Ah, yes, the bullpup rifle. So many manufacturers have tried it, but so few have succeeded. The bullpup is something of an enigma to many shooters and rightfully so. Today we are going to be talking all things bullpup, from what you can expect to what you need to know to use one correctly.
The general description of a bullpup is a rifle that has an action located behind the grip and trigger. This usually places the bolt directly below the shooter’s cheek when the gun is mounted. The main benefit to the rear-loading bullpup configuration is that it can house a full (legal) barrel length in a more compact overall package.
Most bullpups are right at the legal minimum overall length of 26 inches. They fall into the same rough length class as most military submachine guns.
The first thing to know about bullpups is that they are compromises. They tend to be overpriced and fail to deliver in a number of departments that one would expect a modern rifle to excel in.
I have fired just about all the modern bullpups including the semi-automatic IWI Tavor X95 (seen above), to the classic Austrian Steyr AUG, the bolt-action Desert Tech Stealth Recon Scout (SRS), and Kel-Tec KSG shotgun. I can sum up my experience with the entire bullpup concept as disappointingly underwhelming.
The bullpup design offers, at least in my opinion, very few advantages to the modern shooter. Some of the least accurate modern rifles I have fired have been bullpups. I’ve shot some that couldn’t hold 5 inches at 100 yards, which is appalling for a $1,800+ gun.
I recently fired the new SIG SAUER MPX Copperhead with a 3.5” barrel chambered in 9mm that grouped better at 100 yards than some of the 5.56 bullpups I’ve tested over the years.
The only truly accurate bullpup I’ve used were the Desert Tech SRS A1 bolt action rifles. The gun was 26 inches long and had a 16-inch chambered barrel in .308 Winchester.
The rifle was a lights-out tack driver that just kept going and going. The only problem was, the price tag was over $4,000. Without an optic.
While it performed extremely well, the damn thing was about $2,500 too expensive to justify the short length. Most 16-inch bolt actions with a folding stock come in at about 26” overall length anyway and you won’t have to use all the proprietary parts the SRS uses.
Bullpups are generally more expensive than their traditional counterparts. I get asked why all the time and the answer is that there’s more that goes into making them tick.
The reason we have $450 AR-15 rifles today is because they are an open-source design and the market is saturated. Most bullpups don’t survive in the market for very long, have hard-to-find parts, and appeal to a small, niche audience. Since the designs are proprietary and protected, the ability to reduce cost through widespread manufacturing isn’t there.
The advantages of a bullpup essentially center on its compact form factor. They work well in close quarters situations like home defense. But that compactness comes at a price.
Barrels rarely free-float. Triggers are usually mushy and long, sometimes comparable to a double-action revolver. The inherent accuracy just isn’t there for the most part. The logic bullpup fans try to use is that they get extra velocity in a close quarters scenario, but that’s pretty weak considering that a 10.5” AR pistol in 5.56mm doesn’t lose much to a 16” bullpup at 200 yards and in, but is certainly going to be more accurate and easier to handle.
The ergonomic situation with most bullpups is a challenge. I’d describe many as ungainly and thick with a rearward center of gravity. This is something bullpup enthusiasts like to point out is a good thing, but I don’t think it is due to the fact that the guns are harder to point and awkward to shoulder quickly.
Then there’s the whole ejection port situation. Because of the location the port close to the butt (i.e., TAVOR SAR), they can launch hot brass into your body depending on whether you’re left or right handed. Others, like the FN PS90 avoid this with downward or even forward ejection (FS2000) of spent brass.
The bullpups’ small size is great in confined areas, but I find them hard to aim precisely due to the fact that the support arm is always tucked in because of how short most bullpup forends are.
So what do you get when you spend about $2,000 on a relatively inaccurate, poorly balanced rifle? Well, if you think I hate bullpups, you’d be wrong. The X95 is one of my favorite rifles in .300 Blackout. It’s an exceptional rifle for what it is.
But if you try to make a bullpup a match gun, you’ll be disappointed. The design of a semi-auto bullpup just won’t let you get there. To enjoy the bullpup design, you’ll need to shake off the American idea of marksmanship and look at how our contemporaries see their native guns.
The idea of ‘match grade’ service rifles is sort of an American thing and it is the reason we have such a long history and tradition of marksmanship in both civilian and military circles. The ability of the US soldier to hit individual targets with his rifle has been a hallmark of the American way of fighting. It was a trait that was seen as cowardly by our enemies in the Revolutionary War and became something to be feared in every war thereafter.
Europeans, and by default their former colonies and created states, have struggled to grasp the culture of marksmanship that we’re so fond of. As a result, most bullpups are not designed with accuracy being the first consideration. The British SA80 and FAMAS from France are examples of this type of rifle in current NATO service.
The Israeli X95 is a great gun, probably the very best bullpup ever made, and even it fails to deliver acceptable accuracy at most ranges. I have fired both the 5.56mm NATO and 300 BLK versions. These are not long-range or sniper rifles. They’re best inside of 200 yards on man-sized targets. Compare this to many AR rifles in the same price range, where I have been able to fire at 600+ yards with minimal prep right out of the box.
When it comes to best practices with your bullpup, I have a few recommendations. The first of these is to replace the factory trigger with a new trigger group. The triggers on most bullpups leave a lot to be desired and a good American upgrade makes a huge difference.
The second thing is magazine size. I find 30-round mags awkward in a bullpup as it makes them very butt-heavy. Twenty-round mags are where it’s at for me, as you can get prone without running the risk of bottoming out the magazine on the ground.
Lastly, I think a reflex sight or something similar works best on a bullpup. I have shot them with magnified optics and find it to be clumsy at best.
Today’s market is heavily saturated with a lot of good guns. You can buy an AR-15 for almost nothing these days to the point where there is almost no excuse to not have one. And then there’s the proliferation of AR pistols and braces that cut into the bullpup’s size selling point.
The bullpup market has always been a niche and limited. Most shooters won’t ever own or shoot one, but they are fun and worth it if you go in with the right expectations.