Why are "sawed-off rifles" illegal?

I (as a non- felon, free from domestic violence convictions, adult US citizen, manufacturing for my own use) can build a pistol that fires a rifle cartridge, and it will be legal. Machine the lock, stock and barrel, have it chamber and fire a center fire rifle shell, with a barrel length of less than 16”’, but since it is a pistol, no worries.
If I buy a rifle, shorten its barrel and cut off the stock, it would be illegal. Functionally equivalent pieces of steel and wood, but one is OK, the other a prison sentence.
Why the difference?

The rationale is that a sawed-off rifle/shotgun is relatively easy to conceal and use in a robbery. As you note, a sidearm also serves the same purpose if that’s your plan. But I suppose the idea is that a sidearm isn’t being intentionally altered in a manner that makes it more convenient for committing crimes.

Pistols that fire rifle cartridges are typically single shot. Example.
A concealed rifle will normally carry multiple cartridges.

Manufacturing your own might also fall under different rules.

Speaking of inconsistent gun laws, I think it strange that black powder weapons are basically unregulated and available via mail order to most anyone in the US over 21…of course I know they’re not your average criminal’s weapon of choice, and are probably almost exclusively bought by hobbyists/enthusiasts and all that, but they’re certainly plenty lethal and it seems a big loophole to me.

The AR-15 Pistol.

A buddy of mine has one of these. He brought it over a couple of years ago. It was fun to shoot, but it kept jamming up. Personally, I have better things to spend $1K on.

Thompson/Center also makes a pistol called the Contender in .30-06…I don’t get the point of these guns.

Because its killed too many cops. Gun law is pretty complex, not to mention mostly local. If youre expecting some long reasoned explanation, well, youre not going to get it. Would you be happier if every firearm was illegal for the sake of consistancy?

An L.A. beat cop I know says “they call it a scattergun for a reason.” He ends by saying a friend is still scattered somewhere on Hollywood because of one of them.

IIRC the big reason for picking up David Koresh was a sawed-off. At the time the rationale was since it’s only useful for hunting humans it must be strictly and harshly regulated.

Rifles of any type aren’t called “scatterguns”.

Yeah you’re right. I thought the OP included shotguns. Carry on.

Not true anymore. There are plenty of AR-15 type pistols, AK47 type pistols, and so on. This law is outdated.

Canada is often looked to by anti gun advocates as a good place to start for increased controls here in the US. Sub 16" rifles are perfectly legal there. Go figure…

A rifle usually generates a lot more velocity than a pistol with the same round. For example, the .30 carbine travels close to 2000 fps from a rifle, but 3/4 or less velocity from a pistol.

Sawing off a rifle to say, 14 inches, may maintain most of the power while making the gun easier to wield/conceal/do bad things with. Using a rifle round in a pistol would likely require you to make the barrel longer, which makes it less easy to wield/conceal/do bad things with.

I always wondered what was up with the Joker’s gun in the 1989 version of Batman.

Or the Colt Buntline Special.

Not only that, there are more and more rifles that are being chambered in handgun rounds. My tools of choice are my Olympic Arms AR-15 fitted with a 9mm Glock lower with my Glock 9mm pistol on my hip as a b.u.g…

2 weapons using the same ammo and even the same magazines.

Another pistol using rifle ammo is the FN Five-seven chambered in 5.7x28mm


In many places, there are separate hunting seasons for pistols(usually combined with bow and muzzleloader). A pistol that is a rifle in all but name has an obvious purpose in that light.


Well, practically speaking, I think the kind of person most likely to do undesireable things with a sawed-off long gun is much less likely to have the wherewithall (knowledge, patience, etc.) to build a pistol from scratch.

So the law actually seems fairly smart to me: if for some good reason you want a pistol that fires rifle rounds, you can still legally make one, but quick-and-dirty crime-assisting weapons are illegal.

You can legally have a sawed off rifle, in many states anyway, if you’re willing to complete the ATF form 1 or 4. Form 1 if you wish to make it yourself, Form 4 if you’re transferring one made by somebody else. These are called NFA (National Firearms Act of 1934) Weapons and are legal for most folks to own. Your state may have additional restrictions. A rifle with a barrel shorter than 16" is known as a Short Barreled Rifle (SBR)

Also included as NFA weapons are short barreled shotguns, suppressors, machine guns, and any other weapon (AOW). AOW is kind of a special category that includes pen guns and stuff like that.

But muzzle velocity for a given cartridge is pretty much only a function of barrel length. Take a 30 carbine rifle, cut the barrel to the same length as your pistol, and you’ll get the same muzzle velocity. There’s nothing magical about a rifle barrel that lets it maintain a higher velocity for a given barrel length.

Yes, that’s actually my point. Cutting a rifle down a few inches gives you a pretty powerful gun which can be concealed more easily. To have a pistol that powerful, it needs a ridiculously long barrel which makes it harder to conceal, use, and hit a target. Which is easier, sawing off the rifle or extending the pistol? Which would a bad guy be more likely to want, a 12 inch rifle or a 12 inch pistol? The rifle, that’s my guess as to why it’s illegal and the pistol chambered with the same round is not.