For my entire time as a regular soldier the standard British service rifle was the SA80 rifle, more properly called the L85. This is a design with a very mixed reputation and it has attracted a lot of, mostly hostile, press over its 30-year service life. As a former platoon weapons instructor I have my own opinions of it and it’s fair to say they’re not, in general, what you’d call positive. There are good points – it’s very easy to train soldiers to shoot accurately with it – but far more bad ones. It’s far too heavy for what it is, it’s far too complicated (Mikhail Kalashnikov was once shown one; he stared at it silently for a while then said “You must have very clever soldiers”), the controls are badly laid out and, even after an expensive redesign by Heckler & Koch, its reliability is still nothing special. What I want to talk about right now, though, is the most conspicuous feature of the design – its bullpup layout.
Bullpups – rifles where the breech and magazine are behind the trigger, located in the butt – have been around for a long time. The first known one was the .303 Thorneycroft Carbine, patented in 1901; it had the same barrel length as the contemporary Lee-Enfield rifle despite being 7.5 inches shorter. It was rejected by the British Army, though; the recoil was ferocious and it had a much lower rate of fire. The Lee-Enfield has an amazing rate of fire for a bolt action; it’s so smooth that an experienced rifleman can easily get off 20 aimed shots a minute, matching a semiautomatic battle rifle. The advantage the M1 Garand brought to WWII wasn’t that it could fire faster, but that it could fire faster with less training – in the hands of a veteran the Lee-Enfield No.4 could keep up. That speed is down to the bolt handle being placed just above the trigger, and that’s not possible in a bullpup. So after the Thorneycroft’s rejection, bullpups were relegated to target shooting. They had some fans, because they allowed a longer barrel in a standard-sized weapon. The British Army’s fascination with them never went away, though, and when they started looking for an automatic rifle after WWII the idea resurfaced.
The EM2 rifle was developed between 1948 and 1950 to replace the Lee-Enfield, and it was a bullpup. It was actually a radical and innovative weapon, and almost certainly the best in the world at the time. It was chambered for the .280 British round, an advanced cartridge that offered compact size, low recoil and amazing long range performance – it’s basically a slightly more powerful version of the modern 6.5mm Grendel. In 1951 the weapon was adopted as the Rifle, Automatic, No.9. Looking back, that was a good decision. Based on late war experience the Army was looking at mounting its infantry in armored personnel carriers, and a short bullpup is much easier to handle around vehicles. It also has advantages in urban combat, with its unique ability to combine high velocity and short length in a single package.
Then politics intervened, unfortunately. The big drive at the time was for NATO standardization, and although a lot of people in the US Army were impressed at the .280 cartridge, the senior ranks were wedded to the .30-06. Wartime experience had shown this was overpowered and too heavy, but the furthest the generals were willing to go was a slightly shortened version using more modern propellant to give the same performance, the round that became 7.62mm NATO. This is a decent cartridge and one I always preferred to 5.56mm – I used it in my UOTC days in the L1A1 rifle and L4 LMG, then later in the G3K – but it’s still too powerful to control on full automatic in a hand-held weapon. Nevertheless, a deal was struck by Winston Churchill; the UK would abandon the EM2 and .280, and adopt the FN FAL in 7.62. In return, the USA would also adopt the FAL, although politics intervened again and that part of the deal fell through.
Now the first generation of 5.56mm weapons are showing their age badly and most armies – the UK and USA among them – are contemplating replacements. And, many in the British Army would still prefer a bullpup. There’s one excellent reason for that, and its barrel length. Assuming the next generation will still be 5.56mm, which sadly looks like being the case, it’s essential to keep barrels as long as possible; what effect the round has comes from velocity and that drops off sharply from a short barrel. An M16 has a realistic effective range of about 300 yards, but for an M4 that drops to around 150 before the tiny bullet starts to run out of steam. An L85 is shorter than an M4 with the stock collapsed, but has a longer barrel – and higher muzzle velocity – than an M16. It can be carried in and around vehicles ready for use, with no need to fold or collapse the stock, and there’s also no chance of stock catches failing.
There are drawbacks too, though. Bullpups have a characteristic back-heavy balance that makes them easy to hold in a fire position for a long period – most of the weight is inside the front hold – but slower to bring on target. There are also ergonomic issues. Despite years of practice I could never change a magazine as quickly as I could with a conventional rifle, because it simply isn’t as intuitive. Triggers tend to be sloppy because they need a long connecting rod to link them to the working parts; there are also issues with placing change levers and safety catches.
Power is a persuasive argument, and if an army is looking for a next-generation 5.56 I’d say barrel length alone means it should be a bullpup, but it’s never going to be an ideal solution. The best option by far is to opt for a heavier caliber – ideally Grendel, or just resurrect the .280 – and issue that in a carbine with a collapsible stock. The problem is getting politicians to pay for it.
Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.