Top 6 Special Forces Guns that are NOT AR-15s

Steve Johnson
by Steve Johnson

A little over eight years ago I published a map of the world showing countries which had adopted the AR-15 either as a primary service rifle, or as a niche special forces weapon. Back then about half the world was using the AR-15.

(Ironically this map was made just after Georgia adopted the M4 Carbines and M16 rifles given to them by the USA. Shortly after publishing the map the 2008 Russo-Georgian diplomatic crisis happened and Russian captured and destroyed most of them.)

Today, the map would look a lot more “blue” that it did back then. It is not necessarily the service rifle of choice around the world, although each year one or two countries adopt the AR in one of its many guises, but special forces around the world seem to love it. I believe they love it because of three reasons:

  1. Unlimited customizability both from the manufacturer and after purchase.
  2. Cost. Not all AR-15s are made equal, and while the sky’s the limit for high-end custom AR-15/10 rifles with 0.5 MOA, M4 clones can be purchased cheaply locally or internationally (China).
  3. Prestige. There is only one superpower, and they use the AR-15. It stands to reason that the AR-15 must be the best! Even organizations and countries that claim to hate the USA are using the AR-15 (ISIS, Iran for example).

As a gun lover, AR-15 mania is taking its toll. I want to see new and interesting designs, not a slightly different AR-15. Alex C calls this “ AR Fatigue“. Now before the fan boys and girls jump in to tell me what an amazing design the AR-15 is, let me just say I am not disputing that. The AR-15 is a nothing short of a phenomenon. We would all be poorer has the AR-15 never been invented and its patents expired. But still I crave something new, something different.

Anyway, getting back to the subject at hand, this got me thinking, what guns are popular with special forces are not AR-15s. I am limiting this list to guns that serve as a primary weapon, not a secondary/side arm.

Number 6: VSS Vintorez

(C) Plomarkie

The Vintovka Snayperskaya Spetsialnaya, or in English the Special Sniper Rifle is used by Russian Spetsnaz (Special Forces). It is one of the few mass produced integrally suppressed firearms ever made. The barrel of this rifle is tapped along its length in specific places to bleed as much gas as possible into the barrel-length suppressor, although not enough to prevent the long-stroke gas piston from operating. This ensures that gas leaves the barrel as slowly as possible preventing noise. The downside: high pressure gas contained inside the suppressor wants to escape out the action when the cartridge is ejected, back towards the operator’s face. See below …

Gas blowback from VSS Vintorez

The VSS fires an interesting cartridge, the 9x39mm. This cartridge is based on the 7.62x39mm case necked up to 9mm and loaded with a very large ~260 grain bullet, which is about twice as heavy as a 9mm NATO pistol bullet. The bullet is designed to leave the barrel at 920 fps, just under the speed of sound. At that speed, the enemy only hears the bullet as its hits the target.

An armor penetrating load of the the 9x39mm, the SP-6, can penetrate 8mm of steel (0.31″) and still have enough energy to kill a target. Impressive for a round that travels under the speed of sound!

Russian Airborne Troops with the VSS

Number 5: Heckler & Koch MP7

MP7A1 with Zeiss Optics

The Personal Defence Weapon (PDW) fever took the gun industry, and the military, by storm during the early 1990s and carried through to the 2000s. NATO, and law enforcement agencies around the world, began to worry that a proliferation of cheap ballistic vests would make their 9mm submachine rounds ineffective. This problem never really eventuated, but the PDW concept caught on with special forces in a big way.

Malaysian PASKAL Divers with the MP7 (C) Rizuan

H&K was a little late to this party with its introduction of the MP7 in 1999, but it was a hit with Special Forces including SEAL Team Six (Naval Special Warfare Development Group) who, some say, used it to kill Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. It is also used by the Japanese Special Forces Group, Indonesian Army Special Forces Command, Republic of Korea Army 707th Special Mission Battalion, Austrian Einsatzkommando Cobra, Italian 9th Parachute Assault Regiment, Malaysian Navy PASKAL and many others.

Larry Vickers Shoots the MP7

It is popular for having almost zero recoil when fired on full auto, its small .17 caliber round, the 4.6×30mm, packs about as much muzzle energy as a 9mm but loses little of it during flight and is able to zip through body armor like a hot knife through cosmoline. It weighs 4.1 lbs and is small enough to be holstered, albeit on the leg not hip or chest.

MP7 Holster (C) SMGLee

Number 4: SG 550 / 551 / 552 / 553

Swiss Army 552 (C) Rama

The Swiss Arms SG 550 and the later more compact SG 551 and 552 were born out of the Swiss search to replace their aging Sturmgewehr 57 (SG 510) battle rifles with a 5.56mm assault rifle. It was adopted by the Swiss Army in 1990 and Swiss Army soon introduced a shorter carbine version, the SG 551 and a few years later in 1998 with an even shorter SG 552 Commando. An updated 552, the predictably named 553, was introduced in 2008.

SIG 550 Mag Dump

This is not an exciting or unusual gun, but it is a well regarded and reliable 5.56mm carbine that has been adopted by Special Forces around the world. Its users include Brazilian Air Force PARA-SAR, India’ India NSG Black Cats, Egypts Unit 777, Turkey’s Karşı Atak Timi, Swiss Special Forces, Korea’s Special Sea Attack Team (SSAT), Polish JW GROM and others.

India NSG Black Cats with SIG 550 and H&K MP5

Number 3: The AK in all its forms.

Russian VDU Soldier with AK-74M. (C) Vitaly Kuzmin

General Kalashnikov invention has been in use by Eastern Bloc countries and their allies, friends and in some cases enemies since the 1950s. No gun is more ubiquitous and so it is not surprising that Special Forces from around the world are also using it.

AK Mag Dump in Russia

As far as I can tell all of Russian Spetsnaz use the an AK variant. Popular versions with Spetsnaz units are AK-103, AK-105 and the Russian Army’s official service rifle, the AK-74M. The rifle seems to be customized, often adding M4-style and Magpul stocks (either original or clone), aftermarket pistol grips and picatinny rails. Earlier this year the Russian Army adopted an updated version of the Kalashnikov AK-74M which includes these features out of the factory.

Putin with FSB Alpha Group officers in Chechnya. Note the customized AK.

Outside of Russia, AKs, clones and derivatives are used by Indian Naval Special Forces, Saudi Arabian Special Forces, Venezuelan Special Forces, Ukrainian Spetsnaz, Albania RENEA, Serbian Special Forces, South African Recces, Nigerian Special Forces, Ivorian Coast Special Forces, Finnish Special Jaeger and many others.

Ivory Coast Commandoes

Number 2: IWI Tavor

IWI Caracal Battalion Member with CTAR-21

The IWI Tavor TAR-21 has steadily grown in popularity since its introduction in 2001. It is easily the most popular bullpup service rifle and just about the only bullpup rifle that is being actively adopted rather than axed (the New Zealand Army recently ditched the bullpup Steyr AUG and the French Army is looking for a replacement for the bullpup FAMAS. The former went with an AR-15, the latter probably will as well).

The Tavor was designed to replace the IDF inventory of old Galil and M16 rifles. The IDF started to equip units with the Tavor in 2006 and in 2009 they announced that the MTAR-21, with its ultra compact 13″ barrel, would be the standard service rifle by 2018. A bullpup makes a lot of sense as a Service Rifle, and equally so for Special Forces. In it’s carbine configuration it is barely larger than a submachine gun, but with 5.56mm carbine ballistics and power.

Indian COBRA Commando (C) Surendra Singh Kaswan

Unsurprisingly Israeli Special Forces, such as the Egoz Reconnaissance Unit, use the Tavor. It also also used by the Special Forces of Angola, Azerbaijan, Colombia, Cameroon, Georgia (Gulua Group), Honduras, India (SFF and Marine Commandos), Nepal (Gurkhas), Portugal (GOE), Turkey Bordo Bereliler Commandos), Ukraine and Vietnam.

Our friend Hank Strange Mag Dumps a TAR-21

Number 1: FN SCAR-L / SCAR-H


The number one Special Forces gun (that is not an AR-15) is easily the FN SCAR Heavy and Light.The Special Operations Forces Combat Assault Rifle (SCAR) was designed by FN Herstal (Belgium) as their entry in the USSOCOM Special Operations Forces (SOF) Combat Assault Rifle Program. In 2004 the SCAR won the competition and the 7.62mm FN SCAR Heavy, 5.56mm FN SCAR Light and the 40mm Grenade launcher FN FN40GL began to be fielded by USSOCOM units in 2009. Later USSOCOM would also purchase the FN SCAR SSR (Sniper Support Rifle), a marksmen version of the FN SCAR Heavy.

Special Forces marksman (unit and county not specified) uses a FN SCAR SSR in Afghanistan.

Controversially, In 2010 SOCOM announced they were removing the FN SCAR L from their inventory. SOMCOM said they would use only the FN SCAR Heavy and FN SCAR SSR and would procure 5.56mm conversion kits for the former weapon.

FNH-USA denied that the SCAR Light was being abandoned by US Special Forces. In a press release they said

The choice between the 5.56 and the 7.62 caliber will be left to the discretion of each constitutive component of USSOCOM’s Joint Command (e.g. SEALs, Rangers, Army Special Forces, MARSOC, AFSOC) depending on their specific missions on today’s battlefield”.

FN SCAR H 7.62mm Mag Dump

Many commentators and forum users claimed the company was not being truthful and the 5.56mm version of the SCAR had been abandoned. About 18 months later in December 2011 the US Naval Surface Warfare Center Crane Division placed an order for more FN SCAR rifles, including both the light and heavy, to replenish inventory levels, indicating that the light version had not been abandoned by some units.

Regardless of the ups and downs, the FN SCAR easily remains on of the best Service Rifles hands. It is used by the Special Forces of Belgium, Croatia, France, Germany (GSG9 Counterterrorism), Georgia, Japan Kenya, Lithuania, Malaysia, Peru, South Korea, Pakistan and the USA.

Steve Johnson
Steve Johnson

I founded TFB in 2007 and over 10 years worked tirelessly, with the help of my team, to build it up into the largest gun blog online. I retired as Editor in Chief in 2017. During my decade at TFB I was fortunate to work with the most amazing talented writers and genuinely good people!

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  • Jackson Andrew Lewis Jackson Andrew Lewis on Nov 08, 2015

    actually france has said no to the ar15.... the only thing close they are looking at is the hk416... and its 50% ar at best... looks like o0ne but lots of the internals are different.... but they are also evaluating the scar, tavor, fnc......

  • Max G Max G on Nov 28, 2015

    Also worth mentioning: AS Val, VSK-94, AN-94, ADS, ASh-12.

    I understand that this article refers to assault rifles. VSS is, as correctly mentioned a sniper rifle. Wouldn't AS Val be more appropriate in this context then VSS? I do realize though that VSS can fire full-auto just like AS and can be used in its place, although it is not recommended by the manufacturer.