The firearms world is full of opposing fandoms: Glock fanboys versus the 1911 crowd, the 9mm fans facing off against the .45 ACP lovers, and — one of the largest gulfs to cross — the AR lovers versus the people obsessed with the AKs. The feuds, especially once they moved from the gun counter and shooting range parking lot to the internet, often make the Hatfields and McCoys seem like best buds. But there’s another powerful lightning rod guaranteed to get gun nerds’ hair up — whether you’re talking about rifles or shotguns, the bullpup is one of the most polarizing topics in firearms. People either absolutely love them or think they are utter bullshit.
There’s not a lot of middle ground in this gun debate. But why?
I recently had the privilege of joining Desert Tech, a company specializing in modern bullpup designs, at the North Springs Shooting Range in Carbon County, Utah, for a range day. Any day at the range is a good day, but the guys at Desert Tech really know how to show a gal a good time.
As a regular Southern girl from the North Carolina Coastal Plain, I’m mostly a flatland hunter, chasing whitetails through thick, swampy river bottoms. I’m admittedly not much of a long-range shooter, and I confessed as much before hopping up to the bench.
“What’s your farthest shot?” Desert Tech’s customer experience tech Jeff Wood asked me.
“Maybe 200 yards,” I confessed. A 300-yard shot on a deer is a long one where I come from.
“We are going to change that today, my friend,” he said, grinning.
I had also never shot a bullpup, but I wasn’t about to confess that, too. By midafternoon, I’d lost both my bullpup and long-range virginity when I pinged a steel cowboy silhouette at 1,000 yards. I shouted with pure happiness before high-fiving everyone within a 10-yard radius, including a few random strangers.
While I admittedly don’t have much to compare it to in the long-range space, making my first 1,000-yard shot with a bullpup has given me at least a few warm fuzzy feelings about them.
There’s no doubt that bullpups are — different. Their compact proportions are obvious at first glance, and therein lies their greatest advantage — a compact package that doesn’t sacrifice barrel length. But, if you’ve been shooting firearms for more than half a second, you’ll also notice the controls on some models can be wonky and in weird places.
Like me, many shooters learned basic rifle mechanics by plinking random recyclables off fence posts with a .22LR when they were young. Whether that .22 is a lever gun, a slide action, a single-shot, or a semi-auto, the mechanics don’t change much from rifle to rifle. So, when you graduate, it feels familiar when you first shoulder a conventional .243 or a .30-06.
But handling a bullpup can feel a lot like that first kiss in middle school. It’s awkward, and you don’t really know where to put your hands, but once you get down to business, both end up being a whole heckuva lot of fun.
What Is a Bullpup?
Conventional firearms all follow the same general order of construction. Whether bolt, lever, pump, or semi-auto, the trigger sits behind the action, and the magazine and the buttstock — if there is one — sits behind all that.
Bullpups buck convention by dramatically flipping the traditional configuration like a New Jersey housewife flipping a fully loaded dinner table.
In a bullpup, the action and magazine sit behind the trigger assembly and much closer to the shooter’s body, usually inside the buttstock. With the chamber moved rearward, the barrel also moves further back, running above the shooter’s hand rather than beginning well in front of it. This results in a shorter overall set-up without sacrificing barrel length.
An M4 carbine with a standard 14.5-inch barrel measures 33 inches from stock to stern, while an IWI Tavor bullpup with a barrel that’s 16.5 inches long — 2 inches longer — is only 26 inches long from butt to muzzle. That means the bullpup gives you two extra inches of barrel length in a package that is a full 7 inches shorter than a standard arrangement.
The configuration also moves the firearm’s center of gravity closer to the body, so bullpups often feel extremely well-balanced. Shooters perceive them as lighter during shooting because they aren’t so front-heavy. This also makes them extremely maneuverable, and it’s pretty easy to shoot a bullpup with an 18-inch barrel one-handed fairly accurately, if necessary. That sounds oddly specific, but it’s a real consideration on the battlefield, in tactical situations, or when jumping big game, especially in brushy environments.
Shortening a long gun to reduce weight and gain maneuverability is nothing new. Gunmakers have been doing it since the 16th century when someone first decided it would be badass to hand carbines to mounted cavalrymen.
The easiest way to shorten a firearm is to cut some length off the barrel. Shaving a few inches off the barrel lightens the load and makes the gun easier to maneuver in close quarters. However, things are rarely free and easy, and everything comes at a cost. Since longer barrels generally produce faster-moving projectiles, you’ll pay the price in velocity and ballistic performance.
The bullpup design shortens the system by bucking all the firearm innards back a few inches, allowing for a significantly shorter set-up without sacrificing a single inch of barrel length.
Size really does matter, and the bullpup’s short, stocky design is its major claim to fame. Because the receiver lies inside the space in the chassis that would be the buttstock on a conventional rifle, the whole package ends up a good 8 to 10 inches shorter than comparable conventional rifles. You can even slap a can on a bullpup, and the whole thing will still be shorter than an unsuppressed standard long gun.
Bullpups usually back the action all the way into the buttstock, which is mostly dead, wasted space on a conventional long gun from a design perspective, buffer tubes and shotgun recoil springs aside. And since stocks on conventional firearms are usually made of wood, polymer, or carbon fiber, which are all inherently lighter than a steel barrel, it creates a front-heavy configuration that can be tiring to balance.
The bullpup’s more compact design moves the bulk of the rifle’s weight rearward. When shooting a conventional firearm, the shooter’s supporting hand buttresses most of the gun’s nose-heavy weight.
In comparison, a bullpup’s weight is more evenly distributed along the gun’s length, which makes it significantly easier to maneuver in close quarters and swing on moving targets. It also reduces shoulder fatigue during lengthy shooting sessions and creates a solid, anchored feeling that can help minimize muzzle rise on those rapid-fire follow-up shots.
The bullpup design isn’t limited to rifles, either. The KelTec KSG and KS7 are popular bullpup shotguns that address the super front-heavy problem of tactical scatterguns. Bullpup shotguns try to alleviate the weight of a heavy, big barrel and the weight of a loaded full-length mag tube out front by pushing everything rearward.
A Brief History of the Bullpup
While most modern bullpups, and even some from the 1970s, look like something from a futuristic spacecraft’s arsenal (which is why so many sci-fi and future-set movies use bullpups), the concept has roots as far back as 1901, with the English bolt action Thorneycroft carbine. However, a few other inventors fiddled with the idea before James Baird Thorneycroft filed his patent.
The Thorneycroft carbine used a retracted bolt that slid back through the stock almost to the shooter’s shoulder, maximizing space inside the body of the firearm. Chambered in the .303 British service cartridge, the Thorneycroft was 7 1/2 inches shorter and significantly lighter than the Lee–Enfield rifle used by the British military at the time.
Thorneycroft’s stocky rifle might have predated the term “bullpup,” but a rose by any other name is still a freakin’ rose.
Unfortunately, the Thorneycroft carbine produced killer recoil, hellish muzzle rise, and piss-poor ergonomics, so it never saw military service.
While several other inventors played with the bullpup concept, the first successful design didn’t hit the firearms world until the 1960s, when Steyr-Daimler-Puch introduced the now iconic Steyr AUG bullpup. The Austrian Army adopted the Steyr AUG in 1977 as the StG 77 (Sturmgewehr 77). It remains the standard-issue rifle for the Austrian armed forces and several others, even as it nears its 50th birthday.
The Walther WA2000 sniper bullpup emerged in response to the Munich Massacre at the 1972 Summer Olympics, leaving 6 Israeli coaches, 5 Israeli athletes, 5 Black September terrorists, and one German police officer dead. Although some German police units used the WA2000, production halted because the bullpup was just too expensive to produce. Only 176 were made.
Although the bullpup design hasn’t exactly taken the combat world by storm, militaries in several countries have followed the Austrian example with their own bullpup designs, such as the Chinese QBZ-95, the Israeli IWI Tavor, the French FAMAS, and the British SA80.
The Beef With Bullpups
The sound of a compact rifle with a standard-length barrel should be music to shooters’ ears. However, you should hold off spinning your bullpup Julie Andrews–style while singing sweet soprano melodies in a pristine mountain meadow.
The design is chock-full of compromises and trade-offs, leaving plenty of critics thinking bullpups are complete dogshit.
One of bullpup faultfinders’ biggest gripes is the design’s trigger. Bullpups have a reputation for having super shitty triggers.
Because the shooter’s hands are so far away from the firing mechanism, a ton of linkages and complex connections have to happen between the trigger and the action. The result is often a trigger pull that is long, heavy, and has more creep than a mustachioed dude in a van with a “Free Candy” paint job.
Although the bullpups of yesteryear had a deservedly bad reputation for junky triggers, companies producing modern bullpups have gone to great lengths to address those trigger struggles.
Companies like Kel-Tec and Desert Tech have managed to engineer precision triggers with majorly improved linkage designs, and the results are far from shitty. You might even go so far as to classify them as smooth, which proves trigger quality isn’t the death knell for bullpups that it used to be.
Bullpups are rarely ambidextrous (with a few exceptions, such as the FN FS2000, which is unfortunately no longer in production), which means the righties out there won’t be able to safely share bullpups with southpaw friends. Swapping shoulders in a CQB situation will probably earn you a face full of steaming-hot gas and brass, even if the rifle is configured for your dominant shooting side.
Some manufacturers (such as Kel-Tec and Desert Tech and the discontinued FN FS2000) addressed the issue by developing forward- or downward-ejecting designs, which helps solve the problem, but clearing bad jams in such a design can be…interesting.
Armpit Mag Changes
Mag changes can be super clumsy on a bullpup, especially for greenhorns. Even for practiced bullpup devotees, a mag swap from under the armpit will almost always be slower because the support hand has to cover more real estate (and possibly weave its way past a sling) to drop and replace a mag.
To exacerbate this issue, modern chest rigs and other combat gear often get in the way of armpit reloads, and it’s also much more difficult with most bullpups to get eyes on the chamber during a reload or even when clearing a firearm.
Some shooters also have beef with having the firing chamber right next to their face. If you’re shooting a semi-auto, the exhaust gases can send you home from the range with some serious eye and nose irritation.
It also isn’t fun if the shooter wins the lottery with a catastrophic failure. However, the “bullpups will blow your face off” schtick is overblown and probably a lot like A Christmas Story’s “you’ll shoot your eye out” warnings.
Although Google isn’t the end-all, be-all of information, a quick search yields zero results for people who have lost their faces to bullpup malfunctions. If you’re using quality ammo, you probably have better odds of winning the lottery than a squib or a hot round causing a failure catastrophic enough to blow apart a rifle action — but stranger things have happened.
That Dog’ll Hunt
Most bullpup shade gets thrown around because of the design’s perceived shortcomings in tactical applications. However, super squat bullpup rifles aren’t limited to high-speed, low-drag combat applications. There are a good number of bullpup rifles built perfectly for hunting.
Slap a bullpup rifle in the hands of a pragmatic backcountry hunter, and the disadvantages of the configuration all but disappear.
Ambidextrous use in hunting scenarios is almost unheard of, except for rare instances in the turkey woods. Nearly all bolt guns are set up for lefties or righties, and few can be changed.
Shooting from the opposite shoulder is a rarity in most hunting situations (turkey hunters probably do it the most), and making an ethical shot from your weak side probably isn’t something the average hunter can do with confidence anyway, simply because most hunters don’t practice shooting with their off-hand enough — though they probably should.
And high-speed mag changes don’t typically occur in treestands or ground blinds because mag dumps on deer are decidedly atypical.
The backcountry is also where the bullpup’s compact contours really shine.
“If you’re the kind of guy that’s hiking around in the forest, it’s really nice not to have this big, long thing hanging from your shoulder getting hung up in trees and bushes and everything as you’re hiking through,” Desert Tech’s Jeff Wood, a long-time hunter, told Free Range American.
The Butt Ugly Problem and Where ‘Bullpup’ Probably Comes From
Despite the advantages, there’s no denying that the short, chunky contours of most bullpups don’t fit our culturally accepted definitions of “sexy guns.”
The origin of the term “bullpup” to describe a rearward-positioned action was lost somewhere in history. Still, British firearm expert Jonathan Ferguson discovered some early references to the word in a 1930s firearms magazine that compared the unconventional firearms to bulldog puppies, which were considered “squat and ugly, but still aggressive and powerful.”
And with their freakishly stubby proportions, both the canine and firearm varieties of bullpups have faces only a bullpup aficionado could love.
Even die-hard devotees admit that bullpups are unbecoming.
“My best friend introduced me to the Desert Tech SRS before I even knew what a bullpup was,” Wood said. “I remember thinking those things were butt ugly. I didn’t like it at all, so I just ignored it.
“A year later, I went to him all excited and told him I was getting one. He was like, ‘Dude, what are you talking about? I told you about them, and you said they were ugly.’
“Yeah, well, I guess it’s ugly, but I’m on the boat now,” Wood told his friend.
It wasn’t the bullpup’s charming good looks that won Wood over. It was the rifle’s accuracy and the fact that that accuracy came bundled in a compact package.
“For me, as a hunter, only accurate rifles are interesting,” Wood explained. “Out here in the Rocky Mountains, it is extremely common to get a shot on big game animals well beyond 300 yards, whether antelope, mule deer, elk, bighorn sheep, or whatever.
“A 12-inch diameter kill zone on a deer at 500 yards — that’s a fairly small target. I need to know that I can hit that small of a target at that distance with the gun I’m shooting.”
And when it comes to long-range accuracy, the bullpup’s full-length barrel makes these compact firearms more than capable of running with the big dogs. If you’ve got the skills, these working dogs are more than capable of delivering.
Best Bullpup for Hunting the Backcountry
Desert Tech SRS-A2
Price: starting at $5,549
Full disclosure: The Desert Tech bolt action SRS-A2 holds a special palace in my heart because it’s the rifle I held against my shoulder the first time I pinged 1,000-yard steel. With its 1/2-MOA accuracy guarantee, the Desert Tech SRS-A2, in the hands of a skilled shooter, can pop the fleas off a whistle pig at 500 yards.
Desert Tech has worked miracles with its Field Match trigger. By simplifying the design, using top-notch materials, and building the mechanism with clockwork precision, this trigger should finally put the shitty bullpup trigger myth to rest. It has a flat, ergonomic feel, zero mush, and breaks like a freakin’ glass rod.
But the trigger isn’t the star of this show. The best feature of the SRS-A2 is its convertibility. With a few simple screw turns, shooters can swap out barrels, switch calibers, and hop from hunting muleys in the morning to pegging song dogs once the sun goes down. The conversion and return to zero are simple, and the process takes less than a minute.
Available in 7.62x51mm NATO/.308 Win, the Kel-Tec RFB rifle comes as close to ambidextrous as a bullpup can get. It features a patented downward ejection, magazine catch/release placement, intuitive safety, and a reversible operating handle.
Kel-Tec is also doing its best to bust the bullpup bad trigger myth. This one is smooth and has a nice take-up and a clean break.
Desert Tech MDRX
Price: starting at $2,499
Desert Tech’s Micro Dynamic Rifle (MDR) is a compact, lightweight, gas-operated semi-auto bullpup that really shines in the backcountry. Like its SRS sibling, the MDRX converts calibers with a few screws and features Desert Tech’s reengineered trigger. This one is available in .223 Wylde, 6.5 Creedmoor, .308 Winchester, and .300 Blackout.