Bullpup Rifles: Useful Tools or Overhyped?

SVU-AS bullpup rifle

It will be a rare shooter who born in the 70s or 80s who will not admit to falling madly in love with a bullpup of one kind or another. Or at least falling in love with the idea of a bullpup.

Admit it: the compact, menacing appearance. The invariably futuristic lines and curves. Bullpups look like the kind of gun that professionals use, and this image has certainly been cemented by their proliferation on the Hollywood big screen and in countless videogames.

But forget the mystique for now. Are bullpups worth consideration as long guns for serious business, or is the concept one that has just stuck around in spite of itself, a solution looking for a problem?

There are some real-world, experienced advocates of bullpups who recommend them as all-purpose guns, or special purpose ones. There are also experts who decry them as inefficient and clunky, not worth the time or trouble to master versus a rifle with a conventional layout.

This article is concerned with giving bullpups a serious look as prospective survival or SHTF guns for prepping and self-defense. So if you have kept a fire lit in your heart for the bullpup, you may have cause after all is said and done. Let’s see what is what with these funky guns.

Bullpup? What?

There may yet be a few of you reading who don’t know what a bullpup is, so to save you a trip to Google, I’ll define it so we are on the same sheet of music. A bullpup is any firearm with its action and magazine located behind the trigger. That’s it.

Bullpups are commonly rifles, but shotguns and even a stray handgun or two exist that use this concept. We are concerned with rifles today since they are the most common bullpup firearms, and the subject of the most debate.

Regarding the term itself, firearms historians do not know quite how the term came to be associated with the class of gun. Some prominent famous bullpups include the Austrian Steyr AUG series, the first bullpup to see major success and lengthy adoption by a military, the French FAMAS series, the Israeli TAR-21 and the British L85.

Of just these few bullpups I listed, some are excellent rifles by any measure, bullpup or not, and some are not so good. But are what faults they do have contributable to their configuration as bullpups, or something else? Let’s look at them together and see.

Who Came Up with This Idea, Anyway?

If you made a guess when the bullpup concept sprang into consciousness, you’d likely guess somewhere between the 1970’s and 1980’s if you know your guns. That was the sort of Golden Age of bullpups, as it were.

But if that was your guess you’d be wrong: the bullpup concept has been around since the very beginning of the 20th century with the Thorneycroft, which was an attempt to create a bolt-action rifle with a much shorter length and better balance than its contemporaries, all the while maintaining the ballistic performance of a long barrel. These same design goals remain the raison d’être for bullpups today.

In the wake of World War II and the subsequent explosive development and refinement of arms technology (for small arms this was greatly spurred by the German Stg44, the first true assault rifle) saw the development of what we would certainly recognize today as modern bullpups, with one of the first notable designs being the Polish-designed and British adopted EM-2, itself a sort of template to the later SA80/L85, another British bullpup.

The EM2 was highly notable for its progressive design, one that employed technologies and design concepts we still view as ideal and standard today: an extremely efficient intermediate cartridge with a long range and modest recoil, and an optical sight.

While the EM-2 was adopted it only served for a very brief time in 1951 before the onset of NATO standardization requirements led to it being dropped in favor of the FAL. But that is another story.

The most iconic bullpup, the Steyr AUG, is still one of the sleekest and most futuristic rifles around, and it was designed all the way back in the 1960’s before its adoption by the Austrian Army in 1978 and later by Australia and other countries.

The AUG was remarkable at the time of its inception for its heavy use of polymers, a quickly replaceable barrel that required no headspacing and its layout featuring a folding foregrip and full handguard protecting the trigger. The AUG is a most excellent rifle in most regards, highly reliable, and with upgrades it remains competitive today.

The French had been interested in bullpups since the early post-WWII years, and they, not to be outdone by the Austrians, designed their own bullpup service rifle, the FAMAS-F1 in the late 1960s, and saw it adopted after some troubled early production issues in 1978.

While highly unconventional in appearance, it is also somewhat unconventional in operation, utilizing lever-delayed blowback as opposed to piston or gas impingement operation. It has a reputation as a reliable and effective rifle.

Other bullpups abound in countries around the world, and though many firearms industry commentators and military policy prognosticators have declared bullpups vestigial, dying or dead, new designs continue to pop up regularly, with some even going on to find success y being adopted en masses by militaries.

So while their looks and construction might have changed, the concept and advantage (or sought advantage) of a bullpup has not, and they continue to entice today. So what do bullpups bring to the table compared to conventional rifle layouts, and what holds them back? We’ll answer those pressing questions in the next section.

Enfield bullpup prototype

What do Bullpups Do Well?

You might be wondering what the point of these funny looking rifles are. Why should anyone go through the adaptation period and “teething pains” of learning to use such an oddly configured rifle when conventional configurations seem to be best if sheer numbers is anything to judge by?

A bullpup has two major advantages over a conventional rifle. The first is it allows the gun to make use of a full length barrel while still having an overall length shorter than many carbines (even with a stock collapsed). Longer barrels, all things being equal, will increase velocity (important for projectile performance) and may be more accurate than a shorter barrel of the same type.

The second perk bullpups have going for them is their exceptional balance and agility in cramped quarters. With much of the weight of the action near the rear and in the stock, a bullpup’s decidedly rear-heavy feel combined with its short overall length makes it very nimble and easy to maneuver, even with one hand. Try that with a conventionally configured rifle and you’ll tell the difference immediately.

For general purpose defensive rifles, especially ones used by civilians, shorter is often better than longer when it comes to handling. It is a shockingly rare defensive shooting that will take place at anything resembling extended range, and in the context of a civilian defensive shooting “long range” could be 50 or 70 yards. A short rifle with a stubby barrel is more than up to that task.

Except that short barrels often negatively impede projectile performance by robbing the bullet of needed velocity. Some actions don’t run as uniformly well with a short barrel as they do a longer one, ARs being a good example, and may require more frequent adjustment, maintenance and parts replacement.

Considering that more attention must now be paid to ammo selection and to maintenance, this is a trade-off one must consider before committing.

An AR from a good maker that has at least a 14” or so barrel will probably be boringly reliable no matter what you are shooting and how. Take that same rifle and pop in a short barrel- 11” or shorter- and now you must start paying attention to all kinds of extra things: buffer weight, gas port size, ammunition and more.

Your fudge margins get leaner when you start shortening the barrel and gas system. They can run like a top, but you usually must pay more up front and pay more attention to take advantage of it and enjoy the benefits.

But what if you could have the advantages of a longer barrel and less finicky operating system together with that short overall length? You can, and you could have had it for some time now. They are called bullpups, and this is the predominate reason the design, against all “common sense” won’t die.

Take an AUG for instance. With a 16” barrel installed an AUG handles damn near like a submachine gun but provides the punch of a 5.56mm issuing from a properly lengthy barrel. Easy to use in a building or in a vehicle, too, and is convenient and out of the way when slung or cased for transport.

A short overall length makes these guns easy to maneuver safely around corners and through doorways when a threat might be lurking nearby, being both faster to get on target while telegraphing the appearance of the shooter less.

Inside a vehicle the benefit is obvious, as getting a traditional carbine to say nothing of full length rifle maneuvered into a firing position inside a passenger compartment is fiddly, error prone and prevents safety concerns for the passengers and driver. A short rifle, like a bullpup, does much to mitigate these hazards and make the shooter’s life easy.

All in all, highly attractive and enticing as far as primary weapons go. So what are the tradeoffs that would keep this seemingly superior and efficient design from going truly mainstream?

The Drawbacks of Bullpups

The most obvious one is that it requires the shooter to learn a new manual of arms, and for the large majority of users this is one hurdle that they are just not willing to jump through.

While their actions and operating systems may be entirely conventional save for the long linkage connecting the trigger way up front to the sear way in the back, getting used to loading a rifle with a mag well and mag release near your armpit and the remainder of the controls in unexpected locations means that none of these guns can be picked up and run proficiently by those inexperienced with them.

The trigger is itself a subject of much consternation among shooters, with all bullpups having positively atrocious trigger pulls, excepting one, perhaps two, of the most modern bullpups.

We are talking mushy, clunky, indistinct trigger pulls that would be more at home on a stapler than a firearm. Before you bristle at perceived snobbery, let me assure you I am not exaggerating; the trigger’s ease of manipulation is one functional element that is directly proportional to attainment of practical accuracy.

I.E., good triggers make good shooting easier, while bad ones make it harder than it has to be. Stock bullpup triggers plain suck, and even the services of a capable gunsmith specializing in such designs will only ever get most to “middling” compared to triggers on other designs that interface directly to the sear. Aftermarket triggers are an option on some bullpups, but like all such components they are expensive and may adversely affect reliability if not made to exacting standards.

Bullpups also present an interesting challenge for shooters who desire switching shoulders when the situation calls for it, as most of them are not capable of ambidextrous fire without issues. To be clear, most bullpups can be configured for a left-handed shooter.

In the case of the AUG and FAMAS, the side on which it ejects can be selected ahead of time. If one were to attempt to shoulder and fire from the opposite shoulder that the rifle is configured for you would be catching ejected brass and gas right in your face. Not ideal.

Some bullpups have sought to use innovative means to solve the problem of ambidexterity. The F.N. F2000 and its semi-auto model the FS2000 dump fired cases into an internal chute on the right side of the gun which, when full after a handful of shots, will pop open an ejection port near the front of the rifle and let empties sort of hop and dribble out with subsequent firing.

While this sounds ludicrous on paper, this system works well. The Desert Tech MDR, a new modern bullpup, uses forward ejection to make their gun capable of switching shoulders on the fly, and the Kel-Tec uses downward ejection to the same effect.

The location of the action and chamber presents additional challenges and concerns as we move through all contingencies we might encounter with our rifle. The configuration of most bullpups means that the difficulty of accessing the chamber for visual inspection or for malfunction clearance can range from tricky to downright hateful.

The AUG is one of the least difficult, but unfortunately the guns ergonomics work against it here. The F2000 is one of the worst offenders in this case despite its other great qualities, its ejection system meaning that there is no ejection port near the chamber to look in.

F.N. instead designed the gun with a trapdoor style inspection port on the spine of the gun directly over the chamber which is opened vertically to, in theory, allow one to get their fingers in there. One look will prove the feasibility of that operation compared to other design.

While several of the best known and most popular bullpups are manufactured by top-tier manufacturers, it still gives one pause when you consider the proximity of your face and neck to the chamber, ejection port, and magazine well should some catastrophic event like a double-charged cartridge be touched off, or one try to shoot an immoveable barrel obstruction.

I have not personally seen or encountered any such event, mercifully, but consulting with a few close associates who are experienced designers and engineers has confirmed my caution: while it might take a truly severe event for that to come back to bite you, it is a possibility.

Typical Prepper Concerns

One of the biggest drawbacks to bullpups at least for preppers is their status as exotics in North America. Nothing about a bullpup, save its magazines for those that utilize STANAG (read: AR-15) magazines, is standard or common place. You will in all probability be the only person stocking parts for your AUG, F2000, Tavor or any other bullpup you care to own.

Now, you can make the same argument for other “non-AR” rifles, but bullpups are in a category all their own as far as rarity and parts availability are concerned. It would be a different story if one lived in Australia (who has issued it for years to their military) or another country in which they are common and popular.

Rarity usually means expense, so even afforded the luxury of time to prepare for rough weather ahead, you will be spending more and searching longer to find the requisite spares and small mountain of magazines that you should have in order to be ready for times of lack and famine.

You absolutely will not be able to raid a local sporting goods or hunting retailer for magazines, and you’d be extremely lucky to find another gun that matches yours out in the world from which you could cannibalize for parts or spares.

Bullpups of any quality will always trend towards the upper end of the price spectrum, meaning outfitting yourself with one is more costly than a comparable, conventional, “boring” AR or equivalent.

If you are planning on stocking rifles in number for your family, survival group or whatnot you will be dropping large hunks of money on short and scary bullpups in comparison.

Logistics are often left out of these discussions, but logistical concerns separate the pretenders from the true survivors. You should be doubly sure that a bullpup is the best solution to your problems before committing to them in quantity.

Not for nothing, make sure you get some trigger time on a bullpup before you make your stand with one. While the trigger may not seem like any big deal at close ranges, start opening up the distance a little and you will likely start seeing your accuracy suffer thanks to how clunky, chunky peanut-butter awful they are. Know what you are getting into before you buy, not matter how appealing they are to handle!

Should You Get a Bullpup?

Honestly, I can make a case for many other short barreled rifles in place of a bullpup no matter how I try to square them, but since this article is about your needs and not mine, I will instead make a case for why a bullpup is an acceptable option in certain circumstances versus just venting my preferences all over the place.

If you like the idea of gaining full-length barrel performance out of a very small package and are willing to sacrifice swift operation and a good trigger to get it, then a bullpup can be a good option, and also if you care about using a rifle from a vehicle but are not enamored with the idea of a proper SBR or AR pistol, etc.

As I mentioned, bullpups worth owning are kind of pricey, so make sure that you are willing to spring for at least $1,500 worth of gun, and potentially more expensive magazines and hard-to-find spares. Don’t waste your time or money with a Kel-Tec, or any, and I mean any chintzy bullpup conversion kit for guns which were not designed as such.

Also, you must commit now to a significant “break-in” period for YOU: if you are in any way acclimatized to running a conventional rifle like an AR or AK, you will need plenty of retraining and familiarization in order to get truly up to speed with your new Belgian Bullpup Wafflemaker rifle.

The trigger, as I have emphasized and will continue to emphasize, is going to take dedicated work to come to terms with and shoot at a high level, and even then it will never be close to greatness no matter what you do to it, so you should prepare for long and boring hours of drudgery while you get comfortable with it.

So, you’ve committed to the Bullpup Concept. Now What?

So you want a bullpup, warts and all. So which bullpup should you get and how should you set it up? My first recommendation is that you get a quality one, and that narrows down the list somewhat. If you want to take into account a mature design and the best possible availability of parts and service, the go-to choice is the AUG.

Compared to some other designs like the MDR it is definitely showing its age and is not ambi-friendly, but the AUG is extremely well made and reliable, and is without question the closest thing to a mainstream bullpup. The latest generations of guns have good mounting options for optics and lights, and they can also be made to accept common and ubiquitous AR magazines.

Another option, though one with more quirks, is the FS2000, AKA the Fish of Fury, so named for its distinctively tuna-like appearance. Now discontinued, the FS2000 is hampered with one of the nastiest triggers on any production rifle in recent memory, but it is completely ambidextrous, slickly snag-free and made to typically exacting F.N. quality standards.

Its manual of arms will definitely take some getting used to, and it will only accept standard alloy AR magazines thanks to a rubber gasket in the mag well that functions as a dust seal. The FS2000 is though one of the best balanced of all the bullpups, and extremely light.

Its lack of protrusions and sculpted lines make this an ideal gun for use in a vehicle since it presents very little in the way of snag hazards. Another flaw is found in its iron sights, which appear to be afterthoughts.

The Desert Tech MDR is one of the newest bullpup rifles to reach the market, and after some initial teething problems is showing considerable promise thanks to the design team’s intelligent and forward-thinking approach. This is another ambi-friendly gun, and has, by far, the best stock trigger of any bullpup I have handled.

As with all new systems, you may not want to be the beta tester until these guns have been in the wild and in sufficient quantity for a baseline of their performance and longevity to be established. I have all confidence in Desert Tech, but I will still give this one a little time.

If you are of the mind to get the most cutting edge advantages and you can sort out any kinks and bugs yourself, or if you have spare rifles to fall back on you might consider it.

The rest of the accoutrement on the rifle should match what you would put on any other, save for a few specific changes. An optic is a must, though you cannot depend entirely on standard height mounts furnishing the best positioning for these oddball rifles.

Make sure to test your installation if possible or contact the manufacturer of the mount for help. Aside from mounting height quibbles an RDS or even LPVO will be right at home on a bullpup, same as any other rifle.

A flashlight is always a good idea on a defensive gun, though many bullpups lack needed real estate for accessories up front thanks to their squashed dimensions. You may find that you need a slightly extended rail/forend or a gooseneck type mount to get the light up and away from the area of the forend you need to grip.

You will probably find that a tape switch will be a necessity for easy activation on most bullpups, with the AUG in most configurations being a big offender here; its typical accessory rail is mounted at 3- or 2:30 o’clock, making tailcap activation of most lights impossible. The FS2000, Tavor, MDR and other more modern guns fare better thanks to more expansive accessory mounting options.

Slings are another source of argument among bullpup proponents and the rest of the shooting world that cares anything at all about these rifles. A quick-adjustable two point sling is my universal standard for any long gun since it helps me control the gun when it is not in my hands.

If I need to climb, fight, fix, heal or anything else, I can put the rifle away, lock it down, and get to work, and still quickly get the gun back in my hands if I need to. Single point slings, on anything but very short guns, let the gun go wherever it wants, bounce around, and generally just be a pain in my ass when I can ill afford that.

As it turns out, bullpups are exactly the kind of gun that a single point sling works well on, as once they are properly adjusted for fit they will not hang low enough to bust you in the knees and so forth, though movement and other rigorous tasks with even a bullpup flopping around on your single point sling will set you cursing.

The obvious solution for a bullpup is a 2-to-1 convertible sling, of which the Magpul MS series are excellent, as is a BFG Vickers sling or VTAC sling with 2-to-1 adapter installed.

This allows you to rock your gun in single point mode when needed, and quickly, painlessly decouple and reattach the sling in two point mode when desired, say for slinging the gun on your back or locking it tight against your chest. A sure winner and easy choice if you are doing the bullpup thing.

One thing you should be careful not to do is hang entirely too many gadgets and accessories up front on your bullpup, ruining its balance. The bullpup’s rear-centric balance is one of its best attributes and you should take care to not throw that away needlessly.

Lastly, do your homework and find out if there are any good ‘smiths or drop-in trigger and fire control enhancements for your rifle. While you should not trust your expensive exotic into just anyone’s hands, there is a shoe for every foot, so the saying goes, and there is definitely a ‘smith for every kind of gun, no matter how obscure. If you can spare the cash, a good trigger job is money well-spent on a bullpup.

Conclusion

Bullpups are alluring and enticing rifles more often seen in the hands of actors and video game protagonists than real-world combatants, but despite their meme-worthiness they have distinguished themselves as viable rifles that bring unique value to the table.

If you desire those values and are wiling to put in the time and effort to minimize their shortcomings, you might find that a short and sleek bullpup is the racy gun that dreams are made of.

Take the time to compare the best offerings on the market against your needs and you will probably find that these guns are definitely viable.

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