Key point: China has the largest army on the planet; that means they need a lot of guns.
The grandiose military parade that rolled past Tiananmen Square to celebrate the Seventieth Anniversary was an embarrassment of riches for observers of the People’s Liberation Army. Amidst a procession featuring dozens of city-destroying intercontinental ballistic missiles, supersonic stealth fighters, robot submarines, stealth drones and hypersonic cruise missiles, the PLA’s flourishing of a brand-new assault rifle may have seemed beneath mention.
But that’s a mistake—with over 1.6 million Ground Forces soldiers, the PLA has the largest army on the planet. Whatever weapon is designated its standard rifle will likewise be produced and fielded on a massive scale.
The first hint the PLA was considering replacing its standard QBZ-95s rifle emerged in 2016-2017 through two images shared in a Chinese blog. That initial post was later elaborated upon in in U.S. media, most notably by Popular Science and The Fire Arms Blog.
More recently, just days prior to the anniversary parade, a few images leaked out. These photos revealed a design very similar to the earlier 2016-2017 photos. Finally on October 1, 2019 thousands of the weapons were televised before the global public, signaling the PLA’s intention to adopt it as a new service rifle.
The new weapon’s designation remains unconfirmed. Chinese state television merely commented “This new assault rifle has a comfortable layout and the concept of modular design, which possesses the advantages of high power, high reliability and versatility.”
However, according to an in-depth piece on the The Firearms Blog by Anthony J., it’s designation may be the QBZ-191. Other commentators speculate it may be called the QBZ-17 or QBZ-19—after the year of its entry in service.
The Bullpup and its Discontents
The new weapon will replace the QBZ-95 bullpup-style rifle that was introduced in 1997. At the time, the QBZ-95 also introduced the unique Chinese 5.8-millimeter round, touted as having greater energy than U.S. 5.56-millimeter rounds. The introduction of a rifle with greater long-range accuracy reflected a post-Gulf War drive to modernize the PLA’s old-school ground forces that had previously been focused on how win to mass warfare against technologically superior foes.
Three million QBZ-95s were built, including carbine and light support variants with a 75-round drum magazine. China also exported a 5.56-millimeter variant called the QBZ-97 which is used to varying degrees by armed forces in Laos, Myanmar, Pakistan, the Philippines, Rwanda and Sudan.
Around 2012, China also began issuing the improved QBZ-95-1 model using a heavier round and barrel, and boasting improved ergonomics and recoil absorption. But the QBZ-95-1 not integrated army-wide, suggesting the PLA was already looking ahead to a larger change.
A bullpup rifle incorporates the action and magazine behind the trigger, giving bullpup rifles a distinctly futuristic and stubby appearance. By integrating these components into the stock, bullpup weapon can generate the same velocity as a longer conventional rifle in a more compact and potentially lighter package. Major bullpup designs include the Austrian Steyr Aug, the French FAMAS, the Israeli Tavor X95 and the British SA80 rifle.
But the bullpup layout has downsides. In addition to some users finding them ergonomically awkward, a bullpup user must place their face closer to the action for aimed fire, increasing the risk of mishaps with spent ammunition casings, misfired rounds and collision with protruding mechanisms.
Recently, an increasing number of major bullpup operators are abandoning them in favor of the more conventional assault rifle layout—notably France which ditched the distinctive FAMAS for the HK-416 assault rifle.
While the PLA does not usually comment on the shortcomings of its weapons, Chinese military bloggers were unsparing in their criticisms. One notes that the that the weapon’s engineering precluded it from having modular components or incorporating a folding stock, and that the ability to reduce weight by using composite plastics makes the ergonomic tradeoffs of the bullpup unnecessary.
Even Chinese-language Wikipedia has a fourteen-point list of QBZ-95 flaws, including cheap night-sights rapidly losing their glow, difficulty in changing firing modes in combat, and a general lack of quality-control.
It also claims that the primer used by the 5.8-millimeter bullets fails to burn off cleanly when discharged, causing residue to build up that made the gas regulator and piston difficult to remove during a standard 2,000-round maintenance cycle. The residue buildup also supposedly causes pressure within the muzzle to increase, increasing noise, muzzle flash and risk of accidents.
Another apparent vote of no-confidence came in China’s later production of a more conventional QBZ-03 assault rifle apparently inspired by American small arms. The QBZ-03 was issued to police and second-line units whom were deemed “more familiar” with the layouts of China’s earlier conventional rifles, the Type 56 and Type 81.
China’s New Modular Rifle
The assault rifle displayed in 2019 marks a major transition back to a more conventional gas-operated short-stroke piston assault rifle. A folding stock with four or five fixed settings is also visible. A thumb-operated fire mode selector allows switching between semi- and fully-automatic fire.
Curiously, Anthony’s article claims the gun does away with the three-round burst option, which at one point was favored by the U.S. Army at the expense of automatic fire in its later M16 rifle variants.
Commenters have noticed the new Chinese gun’s similarities to the HK-416 (entering U.S. Marine Corps service as the M-27) and the FN SCAR, known for its adaptive components. Broadly, the new weapon seemingly reflects the increasingly popular concept that infantry rifles should feature modular components allowing customization for different roles and combat scenarios.
That’s reflected in a full-length Picatinny rail, which allows sights and gizmos to be slotted onto the rifle such as sights, flashlights, grips and dot lasers. For instance, a prominent fiber-optical illuminated reticle sight appeared to be standard in the 2019 parade. Diplomat writer Rick Joe has suggested the sight may be a 3X magnification Darter 185 scope. A flip-up iron sight is also visible on the barrel.
Three variants of the new rifle have been spotted so far: a short-barrel carbine, a standard rifle variant, and a Designated Marksmen Rifle variant pictured here (a sort of low-end sniper rifle integrated at the squad level) with a lengthened barrel, bipod, and enlarged scope.
It remains unclear whether a heavier light-machine gun or squad automatic weapon variant will also be produced as was done for the QBZ-95, as China is reportedly separately developing a new 5.8-millimeter light machine gun.
Anthony’s piece also reports that the weapon retains the 5.8x42 millimeter bullet of its predecessor, but that “its confirmed the PLA has adopted new 5.8x42mm rounds that have better performance on medium to long-range.”
If true, this would square with the increasing emphasis on longer-range marksmanship in professional armies, as well as growing concerns that greater penetration will be needed to overmatch modern body armor used by adversaries in a high-intensity conflict. A higher energy round could retain greater accuracy and penetration over longer distances..
Gun designer and former Delta Force operative Larry Vickers said in a Facebook post that a source told him variants of the new weapon would also be rechambered to fire Russian 5.45 millimeter rounds, NATO 7.62-millimeter ammuition, and 5.56 millimeter rounds.
It will be interesting to see what additional information is released on the new rifle—a name, for example, would be nice—and whether its integration into the PLA will be tied to continuing efforts to professionalize Beijing’s ground forces to prepare them for the complexities of modern battlefields.
Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.