This is your ultimate AR9 pistol guide for 2020! We’re breaking down everything you need to know to build one yourself: What the AR9 pistol is, what separates it from an AR-15, parts compatibility, 9mm Parabellum's ballistics, buffer weight, barrel length, twist rate, and magazines. When we're through, you'll know everything you need to build the perfect AR9 pistol in a supersonic or subsonic (suppressor-friendly) configuration. Looking for answers about shouldering an AR pistol brace? We wrote a guide for that, too.
All data and recommendations in this guide were compiled from real shooters who've built and tested AR9s with different parts. Let's begin!
What is an AR9 pistol?
An AR9 Pistol Kit (with an AR9 80% lower) is what many shooters buy to build their AR9.
The AR9 pistol is a new 9mm variant of the AR-15. The AR9 is not just an AR-15 with a 9mm conversion kit installed – those guns use special parts to adapt the factory upper and lower receivers for the 9mm cartridge.
The AR9 pistol instead uses a new lower receiver (aptly called the AR9 lower) and a stripped AR-15 upper receiver with a 9mm barrel, new bolt carrier group, and an AR-15 buffer system and lower parts kit. AR9-specific buffers are available, but we'll touch on that later.
That's just the tip of the iceberg. Since the AR9 pistol and AR-15 appear so similar, let’s compare the two first.
How the AR9 is different from the AR-15
The AR9 and AR-15 look alike, but each uses different parts and systems to operate. There’s a lot of discussion – and some confusion – about how these two guns work.
The AR9 uses blowback to operate
Look closely at a typical AR9 upper, and you won’t see a gas tube anywhere. That’s because the AR9 uses blowback to cycle the bolt. Here’s how it works:
- The firing pin hits the primer on the 9mm cartridge.
- Powder burns in the firing chamber and creates gas.
- The rapid expansion of gas expels the bullet from the barrel.
- That same gas forces the spent casing to slam against the bolt inside the chamber.
- The kinetic energy of the spent casing drives the bolt back into the buffer tube.
- The spent casing is ejected, the bolt drives forward, and a new round is chambered.
The AR-15 uses gas or a piston
The AR-15 uses a direct-impingement system with a gas tube or a gas-operated piston (animated right) to cycle the bolt:
- The firing pin hits the primer on the rifle cartridge.
- Powder begins burning in the chamber, accelerating the round.
- Excess gas travels to a gas port and through a tube or piston.
- The gas/piston travels back into the upper receiver and bolt carrier group.
- A key atop the bolt traps the gas/piston and allows it to drive the bolt into the buffer.
- The spent casing is ejected, the bolt drives forward, and a new round is chambered.
Why the AR9 uses blowback
A rifle round has a lot of powder. It produces a lot of gas when fired, and burning all that powder takes time. This is the only way to achieve the right amount of velocity a rifle round requires. But all that round's energy would 1.) quickly destroy the bolt and trigger group, or 2.) not cycle the bolt completely in a blowback-operated AR-15.
That gas must expend more of its energy on the bullet itself before being harnessed to cycle the bolt. This is why gas must travel down the barrel and through a gas tube. This is also why AR-15s have different gas system lengths – some rounds and barrel lengths produce less pressure, some produce more.
The 9mm cartridge and its bolt was designed to cycle with blowback recoil, not gas. The 9mm burns nearly all of its powder rapidly in the firing chamber (not in the chamber and barrel like a rifle round). Its energy must be harnessed “at the source”. This is why the AR9 uses blowback.
Some builders have attempted to use gas impingement in AR9s and pistol-caliber AR-15s with unreliable results. Using gas impingement with a 9mm cartridge requires an incredibly short gas tube and ultra-light buffer and spring. This dramatically increases felt recoil. No bueno.
AR9 vs. AR-15 parts: What’s different?
Besides using different methods to cycle the bolt, the AR9 and AR-15 use many different parts:
Bolt carrier group
The AR-15 and AR9 bolt carrier groups are totally different. Because the AR-15 uses gas impingement, its bolt carrier group is not designed for blowback operation, and vice versa. The typical AR9 bolt cannot be modified to work with gas impingement.
AR9 and AR-15 bolt carrier group parts are typically not interchangeable or compatible with each other.
Most AR9 pistol lowers ( like this 80% lower option, our most popular choice) take factory and aftermarket Glock or Colt magazines out of the box. The AR-15 lower requires a conversion block to be installed inside the magazine well and lower receiver before it can take any 9mm magazines.
Different AR-15 conversion blocks will accept different types of 9mm magazines. Options are available that work with Colt, UZI, or Glock magazines. Conversion blocks can get expensive. Most blocks cost between $100 and $250, whereas a typical AR9 lower receiver costs just as much, if not less – around $150.
Lastly, most AR9 lowers (like our 9mm 80% lower) use a proprietary magazine release. Most have the mag release pre-installed, though some may use the AR-15 magazine release included in your parts kit.
The AR9 and AR-15 barrel are similar, but different. They use the same external dimensions for the chamber/breech, so they can be installed on any AR-15 upper. Rifle barrels (5.56, .223, .308, and 300 Blackout) use a conventional star chamber to lock the bolt until gas pressure builds sufficiently to cycle it, whereas 9mm barrels have no star chamber because of blowback operation. The only thing keeping the bolt locked in an AR9 is the spring and buffer.
What parts do the AR9 and AR-15 share?
Thankfully, many parts are still compatible or interchangeable between the AR9 and AR-15:
Even though the AR9 pistol doesn’t use gas to operate, it shares the same upper receiver with the AR-15. Upper receivers typically come in billet or forged aluminum. There are polymer uppers available for the AR-15, though we recommend against using one for an AR9 build at this time.
To our knowledge, the added pressure and energy of the AR9 bolt's blowback operation has not been tested in a polymer upper.
Lower parts kit and trigger
Because the AR9 uses an AR-15 upper, it can also use an AR-15 buffer system. The added kinetic energy from the 9mm’s blowback operation means you'll need a heavier buffer than what is found in a gas-operated AR-15. We'll get to that next!
How to Build an Awesome AR9 Pistol
Now we know how an AR9 is different from (and similar to) an AR-15. We can start picking out parts for a build! The most important factor of your AR9 build is your barrel. Unlike regular ole' black rifles, your AR9's barrel isn't just there to make your pistol as accurate as possible. Your AR9's barrel length will play a big role in determining whether the rounds you're firing stay subsonic or go supersonic.
Basically, you have to decide: Do you want a close-range, subsonic AR9 that can be suppressed and dead-quiet? A medium-range, supersonic AR9 that can hit targets at least 100 meters out? Or somewhere in between, where you can play with hand loads and velocity? Let's break it all down.
AR9 barrel length and velocity
To figure out the best barrel length, we need to look at the ballistics of the 9mm cartridge and we need to learn a little science:
First, the magic number for making a bullet go supersonic is over 1,125 feet per second (FPS). Any bullet traveling faster than 1,125 FPS will announce that classic "crack and echo" downrange. A round traveling below 1,125 FPS won't break the sound barrier (it remains subsonic). The only noise made will come from the gasses leaving the muzzle (which can then be mitigated with a suppressor).
Importantly, "transonic" rounds just barely approach 1,125 FPS. In this velocity gray area, the subsonic sound signature changes and gets louder.
9MM ballistics data: Barrel length, grain count, and velocity
You can use this graph to decide what barrel length is best for your AR9 pistol given your choice of ammo. Federal 115-grain JHPs (center column) are some of the most common 9mm rounds on the market, so we'll be using this data for picking our barrels.
Full credit goes to the shooters over at www.ballisticsbytheinch.com for collecting this data.
The best barrel length for the AR9
If we take a look at Federal 115-grain loads, we see velocity basically maxes out at around 14", with only a negligible drop in velocity at 12". Remember, we're building a pistol so we want to avoid needlessly buying a longer barrel.
So, want the highest possible supersonic velocity with the shortest possible barrel, using 115-grain ammo? Twelve inches is the magic number. Of course, this isn't a hard rule to go by. You can see that even a 9" barrel affords 1,238 FPS - well over supersonic and a whole 3" shorter. The choice is yours! Go much shorter and suffer only a minor loss in velocity - that's why the AR9 is so cool.
But what about subsonic? If you want to rock a suppressor, you'll need a barrel that's much shorter. Taking a broader look at our graph, we see that a 5" barrel reports supersonic and near-transonic velocity for most loads. No good.
If you want to keep quiet using a suppressor with 115-grain loads, you'll need to stick with a 4" barrel. This affords the highest possible subsonic velocity (1,094 FPS) without approaching a louder sound signature.
If you want to use other 9mm loads in your AR9, just apply the same logic above! Pick your grain count/round type, figure out which barrel length offers optimal supersonic or subsonic velocities, and you're set.
The best twist rate (spoiler, it's 1:10)
Surprisingly, picking the best twist rate for your AR9 pistol is easy. Hundreds of sub machineguns and handguns chambered in 9mm have already helped us to learn that a 1:10 twist rate is preferred. When Colt first introduced the AR9 platform, this is the twist rate they chose.
Shooters have tested different twist rates ranging from 1:10 to 1:20. Most report negligible differences in shot placement and accuracy. Unlike rifle rounds (which are long, fast, and require extra help to stabilize), the 9mm is short, slower, and stubby. It also burns most of its powder immediately, which means it reaches optimal velocity quicker and stabilizes more readily with less rifling. Therefore, twist rates don't affect the AR9's accuracy as much.
The general rule of thumb on barrel twist rates is simple: The heavier the bullet (higher grain count), the more extreme the twist rate. A 1:10 twist rate will handle all 9mm loads, while a less extreme rate (like 1:15 or 1:20) may not stabilize a heavier round (147-grain, for example) as well.
The right buffer setup
Buffer systems have been made specifically for the AR9, but they may cost more than a standard AR-15 buffer kit. Most shooters find a heavy rifle/H3 buffer (5 to 5.4 ounces) or a pistol buffer (5 to 8.5 ounces) paired with a standard AR-15 recoil spring and buffer tube will get your AR9 operating and cycling reliably.
We recommend the Shockwave AR9 Pistol Lower Parts Kit (includes a buffer and pistol brace) and adding extra weight as needed to reduce felt recoil. If your AR9 doesn't fully cycle or fails to eject frequently, a lighter buffer may be required.
Picking Glock or Colt magazines
This AR9 80% lower accepts factory and aftermarket Glock magazines.
The magazine you choose for your AR9 will determine what bolt and lower receiver you pick. Most AR9 parts will say “Glock-style” and/or “Colt-style”. Builders have reported compatibility issues when mixing and matching Glock and Colt AR9 parts.
The rule of thumb is this: Pick a bolt and lower that are compatible with your 9mm magazine of choice.
If you’re dead-set on using Colt 9mm magazines, stick with a Colt-style AR9 bolt and Colt-style lower.
Look for this ramp on your AR9 BCG.
The right lower parts kit
Like we said in the beginning, you can use any standard AR-15 lower parts kit to complete your AR9 lower. In order for the AR9 to use a regular AR-15 hammer included with the parts kit, your bolt carrier group will need to be ramped. The ramp is the sloped portion on the bottom of your BCG, directly underneath the striking face of the firing pin.
If your BCG is not ramped, you'll need a modified hammer to address clearance issues between the upper and lower. Most BCGs (including the G-9 Hybrid) are ramped by default.
The right upper receiver
Like we said, this is also an easy pick because the AR9 uses a regular ole' stripped upper. You can choose anyAR-15 upper, but you can even save some money by avoiding the forward assist feature. AR9 bolts don't use the forward assist.
Just like that, you now have all the information and parts data you need to build a reliable, accurate AR9!
Why not just convert an AR-15 to 9mm?
A typical AR-15 9mm conversion block.
Great question! At first glance, converting a rifle to 9mm might seem like the easier approach. All you need to do is buy a conversion block and 9mm barrel, slap in a magazine and pull the trigger, right?
Wrong. Chances are, the rifle you're converting is set up for 5.56 or .223. A bolt carrier group change is required. You'll probably have to swap out your buffer. You'll also need to pick a reliable conversion block, and you'll need to make sure the block is compatible with your parts kit, bolt, upper and lower, and magazine of choice.
Trust us, building an AR9 is ultimately easier. Thanks to the AR9 80% lower, you can even build yours without going through an FFL, paying extra taxes, grabbing money orders for fees, waiting 10 days for your purchase, and so on. Plus, you're only buying the parts you want when you build, not some accessories or added money-grabbers at the gun store.
That was a ton of info. Here's the short n' sweet: The AR9 is similar to the AR-15, but different. It uses the same upper receiver, lower parts kit, buffer system, and accessories. The AR9 uses a different lower receiver and can use either Glock or Colt magazines (depending on which parts you pick). You'll need a new 9mm barrel, and you don't need a gas system - the AR9 is blowback-operated. You can even build an AR9 with an 80% lower and regular AR-15 jig.
Now get to building! Questions about the AR9? Just call us.