Book Review: Thorneycroft to SA80 – British Bullpup Firearms 1901-2020

    Thorneycroft to SA80 (Matthew Moss)

    Jonathan Ferguson’s new book on British bullpup rifles is one I’ve been waiting a long time for. Five years ago I wrote my Master’s thesis on the development of the early Cold War British bullpup rifle, the E.M.2, and the politics which engulfed it. It’s just over 40 years since Thomas Dugleby published his book on ‘EM-2 Concept & Design: A Rifle Ahead of Its Time’. For many years Dugelby’s book, published by Collector Grade Publications, represented the best published collection of information about Britain’s ill-fated bullpup.

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    Thorneycroft to SA80 (Matthew Moss)

    Over the years, the E.M.2 and the .280 round it was initially chambered for, have garnered a mythic standing and cult following second only to that of another ill-fated cutting-edge, experimental rifle, the Heckler & Koch G11. Other books have touched on the E.M.2 but Ferguson’s new book represents the first major reappraisal of the rifle in decades.

    But as the book’s title, Thorneycroft to SA80, suggests, the scope of Ferguson’s book is much wider. It encompasses over 120 years of firearms history laying out in a scholarly but accessible form the history of Britain’s fascination with the bullpup concept. The book begins with Ferguson tackling the deceptively complex question of ‘how do we define a bullpup weapon?’ Ferguson settles on a straightforward definition that a bullpup is a “firearm with its firing grip located in front of the breech”.

    Thorneycroft to SA80 (Matthew Moss)

    Ferguson then traces the etymology of the word ‘bullpup’ back to the 19th century and examines how its meaning has shifted and evolved over the past century. Before moving onto the body of the book, Ferguson lays out some of the earliest examples of bullpup rifles ranging from a percussion-lock bench rifle to the Curtis repeating rifle (see above) of the mid-1860s. From this solid base the book shifts to a more in-depth exploration of various important stages of bullpup rifle development in Britain beginning with the Thorneycroft and Godsal bolt action rifles developed at the turn of the 20th century.

    Continuing chronologically, Ferguson also covers some of the other lesser-known designs developed during the Second World War. These include the Sniper Rifle, Experimental Model – with its sliding grip action, a sporting rifle designed by the Maharaja of Jodhpur and an unusual series of designs from Australian designer Russel Robinson. Other lesser-known designs include the work of Sir Dennis Burney and J.E.M. Hall. Ferguson explains that between 1945 and 1948, Hall was responsible for not one but three bullpup designs but sadly the book doesn’t expand on this due to a lack of surviving material.

    Thorneycroft to SA80 (Matthew Moss)

    In my opinion, one of the most interesting rifles covered in the book is Roman Korsac’s E.M.1, a 7.92×57mm chambered bullpup, it is also the first of the post-war rifles to be discussed. The Korsac is best described as a ‘Light Automatic Gun’ designed to fill the role of the Bren light machine gun. Korsac was a Polish engineer who had escaped to Britain after the Nazi-Soviet invasion of Poland. He would go on to oversee the development of Kenneth Janson’s E.M.2.

    Ferguson explains how Britain became enamoured with the bullpup concept during the early years of the Cold War, not because of ergonomic considerations or even the benefit of having a longer barrel in a smaller package but because of weight! The removal of a traditional wooden stock offered considerable weight reduction in the late 1940s before the advent of robust polymers.

    Both the E.M.1 and the E.M.2 are examined in detail, describing the weapons’ features and also the trajectory of the US-Anglo rifle trials is traced. The British placed their hopes on the E.M.2 finding the E.M.1 excessively complicated, heavy and less refined. Over three chapters covering the E.M.2 series’ development during the late 1940s and early 1950s, Ferguson ably builds on the earlier work and explains why the rifle, which was briefly adopted, eventually failed.

    Thorneycroft to SA80 (Matthew Moss)

    The latter portion of the book tackles the immediate predecessor to, and the development models of the much maligned SA-80 series of rifles currently still in service – culminating in an explanation of how the SA80A3 upgrades breathed fresh life into a weapon designed for another era. Previously, the most detailed discussion of the SA-80 was Steven Raw’s now somewhat dated ‘The Last Enfield’. There are also some detailed appendices from ammunition specialist Jack Dutschke which offer a fresh appraisal of the ammunition associated with the E.M.2 and the later the Individual Weapon series.

    Thorneycroft to SA80 (Matthew Moss)

    The chapters are broken up by both imagery and smaller self-contained sections detailing information on designers, ammunition, nomenclature, the institutions involved in developing the rifles and technical specifications. The book is beautifully illustrated throughout with large, clear photography which highlights the most interesting elements of the rifles being discussed.

    The book is a long awaited overview of Britain’s military bullpups. Ferguson brings together over a century of engineering and military history to tell the story of some truly fascinating weapons.

    Thorneycroft to SA80 (Matthew Moss)

    Find out more about the book at

    Matthew Moss

    _________________________________________________________________________ – Managing Editor – Managing Editor

    Matt is a British historian specialising in small arms development and military history. He has written several books and for a variety of publications in both the US and UK. He also runs Historical Firearms, a blog that explores the history, development and use of firearms. Matt is also co-founder of The Armourer’s Bench, a video series on historically significant small arms.

    Here on TFB he covers product and current military small arms news.

    Reach Matt at: [email protected]