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Early bullpup firearm designs

In the first of a series of three articles, Max Popenker leads us to take a look at the roots of the bullpup design!

The first of a three-part article explores the origin of the design currently most commonly associated to the idea of cutting-edge military rifles

Maxim Popenker
The earliest recorded bullpup designs, circa 1905: the Thorneycroft (top) and Godsal (bottom) rifles
The earliest recorded bullpup designs, circa 1905: the Thorneycroft (top) and Godsal (bottom) rifles
A drawing from the James Baird Thorneycroft's patent for his bullpup bolt-action rifle design
A drawing from the James Baird Thorneycroft's patent for his bullpup bolt-action rifle design

Traditionally, a firearm in the “bullpup” configuration is defined as a gun whose trigger and firing hand grip are located ahead of the breech area. This also means that the bolt, the magazine and other working parts are usually located inside or above the shoulder stock.

If compared with traditional layouts, this configuration offers obvious advantages in terms of overall lenght and balance; some of its disadvantages include a generally more awkward reloading and/or magazine insertion design, lack of user-friendliness for left-handed shooters (to say the least) and a firing chamber positioned very close to the shooter's face.


Bullpup designs became possible and feasible only after the introduction of metallic cartridges, which allowed ignition systems to be integrated within the action of the gun − a firing pin in the bolt, that is.

A diagram from the patent issued to Armand-Frédéric Faucon for his “balanced rifle”, dated 1911
A diagram from the patent issued to Armand-Frédéric Faucon for his “balanced rifle”, dated 1911
A demonstration of how the  French experimental Faucon rifle should have been used
A demonstration of how the French experimental Faucon rifle should have been used

The earliest recorded bullpup rifle was patented in the United Kingdom around 1902 by Scotsman James Baird Thorneycroft; his intent was to come out with a compact-sized rifle which would, at the same time, retain the barrel lenght and thus the effective range of a conventionally-sized military rifle.

In order to achieve his goal, Thorneycroft moved the action and magazine all the way back and into the shoulder stock, and located the trigger in front of the magazine area. This called for a necessarily long transfer bar, which ran inside the stock and around the magazine.

The Thorneycroft rifle was tested in several variants by the British Army, but was rejected in favor of the traditionally-designed "Short-Magazine, Lee-Enfield" rifle, or SMLE.

More or less in the same timespan, another British inventor and Army officer − Major Philip Thomas Godsal − patented his own bullpup bolt-action rifle; despite numerous later improvements, it also ended up in a failure, with no military or civilian buyer interested.

Patent diagram for the bullpup pistol designed in 1918 by H.L. Welsh
Patent diagram for the bullpup pistol designed in 1918 by H.L. Welsh
A diagram from the patent issued to U.S. Army Major John Rison Fordyce for his bullpup machine gun (year 1918)
A diagram from the patent issued to U.S. Army Major John Rison Fordyce for his bullpup machine gun (year 1918)

In 1910, French designer Armand-Frédéric Faucon applied to patent his own Fusil Équilibré (Balanced rifle).

Faucon's design sought to provide a semiautomatic rifle that would allow the shooter to maintain a lower profile and would require less effort to fire when walking or from standing or kneeling position; this was achieved, in Faucon's mind, by placing most of the gun’s weight onto the shooter's shoulder rather requiring him to redistribute it on his hands and arms.

The shoulder stock was located on the lower portion of the gun, right in front of the magazine and the action, so that the rifle would balance itself on the shooter's shoulder; the trigger and the pistol grip were located further forward. A rather advanced weapon − well ahead of its times, like many other − the Faucon rifle was basically just a redesigned Meunier rifle, reconfigured in a still today quite unique bullpup layout.


World War I − optimistically dubbed "the war to end all wars" back then − spurred the development of automatic firearms that would be particularly suited for mobile warfare. As early as in 1918, at least two interesting bullpup firearm designs were patented in the United States.

The first one spawned from the fairly conventional, well-known Lewis machine gun. John Rison Fordyce − a Major in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers − pursued the same concept as Armand-Frédéric Faucon, trying to make a "light" machinegun (which wasn't in fact that light at all!) more convenient to fire from standing positions or when moving.

In 1937, Frenchman Henri Delacre was awarded a patent for a bullpup sub-machine gun
In 1937, Frenchman Henri Delacre was awarded a patent for a bullpup sub-machine gun

The simplest way to achieve this goal was to locate the overall weight of the gun over the shooter's shoulder, by adding two grips and a front trigger below the barrel. Next step was to get rid of the wooden stock to reduce the overall lenght and weight of the gun, replacing it with a shoulder loop that would support the gun in its "battle-ready" positon. The final, most elaborate design modification consisted in a special conveyor-type feeding systems that held the ammunition perpendicularly to the barrel and rotated them before loading: a feeding system that pre-dated the strikingly similar Belgian FN P90 by more than 60 years.

To achieve better balance, the gun was to be carried under the armpit, held in balance by the loop, placed around the shooter's shoulder; pistol grip and trigger were to be located well at the front. It's not known if Fordyce's final design bullpup machinegun was ever manufactured, even as a prototype, but it could have been quite feasible as it required nothing more than a simple improvised conversion of existing Lewis machineguns.

The second bullpup to be invented in the United States in the year 1918 was patented by H.L. Welsh; it would have had the appearance of  a stretched semiautomatic pistol, whose magazine would be located in a hump behind the grip. Once again, the goal was to achieve better recoil control, by transferring most of it from the wrist to the bicep, and by putting most of the weight of the gun itself from the palm and wrist area to the stronger forearm part of the hand. According to the patent, this would provide better accuracy and faster follow-up shots. Once again, it's not know whether or not a prototype was ever built − but the concept sure lived on.

A diagram showing the layout of the “military rifle” designed in 1920 by U.S. Army Sergeant Paul B. Cunningham
A diagram showing the layout of the “military rifle” designed in 1920 by U.S. Army Sergeant Paul B. Cunningham
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