Australia, which now prides itself on being semi-auto-rifle and homicide-free, once not only designed and manufactured such rifles, but exported them. The Australian Leader rifle in 5.56 never won any contracts we’re aware of. But a quantity of them sold here, and they have won some converts. It shares some mechanical features with the Armalite AR-18 series, and seems like it could work well.
Ian did a very good video on the Leader rifle at Forgotten Weapons.
Various versions including 7.62mm and bullpup versions were tried, and a version of the bullpup went into production by Bushmaster, ending when Cerberus yanked Bushmaster’s chain. A review in a recent American Rifleman brought to our attention the re-launch of a much improved version of the bullpup as the KM17S556. Like Charles St. George of Leader nearly 40 years ago, the head of K&M Arms, Ken McAllister, envisions a whole line of these rifles; success of the 5.56 model that has been making the review circuit will enable all that.
Bullpups have been in the news a lot, thanks largely to the Israeli adoption of the modern Tavor, which has also been an export success for Israel Weapons Industries, with about 20,000 Tavors a year finding new homes in America, despite a boycott maintained by dozens of smelly campus hippies as part of the Boycott, Divestment, Stink movement. Perhaps due to rapid modification of the issue gun and the slower pace of ATF approvals, the design of the civil and military Tavors has diverged, but the rifle remains popular despite a high price. (Almost $2k before optics). Other bullpups come and go, including AUGs, MSARs (an American AUG knock-off), and two models from Kel-Tec; the compactness of the bullpup system always intrigues buyers. The original AUG and a Croatian design, as well as FN’s 5.56 and PDW bullpups, continue in military service here and there, even though Steyr seems to have thrown in the towel on bullpup designs, and is returning to a conventional layout.
The Leader of 1978 is unrecognizable in the KM17S, apart from its internals. It has a three-lug bolt, a gas tappet design (like Tokarev, Simonov, and Saive FN designs) and is designed to quickly field-strip without tools into three large assemblies.
The Leader and all its successors are designed for easy manufacture. On the Leader, the upper receiver was pressed steel. On its bullpup derivations, it’s a machined aluminum extrusion — very fast and inexpensive to produce, in quantity.
Its path from Australia to Maine to Arizona has been long and has seen many minds and hands work on it; if McAllister can produce and distribute them to the legions of bullpup fans out there, the Leader may have a new lease on life. If so, it will be an overnight success — a generation in the making.
The original inventor of the Leader was an Aussie named Charles St. George. He developed the Leader T2 in the 1970s and modified it many times with the hopes of selling it to the Australian defence (as they spell it!) forces. Many improvements were developed for the military M18, such as ambidextrous dual non-reciprocating charging handles, and persist in its descendants today. The military bought the AUG instead — Australia still manufactures a version locally — and St. George’s bullpup version, which he called the T18, never was produced as such in quantity. Instead, he licensed it to Bushmaster, which produced it in small quantity from about 1992 to 2005. At some point in time, Leader went paws up and a small quantity of continuation T2s were made by a firm called Australian Automatic Arms; at least some of these had wood stocks in a “postban configuration” per the US 1994 gun ban law, as seen here on Forgotten Weapons. Per Ian, importation to the USA of the Leader was only about 2,000 units.
Meanwhile, McAllister had a machine shop in Chandler, Arizona, called K&M Aerospace. Apart from the custom aerospace and automotive manufacturing he did, he began to make parts to customize and improve bullpup rifles after getting hooked on the platform by a Bushmaster M17S that he picked up. His upgrades included trigger improvements, weight reductions, rails systems, even cheekpieces, and he began to manufacture replacement parts for the M17 community. From there, it seemed a short step to manufacture, although the KM17S’s path from decision to market — if it is, really, indeed on the market now that reviews are showing up — was over five years long.
The bullpup design appeals to owners who would like to have a modern rifle with a different style or flare. It has proven to be a very hard sell to armies, but there’s certainly demand for bullpup rifles out there, and K&M’s design is unique in the market in not being largely polymer. (It’s mostly steel and aluminum). The NRA found it shot 2-inch groups.
For More Information:
- The American Rifleman review mentioned above is excellent and rich in technical detail.
- NRA Shooting Illustrated had a different review, picked up by the Daily Caller.
- Here’s a five-year-old review of a K&M modified M17S by Oleg Volk; unfortunately, it’s lost its pictures in the intervening years. If you know Oleg’s pictures, that’s really a pity.
- K&M Aerospace website (also parts for other bullpups, like better triggers).
- K&M Arms (maker of the KM17S 556).