In the late 1960s, Austria began to consider replacing its StG.58 service rifle—a domestically produced version of the FN FAL. In keeping with the general trend sweeping through so many of the NATO member nations at the time, the objective was to retire the old 7.62x51mm battle rifle and adopt a more modern design chambered for the 5.56x45mm cartridge.
By 1974, Steyr had created a prototype bullpup combining the rotating bolt of the AR-15 with the dual guide rods and short stroke gas piston of the AR-18. It was built on an aluminum receiver with a polymer action housing and a fire control group with polymer components. Three years later, the rifle that went to field trials notably included a quick-change barrel, a folding foregrip and an integral 1.1X optic.
In lieu of a fire control selector, the rifle incorporated a progressive trigger providing semi-auto fire with a shallow pull, and full-auto fire with a deep pull. It fed from a proprietary polymer detachable box magazine with 30 or 40-round capacity that was at first transparent, but then ultimately translucent in full production. The Bundesheer (Austrian Army) officially adopted the new rifle in 1978 as the StG.77 and it swiftly demonstrated itself a design to be reckoned with.
Several features contributed to the AUG’s rapid success. First of all, an adjustable gas system with three settings (off/grenade, normal and adverse) meant reliability. Secondly, the bullpup anatomy made for a compact weapon ideal for mechanized and airborne forces. In addition to that, the 5.56mm cartridge made it remarkably controllable in full-auto.
Finally, the gun’s modularity meant that it was adaptable, and that would end up giving the AUG respectable longevity. It would eventually be turned into a 9mm submachine gun and even an open-bolt squad automatic weapon with a bipod mounted on a 24.4-inch heavy barrel.
Although initially equipped with a 1/9-inch twist barrel, it would eventually be equipped with the 1/7-twist rifling optimal for stabilizing 62g and 77g bullets. The AUG also made the transition to the era of the flat top upper with the A3 variant, which gave it the flexibility of mounting modern optics.
The gun was designed to be ambidextrous, but a dedicated left side ejecting bolt is necessary to make that work. The versatile and dependable AUG’s reputation eventually led other countries to adopt it. Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia and Luxembourg were among the nations that placed orders and, because of that, it remains the most widely adopted military bullpup of all time.
For all its success as a military firearm though, the AUG has also become a well-received civilian semi-auto. It all started with direct import of A1 variants made by Steyr-Daimler-Puch in Austria, but the 1989 import ban put an end to that. Then in 1997, Steyr began exporting the Universal Sport Rifle (USR), which was a 1994 Assault Weapons Ban compliant A2 version of the AUG, but that was terminated by executive order after only 3,000 examples made it into the country.
Domestic production of an AUG clone began in 2007 and continues to this day in Alabama. Thus after more that 40 years, the rifle is still alive and well. While other bullpups like the SA80 and the FAMAS have also served military forces, they just can’t compare to the widespread popularity of the Steyr AUG.
It is a gun that was ahead of its time and it influenced later designs like the P90, the F2000 and the SCAR. Considering the era in which it was developed, the AUG wasn’t just a rifle—it was a vision of the future.