Review: Bond Arms Bullpup9
December 20, 2017
On the not-so-fun days, I sort of pine for the good old times of blued steel and walnut. Then there are the days when I see new and interesting stuff. The day I first shot Bond Arms' new Bullpup9 was one of those better days.
Okay, we all carry all the time, right? Actually, no. As it turns out, most who legally can don't. Carrying a handgun can be a pain — literally. Unless you are going to spend your life wearing heavy clothes for everyday carry (EDC), modern threads are not conducive to carrying a full-sized gun either. So, many of us search for the smallest handgun to carry that's big enough to be useful.
Enter Bond Arms' new Bullpup9.
The Bullpup9 is an updated variation of the Boberg XR9-S, which first appeared circa 2007 for about $1,100. Last year, Bond Arms purchased the patent and rights for the XR9 from its inventor Arne Boberg.
At first glance, pistol appears to have virtually no barrel length given that the end of the slide and muzzle seems to end above the triggerguard. The rest of the pistol appears relatively normal and attractive, perhaps, compared to the bobbed slide. However, we all know that first impressions can be deceiving.
The Bullpup9 is flat, at less than an inch in width. For an ultra-compact 9mm, a seven-round magazine with one in the chamber is plenty good these days. But that barrel?
Despite its appearance, the barrel on the Bullpup9 measures 3.35 inches long — just like the XR9-S. (Boberg also offered an XR9-L model that featured a 4.2-inch barrel and accessory rail under the dustcover as well as one chambered in .45 ACP with 33/4-inch barrel. Perhaps these are clues as to what Bond Arms' will come out with next.)
What appears to be the striker mechanism, isn't. The Bullpup9 is a double-action-only (DAO), hammer-fired pistol, and what's inside the slide is just the firing pin, safety system and guiderod and recoil spring assembly. (Interestingly, the guiderod and spring are positioned to the left side of the barrel, which minimizes the overall length of this clever design.) The mass of the slide assembly located behind the ejection port is the insert block with the firing pin and the parts needed to hold it as well as the safety-related parts in place.
Beyond Normal Those of you with experience of Browning-locked pistols are looking at the Bullpup9 and thinking, "There's something wrong here." Not everything has to work according to John Browning's locked-breech design.
The Bond Arms Bullpup9 confounds us with not one or two but three new approaches to the problem. The hammer is the plate on the rear of the slide that looks more like a backplate on a striker-fired pistol. And the barrel on the Bullpup9 does not link, tilt or cam down. Rather, this is a barrel that rotates to lock and unlock.
The seven-round magazine is also different in that it's designed to hold the cartridges so they can be pulled rearwards, where they are snatched out of the back of the magazine for feeding.
This is a double-action-only (DAO) pistol. When a DA trigger on a pistol was a new thing, it was bad. Over the decades, the designs and geometry used for that approach got better. The full-sized pistols became good, but the compacts were still not all that fun to shoot. The Bond Arms Bullpup9 is not like those older designs. The trigger pull is not heavy and creepy. Rather, this one feels like a nicely tuned DA revolver. The Bond Arms' Bullpup9 is a lot more like that than the average spongy trigger pull we associate with modern striker-fired pistols.
Since the trigger mechanism resets on each stroke, you can easily get in cheap practice by dryfiring the Bullpup9. You don't have to rack the slide between each dryfire to reset the mechanism for the next trigger stroke.
Rotating barrels on pistols are not new. In recent memory, you might remember finding one on Beretta's PX4 and current Stoeger Cougar models. (For some reason, they also have had a particular fascination for French firearms designers.) The attraction is compactness, but also the efficiency. Without the need for a tilting barrel, a pistol can be made more compact with a rotating barrel. However, previous designs seem to have not taken advantage of the potential for compactness. Perhaps the exemplar here is the rarely seen French MAB-15. As big as the Browning Hi Power — and weighing several ounces more — the Barthe's MAB-15 had snappy recoil for such a portly pistol.
The most novel idea with the Bullpup9 is with its magazine design. We are accustomed to the normal approach of magazine design, which carry rounds loaded with the rim or case head to the rear, and shoved forward by the slide for feeding. This is an obvious approach to design and manufacturing. It has but one fault: It requires space for the slide to travel rearward to cycle and then forward to feed. Combined with the tilting barrel of the Browning approach, there is a certain irreducible space needed to unlock and relock the barrel to the slide, and for the cartridges to feed. Not so with the Bullpup9.
With Boberg's design, the cartridges are loaded into the magazine nose first. The magazine goes into the frame in the usual manner, or as I once advised a shooter in a club match who was flustered by his problem at reloading: "Shiny end up, pointy end forward." As if the open-to-the-rear magazine design isn't interesting enough, there is no follower within the magazine. The top of the magazine spring coil is wound in such a way as to provide a platform for the cartridge to rest on. By eliminating the follower, Bond Arms has removed that bulk from the system.
Firing the Bullpup9 begins a series of actions. First, the recoil of the bullet leaving is transferred to the slide and barrel. The only way the slide can cycle is under the impetus of the inertia it has experienced, which cams the barrel to rotate. The bottom lug of the barrel rides in a cam track, which is machined into the unlock block. The upper lugs keep the barrel locked to the slide until the unlock block cam has forced the barrel to rotate and unlock those lugs from the barrel.
There is another force acting to keep the slide closed: the hammer assembly. Its weight, and the spring driving it, must be pushed out of the way by the slide as it cycles, which soaks up more of the recoil energy.
Only after the barrel unlocks from the slide can the slide move rearwards, extracting the empty case and feeding another. It begins by means of the pistol's feed claw. This part hooks onto the top round of the cartridge in the magazine when you close the slide, or when you insert a magazine with the slide forward. The feed claw pulls a cartridge rearward out of the magazine and then lifts it up into line with the chamber. As the slide goes forward, the cartridge enters the chamber.
No feed ramp? No problem. There are two things you have to keep in mind with this process. One, there is no feed ramp. Each cartridge is lifted in-line with the chamber, before being shoved forward into it. Also, the manual of arms is different in one important respect: When you have a chambered round and a loaded magazine, and you wish to unload, there is more to do. Drop the magazine, then, work the slide twice. You have to extract the chambered round and you have to chamber and then extract the round being held by the feed claw. Some of us wouldn't consider this as a problem. I generally rack the slide two or three times when unloading a pistol anyways, just to be sure the pistol is clear. In owning a Bullpup9, I'd continue doing the same out of habit.
When chambering a round from the magazine, I found it useful to not just pull the slide back, but to make sure to pull the slide back to a hard stop. This ensures that the feed claw lifted the top round fully. If I gently racked the slide, the round being fed could bump into other parts when trying to feed. With a hard stop, the round fed in so smoothly I could not feel it going forward.
There is one other detail to be clear about: Not all 9mm ammunition is the same. There was a big to-do some years back, when a big-name handgun maker issued a catalog where the cover's photograph showed a magazine with the rounds loaded backwards (ahem, HK's 2004 handgun catalog). Again, in the Bullpup9, this is intentional. It does, however, mean that each cartridge is snatched backwards at high speed when it is fed. Inertia works regardless of the setting. We encounter this problem with lightweight snub-nosed revolvers where the recoil can pull bullets forward out of the case. Some of you might remember my recent column where I explored this. My hands still do.
Pistol ammunition manufacturers design and test their ammunition to resist bullet setback — not bullet pull. On every shot, the rounds in the magazine are bounced back and forth with the nose of each striking the inside front of the magazine. Pistol ammo is built and tested for setback. Happily, some methods of resisting setback also resist bullet pull. Bond Arms has tested many brands and types of ammunition, and have determined which ones happen to be securely crimped and held, that they will not have a problem with bullet pull. Consult the list and use ammunition on the list. The list is extensive and will no doubt grow as more rounds are tested and proven pull resistant. If you use something that isn't on the list, and have problems, you can't blame Bond Arms or the ammunition maker.
How might this problem present itself? The first sign would be a slide not fully closing. Today's longer cartridges would have the bullet jammed into the rifling, and if the slide can't close, the pistol won't fire. In an extreme case, you might find the bullet left behind, and the now bullet-less case would spill powder in the mechanism. You'd have to clear the malfunction, clean the pistol, and use other ammo. The list of ammo currently has nine defensive loads and 22 practice loads on it.
Which brings us to disassembly and cleaning.
Preventative Maintenance The process is simple to start, and uncovers another design element that explains the compactness of the Bullpup9. With the pistol unloaded, and the slide locked back, rotate the disassembly lever on the left side. Ease the slide off the frame. When you turn the slide over, you'll notice that the recoil spring is tucked up in the slide, taking up much less space than the traditional Browning tilt-barrel design requires. From there, remove the unlock block by tilting the barrel, then pulling it out. That's as far as you'll need to go for most cleaning. If you need more, pore over the owner's manual before going further. This is not your grandfather's automatic, so read the manual.
Riding the Bull Shooting the Bullpup9 was a pleasant surprise in one regard and a lot of work in another. The surprise was in the felt recoil, or rather, the lack of what I was expecting. At 17 ounces — loaded with full-power defensive ammo — I was ready for an unpleasant snap. While there is no escaping the muzzle rise and twist in your hand, the recoil is not sharp. Clearly, Boberg and the engineers at Bond Arms did more homework than the French engineers had on the MAB-15. At half the weight of the MAB-15, the Bullpup9 does not recoil as a featherweight.
The Bullpup9 seems as if it wants to shoot. I shot some really gratifying groups, but the pistol itself is unforgiving of bad technique beyond 7 yards. The grip, being so flat, short and thin, is great for concealment but it makes the Bullpup9 hard to hold consistently. And the DA trigger pull means your trigger finger will slide across the trigger face, which adds movement to the pistol. And the short sight radius means there's more effort required to keep the sights aligned for follow-up shots.
The Bullpup9 has accuracy potential, and is a design that clearly could shoot tight groups given time to align the sights with the target and steady the trigger press. Because it is a pistol that demands that you shoot with proper technique and avoid certain types of ammunition, the downrange results only highlight your errors. And then there is the issue of fully retracting the slide and letting it go to ensure that you haven't set up a malfunction. This becomes an critical step should you decide to carry one.
After diligent practice with the Bullpup9, you will find anything else you pick up easy to shoot. In fact, you will be a much better shooter for having practiced with the Bullpup9 — and well equipped for EDC if you choose to carry it.