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Gun Review: The IWI Tavor SAR Bullpup

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IWI Tavor SAR Review.

One of the immutable laws of firearms is that if the Israelis make or design something, it is sure to be of high quality and reliability—absolutely drop-dead battlefield reliable. The IWI Tavor SAR is exactly that.

However, one of my personal immutable laws of firearms is that if I don’t like a particular firearm, I will tell you how I feel and why I feel that way. I don’t like the Tavor.

Easy to handle, takes time to love. The author found that the bullpup design required some getting used to while testing it at the range.

It isn’t for me, but it might be just the rifle you are looking for.I will start by saying that I am a traditional kind of guy when it comes to firearms, particularly long guns. They have to feel and point right for me, and operate in a “me friendly” manner.

A short list of my preferred defensive shoulder arms is the Ithaca M37 Defense Gun 12-gauge pump with bead sight, the M1 Carbine, the M16 A1 rifle and the M4 Carbine. Why? They all point and swing well, and snap up to the shoulder easily.

All can be fired from the right or left shoulder without doing anything more than moving them there. The exception is the M16A1. It has no case deflector, but aftermarket deflectors can easily be attached to the carry handle.

IWI Tavor Review: Designed for Close Combat

After Israel was established in 1948, their military relied on a plethora of arms supplied to it by its allies, arms that included the M1 Garand, M1 Carbine and the M16.

Close-in warfare and warfare in open deserts taught them that these weapon systems might not be ideal for their combat missions, and that it might be wise to find something that met their military needs more precisely.

From 1972 until the 2009, the Israeli Military fielded the 5.56mm Galil, a highly modified AK-47 variant. The Galil has been in service for 40 years and has served well, but the Israelis thought they could do better.

They needed a 5.56mm weapon system that was more compact and maneuverable and ready to go at a moment’s notice. This time they built one of their own designs, the Tavor TAR-21. The Tavor SAR is the semiautomatic-only civilian legal variant of the TAR-21.

The SAR is different, radically different from most American combat rifles primarily because it is of bullpup configuration, where the action sits to the rear of the trigger assembly in the buttstock of the weapon.

This makes bullpup rifles much shorter than standard style combat rifles and outstanding for maneuvering in tight spaces, such as inside armored transport vehicles, aircraft, ships or tight hallways. That capability is the main reason for choosing a bullpup over conventional designs. Its compactness can improve the ability of soldier or a civilian in accomplishing their mission or defending home and property.

There has only been one bullpup rifle that I really liked—the FN PS90 Standard 5.7x28mm carbine. It shoulders well, is compact, drop-dead reliable, has zero recoil due to its cartridge and weight and is truly ambidextrous.

There is nothing to switch or change to enable the PS90 to be used by left-handed shooters. Its empties are ejected straight down. The magazine is removed from its top position by a central release, the safety switch is on both sides of the pistol grip, and the backup iron sights are mounted on the right and left side of the receiver. It is in some of these areas that the SAR has a few issues that must be understood from the outset.

Every battle rifle ever made has characteristics that draw criticism. Look at the M16—even with 50 years of criticism, it is still our primary battle rifle and the most popular sporting rifle ever made. Before that we had the M14, which was too long and too heavy and couldn’t be fired controllably in full automatic mode.

The great M1 carbine, the handiest battle carbine ever fielded, was hampered by its relatively low-powered cartridge but still stayed in service for 40 or so years. Then there was the M1 Garand, the “greatest battle implement ever devised.” During WWII it was criticized for its eight-round en-bloc feeding system, but it served as long as the M1 Carbine. Every firearm designed for use in life and death situations has its issues and your appreciation of them depends on which issues you are willing to overlook and adapt to.

Retired SWAT officer Sgt. John Groom aided the author with a second opinion during testing. He admired the SAR the most for its compactness and agile handling.

Hassles for Lefties

The first and most critical issue is that the SAR can’t readily be changed to accommodate a left-handed shooter.

While this may not be a big deal for most civilian shooters, it can be for police—at least during their rifle qualification course of fire. Many such courses have a phase where you shoot from behind cover.

Often, it is required that you fire from both sides, shouldering your rifle on the weak side. If you fire the SAR from your left shoulder, you will get hot brass in the face, and there is no way to convert it for left-handed fire quickly. Here is what it takes to convert from the standard right-hand configuration to left-hand configuration:

  1. Remove the top flattop rail (Allen wrench required)
  2. Remove front swivel and lock
  3. Remove foregrip group
  4. Remove the cocking group
  5. Disassemble the cocking group and reinstall the cocking bar and handle on the right side
  6. Remove the barrel
  7. Covert the dust protection cover by removing the gas cylinder and dust reduction plate, then reposition the plate so that the cocking hole is on the right side
  8. In reverse order, reassemble the weapon and it is now ready for left-hand operation.

Obviously, this is not possible during a phase of qualification, or in a gunfight. So you will have to take hot 5.56 brass and powder in the face in the short term, just like soldiers firing pre-case deflector M16s.

Tight Mount and Watch the Mags

The second issue for me involves the “me friendliness” handling issue. When I began working with the SAR, I noticed that there is so much weight in the buttstock compared to standard carbines that it felt ungainly.

The stock weight wants to make the SAR slide downward off the shoulder, bringing the barrel up as you are mounting it. M4 and AR-15 rifle stocks weigh next to nothing, and the weight is well balanced and distributed more to the front.

The SAR needs to be mounted tightly into the shoulder, more tightly than the M4 before firing. This is an issue that can be overcome by spending time with the SAR, and understanding the handling difference involved. A single point sling, which I didn’t mount, would be helpful for keeping the SAR in a good position for mounting.

The final issue is the magazine release. The magazine release is a large lever located on the underside of the stock to the rear of the magazine well. It is exposed and can be bumped accidentally, resulting in an untimely dropping of the magazine.

That happened during testing a couple of times. But once we were aware of why the mag kept dropping out of battery, we were able to keep the magazine in place.

Let Loose the Bullpup

For live fire testing, I enlisted the help of an experienced SWAT officer, Sgt. John Groom, recently retired after a long stint as a team sergeant, sniper and training officer with the Columbus, Ohio, Police Department.

I wanted John’s input to balance any opinion that I had already formed of the SAR. Sgt. Groom had never handled one prior to our test at the range. The first thing he noticed and liked was its extremely compact size.

While the SAR came with a single 30-round polymer Magpul magazine, we opted to test it with standard aluminum 20-round magazines, in order to take the fullest advantage of its maneuvering capability.

We both felt that 30-round magazines hang down too far and could get hung up on gear. Sgt. Groom said that his team used 20-round magazines for their entry M4s for the very same reason, and never felt at a disadvantage.

The SAR comes equipped with a set of clever folding sights that disappear right into the top rail. In fact, unless you look carefully, you won’t even see them when they are in the closed position.

Since they are truly backup sights, I opted to mount a SIG STS 081 Mini-Red Dot sight on a rail riser. The extra boost was required to get the compact sight up to eye level.

A number of other folks who have tested the SAR had the biggest complaint about the trigger. As is true of all bullpups, the trigger assembly needs a connector to reach back into the stock, which imparts a mushy type of feel as opposed to the crispness that is possible on rifles whose triggers sit directly beneath the action.

Neither John nor I felt the trigger was an impediment. With just a bit of practice it was easy to figure out and get accurate shots on target. Make no mistake about it, however, the SAR will never be selected as a sniper rifle.

We fired the Tavor off the bench at 100 yards using 55-grain Hornady TAP, as well as 55-grain FMJ ammo. Accuracy hovered around the four-inch mark, and would likely have been better if I had not selected a close-quarter combat optic, but that is where the SAR works best.

We worked some close range drills, firing double taps, triple taps and going for headshots. The out-of-the-box reliability was high. As expected the SAR ran well and performed well as a close-quarter combat gun.

Sgt. Groom liked the SAR better than I did. In his case and mine, M4’s are what we are used to. If I was issued an SAR for SWAT use, I could certainly get used to it, but I might have to swear off M4’s for a while.

There you have it. The Tavor SAR is solid and reliable, but isn’t for everyone. If you have a need for a compact carbine, one that needs no adjustment of the stock before shouldering and firing, then the Tavor SAR would work. At the very least, you owe it to yourself to check one out at your favorite gun shop and take it from there.

Tavor SAR
Caliber:    5.56mm
Action Type:    Semi-automatic bullpup
Operation:    Locking bolt, long stroke gas piston
Barrel:    16 ½ inches and 18 inches
Magazine:    30-round polymer Magpul
Rate of Twist:    1:7
Sights:    Folding iron sights
Stock:    Bullpup design, synthetic
Weight:    7.9 lbs
Overall Length:    26 1/8” or 27 5/8”
Accessories:    N/A
SRP:    $2,000

This article appeared in the January 13, 2014 issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.

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