April 17, 2023
It isn’t like the concept of a bullpup rifle is anything new. No, the British bullpup rifle proposed as a new service rifle, post-WWII wasn’t the first, not even close. The idea is almost as new as smokeless powder, when it was finally possible to design a rifle where you didn’t need to keep your face five feet away from the blast of igniting black powder. The Thornycroft bolt-action of 1901 was one of the earliest ones. We’ll overlook just how you are supposed to work the handle of a bolt action, with the receiver planted against your shoulder, and move on up into the middle of the century.
The British EM-2 was, to steal a marketing phrase “As modern as tomorrow.” It was a bullpup with a built-in optical sight, and it used a medium-bore cartridge, not the full-power ones that WWII had mostly been fought with. Alas, (or luckily, depending on your point of view) it foundered on the intransigence of the U.S. Army Ordnance plans, in the form of one Colonel Rene Studler. He insisted on nothing less than a full thousand-yard-effectiveness of a rifle cartridge, and that was that.
Ok, what are the advantages of the bullpup design? Simple: compactness. For any given length of barrel, a bullpup rifle can be as much as a foot shorter than a conventional design. When warfare was conducted in the wide open, that didn’t matter. As soon as warfare became something that happened in conjunction with vehicular or tracked transport, and now aerial delivery, it mattered. In urban settings, it matters. And with the wholesale abandonment of bayonet combat, who needed a rifle that was essentially a short pike? And the disadvantages? One that is pushed is the difficulty of quick reloads. This to my mind is more a matter of training than anything else. Anything that is new or different requires practice. That modern military organizations offer little in the way of relevant practice except when there is a literal war going on should not influence the selection of equipment. Heck, before our military organizations turned to IPSC/USPSA competitive shooters for high-end training, did anyone in the military know how to do a speed reload on an M16/M4? But I digress.
Like Bullpups? Check out a unique Bullpup Conversion Kit for the CZ Scorpion Here
A second drawback, in the minds of some, of bullpups is the location of the chamber. As in; it is directly below your face. If something goes wrong, then that problem becomes your face’s problem. The problem is solved by installing a protective shield between chamber and face. Yes, it adds weight, which means we have to balance the added weight and safety against the extra weight and changed balance of the rifle, in the equation of “Which do we select?” Another problem with the bullpup design is the hot, empty brass, exiting briskly. You can eject out of one side, but you must have your face on the other side. What do you do if you need to shoot around a corner or barricade, on the wrong side? Simple: You don’t. You keep the bullpup on the “correct” shoulder, because there’s no other way to do it. Some bullpup designs allow you to change the ejection port side, but that’s not an on-the-fly switch. You do it before you go outside the wire, not while you are running up to the corner in question. The last is the trigger. Since your arm is your arm, and no amount of small arms design is going to change that, the trigger has to be a foot or more away from the firing mechanism parts it needs to finally effect, plus there is a magazine well and magazine in-between. For me, that has always been the real deal-killer. I can put up with weight. I can learn a new manual of arms. But a trigger that is epically suck-y? No way.
KelTec RFB Bullpup
The contestant we will be considering, against all of those obstacles is the KelTec RFB. The RFB is a self-loading, gas operated rifle that is an amazing twenty-eight inches long, while still having a barrel that is eighteen and a half inches long. That right there is why bullpup fans love the design. The barrel is threaded at the muzzle, and comes from KelTec with an A2-appearing flash hider, but one large enough for the .308 chambering the RFB comes in. Behind that the RFB (there’s a 5.56 bullpup from KelTec, the RDB) has a polymer handguard with square non-slip panels molded into the surface. The front edge of the handguard has a hand stop or lip, an essential item on a bullpup, due to the proximity of your hand to the muzzle. On the RFB it isn’t such a problem, but some bullpups can have your hand really close to the muzzle. I’m glad KelTec incorporated the lip, if only to remind us all to keep our hands inside the car at all times. Above the handguard is the gas system and the ejection port and the operating handle. The operating handle can be switched from one side to the other, so you can work it with your chosen hand. The gas system is adjustable, so you can tune it to your ammo, or dial it back when you have a suppressor installed.
Behind the handguard is the pistol grip, at the center point of the layout. The pistol grip also has the safety/selector incorporated into its panels, up on top, and the safety is ambidextrous. There’s a lever on each side, so both right-handers and left-handers can use it with equal ease. Behind it, with enough space to permit magazine insertion, is the magazine well. The magazine release is a paddle behind the mag well, so it too is ambidextrous, and while it requires both hands (one on the pistol grip, and one manipulating the magazine) this is not a big deal. Oh, and the magazine of choice? The FAL, metric flavor. When the RFB was new, in 2008, there were not many choices of .308 magazines. Given the options back then, KelTec went with the FAL. Are there more common .308 magazines today? Sure, but you can’t fault the FAL metric for durability, and it isn’t like there’s a shortage of them. Behind the magazine, on both sides of the receiver shoulder that holds the magazine release, KelTec has installed the bolt hold-open. The RFB locks open when the last shot is fired, and the dual-tab bolt release drops the bolt after the reload, chambering a round.
Behind the magazine well is the buttstock, which in the case of the RFB is simply the back end of the receiver assembly, with a recoil pad installed. Not that they skip here, but that’s what you get with a bullpup: there’s no stock, just the back of the receiver. The stock assembly has an angled bar across the opening, and that is a convenient place to attach a sling, plus the sling adapter hole up on the front end of the handguard. On the bottom KelTec has installed a short section of pic rail, in case you want to install a monopod, or some other accessory. On top of the receiver, KelTec has installed a Picatinny rail as a place to mount sights. We all expect sights, we just don’t get them on a rifle right out of the box, and that’s the case here. Which I cannot fault KelTec for. Especially when it comes to rifles, every one of us has his or her own idea on what the “proper” sights are. If KelTec added sights, they’d just be adding to the cost, cost that most of us would grumble over as we pried their sights off, and installed our first choice.
OK, the RFB is a compact, not-heavy (I’m not too keen on a lightweight .308, thankyouverymuch) rifle that is chambered in .308. How does it stack up in our compilation of bullpup faults? Reload ease. OK, loading and reloading the RFB is pretty simple, once you let go of the idea of dropping magazines like bad habits. When you need to reload, press the safety on, and tip the RFB so the top goes outboard, and the bottom pivots towards your centerline. Reach up with your off hand and pinch the mag paddle and the magazine, and rock the magazine forward until it unlocks. Remove, put into your dump pouch, grab the next, pivot and lock. You can’t drop the mag free as you reach for the next, as you can on an AR, because. But once you put in a little practice, the RFB will be plenty fast.
Chamber location. Yes, the chamber of the RFB is directly below your face. However, KelTec took care of that by not only making the chamber robust but putting a separate sheet of steel between the chamber and your face. If there should be some sub-critical explosive event inside, the sheet of steel that is the exterior receiver will contain the parts. You can then have words with your ammunition source about this situation, and your safety will have been assured. Earlier bullpup designs did not offer so much safety, and earlier ammunition production was perhaps not so assured of quality. Today, no worries.
Here KelTec has been very, very clever. There is not a right or left side ejection port. Instead the empties are extracted from the chamber and then rudely shoved down a tunnel, the ejection chute. The empties drop off the front end of the receiver assembly, next to the gas system adjustment knob, and fall out of sight. No briskly hurled brass to announce “Here I am” and no brass being tossed down the shirt of the shooter next to you. Now, this does not come without cost. The ejection tube makes it difficult to inspect the mechanism, should you need to determine why there has been some sort of stoppage. It also makes for an interesting reload experience. The bolt, when it cycles back, pulls the empty out of the chamber, and levers the empty up to the chute. When the bolt locks back, it is still holding that empty. So, when you reload, and then drop the bolt, an empty goes hurling out of the chute, onto the ground. That was a bit startling the first time it happened, then I found it charming.
Shooting the RFB is interesting. The weight, with the optics mounted, tipped the scales at just over nine pounds. A nine-pound .308 is not going to recoil all that much, but the design of the RFB is such that the recoil is straight back. So, your face is spared the usual muzzle rise of a .308 rifle, but your shoulder thus takes all the hit, unless you use the common AR-15 hold of putting just the toe of the stock on your chest and leaving the top of it above your shoulder. I call this the ”bazooka hold” and see it with some military veterans, and those taught by them. With a portly 5.56, it is no problem. In .308, it is asking for a smack in the face, and a stock corner driven into your collarbone and/or trapezius muscle. That’s going to hurt, in .308. Get the full buttplate against your shoulder, and life will be good. I had a shooting club member want to try the RFB, and he used this hold (which is what reminded me to tell you) and before I could say “that’s not a good idea” he touched off a round and complained about recoil. I got him to hold it properly, and life was OK after that.
The optics I chose for much of the testing were the Sightmark M-Spec FMS red dot combined with their XT-3 tactical magnifier. Now, in a bad situation, a social breakdown event, you will likely find yourself in one of two predicaments. One is what I call The Wide Open. This is country, farmland, where dwellings are a mile or more apart, and you can see quite a ways. There, you’d need a rifle and scope capable of outranging the bad guys, and the precision to do so. You don’t need a compact, lightweight, or easy to conceal rifle. The other is Around Town, the urban or suburban setting. There you need compact, easy to keep out of sight, and be able to reach through things. Both benefit from .308, but the RFB really shines in the latter. Hence the red-dot sight, and the option of a 3X magnifier in case I need a bit more precision than a red dot can deliver, well, that’s a bonus. The M-Spec FMS is a full-screen red-dot optic with windage and elevation adjustments. The control button on the left side turns it on (it turns off after 12 hours if you forget) and the battery compartment has a rubber o-ring seal. There’s also a nifty sliding sunshade, in case you need to keep the sun off of your screen when the sun is behind you. Adding the 3x magnifier, on its tip-out base to give you the option of 3X or no 3X, the RFB now becomes a lot more versatile. If you do not want to be dependent on a battery-driven red-dot sight (hey, the batteries last for years, guys) then a low-powered variable, in a QD mount, would be another option for close-in thumping.
In the 100-yard range testing, it was easy to keep all my hits on the club’s gongs. But, 3X is not my first choice when conducting accuracy testing for groups. So, after amusing myself with the suite of Sightmark optics in the chrono and reliability parts of testing (which the RFB passed with flying colors, by the way) I put a Leupold 5-25X on top. As good as the Leupold is, it would not be my first choice for a TEOWAWKI build on the RFB. I don’t live in the Wide Open, and should I move there, I have sub-MOA bolt guns that would work for long-distance communications. And with the Leupold, we discover one of the other limits of the bullpup design, which is both minor and unavoidable: barrels. Since the mechanism has to be built in and forward of the receiver (there’s no place behind to put anything) you have to build the gas system, receiver attachments, handguards, etc. to the barrel, one way or another. It is deucedly difficult to design a bullpup with a free-floated barrel. And if there’s one thing we’ve learned in half a century of AR-15 experimentation and refinement, it is that barrels deliver max accuracy when nothing touches them.
That said, the best use of the RFB’s pluses is as a compact hammer in a close to medium distance environment, and there, a not-quite-MOA accuracy level is plenty good enough. Invariably, I’d get four shots in a nice group, and one out a little ways. Some of that might be me, but some is the rifle. This RFB really wanted to shoot, and I wonder if it just wants me to find the load it likes best and feed it that. Even at that it is better than the accuracy level we expected from the full-power rifles we fought WWII with, and replaced them with, and last I checked no one was complaining about the box-stock accuracy level of the M1 Garand or M14/M1A. Plus you gain that power in a package that can be readily concealed under a winter coat. Even If you have a suppressor mounted, and there’s a bit sticking below the bottom of your coat, you are unlikely to get much notice. It is amazing what people don’t notice. At the grocery store recently, there was a gent who was open-carry. I spotted him the moment he hove into view (years of playing “spot the gun” at the various gun shops I worked at) but the other shoppers around him were oblivious. Unless they were really good actors, or good at hiding their reactions, they didn’t see a thing. Keeping an RFB hidden might be a bit more difficult as the bearer gets shorter, but it isn’t like trying to carry concealed a full-sized rifle.
The takedown of a bullpup rifle tends to be either more complicated, or non-obvious, if you have been accustomed to traditional designs. For the RFB, remove the magazine and work the charging handle several times, to ensure it is unloaded. Press the two receiver pins, one forward and one aft of the magazine well, out from the left side. They are captured and will stay in place when open. Place the RFB muzzle down on the bench and holding the upper receiver plate with one hand. Slap your other hand down against the pistol grip. This pivots the rear half of the receiver out of the mechanism. Pull the upper receiver off to the rear. Pull the action, with its recoil springs to the rear and off of the RFB. Press the front-most disassembly pin out, and slap the front end of the handguard down, pivoting it away from the mechanism. Now, press out the center pin (the one the halves have pivoted on) and you can remove the polymer assembly of handguard and magazine well.
This is as far as you need to go to clean everything. You can, at this point, see the gas system and ejection chute, attached to the barrel on collars. The Picatinny rail is also attached to these collars, and thus disassembly for cleaning does not change the optics and their relationship to the bore. You can also swap the charging handle from one side to the other. Should you get a KelTec RFB? Well, that depends. Do the pluses outweigh the minuses for you? Are you going to be needing a compact hammer, sometime in the future, a hammer you may have to keep out of sight most or all of the time? Will your engagement distances be close enough (inside of 200 yards for sure, the RFB is as good as any other rifle) that the modern expectation of sub-MOA accuracy won’t be a problem? And can your supply situation support adding another magazine to the stack? A magazine for which you may not have any other rifle that uses them?
The price is just under two grand. Now, you can find some AR-10 based .308 rifles for much less than that, but none will be lighter, and all will be longer. You can also find some that cost as much, or twice as much, even. Magazines are easy to find. I just dove into the stock bins until I found the FAL bin, and grabbed a few to use. The plastic one that comes with the RFB will do, but you really want to invest in solid, steel, magazines here. The KelTec RFB would also make a great deer rifle for when the semi-trucks stop truck‘in and for when the supermarkets have been looted dry. So, if you are a prepper with a need of a compact semi-auto rifle in .308 to protect yourself or your family in the city as well as in a country setting, this rifle may be the one you are looking for.
KelTec RFB Bullpup Rifle
- Type: Gas-operated, self-loading, semiautomatic
- Caliber: .308 Win.
- Barrel: 18.5 in.
- Length: 27.5 in.
- Weight: 8 lbs., 9 oz.
- Finish: Steel, polymer
- MSRP: $1,800
- Contact: KelTec
About the Author
Patrick Sweeney is a life-long shooter, with more than half a century of trigger time, four decades of reloading, 25 years of competition (4 IPSC World Shoots, 50 USPSA Nationals, 500+ club matches, and 18 Pin Shoots, as well as Masters, Steel Challenge and Handgunner Shootoff entries). He spent two decades as a professional gunsmith, and two decades as the President of his gun club. A State-Certified law Enforcement Firearms Instructor, he is also a Court-recognized Expert Witness.
If you have any thoughts or comments on this article, we’d love to hear them. Email us at FirearmsNews@Outdoorsg.com.