July 1, 1997, was the date the city of Hong Kong, the last bastion of British colonialism in Asia, was returned to China. It was also the date that the Chinese military unveiled its new 5.8mm bullpup assault rifle, which equipped the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops during the handover ceremony.
This new rifle is named the QBZ95, Qing Bu-Qiang Zi-Dong 1995 Si, or Infantry, Automatic Rifle, Type 1995. The QBZ95’s modern-looking bullpup layout and polymer exterior had led many to speculate that it was perhaps a copy of the French FAMAS or a Kalashnikov derivative. The 5.8mm QBZ95 is really the blended offspring of the long and often bumpy Chinese small-caliber, high-velocity (SCHV) small arm ammunition development and the interesting Chinese studies of the bullpup concept.
A separate article on the 5.8x42mm cartridge can be found on page 100.
In the late 1980s two senior engineers from the Chongqing Arsenal published a research paper on the WTC Research Project from 1981 to 1985. “WTC” is short for Wu Tuo Chiang, the Chinese acronym for the bullpup rifle. The first phase of the WTC project was a detailed study of all the potential pros and cons of the bullpup concept. The second phase was to develop design features that could be used for improving the bullpup design and to address its shortcomings. This project produced two examples, one chambered for the old 7.62x39mm and the other interchangeable for 7.62mm and the developmental 5.8mm SCHV assault-rifle cartridge. Many unique features on the WTC rifles later found their way into the QBZ95, such as the barrel-centric construction, composite housing with built-in assault grip, linear hammer-firing mechanism and inline recoil- and striker-spring setup.
QBZ95 development started in July 1991. Its development team enlisted all the big-name Chinese small arms designers included Wang Zhijun, project manager of the successful Type 81 rifle, and Duo Yingjian, who worked on the Type 63 rifle and Type 67 general-purpose machine gun. The rifle was officially adopted by the Chinese military in 1995 and first shown publicly during the Hong Kong changeover ceremony.
The internal design of the QBZ95 is unique among modern small arms. Whereas in other rifles, the receiver is usually the centerpiece of the firearm, the QBZ95’s heavy barrel is the main structural member to which all other parts attach. Even the bolt and bolt carrier are reciprocated on a guide rod that’s parallel-crimped onto the barrel. This receiverless design was developed to reduce weight and attain a balanced weight distribution for the bullpup. Because of it, the QBZ95 is one of the lightest assault rifles in the world, with an empty weight of just 7.1 pounds (3.25 kg). The forged aluminum “receiver” is riveted onto the large barrel trunion. However, it’s reduced to a glorified magazine well that also helps transfer recoil to the shooter’s shoulder.
Three black polymer shells cover the exterior of the QBZ95, and special standoff mounts make sure those polymer parts don’t come into direct contact with the hot barrel during firing. The QBZ95’s polymer feels softer than that used by other modern assault rifles. The critical stress areas in the polymer shells were specifically molded into stronger rounded and boxed shapes or had reinforced ribs cast in. Chinese engineers admitted the softer polymer was the tradeoff to meet the strenuous subzero-temperature requirement from the Chinese military. The polymer material used in the QBZ95 can endure 540˚F (290˚C) without softening and -50˚F (-45˚C) without becoming brittle.
There is a hooded post front and an aperture rear sight with a proprietary Chinese military accessory rail at the top of the integral carrying handle. The rear sight has a spur-like flip-up aperture set that is calibrated for 100, 300 and 500 meters and an illuminated-dot night sight that works with two illuminated dots on the front sight hood.
The earlier WTC project indicated that, due to the reduction of sight radius in the bullpup configuration, the tangent sight traditionally used by Chinese rifles could not offer acceptable accuracy. The aperture open sight was chosen because it’s much cheaper and more rugged than the optical sights.
Two quick-detachable (QD) optical sights have been developed for the QBZ95. One is a 3X telescopic sight with illuminated reticles calibrated for 100 to 800 meters, and the other is the new Aimpoint look-a-like magnified red dot sight that can be used with the “both eyes open” aiming method. A light intensifier and thermal-imaging night sights as well as a video-camera sight with helmet-mounted display are available for the QBZ95. The JM029 tactical light and laser designator can be added between the flash-hider and the front sight mount with a bracket.
Feeding and Firing
The QBZ95 feeds from a 30-round black polymer magazine with cross-reinforced ribs. Because of the 5.8mm round’s thick and tapered cartridge case, the magazine is curved like the old AK magazines and is not much smaller in size. The magazine locking mechanism is the simple, but robust latch type with an ambidextrous magazine release.
Its 18.2-inch (463mm) chromed barrel is cold-hammer forged with newly imported technology. At 10,000 rounds, its barrel life is rated higher than the M16’s at 8,000 rounds. However, not all QBZ95s are equipped with the new barrel. The M16-style birdcage flash suppressor can be removed from the multi-stub ring-shaped QD mount at the muzzle and replaced with a sound suppressor or a rifle grenade adapter.
All of the QBZ95’s internal parts are CNC machined and either hard chromed, blued or hard anodized. The very short gas system is located between the front sight mount and the guide-rod mount. It’s a short-stroke setup with an adjustable gas regulator. The rotating block locks into the barrel extension with three locking lugs. Chinese designers believe their three-lug design offers the proven reliability of the Kalashnikov’s large two-lug type with the superior accuracy of the multi-lug American- and European-style rotating bolts. A spiral cam track at the bottom of the bolt hammer flips up from its cocked position and hits the firing pin to fire the loaded cartridge. In the QBZ95’s linear-hammer system, the sear holds back the hammer unit in its cocked rear position. When the trigger is pulled, the sear releases the hammer, and it slams forward into the firing pin. The main advantage of using a striker-fire system is the elimination of the heavy, sluggish trigger pull that’s commonly associated with other bullpup de the hammer in place. The forward-located trigger connects to the firing mechanism at the rear with a metal linkage. The selector is marked “0-2-1,” with “0” being Safe, “2” as Full Auto and “1” for Single-Shot.
The linear-hammer unit has a complex shape and serves multiple functions. Its wider bottom rides on top of the receiver. The stub-like striker face, the part that actually hits the firing pin, is at the lower front portion. The tubular upper portion bolt assembly and the striker unit recoil together back toward the rear. An L-shaped lever-action mechanical recoil buffer in the buttstock slows down, then stops both of those pieces without them slamming into the rear receiver wall like in the AK’s action.
Controls and Ergonomics
Overall length of the QBZ95 is shorter than the M4 Carbine with the buttstock collapsed. For me, at 5’11”, it’s just slightly too small. Obviously, the QBZ95’s compactness is designed for the smaller Asian physique. The light weight and surprisingly good balance are the result of its barrel-centric design. When the rifle is empty, the center of balance is just above the pistol grip. The position of the pistol grip and trigger is located closer to the shooter’s body than in other bullpups. As a result, the QBZ95 mounts very comfortably on the shoulder, and it is easy to control by those with short limbs. The softer polymer it uses makes the rifle feel a little squishy on some surfaces. The front of the triggerguard is enlarged and cleverly molded into a handy sort of mini assault grip. However, I found it to be too close to the trigger hand, and thus it may cause some wobbling. It also lacks a thumb cutout—like the ones found on the FN P90 or the Israeli Micro-Tavor—for getting a solid grip.
The QBZ95 is not a left-handed-friendly rifle for two reasons: the design of its case ejector and cultural reasons. The QBZ95 employs a very durable Kalashnikov-style receiver-mounted blade-type fixed ejector. When the bolt retracts, the ejector passes through the pre-cut slot in the bolt head and literally kicks the fired case out of the rifle. Since this ejector is fixed on the left side of the receiver, it cannot be moved to the other side like the spring-loaded ejector on the multi-lug bolts used by other bullpups. The main reason why the QBZ95 shuns lefties is due to Asian culture. In Asia, children are discouraged from exercising left-handedness at an early age, and by the late teens most have learned how to be proficient with both hands. For those who still can’t get with the program, the Chinese military has made the policy of training them to shoot right-handed in boot camp. The new bullpups from Singapore and Korea also didn’t bother to design for left-side ejection on the same cultural grounds.
The biggest weakness in the QBZ95 design is its poor safety and selector. Who in his right mind would decide not to put the safety near the trigger hand? The selector actually has a good click to it, but it’s located inconveniently at the left of the buttstock and hard to reach in a hurry. Both are major deviations from the excellent safety/selector arrangement of the previous Type 81 rifle, which is similar to that of the M16. It is obvious that the people who designed the clumsy controls for the QBZ95 had never manned a check point, where life or death is often decided by a quick switch from Safe to Fire. The prototype of the QBZ95 actually had a separate safety near the trigger in similar fashion as the British SA80 and the Singaporean SAR-21 bullpup. It was dropped because it tended to get stuck in the cold-weather-test trial. However, I fail to see how a simple cross-pin-type safety commonly found in machine guns or a flap-type used by the M203 grenade launcher and the French FAMAS would have such a problem.
Another minor annoyance is the absence of a bolt hold-open device that other earlier Chinese-designed rifles all had. One of the QBZ95 lead designers commented that the removal of the bolt hold-open from the production model was due to issues with the thicker and softer polymer magazine it uses.
At the range, I shot three-inch groupings with the QBZ95 at 100 meters with 30 shots in two targets. An accuracy of two to 2½ MOA should be achievable with a shooter who’s more familiar with the bullpup and with a better sight. I found the QBZ95’s rear-sight aperture to be smaller and harder to use than the M16’s, and the sight radius is too short. It really needs a holographic reflex sight for quick target acquisition. The trigger pull is light and positive with no trigger snap, all thanks to the striker-fired mechanism. Unfortunately, I didn’t try out the QBZ95 in full auto to see if its elaborate recoil- and vibration-reduction system is really worth the effort.
Variants and Derivatives
Like the Type 81 before it, the QBZ95 was developed as part of a small arms family with the addition of the QBB95 heavy-barreled light machine gun (LMG) and the short-barreled QBZ95B carbine.
The 8.58-pound (3.9 kg) LMG variant fits more into the traditional squad automatic rifle category with its heavy, non-remov able 21.9-inch barrel. The mini assault grip on the triggerguard had been omitted to make room for the folding bipod, and more range apertures were added to the rear sight. The longer barrel increased the muzzle velocity to 3,181 fps (970 mps), and the barrel life had also increased to 15,000 rounds. The QBB95 feeds from a 75-round drum or the 30-round polymer magazine of the assault rifle. The clunky, stamped-steel 75-round drum is a carryover from the Type 81 LMG. It can be quickly reloaded by opening the cover and dropping the rounds into open slots, cranking up the spiral drum spring afterward. The drum mounting is haphazardly offset to the left and in front of the shooter’s chest. Most of the QBB95 gunners on maneuvers prefer just to use the 30-round box magazine.
The QBZ95B carbine has a shorter 12.8-inch (326mm) barrel with muzzle velocity reduced to 2,581 fps (790 mps). The lack of a useable forearm was remedied by enlarging the mini assault grip to a full-size hand grip. A muzzle compensator with expansion chamber keeps the increased muzzle flash and recoil in check. The dimension and weight are reduced to 23.6 inches (600mm) and 6.38 pounds (2.9 kg).
The QBZ97 is the export model of the QBZ95. Its use of the higher-pressure 5.56x45mm round led to extensive redesign internally. The QBZ97 takes the NATO-spec STANAG magazine and uses an AR-type push-button magazine lock. A new receiver with a deeper magazine well was used to accommodate the M16-style 5.56mm magazine. The barrel is lengthened to 19.3 inches (490mm), and it weighs slightly more at 7.37 pounds (3.35 kg).
Interestingly, Burma (now called Myanmar) is the only user of the QBZ97 rifle, in the form of its own unlicensed knockoff. Its copy of the QBZ97 is called the EMERK-1, and it was based on evaluation samples provided by the Chinese, which the Burmese refused to give back after their QBZ97 order was cancelled. The QBZ97’s polymer and aluminum construction was replaced in the EMERK-1 with cheaper stamped-steel parts. Consequently, the EMERT-1 rifle became heavier at 8.8 pounds (4 kg), and the LMG version weighs 9.9 pounds (4½ kg).
The recently released QBZ97A revision added the much desired bolt hold-open device and the three-round-burst mod (a useless feature invented by bean counters of the U.S. Army).
Also note that the QBZ95’s companion rifle, the 5.8mm QBU88 small-caliber sniper/designated marksman rifle, is not a QBZ95 derivative. Although it used a similar-looking polymer housing and bullpup configuration, the QBU88 is a scaled-down version of the hammer-fired Type 79/85/Dragunov SVD.
No important firearm designed by the Chinese recently will be without political intention. The QBZ95’s unveiling during the Hong Kong changeover was clearly a show of national pride. Conversely, it also suffers because of that. In the rush to completion, necessary features like the bolt hold-open device and the forward safety were dropped. After it was hastily pressed into service, changes and improvements were slow coming due to the bureaucratic nature of the Chinese military. The internal design of the QBZ95 is also overly complicated for an infantry rifle, but its manufacturer claims the same high reliability as the AK47. However, I will reserve my judgment of the QBZ95’s performance until it is thoroughly tested in combat.
The word “bullpup” will usually cause a knee-jerk reaction from American military and civilian shooters alike. Their preconceived view is often influenced by their shooting habits and a fixation on the few drawbacks of the bullpup configuration while overlooking its foremost tactical advantages. We Americans, with our tendency to hang all sorts of gizmos on our rifles, should really be the last ones to complain about extra weight, complexity and uneven rifle balance. The alleged slow magazine change and safety concerns were found to be non-issues by the British and Australian militaries, which both are long-time users of bullpup rifles. The quick shoulder switch and left-hand shooting issue can be addressed with proper training, and besides, the new Belgian and Russian bullpups even offer ambidextrous forward ejection that will deal with the problem completely. As someone who has used rifles with a traditional layout extensively, including in combat in Somalia, I feel that the bullpup layout is a workable solution and its advantages outweigh its limitations. After all, no militaries that have adopted a bullpup assault rifle have returned to a conventional type.
At the price of $450 each to a large military order, the QBZ95 is a bargain. Its per-unit cost is considerably cheaper than the IMI Tavor’s $1,000 and the new Steyr AUG A3 variant’s steep $2,000 price tag. The QBZ95 offers adequate accuracy, decent production quality and claims to be as reliable as the old AK. Though there are flaws, the QBZ95 is still not a bad rifle for the money.