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IWI Tavor: History and Development

IWI Tavor: History and Development

The state of Israel declared its independence from Great Britain on 14 May 1948. Since that time it has been in an almost continual state of war against one or more of the Muslim countries that completely surround it. This state of nearly continuous warfare has produced one of the great bullpup rifles of the modern world: The IWI Tavor.

Few countries know more about modern warfare than Israel. Thousands of the young soldiers of the Israel Defense Force (IDF) have given their lives to preserve the sovereignty of their small nation of 8 million.

In 1948, Israel fought with the small arms of Great Britain (the SMLE, Sten SMG and Bren LMG) and ironically those of Holocaust perpetrator Nazi Germany (the K98k, MP40 SMG and the MG34 GPMG). These were mixed and matched in a logistic nightmare.

I have an Israeli Bren tripod with an adaptor used to mount an MG34 on it. These were supplemented by contract K98k bolt-action rifles in caliber 7.62x51mm NATO from Fabrique Nationale D'Armes De Guerre in Herstal, Belgium and the arsenal in Brno, Czechoslovakia.

IWI Tavor
The IDF has issued a substantial hodgepodge of small arms, including 7.62mm Czech FN K98ks with Israeli chamber markings and a Mk2 Sten submachine gun.

During the late 1940s, Maj. Uziel Gal designed what was to become the famed Uzi submachine gun. Open-bolt, pure blowback pistol-caliber submachine guns are easier to design and manufacture than any other small arm. Adopted by the IDF in 1954, the Uzi quickly went into frontline service. This was one of the first modern military firearms born from a desire for compact firepower and would eventually lead to the development of the IWI Tavor.

More Uzis went to law enforcement agencies, military organizations and security groups than any other submachine gun. Manufactured by both Israel Military Industries (IMI) and Fabrique Nationale, the Uzi was exported to more than 90 countries.

During the late 1950s and specifically at the time of the Six Day War, the IDF was fielding the FN FAL in 7.62x51mm NATO, an individual weapon designated as the "Aleph" and a heavy-barrel version, called the "Beth," used as squad automatic.

IWI Tavor
In the Six Day War of 1967, the IDF fielded the FN FAL series, including this heavy-barrel version, called the "Beth." It was used as a squad automatic.

The Six Day War, fought between June 5 and 10, 1967, demonstrated the FAL's many deficiencies, especially in arid regions. Reliability was seriously degraded in dusty, desert environments and it was by design a long and bulky rifle and not suited to the rapid vehicular deployment of the IDF. These deficiencies reached a head during the Yom Kippur War in 1973. During this conflict, many thousands of the Avtomat Kalashnikova were captured.

While many foreign designs were considered to replace the FN FAL series, the Israelis were attracted to the Kalashnikov's salient features of astounding reliability under the most adverse battlefield environments and incredible simplicity. As a consequence, an indigenous design was eventually adopted that was the collaboration between Yisrael Galili and Yaacov Lior. It was, in essence, a highly modified Kalashnikov. This was the next step to the development of the IWI Tavor.

IWI Tavor
In the early years, the IDF fielded the famous Uzi insubstantial quantities: pictured is an Uzi with IDF special forces verticalforegrip and a Mini Uzi.

As the United States was Israel's major defense supplier, it could not easily supply 7.62x39mm ammunition. So, to accommodate the smaller 5.56x45mm M193 cartridge with its 55-grain projectile, the rifle, designated as the "Galil" in honor of one of its designers, had the gas hole, which was 4.2mm (.17") on the AK, reduced to 1.8mm (.071").

It was adopted in 1972 and was eventually available in several models, with the 7.62x51mm NATO chambering added. The very first Galils were assembled using Finnish AK receivers.

Yisrael Galili was very proud of his rifle and told me, before his death in 1986, that the Galil was both an infantry rifle and squad automatic. And, that in essence was its very problem.


Too heavy for soldiers to be very fond of it as their personal rifle (even though it has a bottle opener on its bipod), it was both too light and did not have the quick-change barrel absolutely necessary for a squad automatic fielded for the sustained-fire role.

In addition, from the 1970s to the present time, the M16A1 and more recent versions were more common in IDF service because they could be purchased from the United States more cheaply than the Galil could be manufactured.

IWI Tavor
An Estonian soldier on patrol in March 2005, during the Iraq War, with a compact Galil SAR in 5.56×45mm.

That was then, this is now. In 2001, the IDF adopted a bullpup design, first designated as the IWI Tavor TAR-21 (Tavor Assault Rifle—21st Century). First, let's briefly explain its name. Mount Tabor (modern: Har Tavor) is located in the Lower Galilee, Israel, at the eastern end of the Jezreel Valley, 11 miles west of the Seas of Galilee.

It was the site of the Mount Tabor battle between Barak, under the leadership of the Israelite judge Deborah, and the army of Jabin commanded by Sisera, in the mid-12th century B.C. It is believed by many Christians to be site of the Transfiguration of Jesus Christ.

The developmental project for the IWI Tavor began in 1995 by what was then and for many years prior referred to as IMI (Israel Military Industries) and is currently called IWI (Israel Weapon Industries). IWI is privately owned by Sammy Katsav, who came as a penniless immigrant from a Middle Eastern Islamic country.

Katsav created a real estate and shipbuilding empire. He purchased IMI's small arms division from the government and also Meprolight. As IWI is no longer a government bureaucracy, but a private enterprise, Katsav has made it quite clear to his employees that the quality of their products and cost effectiveness are the ingredients that make private enterprise a success.

A successful bullpup design like the IWI Tavor is an absolutely ideal concept for the IDF, which fights mostly in close-quarter urban environments. In addition, Israeli soldiers move rapidly in the constricted spaces by means of armored fighting vehicles and helicopters. The chief designer of the IWI Tavor TAR-21 was Zalmen Shebs, whose primary parameter was to create an infantry rifle more suited to urban combat than the M4A1 carbine.

IWI Tavor
While the U.S. military has continued to spurn bullpup rifles, allies like Britain and Israel have embraced them in the form of the SA80, pictured above, and the IWI Tavor.

A 16.5-inch barreled IWI Tavor has an overall length of 26.125 inches (663.575mm), while the M4A1 with its stock fully extended in the most commonly deployed configuration has an overall length of 33 inches (840mm). Thus the IWI Tavor is almost 7 inches shorter, yet has a barrel that is 2 inches longer than that of the M4A1.

And, those 2 inches provide a wound ballistics potential with either the M193 or M855 projectiles that is significantly greater at all ranges than that offered by the M4A1's 14.5-inch barrel. This should be the most important parameter, not the ability to change magazines quickly.

Semiautomatic-only versions of the Tavor are imported by IWI US, Inc.

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