Bullpup vs. Conventional Rifles

bullpup vs full-length carbine rifle

Bullpups—firearms with the action behind the trigger rather than in front—have been around since the early 20th century.

In the era of bolt-actions with extra-long barrels, they were an effort to bring the overall length down without sacrificing ballistic performance.

None were adopted for serious use, in part because the reduction in overall length also reduced the iron sight radius, but mainly due to the increased mechanical complexity of the designs.

A Quick History

In the 1950s, the sight radius problem was solved with the evolution of relatively practical, non-sniper optical sights. By the 1970s, the improvement in plastics made possible the first large-scale issue of a bullpup rifle, the Steyr AUG 5.56mm.

A futuristic, organic-looking weapon with an integral 1.5x scope and vestigial iron sights, the AUG became the standard by which bullpups were judged for a couple of decades.

Adopted by more than 20 countries, gas-operated AUGs far outpaced the less-successful, iron-sighted French FAMAS.

As a result, all common complaints about the bullpup concept were based on the AUG: it was spongy, had a heavy trigger pull, was noisy and featured a gassy ejection port by the shooter’s ear.

bullpup vs full-length carbine rifleAUGs were the standard bullpup for decades.

Bullpup Pros and Cons

Bullpups also had reduced heat endurance compared to the M16, a danger to left-handed users from brass ejected into their faces.

The main advantage was the 20-inch barrel compared to about 12 inches in a similar-length conventional carbine like M4. That meant soldiers could have an effective weapon, yet still fit in armored vehicles and aircraft with it.

Long reach with bayonets, a feature prized in 1914, has since been deemphasized, so a shorter overall length has very few drawbacks.

As mentioned above, another concern has been the proximity of the chamber to the shooter’s face, requiring careful channeling of gas and metal away from it in the event of case rupture or detonation.

Finally, most bullpups tend to overheat quicker than conventional rifles due to reduced airflow around the barrel.

bullpup vs full-length carbine rifleBullpups are versatile enough for a variety of applications.

Improvement Attempts

During the 1980s and later, several companies attempted to convert existing rifles (like the Ruger Mini-14) to bullpups. The ergonomics of such efforts tended to be very poor.

The UK adopted a bullpup variant, the excellent AR-18, as the SA80, botching the design process so badly that its flaws still have not been fully resolved. This gives bullpup detractors plenty of ammunition against the concept itself.

Due to heat retention and a generally weak build, the similar L86 light machine gun has been mainly relegated to the designated marksman rifle role.

bullpup vs full-length carbine rifleBullpups like the Enfield L85 are compact yet effective.

Worldwide Adoption

Over time, as optics and manufacturing techniques improved, bullpups became considerably more common around the world. Australia, the UK, Croatia, India, France and China are some of the major users.

China has gone almost all-bullpup with QBZ army rifles and QCW submachine guns. Some bullpups, like the Belgian FN F2000 and Kel-Tec RFB, offered forward ejection in the manner of the Maxim machine gun to permit ambidextrous use.

Others, like the AUG, Israeli Tavor SAR and X95, allow switching of the ejection direction by an armorer. Singapore’s BR18 permits switching ejection direction on the fly without tools.

bullpup vs full-length carbine rifleThe X95 allows for switching of the ejection direction by an armorer.

Both the Kel-Tec RDB and Belgian P90 use bottom ejection, which is mechanically simpler. Kel-Tec rifles also solve the trigger linage problem by placing the sear over the pistol grip and using a long rigid hammer strut instead.

In the bolt-action world, the Barrett M99 puts .50 BMG power into a hand-holdable package. Desert Tech SRS and HTI are excellent examples of highly modular bullpups.

Supporting field-expedient conversions of calibers with forend, barrel and bolt head swaps by the shooter, combined with superb triggers, make these popular with long-range shooters.

bullpup vs full-length carbine rifleThe Barrett M99 puts .50 BMG power into a hand-holdable package

Practical Advantages

Besides the longer barrel length for the same overall package, bullpups have the great advantage of shifting the center of balance back. It’s much easier to shoot a bullpup offhand (accurately) than a conventional rifle.

Conventional rifles can get uncomfortably front-heavy once sound suppressors, flashlights, lasers and bipods are considered. For armies with numerous female troops, bullpups mitigate the reduction in the upper body strength.

The carbine version of a bullpup like the X95 with 13-inch barrels can even be controlled with one hand if needed. Being able to hold the forend very near the muzzle also helps reduce wobbling during aiming and muzzle climb during rapid fire.

bullpup vs full-length carbine rifleBelgium’s P90 features a mechanically simpler bottom-ejection design.

Conclusion

Like them or hate them, bullpups are with us for the foreseeable future.

What are your opinions on bullpup rifles? Thumbs up? Thumbs down? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

Leave a Reply