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The Hebrew Hammer: IWI Tavor Review

by David Fortier   |  March 26th, 2013 14

The IWI Tavor is a stubby bullpup rifle that has served the Israel Defense Force for several years. You can now get a semi-auto version with the IDF-standard Mepro-21 sight or in a flattop configuration for scope mounting. Photo by Mike Anscheutz

IDF, three little letters which inspire either respect or fear. Time and time again the Israel Defense Forces have proven capable of landing knockout punches on all comers. Encompassed by enemies extravagantly armed by a superpower, they have consistently faced overwhelming odds. Yet despite their relatively small numbers they have hewn their enemies down in Biblical proportions.

When push has come to shove, the Israeli citizen soldier has proven much more than a match for the best the Egyptians, Iraqis, Jordanians, Palestinians and Syrians could throw at them, even all at the same time.

The short sword wielded so effectively today by IDF troops is the Tavor Assault Rifle-21st Century (TAR-21). A very compact and modern 5.56x45mm bullpup, the Tavor is the Hebrew hammer used to smite the foes of Israel. Recently adopted to replace the aging M16 series, the Tavor assault rifle has proven Old Testament effective in actual combat. The big news I bring today though is semi-automatic modern sporting rifle versions of the Tavor are now being offered here in the US. Yes, IWI US, Inc. is now producing Tavors here in the US for American shooters and collectors.

During the early days after Israel was reborn IDF soldiers carried a hodgepodge of old and obsolete weapons. Lee Enfield, Mauser Kar 98ks rifles along with Sten guns and other aging leftovers from the 1930s and World War II were procured and fielded. Despite their obsolete nature, the Israelis wielded them to good effect and re-established their nation.

But despite their victory, the IDF realized it needed modern small arms to survive. So in 1955 the famous Uzi submachine gun was adopted. This provided the IDF with a formidable weapon for close quarter fighting. The same year they fielded a new combat rifle, the Belgian FN FAL which they dubbed the Rov’ve Mittan. Both a standard infantry rifle and a heavy barrel squad automatic (Makle’a Kal) in 7.62x51mm NATO were adopted. These featured the ability to fire fully automatic and were easily distinguished by their unique sheet metal and wood handguard.

Small numbers of FALs first saw action during the Suez Crisis of 1956. Without a doubt the new rifle offered a huge step up in performance over the old manually operated Kar 98k bolt guns. By the Six-Day war of June 1967 the FAL had become the standard Israeli combat rifle.

It remained so during the Yom Kippur War of October 1973. But by this time it was falling out of favor with Israeli soldiers. The IDF had become heavily mechanized and the long and heavy FAL was considered poorly suited for its needs. Issues of reliability in the sand and dust of the Middle East also began to be voiced. During the latter stages of the Yom Kippur War dissatisfaction with the FAL led some Israeli soldiers to cast them aside for captured AK-47s and AKMs. These Soviet pattern weapons were shorter, lighter, quicker to the shoulder, more reliable and controllable on full automatic.

The days of the FAL being the IDF’s sweetheart became numbered following the Six-Day war. Based upon feedback from combat troops, Yisrael Galili and Yaacov Lior set out in the late 1960s to develop a modern replacement. IDF troops who had faced the Kalashnikov in combat referred to it as, ‘The tiger of the desert’. So their goal was to develop a fighting rifle superior to the Soviet design.

However, rather than designing something entirely new, Galili and Lior simply based their work around Kalashnikov’s proven system. While a more Western design was developed in the U.S. standard 5.56x45mm caliber, the end result was not entirely satisfactory.

Adopted by the IDF in 1972, the 5.56x45mm Galil assault rifle was, as to be expected, an incredibly durable and reliable design. It was after all a Kalashnikov at heart. But Galili and Lior made the mistake of basing the design around a heavy Finnish-pattern milled steel receiver.

Unlike the Soviet pattern AKM rifle with its modern stamped steel receiver, everything about the Galil was heavy. It featured a beefy folding stock and was saddled with a folding carry handle and bipod. While its list of features was impressive for 1972, it tipped the scales at a portly 11 pounds loaded. So despite being a 5.56x45mm caliber assault rifle, it actually weighed more than the 7.62x51mm FAL it was replacing.

While readers of Soldier of Fortune drooled over the new design, IDF troopers who actually had to carry it were less than enamored. It should also be noted that the IDF received huge quantities of U.S. M16A1 rifles and CAR15s during the Yom Kippur War. With these readily available, it wasn’t long before the American M16 began to see use with Israeli special operations, paratroopers and infantry units. US military aid to Israel increased in the 1990s and eventually the M16 series replaced the Galil in infantry units. While not perfect, the M16 series proved popular with Israeli soldiers.

At the end of the 1982 Israel-Lebanon War, though, the IDF began to once again re-evaluate what it needed in a combat rifle. One of the conclusions drawn from the war was the battle had moved from traditional open field conflicts to close-quarters engagements. The IDF also recognized the need for a seamless transition from daylight to nighttime capability on a single mission.

Based upon the lessons learned during this time-frame, plus a decade of collaboration and testing by the IDF, an entirely new domestic Israeli combat rifle was developed. Designed by Zalmen Shebs, the new Tavor Assault Rifle-21st Century (TAR-21) was intended to be better suited to modern urban combat than the 1960s vintage M16.

A modern 5.56x45mm bullpup design built from composite materials and featuring advanced ergonomics, the Tavor was subsequently adopted and fielded by the IDF. The Tavor first saw combat on March 29, 2002 during Operation Defensive Shield (Mivtza Homat Magen). This operation was in response to a Palestinian suicide bomber killing 30 mostly elderly Israeli vacationers in what became known as the Passover Massacre. It was the largest military operation in the West Bank since the Six-Day War.

In August 2006, the Tavor became standard issue with the highly decorated Givati (Highland) Brigade. By the end of 2007, battalions of the Golani and Nahal brigades also were equipped with the new rifle. Beginning in August 2008, new recruits of the Golani Brigade were issued Tavors.

As with many new designs the Tavor initially experienced some teething problems. The new rifle ran into reliability problems leading to it being temporarily removed from service. However over years of use and refinement the Tavor was steadily improved.

In 2009 the Tavor’s manufacturer Israel Weapons Industry (IWI) requested feedback on the rifle’s performance. A source in the Ground Command stated, “The Tavor’s flawless performance in Gaza came as no surprise (it) has been functioning without a hitch and in a superb way for over a year.” Following a successful performance in Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, it was decided the Tavor would become the IDF’s chief assault rifle. Today the Tavor is not only the standard combat rifle of the IDF, but it has also been purchased by 16 other nations.

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