Australia’s First Bullpup

By Matthew Moss

Twenty years before the Australian military adopted the F88 Austeyr, its adaptation of the Steyr AUG, a young officer cadet at the Royal Military College, Duntroon, developed a promising bullpup rifle. While on a training exercise at the end of his first year at Duntroon, Staff Cadet Kevin Loughrey began thinking of ways the Australian Army’s self-loading rifle, the L1A1 (FN FAL), could be improved. Loughrey would go on to develop two promising prototype designs which were favourably tested by Australian special forces; however, bureaucracy curtailed further development.

During a four-week training exercise in 1969, Loughrey, a mechanical engineering student, identified a number of characteristics which would create a more serviceable rifle than the L1A1. These included an adaptable in-line stock, ambidextrous controls, night sights and a simple, yet strong locking mechanism. These are features that modern firearms designers and manufacturers struggle to combine even today.

The most important of the improvements was the shortening of the rifle’s overall length without sacrificing barrel length. This could best be achieved by placing the trigger group in front of the action and removing the need for a butt stock—creating a bullpup rifle. When Loughrey began work on his “ideal rifle” he hadn’t even heard the term “bullpup;” his design was “simply the only way to achieve what I sought to do” (Interview with K. Loughrey, the designer). Loughrey developed rough sketches of what his rifle might look like. This first rifle, later designated the RMC No.1 by the Department of Supply, was based upon the Soviet AK-47’s gas system and rotating bolt. In order to simplify the construction of the prototype it was decided to use parts cannibalised from an L1A1 to build a proof-of-concept rifle. This modified L1A1 became known as the RMC No. 2.

In June 1970, Loughrey sent a rough set of design sketches to his commanding officer and requested permission to build a prototype. His commanding officer directed RMC Duntroon’s workshop commander Captain John Scully and Captain K. Sankey, the Deputy Assistant Director Electrical and Mechanical Engineering, to examine the proposed design. Their response was less than positive. In October 1970, Sankey reported to Scully that the design was “both unsafe and highly impractical” (K. Sankey, “Report: Proposed Modification—L1A1 Rifle,” 10/12/70), and Scully recommended Loughrey “direct his energies towards a more profitable project” (J.F Scully, “Proposed Modification—L1A1 Rifle,” 10/16/70). While these comments were no doubt discouraging, Loughrey was undaunted. He continued to pursue his ideas, and in the summer of 1971 gained the support of Max Nesbitt, the Australian army’s scientific advisor who requested that personnel from Small Arms Factory at Lithgow assist in drafting detailed technical drawing and manufacturing a prototype.

A month later a team at Lithgow began work on producing the RMC No. 2, they used much of the receiver, gas piston, breech block and barrel of the L1A1. The trigger mechanism was moved ahead of the action, the fore-guard was reshaped, and a combined rear sight and carrying handle was added. The RMC No. 2 essentially used two trigger groups connected by a trigger transfer bar on the right side of the receiver connecting the trigger with the trigger group acting on the firing pin.

The rifle was tested during RMC field exercises and found to be handy and comfortable to carry despite its 5.38-kg weight. Its accuracy was found to be superior to the L1A1’s, and its reliability was proven with Loughrey and his classmates firing more than 5,000 rounds without major failures. The completed rifle was subsequently sent to the Army Design Establishment (ADE) for testing in early 1972, and a report was issued in April. The report was overwhelmingly negative concluding that the project did “not warrant any further professional effort, either technically or from a user trails point of view.” The author of the report, the ADE’s Small Arms Project Officer, failed to appreciate that the weapon was a proof-of-concept: “It is doubtful if this weapon would be effective at all in terms of handability, reliability, suitability and weight increase” (M. Chivers, “ADE Report: Modified L1A1 Rifle 7.62 mm—RMC Staff Cadet Project,” 04/28/72).

Loughrey graduated from RMC Duntroon in 1972 and took command of the 3 Base Workshop Battalion’s Automotive Engineering Company. Here, his commanding officer, Lt. Colonel John Faulks, allowed him to continue improvements to his design albeit without the approval of the ADE. An L1A1 was again cannibalised for parts to build a new prototype. Craftsman Andy Witt was assigned to assist Loughrey. Witt proved to be invaluable in the fabrication process and the testing of the new rifle. On one occasion during early testing, the catch on the butt failed, causing the rifle’s working parts to fly out the back of the rifle with a loud explosive noise, causing Witt to immediately run for help. Loughrey was shaken but unhurt, and the rifle repairable. Loughrey named the new prototype the KAL1, using his initials for the rifle’s designation.

The new rifle differed from the standard FAL and the previous RMC No. 2 by mimicking the AK47’s gas piston and bolt carrier group. Witt did this by inserting an L1A1 piston head into a steel tube and welding it to the L1A1’s breech-block. Externally the KAL1 looked much more like a finished rifle. The rifle’s furniture was fashioned from epoxy resin reinforced with fibreglass with a pistol grip moulded from a commercial spear gun. A folding charging handle was added, and the safety catch was relocated inside the trigger guard. The result was an extremely slick and futuristic rifle—its handguard and carrying handle reminiscent of the M16A1. The KAL1 was significantly lighter than the L1A1 weighing just 3.98 kg. Despite the progress made with the design when the ADE discovered the rifle had been built without their permission, the commander of Loughrey’s corps, the Royal Australian Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, was pressured to have the rifles destroyed.

In order to save the two prototypes Loughrey arranged for them to be held by the base’s quartermaster preventing their destruction without a certificate of destruction. The rifles were eventually sent to the Australian Army’s Infantry Museum at Singleton, New South Wales. This, however, was not the end of the story. In 1975, following a well-received presentation on his rifles, a friend of Loughrey’s serving with the elite Australian Special Air Service Regiment arranged for the two prototype rifles to be sent to the regiment for testing. Sadly during transfer from the Infantry Museum the KAL1 was damaged, and only the earlier RMC No. 2 could be evaluated. Despite this the Australian SAS’ March 1976 report was positive finding that the design was sound and had a number of advantages over the L1A1.

The report concluded that “with the disadvantages corrected it is considered that the weapon would be ideal for use by Infantry Battalions and Special Forces units” (P.M. Jeffery, “SASR Report on Trials Conducted on the RMC Project (L1A1 7.62 mm Modification),” 03/09/76). It was recommended that the design be forwarded to the ADE for further improvements and manufactured for service. Unsurprisingly with the ADE’s lack of enthusiasm for Loughrey’s designs the project again stalled, and the rifles were returned to the Infantry Museum where they remain today. Sadly, Loughrey’s ambitious rifles were rejected, and it was over a decade before the Australian Army appreciated the bullpup rifle’s advantages over traditional battle rifles like the L1A1. The F88 was adopted in 1988 and remains in service today.

My thanks to Kevin Loughrey for his assistance in writing this article and for generously supplying the accompanying photographs.

This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V21N2 (March 2017)
and was posted online on January 27, 2017


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