It’s difficult to identify the first use of the term “bullpup” as it applies to firearm configurations, but the concept was first seen in the bolt-action Thorneycroft carbine of 1901. Since the current British L85 service rifle is one of the world’s most recognizable small arms of this style, it seems only appropriate that an English gunsmith earned a patent for the Thorneycroft on July 18, 1901.
The Thorneycroft held five rounds of .303 British within its internal magazine. Measuring 7½ inches shorter and weighing less than the Lee-Enfield rifle in British service at that time, its reduced overall length was achieved by placing the action so that the retracted bolt would slide back through the stock. And although the rifle gained some interest, testing at Hythe demonstrated excessive recoil and poor handling qualities. It was never adopted for military service.
Appearing in 1918, the 6.5x61mm Faucon-Meunier of France was the first semi-automatic bullpup rifle. Frenchman Henri Delacre developed and patented the first bullpup pistol by 1936. And, like the history of so many bullpup-configured firearms that followed, neither gained enough popularity for mass production.
The first mass-produced French bullpups were developed immediately following World War II at Saint-Étienne (MAS) and Mulhouse (AME). Like the British, the French couldn’t develop a bullpup to reliably utilize the NATO-standard 7.62 cartridge. When the 5.56 achieved NATO approval, the French revisited the bullpup concept.
The FAMAS (Fusil d’Assaut de la Manufacture d’Armes de Saint-Étienne, or “Assault rifle of the Saint-Étienne weapon factory”) project began in 1967 under Paul Tellie. With an action based on the proven Model 52 GPMG, the first prototype was completed in 1971, and French military evaluations began the following year. Production issues delayed FAMAS’ entry into service until 1978 as the country’s standard-issue battle rifle. Nearly 400,000 FAMAS F1s replaced the MAS 49/56. The FAMAS G2 was developed in 1994 and included an improved barrel, the ability to accept NATO magazines and upgrades intended for a never-produced G1 model that included an enlarged triggerguard and handguards made of fiberglass. The G2 still has yet to completely replace the F1.
Century Arms imported a small number of semiautomatic FAMAS rifles to the U.S. during the late 1980s. These rifles are extremely rare and can demand as much as $8,000 even though no spare parts are available.
FIRST ADOPTION INTO SERVICE
Stanley Thorpe led a Polish design team at Enfield’s Lock’s Royal Small Arms Factory after World War II that included a special engineer named Kazimierz Januszewski (aka Stefan Janson). Inspired by the German Sturmgewehr 44 (StG 44), Januszewski worked to develop a firearm that filled the role between a bolt action and submachine gun. At the same time, a panel was considering a replacement for the .303 British cartridge and settled on the 7mm. Of the four teams working on independent solutions at Enfield, one came up with a gas-powered rifle built around the locking system of the StG 44. When the team was presented with manufacturing difficulties, this design (EM-1, or Enfield Model 1) was shelved and the Polish team’s rifle was designated the EM-2 on January 6, 1948. It wouldn’t be officially adopted until April 25, 1951.
Both the EM-1 and EM-2 were select fire (semi- and automatic fire) and utilized 20-round magazines reloaded with stripper clips instead of the detachable box magazine seen on most rifles today. These bullpups used conical optics for quick sight picture and a built-in carrying handle feature.
The EM-2 was adopted and type classified as the Rifle No. 9 Mk1 (also referred to as the Janson rifle). It briefly served British forces in 1951 with a unique cartridge that was said to provide accuracy out to 730 meters, the .280 British. When the U.S. adopted the M16, the British felt vindicated in their support of intermediate cartridges.
Knowing the current controversy surrounding the 5.56 NATO, it’s rather ironic that the U.S. protested the .280 British during these first measures of NATO standardizing. During NATO testing at Aberdeen Proving Grounds, the American protest suggested that the .280 British was too weak for use in infantry rifles and machine guns. Because the EM-2 could not be readily adapted to function with the longer 7.62x51mm selected by NATO, the EM-2 was quickly shelved and the British chose to adopt a licensed version of Fabrique Nationale’s FAL. The British bullpup reemerged years later in the SA80.
SECOND UK ADOPTION…
Prior to following the lead of American forces and committing to a standard infantry rifle chambered in 5.56x45mm, the British army conducted additional intermediate cartridge research. Around 1970, two original EM-2s were rebarreled for an experimental 6.25x43mm cartridge. Even this concept was dropped for a smaller 4.85mm load in a new rifle that would go through trials in 1976. This rifle became the SA80 chambered for the 5.56 NATO, and even though they are both bullpups, the SA80 is not mechanically derived from the EM-2.
The L85 is a variant of the SA80 that continues to be the standard-issue service rifle of the British armed forces. It was chosen to replace the L1A1 in 1987, but was heavily criticized by British troops. Such criticism eventually led to an upgrade by HK in 2000. The HK-improved L85 was redesignated the L85A2. The “L” designation stands for “Land Service.” The L85 has also been adapted into the L86 Light Support Weapon, the L98 Cadet rifle and L22 carbines.
A 2007 provision called for the purchase of Trijicon’s ACOG and a specially designed Daniel Defense fore-end rail system to upgrade more than 30,000 L85 rifles.
TOO RADICAL FOR COMMIES
The Soviet Union experimented with bullpup rifles as early as 1945. Developed by small arms designer German Korobov, the 7.62x39mm TKB-408 entered trials by the Soviet army in 1946. It was eventually defeated by the AK47 a year later.
The Soviet bullpups were gas piston operated and featured a vertically moving bolt that helped reduce the overall length of the receiver group. A second Korobov bullpup, the improved TKB-022PM5 No. 1, reappeared in the late 1960s and exceeded the accuracy potential of the AKM at 100 meters during trials. But even though it performed reliably, the TKB was once again turned down for being too radical at that time.
U.S. MODEL 45A
The reason you may not have heard about the Model 45A bullpup is because it was never developed beyond a prototype. This experiment convened in the Philippines in 1945 and was directed by the U.S. Army. Like many bullpups that followed it, the Model 45A was to feature an integral scope. Documentation is scarce, but Tom Laemlein discovered a number of photographs in the U.S. Army Signal Corps’ archives.
THE FUTURE, YESTERDAY
When the term “bullpup” is used to describe a rifle, the Steyr AUG (Armee Universal Gewehr, or “universal army rifle”) is the first thing that often comes to mind. Even though the Austrian army adopted it as the StG 77 (Sturmgewehr 77) in 1977, it’s still considered state-of-the-art and the world’s first successful bullpup rifle. With its incredibly sleek design, use of modern polymers and ambidextrous configuration, Steyr’s AUG (spoken alphabetically “A-U-G” instead of the phonetic “ogg”) is still considered to be a peek into the future of combat rifles.
Even though it has been selected by more armed forces than any other bullpup, it struggled in the U.S. due to legislation that hindered importation and maintenance support. The bulk of original AUGs that initially made it into the U.S. were ordered to serve with the FBI and U.S. Customs (now part of ICE).
Though it eluded the commercial market for nearly two decades, Americans once again have the opportunity to acquire a Steyr AUG or another similar version in Microtech’s MSAR STG-556 series. Both makes of this rifle reflect a bullpup that now benefits from the current manufacturing processes and standards for quality. The latest modular AUG A3 from Steyr and Microtech’s STG-556 have more potential for success in America than they ever had before.
MORE TO COME
If you consider the reality of tactical operations in an asymmetric environment, shooters will always want a more dependable, more accurate, modular and compact platform to deploy with.
Once never imagined, long-range standoff capability can be achieved with a bullpup without damage to the rifle or injury to the shooter. A short list of sniper rifles is taking advantage of the concept. Take Desert Tactical Arms’ Stealth Recon Scout. It’s a modular rifle that’s truly caliber-convertible in the field, offering half-MOA effectiveness beyond 1,000 yards with the .338 LM barrel option. The best part is that it’s similar in size to the M16.
With large thanks going out to FNH USA, the American market is acquiring an awareness of the utility, availability and affordability of production bullpups such as the FS2000 (5.56 NATO) and PS90 (5.7x28mm). Recently, a Pennsylvania LE tactical team chose the F2000 and is employing it with great success.
Looking back on history, the bullpup concept suffered a slow rise to success. It was too far ahead of its time, people would say. And in examples such as the Steyr AUG, that may be true. You can certainly make a case to blame the American campaign to see the 7.62x51mm round achieve NATO standardization 50 years ago. But it was probably for the best. Now that the concept has been fully vetted in a number of platforms around the world, the revolutionary advancements in manufacturing can create the ultimate battle rifle for tomorrow’s warfighter.