If you’re in the market for a new rifle, this review will help you make a decision as to whether the Tavor Bullpup or an AR-15 carbine is better for your needs as a shooter. Both are 5.56 semi-automatic civilian versions of military rifles, the TAR 21 and the M16 and variants, respectively. The M16 has seen service since the Vietnam War, and its variants are used by military, law enforcement, and private security in over 80 countries. The TAR 21- Tavor Assault Rifle, 21st Century- has seen combat in the hands of the Israel Defense Forces since 2001, and units in 24 other countries, including the United States, have adopted TAR 21 for use in some capacity. The Tavor has only been available in the US civilian market for a few years, but it is quickly gaining popularity. The AR-15, on the other hand, is the most popular rifle in the United States.
To start the technical review, I’ll give a brief overview of materials design and operating mechanism of the rifles. Then, I will compare their performance in accuracy, reliability, and functionality. Size and weight considerations (SAWC), and philosophy of use (POU) (thanks Nutnfancy...), upgrades, and accessories are subcategories within functionality.
The Tavor is built from a one-piece polymer frame with an internal steel housing to retain the barrel and bolt carrier assembly. It doesn’t break into upper and lower receivers and the stock assembly like the AR-15 does. The entire frame IS essentially the stock. The only quickly detachable parts of the Tavor’s frame is the handguard and optics rail.
The most prevalent design feature of the Tavor is its bullpup configuration, which differs from conventional firearm design in that it feed and ejects from behind the operator's shooting hand. This allows for more efficient use the otherwise wasted space in a weapon's stock, creating a shorter weapon that still allows for an extended barrel length to allow optimal bullet velocity
Another benefit of the bullpup design is how the weapon balances when you shoulder it. Because the action is closer to the rear of the gun, the gun is back-heavy, allowing you to be more accurate when shooting offhand. You can even shoot reasonably accurately one-handed. However, one drawback of the bullpup design is added complexity and weight of all the linkages. More parts used in assembly equals more potential points of breakage or failure.
The Tavor operates using a modernized design of the tried and true long-stroke gas piston operating mechanism proliferated by the weapon system that set the initial benchmark for reliability in automatic weapons, the AK-47. After the powder from the cartridge ignites, the built-up pressure behind the bullet eventually funnels into the gas cylinder, generating a strong enough impulse to drive the bolt carrier rearward. Once the carrier reaches its limit of rearward travel, the recoil spring drives the carrier assembly toward the breech, allowing it to pick up the next round and lock it into the chamber. The initial portion of the piston cylinder is integrated as part of the barrel assembly, and the following portion opens into a chrome-lined polymer-housed tube. The barrel is held secure within the receiver via a single level, and it is user-removable without using a vise. To enable proper clearances of the travel of the piston assembly, the gun from the chamber to the top the action is much taller than the AR-15, giving you a ridiculously high sight height over bore. My optics setup is about 3.9 inches over the bore. This isn't a problem most of the time, but on occasion, you have to be careful about sightline and boreline discrepancies when shooting through narrow openings.
The optics rail connects to gas piston cylinder assembly integrated into the barrel through two fasteners, and through these contact points, the barrel is not free floated. However, the weapon's point of impact should remain consistent provided you don't keep changing the accessories you have on the rail, like adding laser, lights, or slings.
The Tavor also has a non-reciprocating charging handle, an important weapon feature that is not appreciated nearly as much as it should be. I've run tactical courses with guys that brought SCARs, which have reciprocating charging handles, and I've seen them struggling with shooting from barricades or from improvised shooting positions, because of the charging handle giving fewer options on where you rest the weapon or how to hold the weapon. The reciprocating SCAR charging handle is far from a dealbreaker for many prospective owners, considering the overall performance of the gun, but it is another section of the manual of arms that AR and Tavor shooters don't have to worry about. Due to the Tavor’s action being further back towards the rear of the gun, there needs to be a long linkage so that the charging handle can engage the action. The actual arm of the handle rides along polymer guide rails, which are unquestionably rigid enough to handle the force of vigorous charge cycles and weapon clearings.
Manticore Arms does make a folding charging handle for the Tavor, and that is on my wishlist, because the forward placement of the factory charging handle makes it appear easier to knock the gun out of battery. This is probably less of a problem than I'm making it out to be, because the G3 series of rifles have forward-based charging handles, and they've been reliable for military and law enforcement for decades. It would bring me more peace of mind for the charging handle to be more out of the way. Also, I would probably be more comfortable with the charging handle location if the Tavor had a forward assist. A lot of shooters don't use the AR-15 forward assist, but I find that it makes it easy to do press checks and verify the status of your weapon without having to eject a round. You can still press check with the TAVOR and have reliable return to battery with only a partial charging handle pull because of the stiff return spring, but it's still not as fluid and effortless as doing it on the AR platform. Gear Head Works did come out with a TAVOR forward assist, but you have to file serrations into your bolt carrier for it to work, which is something I'd like to avoid doing. But again, I've probably devoted too much time to talking about the Tavor charging handle, because you will have no problems most of the time, provided you are aware of where it is when shooting around corners or cover. Also, don't have something in the way of the charging handle when closing the bolt.
AR-15 receivers are built from Aluminum alloys. The modern performance standard is forged 7075-T6 aluminum, but some low-cost billet options use the slightly softer but plenty strong 6061 aluminum. AR receivers separate into upper and lower halves, with the upper half containing the barrel assembly, handguard, charging handle, and bolt carrier group, with the lower half containing the fire control group, pistol grip, receiver extension tube, which houses the recoil buffer and spring, and the stock.
The AR-15’s barrel is secured to the upper receiver with a barrel nut torqued down to at least 35 ft-lbs, from which the handguard also attaches. Even with a handguard that doesn’t contact the barrel past the barrel nut, the AR-15's barrel cannot be truly free-floated either, because you have additional contact points with the barrel from the gas block, and thermal expansion of the metal from rapid fire can lead to additional pressure on the barrel. But again, point of impact changes of successive shots should remain consistent enough to keep the gun accurate enough for real world practical ranges of the 5.56 cartridge.
The charging handle’s location, mostly behind the bolt carrier, is a unique feature to AR-platform rifles, as most other modern autoloading rifles charge closer the front of the bolt carrier. AR-style charging handles are more awkward to manipulate than some more forward-based charging handles like on HK G-series rifles or the ACR, but the handle is very thin, light, and doesn't require the additional weight of linkages. Aftermarket charging handle upgrades, like the POF charging handle I’m using, have made it easier to charge while shouldering the rifle. The main benefit, and the original purpose of the AR-15 charging handle design, was to make make it non-reciprocating. Also, the rearward location makes it less of a snag hazard, reducing the probability of inadvertently knocking the bolt out of battery.
The rifle cycles the next round with a mechanism called direct gas impingement. After the cartridge’s powder ignites, the expanding gas pressure builds behind the projectile and funnels into the gas tube until it reaches the bolt, pressuring it to unlock from the breech face and drive the carrier toward the rear of the rifle, where the recoil buffer catches the carrier. Once the carrier has reached the limit of its travel, the recoil spring drives the carrier assembly back toward the breech face, where it picks up a round from the magazine before the bolt locks into place and the rifle’s trigger resets to fire the next round. Direct impingement actions allows for lower weapon weight because you do not need another dedicated piston assembly outside of the basic bolt carrier group and very thin gas tube. You also have greater weapon stability for successive shots, because of the lower reciprocating mass compared to a full-fledged gas-piston based action. However, direct impingement is a double edged sword. There are drawbacks associated with the advantages.
Because the dirty gasses push directly on the bolt, the amount of fouling in the action increases at a more rapid rate than guns that use piston-based actions. Because the fouling deposits close to where the AR-15 feeds and ejects, the common expression "defecates where it eats" is used colloquially to describe the direct impingement action.
Another downside to the AR-15 design is that in the base configuration, the AR-15 cannot have a folding stock and still cycle, because the bolt carrier has to travel into the receiver extension tube. This is because the carrier needs to be long enough to have material to trip the auto-sear in the M16. Since this design feature is not relevant for AR-15s, some manufacturers, like Rock River Arms and Sig Sauer, have developed a proprietary carrier and buffer system that allows the AR-based rifle to have a folding stock and still cycle.
The Tavor has a high quality, cold hammer forged, chrome-lined, 1 in 7 inch twist-rate barrel. Like the Scar 16’s barrel, it is also pencil-thin. The forging process makes for stronger steel, ounce for ounce, when compared to the steel of a traditionally button-rifled barrel. When slow-firing from a bench, an experienced shooter can expect to get 1.5” to 1.75” groups at 100 yards with factory match ammo, which is acceptable performance for 5.56 effectiveness ranges. With quality XM193 or M855, 2.5” to 3” groups are normal. My Tavor has an 18” barrel, which can generate bullet velocities that hit as hard as the MK12 using MK262 ammo. The thin profile barrel really shows it’s drawback when using a suppressor. Shooting XM193, the point of impact shift is about 5” down at 100 yards after attaching the 14.5 ounce M4SDK suppressor. In contrast, shooting XM193 with the M4SDK on my 20” heavy barrel Colt, the point of impact shift is only about 3” downwards. Although I don’t have quantifiable data, I would imagine the Tavor’s groupings would open up after several magazines fired in a short span, because of the pencil barrel heating up quickly. For long-term considerations, with similar firing rates from the host weapon, a cold hammer forged barrel will outlast a button-rifled by a few thousand rounds.
One major factor affecting the shooter’s precision is the trigger quality. One of the more, perhaps the most, common complaints about the Tavor is the heavy trigger pull, coming in at around 12 pounds without any modifications. The reason for the heavy trigger pull is that it has an extra return spring to help pull the trigger to reset. Over-engineering for a strong reset minimizes one of the points of failure, but it is still overkill in ensuring reliability. A common modification that can lighten the trigger pull is removing the trigger return spring. The trigger will then break at about 8 pounds, but even then, the trigger won’t be as comfortable as a mil-spec AR trigger. I have an aftermarket Geissele trigger pack, which makes a world of difference, but it’s not fair to use the Geissele trigger for a comparison, because then the Tavor would be far out of the price range of the AR-15 I’m using for comparison.
There is a wide range of accuracy you can expect from the AR platform. An entry level gun like the M&P 15 with the non-5R rifled 1 in 9 inch twist barrel can get you under 1.5 MOA (~1.5 inches at 100 yards) with match ammo. A premium rifle with a Douglas stainless steel barrel can get you under .75 MOA, even as low as .5 MOA with handloaded ammunition. The rifle I’m focusing on for this review has an M4A1 profile heavy barrel, which can gets a hair over 1 MOA with match ammo, and slightly under 2 MOA with quality XM193.
At the end of the day, both rifles will deliver outstanding accuracy capabilities within the effective range of 5.56. However, the AR-15 will win the accuracy comparison, especially at the same price range as the Tavor. Keep in mind, though, that unless you are building an SPR to be topped with a high magnification scope, both guns were not designed for benchrest precision. As long as the rifle can consistently hit a torso-sized target at 600 yards with a hot barrel, it is well within the performance standards of the modern infantry carbine.
What I have to say about both of these weapon platforms’ reliability may come as a surprise. In theory, since the Tavor uses an upgraded AK-style long-stroke gas piston-based operating mechanism, it should win a reliability contest versus the AR’s woebegone direct gas impingement, defecates-where-it-eats, mechanism, right? Not quite...The advantage of a piston action is keeping most of the fouling from the powder burn away from the bolt carrier and fire control group. One design feature of the Tavor severely minimizes this advantage. To see this oversight, we have to go back to the original design philosophy. The weapon’s country of origin, Israel, has a diverse, but unforgiving climate, with the bulk of the fighting taking place across deserts and urban settings. The dust buildup can render lesser weapons paperweights. The Tavor’s action is tightly sealed off to the atmosphere, making it all-but immune from external geological effects. However, the tightly sealed action works both ways- it keeps dust and dirt out, but it keeps fouling in. The excess fouling from burning propellant gasses stays in the rifle instead of venting into the atmosphere. Filth deposits just build and build. On the AK, some of the extra gas not used to propel the bullet or cycle the action gets vented out of the front of the gas tube, where it connects in front of the handguard. Even on the AR, some extra gas that isn’t used to unlock the bolt gets vented into the atmosphere. The SCAR platform minimizes environmental effects by having a tightly sealed action when it isn’t firing, but also venting excess gas into the atmosphere when firing. I’ve shot the SCAR 16 that had a rail extension, and when gripping the rifle near the gas block, you can feel the gas vent across your hand.
This isn’t to say that the Tavor doesn’t perform reliably. It does- even when it has the fouling of half a dozen magazines in a range trip. It just happens to have an operating mechanism that makes it excessively dirty, even when using a long-stroke piston. The rifle plows through the dirt and fouling. Like AK design philosophy, the clearances are wide enough to allow functioning even when dirty. The piston is over-gassed on purpose to help the bolt carrier clear fouling on its rearward travel, and the recoil spring is extra stiff to ensure clearance of fouling on the forward stroke, reliably locking the bolt into battery. The longest I’ve gone without cleaning the Tavor is after 300 rounds unsuppressed, which, granted, isn’t that much, but I’ve had no problems with reliability in that span. However, if Eric from IV8888 wanted to do a full-auto run-it-until-it dies test, I would predict that you will begin to see feeding problems around the 400 round mark, with the extreme heat creating clearance problems through all the fouling that stays in the rifle.
To try to improve the rifle’s reliability when suppressed, I’ll begin using less wet lube, like Ballistol or Hoppes, because too much can make powder residue clump into large chunks. It also fits in with the design philosophy of the rifle- When in a dusty desert, you don’t want too much oil on your equipment, because it’ll attract dust. [APRIL 2016 Update- I've switched to using a few drops of lithium grease (Amazon Link) on the bolt carrier and frame rail contact points. It's not a complete reliability fix for a suppressed Tavor, but I can fire 30-40 more rounds without problems.]
The AR-15’s direct impingement action gets a lot of flak for generating a dirtier gun than desireable, but when compared to the Tavor, it really isn’t that bad. After high round counts without cleaning, most of the fouling on the bolt carrier accumulates in the rear, away from the bolt, magazine, and chamber. When shooting suppressed, especially without an adjustable gas block, more fouling does occur within the whole receiver and bolt carrier group, but I would bet, based on my experiences, that a suppressed AR carbine gets less dirty, round per round, than the Tavor suppressed.
The widely perceived issues with direct impingement are, at their worst, overstated. The AR’s bolt carrier plows through accumulated fouling almost as well as the Tavor and the AK. Most of the fouling accumulates in areas that are unlikely to interfere with action clearances.
There are manufacturers who build ARs based around a piston operating system, but even they have their limitations. Adding a piston to an AR isn’t a guarantee of increased reliability across all conditions. It also adds more points of failure. Many military trials show high quality direct impingement ARs outperforming even the HK 416 and 417 rifles, which in many circles is considered the pinnacle of the piston AR design.
The AR-15’s performs reliably even in hostile geography. The action is also tightly closed off to the elements, provided you remember to close the dust cover. Because the gas pressure acts directly on the bolt and carrier, it helps unstick frozen or dirty actions arguably better than a piston-driven mechanism can, because you also get a blast of hot air through the receiver with each shot.
In the end, both of these rifles are sufficiently reliable across a variety of conditions, but the AR-15 is more reliable than the Tavor by a noticeable margin.
Functionality- SAWC, POU, Upgrades, and Accessories
Unloaded, in its current configuration, my Colt-Daniel Defense weighs about 7 pounds, 13 ounces give or take. This is in the higher percentiles of AR carbine weights, because of the robust rail system and the M4A1 heavy barrel. Enthusiast-grade custom builds optimized for weight savings have bottomed-out at 5 pounds or fewer, but you can expect an average custom build using a lighter handguard than the brick I have to run at about 7 pounds, plus or minus half a pound.
In the factory configuration, the 16.5 inch” barrel Tavor weights about 7 pounds, 14 ounces, give or take, and the 18 inch barrel Tavor weight about 8 pounds, 2 ounces or so. Just for laughs, my Tavor with all the aftermarket upgrades and the scope, weighs 11 pounds, 4 ounces loaded. However, because of the balanced weight distribution, the rifle shoulders like a 8 pound AR-15 with a scope.
So with the same optics and attachments, you can expect an AR-15 to weigh a pound or more lighter than the Tavor.
The AR-15 is the most modular rifle platform on the planet. You can make it fire any caliber from .17 to .50. In any given week, more accessories are being developed for the AR-15 than will EVER be developed for the Tavor. With a smorgasbord of stocks, grips, and rails to choose from, you can modify your rifle in any way to complement your shooting preferences.
The Tavor comes in a virtually one size fits all configuration. You can’t change out the pistol grip. The rifle’s length of pull is longer than an AR’s with the stock fully extended. As far as I know, changing to the Manticore Arms curved buttpad is the only stock adjustment you can make, outside of modifying the factory stock. You have to be careful not to shorten the stock too much, or you could inadvertently create a firearm with less than 26” overall length. There are some other aftermarket optics rails if you feel the factory rail is too long, or you want a raised height rail to use with AR-height optics. There are some aftermarket metal handguards, but they are all too thick for my taste. The factory handguard has some wiggle to it, so attaching anything that needs to be zeroed, like a laser, is a no-go. The side rail also has back and forth play, so lasers on it are a no-go. It’s a much better idea to mount any lasers of the optic rail, if you have space, which you see here, I don’t, so if I ever end up a DBAL or something, I’d have to mount it on the scope, which would make the gun unnecessarily tall. Speaking of which, the Tavor may be a short rifle, but its is not small by any standard. It is thicker and taller than the AR in most areas, which as mentioned previously, can cause problems if you are trying to shoot through a narrow opening.
The Tavor is currently convertible to 9mm, and 300 blackout will soon be available, but the IWI has flaked on making the 5.45 conversion available. They have neither confirmed nor denied a 7.62 Nato long action Tavor (which is a confirmation of sorts), and they have not confirmed the set launch date X95 Micro Tavor reaching the United States civilian market. [APRIL 2016 Update: The first batch of X95s have shipped to consumers! There may be one for sale at your local gun store right now now!]
So finally, after covering the technical details, it’s time to talk about POU, in which there is a lot of subjective input on my part. The Tavor has the best handling characteristics of any rifle I’ve ever shot, beating out even an upgraded SCAR 16. The rifle feels like a natural extension of your body. It easily synchronizes with your body’s natural point of aim, due to its balance, short length, and how close you can keep your hands on the rifle. Making close range target transitions is quick and instinctive. The larger surface area of the buttpad gives more consistent contact points against your body, and the enlarged trigger guard gives you more contact points to use to stabilize the rifle for offhand or barrier shooting. The ergonomics are fantastic. You don’t have a push-button mag release, so you have to either slap the mag release with the back of your hand, or use your support hand to drop the mag, which I prefer. With practice, though, reloading this bullpup can be faster than reloading a conventional rifle. You don’t need to readjust the position of the rifle. Even with my rifle weighing more than 11 pounds loaded, with one hand, you can keep it shouldered, aiming at the target. Because of the location of the bolt release, you have greater economy of motion. In the same motion of inserting the magazine, you can just hit the bolt-release and be ready to go. The rifle is capable of being converted to left-side ejection if you shoot mostly left-handed, but last I heard, you have to send your rifle to IWI so that they can headspace your bolt to the barrel- they won’t just send you a new bolt. Even if you do have to shoulder swap, the 90 degree angle of the brass deflector launches spent casings forward, so you won’t have problems with brass hitting you. Unless you are using an efficient muzzle brake, you will get a little bit more muzzle movement per shot than you get from shooting a conventional-design rifle, because non-bullpup rifles have more weight toward the muzzle. Because of the overall rifle weight, the stock won’t push against you too hard. You, will however, feel the bolt carrier thump into the rear of the stock. The AR-15’s relative bolt-carrier impulse is further forward than the Tavor’s, so you won’t feel the force of the bolt-carrier as strongly. As mentioned previously, compared to the AR-15, there is less shot-to-shot stability when shooting the Tavor because of the long travel distance of a heavier bolt carrier.
The Tavor performs at its best when shooting offhand at close range targets from 0 to 50 yards. The compactness and superb balance of the rifle allows for better shooter mobility around obstacles, vehicles, cover, staircases, and corridors. This is why the IDF prioritized having a bullpup rifle for their soldiers- the IDF predominantly fights in mechanized units in an urban environment. They deploy from and fight around vehicles, and they need to maneuver around typical obstacles and barricades found in an urban setting.
For all other situations, though, the AR-15 performs just as well as the Tavor. If you’re shooting more than 50 yards, chances are, you’re on the ground or behind cover, negating the advantage of shooting the Tavor offhand. The AR-15 is very comfortable to shoot around barricades and in the foxhole fighting position because of how much handguard real estate you have to work with. There are extended handguards for the Tavor, but again, all of them are too thick for my taste. When shooting prone, you can reload both rifles without needing to shift the rifle or your body position.
It’s not that the Tavor is not well-suited to medium and long range shooting. It can effectively fill the role of a DMR or SPR, which is exactly how I have my Tavor configured. I went against the grain in customizing my Tavor SPR, because I wanted to reach a full spectrum of practical uses of the rifle for my review.
So for me personally, if I had to choose only one, which rifle would I keep? If you watch a lot of fancy nuts, you might be familiar with the phrase “go to war.” What is your “go to war” rifle? If you watch a lot of IRAQVETERAN8888, you might think of your favorite rifle as your “life and liberty” gun. If I could only have one, it would be a high-quality, direct impingement AR-15. What really sells me on having the AR-15 be my fighting carbine of choice is the overall reduced weight, the adaptability, and the increased reliability over the Tavor.
So at a comparable price range, what rifle would I recommend to a someone first stating out with tactical shooting? I would recommend a high-quality, direct impingement AR-15. You have a lot more flexibility in getting the perfect rifle configuration to fit your shooting style. There are many manufacturers from whom you can’t go wrong with building your rifle using their parts- Daniel Defense, BCM, Geissele, and Noveske, just to name a few. I know there are more, but I’m trying to wrap up this review.
But it’s not to say that you can’t get a Tavor as your first semi-automatic centerfire rifle. It is a fantastic choice- it’s just doesn’t get as high of a recommendation from me as a high-quality AR-15, especially where value is concerned. You have to spend a significant amount of money for a trigger upgrade for the Tavor to get it to shoot like an AR-15 with a high-quality trigger, and most custom ARs with upgraded triggers will still come in at a lower price than the online price for a Tavor.
A reason to choose a Tavor over an AR-15 is if you know you will do most of your shooting offhand in close quarters or around vehicles. A Tavor is also an excellent rifle alternative if you’re just really burned out from the AR-15 saturation in the current market. I’ve only been shooting for 2 years, and I’m already tired of so much of today’s tactical market being devoted to AR-15s and AR-15 upgrades. Also, if you’re an all-around firearms enthusiast and are intrigued by the bullpup design, the Tavor is arguably the most accessible and affordable choice to get your introduction to a bullpup platform.
In the end, both rifles are battle-proven, and you can trust your life and your family’s life to them. Nevertheless, based on accuracy, reliability, functionality, and value, the AR-15 is still the rifle to beat.