Bullpup Pros vs Cons:

What is a bullpup and why am I oddly attracted to this object of radical proportion and grotesquely stunted size?  Why would someone consider this alternative and unusual technology? With so many readily available and battle proven options why experiment?  Especially when some previous iteration bullpups look like the ill-conceived expressions of a mad scientist attempts to combine Mr. Potato Head™ with military weaponry.  *see Thorneycroft carbine:  half musket, half prison shiv, half cricket bat.

In times of yore the bullpup was merely an urban legend; The exotic fare of obscure military groups only seen in B-movies with flimsy plots. But the world has changed, and the bullpup is no longer a sideshow freak. This scrappy underdog is now free to be deployed in polite society and you may even see one at your local match or shooting range.  No longer fearing mockery from our colleagues in the shooting sports, today we will scrutinize the advantages of bullpup design through a strictly objective lens and ask ourselves; Which is better, a bullpup rifle or a conventional rifle? In a strictly empirical contest of performance-based rationale there is no clear winner. Are you interested in the bullpup design as a curiosity? Is your current rifle setup just not quite performing in a way that completely satisfies your unquenchable thirst for high velocity, precision, projectile perfection?  Maybe the endless peer pressure exerted by the freight train of social media has corrupted your satisfaction with the status quo.

A more appropriate question might be something like ‘which is better for me’? A bullpup is likely to fulfill a specialized or niche role. Rather than a one-size-fits-all replacement, the bullpup could be viewed as a tool which is tailored for a specific task. But in this post-modern age we live in today, where everything is accepted as equal, rather than identify the winner of an ostensible contest of design, maybe it is more useful to simply outline the positive and negative aspects and provide a list of the proverbial Pros and Cons.

Trigger Pull

  • The 650 lb gorilla in the room
    • Probably the biggest drawbacks to bullpups in the past has been the trigger.  Bullpup triggers are traditionally composed of unusually long linkage systems between the forward trigger mechanism and the rearward action which meant trigger feel was rough and clunky. When compared to the crisp, buttery smooth triggers found in other designs, the bullpup trigger of yesteryear was a deal breaker. The good news is that in recent years the linkage design and trigger-feel has greatly improved, I love the trigger in my Desert Tech SRS. The bullpup trigger is no longer the death knell it once was.  In many modern designs the pull-weight and break are even adjustable.  

Size and Length

  • Size does matter
    • Traditionally configured rifles position the trigger behind the magazine and behind the receiver.  Then a stock or chassis is added to make it a weapon that can be shouldered. The bullpup cleverly locates the receiver within the rifle-chassis and places the trigger in front of the magazine. This design feature allows a bullpup to be shortened by approximately 8-10” overall. This length advantage is the bullpup’s claim to fame. It is not uncommon for a suppressor equipped bullpup rifle to be shorter than a standard rifle with no suppressor. In an attempt to make themselves more compact, standard rifle manufacturers have implemented folding stocks. This tactic works well for transport of the rifle but has no benefit when firing the weapon.  The folding stock also has the increased complexity of a locking hinge mechanism which also becomes a potential point of failure. The inherent length advantage offered by a bullpup simply cannot be matched by a standard rifle. 

Weight and Balance  

  • There must be balance in the universe
    • The weight and balance of a standard rifle is very forward biased. Often conventional rifles equipped with a suppressor will be so nose-heavy that resting on a bipod the rifle will try to tip over forwards. The equivalent bullpup will often be significantly better balanced, and the weight distribution will be uniform across the shorter overall length. The equal distribution of weight in a bullpup means it feels extremely balanced in the shooter’s hands. A shorter overall package in combination with uniform weight distribution means the bullpup is easier to maneuver and less fatiguing to shoulder. The bullpup also places more weight in areas close to the shooter’s body providing a stable and anchored feeling that aids in reducing muzzle rise during rapid or automatic fire.

Accuracy

  • Measure twice cut once
    • Absolute accuracy is not an inherent characteristic of either bullpup or standard firearm design. The bullpup in and of itself has no direct influence on accuracy. The biggest factors in accuracy are generally things like barrel quality, manufacturing tolerances, and ammunition quality/consistency.  However, when seeking muzzle velocity, the bullpup offers a slight advantage. Because longer barrels are generally able to provide higher velocity potential, a bullpup shooter can utilize a full-length barrel and still have a rifle that is about 9” shorter than he would otherwise. A potential disadvantage of the bullpup is short sight radius.  When using fixed ‘iron sights’ this had the potential to affect long range accuracy.  However most modern shooters are using an optical sight, and this is no longer an issue.

Cartridge Ejection

  • Left-handed shooters rejoice
    • Standard rifles place the ejection port forward of the shooter’s face. This allows ambidextrous use and the left-handed shooter the opportunity to shoot a right-handed rifle without being hit in the face by hot brass. Some bullpups of the past have been problematic for left-handed shooters and or ambidextrous operation. The ejection port on a bullpup is typically near the shooter’s face. Any attempt by a left-handed shooter to operate a right-handed bullpup was near impossible. Some recent bullpup designs have addressed this issue by offering left-handed specific models, ambidextrous ejection ports which can be moved to either side of the rifle, and even sophisticated ejection ports that throw the brass forward. The latter two being options on the Desert Tech MDRX. Another consideration with the bullpup design is the close proximity of the chamber to the shooter’s face.  In the event of a catastrophic failure, the likelihood for injury to the shooter’s face is increased. Manufacturers like Desert Tech have addressed this by engineering extremely overbuilt and robust receivers and by providing a means for overpressure forces to be directed away from the shooter.
Independent tests of the Desert Tech SRS family of rifles has shown strength and safety for shooters even with dangerous overloading techniques. (Image from Primal Rights)

Ergonomics

  • A step forward
    • The mag-well on a bullpup is behind the grip. This means that mag changes are much different compared to standard rifles. At first it might feel very strange and clumsy but well designed bullpups provide multiple large and often ambidextrous controls for mag release. Cycling the bolt on a bolt-action bullpup will also feel much different because the bolt is further back when compared to traditionally configured rifle’s design. After a period of adjustment this will feel less unusual and become natural movement. 

Conclusion

Bullpup rifles offer some unique opportunities which in some cases are unmatched by conventional designs. If an exceptionally well-balanced and compact firearm is important to you then a bullpup is nearly impossible to beat. The incredibly short bullpup rifle offers unrivaled advantages that aren’t just for high-speed, low-drag, uber-operators in close-combat war scenarios. The benefits for a more down to earth hunter, hiking in mountainous and wooded terrain will praise its balance and compact size which performs at or above the level of much larger alternatives. With practice, you’ll be making tactical mag changes and effortless bolt throws the likes of which would embarrass John Wick. And after extended use you might find yourself wondering how you ever got along without one. 

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