Origin of the Term “Bullpup” – with Jonathan Ferguson

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Sorry for the poor audio quality – today I am back at the Cody Firearms Museum talking to Jonathan Ferguson, Keeper of Firearms & Artillery at the Royal Armouries in the UK. Today we are talking about the term “bullpup” – where did it come from, and what IS a “bullpup” anyway? The more you look at the definition the trickier it gets to nail down…


  1. The first time I remember reading the term “Bull pup” was in the early sixties and I always attributed it to Jeff Cooper! It was many years ago and things get mixed up, but that is what I remember. Also, as I recall it was a bolt action. I continue to enjoy your videos. Keep up the good work.

  2. The first time I read the term “Bull pup was in the late 50’s or early 60’s and I always remember Jeff Cooper’s name with it. It was many years ago and information gets mixed together but that is what I recall. Also, the firearm was a bolt action rifle.

  3. And just to add fuel to the fire the IWI Tavor TS12 is a tubular magazine forward shot gun, with the grip behind the action.

  4. opps And just to add fuel to the fire the IWI TS 12 is a tubular magazine forward shot gun, with the grip forward the action.

  5. Key point is that WI TS-12’s breech and ejection port are behind the trigger and pistol grip.
    Whether it has a tubular, box, drum, pan, etc. is a minor point.

  6. For some damn reason, I’ve always thought that “bullpup” came over into firearms use via a nautical term being adapted. I vaguely remember reading that somewhere, but I can’t find a supporting reference to save my life.

    There was something about a ship’s rigging, sails being arranged a particularly way on a schooner, or something–I remember reading something to the effect that a ship was “bullpup rigged” because the sails had been set up without the smaller foresails on the forward masts, and having the mainsails set all the way forewards. And, to corroborate that bit about the bulldog puppy, the reason they called that sort of rigging that was because it made the ship look out-of-balance and weighted heavily towards the front, just like a bulldog.

    There was also something about that carrying over into describing a shark species that wasn’t at all streamlined or pretty.

  7. Anyone care to make guesses as to what definition he will come up with? Mine:
    “A firearm in which both the feed system and ejection port are behind the rearmost location at which the firing hand is designed to grip the firearm when shooting.”

    Any other guesses? Thoughts on the above?

  8. “A long arm with the chamber is behind the trigger.”

    not even with or above the trigger, but behind. So a Beretta Cx4 Storm, M 60 and an Uzi are not bullpups.

  9. Interesting. So a slang expression, became a technical term even if the exact definition of Bullpup is not fully understood?

    Like I said, interesting. And it is nice to know where the term came from.

  10. I never thought about it …
    And in general, I see no reason in hanging labels.
    But the abbreviation for “bulldog puppy” sounds good.
    Bullpup, probably this is something smaller and uglier than the full-size version. Constructed with preservation of the main characteristics, but deteriorated by some secondary properties in favor of other secondary properties.

  11. In the 1800s, “keep(ing) a bull pup” was a common British colloquialism for someone having a bad or short temper. It shows up in A Study in Scarlet, the first published Sherlock Holmes story, when Watson is describing his personal bad habits to his prospective fellow roomer, Holmes. Many American readers then and now ended up wondering why there was never any further reference to Dr. Watson’s dog.

    It’s possible that the term crept over into small arms usage due to the fact that like firing a U.S. M1855 pistol-carbine with the shoulder stock;


    A bullpup brings the blast and flash of firing much closer to the shooter’s face than a rifle with a conventional layout.

    NB; according to Civil War Guns by William B. Edwards (Stackpole 1962), the .58 pistol-carbine was originally designed with a 10″ (25.4cm) barrel. Before production began, the barrel length was increased to 12″ (30.5cm), because testers found that firing what was basically a cavalry musketoon charge from a 10″ barrel with their faces only 11″ behind the muzzle was a bit too much of a good thing, so to speak.

    Also note that the most common chambering for modern-day military self-loading bullpup designs is 5.56 x 45mm, a round long noted for its exuberant muzzle signature, especially audibly. I’ve generally found 5.56s with barrels less that 20″ in length…interesting…to shoot, even with properly-designed flash suppressors, which few actually have.

    The more a 5.56mm weapon’s flash suppressor looks like the one on the old Colt XM177, the better off you are. The Steyr AUG flash suppressor is marginal at best, because even with its 20″ barrel, the bullpup design brings the muzzle to within 15″ of your face, even allowing for the head position occasioned by the optical sight. The carbine (16″) and subcarbine (13.5″) versions are even worse from the shooter’s standpoint.

    The M4 flash suppressor, on its 14″ (35.5cm) barrel, might as well not even be there. Rather like Russian Army veterans of WW2 who used the PPSh-41 SMG, I rather expect M4 users to require hearing aids in their later years. Probably cataract surgery, too.

    (NB2; Yes, I know the M4 is not a bullpup. It just acts like one in most ways other than muzzle velocity.)

    So a 5.56 bullpup with a typically minimal flash suppressor can only be defined as an ill-tempered little brute to fire. Bringing us right back to the probable origin of the term’s usage.

    Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would probably be amused.



  12. Might I suggest a definition relating to the lack of a buttstock, since essentially, a modern bullpup removes the buttstock, puts the buttplate on the back of the action, and moves the trigger group to compensate.

    The overall effect of “bullpupping” a rifle, is to remove the extraneous length by removing the buttstock……

    • I wouldn’t say it removes the buttstock, it is still there. In fact as we play with a definition, I think we need to make it a “firearm other than a pistol” or a “longarm designed to be operated primarily two handed” (although that could apply to pistols).

      Perhaps including “the intent is to shorten overall length while retaining optimal barrel length”

  13. Well, Jonathan Ferguson absolutely nailed the true meaning and origins of the “Brown Bess” nick-name, so it is a bit surprising he couldn’t get to the bottom of the “bullpup” moniker?

    In any case, poring over the Neil Grant book about the SA80 weapons system recommended a few days past, I find that during the 1970s with the vogue for “micro-calibers” the 4.85x44mm was turned into the 4.85x49mm and the IW posited the following layouts:
    1) “Normal” configuration (ie.e with magazine and action ahead of the trigger) and SLR-style dropped butt. [i.e. like the L1A1 version of the FAL].
    2) Normal configuration and M16 style in-line butt for better control of recoil at the cost of raising the sight line. [M16s used for jungle warfare by the British army, the Ghurkas, etc.]
    3) Bullpup configuration (i.e. with magazine and action behind the trigger) and dropped butt.
    4) Bullpup configuration with in-line butt. [e.g. the EM-2 style, if not operating system, which is what was selected for the L85/ L85A1/ L85A2 and L85A3].

    To me, it is interesting that there was apparently no contact or communication to speak of between designers at Steyr–Austria (neutral nation) working on the StG.77 or AUG, the French (Nato, sort of, with the 1977-1978 FAMAS) and the UK (Nato, 51st U.S. State) with the IW/L85–1970s through 1984?

    • “(…)no contact or communication(…)”
      Was not Steyr from very beginning planning export, if not licensing, of AUG? Then what would be gain from sharing knowledge with potential competitors?

      • True that. Of course the UK planners had hoped the IW or L85 might be exported… Problems with it “as built” and “as issued” apparently scotched that idea! The FAMAS was also marketed, albeit mostly for Francophone ex-French colonies and a handful of lucre-laden oil sheikdoms.

        Hard to make inroads in the market what with all the M16s and Kalashnikovs…
        As memorably put in a film:
        “More commonly known as the AK-47, or Kalashnikov. It’s the world’s most popular assault rifle. A weapon all fighters love. An elegantly simple 9 pound amalgamation of forged steel and plywood. It doesn’t break, jam, or overheat. It’ll shoot whether it’s covered in mud or filled with sand. It’s so easy, even a child can use it; and they do. The Soviets put the gun on a coin. Mozambique put it on their flag. Since the end of the Cold War, the Kalashnikov has become the Russian people’s greatest export. After that comes vodka, caviar, and suicidal novelists. “

  14. Regarding proliferation of bull-pup scheme recently QBZ-191 become publicly known:
    it is classic layout design from PRC, which is known as user QBZ-95 bull-pup. QBZ-191 is said to be using same cartridge and magazine like QBZ-95 and being destined as replacement for QBZ-95. QBZ-191 is gas-operated selective fire weapon, three variants are planned in production: short-barrel (267 mm), normal (368 mm) and sniper (longer and heavier barrel).

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