By Maxim Popenker
The “new age of bullpup rifles” began in late ninety seventies, when two major European militaries officially adopted new 5.56mm assault rifles specifically designed in bullpup configuration. Those were Steyr AUG, adopted by Austrian military as Stg.77, and GIAT FAMAS, adopted by French army as FAMAS F1. The key reason for this was that modern infantry was seen mostly as mechanized troops that enter the battlefield aboard of armored personnel vehicles or helicopters. This put a premium on compact size of an infantry rifle, and bullpup configuration was logical solution to make rifles shorter without sacrificing ballistics. British army followed the suit in next decade, adopting highly controversial family of small arms known as SA-80, which consisted of L85 rifle and L86 light machine gun, both firing the same recently adopted 5.56mm NATO ammunition. Germans, who for some reasons tried to stay away from 5.56mm, attempted to jump ahead of everyone by developing a 4.9mm caseless HK G11 rifle, which also was of bullpup configuration. Extremely complicated, G11 faced some technical and political problems and finally went “belly up” after collapse of the USSR and Warsaw pact system in 1991.
Several other countries also tried to produce 5.56mm rifles of bullpup layout, including Belgium, China, Croatia, Israel and Singapore. Of those, Austrian Steyr AUG and Israeli Tavor TAR-21 / X95 families of weapons seems to be most commercially successful, being adopted by their respective domestic militaries and sold abroad in significant numbers. However, in terms of sheer numbers it is hard to beat Chinese Type 95 family of weapons, which include infantry Type 95 / QBZ-95 rifle, carbine and light machine gun, all based on the same bullpup design. Adopted by PLA in their indigenous 5.8×42 caliber, this family is also offered for export sales as Type 97, chambered for ubiquitous 5.56×45 NATO ammunition. In post-Soviet Russia, a unique “dual medium” (amphibious) ADS assault rifle of bullpup layout saw limited adoption by Naval Special forces.
It is interesting to note that submachine guns, whose popularity steadily declined through the end of 20th century, saw some renaissance in bullpup layout, first with highly unorthodox Belgian FN P90 PDW, and later with Chinese Type 05 SMG. Despite somewhat different layouts, both weapons share certain similarities, including special small-bore ammunition (5.7×28 in Belgian case and 5.8×22 in Chinese case) and high capacity, 50-round magazines. It seems more than feasible that Chinese Type 05 submachine gun and its ammunition were directly inspired by Belgian developments.
It must be noted that all successful bullpup weapons mentioned above were designed in this layout from the ground up. This included more or less proper placement of firing controls, adequate balance, and, most important, special care for left-hand shooters. Most successful bullpup rifles (Steyr AUG, GIAT FAMAS and IMI Tavor TAR-21) feature means to convert them for right- or left-side ejection, depending on user preferences. This conversion usually requires partial disassembly of the gun and installation of appropriate parts. While this solution seems to work for many users, it is hardly possible to switch ejection side of these weapons during actual combat. Therefore, several companies attempted to solve the ejection problem permanently, by provide some sort of “ambidextrous” ejection system. The first successful production bullpup weapon to feature truly ambidextrous ejection is Belgian FN P90 submachine gun, which ejects spent cases straight down, through the vertical channel behind the pistol grip. This became possible thanks to unorthodox placement of the magazine, which lies above the barrel, with cartridges perpendicular to the bore axis. With standard military rifle ammunition such as 5.56×45 NATO this layout becomes unfeasible, and all modern bullpup rifles feature bottom-feeding box magazines. There are only two production military assault rifles at this time that feature 100% ambidextrous ejection. Those are Belgian FN F2000 and Russian ADS. Both eject spent cases forward, and both enjoy very limited success, at least thus far. Russian system appears to be a bit more reliable, because ejection chute is noticeably shorter, with cases flying out of the gun above the pistol grip; in Belgian rifle, spent cases have to travel inside ejection chute almost all the way to the muzzle, before falling out of ejection opening at the front of forend. It must be noted that forward ejection, while extremely rarely encountered in rifles, is in fact a very old idea, first used on Maxim machine guns designed in late 19th century.
Bullpup configuration also found some appreciation among designers of sniper rifles, where barrel length is always at premium. This is especially true for large caliber anti-materiel or long range sniper rifles that have barrels about a meter long. To name a few, there’s American Barrett M90 and M95, Desert Tech HTI in 12.7×99, Russian ASVK in 12.7×108, Chinese M06 (also in 12.7×108) and LR2 (in 12.7×99), Hungarian Lynx GM-6 (12.7×99), Polish WKW Wilk (12.7×99) and some others.
Apart from specially designed bullpup weapons, there were more than few attempts to save on research and development and produce bullpup rifles by converting existing “conventional” designs. Most of these attempts faced with little success. Only few of those found its ways into military or police armories of various countries, such as High Standard Model 10 shotgun (used in small numbers by police in USA), Russian OTs-14 “Groza” assault rifle or SVU-A sniper rifle (both used in very limited numbers by Russian Law Enforcement). Most of “conversion bullpups” ended up in commercial market, and with unimpressive sales, classic examples being Valmet M82 rifle or Mossberg 500 bulpup shotgun conversion.
Therefore, some companies tried to produce “commercial” bullpup rifles with truly ambidextrous handling. So far, most successful in this venue is American company Kel-tec, which produced two commercial bullpup rifles – the 7.62×51 / .308 caliber Kel-tec RFB with forward ejection and 5.56×45 / 7.62×39 caliber Kel-tec RDB, which eject spent casings down through the chute, located behind the magazine housing. Same company also makes one of the few commercially available bullpup shotguns, the Kel-tek KSG. It has few rivals on the market, such as the Turkish-made UTAS UTS-15. Both shotguns feature dual tubular magazines with alternate feeding, and both are positioned on the market as “tactical” or “home defense” weapons. Speaking on rivals, we also have to mention MDR rifle from Desert Tech Company of USA. This modular, multi-caliber bullpup rifle with instantly switchable right-side or forward ejection would directly compete with both Kel-tec bullpup rifles.
To sum it up, it appears that bullpup configuration has firmly established itself in design of modern small arms. Like any other system it has its own pros and cons, proponents and opponents, but it is opinion of this author that its popularity will gradually increase with the time.