Richard Saunders puts any aesthetic prejudices aside to find out whether these stubby pups are easy to shoot – or just belong in the doghouse
Justin Bieber, Marmite, bullpups. You either love ’em or you hate ’em. Personally speaking, I wouldn’t know Justin Bieber if he sat in my garden, plinking away; and I’ve always been more a peanut butter than a Marmite man. But bullpups: now there’s a debate to get your teeth into.
Everyone I’ve spoken to either loves bullpups with a passion or screws their face up in a ‘not for me’ kind of way. I can’t think of a more divisive, but good-natured, airgunning argument: even the .177 versus .22 debate has plenty of enthusiasts, me included, seeing the merits of both sides.
One thing everyone has to admit, though, is the incredible impact that these short, stubby guns, many of which look more at home on a sci-fi movie set, have had on our sport. Spring-powered rifles have hardly changed in the last 50 or so years; Weihrauch still churns out the HW 35. Even the PCP, possibly the biggest innovation in our sport, has been around for more years than most of us care to remember. However, no one would confuse a bullpup with a traditional air rifle. Even my wife, when I showed her the rifles in this feature, asked if they needed a sling or a holster.
‘Radical’, ‘ground-breaking’ and ‘revolutionary’ are frequently used terms to describe bullpups. But just how radical are they? How different is the experience of using them? Do they make you more accurate? Will you be a better hunter or target shooter? Or does it really just come down to wanting something different to turn heads at the gun club?
Bullpups have been around longer than you realise – though not in an airgunning sense of course. The first documented example of a military bullpup, at least that I can find, is the 1901 Thorneycroft bolt-action carbine. By all accounts it didn’t catch on, as it was fiddly to load and took too long to fire. French Lieutenant-Colonel Armand-Frederic Faucon produced a 6.5mm semi-automatic bullpup at the end of the First World War. His compatriot Henri Dalacre had better timing when he introduced his offering just before the start of the Second World War.
It took until 1977 for the first generally accepted successful bullpup to come along in the shape of the Steyr AUG, which became standard issue for the Austrian and Australian armies. The French military followed a year later with the FAMAS, and over the next few decades just about every other country gave them a go.
Like their military cousins, air rifle bullpups are identified by their short overall length but full-size barrel, and the fact that much of the weight is concentrated at the butt end. And like army-issue bullpups, PCP versions are handy in confined spaces – just think woodland hides rather than urban combat situations.
A major advantage for military bullpups is that they enable faster reaction from a lowered position – not something we necessarily need to worry about. But some of the combat shortfalls don’t apply either, such as muzzle flip at range on automatic fire and compromised bayonet effectiveness!
A tale of two pups
The two PCP bullpups on show here, the FX Wildcat and the KalibrGun Cricket Compact, are excellent examples of the category, and come in at the upper end of the price bracket. You can expect to pay between £1,110 and £1,430 for the Wildcat, depending on its stock finish, and £1,100 for the walnut Cricket Compact, which is only available in .177. The RRP for the slightly longer Cricket Standard, which you can get in .22 as well as .25 calibre, is also £1,100 in walnut, although the black synthetic stock is a little cheaper at £1,000.
Sweden’s FX Airguns has fully embraced the bullpup revolution: the Wildcat is part of a line-up that includes the Bobcat, the Indy and the Impact. While the Wildcat was designed from the outset as a bullpup, the KalibrGun Cricket shares its action with the longer carbine model, which means its sidelever is right at the back of the gun underneath the shooter’s ear, in true bullpup style. The FX Wildcat, on the other hand, has the lever more handily placed just under halfway down the gun.
Both guns are rotary magazine-fed – eight pellets for the Wildcat and a truly capacious 14 pellets for the Cricket. They also share excellent finish and build quality, and an ability to shoot fingernail-sized groups at 30 metres or more.
This isn’t a full-on gun review, more of an exploration of how bullpups differ from other rifles, so I’ll stop the comparisons there, other than to point out that the KalibrGun Cricket you buy in the UK is vastly different to the gun that leaves the factory in the Czech Republic. The marque’s exclusive UK distributor, The Cheshire Gun Room, disassembles each gun prior to servicing and tunes it to UK legal limits – a process that involves upgrading numerous components such as the hammer spring, adjusters, anti-tamper cap and filler probe.
With their butt-end weight bias, both the Wildcat and Cricket come to the shoulder well and are extremely pointable. I tested both guns in the field and found them excellent from a free-standing position, both aiming horizontally at rabbits and at steeper angles for pigeons and squirrels.
Bullpups lend themselves naturally to a military hold. With almost all the weight directly on the shoulder, the left hand, for right-handed shooters, has nothing more to do than provide a rest. I’d have to say that although I rarely shoot standing up, my accuracy improved thanks to the bullpups’ characteristics.
Kneeling and sitting also seemed a little easier and steadier, and I was no less accurate from those positions than I am with my traditional rifles. The only drawback I would point out – and of course, we are all different shapes and sizes – is that I felt less comfortable from a prone position. A bipod would help, I’m sure; and although neither of the test guns had one fitted, both can accommodate them. Without the use of a bipod, I found myself wanting more forestock to hold on to.
I expected shooting from sticks to be compromised by the bullpups’ short length, but I was wrong. Obviously you have to stand a little closer to the sticks than you might ordinarily, but other than that, there was no difference. The same was true when combined with my NiteSite Viper gear. On the black synthetic FX Wildcat, the set-up looks even more menacing and space-age. Sitting behind my Primos trigger stick, I used both the Wildcat and the Cricket with the night vision gear on an extended ratting trip; each performed admirably.
Bullpups are often criticised for their triggers. The physical location of the assembly some distance forward of the action requires a linkage system which, compared with the more direct set-up on a conventional rifle, can make them feel less precise. I’ve never put my hands on one, but the Daystate Pulsar and Renegade, with their electronic trigger releases, may solve the problem. [They do! Ed.]
That said, the mechanical release of the match-grade trigger on the FX Wildcat was superb, as was the two-stage set up on the Cricket, which had been fettled by The Cheshire Gun Room. I particularly liked the broad blade on the Cricket, and after a bit of practice I was perfectly comfortable with both guns.
Aim points and scope mounting
Most bullpups favour an M16-like raised scope rail that adds to the tactical look, and the Wildcat and Cricket are no different. However, as a result, the scope is mounted high on the gun. Unlike some rifles, most bullpups don’t come with adjustable cheekpieces. In fact, many of them require you to lay your face directly on top of the metal action, though the Wildcat and Cricket both have covers.
As a result, you will need to experiment with different heights of scope mount to arrive at a set-up that is comfortable for you, especially when you take into account the behind-the-ear contortions needed to cock most bullpups. Both guns needed high mounts to accommodate a scope with a 50mm objective lens.
That high scope position is not an issue at medium ranges and beyond, but at a short distance – say 10 or 15 metres – your holdover/holdunder aim points will likely differ from those on a conventional rifle. For example, my .22 Daystate Huntsman Regal is zeroed for 30 metres. The secondary zero is 10 metres, which makes it great for ratting, for example. When I zeroed the FX Wildcat, in the same calibre, at 30 metres with the same pellets, it needed a mildot of holdover at 10 metres. However, exactly like my .177 HW 100, the KalibrGun Cricket was flat between 20 and 30 metres, but needs a mildot of holdover at 10.
Of course, neither of these experiences are criticisms or faults. You’ll just have to spend some time either fiddling around with a ballistics program like Chairgun or on the range with targets set at different distances to work out your aim points.
Loading and cocking
Like conventional rifles, the rotary magazine loading system on bullpups varies from gun to gun. The FX has a delightfully simple sprung ball bearing set-up – you just pull the sidelever back and push the magazine into its slot. The KalibrGun is a little more fiddly, on the other hand. It also features a single-shot and multishot selector just below the sidelever. This allows you to determine whether you want the magazine to cycle on the cocking action, or whether you prefer to rotate it manually.
Much has been written about the awkwardness of the behind-the-ear cocking style of most bullpups. While the sidelever on the Wildcat is more user-friendly thanks to its from-the-drawing board bullpup design, the sidelever on the Cricket, with its shared action, is in the more traditional ‘behind-the-ear’ configuration. I found that bringing my left arm across my right shoulder was by far the best way of cocking the gun.
In truth, I didn’t find the position of the action on the Cricket awkward. Like the Wildcat, it is smooth and reliable, and allows you to reload without having to move the gun off aim too much. Both guns would be more of a faff for left-handers, though – the Cricket especially so.
Verdict: These Pocket rockets pack a punch and will turn heads
Love them or loathe them, bullpups are every bit as capable as more traditional-length rifles, offering accuracy at full legal limit power – and beyond if you’re an FAC holder. Don’t be put off by their modest size: these pocket rockets will punch holes in targets or knock over rabbits time after time. Nay-sayers will point to dodgy triggers and cack-handed cocking. But in practice bullpup triggers are more than up to the job and you soon get used to the ‘finger-in-the-ear’ cocking technique.
If you shoot from a hide, around farm buildings or from a vehicle, you’ll quickly comes to appreciate just how handy and pointable a bullpup is compared with a longer rifle. And if punching holes at 40-plus metres is your thing, let your bullpup do the talking, because everyone will be listening to you.