The Dawn of Short: Early Bullpup Firearms

Early-bullpups-01

Maxim Popenker, Russian small arms expert and author (and TFB contributor), has begun a three-part series of articles on the origins of the bullpup concept, one which many now believe represents the future of individual small arms:

Traditionally, a firearm in the “bullpup” configuration is defined as a gun whose trigger and firing hand grip are located ahead of the breech area. This also means that the bolt, the magazine and other working parts are usually located inside or above the shoulder stock.

If compared with traditional layouts, this configuration offers obvious advantages in terms of overall lenght and balance; some of its disadvantages include a generally more awkward reloading and/or magazine insertion design, lack of user-friendliness for left-handed shooters (to say the least) and a firing chamber positioned very close to the shooter’s face.

Bullpup designs became possible and feasible only after the introduction of metallic cartridges, which allowed ignition systems to be integrated within the action of the gun − a firing pin in the bolt, that is.

A diagram from the patent issued to Armand-Frédéric Faucon for his “balanced rifle”, dated 1911

A diagram from the patent issued to Armand-Frédéric Faucon for his “balanced rifle”, dated 1911

The earliest recorded bullpup rifle was patented in the United Kingdom around 1902 by Scotsman James Baird Thorneycroft; his intent was to come out with a compact-sized rifle which would, at the same time, retain the barrel lenght and thus the effective range of a conventionally-sized military rifle.

In order to achieve his goal, Thorneycroft moved the action and magazine all the way back and into the shoulder stock, and located the trigger in front of the magazine area. This called for a necessarily long transfer bar, which ran inside the stock and around the magazine.

The Thorneycroft rifle was tested in several variants by the British Army, but was rejected in favor of the traditionally-designed “Short-Magazine, Lee-Enfield” rifle, or SMLE.

More or less in the same timespan, another British inventor and Army officer − Major Philip Thomas Godsal − patented his own bullpup bolt-action rifle; despite numerous later improvements, it also ended up in a failure, with no military or civilian buyer interested.

The bullpup concept is one that I view as highly analogous to the addition of a folding stock on a conventional rifle. Both have distinct advantages, both have their own die-hard proponents, and both come with some kind of material cost. The bullpup layout introduces extra complexity, cost, weight, inconvenience, or all four to a degree. These limitations are surmountable given enough development in materials and manufacturing, but for the time being they are penalties that those seeking to adopt the concept must account for.



Nathaniel F

Nathaniel is a history enthusiast and firearms hobbyist whose primary interest lies in military small arms technological developments beginning with the smokeless powder era. In addition to contributing to The Firearm Blog, he runs 196,800 Revolutions Per Minute, a blog devoted to modern small arms design and theory. He can be reached via email at nathaniel.f@staff.thefirearmblog.com.


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  • Riot

    Bullpup is great layout for an assault rifle.
    The assault rifle is meant to shoot like a subpar sharpshooters rifle, handle like a bad machine pistol and run like a poor LMG.
    All that barrel length and that compactness for some different ergonomics and a trigger linkage is the best of all the trade offs an assault rifle can make.

    • Those advantages don’t come for free, however.

      • roguetechie

        Right on with the comment about the advantages not coming for free. However I am not 100% certain I agree about some of the tradeoffs you noted being 100% part of the deal.

        I think every single one is part of the deal if one wants to design a bullpup arm around an operating system from a conventional rifle. The counterpoint to this is the TKB-022 and the fg-42. The Tkb-022 has an operating system no one would bother with for a conventional rifle, and also which would work badly in one I imagine. Because of this though it actually maintained a pretty acceptable weight and could fairly easily be adapted to a 6 position butt plate arrangement with a comparable LOP to an AR 6 Position across it’s adjustment range. And the fg42 had its own unique contributions that help assemble a couple other puzzle pieces. (admittedly the biggest trick with the fg42 pieces is getting a version firearms technology branch will sign off on.)

        I think that until we see a group willing to accept a more radical departure from conventional design we won’t see the bullpup killer app.

        However all that being said, and having a bizarre love affair with the idea of bullpups, I still have conventional configuration go to guns.

        P.s: That last mea culpa illustrates another issue. This hilarious idea of one gun to rule them all is counterproductive in so many ways, but damn is it nice when I decide I need to build a new AR or AK

        • iksnilol

          Acceptable weight and the Korobov? It was better than acceptable in regards to weight. Heaviest config was 2.8 kg, the improved version was 2.3 kg. That’s lighter than the M4. Regarding the LOP, I believe the Korobov is the best candidate for a bullpup with adjustable LOP. I was thinking some sort of sliding pistol grip. With an electronic trigger it wouldn’t even affect trigger pull characteristics.

  • TechnoTriticale

    BPs also raise the issue of KIFTO:
    Kaboom Is Fatal To Operator

    Owning one might make someone a much more cautious reloader.

    • guest

      One has to be a cautious reloader no matter what firearm and what calibre. Bullpups in no way relate to idiots who double-charge and whatever else.

    • G0rdon_Fr33man

      Having the bolt lodged in your eye socket and/or brain, may cause blindness of death. Reloaders beware.

      • Dracon1201

        I’ve never seen this happen with a bullpup.

        • G0rdon_Fr33man

          My point was rather that reloading comes with potential hazards no matter the configuration.

    • I’ve seen the aftermaths of a few bullpup kBs, none were fatal to the shooter, so far as I recall.

      • iksnilol

        Itmakes sense with the inline design that a bullpup kabooming won’t kill you. Worst case scenario you get shrapnel in your face and a bolt in your shoulder.

        Stuff like FALs and AKs has the bolt inline with your eye.

        Though, no matter the layout most guns are designed to fail in the safest way.

    • ostiariusalpha

      An AR-15 KB will disassemble your face more frequently than any purpose-designed, non-kit bullpup. AUG, F(S)2000, Tavor, etc. are all very resistant to breaches that would injure the shooter.

      • JSmath

        I’ve only ever heard of AR-15 KB’s hurting hands, not faces.

  • Wetcoaster

    How is the length of pull for bullpups varied for different sized shooters? Conventional rifles had different length butts for that purpose, and retractable stocks are now much more common. Do bullpups go with buttpad spacers?

    • The Croatian VHS bullpup has a collapsible stock.

      • Judging from the dimensions, VHS2’s stock only adjusts from “too long” to “way too long.” If I’m reading the factory stats correctly, the VHS2 with its stock collapsed is actually longer than the original VHS1 with its fixed stock.

        • roguetechie

          They also have the tallest average height of any nation for males. Or this is what I read at one point. However I didn’t actually bother to look it up so YMMV

        • Yallan

          I suspected that to be the case. Seems VHS-2 vs Steyr Aug F90/EF88 is going to be a close call in the French competition.

          Australians are taller than average for sure, but they are trying to get other races apart from just white into infantry, as it’s not representative of Australia population.

    • ostiariusalpha

      Conventional rifles didn’t come with adjustable stocks until the ’90s, unless you’re talking about precision rifles. Even collapsible stocks were just two-position in the old days; the average soldier adjusted himself to the stock, not the other way around. On the M16, the A1 and A2 stocks were different lengths because of the conflicting requirements of the Marines & the Army, not to accommodate grunts.

      • Erm, the Colt Carbines have had collapsible stocks since the Colt 607 of 1965.

        • ostiariusalpha

          Erm, that’s just another two-position stock, N-man. It wasn’t created to accommodate the rifleman’s arm length, just his operating space. Like I wrote, multi-position stocks are a innovation of the ’90s.

          • The units that used them would cut a new position to fit the user, actually.

        • iksnilol

          Collapsible=/=Adjustable

          • The units that used them would cut a new position to fit the user, actually.

          • iksnilol

            Sounds like a classic case of Magyvering, but it wasn’t issued nor made like that originally.

          • ostiariusalpha

            Right, mods do not an adjustable stock make. You can buy replacement butt pads for many bullpups to change the LOP, or just MacGyver one. You don’t need a tape measure and a set of tools to alter an M4’s LOP.

          • iksnilol

            Nowadays stocks are adjustable. But the old ones weren’t, they were just two-position affairs.

            Problem with bullpups and adjustable LOP is the minimum LOP. The shorter the shortest LOP, the less length savings.

            I think the LOP/adjustability issue isn’t as big as people want it to be. I consider an adjustable stock a luxury, not something that’s needed but is nice to have. Otherwise we would have had adjustable stocks way sooner.

      • Wetcoaster

        Didn’t realize all the stocks were the same length. Lee Enfields had different length stocks available. I expected that something like that would have been possible (not necessarily implemented, of course) for most rifles that have a separate stock or the stock would be made short and length increased by adding spacers to the butt of the stock.

    • Bullpups typically do not have any adjustment, instead typically they get away with having long lengths of pull by having a more rearward distributed point of balance.

      M4 Carbines and guns with similar adjustable stocks are often fired fully collapsed, either for reasons of expediency or the use of body armor or whatever. Because bullpups do not have any adjustment, and they typically have such a long length of pull, it’s not entirely fair to compare the overall lengths of bullpups and conventional rifles with the lengths of pull held constant between each. In some cases, it is most fair to compare a bullpup to a conventional with its stock partially or fully collapsed. The bullpups will generally still possess a length advantage, but the difference will be more like 4-5″ than 8-10″.

  • Esh325

    The only bullpup I’ve ever shot was a Steyr AUG and I found it to be one of the most unuser friendly assault rifles I’ve ever shot, even the range officers appeared to struggle with it. With that said, the AUG is an older generation rifle, and I think the newer generation of bullpups like the Tavor,VHS2, and bullpup MSBS, address the flaws of previous generation bullpups.

    • I think the AUG is pretty user-friendly. We seem to be diametrically opposed in our opinions on just about everything.

      • Esh325

        True, there are few things we agree on lol. I mean I was used to shooting AK’s,AR15’s, and M14’s at that point so the AUG Was different from everything I shot. Perhaps somebody who has only shot bullpups would think the same thing if they picked up an AR15 or AK. Rifles are a mass produced weapon and it obviously isn’t going to satisfy everybody, so they design them to satisfy MOST users ergonomic needs, not everybody’s. You’ll always have somebody that isn’t comfortable with a certain type of weapon.

      • iksnilol

        I should track down an AUG in the future. Doesn’t Austria and Ireland use them?

        Since you actually have experience with AUGs: how’s the charging handle and ejection in regards to impromptu offhand shooting? That and the trigger, how us it and can it be changed out for something good?

        • KestrelBike

          Australia uses them*
          Either steyr or some licensing contractor who’s going to update them, or something? Can’t remember but I believe there was a TFB article about it in the past year or so.

          • Thales-Australia is handling the “Aus-Steyr” upgrade.

          • Austria -and- Australia. After all, Steyr Mannlicher is an Austrian company!

          • idahoguy101

            Australia made them under license from Steyr for Australia and New Zealand. Since adoption they’d modified the original design. I’m unaware that Thales could export their version to anyone but New Zealand

          • iksnilol

            Yes, Australia made an updated version. But Australia is too far for me, so Austria or Ireland it is for me.

            There is a bunch of other countries that use it aswell but they mostly issue them to Special Forces and the like.

  • Vitor Roma

    We are in a very special moment when it comes to bullpups. The Tavor allows a good trigger, it is realiable, but not lefty friendly. I find the kel-tec rdb to be an amazing design, only hoping for a good execution. The DT MDR also seems very promising, specially the .308 and the .300BLK for the 10.5 barrel version.

    • JSmath

      The Tavor can be configured very handily for lefties in a few minutes without tools, though.

    • Huh?

      Um, did you just use the words “Tavor” and “good trigger” in the same sentence? Since when is 11 lbs “good”?

      • LCON

        The Stock factory trigger does leave something to be desired. Supposedly there is a match set that can improve it.

      • Vitor Roma

        I said “allows”, since the trigger pack is quite easy to replace and there are already 3 good replacement triggers. But yeah, the stock trigger sucks.

        • Huh?

          But you can’t even shoot hogs with a Tavor!!
          (Wait for it)
          .
          .
          .
          It wouldn’t be Kosher!
          Badum-bum

    • Laserbait

      And don’t forget the Keltec RFB. Full ambidextrous, good trigger (great trigger for a bullpup), and 7.62 NATO.

  • Kivaari

    So far I have never found a bull pup rifle to have any redeeming social value. When they are totally ambidextrous and fire the 556mm round they may gain some attention. When they feel like a M4 carbine – they might be worth a look.

    • iksnilol

      Isn’t the F2000 totally ambi (not requring any parts change for left-handed use)? Also, you can fire plenty of them left-handed without a problem. Just use a brass deflector.

    • BrandonAKsALot

      The FS2000 is probably the most under appreciated bullpup there is. It’s a fantastic rifle and is completely ambidextrous. Well, you can’t swap the charging handle, but that’s usually not too big of a deal. It even exceeded all the trials it was put through because there was a lot of concern of the ejection tube being clogged by debris. The tube had to basically be epoxied to stop it from functioning if I remember correctly. I’m trying to find the source on that trial.

      • ostiariusalpha

        Damn straight! Even if they just accomplished it accidentally, the ejection chute on the F2000/FS2000 is virtually infallible. My FS2000, like the majority of this FNH bullpup, is overly sensitive about it’s magazine’s feed lip geometry and doesn’t at all like followers that aren’t anti-tilt. Fixing malfs is a bit of a hassle, the toilet seat is generally useless for anything besides observation of the internals. The plastic locking toggle on the charging handle is delicate & should always be replaced; the iron sights are absurdly short & should certainly be replaced; the magazine gaskets limit your selection to STANAG mags & should probably be removed on a civilian gun (though I kept mine). But, so help me, I do so love my tactical tuna star blaster.

        • BrandonAKsALot

          Most of the things about it that are complaints are subjective. I’ve never had an issue with mags because I understood, when buying it, that I’d only be able to really use GI mags. Clearing malfunctions is definitely not easy at first and mostly because it’s radically different than what most are used to using. I definitely get the complaints about the charging handle, but the only time I have ever used it was to clear a misfeed. The gasket doesn’t bother me personally, but, again, that’s personal preference. The irons do suck, but I suppose they expect an optic will be used anyway.

    • Max Glazer

      Have a look at A-91M. I know they are not available to anyone other then Russian Special Forces. But the forward ejection solves the problems.

  • nadnerbus

    I know it doesn’t fall into the assault rifle category, but I always thought the P90 was a great way to lay out a bullpup gun (in theory, never used one).

    Magazine loads from the top and up front, so mag changes are easy to do ambi and are not so far behind and under the shooting hand. Brass ejects straight down, so no left/right conflict (though brass could present a tripping hazard). Ambi controls, and I’ve seen spacers to increase length of pull for those that find it too short (though that might be more to comply with OAL restrictions).

    If a 5.56 rifle could be made in the same layout, it would seem like it would be very user friendly. Though perhaps increasing the size of the round would make the design unworkable.

    • BrandonAKsALot

      Using a larger cartridge would present some issues for sure. I love the PS90 and it’s a very well executed bullpup in my opinion. The magazine being on top does present issue with mounting optics though. There isn’t much real estate and it’s pretty high over bore which isn’t a big deal for the 5.7 as you usually are going to be shooting out more than 100 yards or so. I wish they would ditch the AUG style trigger in them though as it just makes them inherently long pulls. Same with the FS2000.

  • Gallan

    Tavor is still a first generation bullpup rifle just with rails.

    The second generation of bullpup rifles need to be able to shoot from the off shoulder quickly (true ambidextrous) and allow quick shortening and lengthening of the stock. The latter is important as it takes into account the wearing of body armour and thick shoulder straps to get a consistent cheekweld. So far the only second generation bullpup rifle is the VHS-2. Although it’s possible the new Steyr Aug variant F90/EF88 may also qualify, it’s still being designed.

  • iksnilol

    I don’t really see the need to remove the full forward ejection. Just the tube needs to be taller up IMO so that you can use a telescopic suppressor.

    Regarding mag changes, a magwell could work well. Or that spin-kick thingy that the AK-12 has could be used for rock-n-lock magazines.

    You could also flip the mechanism upside down and use magazines like the P90. Though that wouldn’t be a popular idea. Because that would be awkward mag changes no matter how you look at it (+ proprietary mags).

    • roguetechie

      See going with the middie forward eject lets you slip a can on up front in some versions. (knew I forgot one of my key reasons why I wanted to truncate the forward ejection tube damnit!)

      Also I mentioned I have a few ideas for dealing with the magazine situation, but didn’t clarify my statement really for the simple reason that I am going to be experimenting with several of my possible ideas in the next 18 months.

      Hopefully the end result will be the ability to use legacy magazines as well as upgraded magazines that help solve the face down *** up prone position many pups with standard capacity magazines seem to naturally create. Also I’ve got a couple ergonomics experiments also in the works which hopefully will combine to make quick shoulder changes with body armor and gear on from any standard shooting position much more natural. The same experiment series is also targeted at making mag swaps with support hand easily learnable, and making said mag change while maintaining strong hand on the pistol grip & sight picture a much less cirque de soleil contortionist act type activity!

      However at the end of the day I’m not wedded to either configuration as plainly superior, nor do I really have a favorite horse in the race between conventional and unconventional configurations. I’m strictly in favor of using the best tool for the job at hand. In many ways this is what has drawn me to the bullpup concept in the first place, since if done right, it allows a more compact package very conducive to air mobile, mechanized/panzergrenadier, and fighting in close range while not giving up on actually making a shot on a fleeting target of opportunity at extended range. To me it’s a great choice for armies that focus on superior training and interlocking combined arms tactics as well as having a strong tradition of riflemen in the national psyche.