When I heard that Israel was going to be fielding a new rifle to replace its M4s and M16s, my first reaction was, “What’s wrong with our rifle? Israel buys all of its military equipment from the United States,” I thought.
The truth is, Israel buys much of its military equipment from countries other than the United States, including France and Germany. It buys whatever it needs, from wherever it can be gotten, because let’s face it: Israel is surrounded by countries that do not wish it well.
In addition to purchasing whatever they can get, the Israelis are not strangers to small arm design. Their Merkava IV tank is perhaps the meanest-looking tank in the world, but they know small arms as well. The Galil assault rifle and the Uzi submachine gun are both very successful Israeli designs, which Americans would be much more familiar with if it weren’t for restrictive import laws. The Galil, basically an improved AK47, we fielded in numbers not just with the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) but in at least nine other countries including South Africa, where they called it the R4.
As for why they felt they needed to replace our rifle, the M16/M4, there are a number of answers to that. The design itself is more than 40 years old, and while there have been numerous substantive improvements, it does have its weak points. Our military has been searching for a replacement for it for years. The Israelis were looking for a “next generation” assault rifle, and after extensive testing, they chose the TAR-21, which stands for Tavor Assault Rifle—21st century.
The Tavor by its very design looks futuristic. Chambered in 5.56x45mm, it is fed by standard AR-15/M16 STANAG magazines, which Israel has no shortage of. It has a high-impact polymer body with a Picatinny rail on top of which can mount a variety of optics. It is a gas-operated rifle, with a rotating bolt similar to that on the M16, but the similarity ends there. It is a bullpup rifle, and while the origin of the term is unclear, there is nothing hard about spotting a bullpup. As the firing hand is positioned near the center of balance on the Tavor, as with most bullpup rifle designs, it can be operated more effectively with one hand than a rifle with a conventional design. The standard Tavor, with its 18.1-inch barrel, has an overall length of only 28½ inches. This longer barrel length allows it to get the most out of the 5.56 cartridge.
There are many bullpup rifles currently in service around the world, including the French FAMAS, British L85A2 and Austrian AUG. The South Africans have seen the advantages of the bullpup design and recently begun dropping their R4 actions into synthetic bullpup stocks, designating the new rifles the Vektor CR-21. The one negative usually heard about bullpup designs is the trigger, as the longer linkages involved usually increase the trigger-pull weight and decrease its quality. The listed trigger-pull weight for the Tavor is 2½ to 4½ kg (5½ to 9.9 lb.), a long way from match grade.
The Tavor has ejection ports on both sides of it, so it can be configured for either right- or left-handed shooters. The rifle has an ambidextrous selector switch and burst-fire capability in addition to semi- and full auto. There are several different variations of the Tavor, including the TAR-21 with its 18.1-inch barrel, aimed at multi-role infantry units; the GTAR-21, which has a barrel notched to accept a 40mm grenade launcher; the CTAR and MTAR-21 short-barrel versions designed for special forces (15- and 13-inch barrels respectively); and finally the STAR-21, a designated marksman version with a standard-length barrel and folding underbarrel bipod. Versions of the Micro Tavor, the MTAR, are also available in 9x19mm. Israel Weapons Industries has the contract to produce the rifles.
While the Tavor does come equipped with iron sights, due to the short overall length of the rifle the sights are of limited use at any distance. Tavors are fielded with optical sights of one type or another, most with the ITL MARS sight with integrated laser. The MARS (Multi-purpose Aiming Reflex Sight) is a non-magnified red dot sight that comes with a laser, either in the visible spectrum or infrared, which can be used as a target designator. Many Tavors can also be seen sporting Meprolight Reflex sights or Trijicon ACOGs (standard on the STAR-21).
The standard TAR-21 weighs 7.21 pounds, while the Micro Tavor weighs 6½ pounds. The Tavors have a rate of fire between 750 and 900 rpm and a listed effective range of 550 meters, which is about standard for 5.56mm rifles.
The Tavor was first tested in the field by the IDF in 2001, and like all rifle systems, it had its growing pains. Reportedly, there were some problems with fine sand getting into the Tavor’s chamber, but small changes were made to the design and the problem was corrected. The original Tavor was fielded with an adjustable/folding buttstock. The Indian army signed a deal in 2002 for more than 3,000 Tavors, and soon they, and units of the IDF, were experiencing problems with the buttstock and the rifles were declared operationally unsatisfactory. The buttstock was subsequently redesigned. The original Tavors were fielded in green, but current versions have all black polymer stocks. Tavor assault rifles were tested extensively through three years with field units, modified to respond to evolving requirements realized during actual combat engagements in urban combat and special operations.
The Tavor has been the issue rifle of the IDF’s Givati Brigade since 2006, the first unit of the IDF to be officially issued the new rifle. The Givati Brigade was formed in 1947 and distinguished itself in the Israeli War of Independence. It is one of the infantry brigades of the IDF, and it functions as the IDF’s amphibious force. While it was turned into a reserve brigade in the 1950s, it was reactivated in the 1980s and is very active in operations in the Gaza Strip against militants and terrorists.
In August 2008, the Tavor was issued to the IDF’s Golani Brigade, also known as the 1st Brigade. It is one of the most highly decorated infantry units in the IDF. It has participated in all of Israel’s major wars and nearly all major military operations, including the Six-Day War and Operation Entebbe. In 2010, the IDF’s Nahal and Caracal Brigades are scheduled to be issued the Tavor as well.
Reports from the field on the Tavor’s performance have been very favorable. The rifle was found to be more accurate and reliable—as well as more comfortable—than the M4 during extensive field testing. Tavor CTAR-21 rifles saw combat in 2008–2009 in the IDF’s Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip. The soldiers reported that the rifles functioned flawlessly. Reliability in heat and sand and its ergonomics have won the rifle many fans.
Most Tavors do not have a triggerguard per se, but rather a guard that encompasses the whole pistol grip. As such, IDF trainers probably had to modify their handling procedures when switching to the new rifle systems. Photos of soldiers in the field reveal they tend to wrap their whole hand around the pistol grip below the trigger. Some Micro Tavors have traditional triggerguards, but whether this is a new version or just a variation is uncertain.
The Tavor is currently in use by at least seven countries outside of Israel, including the aforementioned India. India has issued more than 3,000 of the rifles, some with Under Barrel Grenade Launchers (UBGLs), to their special forces units. The Columbian army issues the TAR-21 to its Agrupación de Fuerzas Especiales Antiterroristas Urbanas (Urban Counter-Terrorism Special Forces Group, AFEUR), which is an elite unit whose primary mission is to perform counterterrorist operations and hostage rescues. The Royal Thai army has purchased at least 30,000 TAR-21s. In Portugal, small numbers of the TAR-21 are in use by field and intervention units of the Policia Judiciara. Guatemala’s Policia Nacional Civil uses the TAR-21 for routine tasks and some special operations.
One indicator of just how reliable the Tavor must be is the news from the state (former Soviet Republic) of Georgia. In 2006, the Georgian army entered into a supply agreement for approximately 7,000 TAR-21 rifles (including different variants and grenade launchers). These to the fire control group, to the gas block, to several components to make sure that it can’t be readily converted to full auto. So we have to make some major modifications, although externally no one would ever see the difference. It’s all internal. The full-auto fire control group would not be able to be inserted into this gun.”
For all the work Charles Daly/K.B.I. put into the Tavor, its future is uncertain, as K.B.I. just recently announced that it was going out of business. Charles Daly, however, may remain in existence as a company, so the prospect of an American version of the Tavor TAR-21 in the future is not dead.
While the IDF seems to be very happy with the Tavor, it and its variants are not likely to replace the M16/AR platform anytime soon, as the unit price of an M4 is about one-third the price of a TAR-21. That said, a bullpup of modern design and materials that has been field proven is sure to win more customers.