Firearms

Bullpup vs. Conventional Rifles

bullpup vs full-length carbine rifle

Bullpups—firearms with the action behind the trigger rather than in front—have been around since the early 20th century.

In the era of bolt-actions with extra-long barrels, they were an effort to bring the overall length down without sacrificing ballistic performance.

None were adopted for serious use, in part because the reduction in overall length also reduced the iron sight radius, but mainly due to the increased mechanical complexity of the designs.

A Quick History

In the 1950s, the sight radius problem was solved with the evolution of relatively practical, non-sniper optical sights. By the 1970s, the improvement in plastics made possible the first large-scale issue of a bullpup rifle, the Steyr AUG 5.56mm.

A futuristic, organic-looking weapon with an integral 1.5x scope and vestigial iron sights, the AUG became the standard by which bullpups were judged for a couple of decades.

Adopted by more than 20 countries, gas-operated AUGs far outpaced the less-successful, iron-sighted French FAMAS.

As a result, all common complaints about the bullpup concept were based on the AUG: it was spongy, had a heavy trigger pull, was noisy and featured a gassy ejection port by the shooter’s ear.

bullpup vs full-length carbine rifle
AUGs were the standard bullpup for decades.

Bullpup Pros and Cons

Bullpups also had reduced heat endurance compared to the M16, a danger to left-handed users from brass ejected into their faces.

The main advantage was the 20-inch barrel compared to about 12 inches in a similar-length conventional carbine like M4. That meant soldiers could have an effective weapon, yet still fit in armored vehicles and aircraft with it.

Long reach with bayonets, a feature prized in 1914, has since been deemphasized, so a shorter overall length has very few drawbacks.

As mentioned above, another concern has been the proximity of the chamber to the shooter’s face, requiring careful channeling of gas and metal away from it in the event of case rupture or detonation.

Finally, most bullpups tend to overheat quicker than conventional rifles due to reduced airflow around the barrel.

bullpup vs full-length carbine rifle
Bullpups are versatile enough for a variety of applications.

Improvement Attempts

During the 1980s and later, several companies attempted to convert existing rifles (like the Ruger Mini-14) to bullpups. The ergonomics of such efforts tended to be very poor.

The UK adopted a bullpup variant, the excellent AR-18, as the SA80, botching the design process so badly that its flaws still have not been fully resolved. This gives bullpup detractors plenty of ammunition against the concept itself.

Due to heat retention and a generally weak build, the similar L86 light machine gun has been mainly relegated to the designated marksman rifle role.

bullpup vs full-length carbine rifle
Bullpups like the Enfield L85 are compact yet effective.

Worldwide Adoption

Over time, as optics and manufacturing techniques improved, bullpups became considerably more common around the world. Australia, the UK, Croatia, India, France and China are some of the major users.

China has gone almost all-bullpup with QBZ army rifles and QCW submachine guns. Some bullpups, like the Belgian FN F2000 and Kel-Tec RFB, offered forward ejection in the manner of the Maxim machine gun to permit ambidextrous use.

Others, like the AUG, Israeli Tavor SAR and X95, allow switching of the ejection direction by an armorer. Singapore’s BR18 permits switching ejection direction on the fly without tools.

bullpup vs full-length carbine rifle
The X95 allows for switching of the ejection direction by an armorer.

Both the Kel-Tec RDB and Belgian P90 use bottom ejection, which is mechanically simpler. Kel-Tec rifles also solve the trigger linage problem by placing the sear over the pistol grip and using a long rigid hammer strut instead.

In the bolt-action world, the Barrett M99 (and its cousin, the M95) puts .50 BMG power into a hand-holdable package. Desert Tech SRS and HTI are excellent examples of highly modular bullpups.

Supporting field-expedient conversions of calibers with forend, barrel and bolt head swaps by the shooter, combined with superb triggers, make these popular with long-range shooters.

bullpup vs full-length carbine rifle
The Barrett M95 puts .50 BMG power into a hand-holdable package

Practical Advantages

Besides the longer barrel length for the same overall package, bullpups have the great advantage of shifting the center of balance back. It’s much easier to shoot a bullpup offhand (accurately) than a conventional rifle.

Conventional rifles can get uncomfortably front-heavy once sound suppressors, flashlights, lasers and bipods are considered. For armies with numerous female troops, bullpups mitigate the reduction in the upper body strength.

The carbine version of a bullpup like the X95 with 13-inch barrels can even be controlled with one hand if needed. Being able to hold the forend very near the muzzle also helps reduce wobbling during aiming and muzzle climb during rapid fire.

bullpup vs full-length carbine rifle
Belgium’s P90 features a mechanically simpler bottom-ejection design.

Conclusion

Like them or hate them, bullpups are with us for the foreseeable future.

What are your opinions on bullpup rifles? Thumbs up? Thumbs down? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (21)

  1. I and a group of friends took a one day operator course at Academe, with the Tavor Bullpup. A couple of hours were spent at the classroom on the manual of arms for this rifle. We learned operation, field stripping and did clearing drills. then, the rest of the day was spent at the range, sighting in, shooting various drills and practicing basic tactics.

    The rifle, with the exception of control locations was not that different from the AR platform. The trigger was quite good, as the Tavor uses a pull rod with a bellcrank type arrangement to release the sear, Instead of a pushrod. But, all the while, i felt like i was lugging around a 2×6 piece of very dense lumber, and the hand positions just didn’t feel right. As with any arm, everyone has different expectations and opinions of what feels good to them, but I really prefer the more conventional feel of the AR platform and our Spec Ops guys seem to do quite well with the the M-4 carbine tricked out to meet the specific needs of their particular mission.

    1. Try an RDB-S (the smaller one without the pistol grip). It doesn’t feel like a 2×6 at all; it feels like a largish, balanced handgun you can rest against your shoulder.

  2. I have an FS2000. I love the bull pup platform. Especially the ejection if rounds from that weapon. It’s a 22inch barrel that is accurate to 2” groups at 100yds. I find the recoil exceptionally easy to remain on target. I have several AR platform pistols in 5.56, 300BO as well as 9mm. I love them all but will say that the take down capabilities of the AR platform make it a weapon that is clearly my weapon of choice if the zombie apocalypse were to begin. So as I ask myself, if things are going south and the safe were to open, which weapon would I grab first? I’d have to say that my 300BO would be my first grab.

  3. Desert Tek SRS in 6.5 CM: a sweet heart with little or no recoil asnd an exceptional trigger. Sub MOA at 100 yards. But the action is kinky. Bolt contained in a sleeve and if the two aren’t aligned perfectly, the bolt freezes half way open and must be finessed to free cit up. It’s a game you have to learn. You have to figure out how to manipulate the bolt to make it function with any resemblance of smoothness. Molygrease does not help.

  4. There is a trade off not mentioned here, in that magazine changes are much clumsier and mandate moving the rifle out of firing position. I’ve tried the AUG and RDB, and for mission-specific role / duty in confined space, they have a role. Training will be mandatory in stoppage response and mag changes…

  5. Kel-Tec RDB IN .308 is awesome! I shoot rifle lefty, no problems. PMC ammo is my go to. Whit that said, it will eat anything I run through it!! Thanks for the article!

  6. Bullpups are much quicker to get on target due to their lower moment of inertia. Just like an ice skater can spin faster as she brings her arms in, a bullpup can be rotated faster.

    The P90 from Belgium has the added advantage that both your fingers are pointing towards the target at all times. Just like when a small boy is pretending to shoot an imaginary rifle. You instinctively get the gun on target much faster.

  7. I like bullpups, but I generally prefer the ergononomics of a conventional compact carbine, with a conventional forend to hang on to.

  8. LOL! Just a bit too ‘Star Wars’ for those of us that cut their teeth on General Patton’s “Greatest War Implement Ever Devised,” that 9 lb 30-06 M1;) I have to say that it is much more to my liking having those ‘deep thinkers’ giving back most of those inches they cut back from 24!

  9. The issue is the following;
    Triggers are poor at best due to position of trigger assembly being forward of the action.
    Poor Magazine ergonomics for magazine manipulation between changes. Look at the folks in the Militaries that have adopted the Bullpup (UL, France, Australia and Israelis)) as the standard rifle, then look to their Militaries SOF component. You will find that they all use a form of the M-4A1 carbine platform. There is a reason for that. While the big militaries have invested in Bullpup rifle as a whole, they individuals that operate in CQB situations prefer the ergonomics of the AR platform.

    Also look to the number of 2 and 3 gun matches for the number of competitors that use bullpups, how many do you see?

  10. I have a Bushmaster M17 that I’ve shortened the barrel to 18″, and opened the gas port. It shots flawlessly and accurately best of all you can keep it shouldered all day. K&M Aerospace makes some awesome M17s, beautiful and functional. That’s where I had mine modified.

  11. My favor of Bull pups is due to increased barrel length which means more oomph, no matter if pistol or rigle cartriges, on target and extended range accuracy.
    This applies wether going to war or for home defence by the smaller NATO and foreign rounds used today.
    IMO the Kel Tec if rifle and shotgun bull pup configurations are some of best examples available to civilian shooters today.
    My first Bull pups were of old Marlin Camp 9mm and 45 cal. and in truth they pretty much sucked as aftermarket suppliers were mostly quick buck rip off artist.
    Today my remaing ones have all newest bells and whistles and are far better pruposed but still not great.
    Have been lucky enough to of fired many a full auto infantry weapons, and while some had folding stocks they were mainly short up close gain fire superiority and damn few were amnywheres near todays accuracy of military weapons, nor for that matter reliability.
    Urban style warfare favors short carbine to bull pup length weapons, and todays barrels and bullet designs extend out to beyond 300 meter combat range.
    Packing a bull pup on long humps is a nice factor.
    Heat build up can be a factor, American HIs expend way ore rounds per kill than any infantry men in past but that is largely due to lack of training, so yes they heat up the barrels.
    For we non military men not engaged in combat, or playing army who fires enough rounds to overheat ones mechanism or what it is encased within?
    Lack of length by metal sights sure as hell IS not a detriment In an urban or suburban environment, and for sure in what is legally defined as self defense range.
    Taken Yotes under two hundred yards with Marlins equipped with iron sights.
    One of greater reason for love affairs with AT and AK weapons is their compact size and folding stocks

  12. Purchased a Kel Tec RDB after watching several reviews. A few years later I am still impressed. I own several AR platforms including one 10.5 “ pistol. The RDB is a pleasure to operate. Almost no recoil and runs perfectly with multiple ammunitions. I have a Holosun circle dot optic mounted to keep the platform compact. Easy to drill 6” metal discs at 100 yards. When shouldered the length of the RDB is less than an extended handgun making it easy to turn in hallways. The full length barrel and 30 round mag makes it a formidable weapon for home defense or stand off. The factory trigger is perfectly acceptable unlike some early bullpups. I think the RDB and Tavor/x 95 have moved the bullpup into serious contention for best all around defensive weapon. I thoroughly enjoy and trust my RDB. It stands ready if the wolf knocks at the door.

  13. I have a Catamount Fury 2 with a Kushnapup bullpup conversion installed. What an awesome semi-auto bullpup 12 gauge. It allows me to keep the weapon shouldered and spin freely in my hallway while maintaining my sight picture. Yeah the trigger is a tad spongy and it does take a bit of getting used too the spent cartridges flying out your ear, but I wouldn’t trade it for any other shotgun. I find myself wanting a SAR now….LOL
    As always
    Carry on
    Forever 18 Bravo

  14. owned both ar and ak platforms as well as tavor and kel tec rdb, they all work great to me ,but did notice heat problem on the bullpups. kel tec was real bad it heated the pins holding it together to the point they will burn you instantly.

  15. The BR18 from ST Kinetics has a forward ejection mechanism not a tool less ability to switch between LEFT OR RIGHT Handed ejection.

  16. One of the “cool” things about the FS2000 is the FRONT / right ejection. The ejection port is near the FRONT of the rifle. It spits them out to the front and right. The ejection port also has a trap door, that when closed, will CONTAIN 5 spent shells. You can shoot up to 5 rounds with NO ejected shells. On the 6th round, the door will open and all 6 shells will spill out.

  17. Being “Wheelchair Handicapped” has it’s challenges, especially when using Firearms. Most Standard Rifle Configurations require either a Bench Mount or Tripod Mount, and the time required to align each shot with the way your wheelchair is positioned without going “Turtle”. The “Bullpup” eliminates most of those problems and is far easier to control while sitting in a wheelchair…

  18. Everything in product design is a tradeoff – until it isn’t.

    Bullpup compactness used to come at the unacceptable costs of terrible triggers and righty-only ejection. The RDB has a great trigger, bottom ejection, and full carbine capability in a large-handgun handling package. Is it the perfect combat rifle? No – it isn’t perfect at all – but that’s a reason to improve execution, not reject the whole idea.

    The question “Why bullpups?” thus equates to “Who would choose a 2′ tool when there are 3-4′ tools that do the exact same job?” My answer: any rational person, ever. Instead ask, “Why buttstocks?” The answer is as it always was: to get a dangerous flashpan away from a shooter’s face. Not much call for that any more . . .

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