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I think this comes from the National Firearms Act (actual experts here correct me if wrong).

A pistol is theoretically able to be fired with one hand, has no buttstock (but a brace is OK) and no vertical foregrip.
If it has a barrel length of less than 16 inches and a buttstock or vertical foregrip, it has to be registered as a short-barreled rifle, which is not something most civilians would want to have to do.
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