Pistol Frame Materials: What’s Right for Your Project?

Pistol Frame Materials: What’s Right for Your Project?

May 23rd 2024

Over the past few years, we’ve seen some wild developments in the firearm industry, with respect to pistol braces, carry, and mag bans. The prices and availability of guns and ammo have also gone through the roof.

This brings up the viability of customizing - or outright assembling - a firearm at home using a receiver, or in the case of the matter this article will cover, a pistol frame.

But which pistol frame material is the right one for you? Let’s unpack the materials commonly used as well as what they’re good for in this post.

Are Pistol Frames Legal? Is a Pistol Frame Considered a Firearm?

A pistol frame is legally considered a firearm by the ATF and therefore pistol frames are the parts that are serialized and regulated. Thus, they require an FFL transfer.

If by pistol frame you mean frame blank, also sometimes known as an 80% frame, then the legality becomes hazy.

Per the ATF, 80% pistol frames, which are not complete and cannot be used to assemble a functioning firearm, are not firearms.

However, many states have labeled 80% frames as “ghost guns” and outlawed them. Consult a firearms lawyer in your area for more information.

The information in this post is for reference only and cannot be construed as legal counsel. Please consult a lawyer for more information if you have any plans involving a frame blank.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Back in the day, firearms were made pretty much exclusively from metal, being steel, and wood. Many still are.

But things have come a long way, and now there are many pistol frames available made not only from steel (commonly referred to as alloy frames) but from aluminum and polymer.

Each of these materials offers its own advantages and disadvantages, but which one is right for your build will depend on what you expect and how you intend to use the gun.

Steel Frames

Steel frames, once basically universal, are still likely the most popular type of pistol frames as far as material is concerned.

There are numerous advantages to steel pistol frames. Steel is extremely hard, strong and dense. In the realm of firearm frames and receivers, no other material can rival it.

It has staying power, too. With proper maintenance and cleaning, a steel pistol frame will outlast you.

Steel is also heavy - a blessing and a curse. It’s no secret that a steel-framed pistol will weigh more than one with a polymer or aluminum frame. This means that steel-framed pistols absorb recoil better and also handle more surely. They’re also less prone to muzzle flip, all else being equal.

But steel is not without its drawbacks. Because it is heavy, it can be tiresome to carry all day long, and you may get fatigued more quickly shooting a steel-framed pistol than a lighter alternative.

On top of that, steel will rust. If you have a gun with a steel frame, you need to keep it clean and dry and prevent an accumulation of fouling that can accelerate wear and can trap moisture that will cause corrosion.

Aluminum Frames

Now onto aluminum frames, which offer something slightly different for shooters to appreciate, as an alternative to steel.

Aluminum is much lighter than steel, which means it is much easier for most people to carry and shoot an aluminum framed handgun with less fatigue.

Aluminum is also technically prone to corrosion, but most aluminum alloys do not corrode in the same way, or as aggressively, as steel rusts. This, to some people, gives aluminum the edge.

It is also functionally (though not actually) as strong as steel, so the tradeoff here between weight and strength is probably to aluminum’s advantage. Like steel, when properly cared for, aluminum will last basically forever.

But, the loss of weight comes at a price. Aluminum-framed handguns, all else being equal, will recoil much more harshly than their steel framed counterparts, and muzzle flip will be a different beast, too.

Ultimately, aluminum is a good choice if you are looking for strength and durability, but in a lighter format, especially if you can trust yourself to absorb the extra recoil.

Polymer Frames

This brings us to polymer frames, which were popularized by Glock pistols, and which are now quite common in the world of modern handguns.

As you might expect, polymer frames are far, far lighter than steel frames, and depending on the model and style of frame, can be lighter than aluminum, too.

Unfortunately, the price of polymer frames comes at the expense of strength and durability. They are not as strong as either type of metal frame, and not as wear resistant. With that said, there are still some very durable polymer frames.

However, the lighter weight is very attractive to some, as polymer-framed pistols can be carried and fired for longer, sustained periods with less fatigue.

Just be aware that recoil will be harsher, as will muzzle flip, in a polymer-framed handgun, all else being equal.

One distinct advantage of polymer frames is that they are immune to corrosion. Though you should keep your pistol and its frame clean, a polymer frame will never rust or corrode.

Other Considerations

                     pistol frame

In addition to pistol frame material, here are some other things to take into consideration:

  • Does it have a full dust cover? The longer the dust cover on a pistol frame, the heavier it will be, but the better it will protect your slide against dust and other particulate matter. A longer dust cover will keep the pistol cleaner for longer, although this is a minor consideration.
  • Does it have an accessory rail in front of the trigger guard? Many pistol frames have accessory rails mounted on the dust cover under the slide. All else being equal, look for a frame that has one of these. It will make adding attachments to the pistol, like lasers and weapon-mounted lights easier, and if you don’t want to use it, you don’t need to.
  • What is the size of the frame? the size of a pistol frame, in addition to the material, will impact the weight. Larger frames will weigh more and be harder to conceal, whereas smaller frames will have a smaller footprint, carry more easily, and be less likely to print .

Questions About Pistol Frames? Get in Touch with Us

Still not sure what material or style of pistol frame is best for your build? Get in touch with us 610-250-3960 and we will be more than happy to help you find the parts you need to complete your project.