If you’ve considered buying a new firearm any time in the past few years, odds are good that you’ve stumbled across the term “pistol caliber carbine” – and probably encountered some shooters singing their praises. But if you’re wondering what all the fuss is about, then fear not – we’re taking an in-depth look at PCCs and what they have to offer.
What is a Pistol Caliber Carbine?
Pistol caliber carbines, or PCCs, have seen a dramatic surge in popularity in recent years, even earning themselves dedicated competitive shooting divisions in both 3-Gun Nation and USPSA matches. But what are they, exactly? Put simply, a PCC is a a carbine-length gun chambered in a pistol caliber – most commonly either 9mm, .40 S&W, .45 ACP, or 10mm, though more unusual options such as .380 ACP and .357 SIG are also available.
While many modern PCCs are based on the AR platform, there are also plenty of specialized designs on the market, and you can even put together a 9mm Kalashnikov if the idea tickles your fancy.
However, don’t be fooled into thinking that pistol caliber carbines are strictly a modern invention – as far back as the late 19th century, manufacturers like Marlin, Henry, and Winchester introduced a number of lever-action rifles that fired pistol catridges like .45 Long Colt and .44-40 Winchester. In fact, one such rifle, the Winchester Model 1873 (originally chambered in .44-40), proved so popular that it was famously marketed as “The Gun That Won the West.”
Why Choose a 9mm Carbine?
Though they’re available in a variety of calibers, 9mm PCCs like the AR-9 have proven to be by far the most popular choice among both recreational and competitive shooters. If you’re wondering why someone might choose a pistol caliber carbine over a more traditional rifle, there are actually a few reasons worth considering.
The most obvious factor, and the reason why lever guns like the Winchester 1873 were so popular in their day, is that sharing ammo between your rifle and your sidearm has some undeniable utility in an emergency situation. And not only is the ammo compatible, many PCCs are able to share magazines with pistols, as well.
Of course, 9mm ammo is also considerably cheaper than something like 5.56 or .308, and if you just want a fun range gun that can also pull double duty in a potential home defense situation, having access to inexpensive and plentiful plinking ammo that can be used even in short-range indoor lanes with steel targets is certainly an attractive option.
While we’re on the subject of home defense, it’s worth clearing up a few things. Overpenetration is a major concern for people who live in an apartment or any densely populated area, and while the common wisdom might dictate that a lower-powered pistol round like 9mm is less prone to overpenetration, the truth is that frangible or HD-specific ammunition allow rifles chambered in both 9mm and 5.56 NATO to put down a threat without overpenetrating – provided you make the shot. In the case of a clear miss, even ammunition specifically designed for defensive scenarios is going to punch through drywall and wood with no issue.
With that in mind, there are still a couple of benefits that a 9mm carbine offers over other alternatives as a defensive firearm. Compared to a handgun, a PCC still offers more points of contact, which means better stability and easier follow-up shots. It also has a longer sight radius, which is important if you need to rapidly switch between multiple targets – not to mention the fact that it reduces the impact of any shaking or swaying that tends to come with a sudden adrenaline rush.
Better for home defense than an AR-15?
While there’s no denying that an AR-15 makes for a highly effective home defense gun in trained hands, there are a few points in the PCC’s favor.
First of all, firing a rifle or shotgun indoors is loud. The concussive blasts from even a relatively soft-shooting cartridge like 5.56 are greatly amplified in confined spaces, and while hearing loss is certainly preferable to being dead, a pistol caliber carbine significantly reduces the risks of you or your loved ones suffering permanent hearing damage.
Second, a PCC will often be much more maneuverable in tight spaces than something running a mid-length or rifle-length gas system. In some cases, a PCC with a suppressor can still clock in with a shorter overall length than a non-suppressed rifle, which can make a huge difference when it comes to safely taking corners or navigating through rooms and hallways.
Finally, while 5.56 from a full-sized AR produces negligible recoil, a pistol cartridge like 9mm reduces that felt recoil even further. It may not seem like much of a difference to someone with experience, but for young or novice shooters who might be forced into the unenviable position of defending themselves or their home from a threat, every sliver of advantage helps.
AR-9 vs. Other PCCs
The AR-9 and other AR variants might be the most popular options for pistol caliber carbines, but that’s not to say that other PCCs are inferior. In some cases it may depend on what other firearms you own – if you’ve got a Ruger Security-6 or SR-Series, then the out-of-the-box intercompatibility of the Ruger PC Carbine might be a major selling point, for instance.
And of course, not everyone is looking for a new gun based on how versatile it is or how useful it may be for personal defense – some people just want to have fun, and there are plenty of unique PCCs to choose from – maybe you’ve always wanted a KRISS Vector or an MP5 clone, or maybe that 9mm Kalashnikov I mentioned earlier sounds like a blast.
But if you’re looking for a great all-around PCC, the AR-9 still gets my vote for a few simple reasons.
First and foremost, virtually every shooter is going to be able to pick up an AR-9 and use it without any issues. The AR-15 is the most common rifle platform in America, and chances are if you’ve ever visited a range, you have at least a passing familiarity with how it functions. For shooters who have spent hundreds or even thousands of hours behind an AR, that muscle memory is going to carry over to the AR-9 in terms of handling and operating controls.
Second, just like other ARs, the AR-9 is highly modular, and there is an entire galaxy of compatible aftermarket parts and accessories (like AR-9 uppers) that will allow you to kit your carbine out to your exact specifications. Whether you want to maximize performance for a competitive event or trim your carbine down into a lightweight truck gun, the AR-9 has you covered.
The final consideration is cost – while there are a few budget PCCs on the market, the balance of cost and performance that the AR-9 offers is hard to beat. If you just want a carbine for plinking and practicing, a dedicated 9mm upper and a 9mm magwell adapter can transform your existing AR-15 for a fraction of the cost of other PCCs.
If you’re interested in using a PCC for competition shooting or home defense, it’s highly recommended that you pair a 9mm upper with a dedicated AR-9 lower to ensure maximum reliability – and even then, you’ll still end up spending less than you would on most other pistol caliber carbines.
When Georg Luger first designed the 9x19 Parabellum cartridge in 1901, he intended for it simply to be lethal within 50 yards. While modern advancements in ammunition design and manufacturing have significantly improved the ballistic performance of 9mm, we can see that a 115-grain cartridge fired from a 5” pistol barrel still sees a rapid loss in velocity, energy, and elevation after roughly 100 yards.
However, the overall performance of 9mm sees improvement when fired through a carbine-length AR 9mm barrel, as the longer powder burn time increases velocity and the additional rifling further stabilizes the bullet. This becomes especially evident when using overpressured, jacketed hollow points (designated JHP+P).
As a brief example, let’s compare the classic Cor-Bon 115-grain JHP+P cartridge fired from a 5” barrel and a 16” barrel. With a 5” barrel, testing reveals a muzzle velocity of 1,372 feet per second and a muzzle energy of 465 foot-pounds. When fired through a 16” barrel, that same cartridge clocks in at 1,525 fps and 582 foot-pounds – a pretty hefty increase.
Pistol or Rifle?
Generally speaking, you are going to see a PCC configured in two basic ways: with a stock and a barrel length of at least 16 inches, or with a stabilizing brace and a shorter barrel, which legally classifies the firearm as a pistol. Which one you choose comes down to personal preference – some shooters would rather have the superior ballistic performance and longer sight radius of the rifle configuration, while others are looking for an incredibly compact and highly maneuverable firearm that still offers a number of advantages over a traditional handgun when it comes to defensive use.
It’s also worth mentioning that a PCC can be registered as a short-barreled rifle, if you prefer a shorter barrel length and want to avoid the seemingly arbitrary and ever-changing rules that the ATF puts out regarding pistol braces. This option does present its own headaches – aside from the tax stamp, it makes interstate travel with your SBR into an ordeal – but it does offer some peace of mind in terms of knowing that you aren’t subject to the whims of vague legal interpretation.
[To learn more about the legality and uses of AR pistols check out our complete guide to AR-15 pistols!]
At the end of the day, there are plenty of good reasons to consider a pistol caliber carbine like the AR-9. They’re cheap to shoot, are compatible with many popular handgun magazines, have earned a dedicated following in the world of competitive shooting, can be used effectively for home defense, and are, let’s face it, just plain fun.
[If you want to learn more about AR-9s like what lowers or conversion kits to use with AR-9 uppers watch the video below. ⬇ And if you still have any questions about 9mm carbines leave them in the comments below!]