Different Strokes

By: Chris Mudgett

Photos by: Ben Battles

Short, effective, and decidedly different, here’s a dive into our two-favorite 5.56mm bullpup AR-alternatives


IWI Tavor X95 SBR

I’m not entirely sure if the allure of the short-barreled rifle (SBR) is to have the noisiest cricket on the range or if it’s the overall reduced length of the platform allowing for a shorter, more maneuverable and easier-to-conceal package — suppressed or otherwise. If I were a betting man, my money would be on the latter, but the answer likely lies somewhere in the middle.

Most of the Tavor X95’s controls are AR-15-ish in their location and operation. The serrated, ambidextrous magazine release sits just forward of the trigger and is quick and easy to reach with the trigger finger. The safety selector features a 90-degree throw and can be swapped to the right side for lefties. The X95’s trigger is outstanding in comparison to most bullpups.

Time will tell what happens to the braced pistol market, but one thing is for certain SBRs are here to stay and will continue to see a rise in not just overall popularity but ownership as a whole. Companies like IWI and many other mainstream manufacturers are also betting on it.

The SBR version of the Tavor X95 is fitted with a 13-inch, chrome-lined and hammer-forged barrel with a 1:7 twist rate, capped at the muzzle with an A2-like birdcage flashider. Removable rail covers shroud the handguard’s Picatinny rail sections at 3, 6, and 9 o’clock.

Enter the Bullpup

If you want a short overall length and a high level of concealability while still maintaining the ballistics you’re used to in a 16-inch AR, look no further than a bullpup. Even with a 16-inch barrel, the overall length is substantially shorter than a comparable AR — in fact, it is smack dab within the shorter range of an SBR AR-15. If you want to have your cake and eat it too, IWI’s 13-inch barreled Tavor X95 is what you’ve been waiting for. The X95 SBR provides the user with the best of both worlds; the ballistics of a general-purpose barrel length in an extremely short, sub-26-inch (22.8-inch actually) overall length. The trade-off? For some, it’s the fact that it’s still a bullpup, but let’s re-examine that.

Now, bullpups have gotten a bad rap over the years, mainly due to the reputation of a select few. That’s how it happens — a few bad apples wreck it for the rest of us. However, I would classify IWI’s Tavor X95 — an enhanced model based on the Tavor SAR — as the better bullpup.

Out back, the fixed buttstock does not allow for length-off-pull adjustments but worked very well for most that shouldered the X95, as did the ergonomic, more-vertical pistol grip. The large bolt release can be seen dipping down from the bottom of the gun, just behind the magazine.

IWI has most of the platform’s nuances worked out, such as the trigger-pull stigma, crappy control placement, and “love it or hate it” ergonomics. Some drawbacks simply cannot be overcome, such as handguard real estate (to be fair, this is an issue with most short-barreled platforms) and the biggie — its different (compared to an AR) manual of arms.

Let’s start with the good. The X95’s trigger is simply superb for a bullpup and quite possibly the best we’ve felt. While it’s not candy-cane crisp like a Geissele two-stage — which isn’t possible anyway due to the linkage — it’s light and smooth with a long take up. For a bit of a trigger snob, I really like it, and it made for a predictable shooting platform, even at speed, without any disruption to our sight picture. Simply put, it’s like a very well-broken-in Glock trigger, which is a compliment.

A lengthy top rail creates enough real estate for any optic and aiming device combination one might want to employ. We used the new-for-2022 Holosun AEMS red dot throughout testing. When not in use, a set of backup iron sights sit perfectly flush within the top rail.

The safety selector placement and operation are straight out of the AR-15 playbook, and that’s a good thing for most shooters. The selector throw is 90 degrees, just as it should be, feels well broken in, and is easily manipulated. The bolt release has also been resized. The controls of the Tavor X95, in general, have served to break the bullpup mold and go a long way towards shaking the chains off for AR diehards.

One of the shining characteristics of the Tavor X95 is its exceedingly-smooth shooting experience, with very little felt recoil or muzzle rise. Another is the platform’s overall reliability — our test gun ate everything we stuffed in the magazine without complaint and without a single failure.

The pistol grip is ergonomic, well textured, and offers a more vertical rake making it an excellent match for the fighting stance required for fast-paced stand-up shooting. As a bonus, the backstrap and triggerguard are user configurable to fit your hand size or preferences. You can’t swap it out like an AR, but at least this one doesn’t give the ascetics of a space invader rifle. Short sections of Picatinny rail adorn the rifle’s forend and beg for an offset SureFire M300 Mini-Scout or M300 PRO white light. Likewise, the 6 o’clock rail needs a short vertical grip to feel right. Once installed, the package comes into its own.

The X95 comes with an A2-like birdcage flashider; we say “A2-like” because, while it looks close in appearance and identical in function, it’s not a NATO-spec unit. Mounting a suppressor to the X95’s muzzle would balance the tail-heavy rifle out and make it feel much faster in hand, all while taking full advantage of the benefits of the long-stroke gas piston operating system. Speaking of, the X95 is a smooth shooter, with and without a suppressor installed. Due to the placement of the ejection port, the shooter’s eyes and respiratory system are mostly free from the detractions of excess gas, making it not only a healthy choice but a comfortable one to shoot at that.

The rest of the X95 is all bullpup. It’s still a little space-aged appearance-wise, and even with all of that polymer, it weighs a little more than an AR (7.5 lbs.). Its manual of arms is undoubtedly non-standard to those accustomed to the AR, and if you’re wrong-handed, you’ll have to convert the gun to left-hand eject by swapping the bolt, ejection-port cover, and some other ancillary components. The left-hand-eject conversion runs $174; contact IWI for more info. With all that said, if you’re seeking the shortest overall package chambered in 5.56, with useable ballistics, and you’re committed to the cause, you won’t find a more compact or smoother shooting SBR than IWI’s 13-inch Tavor X95. See one at your nearest dealer, or for more information, contact IWI; Tel.: (717) 695-2081; E-mail: [email protected]; Web: www.iwi.us

Specifications:

  • Type: Long-stroke gas piston, semi-automatic
  • Caliber: 5.56 NATO
  • Barrel: 13 in., 1:7 in. twist
  • Overall Length: 22.8 in.
  • Weight: 7.5 lbs.
  • Stock: Fixed
  • Grip: Proprietary
  • Finish: Melonite
  • Capacity: 30-rounds
  • Muzzle Device: A2-style flashider
  • Sights: Folding front sight w/tritium insert; folding aperture rear sight
  • MSRP: $1,999
While not a target rifle, the Tavor X95 SBR produced acceptable combat accuracy at 50-yards using the un-magnified Holosun AEMS red dot. Our best five-shot group measured 1.77-inches, printed with Norma’s 55-grain FMJ load.

Springfield Armory Hellion

By: Chris Mudgett

Given Springfield’s recent tear to the top of the industry, dominating another product category seems to be just their style. Outside of a bullpup’s stand-out trait of being able to house a 16-inch barrel in a smaller overall package size compared to a traditional carbine, Springfield has a whole lot more up its sleeve with the Hellion, so let’s take a look.

Trigger

Typically, bullpup triggers are sub-par, and there isn’t much you can do to fix that due to the length of the linkages that must stretch from the trigger housing far rearward to the fire control module. While the trigger in Hellion isn’t comparable to, say, a Geissele in an AR-15, it’s probably on par with a standard Mil-Spec M4 trigger. Which is to say it’s pretty average when compared to a traditional rifle, but it’s straight-up awesome when compared to some of the other bullpups.

The ability to accept an AR handgrip is a big plus — both ergonomically and aesthetically. The ambi safety selector operates smoothly but is a bit of a reach for smaller hands. The trigger proved much better than the average bullpup, with pull characteristics most closely mirroring a mil-spec AR-15. The folding charging handle rides in the centerline of the rifle and does not reciprocate.

Controls

One of the things I typically dislike about bullpups are the placement of its controls and overall manual of arms, but the Hellion is far from typical in this department. Both right and left-hand friendly, all of the Hellion’s are ambidextrous, including a pair of ejection ports located on the left and right side of the carbine, allowing you to choose which side spent cases will eject from.

The non-reciprocating charging handle is spring-loaded and located along the centerline of the rifle, just beneath the optic rail. The magazine release is also located along the platform’s centerline, just behind the AR-15 mag compatible magazine well. Just behind that resides the bolt release.

The safety selector takes a little getting used to, less so if you have XXL hands. Those will smaller digits will have a steeper learning curve, kind of like trying to reach that item on the top shelf when you’re just not tall enough. Overall, the placement and function of the Hellion’s controls aren’t ideal for users indoctrinated to the AR platform, but are very intuitive with practice.

Up front, the 16-inch barrel gets a four-prong flash hider and two-position gas knob — one position for unsuppressed and the other suppressed. The polymer M-LOK compatible forend is equipped with a QD sling cup on either side and directly above the forend is an ambi, rotating sling-hook mount. In short, there are sling-mounting points aplenty.

Grip & Stock

Typically, you’re screwed when it comes to grip replacement on a bullpup — you get what you get. Except in the case of the Hellion, which is smartly compatible with the myriad of AR-15 grips available on the secondary market. It comes with BCM’s Gunfighter pistol grip, and if that isn’t your style, simply spike it into the parts bin and replace it.

Traditionally, with a bullpup, the ergonomics and length of pull are fixed from the factory. Fully recognizing this previously-inherent drawback, the Hellion comes with a five-position adjustable stock. Additionally, you can also make adjustments for your head placement via an adjustable cheek riser, giving tremendous flexibility in not only optic choice but optic height as well.

The Hellion is full of unique features as it relates to bullpups, and one big one is its 5-position-adjustable, spring-loaded buttstock in place of what would typically be a fixed stock. The stock also allows adjustments for your head placement via an adjustable cheek riser. The mag release paddle sits directly behind the magazine well and the bolt release tab directly behind that. The ambi ejection port can be set up to spit empty cases out of either the right or left side of the gun.

Optic Rail

Which brings us to the removable top rail that doubles as a carrying handle. There is significant top-rail real estate to mount virtually whatever optic your heart desires, from red dots (with magnifiers) to low power variable optics like the Nightforce NX8 shown; high-power optics, clip-ons, prisms, aiming lasers — well, you get the idea. Another nice feature is a set of fully adjustable iron sights that lay flat and unobtrusive until needed. When called upon, they each spring into place with the press of a button.

With its lengthy dimensions, the Picatinny optic rail will accommodate any optic/magnifier/laser combination you want to throw at it. Flip-up iron sights deploy quickly and easily via pushbuttons and sit perfectly flush at the front and rear of the rail when not in use.

Forend

The forend features M-LOK compatible slots at 3, 6, and 9 o’clock to accept any needed accessories. The Hellion features a total of six anti-rotation QD sling cups and four hook locations. The latter are located at the fore and aft ends of the carbine; the front two rotate to ensure your sling stays out of the way of the charging handle area. Your options are pretty much endless with the QD cups, allowing front, rear, and mid-point placement on both sides of the carbine.

The Hellion’s recoil impulse is considerably lighter than that of an AR-15. Add to that its superb balance and compact dimensions that are conducive to tight confines, and you have no shortage of compelling reasons to give one a try.

Performance

So, how does it shoot? Recoil was tame, although the impulse was foreign in feel compared to an AR. The bulk of the gun sits a lot closer to your body, making the platform feel more-nimble than its weight would suggest. The Hellion features a short-stroke gas piston with a two-position gas valve for normal or suppressed shooting and, during testing, was completely reliable. Our best group was achieved with Hornady 55-grain American Gunner ammunition, printing a five-shot group measuring 0.90-inches at 50-yards. Average group sizes ranged from 0.98 to 1.53-inches with all ammunition.

Downrange precision, using the Nightforce 1-8x optic, averaged around an inch for five shots at 50-yards. Its best performance, shown here, was with Hornady’s 55-grain American Gunner ammunition at 0.90-inches.

Conclusion

For those of us that have historically despised bullpups of old, Springfield has incorporated thoughtful and very functional updates to the platform with the Hellion, and I have found myself encouraging others to give it a try. Different, yes. Better than an AR-15? Depending on your needs, quite possibly. See the new Hellion at your nearest dealer, or for more information, contact Springfield Armory; Tel.: (800) 680-6866; Web: www.springfield-armory.com.

Specifications:

  • Type: Short-stroke gas piston, semi-automatic
  • Caliber: 5.56 NATO
  • Barrel: 16 in., 1:7 in. twist
  • Overall Length: 28.25 in.
  • Weight: 8 lbs.
  • Stock: 5-position, adjustable
  • Grip: BCM Mod. 3
  • Finish: Melonite
  • Capacity: 30-rounds
  • Muzzle Device: 4-Prong Flash hider
  • Sights: Flip-up, adjustable
  • MSRP: $1,999