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.
I stated previously, the Tavor is also now available as a semi-automatic modern sporting rifle here in the US. IWI US, Inc. was kind enough to send two review samples to Shotgun News to give us a first look at this very interesting design. Let me first say that most riflemen have strong opinions on bullpup rifles. You either love or hate them with few falling in-between. Most can recognize the benefits of this type of a design, namely:
1. Short overall length
2. Longer barrel in relation to overall length compared to conventional design
3. Center of gravity of rifle moved closer to center of gravity of shooter
Despite these benefits, many riflemen still dislike bullpup designs for three reasons. Most are awkward and slow to reload and they generally have mediocre triggers. Plus most bullpups cannot be readily fired from either shoulder due to the ejection path.
So with this in mind I got to work with the Tavor. Currently the Tavor is offered in two basic models. The first is what IWI US, Inc. refers to as a “flattop” model with a Mil Std 1913 optics rail mounted. The second is the IDF model, which sports a Mepro-21 reflex sight mounted.
Both models feature integral folding back-up iron sights, but only the flattop model features a tritium front sight. The IDF model features a 16.5-inch long barrel and a black polymer body. The flattop model is available with either a 16.5-inch or 18-inch barrel and either a black or flat dark earth polymer body.
Overall length of the 16.5-inch models is just 261/8 inches while the 18-inch barrel guns are 271/8 inches long. The 16.5-inch flattop rifles weigh in at 7.9 pounds, while the 18 inch models weigh 8.1 pounds. The IDF model is the heaviest at 8.5 pounds, thanks to its optical sight.
The Tavor is built using an ordnance grade steel receiver. Mated to this is a Mil-Spec, chrome-lined, cold hammer-forged CrMoV barrel. This features a 5.56x45mm NATO chamber and six groove rifling with a 1:7 right-hand twist. The barrel is tipped with an M16A2 style flash suppressor.
Operation is by a long-stroke gas piston with a carrier controlled rotating bolt. The bolt assembly is removed as a self-contained unit with a captured recoil spring. The bolt features a beefy claw extractor and plunger ejector. It’s also interesting to note the firing pin is spring loaded. Feed is from standard M16/AR-15 magazines and the design incorporates a last round bolt hold-open.
The controls are well laid out and easy to manipulate. A non-reciprocating charging handle is located on the left front of the rifle. On the rifle front is a Mil Std 1913 rail section for mounting accessories. These can be swapped to move the charging handle to the right side of the rifle.
The safety lever is located at the left top of the pistol grip. This can also be switched to the right side if the user so desires. The magazine release is very well placed and easy to manipulate. It consists of a lever mounted at the front of the magazine well. Pushing straight back on this ejects the magazine clear of the rifle.
Mounted behind the magazine well is the bolt release. Pushing up on this releases the bolt. With just a minimum of practice it is very easy to quickly eject a spent magazine and smoothly insert a fresh one while instantly releasing the bolt. This aspect of the design is very well thought out and leaves an AUG or Type-95 in the dust.
Other features include ambidextrous QD sling swivel mounts and a rubber recoil pad. The body is manufactured from a high strength polymer. All metal parts feature a protective corrosion resistant finish. 18-inch barrel models come with a Mil Std bayonet lug. As to be expected, the design is easily field stripped for routine cleaning. Thoughtfully, cleaning gear can be stored in the pistol grip.
In addition to the standard 5.56x45mm rifles, IWI USA, Inc. will also be offering 9x19mm and 5.45x39mm conversion kits. The 9x19mm kit will come with a cold hammer-forged 1:10 twist CrMoV barrel while the 5.45x39mm kit will come with a 1-7.5 inch twist. Also offered are left-hand bolts for 5.56x45mm and 5.45x39mm rifles.
These allow a standard rifle to be quickly and easily converted to left hand side ejection. Plus each rifle is supplied with a polymer 30-round IWI magazine. These feature a round count window on each side to allow quick verification of remaining rounds. Quality wise, these magazines are standard issue with the IDF.
I had previously shot an IDF model and I found the reflex sight’s reticle blocked out more of the target at a distance than I liked. So I spent my time testing the flat dark earth flattop model with 16.5-inch barrel. I mounted an IOR Valdada 1.5-8x26mm tactical scope onto this. The IOR is an impressive high quality optic built on a fat 35mm tube.
The elevation turret features BDC marks from 100 to 800 meters. If you prefer to hold using the illuminated reticle, this model features 15 mils of bullet drop compensation in .5-mil increments. This compact optic offers a very wide and useful magnification range, quick to employ reticle and surprisingly good optical performance.
With the IOR mounted, I selected six different loads for testing. These ranged in weight from 55 to 77 grains. Loads consisted of American Eagle 55-grain FMJ, Black Hills 60-grain VMAX, Federal 69-grain Gold Medal Match, Lapua 69-grain Scenar Match, Wolf Performance Ammunition 75-grain steel case and HPR 77-grain Match.
While gathering loads I was pleasantly surprised to learn Wolf Performance Ammunition is now importing Lapua ammunition and components. This is good news for shooters, as Lapua ammunition and components should now be easier to find.
The Tavor was never intended to be a bench gun, and frankly it doesn’t make a very good one. The rifle’s shape just doesn’t lend itself to shooting off bags. Even so, the stubby carbine acquitted itself very well with loads it liked. I fired four 5-shot groups with each load at 100 yards. Four of the six loads averaged 2 inches or less.
Federal’s 69-grain Gold Medal Match load posted the tightest average at 1.4 inches at 2825 fps. Right behind it was American Eagle’s 55-grain FMJ load, which averaged 1.5 inches at 2763 fps. Black Hills’ 60-grain VMAX load averaged 1.7 inches, while Wolf Performance Ammunition’s 75-grain HP load averaged 2 inches. So accuracy, despite a very heavy trigger pull and 20 mph wind gusts, was excellent for a rack grade semi-automatic fighting rifle.
Next I moved from the bench and proceeded to run the Tavor through some drills from 2 to 100 yards. Here it performed very well. Practical accuracy is excellent and it is an easy rifle to operate. Although very different than an AR or AK, it was easy to get the hang of with just a bit of practice.
Length of pull, though, at 15.7 inches, is very long. Even so, the bullpup shouldered quickly and handled well. Its short overall length is an obvious advantage in tight quarters. Compared to a friend’s 10.5-inch AR short barrel rifle I found the Tavor noticeably shorter even with the AR’s stock fully collapsed.
Stepping out past 100 yards, the Tavor had no issues making hits on a man-sized target at 200, 300 and 400 yards. The 1.5-8x26mm IOR proved a real asset at these longer distances. From a solid sitting or prone position the Tavor proved quite capable. Recoil is mild and the piece is easy to control.
I fed the rifle using both Magpul P-MAGs and IWI magazines and experienced zero issues of any kind. Reliability was absolutely flawless, even with Russian steel case ammunition.
With a suggested retail price of $1,999, for flattop models and $2,599 for the IDF model, the Tavor is not cheap. However the price is not out of line compared to top end ARs, Bushmaster’s ACR or FN USA’s SCAR.
Is the Tavor perfect? No, but what is? The trigger is a mite heavy and I’d have to scratch my head a bit setting up the rifle. Mainly it would take me a bit to figure out the best way to run a white light on it. While short, the rifle is also a bit chunky and it’s certainly not ultra-light.
While not perfect the Tavor is a very interesting design sure to catch the imagination of many shooters. If you’ve ever lusted for a registered short barrel rifle but didn’t want to submit paperwork to the ATF, you’ll love the Tavor’s short OAL. If you’ve caught the AR-15 blahs, the Tavor may just turn your head. Without a doubt it’s like a breath of fresh air. Is the Tavor right for you? That I can’t say, but it certainly deserves a look.