In the 1990s, Israel developed an innovative new rifle designed specifically for the urban Middle Eastern battlefield. A compact weapon that moved freely indoors, the Tavor was one of the few so-called “bullpup” assault rifle designs to enter service with a modern military force. The unique design of bullpup weapons allows them to have a shorter overall length, but the design comes at a cost.
The 1990s saw a fundamental change in the nature of Israel’s wars. The first Palestinian Intifada protests in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip ran from 1987 and 1993. The First Intifada was in many ways an insurgency, with nearly three hundred Israeli and approximately two thousand Palestinians killed over the span of six years.
The Israeli Army was at the forefront of Israel’s response but found itself somewhat unprepared for the dense, urban “battlefields” of the First Intifada. Although the Israeli Army had fought in urban terrain before, most notably in 1967 Six Day War and the 1982 Invasion of the Lebanon, this was different. The six-year campaign was almost entire conducted in urban terrain, on Israeli territory, and required Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) forces to repeatedly enter mosques, homes and other buildings often on a daily basis.
Most modern assault rifles are often, owing to their overall length, ill-suited for urban operations. Assault rifles that are shouldered, in order to use iron or optical sights for precise fire, can easily run into walls, doorways, and other objects, slowing their use and rendering the user vulnerable. The M16A1 assault rifle is 38.81 inches long, meaning soldiers must take care to avoid getting hung up on objects in their path while at the same time anticipating contact with the enemy.
One way to make a weapon more indoor-friendly is to shorten the barrel length. This has the unfortunate side effect of increasing muzzle flash, gunshot noise and perhaps most importantly, shortening a firearm’s effective range. This is not advantageous for a country that could find itself fighting in both cities and deserts.
Fortunately for Israel there was one firearm design that offered the best of both worlds: the bullpup. Bullpup rifles are designed with the weapon’s action far to the rear and the magazine behind the trigger. This places the action near or even in the stock of the rifle, greatly shortening the weapon’s overall length. This method allows full-length or near-full length rifle barrels.
Israeli Military Industries began working on a new infantry weapon in 1991, and by 1998 was field testing working prototypes. The Tavor went through two years of field trials before being adopted by the IDF in 2003, and it replaced the M16A1 and Galil assault rifles across the Israeli armed services. The Tavor has since participated in a number of wars and minor actions, including the 2006 Lebanon War, 2008-2009 Gaza War, 2012’s Operation Pillar of Defense, and Operation Protective Edge in 2014.
The Tavor uses the long stroke piston-operated system common to many modern assault rifles, including the AK-47 and Israeli Galil. The Tavor encloses the barreled action in a one piece polymer chassis, including pistol grip and handguard. This results in a durable weapon that can take abuse. The Tavor has fold-down post sights but is normally expected to be used in conjunction with an optic, typically the Meprolight Mepro M21 sight.
Tavor has an overall length of 28.35 inches, making it more than ten inches shorter than the M16A1. At the same time it had a barrel length of 18.5 inches, just 1.5 inches shorter than the M16A1. The Tavor weighed just 7.21 pounds with iron sights, slightly less than the M16A1, and fired up to 800 rounds per minute using NATO-standard 5.56-millimeter magazines. In the early 2010s the IDF began purchasing an even smaller, more compact weapon: the Tavor X95. The X95 weighs just six pounds, has an overall length of 22.8 inches, and a 13-inch barrel.
The Tavor’s bullpup design is not without its flaws. Bullpup weapons cannot adjust their length of pull, meaning soldiers with long or short arms may find them less than ergonomically ideal. Bullpups are also not friendly to left-handed shooters, as the ejection port is right where a left-handed user’s face would be aiming down sights. Finally, as one American reviewer noted, the Tavor’s design means the weapon’s weight is concentrated to the rear, making it, in his opinion, ungainly.
Despite these shortcomings, Israeli forces are apparently satisfied with the Tavor, and the gun has achieved limited success in the export market to countries such as Thailand and India. While not every country is willing to commit to the controversial bullpup platform, the deployment of the even shorter X95 represents a doubling down by the IDF on the concept. Israel will probably field the compact, lethal assault rifles for decades to come.
Kyle Mizokami is a defense and national security writer based in San Francisco who has appeared in the Diplomat, Foreign Policy, War is Boring and the Daily Beast. In 2009 he cofounded the defense and security blog Japan Security Watch. You can follow him on Twitter: @KyleMizokami.