Ode to the Bullpup: Love & Hate for the Stubby Rifle Family
I’ve been called many things in my life. Some of those titles I earned, and others not so much. But there is one particular label that some would consider an insult, yet it’s a badge I wear stress free – bullpup enthusiast. Today, I’m going to tell you what I love about them and explain why some shooters decide to turn up their noses at these interesting firearms.
My History With the Bullpup
My experience with bullpups is not unlike many others. The first time I was exposed to them was back in the 1990s when a friend showed me a hideous Mini-14 in a bullpup chassis. I was appalled by what had been done to the poor unsuspecting Mini-14, and I went back to gazing at the more conventional guns like AR-15s.
Years would pass before I would again dabble in the occult realm of the bullpup. A friend of mine invited me to go shooting after work, and he presented me with a Desert Tech SRS Covert to shoot. Within minutes, I was absolutely addicted to the rifle and its impressive accuracy, and before we had even left that dry Montana hillside, I swore I would get one of my own.
As a man of my word, I kept that promise to myself, and it was the beginning of my trip down the bullpup rabbit hole. I am a gun nut in every sense of the word, I like them all as long as they serve a purpose. So, having become a bullpup owner myself, my eyes were opened to the rest of this stubby bullpup community. After years of enjoying my SRS bolt-action precision rifle, I jumped into the Desert Tech MDRX with both feet. This only deepened my affinity for these short and effective rifles.
Over a few short years, I had gone from a typical anti-bullpup traditionalist into a pure bullpup enthusiast. Having successfully navigated the rabbit hole, I began shooting bullpups of all kinds, mainly to see what I liked or disliked about the different rifles.
An Odd Bunch
There are bullpups from every corner of the firearms market, both big names and shops you’ve never heard of seem to have a bullpup model hidden somewhere in their lineup. FN has their FS2000, which looks like it hit every branch falling from the space-gun tree. I guess there are plenty of people out there who like it, but their reasons are known only to themselves.
Perhaps the most well-known bullpups come from Steyr. The AUG rifle has been a stalwart movie prop and service weapon with its unique look for decades. They continue to be popular with even those who dislike the bullpup genre. But for me, the mushy-pushy trigger and unique magazine still keep them at arm’s length.
You certainly couldn’t talk about bullpups in America without mentioning the lineup from IWI. They’ve become so popular that many gun owners are under the impression that the word “Tavor” is some kind of all-inclusive term for bullpups.
I’ve been able to shoot several of IWI’s rifles, and they are probably my first choice in autoloading bullpups after my MDRX. The X95 has an incredible amount of aftermarket support and accessories, caliber conversion kits, and triggers. It’s a much-needed improvement in my opinion. The Tavor 7 .308-caliber rifle brings similar operation and design to a bigger bullpup.
Battle Earned Reputation
The battle-hardened reputation of the IWI bullpups can be seen in militaries from Jerusalem to Bogotá, where I last saw them. Bullpup rifles can be found in military service all over the world, the Desert Tech HTI is a .50 BMG sniper rifle used in service in the jungle climate of the South China Sea and in the current war in Ukraine.
Not all of these bullpup rifles are popular or serve in militaries of the world. But just because a rifle is put into service doesn’t make it superior, the SA80 family of British bullpups has been despised for decades by Her – and now His – Majesty’s finest soldiers. Many bullpup rifles enjoy a life free of military service but still filled with action.
The KelTec RDB has been a very popular 5.56 bullpup with American gun owners. It is used for everything from hunting to home defense, and its larger caliber sibling offers .308 power to those looking for a bullpup.
So Why the Hate?
What exactly is it that most gun owners have against bullpups? I think this is a two-sided explanation, and I’ll start with the first half. The engineering required to position the magazine and the action of a rifle behind the trigger tends to get complicated. While this feat does greatly reduce the overall size of the firearm, there are many complications that come as baggage.
Bullpups often have complicated linkages to operate controls, and these systems can be messy depending on the dedication of those who design and build them. These linkage systems frequently add weight and play to controls, reducing the quality feel and performance, and there is also the obvious problem of ejection systems that either hit you in the mouth as a lefty or add even more weight and complexity to circumvent ill-advised dentistry.
The second half of the anti-bullpup phenomenon is based almost entirely on appearance. Most gun owners see AR-15 or AK-47 type rifles as near-perfect examples of what an autoloading rifle should be. The same thing could be said about a bolt-action M24 clone. It has nearly everything a bolt-action guy could want. When these people see a bullpup, with its weird configuration and often goofy controls, they are just immediately turned off.
The complaints about performance and design can be validated against some bullpup models, but there are others that work as well as any conventional rifle. The looks of some of these rifles are a more subjective topic. If a gun looks goofy, then many people won’t want it no matter how functional it is, and there is no excuse for that. Some bullpup designs are just hideous and can only be mocked from a safe distance.
But Are They Wrong?
Yes, they are wrong. Depending on the bullpup. For the most part, I can understand some of the complaints. Yes, many of the triggers are terrible, some of the ergonomics are awful, and let’s not speak of accuracy for some of them. But some bullpups are fantastic rifles, particularly when specialized to a specific purpose.
My SRS will shoot on par with almost any precision rifle out there, and it does it with a better balance and shorter package. Many of the other perceived problems can either be overcome with training or some ingenious alterations. Obviously, not all bullpups are great, just like not all firearms are great. But with the proper amount of research, you can probably find a bullpup that will exceed your expectations.
Haters might say why bother? My AR works just as well with no change in the manual of arms or alterations. To them, I say this. The future will be bullpupped. Until energy weapons replace kinetic projectiles, the militaries of the world that drive much of the innovation continue pushing for more compact and powerful firearms.
The longer barrels that bullpups can carry compared to conventional rifles are exactly the edge they are looking for. The huge popularity of the Tavor and X95 with military forces shows that, and the U.S. military was also playing footsie with bullpups in the Next Generation Squad Weapon program. I think it’s only a matter of time until one of these manufacturers nails the perfect design and turns the tables on what we consider conventional rifles.
You can love them or hate them, but bullpups aren’t going anywhere. There are models for every purpose, whether it’s a sniper rifle or an incredibly short SBR for close-quarters fighting. Bullpups can do everything conventional rifles do, and they can do them just as well with more compact and powerful platforms. Bullpups are no longer the fantasy gun of space movies. They are a valuable tool you can add to your collection.