Ever since the days of the Henry repeating rifle, most rifles have followed the same basic blueprint, with the action and magazine of the rifle being placed in front of the rifle’s trigger. Bullpup rifles, however, flip this blueprint on its head, placing both the magazine and action of the rifle behind the trigger.
By placing the magazine and action behind the trigger, bullpup rifles are able to shorten the overall length of the rifle while at the same time keeping the same barrel length. In theory, this should allow bullpup rifles to maintain their accuracy while also making them compact enough to use effectively in close-quarter-combat situations.
These benefits have been enough to persuade some of the world’s most advanced militaries to adopt bullpup rifles as their standard issue rifle, including Israel which uses the IWI Tavor and Australia which uses the Steyr AUG. The question is if bullpup rifles really are the better design, why hasn’t the United States ditched the M4 in favor of a bullpup rifle?
The Pros and Cons of Bullpup Rifles
The most oft-cited advantage of bullpup rifles is their compact size and reduced weight. While the weight of bullpup rifles compared more conventional rifles such as the M4 is often negligible, the length of difference between the two rifle designs is significant.
In fact, bullpup rifles are on average 25% shorter than conventional rifles on the same platform. Keep in mind that bullpup rifles achieve this small size while still packing a barrel of the same length, meaning that their accuracy doesn’t suffer.
The question is whether or not this reduced length really makes much of a difference in combat. While some argue that a shorter rifle is easier to maneuver in close quarters, others will say that a 25% difference in length is largely insignificant, especially when you consider the fact that not much weight is shaved off the rifle.
Nevertheless, a shorter rifle is more ideal so long as accuracy is maintained, so most everyone will agree that bullpup rifles have the edge here even if they disagree on how important that edge is.
The second advantage of bullpup rifles concerns the rifle’s recoil. By placing the action of the rifle nearer to the shooter’s shoulder, recoil is better absorbed.
Again, however, the importance of this advantage has to be brought into question seeing as the rounds these rifles are chambered for are typically very low recoil to begin with. Muzzle climb is a much bigger concern than recoil when using rifles such as these, and bullpups have no advantage over conventional rifles when it comes to muzzle climb.
In fact, muzzle climb brings us to the first disadvantage of bullpup rifles, which is the fact that they are back heavy. With the majority of the rifle’s weight positioned at its back, muzzle climb is increased. However, this increase in muzzle climb is largely negligible since the weight at the back of the rifle is resting against the shooter’s body rather than pulling the back of the rifle down.
Perhaps the biggest drawback of bullpup rifles is the fact that they are not easily made ambidextrous. The location of the ejection port on a bullpup rifle is very near the shooter’s face. If you are a right-handed person using a right-handed bullpup this won’t be a problem, but if you switch to shooting the rifle left-handed you’re going to have to deal with hot brass flying into your face with every shot. Some bullpups such as the P90 have solved this issue by ejecting spent casing downwards, but for many other rifles it’s still an issue.
Lastly, bullpup rifles must rely on a more complex trigger system, and complexity creates room for problems and malfunctions. That’s not to say that bullpups aren’t reliable; it simply means that more moving parts equals more opportunity for problems.
It’s safe to say that bullpup rifles are neither the ideal rifle of the future that some describe them as nor the temporary fad that others believe them to be.
In the end, both bullpups and conventional rifles have advantages and drawbacks that must be considered whether you are choosing a standard issue rifle for military use or a civilian looking to purchase a semi-automatic version of these rifles.
~ American Gun News