Despite a previous ban, the Norinco T97 is quickly becoming one of the most popular black rifles in Canada.
It is a .223 bullpup with a 19” barrel that uses a short stroke gas piston and a rotating bolt, along with a reciprocating charging handle. At its core, the Type 97 is a civilian version of the Chinese QBZ-95 rifle; standard issue to the Peoples Liberation Army.
This is the latest version, imported by North Sylva as the T97NSR, manufactured by EMI (aka Norinco) in the People’s Republic of China.
Rather than the proprietary 5.8x42mm cartridge, the Type 97 has been converted to 5.56x45mm for the Canadian market. Along with commonly available ammunition, the T97 also benefits from STANAG magazine compatibility rather than using the curved rock-in magazines specific to the military’s rifles.
The design of the Type 97 fits into a 90s idea of small arms. Any kind of “modularity” is built around proprietary parts. There is a scope rail, but it’s specific to Chinese military optics. There is a flash hider, but not only is it pinned and welded, it uses a non-standard metric thread. As the product of a communist country: user experience comes second to the requirements of manufacture. Concepts like ambidexterity, customization, and standardization with other small arms are not prioritized.
The most glaring ergonomic flaw is the safety. It is positioned on the back of the rifle just below the shooters cheek and requires a full 180 degree rotation from Safe to Fire. The most recent QBZ rifles have been updated with a safety at the pistol grip (similar to an AR-15 or Tavor) but for years the entire family including the T97 have been stuck with this almost inaccessible safety.
Another design unique to the T97 rifle is the magazine release. Having been retrofit with a STANAG magazine well, the release lever leaves something to be desired. A button about the size of a pencil eraser sits on the right side of the rifle, leaving the shooter to go through a variety of contortions to remove and re-insert a magazine.
Some users reach their reaction hand into their arm-pit and release the magazine with their index finger, while others imitate a PLA manual of arms by using their firing hand to strip the magazine. (This is what I found most natural)
But that doesn’t mean there is no expanding the platform. The core of the rifle can be stripped away from almost all its plastic components, which certainly opens the door for industrious local entrepreneurs to produce aftermarket chassis systems, one of which is already in the testing stage: T97.ca has produced what they’re calling the FTU (Flat Top Upper.) With this setup, the rifle is permanently modified by removing the front and rear sights to allow for a proper picatinny optics rail with a lower cheek weld.
Why do Canadian shooters love this ugly beast? The government banned it once, and now we’ve finally got it back.
The T97 was originally imported in 2008 and registered as non-restricted. The QBZ and its variants were not named in our list of prohibited guns that wiped out popular bullpups like the FAMAS and AUG.
But, an RCMP investigation determined that the initial batch could be converted to full-auto fire “with relative ease.” That model was re-classified as a prohibited firearm and all the guns that had been sold into private hands were confiscated (compensation from the federal government amounted to $800 per owner.) An entire shipment of T97s destined for Canadian customers was seized. Spiraling legal battles over the abrupt seizure and defining “easily converted” led to a common cry among Canadian gun-owners: “registration leads to confiscation.”
It’s been years of subtle redesign and another rigorous approval process by the RCMP Firearms Lab, but now the T97 is back on store shelves in a 100% semi-auto form. It no longer has to be registered with the government, does not require authorization to transport or transfer, and can be fired anywhere it is legal to hunt or shoot (unlike all the AR-15 variants in Canada)
With a retail price just under a $1000, the T97 is the robust, capable black-rifle that any Canadian can afford to own and shoot, despite our flawed firearms legislation.