Ukrainian Tavors – Fort-221 / Fort-224

In this video/article we’ll examine Ukraine’s other bullpup – the Fort-221 – the Ukrainian Tavor. 

In a recent video/article we looked at the Ukrainian designed and produced IPI Vulcan, a bullpup based on the AK platform, and the two have been confused in some media. The Fort-22 series Tavors originate from Israel’s IWI. Introduced in the early 2000s the IWI Tavor has been purchased and seen service with militaries around the world. Ukraine’s Tavors were offered by RPC Fort or State Research and Production Association “Fort” of the Ukrainian Ministry of Internal Affairs. The company was originally established in 1991, initially as a regional organisation and in 1998 it became a state enterprise. Located in Vinnytsia, in western Ukraine, the company initially focused on a line of pistols, pump-action shotguns and AKM variants.  

National Guard personnel armed with Fort-221 with M5 optics (Ukrainian National Guard)

From a survey of Fort’s website we know that IWI weapons first began to appear in the company’s product lists in late 2008 following an agreement to potentially license manufacture IWI products in Ukraine. This included pistols, submachine guns, rifles and the Negev light machine gun. 

In 2011-12 media reports suggested the Tavor was being produced in Ukraine and the guns appeared at a number of trade shows with RPC-Fort markings, including a company crest in the moulded stock. There is, however, some doubt about whether the weapons were manufactured in Ukraine, merely assembled or if they were produced in Israel with some Fort markings and shipped to Ukraine. The nature of the partnership is undisclosed but it has been suggested that if Fort gained substantial sales for the weapons then further manufacturer may have been transferred to Ukraine. 

Close up of the RPC Fort on a 5.56×45mm Fort-221 (Ukrainian National Guard)

In 2014, Colonel Vitaly Otamaniuk, the head of the artillery and missile management board of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, announced that the Fort-221 and Fort-223/224 carbines were adopted for arming the Ukrainian army, with an initial 500 ordered. While no further orders were publicly recorded we know that Police and internal security forces were issued the rifle as of 2016. The adoption of the rifles by Ministry of Internal Affairs units and the Ukrainian National Guard (which falls under the Ministry’s control) may be explained by the fact the Ministry owns RPC Fort.

Various Fort-22 series rifles on display (Ukrainian National Guard)

From photographs released before the February invasion we know that National Guard units including the Special Purpose units like the “Scorpion” Special Forces Detachment (Nuclear industry protection) and elements of the Special Operations Forces or SSO. These units are believed to include the 1st and 3rd Special Purpose Detachments based in Kyiv and the 8th Special Purpose Regiment in Khmelnytskyi as well as elements of the Ukrainian Ministry of Internal Affairs.

Member of the Ukrainian armed forces with a Fort-224 carbine (via social media)

There is some confusion around the Fort-22 series’ designations. From Fort’s website, circa 2020, we can see here that the majority of the IWI rifle range was on offer. There is some confusion around the designations with Fort-222 and Fort-223 not being listed here but there are photographs of Fort-223 marked 5.56  X-95 pattern guns seen trade shows, which suggests that for a time at least the 223 designation was used. But as we’ve seen from Fort’s 2010 website Fort-223s were not listed. The Tavors are listed as follows:

  • Fort-221 in 5.56x45mm and 5.45x39mm (TAR-21) – 468mm / 18.4in
  • Fort-224 in 5.56×45 and 5.45x39mm (X-95) – 330mm / 13in
  • Fort-224 in 9×19 (X-95 SMG) – 330mm / 13in

We can also see that the Uzi Pro is listed as the Fort-226 while the 5.56x45mm Galil Ace is listed as the Fort-227, the 7.62x39mm chambered version is the Fort-228 and the 7.62x51mm version is the Fort-229. The Ukrainians designed the Galatz accurised Galil the Fort-301 and the Negev light machine gun the Fort-401 both of which have been fleetingly seen in the field.

Further survey of Fort’s website shows that the Tavor series of rifles ceased to be listed on the page in March 2021 and IWI and Meprolight were removed from the site’s ‘Partners’ section in April 2021. Perhaps suggesting the end of the IWI-Fort partnership. The Tavor-pattern rifles are not listed by SpetsTechnoExport, Ukraine’s state export enterprise, but the IPI Vulcan is.

Member of the Ukrainian armed forces with a Fort-221 rifle (via social media)

Despite this we have seen a considerable number of the Ukrainian Tavor variants in the field. Since the Russian invasion in February the Fort-22 series have been most frequently seen with internal security forces and Ukrainian Army and National Guard special forces.

Within 48  hours of the Russian offensive Russian forces shared videos from what was said to be a captured Ukrainian National Guard depot. The video shows more than a dozen Fort-221s piled on top of crates. Around the same time they were seen to be equipping Ukrainian forces said to be linked to the Azov Brigade. 

Members of the Ukrainian armed forces with a Fort-224 carbines (via social media)

On 7 March former Ukrainian presidents Petro Porochenko and Oleksandr Turchynov were seen. Rallying Territorial Defence Force units in Kyiv, Turchynov was seen armed with a Fort-221.

On 9 March an unknown number were captured by Russian forces which seized the National Guard armoury near the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Plant. At least one Fort-221 was shown by Russian state media.

A Fort-224 in 9×19mm (via social media)

The Ukrainian Tavors continue to surface in imagery from the conflict but it is difficult to tell where they’re being used and by which units. 

Both the Fort-221 rifle and the 224 carbine have been seen in the field, though it is often difficult to determine their chambering as the clearest indiction – the shape of the magazine – is invariably tucked under the user’s arm.  They are most often seen equipped with Meprolight M5 and M21 sights and a number of the weapons have also been seen to be sporting camouflage paint jobs.  

Thank you to those who have helped me collect images of the Ukrainian Tavors in the field, including Sad_Sand and DixieMauser and thank you also to Remigiusz Wilk.


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Bibliography

Interpolitex 2011, Vitaly Kuzmin, (source)

Ukraine Manufacturing Tavor in 5.45x39mm, TFB, (source)

Shield and Sword of Ukraine: Main Achievements of thr Defense Industrial Complex for 2017, Defense Express, (source)

Fort.vn.ua, via WayBack Machine, (source)

Kyiv Police being introduced to 9x19mm Fort-224 carbines in 2016, Kyiv Police, (source)

Vulcan / Malyuk: Ukraine’s Bullpup

One of the most interesting small arms we’ve seen during the fighting in Ukraine is the Vulcan [Vulkan] or Malyuk bullpup. Available in 7.62x39mm and 5.45x39mm the weapon is built around the action of either an AKM or AK-74. Most frequently seen in the hand’s of Ukrainian special forces the weapon appears to be a well-designed adaptation of the proven AK platform.

Ukrainian troops with unsuppressed 5.45x39mm Vulcan bullpups (via social media)

Development of the weapon reportedly began in 2005, following efforts by Ukraine’s State Space Agency to adapt an AK-74 into a bullpup. This project began in the early 2000s and was known as the Vepr, not to be confused with the Russian shotguns and rifles produced by Molot-Oruzhie , and resulted in a fairly basic, non-ambidextrous conversion, notable for its AR-15/M16 style front sight post.

Ukrainian Vepr prototype (60менге CC BY-SA 4.0)

The design and development of the Vulcan was undertaken by a company called InterProInvest (IPI). IPI market the weapon under the name Vulcan (Malyuk), as does Ukraine’s state export company SpetsTechnoExport. The weapon’s nickname ‘Malyuk’ translates into English as ‘baby’ or ‘little one’. Unlike conventional rifles bullpups place the breech and magazine behind the trigger and pistol grip. This has the advantage of creating a more compact package while maintaining a full-length barrel.   

The weapons are manufactured at the ‘Krasyliv Aggregate Plant’ in Khmelnytskyi Oblast, western Ukraine. The Krasyliv Plant is part of Ukroboronprom, Ukraine’s state-owned defence industry enterprise. The plant produced a number of civilian and military products and also produces parts for the Stugna-P ATGM.

In an interview with Ukrainian Defence Review in 2015, IPI’s Vice CEO, Serhiy Luhovskoy, said that the prototype development of the weapon was “done under a contract that we got from Ukraine’s Security Service [SBU].” Following positive feedback from the SBU elements of the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence became interested in around 2008. 

A demonstration to Ukrainian Armed forces c.2015 (via Ukrainian Defense Review)

The Malyuk was unveiled publicly in 2015 and was first evaluated by the Ukrainian Army in 2016. Ukroboronprom announced in late 2016 that the rifle had been accepted by the Ukrainian armed forces, stating it had successfully passed testing. It appears that a relatively small but significant number have been procured by Ukraine’s special forces.

The basic design of the weapon changed very little between 2015 and 2019, but refinements appear to have been made. The most significant external refinement is the removal of the AR-15/M16 type front sight (similar to that seen on the earlier Vepr) and fixed rear sight assembly in favour of a full length top rail and folding back up iron sights. With this change the latch for the upper assembly appears to have been moved from the side to over the top of the barrel. 

A 7.62x39mm chambered Vulcan (IPI)

As the weapon went into production continued improvements were made, in 2017 the weapon still used an AK-style selector lever but by 2019 this had been replaced by smaller selectors on either side of the receiver. The latest version of the Vulcan has a number of new features including an adjustable gas block which may suggest that the barrel and block are now of new manufacture (rather than repurposed from old AKs). There is also a new five position adjustable stock. 

The 7.62x39mm and 5.45x39mm rifles appear to be made using a mixture of new and old parts. This has been confirmed by images of examples seen in the field. We know that the rifles are made using the barrels, trunnions, bolts and sections of the original AK-pattern rifle’s receiver. The receiver is cut down, the front sight assembly and rear sight block are removed and a new gas piston is installed in the bolt carrier. The recoil spring appears to be held captive in the upper receiver. When the upper is detached the spring and guide rod hang from the rear of the upper.

A 5.45x39mm chambered Vulcan (IPI)

The weapon can be fired from the left or right shoulder and has ambidextrous controls with selector levers on both sides at the rear of the receiver. The charging handle is non-reciprocating and can be swapped from left to right. The chassis has a large polymer brass deflector which protects the shooter when the weapon is being fired from the left shoulder. The magazine release is located directly behind the weapon’s trigger and can be operated when firing from either shoulder. The 7.62 and 5.45 rifles feed from standard pattern AK magazines. In addition to the magazine release behind the trigger there is a thumb release within the magazine housing at the rear of the magazine – the 5.56 version does not appear to have this feature. The 5.56 rifle appears to use an AK pattern magazine rather than a STANAG one. The housing is designed to allow the magazines to drop free under their own weight. The rifle has a push button safety located above the trigger which can be reached by the trigger finger. 

The non-reciprocating charging handle is attached to a collar which sits around the gas piston system and acts on the bolt assembly without being attached to the piston or bolt itself. This allows it to be positioned ahead the trigger and pistol grip. An action bar projects back from the trigger, into the rifle’s receiver, to trip the sear. 

Graphic showing disassembled Vulcan (IPI)

The rifle consists of three major assemblies: the upper which is a polymer assembly which retains the weapon’s mainspring and provides a platform for optics mounting. The barrel and receiver assembly which consists of the barrel, firing mechanism and magazine well. And the lower, which is a polymer pistol grip and forend which slides onto the receiver assembly. The upper and lower are held in place by a locking lever and cross pin.

A field stripped 5.45x39mm Vulcan (IPI)

The Malyuk has a convection system within the stock chassis which IPI says allows air to flow through the hollow pistol grip and out above the barrel. IPI says this allows the enclosed barrel to cool and is claimed to extend barrel life.

IPI state the weapon’s empty weight as 3.8kg (8.38lb), its overall length is 712mm or 28 inches and its barrel length is 415mm (or 16in). The rifle has a rate of fire of 660RPM in fully automatic and feeds from standard AK and AK-74 pattern magazines (or STANAG if a variant chambered in 5.56x45mm). 

Commercial, semi-automatic Malyuk K-01 (IPI)

Along side a pair of semi-automatic variants of the rifle, the Malyuk K-01 in 7.62x39mm and the K-02 in 5.56x45mm in 2019, IPI introduced the ‘Shepit’ or Whisper, designed for operations that require quiet, precision work.  It has a longer 520mm or 20.4 inch barrel, a longer forend for mounting a bipod on and a longer, alternate suppressor design. It also has an adjustable length of pull with a butt piece which is able to extend up to 3 inches. The Whisper is chambered in either 7.62x39mm or 5.56x45mm. IPI’s website does not have a great deal of information on the weapon but lists its weight as 4kg with an overall length of 850mm. 

Perhaps the most interesting member of the Vulcan family is the RIFF-P, an electronic anti-drone system which uses the Vulan’s bullpup chassis. IPI states that the RIFF-P has a range of up to 1.5km and weighs around 5kg.

RIFF-P electronic anti-drone system (IPI)

Combat use of the Malyuk appears to have been widespread with not only members of Special Operations Forces units seen armed with them but also troops from Ukraine’s National Guard and even the Territorial Defence Force battalions. Ukrainian SSO (or Special Operations Forces) units which have been seen using the rifles include elements from the 73rd Maritime Special Operations Center, 3rd and 8th Special Purpose Regiments as well as the National Police’s Rapid Operational Response Unit (KORD). Elements of the Ukrainian National Guard including the 2nd Special Purpose Battalion and the Azov Special Operations Detachment in Mariupol have also been seen equipped with the rifles.

An unsuppressed 5.45x39mm Vulcan in the field (via Social Media)

The Malyuk is often seen with a sizeable IPI-made suppressor. The barrel is threaded and can also accept an AK-74-style muzzle brake. Photos from in theatre show that the top Picatinny top rail is made from metal and is not a polymer moulded part. In terms of accessories along with the top rail there is also a section of rail at 6 o’clock on the polymer forend which allows the mounting of a front grip and smaller rail sections at 3 and 9 o’clock for the mounting of accessories like lights and lasers. The rifles are frequently seen in the field with Aimpoint CompM4s, red dot and magnifier combinations and occasionally variable power optics.


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Bibliography:

Автомат “Малюк”, Krasyliv Aggregate Plant, (source)

Our Goal Is to Have The Malyuk Rifle Replace Soviet-Designed AK Weapons in Ukraine, Ukrainian Defense Review #2 (2015), (source)

Ukraine Adopts “Malyuk” Bullpup Rifle, TFB, (source)

Vulcan (Malyuk), InterProInvest, (source)

Special thanks to DixieMauser for assistance with this article/video

Footage:

Автомат “Вулкан” (“Малюк”) / Assault rifle “Vulcan” (“Malyuk”), InterProInvest, (source)

Ukraine Made Bullpup Machine Gun “Malyuk” [Disassembly], Volodymyr Dzhydzhora, (source)

Ukraine Made Bullpup Machine Gun “Malyuk” [Firing], Volodymyr Dzhydzhora, (source)

5.56x45mm Vulkan (Malyuk), DixieMauser, (source)

Автомат “Малюк”, Ukroboronprom, (source)

Krasyliv Aggregate Plant – Prormo Video, Krasyliv Aggregate Plant, (source)

Silent rifle SHEPOT and assault rifle MALYUK (VULKAN-M), Seva TV, (source)

Bullpup Automatic VULKAN 5.56 MALYUK * Visiting InterProInvest, Andrew Zabel, (source)
BullPup AK VULKAN (Malyuk) Assault Rifle, Andrew Zabel, (source)

The VHS-2 In Iraq

The VHS-2 bullpup rifle manufactured by Croatia’s HS Produkt became one of the most frequently seen rifles during the Iraqi counter-offensives against ISIS during 2015-17. The rifle regularly appeared in news reports and social media posts and became somewhat synonymous with the fighting for Fallujah and Mosul.

A screen capture of combat footage from Iraq c.2016-7 featuring a member of the Emergency Response Division with a VHS-2

Check out the full article accompanying this video at Silah Report.


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Steyr AUG with HBAR Barrel

Sometimes all is not as it seems. That was the case when we examined this Steyr AUG. From the barrel and bipod it appeared to be an AUG in an HBAR or Heavy Barrel configuration but on closer inspection we found that it was in fact a rifle receiver, bolt and bolt assembly and chassis that had been paired with an HBAR barrel assembly.

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Vic with the Steyr ‘HBAR’ (Vic Tuff)

Ordinarily, the HBAR could be modified to fire from an open, rather than closed, bolt. This example has the standard AUG progressive trigger for semi and full-auto. It does not have the modified bolt carrier, striker or trigger mechanism.

The HBAR has a 4x optic, rather than the rifle’s 1x, while the HBAR-T can be fitted with an optic like a Kahles ZF69 6×42.

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A dedicated ‘LMG’ marked AUG stock and bolt carrier (Vic Tuff)

Adoption of the AUG HBAR does not appear to have been widespread and Steyr don’t currently list it as an option amongst their upgraded AUGs. For more Steyr we have previously examined a Steyr AUG SMG conversion and a Steyr MPi 81. We’ll take an in depth look at the AUG and AUG HBAR in the future.


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Specifications (for a standard AUG HBAR):

Overall Length: 35.5in (90cm)
Barrel Length: 24.4in (62cm)
Weight: 8.6lb (3.9kg)
Action: Gas operated, rotating bolt – the HBAR typically fires from an open bolt, but this rifle-based example fires from a closed bolt.
Capacity: 30 or 42-round box magazines
Calibre: 5.56×45mm

Cutaway Tavor

Last week Matt attended SHOT Show 2020 and spotted a pair of Tavor cutaway demonstration guns at the IWI booth. Above is a quick video, put together on the fly, looking at the cutaway guns and showing how they illustrate the Tavor’s working parts and operation.

DSC_0353
Cutaway IWI Tavor (Matthew Moss)

Developed in the mid-1990s to meet IDF requirements for a reliable and compact rifle to replace the M16s & M4s in service. The rifle had to be shorter to deal with the close quarter urban fighting the IDF often found itself in.

The Tavor or TAR-21 uses a long strike gas piston system inspired by the AK and has a rotating bolt. The bullpup configuration gave the desired compact weapon without sacrificing barrel length.

DSC_0355
A closer look at the gas piston system, the barrel, chamber and the bolt face (Matthew Moss)

The cutaway rifles on display at the IWI booth were actually civilian, semi-auto only, Tavor SARs but they give us a good look at the rifle’s internals and how the Tavor functions. We can see the gas piston system, the charging rod and the barrel at the bottom. Moving back we can see the chamber, the bolt carrier group, the sear assembly and the bolt hold open mechanism.

DSC_0354
In this photo we can see the cutaway magazine as well as the mainspring at the top of the photo and below it the bolt carrier group and the bolt release mechanism (Matthew Moss)

They also cutaway the magazine so we can see the spring inside. At the top of the weapon we can see the mainspring that stretches back into the butt. The model was fully functional so on pulling the trigger the connecting rod acted on the sear release to trip the firing pin.

Additionally, the bolt release, just behind the magazine, also functioned and when operated the bolt went forward onto battery. The Tavor entered service in the early 2000s and has been superseded by the X95 and joined by the 7.62 chambered Tavor 7.

We will have a more in-depth video on the Tavor in the future.


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The Curtis Rifle – The First Repeating Bullpup

Today we’re examining an intriguing firearm with a fascinating history. It is difficult to understate the potential importance of the Curtis Rifle. Despite being designed in Britain in the 1860s the firearm gained more notoriety when it was offered as evidence in a legal battle between the Winchester Repeating Arms company and Francis Bannerman. What makes the firearm most noteworthy, however, is its fundamentally unconventional layout. Designed by William Joseph Curtis in the mid-1860s, it is arguably one of the earliest ‘bullpups’ and almost certainly the first repeating bullpup.

Curtis bullpup full length
William Curtis’ 1866 ‘bullpup’ rifle, built in 1895 by Winchester (Photo by Matthew Moss, courtesy of the Cody Firearms Museum)

For the purpose of this article it would be wise to first define what a bullpup actually is. It can be defined as a weapon with a somewhat unconventional layout which places the action and magazine behind the weapon’s trigger group. This has the benefit of maintaining a conventional rifle’s barrel length while making the overall length of the rifle more compact.

Bullpup rifles became popular with a number of militaries around the world during the 1970s and 1980s – namely the Austrian Steyr AUG, the French FAMAS and the British SA80, and more recently with rifles from China and Singapore as well as the Tavor series of rifles from Israel.

US827893-0
Thorneycroft, Farquhar and Hill’s 1905 carbine patent (source)

The bullpup, however, dates back much further with some argument to be made for the first firearms to utilise the concept being 19th century percussion target shooting rifles. The earliest military bullpups date to the beginning of the 20thth century, these include a rifles designed by Samuel McClean, the initial designer of the Lewis Gun, patented in 1896 (US #723706), by Major Philip Godsal (US #808282) and a carbine developed by James Baird Thorneycroft in 1901. Thorneycroft subsequently worked with Moubray Gore Farquhar and Arthur Henry Hill to patent a refined version of the carbine in 1905 (US #827893). While the Thorneycroft was tested by the British army it was rejected due to ergonomic and reliability shortcomings.

Faucon bullpup
Faucon’s 1911 ‘Fusil Équilibré’ patent (source)

In 1908 Lieutenant-Colonel Armand-Frédéric Faucon of the Troupes Coloniales (French Colonial Infantry) began developing what he termed a ‘Fusil Équilibré’ or balanced rifle. Faucon patented his concept in France in 1911 (FR #422154) and continued to work on the balanced rifle during World War One, utilising a Meunier A5 semi-automatic rifle in working prototypes. The Faucon-Meunier rifle was tested in 1918 and 1920 but eventually rejected. It would be nearly 45 yeas before the bullpup concept was revisited by a major power. Engineers working at the Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield and at the British Armament Design Department in the 1940s began to develop designs based around the bullpup concept. (Some of these will hopefully be the focus of future videos!)

William Curtis’ design, however, predates all of these. Patented in Britain on 10th July, 1866, Curtis is listed by the London Gazette as a Civil Engineer. His design is unlike anything that had been seen before. Based on a slide-action with a drum magazine, it was placed over the shoulder – much like a modern shoulder-fired anti-tank weapon.

Curtis patent abridgement
William Joseph Curtis’ July 1866 patent for ‘Breech actions, sliding breech-block & stocks’ (courtesy of Research Press)

Curtis’ rifle is probably the very first bullpup magazine rifle, one of the earliest to have a drum magazine (an Italian, Marco Antonio Francois Mennons, patented an earlier design for a drum magazine in March 1862, GB #637) and also an early striker-fired design. Clearly a design well ahead of its time and radically unconventional.

This unconventional gun’s designer was born in Islington, London in 1802, as a civil engineer he worked on Britain’s rapidly growing railway network. He died in 1875, placing the development of his rifle nearer the end of his life.  With hindsight Curtis’ design clearly had revolutionary potential but it appears that his concept was never taken up. It appears that he only patented his design in the United Kingdom. If not for a corporate lawsuit on another continent, decades later, then it is possible Curtis’ design, like so many others, would have slipped into historical obscurity.

Francis Bannerman
Francis Bannerman, (source)

Francis Bannerman vs. the Winchester Repeating Arms Company

In 1890, Francis Bannerman VI, a successful entrepreneur specialising in junk, scrap and later surplus, purchased the Spencer Arms Company and the rights to their patents. The company had been founded by Christopher Miner Spencer, designer of the Spencer Rifle, they produced the first commercially successful slide or pump-action shotgun. This pump action shotgun was designed by Spencer and Sylvester H. Roper and patented in April, 1882 (US #255894). Bannerman continued producing the shotgun as the Bannerman Model 1890, however, in 1893 the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, introduced the John Browning-designed Model 1893 pump shotgun (US #441,390).

Spencer Roper patnet
Spencer & Roper’s 1882 patent for their pump action shotgun (source)

In response in October 1894, Bannerman filed a law suit against the Winchester Repeating Arms Company claiming that the slide/pump actions used by Winchester’s Model 1890 and new Model 1893 shotgun infringed on the patents that he owned.

He called for the court to force Winchester to halt production and claimed $10,000 in damages and royalties for the sale of guns which he believed infringed his patent. Winchester temporarily halted production of the Model 1893, in the meantime Bannerman continued producing and improving his shotgun introducing the 1894 and 1896 models.

Times report on bannerman suit
News report on the ruling of the Bannerman vs Winchester case from The Times (Philadelphia), 27th June, 1897

Various contemporary newspaper reports suggest between 100,000 and 500,000 people were directly interested in the case as ordinary owners were liable under the conditions of Bannerman’s suit.

Winchester dispatched George D. Seymour to Europe to scour the French and British patent archives for any patents for similar actions that had been filed there before those now owned by Bannerman. Winchester discovered four patents: three British and one French. The earliest of these was Alexander Bain’s patent of 1854. Two more patents held by Joseph Curtis and William Krutzsch were found, dating from 1866. The later French patent was filed by M.M. Magot in 1880. All of these designs, including the Curtis we are examining here, never progressed beyond the development stage and were largely forgotten until rediscovered by Winchester.

Krutzsch's pump action rifle
Model of William Krutzsch’s pump action rifle (Photo by Nathaniel F, courtesy of Cody Firearms Museum)

Winchester claimed that these earlier designs invalidated Bannerman’s patent claims. To illustrate their defence Winchester decided to build working models of each of the designs, breathing life into long forgotten patent drawings. This must have been a major engineering task as the patent designs would not have had all the information needed to produce a working model.

In 1895-96 Winchester engineers, including T.C. Johnson, assembled working models of each of the designs to prove their viability. These were tested and Winchester’s lawyers took them into court and submitted them as evidence, even offering a firing demonstration. The court declined the demonstration and made its decision on June 27th 1897. Judge Hoyt H. Wheeler of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York ruled in favour of Winchester and threw out Bannerman’s suit.

Winchester had produced some 34,000 Model 1893s before, in November 1897, they introduced the improved Model 1897 which proved to be hugely popular on both the civilian and military markets. Bannerman unveiled a final shotgun, the Model 1900, but production ended in the early 1900s.

Curtis’ Unconventional Design

Curtis Rifle right side
Right side, rear quarter, view of the Winchester-made Curtis Rifle (Photo by Matthew Moss, courtesy of the Cody Firearms Museum)

Curtis’ design encapsulates a number of features which, in 1866, were unheard of and arguably revolutionary. Not only is it probably the first magazine-fed repeating bullpup but it also uses a drum magazine, something that would not see substantial military use until the First World War. It has a folding shoulder support or stock, uses a striker fired action and makes use of self-contained ammunition.

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The Curtis’ rifle is placed over the top of the user’s shoulder with a folding leather strap which fits into the shoulder pocket. Curtis’ original patent also suggests a fixed hook and strap. The user then grasps the loop near the muzzle with their support hand and the trigger and bolt handle with their other hand. Novel, but not the most ergonomic of designs.

sketch of curtis rifle
Illustration of how the Curtis Rifle was ‘shouldered’ (Courtesy of the Cody Firearms Museum)

The magazine appears to hold at least 13 or more rounds according to the available patent and Winchester’s engineering drawings. The magazine is fixed in place and rounds appear to have been fed into it through the loading/ejection port on the left side of the weapon. This would have also put spent cases being ejected right next to the user’s neck. Curtis’ patent explains that the magazine has a spring inside which has a length of string attached to the top of it which the user can pull back to depress it and allow cartridges to be loaded into the drum. The magazine has a single stack or loop of cartridges. Once loaded the string can be released, allowing the magazine spring to push rounds into the action.

Curtis trigger and bolt
Close up of the left side of the Curtis’ trigger, bolt assembly and hand loop (Photo by Matthew Moss, courtesy of the Cody Firearms Museum)

The Curtis rifle’s action appears to lock at the front of the weapon with the bolt handle acting on a hinged, spring-loaded, locking piece or flapper which dropped into place when locked. To unlock the action the bolt handle was sharply pulled to the rear which pushed the locking piece out of engagement and unlocked the action allowing the operating rod to be cycled.

Winchester Curits drawing
Winchester engineering drawing drawn up c.1895 of the Curtis (courtesy of the Cody Firearms Museum)

The weapon’s chamber appears to be just forward of the centre of the drum magazine with the striker assembly located behind it. To operate Curtis’ rifle the magazine was loaded and then the user had to unlock the action by pulling the bolt handle backwards. This then allowed the operating rod to be pulled backwards, like a pump action, which pushed the bolt and striker assembly to the rear, cocking the striker, the bolt handle was then returned forward and locked back into position. This chambered a round ready to be fired.

Curtis drum mag
Close up of the Curtis’ brass drum magazine and loading/ejection port (Photo by Matthew Moss, courtesy of the Cody Firearms Museum)

The trigger at the front of the firearm is connected to the striker assembly by a long length of wire. When pulled the wire becomes taught and trips a sear to release the striker, firing the weapon.

Originally Curtis’ patent describes how ‘small punches’ on the bolt face would pierce the cartridge base during firing to enable the spent case to be extracted once the action was cycled. From Winchester’s engineering drawings, however, it appears they replaced this with a more reliable and conventional extractor at the 7 o’clock position of the bolt face.

Given that the weapon would have fired black powder cartridges it is unclear how well the rifle would have faired with sustained firing. The drum magazine would have been susceptible to jamming as a result of powder fouling. This, however, would not have been an issue for Winchester later version of the rifle.

detail from curtis patent
Detail of Fig.1 & Fig.10 from Curtis’ 1866 patent (courtesy of Research Press)

But the Curtis has one more interesting surprise. The original 1866 patent also includes what might be one of the earliest descriptions of a gas operated firearm. One of the most fascinating sections of Curtis’ original patent details how the rifle might have been adapted for gas operation:

“An arrangement is shown in Fig.10, in which the rod G is dispensed with; in this case the barrel may be shorter, not projecting beyond the shoulder; the butt is similar. The breech may be opened automatically by the powder gases, which pass by an opening in the barrel to a cylinder with which works a breech operating plunger.”

Curtis does not go into further detail but he is clearly describing a piston-driven, gas operated system. The patent drawing also depicts an alternative tube magazine instead of the drum magazine.

It is unknown if Curtis ever put his theory to the test and developed his gas system idea further. It is tempting to wonder if, in 1895 when Winchester were assembling their model of the Curtis, if John Browning or William Mason, who were also developing their own gas operated systems at the time, were aware of Curtis’ idea from 30 years earlier. As such Curtis’, admittedly vague, gas system pre-dates the first patents on gas operation by just under 20 years.

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Specifications:

Action: Slide action
Calibre: .32 Winchester Centre Fire
Feed: ~12 round drum magazine


My thanks to the Cody Firearms Museum at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West for allowing me to examine and film the Curtis. Special thanks to the CFM’s assistant curator Danny Michael for making extra time to open up the case where the rifle Curtis is on display so we could examine it and for also sharing Winchester’s technical drawings and other records.

Thanks also to David Minshall of Research Press.co.uk for his assistance finding Curtis’ original British patent abridgement and to John Walter for digging up some additional information about Curtis’ life.


Bibliography:

‘Winchester Suit Decided’, The Times (Philadelphia), 27th June, 1897

‘Recollections of the Forming of the Pugsley & Winchester Gun Collections: A Talk Given by Mr. Edwin Pugsley at the New Haven Meeting of the AS of AC’, September, 1955.

Curtis Rifle, Cody Firearms Museum, online catalogue entry (source)

‘Francis Bannerman VI, Military Goods Dealer to the World’, American Society of Arms Collectors Bulletin 82:43-50, D.B. Demeritt, Jr., (1982)

Patents:

Improvements in fire-arms’ A. Bain, British Patent #1404, 26th June, 1854

‘Breech actions, sliding breech block; stocks’, W.J. Curtis, British Patent #1810, 10th July, 1866

‘Breech actions, hinged and laterally-moving breech block; magazines’, W. Krutzsch, British Patent #2205, 27th August, 1866

‘Magazine Fire Arm’, Spencer & Roper, US Patent #255894, 4th April, 1882

‘Magazine Bolt Gun’, S. McClean, US Patent #723706, 28th May, 1896

‘Breech-loading small-arm’, P.T. Godsal, US Patent #808282, 19th June, 1903

‘Breech Loading Small Arm’, Thorneycroft, Farquhar & Hill, US Patent #827893, 4th August, 1905

‘Fusil équilibré’, A.B. Faucon, French Patent #422154, 15th March, 1911