October 26, 2017
In all candidness, when Kel-Tec announced its .223 pistol and rifles some time ago, it was not something that caught my attention. That is until about three years ago when I stumbled upon a rare moment when the company's SHOT Show booth had a space free that I could squeeze into and fondle its newer wares.
I ended up right in front of the PLR-16 .223 pistol, so I picked it up and racked the action. I was immediately impressed with its smoothness. I actually racked it several times in amazement. Likewise, the first pull of the trigger gave a rise to my eyebrow. I was surprised that a rifle-caliber, polymer pistol could be so well made at such a low price point. Having been a long-time fan of Kel-Tec's diminutive handguns, I gained a new appreciation for the company's design and manufacturing capabilities.
Deciding that Kel-Tec's full product line was worth further investigation, I wandered over to the rifle display. What struck me first were the folding stocks. Placing the recoil spring over the barrel (instead of behind the receiver) allowed Kel-Tec to offer several features not often seen on carbines such as the SU-16A, storage-stocked SU-16B, and folding-stocked SU-16C. Notably, several models shared a forearm that folds down for use as a bipod.
I quickly contacted Kel-Tec after SHOT and requested a .223 pistol (and later a rifle to test firsthand). I found nothing to dampen my admiration. Both products worked perfectly, and the piston-driven action kept the receivers clean. I particularly liked the folding design, which made compact storage and carry easy. These firearms make a good choice for personal defense, sporter, or trunk gun.
New RFB Bullpup
When Kel-Tec first displayed its RFB 7.62 NATO bullpup-configured prototypes at the 2007 SHOT Show, I didn't hesitate to investigate. The unique shape and short profile caught my attention, but it was the forward ejection feature that piqued my interest.
The RFB — which stands for Rifle, Forward-ejecting Bullpup — is the first truly ambidextrous 7.62 NATO bullpup ever developed. The bullpup part of that concept isn't new, but Kel-Tec has certainly added many improvements and enhancements.
With its 18-inch barrel giving the rifle an overall length measuring 26 inches, the RFB is as much as 14 inches shorter than competing rifles with equal barrel lengths. The savings in length makes handling much easier and balance much quicker for use in tight confines like hallways, doorways and vehicles.
Currently, Kel-Tec just offers an 18-inch barrel, but the product line will expanded to include 24-, 26- and 32-inch barrels. The company's website states that the practical range of the 18-inch-barreled RFB carbine is 600 meters, with the upcoming 32-inch barrel increasing the distance out to 1,200 meters.
Barrels come with a chrome-lined bore and chamber. The muzzle is threaded 5„8x24 TPI and comes equipped with an A2-style flash-hider. Threads surround the barrel just in front of the receiver for future accessories such as bayonet mounts, rail systems and suppressors.
Utilizing FAL-type (metric) magazines, the RFB's ammunition capacity is either 10 or 20 rounds. The magazine is inserted into the rifle in a manner similar to an AR, as it does not need to be rocked or tilted like an AK. The magazine release is located under the receiver on the back of the magazine well and is easily actuated by the thumb of either hand. The magazine drops free, and, like the insertion process, it does not have to be tilted to be released. Though widely available, FAL magazines are produced in several countries and therefore have wide variances in tolerances. Not all magazines will function in every firearm, so checking their function is a necessity.
The ambidextrous safety is designed to disconnect the trigger and also block the hammer action. It is a pivot design located within easy reach atop the pistol grip. The safety's location and pivot angle are different than an AR's, but those familiar with the AR platform will feel at ease, as the safety deactivation is very intuitive. My thumb falls to the perfect location without thought. Rotating the safety back to activate it is unlike that of an AR due to its pivot angle, and unless you have long thumbs, you may find it easier to activate the safety with the trigger finger — a task I found easy and fast to master. The safety is truly ambidextrous, as I had an equally easy time manipulating the lever from either side of the rifle. This is an important feature not just for lefties, but for engaging targets from both sides of the body, shooting around cover or when injured.
Beyond the bullpup design, the most distinctive feature of the RFB is its forward ejection system. Rather than empty brass being ejected at a relatively high speed out the side of the rifle, as with most semiauto designs, expended brass is pulled from the chamber, angled upward and pushed forward into an ejection chute located above the barrel. Then it simply spills out the end, which is located above and slightly to the left of the center of the barrel.
To make the system work, a dual extractor system was developed and patented by Kel-Tec to grab the case rim from both sides, which enables the rifle to maintain control and manipulate its movement throughout the entire sequence. The extractors hold the case from the time it is inserted into the chamber through the firing stage. Still within their grip, the case is extracted from the chamber, lifted upward and pushed into the ejection chute. The RFB is the only forward-ejecting rifle that maintains full control of the case during the extraction and ejection process.
The reason Kel-Tec used the forward-ejection system is to keep gas and powder from ejecting near the shooter's face, which is a common concern with bullpup patterns that use a side-ejection design. The forward ejection also maintains the RFB's protocol for a fully ambidextrous rifle — no gas is blown into the shooter's face regardless of which side of the body is used.
Even if the rifle is aimed upward, the brass will still eject since the extractors don't just place the spent case into the ejection chute, they push it into place. Likewise, when a live round is cleared from the chamber, it is removed through the ejection chute. A bottom-ejection system would serve the same purpose, but the action would need to be longer to accomplish such ejection, thus negating the major benefit of bullpups.
The RFB utilizes a short-stroke piston system. Gas is bled from the barrel and fed to a piston, which in turn hammers the action to send it rearward. The short-stroke designation signifies that the piston moves a distance shorter than the length of the cartridge. In the case of the RFB, the piston moves less than a quarter-inch. Even with this short distance, the piston imparts enough inertia to completely cycle the action. Excess gas is vented out the front. Since hot, dirty gas is not injected into the receiver like a traditional gas-impingement AR, the action stays clean and cool, which increases reliability and the lifespan of component parts.
The gas system can be adjusted to compensate for different ammunition, a change in environmental condition, when the rifle has fouling and carbon build-up or for use with a suppressor. The gas adjust is located atop the rifle just forward of the end of the receiver. Easily turned by hand, it can also be manipulated by the rim of a case when hot. For optimum reliability and lowest recoil, Kel-Tec recommends that the gas regulator be set at the lowest position that consistently locks back the bolt after the last round is fired.
The charging handle sits along the side of the RFB, forward of the pistol grip. Easily removable, it can be configured for use on either side. The charging handle does reciprocate with the action, but there is plenty of room on the forearm for your hand as long as you remember to shoot in a traditional thumbs-down position. If you don't, you won't need a second reminder.
A bolt stop is located on both sides of the rear portion of the magazine well. Like the ambidextrous safety, I found it easy to operate with either hand. The RFB utilizes dual recoil springs. One rides along each side of the action in the rear portion of the receiver.
Unlike a traditional rifle, the trigger in a bullpup design needs a long trigger linkage to engage the sear and hammer due to the distance separating the trigger from the remainder of the mechanism, thus the reputation that bullpups have for inferior trigger quality.
To overcome this, Kel-Tec developed a mechanism that pulls the hammer forward through links by way of an extension spring and added a set sear. The result is a trigger with minimal creep and a short bit of travel, which I found to be very smooth throughout. Out of the box, my test gun's trigger averaged 8½ pounds. The trigger in the RFB is not adjustable, but future models may have that feature. It won't win a match at Camp Perry, but it's quite suitable and acceptable for the RFB's defensive/sporting purpose.
Above the barrel sits a 9½-inch 1913 rail. No sights are provided with the RFB, allowing the user to choose his own sighting system. With a rail system this short — too short, in my opinion, for optimal use of iron sights — my preference is a low-magnification range scope or red dot sight.
The buttstock features a rail underneath for mounting a monopod and a rubber recoil pad that helps with maintaining purchase on the shoulder. The sling, which is included with the RFB, mounts to forward attachment points on either side of the handguard and a rear attachment slot in the buttstock that is accessible from either side for use with 1¼-inch-wide slings. Accessory sling swivel posts are available from Kel-Tec for use with different sling styles.
Future accessories include a bayonet mount and rail system for the forearm, to which lights, lasers, forward grips and bipods can be affixed.
The RFB can be taken down for cleaning and maintenance without tools — just a cartridge or similar instrument is needed to push in the takedown pins.
Following the instruction manual step by step, I was a bit stymied at a couple of points since the RFB has quite a different design from any rifle I have previously disassembled, but I found the manual to be well written and easy to follow. After doing it the first time, breakdown became easy.
Complaints Against Bullpups
Overall, bullpups have been given a bad rap, in some cases for good reason. One of the most common complaints is poor triggers due to the long linkages. As previously mentioned, Kel-Tec has solved this problem with its unique approach, and the RFB is the new the standard for bullpup trigger quality.
A valid concern with bullpups is that in the event of a catastrophic failure, the explosion is much closer to the user's face than with a traditional rifle. To deal with this issue, Kel-Tec fitted the RFB with two layers of 1.6mm steel to separate the breech from the shooter's face. In the unlikely event of a case failure, the gas expansion is directed downward through the magazine well to protect the shooter's head and face. Kel-Tec boasts that this design makes the RFB the safest bullpup ever developed. On the other side of the same issue, because a bullpup's bolt is beneath the shooter's face, it won't fly back into the shooter's eye during a failure.
A common complaint against bullpups is that they tend to eject hot brass and vent hot gases in the vicinity of the shooter's eye. Well, the RFB's forward ejection system takes care of that handily.
Physical balance of bullpup designs has been criticized as well. While I don't have other designs in hand to directly compare them, I can say that both with and without a full magazine, the RFB is nearly perfectly balanced over the pistol grip, so much so that it is easy to hold the rifle one-handed like a pistol. Bringing it from a shouldered low ready to a shooting position is a snap.
Some comments are heard that manipulating the charging handle of a bullpup is more difficult than with a traditional rifle. For me, I found the forward position of the RFB's charging handle makes it easier to cycle the action compared to an AR, especially when in the prone position. Since it's out front, there is no need to remove the rifle from a shooting position to cycle the action. The RFB's removable charging handle also alleviates the issue of needing to reach over the gun for cycling if it is on the wrong side.
A legitimate complaint against bullpups is that magazine reloads are slower because of the magazine well's rearward position. It's harder to watch what you're doing compared to having the magazine well out front. While this is true, ease of reloading also depends on the magazine style, location and design of the magazine release — some are easier than others. I do find the reloads to be slower on the RFB compared to an AR, but practice does speed up the process. No rifle system is perfect. To reduce the overall length of a carbine, you always have to give up something. In the case of the RFB, you give up some reloading speed. However, if your battleground takes place in tight quarters, you may find the sacrifice worthwhile.
You immediately notice the solid feel and heft when picking up the RFB for the first time. Its perceived weight is somewhat deceiving, as I expected it to be lighter due to its compact stature. I had to remind myself that the RFB is really a full-length firearm and it's built to withstand the pressures of the robust 7.62 NATO cartridge. The RFB's weight of 8.1 pounds is comparable, if not a bit lighter, than similarly chambered rifles of the same barrel length.
How does the RFB handle in controlled, quick-fire drills? I mounted an Aimpoint M4 with a LaRue Tactical Quick Detach Mount with a slim profile, and headed for the range. Test ammo was Winchester's Q3130, a load that uses a 147-grain FMJ bullet. It's a part of Winchester's broad product line affectionately known as "White Box." It's an excellent value.
After sighting-in the Aimpoint, I ran the RFB through various drills so that it could be used while standing, kneeling and prone. I ran it through quick-first-shot drills, starting from a low ready, use of cover, shoulder transitions, turn and shoot, multiple targets and shooting while moving. The RFB functioned without fail on multiple range visits. I certainly notice the stout recoil of the 7.62, but find that it's quite manageable. The distribution of weight gives the RFB a good balance and smooth handling. The RFB's ambidextrous controls make manipulation and shooting from the support-side shoulder a non-issue. The difference in location of the controls takes some getting used to, but that's expected with any change to manual of arms. Once a bit of muscle memory sets in, functioning the RFB's controls blends with agility.
It's fascinating to watch the casings just dribble out the front. With a typical rifle, brass is ejected with every shot. Not so with the RFB. Brass doesn't fall out until the ejection chute is full (or pointed downward), and sometimes more than one casing drops at a time.
With all of its innovations and enhancements, the RFB redefines the standards for bullpup utility and design.
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