Bullpup guns look weird and futuristic compared to traditional Winchester repeaters or M1 Garands, but their concept has been around for more than 120 years.
Bullpup battle rifles are shorter than a traditional rifle since the firing action and magazine is located behind the trigger, allowing the barrel to be moved back. Rifles, shotguns, and even a pistol have been put to the bullpup design.
Jonathan Ferguson, Keeper of Firearms and Artillery at the Royal Armouries in the United Kingdom and author of “Thorneycroft to SA80 British Bullpup Firearms 1901-2020,” said in an interview with Forgotten Weapons, the origin of the weapon’s name is likely American and came about by comparing the gun’s design to a bulldog puppy as a “squat, ugly, but aggressive and powerful” dog.
A handful of bullpup guns will be on offer in the upcoming Sporting and Collector Auction, Feb. 16-18 and Premier Auction, May 13-15. A scarce Finnish Valmet M82 is among the lots in the Premier Auction.
Bullpup Pros and Cons
The bullpup design’s most significant feature is that it is shorter overall than a traditional rifle. Maintaining a standard rifle barrel length but with the firing action moved back shortens the overall length while maintaining accuracy and velocity. The shorter gun design works best for mechanized troops that are getting in and out of armored personnel carriers or helicopters as well as working in tight situations or urban settings.
The well-received Steyr AUG bullpup rifle has a barrel length of 20 inches and an overall length of 31.1 inches while the vaunted M16 has a barrel length of 20 inches and overall length of 39.5 inches. The Steyr’s muzzle velocity is 3,182 feet per second (FPS) compared to 3,250 FPS for the M16.
Users say bullpups are also easy to carry, gets to the shoulder quicker, and with the weight of the weapon at the back, there is less fatigue.
The biggest drawback to bullpups is that by moving the firing action back, the ejection port is close to the face so a left-handed shooter gets ejected brass in the face. Some weapons, like the Steyr AUG, Israeli Tavor TAR-21, and French FAMAS have made the bolt and ejection port ambidextrous. On other guns, the problem is solved by ejecting the cartridges downward or forward.
Having the face so close to the firing action also presents more risk if there is a catastrophic malfunction.
Users have complained that the trigger is spongy because of the length of the trigger bar from the trigger to the sear and hammer. Difficulty in reloading quickly has also been reported.
The bullpup design is appreciated by sniper rifle makers because of the importance of barrel length, especially in large calibers. The American Barrett M90 is an example of a bullpup sniper rifle.
Bullpup Gun Origins
While the idea behind the bullpup can be traced back as far as 1866, the first patent went to James Baird Thorneycroft for a 1901 carbine. His design was inspired by watching British cavalry struggle to use traditional rifles while on horseback during the Second Boer War. His idea was to move the bolt back, shortening the gun.
Thorneycroft’s design measured 7 1/2 inches shorter than the Lee-Enfield rifle used by the British at the time. Trouble is, his design had excessive recoil and poor handling issues so never made it to production.
The French took a run at the bullpup concept for a semi-automatic rifle in the 1930s with a shoulder-mounted version but it wasn’t popular enough for production.
Several designs, especially for anti-tank weapons, were made as prototypes in the 1930s and during World War 2 but never made it to production until the Panzerbuchse M.SS.41. The anti-tank rifle was built in small numbers in German-occupied Czechoslovakia for the Waffen SS.
As gun makers fled from Axis countries they made their way to the United Kingdom where a number of designs were created. In the 1950s, the British wanted a new service rifle and a pair of bullpup designs were considered, with the EM-2 adopted in 1951, but then rejected as NATO standardization was underway for small arms and ammunition.
Steyr AUG Leads the Way
After World War 2, the French were dedicated to developing a bullpup for their armed forces but decades passed before they found one with promise. Design of the FAMAS (Fusil d’Assaut de la Manufacture d’Armes de Saint-Étienne) F1 started in the late 1960s.
Both France and Austria adopted bullpup guns in the late 1970s when NATO partners agreed on 5.56mm chambered assault rifles. The Austrians adopted the Steyr AUG as the Stg. 77, while the French adopted the FAMAS F1.
The French phased out the FAMAS in 2017. Some FAMAS have been imported to the United States but are rare, expensive, and with no spare parts available.
The British followed with the L85 rifle and L86 light machine gun. Israel (Tavor TAR-21) and China (QBZ-95) also adopted bullpups for their militaries. About 20 armies around the world use bullpups rifles.
Springfield Armory Introduces Hellion Bullpup
Springfield Armory in collaboration with Croatia’s HS Produkt is bringing the semi-automatic Hellion to the United States. The bullpup rifle, a civilian version of the Croatian company’s military VHS rifle. The announcement made at the 2022 SHOT Show in Las Vegas, included information on what the weapon offers.
The Hellion will be compatible with AR-type grips and have an adjustable stock. It also will be able to accommodate right- and left-handed shooters.
Bullpup Guns Meet U.S. Resistance
The Hellion’s introduction flies in the face of American resistance to bullpups. The U.S. military has dabbled over the decades but never embraced the design. Major John Rison Fordyce designed a shoulder-mounted light machine gun in 1918 that had bullpup influences. A U.S. Army soldier, P.B. Cunningham received a patent for a bullpup design in 1920. Another bullpup prototype, the T31 Garand, was developed by legendary gun maker John Garand at Springfield Armory in 1949 but only got as far as the prototype stage.
Is the future now? One of the three finalists to replace the M4A1 and M249 has a bullpup design by General Dynamics. A decision is expected later this year. The U.S. arsenal has experimented with bullpup sniper rifles like the Barrett M95 and XM500 for its arsenal.
The United States hasn’t been alone in its long-time resistance to the bullpup design. In the 1980s, Finland rejected the M82 Valmet rifle after about 2,000 were made.
Bullpup Guns in Movies
Finland’s loss was Hollywood’s gain. The Finnish reject served as Kyle Reese’s plasma gun (sans magazine) in “The Terminator.” It also made a brief appearance in Al Pacino’s “Scarface.”
Bullpups find their way into video games, science fiction and super hero movies because of their futuristic appearance. Internet Movie Firearms Database’s bullpup list includes 41 rifles, four submachine guns, 18 sniper rifles, 16 shotguns, four machine guns, and one pistol.
They have made cameos in “The Expanse” (IMI Tavor TAR-21), “RoboCop 3” (Muzzlelite MZ14), “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” (Kel-Tec KSG shotgun), and “Looper” (SAR 21). Bullpups land in more traditional settings, like “NCIS” (FAMAS), “Hawaii Five-0” (FN F2000), and “Miami Vice” (Mossberg bullpup shotgun), as well as grittier fare, like “The Town” (AKU-94) and “The World is Not Enough” (FN P90).
Bullpups make a number of appearances in video games, with various models showing up in titles like the “Call of Duty” series, “Counter-Strike” series, “Far Cry” series, and “Fortnite.”
The Steyr AUG is the true movie star of bullpups. The rifle’s lengthy screen credits include “Die Hard,” “The Fifth Element,” “Firefly,” “Idiocracy,” “Jurassic Park III,” “RoboCop,” “The Running Man,” and “The Walking Dead.” It is also featured in a number of video games from “Grand Theft Auto: Vice City” to “Metal Gear Solid” and “Counter-Strike.”
The Care and Feeding of Bullpups
Not so much a rarity anymore but still uniquely distinct in their look and design, bullpups make for an interesting addition to any collection. Check out the lots on offer in Rock Island Auction Company’s Feb. 16-18 Sporting and Collector Auction or the May 13-15 Premier Auction.
“History of the Bullpup,” by Maxim Popenker, modernfirearms.net
“Bullpups Vs. Standard Rifles, An Objective Comparison,” Jason J. Brown & 1800 GunsandAmmo staff, NRAblog.com
“Why the Next War Will Be Fought with Bullpups,” by David Petzal, Field & Stream
Internet Movie Firearms Database
“Springfield Armory Hellion: A First Look,” American Rifleman blog
Rock Island Auction Company