What are the best bullpup rifles around?
Both bullpup rifles and shotguns have been staple firearms since the early 1900s, impressing enthusiasts from military forces to home defense users.
These compact firearms can perform as well as any full-length rifle for many tasks, but — as with any firearm configuration — there are both pros and cons to the bullpup orientation.
We’ll go through some of the best bullpups on the market today as well as some background knowledge on what these rifles are all about.
Since its introduction in the 1970s, the Steyr AUG (German “Armee Universal Gewehr” — or “universal army rifle”) has been an iconic incarnation of the bullpup, eventually being adopted by more than 20 national military forces across the globe.
The future is now!
It’s consistently among the top-of-the-line when it comes to 5.56mm bullpups. The rifle is known for its versatility in excelling in a variety of roles, maneuverability with a fully ambidextrous set-up, modularity, and lightweight — thanks to the polymer and alloy components that make up the majority of the furniture — helping it tip the scales at around nine pounds and 28.15 inches in length.
A beautifully modern performer…
The AUG A3 M1 Rifle has softer recoil despite the bullpup orientation due to the ring mechanism being contained in the rear of the stock. It’s a beautifully modern rifle that lets you customize it to fit your preferences.
The AUG’s 16-inch heavy barrel gives you the optimal length for 5.56mm ammunition — all while 8 inches shorter than an M4 carbine. It also vents gas by default, meaning it’ll eat any ammo you can find and run just as well with underpowered ammunition.
With its versatility and remarkable precision, the Steyr AUG is easily one of the best bullpup rifles you can find.
…with some caveats.
As with most bullpup rifles, the trigger is connected to a transfer bar, then to the hammer/sear, which can make for a spongy feel and heavier than traditional rifles.
Also, while the AUG’s birdcage flash-hider does a great job of eliminating muzzle flash (which is good considering how close the muzzle is to your face) the barrel’s threaded with a proprietary metric thread pitch, which means if you want to put a can on the AUG you’ll need to shell out for an adapter.
Speaking of suppression — when you suppress an AUG, the rifle is still rather loud because the excess gas generated by a suppressor will vent out to gas regulator. Not a deal-breaker for most, but you don’t get innovative omelets without breaking a few eggs.
The IWI Tavor 16” Bullpup Rifle is an Israeli semi-automatic bullpup that has, since 2009, been the standard issue weapon of Israeli infantry. Designed to provide carbine length with rifle muzzle velocity — all while just 26-inches long with a 16.5-inch cold-hammer-forged chrome-lined barrel — the Tavor is a proven performer.
The reinforced polymer stock material is durable and light –helping to keep the Tavor around 7.9 lbs and making close-quarters maneuvering quick and snappy. This small footprint also minimizes user silhouette and maximizes effectiveness when navigating corners.
The rifle has ejection ports on both sides of the action, and while reconfiguring this for left or right-handed use requires partial disassembly, it’s a fantastic feature.
Well known for their bullpup shotgun, the Kel-Tec KSG, their RFB bullpup rifle, or “Rifle, Forward-ejection, Bullpup” uses a novel approach to handling hot brass. To prevent spent cartridges from being ejected into the face of left-handed shooters, the RFB has a patented forward-ejection system that uses an over-barrel tube ejects spent cases forward, over the rifle‘s handguard and away from the user.
The empty cases will sit in the chute until the barrel is tilted downwards, they’re pushed out by subsequent cases, or the charging handle is activated. The cases drop to the left of the barrel when they leave the chute.
In addition to the usability of the forward-ejecting system, the RFB is lightweight at only 6.9 lbs making it one of the lightest ambidextrous bullpup rifles on the market.
Known for its oversize pills and ability to hit targets more than a mile away, the Barrett Model 99 tries to make the normally unwieldy Barrett .50 calibers a bit more manageable. Not only is it about a foot shorter than other Barrett rifles but it’s roughly ten pounds lighter than the semi-auto Barrett M82.
While this rifle is certainly on the large side when it comes to bullpup rifles, and is limited to a single-shot capacity, the M99 is perfect for long-distance shooting while still being fairly mobile. Plus, this rifle uses a huge muzzle brake to help reduce muzzle rise and recoil and has a remarkably simple design with very few moving parts for the ultimate in reliable long-distance dependability.
The FN PS90 has a unique, innovative design that performs as incredibly as it looks. Notable features of this bullpup are the unique sliding trigger, top-mounted magazine, and bottom ejection port. This is a completely ambidextrous rifle which makes it incredibly versatile and was built from FN’s desire for a personal defense weapon (PDW) that was compact enough for land and air vehicle crews with the power of an assault rifle at 150–200 yards.
To meet these requirements, the P90 uses a unique 5.7x28mm round, which is slightly larger than the standard 9mm but delivers an initial muzzle velocity of 850 m/sec – on par with the 7.62x51mm rifle round.
At 26.23 inches long overall with a 16-inch barrel, the FN PS90 is a proven rifle that provides an unbeatable mix of stopping power and mobility.
What is a bullpup rifle?
What sets bullpup rifles apart from traditional rifles the rearward-set action, which is located behind the grip. This means that the barrel, bolt, and magazine connect behind the trigger rather than in front.
These differences change the handling characteristics of bullpup rifles and can offer several distinct advantages, especially when applied to close-quarters combat.
Their shorter overall length helps them with maneuverability while maintaining the accuracy and barrel length of a standard rifle, preventing the shortcomings of shorter barrels on modern rifle rounds.
Where did they come from?
Bullpup rifles first debuted around 1901 with the Thorneycroft carbine from Great Britain. These rifles were seldom used due to excessive recoil and rather terrible ergonomics.
Enter “The Balanced Rifle”
The French Lt. Col. Armand-Frédéric Faucon’s “Fusil équilibré,” or “balanced rifle” landed in 1910 and offered slightly better usability — even if it was intended to enable soldiers to, for some reason, fire their weapon with a single hand.
This oddity found some use in the first World War as the Faucon-Meunier rifle in select conflicts, and up through WWII both the British and Americans were trying to develop a bullpup rifle that would fit the bill — to no avail — meaning bullpup rifles were on the shelf until sufficient innovation could produce a viable candidate.
Garand Enters the Game
Interest in the design was such that even the famed John C. Garand (yes, that Garand) spent the better part of the 1940s and 1950s trying to crack the code on a viable bullpup.
His final rifle design, the T-31 bullpup rifle, fired the same cartridge as the M1, but used a bullpup orientation for the magazine & action. It never got much beyond the drawing board, and when Garand retired in 1953 the T-31 was scrapped, and eventually related to the Springfield Armory Museum in 1961.
70 years later…
Despite the better part of a century of effort by some of the U.S. and U.K.’s best and brightest, it wasn’t until the mid-Seventies that the first fully functional bullpup rifle hit the market– the Austrian-made Steyr AUG.
It suits, then, that the Austrian Army of the 1970s became the first to use bullpup rifles in military service with the AUG, and many other countries followed suit — adopting bullpup rifles post Cold War. Australia, Israel, China, The United Kingdom, France, and Singapore have all featured bullpup rifles in military combat or as standard-issue rifles.
Curiously a semi-automatic gas-operated bullpup shotgun, the Model 10, beat the AUG on the market by a decade, but that’s a story for another day.
Do they actually see much use?
As mentioned above, military forces the world-over use bullpup rifles to this day. They’re designed for close-quarters work in enclosed spaces like abandoned houses or bunkers. The United States has yet to formally adopt bullpup weapons but they certainly have proven their viability in military operations.
Outside of the armed forces, bullpups are often embraced by everyday citizens for home defense. They are more accurate than standard shotguns and easier to maneuver as well.
Bullpups are used by competition shooters when maneuverability is the main focus. Some courses will require you to move around a room with many obstacles and bullpup rifles provide an advantage in these environments.
Bullpups aren’t generally embraced for long-range target shooting but when you need mobility and rifle-level stopping power it’s hard to find a better option than bullpups.
Advantages of the Bullpup Rifle
Increased maneuverability is the main advantage of bullpup weapons. Usually, these guns are more compact than standard rifles or shotguns which makes them great for close-quarters combat.
Plus, the design allows for the use of a standard-length barrel, so you won’t have to worry about sacrificing accuracy or muzzle velocity for maneuverability, which will happen with shorter barrels.
Some designers offer lighter weight both due to a smaller stock footprint and a tendency towards plastics and polys. Bullpup rifle designs also move the center of mass toward the user, which reduces the amount of torque necessary to move the rifle. This helps prevent fatigue and enables more effective use when on the move or running.
That's a lot of hot brass right by your mug.
Bullpup rifles which eject casings directly to the left or right of the action can be tough for left-handed shooters because the hot brass can come close to their face. There’s no shortage of stories of folks getting bouncing hot casings from their new bullpup off their cheek.
More recent bullpup designs, however, have addressed this problem with downward or forward ejection.
Another shortcoming of bullpups is that many are tail-heavy due to the rearward position of the action. Moving the center of gravity toward the user can create a natural imbalance for some people — causing a bullpuped weapon’s muzzle to rise when fired, negatively impacting accuracy. For this reason, new bullpup owners should plan for a significant amount of range time to master the different shooting dynamics.
Also, the magazine’s position behind the grip can make quick reloads a challenge — another reason for quality range time to master loading, unloading, and reloading the weapon.
Don’t plan on using drum mags either — tucking those into your shoulder will require a level of familiarity with contortionism beyond what most could hope to muster.
While extremely rare, a catastrophic failure with a bullpup weapon is more dangerous than with traditional rifles because the barrel and action are closer to the user’s body, head, and neck.
All-in-all, bullpup rifles are largely situationally-focused firearms that work incredibly well in short-ranged or urban combat. There are drawbacks, but with sufficient range time and a quality firearm, there’s no reason a bullpup shouldn’t find a home in your safe.
- The Armourer’s Bench, The Curtis Rifle – The First Repeating Bullpup
- Reddit, Meunier 5 “Fusil Équilibré”
- Small Arms Review, The Incredible US Model 45
- Armament Research, British Thorpe EM1 automatic rifle
- Military Wikia, Steyr AUG
- Military Wikia, Bullpup
- National Interest, Why Israel’s Tavor Rifle is a Military Wonder Weapon , September 22, 2019
- John C Garand and the T-31 Bullpup
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