laws, only judges write laws.”

    Reply

  • Jeremy7135

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    They forgot to put in this article that a angled or horizontal for grip is legal just not a vertical and that comes directly from the atf. More BS that makes no sense.

    Reply

    • Dragon

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      I had heard that, too, Jeremy. Thus, on my Kel Tec PLR16, I have installed an angled foregrip instead of a vertical or variable foregrip.

      Reply

  • left coast chuck

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    I know I am paranoid. That does not mean that they are not actually out to get us. I think what the pols and bureaucrats have in the back of their minds, perhaps not even expressed among themselves is to get as many people convicted of a crime as possible. Let me explain. One of the terms and conditions of any offer of probation or parole is a consent to a search of person, vehicle or residence at any time by any peace officer or other law enforcement officer. That covers a broad scope these days. It includes border patrol, TSA, Homeland Security (what a joke that is.) I suspect it might even be stretched to include code enforcement officers and parking enforcement ticket writers. It definitely includes parole officers and probation officers. In return for a guilty plea and five years informal probation which means you don’t have to report every week or month to the probation office, but you do give up your right against search and/or seizure, you will serve no jail time and pay no fine. Otherwise, it is max jail time and max fine with forfeiture of property and possibly if the DA can stretch the facts enough, charging your spouse. What married man wouldn’t take that deal? No charges against your wife. Your kids do not get scooped up by CPS, your house is not seized, no fine, no jail time and just a misdemeanor conviction. Versus possible jail time, possible hassle for your wife, your kids get incarcerated at juvenile hall by CPS because they don’t have enough foster homes to place them or worse yet, they get placed with that loving family who doesn’t work but takes in foster kids to earn a living and you might wind up with a felony conviction which would preclude you from owning any guns, ammunition or gun parts no voting the bastards out of office — you thought it was hard finding a good job, try finding one with a felony conviction, your credit score goes to a minus figure. Gimme the papers. Where do I sign? A complicated section in the ATF regulations that nobody can interpret? Wow! What a godsend. That means any Deputy AG who is looking to build a conviction record can with the connivance of corrupt ATF agents (oh, excuse me, I didn’t realize they were all pure as the driven snow) can charge you with a violation of a section even the ATF doesn’t know is a crime. Sure, you might get it overturned on appeal long after you have finished serving your time and spent big bucks on attorney fees for trial and appeal and trying to get your kids back. Why not, I am going to live the straight and narrow from here on out. Ever seen a house that has gotten “tossed” by the jackbooted thugs we call law enforcement? Holes punched in the walls, fluffy the cat stomped to death, every drawer in the house pulled out and the contents dumped on the floor, every bag of sugar dumped on the floor, cookie packages, pasta, all dumped on the floor. Oh, but that only happens to drug dealers. Don’t kid yourself. Once you sign that paper you are fair game every time local law enforcement wants to show up on the six o’clock news showing how tough they are on crime. Ever wonder how many convictions come from those mass arrests that you see on the six o’clock news? You never see that do you because there are so few convictions that the public would rise up about the tremendous cost involved in those follies. The pols and bureaucrats don’t want clear, precise laws. That’s not the way to control the common herd. We want laws that say what we say they do, not laws that the Joe Average, nor even Judge Learned Hand can interpret. Remember “You have to wait until we pass the bill to find out what it says”?That’s the kind of law our masters want and that’s why you see a paragraph that the common folk at ATF say, “Huh?” when you ask them what it means. I could go on, but it is time for me pick up my soap box and scamper out of here because I see someone from some unnamed letter agency lurking in the bushes.

    Reply

    • RN

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      George and Left Coast Chuck..I agree completely. At 65 years old it seems like I’ve had to fight my whole adult life to try to keep a right specifically in the Constitution. Meanwhile in the hysterical press we get constantly blasted with propaganda to take away our rights, while they preach about the 1st amendment right to hold protests that turn into riots, abortion rights, black criminal lives matter, refugee rights, immigrant rights, criminals’ rights, rights to free home telephones, obamaphones, free internet, healthcare, housing, illegal aliens’ rights, mass murderers rights not to be executed—demand, demand, demand. .This week and the hysteria the press and our hollywood elite have spewed over ‘refugees’ is the perfect example. And I tip my hat to Left Coast Chuck, suffering from the policies inspired by the Socialist Utopia of Kali-fornia that has infected the whole coast.

      Reply

  • George

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    What part of the 2nd ammendment right to bear arms do you not understand? I was born free and I’ll die free! The law makers can suck my toe! Time to put an end to this absurdity!

    Reply

  • left coast chuck

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    Thanks for posting this informative article. I was considering buying a conversion unit for my .45. I will now make sure that the barrel is at least 16 inches and the over all length is 26 inches,.

    Reply

  • Art

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    i agree with you, we call it the peter principle. it states that a person in a company will rise to a level of incompetence and there they will stay. the only problem is they will have no cost but if they decide you have done something right or wrong, well, the costs for you will be staggering. i did the studying before building my pistol and i came away with the conclusion that once a pistol always a pistol but then i am no lawyer and i certainly do not work for the BATFE, which should be abolished. the sooner the better. it has been an illegal arm of the government since it was started by interfering with the second amendment. i would like holder and those involved selling guns to criminals put away, as well as obummer!.

    Reply

  • RN

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    2 things that I believe are true, not sure on the first. 1- In order to build an AR style pistol, do you not have to buy a receiver that was manufactured from the factory as a pistol receiver and sold as such? This seems like a real ‘catch 22′ for those building the pistols. 2- Also, for those converting to short barrelled rifle or AOW, I beliefve that once that is ‘stamped’ and converted, even if taken back to its original configuration it remains a short barrelled rifle or AOW, and if sold or transferred the new owner would have to ‘stamp’ it before taking custody. The rules for making modifications to firearms imported under Clinton’s Assault Weapons ban are even more screwed up.. And the Feds in their wisdom have decided you can get a Dragonov 30 cal sniper rifle, but a .30 Carbine surplus import constitutes a ‘battle rifle’ restricted from import. What a cluster ^#%*.

    Reply

    • Art

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      i believe what you are saying is true. plus once a pistol always a pistol, but how are they going to know what you have done? no sorry, i think i had to register one of the lowers as a pistol when i bought the lower. hell it has been so long ago i do not remember, but i think that is what i did. i am not a lawyer.yea, a cluster WTF! yes and imported rifles after a certain date need so many compliance parts to change them, if i remember correctly. boy it gets complicated and then they change stuff as the years go by.. we certainly need to uncomplicate the mess.

      Reply

    • Christian

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      The lower does not have to be solely registered as a pistol, but can also be registered as NOT A RIFLE. There’s a firearm, pistol, and rifle option for what you are purchasing on the 4473. The SBR law comes into play if you start with a rifle. All my virgin lowers have been and will be bought as non-typed so that I have the option to build whatever, law abiding of course, I want to build.

      Reply

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