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Springfield Armory Hellion 5.56 NATO Bullpup Rifle: Tested

The Croatian military's VHS machinegun, a freedom fighter with an underdog story, has come to the United States as a semi-automatic bullpup-style carbine. Meet the Springfield Armory Hellion 5.56 NATO Bullpup Rifle.

Springfield Armory Hellion 5.56 NATO Bullpup Rifle: Tested

(Photo by Michael Anschuetz)

“Does Springfield Armory manufacture its XD pistols?” That question has been asked a lot. Scroll down the internet’s search results to find the answer: “HS Produkt, Karlovac, Croatia.” I’ve traveled extensively to tour many factories of the firearm industry, but Springfield Armory and HS Produkt didn’t allow visitors until June 2021. I was part of a small media delegation, along with several employees, including Rob Leatham, invited by Springfield Armory CEO Dennis Reese and HS Produkt CEO Željko Pavlin to learn Croatia’s history, see inside the factory, and examine the new Springfield Armory Hellion.

Reese has been making trips to HS Produkt on behalf of Springfield Armory since the beginning. The relationship began with the introduction of the HS2000, which led to an exclusive agreement to import it in 2001. The first appearance of the “X-treme Duty” was in the new-product pages of Guns & Ammo’s January 2002 issue. Former Feature Editor Jeff John’s coverstory was published in February 2002, where the pistol’s name was shortened to “XD.”

Though the HS2000 and variants were sold in Europe under the HS Produkt brand, its success didn’t compare to America’s overwhelming reception. Within a few years, Springfield Armory became responsible for 90 percent of HS Produkt’s sales, which financed the development of its in-house manufacturing capabilities and innovative designs.


“From three-axis machines, to five- and even 12-axis machines, we make every part ourselves,” Pavlin said. “HS Produkt is one of the most advanced technology companies regarding [gun] part production and design.”


The Višenamjenska Hrvatska Strojnica (VHS), or “multifunctional Croatian machine gun,” was a lesser-known product to America that’s already proven itself in combat. The once unobtainable bullpup came at the request of the Croatian army in 2007. The VHS brought Croatia’s inventory of small arms to NATO standards.

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The American delegation visiting HS Produkt was joined by distinguished combat veterans who joined the tour of Karlovac. (Photo by Michael Anschuetz)

Born From War

The story of the VHS began in 1992 during the Croatian War of Independence, which started in 1991 and ended in 1995. Croats often refer to it as “The Homeland War.” Most wanted sovereignty after the fall of the Soviet Union remapped Europe, while the ethnic Serb minority opposed secession and wanted their land to become a state within Serbia. However, the Croatian government declared its independence on June 25, 1991, and ties to Yugoslavia were severed on October 8. The United Nations responded with peacekeeping forces in 1992 as the situation worsened.

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From tractors to trucks, Croatians constructed improvised armored fighting vehicles (AFV) during The Homeland War. (Photo by Michael Anschuetz)

Croats were outnumbered and faced superior armament. Still, the war was won in 1995 following two major offensives. Croatia achieved its independence while also preserving its borders. Still, the infrastructure was damaged and more than 20,000 people were killed. Signs of the conflict remain.

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Karlovac’s Homeland War Museum features an open-air display of aircraft, armor and artillery, as well as a collection of artifacts and firearms to honor veterans and the memory of fallen countrymen. The building was heavily damaged during the war. Today, the preserved structure and its exhibits are encased in glass. (Photo by Michael Anschuetz)

It is hard for many Americans to imagine a modern war taking place in urban environments as it did 30 years ago, but its effects are evident throughout Karlovac. Memories of the war seem relatively recent for Croatians working at HS Produkt, and their fight for independence is important to the younger generation who now wear the uniform to guard their nation. Driving from Zagreb to Karlovac, I noticed a blending of Baroque urban layouts filled with modern architecture. While most homes were restored, scattered walls strafed by machine gun fire and blasted roofs and broken glass of some abandoned buildings are visual reminders of the intense fighting that took place throughout the city’s streets and parks.


Before the introduction of the VHS in 2007, Croatia’s arsenal was a mix of former Soviet and European weaponry, examples of which we saw on display during a tour of The Homeland War Museum. Outside, static displays highlighted the country’s attempts at making its own armored defenses, which included welding steel-plates to tractors and trucks. The Croatian army, then, was made of citizen-soldiers who used these to oppose tanks, artillery and jet aircraft originating from the former Soviet Union.

Croatia had an urgent need for small-arms production in 1991 when IM Metal was founded. When you consider that its first pistol, the PHP, was based on the Walther P.38 — and, in part, the Beretta 92 — and its second pistol, the HS95, has the profile of SIG Sauer’s P226, it is understandable why the original VHS looks like the French FAMAS bullpup. To speed development, IM Metal’s first designs were inspired by others.

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Founded in 1991, some 12,000 soldiers serve the Croatian army. Since 2013, they’ve used the VHS-2, many with integrated optics. (Photo by Michael Anschuetz)

The VHS was ready for field testing in 2006. Fifty VHS rifles were deployed with Croatian soldiers in support of ISAF in Afghanistan, which gave HS Produkt the battlefield feedback it needed to further enhance the design. In April 2013, the VHS-2 was introduced. The VHS-2 featured a redesigned carry handle, and more recent versions have a flat-top Picatinny rail for attaching optics and accessories. The VHS-2 also features a five-position adjustable stock and a convertible bolt assembly. The bolt design allows users to switch the ejection port from the right to left side for ambidextrous operation without the need for tools or extra parts. The VHS-2 is offered in two barrel lengths, “D” for long and “K” for carbines. Either can be fitted with a VHS-BG 40mm grenade launcher. Regulating reliability during adverse conditions, or use with a suppressor, is a two-position gas-piston assembly.

Recommended


Factory Tour

Pavlin and Reese accompanied the delegation for the tour of HS Produkt. On arrival, we were ushered into a room and positioned around a conference table covered in HS Produkt’s history. VHS and VHS-2 variants were placed next to the Springfield Armory Hellion for comparison. Aside from its logos, markings and semiautomatic selector, it was obvious that the Hellion is semiautomatic version of the VHS-2.

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HS Produkt is a manufacturing facility containing advanced high-pressure-processing equipment to make complex shapes. (Photo by Michael Anschuetz)

“It’s an overwhelming process,” Reese began. “When we’re looking for a component to go in a firearm, we don’t search the world for the cheapest. We look for a partner. We truly are looking for the best. And one of the greatest relationships that we’ve nurtured during the last 20 years is our partnership with HS Produkt. During the 1990s, Croatians were forced to figure out ways to defend themselves, just as Americans fought for freedom. It became painfully obvious that people defending the country needed firearms capable of defending the nation against aggressors. One of the things that impressed me then was that we shared an appreciation for discipline, to build quality environments and produce firearms in one of the most technologically advanced facilities. You know that we’ve produced incredible firearms in the last 20 years. Wait until you see what we’ve got next,” Reese concluded.

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HS Produkt employs more than 1,800. It is almost completely self-reliant with capabilities to produce any part, fixture and tool. (Photo by Michael Anschuetz)

HS Produkt’s creed is “Expect The Best.” When founded in 1991, the company was in Ozalj. With the success of the HS2000, it was moved to Karlovac where operations quickly expanded. The factory is now organized on a property of multi-level buildings containing automated robotics, investment casting, hammer forges, finishing and assembly centers. HS Produkt imports its raw materials from Slovenia for its steel to Japan for wire, but it manufactures every part so that the company isn’t dependent on another. It is the primary employer of the region with more than 1,800 people on the job.

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One of several hammer-forging machines, HS Produkt makes its own barrels. Each station is clean, safe and well-organized. (Photo by Michael Anschuetz)

“I’d like to present to you the Springfield Armory Hellion,” said Pavlin. “The VHS-2 has been updated and adapted for the U.S. market. It’s very close to the VHS, but it’s got some modifications done to it to better fit American requirements. It is true to the VHS-2 with minor differences. It is very accurate and reliable. During testing, we shot 25,000 rounds, 6,000 tracers, 10,000 blanks, and dryfired it another 10,000 times to be sure. The test rifles were even disassembled 2,000 times.”

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Quality control ends with sensors used to inspect dimensions of finished components, but it starts with an employee’s scrutiny. (Photo by Michael Anschuetz)

Meet the Hellion

The Hellion is not identical to the VHS-2, however. The VHS-2 is available with either a carry handle featuring a NATO STANAG 4694 rail and flip-up sights, or a handle with an integrated 1.5X optical red-dot (with halo ring) sight. The U.S. market will only receive the Hellion with a continuous rail, no optic included.

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Springfield Armory’s Hellion is a semiautomatic descendant of the VHS-2 (inset) issued by the Croatian army. The select-fire VHS-2 is available with and without an integral 1.5X optic in the carry handle. (Photo by Michael Anschuetz)

The Hellion is 922r compliant, according to U.S. Code that governs the importation of rifles and shotguns. Among the parts that differentiate the Hellion from the VHS-2 are the four-prong flash hider, Bravo Company Manufacturing’s Gunfighter Mod. 3 pistol grip — although the Hellion’s receiver will accept other AR-15-pattern grips, too — the piston, magazine and sleeve, and trigger components. All of these are assembled by Springfield Armory in the U.S., and the sights are calibrated for 62-grain 5.56 NATO loads.

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The Springfield Hellion disassembles easily for inspection and maintenance. Subassemblies include the removable piston; bolt carrier group; fire control unit; stock, mainspring and guiderod; and sleeve to accept AR-pattern magazines. (Photo by Michael Anschuetz)

Despite its compact overall length, which is adjustable for five positions between 28¼ inches and 29¾ inches, the bullpup features a 16-inch barrel. Compare that to Springfield Armory’s typical-model Saint AR-15-pattern rifle with 16-inch barrel; these have an adjustable overall length between 32¼ and 35½ inches. Therein lies the primary attractant of a bullpup: Its short length. Besides the advantages of compactness, bullpup carbines are faster to drive when engaging multiple and moving targets because the weight bias is closer to the shoulder. They also reduce the chance that the barrel’s muzzle will hit a door jam or snag on a loose object in a dynamic situation. Most in uniform who have bailed out of vehicle can appreciate the value of a short rifle. An AR-15 with a shorter barrel and carbine-length gas system is often over-gassed, too. With its 16-inch barrel paired with piston operation, a bullpup like the Hellion never is.

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The forend is removable and features M-Lok attachment points for accessories. M-Lok slots also serve as vents for the piston system and heat. The adjustable, two-position piston assembly is simple to maintain and keeps the action free of excessive carbon build-up and debris. If you want a low-maintenance rifle, this is it. (Photo by Michael Anschuetz)

The Hellion’s barrel is forged from 4150 steel, Melonite finished and interchangeable. The latter means that the Hellion’s design features the theoretical potential to accept replacement barrels or barrels of other calibers. (None are in development.) Barrels attach to an extension finished in nickel-Teflon, which is molded into the Hellion’s receiver and secured by a steel pin. As of this writing, the Hellion is only available with 5.56 NATO-chambered barrels having a 1:7-inch twist rate. The muzzle is cut for standard ½x­28 threads, which also means that it would be easy to attach a suppressor. Springfield Armory is initially selling the Hellion with a four-prong flash hider only. (I predict that will evolve to include others.)

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The large crossbolt button is used to unlock the rear of the upper, which allows it to separate from the lower receiver. The front of the carry handle is hooked on a hinge pin, which means that the upper must be removed by lifting the rear up first and then pulling it away from the forend. (Photo by Michael Anschuetz)

The action is driven by an adjustable gas-piston design, which keeps carbon fouling and debris away from coating moving parts such as the rotating bolt — and the shooter’s face. These parts, to include the barrel extension, are treated with a nickel-Teflon coating. We know that nickel-Teflon has lubricious properties that doesn’t allow carbon to stick.

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No tools are required to switch the Hellion between right- and left-side ejection. With the stock assembly removed and the comb tilted up, a rod can be removed to open either ejection port door. With the rotating bolt assembly separated from the carrier, extraction and ejection can be reversed. (Photo by Michael Anschuetz)

Underneath the finish, the steel used on the barrel extension is the same as the bolt’s. Within the bolt is a spring-sleeved firing pin to improve its rebound. After much testing, I can confirm that the Hellion requires little maintenance.

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The ambidextrous selector does not interfere with the grip like some designs do. The Hellion is semiautomatic only, which is indicated by the white “safe” and the red “single-shot” pictograms. (Photo by Michael Anschuetz)

The Hellion is readily slung using quick-detach (QD) sling sockets on both sides of the stock. Up front, the handguard features M-Lok slots at the right, left and bottom for accessories. The flattop is also notable for having a 12¾-inch continuous rail, which is longer than most AR-15s. Therefore, optics can be positioned for proper and comfortable eye relief. Enough rail space remains to accommodate magnifiers, night vision, aiming lasers, lights, and activation switches, if desired.

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The charging handle is non-reciprocating and rests in a neutral position under the carry handle’s optic rail. It can be grabbed from either direction and pulled to cycle the action. It springs forward when not in use. (Photo by Michael Anschuetz)

Lefty Friendly 

Like the VHS-2, the Hellion was not biased for right-handed shooters. The contact surfaces such as the stock’s comb, grip and forend mirror the opposite side.

The controls are also welcoming. The non-reciprocating charging handle is positioned beneath the optic rail, and the spring-loaded handle swivels to the front and center, out of the way, when not in use. The selector exists on both sides of the receiver and features red and white pictograms for safe or semiautomatic operation. The magazine release is a serrated lever that’s intuitively located behind the magazine, and a button near the toe of the stock is squeezed to reposition the length of pull.

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The stock offers five positions to adjust its length of pull. A comb saddles the stock and elevates the user’s face for comfortable sighting. Despite its appearance, the comb is not adjustable for height. (Photo by Michael Anschuetz)

Most notably, and different from many firearms that claim ambidextrous use, the Hellion’s bolt and ejection port can be reconfigured without tools to send spent cases out either side. However, this does require some (toolless) disassembly of the stock and bolt carrier group to change the direction of ejection. It proved reliable during testing; we fired one magazine with the right ejection port open, then two mags with the left for 60 rounds before returning it to right-side eject. There was never a malfunction.

Springfield Armory provides one 30-round Magpul PMAG Gen M3, but the Hellion had no issues operating from other standard AR-type magazines. (I tested several during function testing.) A common concern of prospective bullpup owners is the speed of reloading. The AR-15 offers an advantage on this subject, but the Hellion is quick to change magazines because it has an excellent magazine catch and release. Years ago, I completed a five-day carbine course using a Steyr AUG A3, and I have owned several bullpups including the IWI Tavor, FN FS2000 and KelTec RFB/RDB. It’s my opinion that the Hellion is the fastest of the bullpups to reload. On paper, it proved itself to be more accurate than most, too.

In Croatia, I witnessed soldiers of the Armed Forces of Croatia and the Luˇcko Anti-Terrorist Unit (ATU) — a tactical unit of the Croatian police stationed near the capital Zagreb — train with the VHS-2. They performed smooth magazine changes while wearing full kit faster than many of us could with an AR-15. Simply practicing speed reloads with the Hellion should eliminate this concern for most users.

Range Time

Three range sessions were available to evaluate the Hellion in Croatia. The first took place on June 8, 2021, at HS Produkt’s indoor range where we were allowed to perform an accuracy test at 100 meters. After dryfiring the Hellion and learning the feel of its 6½-pound trigger, I slowly fired five rounds on paper. My best group measured .92 inch with an average of 1.02 inches. Ammunition was Sellier & Bellot’s SS109 62-grain NATO load provided by the factory. The SS109 produced an average muzzle velocity of 2,952 feet-per-second (fps) from the Hellion’s 16-inch barrel.

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The Luˇcko Anti-Terrorist Unit (ATU) is Croatia’s leading police tactical unit. Besides the VHS-2, they carry variants of the XD-M. (Photo by Michael Anschuetz)

The next day, we observed the Luˇcko ATU train with the VHS-2 at an outdoor facility. This included assaults and transitions to their XD-pattern pistols followed by room-clearing simulations. Thousands of rounds were expended in semi- and full-auto modes of fire throughout the day. The training eventually moved to the unit’s indoor live-fire training complex, which allowed them to control lighting, go dark and employ fire and movement techniques while exclusively using night vision. The unit’s demonstrations were impressive.

Day three involved elements of the Croatian army. Using the VHS-2 equipped with and without optics, soldiers engaged targets out to 500 meters. They demonstrated their ability to rapidly assault and overwhelm opposition with effective fire and movement. The second half of this exercise involved us evaluating both the VHS-2 and Hellion with various optic configurations at silhouettes positioned between 100 and 500 meters. Making lethal strikes using a Trijicon AccuPower 1-8x28mm scope was effortless against the furthest 500-meter targets. I also used this known-distance range to certify the zero- to 500-meter calibrations marked on the adjustable dial, rear-sight aperture.

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While visiting the Croatian army’s 500-meter range, the author confirmed the regulation of the adjustable aperture sights. (Photo by Michael Anschuetz)

As with most bullpup-style rifles, the Hellion’s trigger linkage produced a trigger pull that measured 6½-plus pounds on my digital gauge. This is the only feature I will criticize, but it isn’t unmanageable or unpredictable. If it had a trigger like a bolt gun, I believe that I could extract sub-MOA groups.

More to Come

Learning the history of HS Produkt and Croatia’s Homeland War caused me to draw similarities between that country and our path to independence. I salute the those with the Luˇcko ATU and Croatian armed forces. My feelings are eager to support a company fueled by the same passion to guard the freedom known to America’s patriots.

The Hellion is an important entry into Springfield Armory’s catalog, and new variants and calibers seem inevitable. In the months ahead, G&A’s staff will continue to evaluate the Hellion and explore this bullpup’s full potential when fed popular duty loads. It’s size, weight, balance, ergonomics, quality of materials, reliability, modularity, and accuracy potential — I could continue — earned my respect. The more I shoot it, the more comfortable I am using it. If a law enforcement agency were considering this as an M4 replacement, it would have my strong recommendation.

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