When it comes to protecting its people, no nation is more resolute than Israel. With a land area about the size of New Jersey, and fewer than 8 million citizens, the country is relatively small and geographically vulnerable to the hostile adversaries that surround it. As evidence of its resolve, Israel is said to spend a greater percentage of its gross domestic product on national defense than any other nation.
With respect to small arms, that commitment has evidenced itself in a raft of designs adopted from other nations-the Glock 17 and Browning Hi-Power in handguns, the M14 and AK-47 in rifles and the M1919 and M2 Brownings in machine guns to name but a few-and in several domestically produced arms that have become world standards because of their reputation for reliability. Those include the Uzi submachine gun, the Galil rifle, the Negev machine gun and the Tavor, an advanced 5.56x45 mm NATO bullpup rifle platform that has been in service with Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) troops for nearly a decade. Having already spun off a range of specialized variants, including some in other chamberings, the Tavor represents the most advanced solution to date employed by Israeli forces fighting a seemingly endless series of urban conflicts.
Conceived Out Of Conviction
Officially designated TAR-21, for “Tavor Assault Rifle, 21st century,” the select-fire rifle was named after Israel’s Mount Tabor, which rises, sentinel-like, above the Via Maris roadway in Israel’s lower Galilee region-a route that has held strategic importance since Biblical times.
The rifle’s development began two decades ago when the Israelis-at the time relying primarily on the Galil and its variants alongside the M16 rifle and M4 carbine for infantry use-found themselves facing increasingly dynamic and demanding urban combat situations. Dismounting from vehicles and shooting on the move in and around buildings proved a need for a more agile, adaptable platform. In addition, better accuracy and easier transitioning from daytime to nighttime shooting were identified as areas that should be improved.
The IDF began a collaboration with Israel Weapon Industries (IWI), the privatized entity that was previously the state-owned Israel Military Industries, on the research and development phase of the project in March 1995. It continued ergonomic tests and development on the gun for two years, and by 2000, the Tavor began to see broad testing with IDF infantry companies. The following year, field tests were conducted pitting the Tavor against the M4 at Camp Mitkan Adam, an IDF training base and home to its counter-terrorism warfare center and sniper school.
According to Amihai Dekel, a project manager with IWI in Israel and a reserve officer in the Israeli Special Forces, whose career has included troop commands at the platoon and company levels, the Tavor underwent a series of rigorous tests between November 2001 and March 2002 with two IDF brigades that evaluated it throughout different scenarios, theatres and configurations. Numerous aspects of the new platform were considered, including: Mean Rounds Between Failures (MRBF); accuracy and retention of zero using various sights; human ergonomics during extended periods of use, including marches as long as 37 miles; speed and accuracy of sighting in daytime and nighttime with iron sights, magnified and night vision optics, and lasers; use with the M203 grenade launcher; and maintenance-relevant issues.
Dekel said that, in the end, the Tavor prevailed over the M4, although he declined to share specifics about how the guns scored. “The results are clear, the Tavor is the [gun] of choice for the IDF and for Israeli special and elite forces.” The IDF officially adopted the Tavor in 2003 and within three years it was in the hands of infantry brigades and special forces throughout Israel.
Formed For Function
At first glance the Tavor is likely to evoke the usual criticisms typically leveled at the bullpup concept by its detractors-chief of which is that they are “awkward.” But that is often more a reaction to appearance rather than a thoughtful consideration of functionality. In the Tavor’s case, shouldering it goes a long way toward dispelling that notion.
By way of definition, a bullpup’s chamber, magazine well and fire-control components lie behind its pistol grip and trigger. That means no space is wasted on a buttstock that, typically, serves only to position a rifle against the shooter’s shoulder. Therein lies the bullpup’s chief advantage: short overall length with a standard-length barrel. For example, an M4 carbine with its stock fully collapsed measures 29¾ inches with a 14½-inch barrel. The Tavor measures 261⁄8 inches with a 16½-inch barrel. Also, compared to rifles with folding or collapsing stocks, Tavor and other bullpups need not be “deployed” before being employed.
According to Dekel, “The Tavor has exceptional situational ergonomics … I hold it naturally and can operate it efficiently even when I’m under physical pressure and fatigue, and the ultra-compact form factor allows for easy transitions in close-quarter situations and in different vehicles. The full-length barrel also means no loss of downrange ballistic efficiency.”
Despite the fact that it has a one-piece, injection-molded polymer stock, which gives the rifle its basic shape, the Tavor has a robust feel in the hand. Nothing about its parts or controls appears flimsy or underengineered. In the magazine well area, for example, the stock’s wall thickness averages ¼ inch. The trigger, fire-control components, flip-up sights, ejection port cover, magazine catch and push-button sling swivels are made of steel.
Engineered To Excel
Fieldstripping the semi-automatic-only Tavor SAR as sold by IWI U.S. and described hereafter, involves simply pushing out a captive cross pin located in the stock just forward of the buttplate’s top, allowing the buttplate to hinge downward and the gas piston/bolt carrier group to be withdrawn out the rear.
The black anodized aluminum top cover forms a full-length Picatinny rail and houses the front and rear sights-the former being adjustable for windage and elevation with an AR-type post. It is held at its front by a steel block and at two points midway back by two Allen-head machine screws. They engage two blocks clamped to the gas cylinder assembly, which is held to the barrel by two cross pins. The design essentially mates the mechanical and optical sights to the barrel, ensuring they retain zero.
Once the top cover, front swivel and foregrip assemblies, and the flash hider and its jam nut, are removed, the cocking assembly can be pulled forward off the gun. The barrel assembly is then removed with the aid of a specially shaped wrench by turning a socket on the gun’s right side 180 degrees while simultaneously pressing a safety catch on the opposite side. That rotates a pin out of engagement from a semi-circular groove in the barrel extension, which is machined with the chamber and locking lug recesses. The extension is pinned and threaded to the barrel proper, which measures 0.640 inches in diameter immediately ahead of it and 0.585 inches behind the muzzle. It is chambered in 5.56x45 mm NATO and rifled with a 1:7-inch twist.
The 7075-E6 hard-anodized machined aluminum receiver is a U-shaped chassis measuring 111⁄8x11⁄8x2 inches that is Teflon-coated. A 1.023-inch diameter hole at its front accepts the barrel extension. Rails machined into the receiver engage grooves in the side of the 7/8 x 3¼ x 21⁄8-inch bolt carrier. Mounted to the carrier is a 4340 steel piston crosspinned to a recoil-spring-guide tube along with the recoil spring and guide rod, a bolt-rotation-control bar and, at the rear, a polymer buffer. The 3-inch-long, one-piece right-hand bolt features a recessed face with radial locking lugs at 11 o’clock, 3 o’clock and 6 o’clock. The latter takes the form of two smaller lugs that coincide with M4-type feed ramps in the barrel extension. A 0.233-inch-wide extractor lies at 10 o’clock next to the uppermost lug, and a plunger-style ejector lies at 3 o’clock on the bolt’s face. The bolt is cammed into and out of battery, rotating only 36 degrees, by a 0.273-inch pin transversely mounted through its channel in the carrier.
When propellant gas enters the front of the gas block, it travels rearward in a cylindrical passage immediately in front of the gas cylinder, striking the face of the piston and driving the carrier assembly rearward, which unlocks the bolt by way of the cam pin. The bolt rotation control bar, which rests against a boss on the face of the barrel extension, then guides the topmost locking lug, keeping it in proper orientation while the bolt carrier continues to the rear as the bolt extracts and ejects a cartridge case. At the rearmost part of its travel the carrier compresses the recoil spring, striking the polymer buffer and returning the bolt to battery after stripping a fresh round from the magazine.
Designed For Dynamic Handling
The Tavor has a definite rearward weight bias if grasped by the pistol grip alone-but once it is taken in both hands and shouldered, it is actually quite well balanced and comfortable. “The bullpup design moves the center of gravity of the rifle closer to the user’s body, allowing for more instinctive aiming and improved acquisition time to target,” explained Dekel.
The rubber buttplate rests fairly high in the shoulder pocket and stays put thanks to its tactile properties. The pistol grip is wide enough to be comfortable against the web of the shooting hand yet its somewhat rounded profile allows easy reach to the trigger. The flat, wide, oversize triggerguard, which angles at 45 degrees from the underside of the fore-end, can be grasped as an angled fore-grip or used as a palm rest by the off hand. The safety lies in the familiar location just above the centerline of the pistol grip and has a 90 degree throw. In addition, it is reversible in that the polymer lever itself, and the teardrop-shaped indicator on the opposite side are dovetailed to the ends of the shaft and can be removed and reversed simply by pressing in on a detent in their centers. The polymer magazine release lever lies on the centerline of the gun in front of the magazine well. Pressing it rearward cams a metal catch outward from the magazine body, allowing magazines to fall free. The trigger pull is quite good for a bullpup-likely because the trigger bar is drawn forward rather than pressed rearward as in the AUG, thereby minimizing flex in the mechanism.
Replacing magazines in any bullpup takes some practice, but once the shooter becomes familiar with such an arrangement it can mean staying on the gun throughout the movement without breaking cheekweld. With the Tavor, an additional bonus is that its bolt release, a large polymer lever behind the magazine well, can be tripped by the thumb of the off hand as the shooter inserts a magazine. Once practiced, it can be done in one fluid motion. The release also acts as a hold open when it is grasped at it rear and pulled downward after withdrawing the cocking lever to the rear. A polymer shell deflector and ejection port frame attach to the ejection side of the gun with a single Allen head screw. When changing the gun’s operation to the opposite side, they are simply swapped with the stamped steel ejection port cover. The cocking lever can be oriented on either side of the gun regardless of whether a right- or left-hand bolt is in use. A 5½-inch-long Picatinny rail serves as a cover for the slot on the opposite side. The lever, which is generously proportioned and angles upward slightly, does not reciprocate as the gun cycles.
At the range, reliability was 100 percent with primer strikes being well-defined and cases being ejected in a consistent pattern but not too forcefully from the gun. Despite the fact that the Tavor does not have a “forward assist” feature per se, the bolt carrier’s mass ensured that the bolt locked into battery without fail whether it was released by hand or by pressing the bolt release. Accuracy was on par with other service guns and included several five-shot groups slightly on either side of 1inch-interestingly with Federal’s economical American Eagle load.
Set To Succeed?
For those interested in modern semi-automatic arms, particularly arms with a military pedigree and, even more specifically, those of bullpup design, the Tavor SAR represents a breakthrough. While it is a newcomer on the American scene, its decade-plus of service with Israeli forces bodes well for its reputation as a globally recognized military small-arms platform and can only serve to bolster its reputation among civilian shooters. The fact that it is purpose-built to accommodate AR-style, or STANAG, magazines is no small matter-and is not likely lost on the legions of AR enthusiasts who already own them.
It is clear that the IWI Tavor SAR is different, and decidedly so, and that it is an excellent semi-automatic rifle in its own right chambered for one of America’s favorite defensive cartridges. The only question now is whether, like its namesake desert sentinel, the Tavor will establish itself with similar significance on the American firearm landscape.