The Bullpup Rifle Experiment, Epilogue: the Steyr AUG magazine choice – do you prefer Original or Less Reliable?

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Apparently this little series has established me as the “go-to guy” for Steyr AUG questions, because my email box has seen a big uptick in volume from people asking various things about the AUG and about bullpups in general. I’m glad that there’s so much interest in these intriguing firearms!

As I’ve said, the reason I did the “bullpup experiment” was to learn about them and to develop training doctrine for the private-sector shooter. This is especially important because so many people seem to be relying on second-hand information from people who’ve never shot one (but know a guy who’s friends with a guy whose cousin once ran into a fellow in the airport whose brother shot one once. There’s a lot of that kind of bullpup “information” out there.)

I took a look at bullpups from a neutral position as a teacher, considered both their strengths and faults, and came to some logic-based conclusions about what does and doesn’t work. Along the way, I got to put a lot of rounds through the rifles and learned a lot about the iconic Steyr bullpup!

The most common AUG-specific question/comment I get is in regard to the proprietary Steyr magazines (and, by association, the AR-compatible version of the rifle that Steyr has available.) So many people ask about this that I thought I’d answer publicly so that everyone could learn.

The usual question asks “did you get the regular AUG which takes Steyr magazines, or the one that takes AR magazines?”

Steyr AUG 42-round magazine holds 2 boxes of .223 ammunition

I asked Steyr to send me the original version which uses their magazines, for several reasons. First, the capability of 42-round capacity! (To be honest I use their 30-rounders almost all of the time, but being able to fit two boxes of ammunition in a single magazine, with space left over, is pretty cool. I’ll admit I use the big ones mainly for showing off and making people from capacity-limited states mad!)

Second, I wanted to test the gun as a complete system, the way it was designed by the Steyr engineers. Let’s face it: a major issue with the AR pattern rifle has always been the magazines, whose dimensions were set in stone when the engineers were convinced that magazines would be one-use items. The version that takes AR magazines is not going to run any better, and most likely will run worse, than the original.

The 30-round AR magazine in particular is a kludge and always has been, combining a straight section (that had to fit into a lower originally meant to only house a 20-round magazine) with a curved section to fit the natural arc of 30 stacked cartridges. What’s more, they really need to be considered 28-round magazines if you expect decent reliability.

In contrast, the Steyr magazines were designed to actually hold and function with 30 (or 42!) rounds from the start, and the rifle was designed around them. When it comes right down to it, I didn’t want to handicap the AUG by forcing it to operate with a suboptimal magazine design it wasn’t intended to use in the first place.

Finally, I’ve never had clear polymer magazines of any type and wanted to see if they were actually useful or just hype. Guess what? I found it that they were a lot more useful than I’d thought they would be.

Now I’ve certainly used magazines that had “witness” holes or even windows but never found them all that compelling; I usually forget they’re even there and don’t end up using them. The first time I took the AUG to the range with those translucent Steyr magazines, however, was enough to make me decide that being able to see how many rounds are in the magazine, from any angle, was actually a practical idea. Whether it was in the gun or laying on the ground, I could tell instantly how many rounds were available. For someone who’s used to plain metal magazines in the FAL and AR, I now find myself wishing all my rifles had clear magazines. I’m not sure if that makes me lazy or shallow, or both, but there you are!

Steyr AUG 30-round and 42-round magazines

From my standpoint, if you’re thinking of buying an AUG get the original version; I see no functional reason to mess around with the AR magazine model.

This is apparently not an opinion shared by everyone, because the second most common question about the magazines is more of a statement: “Why bother with Steyr magazines? I like the AUG, but I want to use my AR magazines so I’m buying a Tavor.”

This is one of the odder things one could say about any two guns. Let me explain why.

Much of the statement/question revolves around the “system compatibility” argument, which is really something of a red herring. I actually had a chat with a fellow who insisted that his new bullpup rifle “had to” take his AR magazines, because he had “a lot of them”. He did own several AR rifles in various configurations, and I asked him if those were the only rifles he had. “Oh no, I have a couple of AKs, an M1A1, a .308 AR…” It was a pretty impressive list.

I then asked him if his AKs took his AR magazines. “No”, he said, “but that’s different”!

No, it’s not.

If you have more than one pistol brand, none of those magazines interchange; do you worry about that? If you have an AR and anything else, the magazines aren’t going to be compatible; why, suddenly, when considering a bullpup is it so necessary to have magazine commonality? It’s really not a terribly consistent position to take.

False system compatibility concerns are one thing, but a lot of people fall for the “sunk cost” economic argument too: “But I have so much invested in AR magazines!” (I’m not sure why anyone would worry about how many of the cheapest magazines on the market they own, but they sure do.)

Look at it this way: neither the AUG nor the Tavor is an inexpensive rifle. Either one is going to cost upwards of $2k — and that’s before you add optics. By the time you have a complete, shootable rifle you’re going to be over the two grand mark no matter what you do. I submit that if you’re spending that kind of money for a new rifle, what’s $200 worth of magazines? Seriously, it’s a bit like saying you really want to buy that Ferrari, but you want it to use the new tires from your Camry because you’ve invested so much in them. If you can afford the Ferrari, why would you worry about what you spent on Toyota stuff?

(I’d say the same thing if the question were between any two guns with magazine incompatibilities. Not being able to use your AR magazines isn’t a valid reason not to buy an AK, and vice-versa. If the Tavor used proprietary magazines I’d say the same thing. I’m not trying to sound as though I’m superior on this topic, either; there was an occasion some years back when I didn’t take advantage of an unusual opportunity to buy a superbly accurate AR-10T chiefly because it wouldn’t use my FN-FAL magazines! Yeah, it was a stupid decision on my part, which is probably why I want to help keep other people from making the same mistake.)

From where I stand both the Steyr AUG and the IWI Tavor have their strengths and weaknesses (though I do think the use of AR magazines falls into the “weakness” category.) If you’re considering a bullpup, what magazines its compatible with should be the least important part of your selection criteria.

– Grant Cunningham


About the Author:

Grant Cunningham is a renowned author and teacher in the fields of self defense, defensive shooting education and personal safety. He’s written several popular books on handguns and defensive shooting, including "The Book of the Revolver", "Shooter’s Guide To Handguns", "Defensive Revolver Fundamentals", "Defensive Pistol Fundamentals", and "Practice Strategies for Defensive Shooting" (Fall 2015.) Grant has also written articles on shooting, self defense, training and teaching for many magazines and shooting websites, including Concealed Carry Magazine, Gun Digest Magazine, the Association of Defensive Shooting Instructors ADSI) and the popular Personal Defense Network training website. He’s produced a DVD in the National Rifle Association’s Personal Firearm Defense series titled "Defensive Revolver Fundamentals" and teaches defensive shooting and personal safety courses all over the United States.
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