IWI US Tavor SAR

   01.30.14

The author's Tavor SAR TSB18 with an Aimpoint PRO red dot sight.
The author’s Tavor SAR TSB18 with an Aimpoint PRO red dot sight.

What happens when you combine decades of intense battlefield experience with some of the most talented and innovative small arms designers in the world? You get something like the Tavor SAR rifle, an Israeli-designed bullpup firearm has finally made its way to the United States after years of rumors and conjecture.

These futuristic-looking, battle-tested guns began shipping to American customers in the spring of 2013, and I was lucky enough to snag one for my collection. I’ve been shooting it as much as I can afford to, and almost everything I have to report is positive. It’s a balanced, well-made firearm that’s become my rifle of choice for range fun and keeping close at-hand.

A left-side view of the Tavor SAR TSB18.
A left-side view of the Tavor SAR TSB18.

Barrels, conversions, and actions

The Tavor SAR is IWI (Israel Weapon Industries) US’ debut product. It is a semiautomatic version of the TAR-21 rifle, the forefather of the current standard infantry arm for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). The TAR-21 and its variants have also found military buyers in places like Azerbaijan, Thailand, and Ukraine, either as a service arm or for specialized forces. For a totally new firearm whose formal release was in 2001, that’s a pretty quick adoption rate. IWI US has also indicated that some individual law enforcement officers (and the Pennsylvania State Capitol Police) have picked up the Tavor SAR (hereafter referred to as the “Tavor”) for use as a patrol arm.

The Tavor is offered in two different barrel lengths (16.5 inches or 18 inches, both with a 1:7 twist rate), two different stock colors (black or flat dark earth, with OD green becoming available later this year), and both come with a full-length top-mounted Picatinny rail. An “IDF model” with a 16.5-inch barrel and integrated Mepro-21 reflex sight (and lacking the top rail) is also available. All models include integrated backup iron sights. Tavors configured for left-handed users are also offered direct from IWI US. The Tavor’s aluminum receiver, barrel, action, and metal trigger are all located in a tough polymer housing with a grippy rubber butt pad. The rifles are chambered in 5.56x45mm and conversion kits to 9x19mm are now shipping. The MSRP for all models is $1,999, with the exception of the IDF model, which runs $2,599. They can often be found for less at retail.

A right-side view of the author's Tavor. At just over 27.5 inches long, the rifle is very compact.
A right-side view of the author’s Tavor. At just over 27.5 inches long, the rifle is very compact.

All models of the gun are very compact, regardless of barrel length. The 16.5-inch-barrreled Tavors are slightly longer than 26 inches overall, while the 18-inch-barreled rifles are just over 27.5 inches. For comparison, most AR-15 rifles with 16-inch barrels come in around 31 inches long with a fully-collapsed stock. I purchased an 18-inch-barreled, black-stocked version (formally designated a TSB18) for my collection and review.

The rifle operates via a relatively standard long-stroke gas piston mechanism with a rotating bolt. The bolt carrier and piston will look somewhat similar to those familiar with the AK platform—just much more modern and sleek. Field stripping is fast and easy: one simply needs to push out a locking pin (with detent) at the rear of the receiver to slide out the entire recoil mechanism. After taking out those parts, one can clean the bore and other important internal areas. The trigger mechanism can also be removed in a similar way by pushing out two locking pins located behind the magazine well and opening the bolt release.

The Tavor field strips easily: simply push out the buttplate locking pin and remove the recoil assembly, seen here in the foreground.
The Tavor field strips easily: simply push out the buttplate locking pin and remove the recoil assembly, seen here in the foreground.

A no-bull bullpup

A “bullpup” firearm has its action located behind the trigger, where the buttstock would be on most conventional small arms. This allows the gun to have a very short overall length while maintaining a standard-length barrel. For modern militaries that often find themselves engaged in urban combat and mechanized operations, their advantages are obvious. Bullpups catch the eye of gun enthusiasts and non-shooters alike, and have been onscreen-favorites because of their unique appearance.

Despite their advantages, bullpup firearms have long been maligned for their unconventional manual of arms and other drawbacks. Many early bullpup iterations suffered from odd design decisions, leading to issues such as awkward and time-consuming magazine changes, strangely-placed fire controls, operational difficulties for left-handed shooters, terribly heavy trigger pulls (more on that in the “At the range” section), and a lack of customizability. The Tavor solves—or at least offers solutions for—nearly all of these problems.

Unlike other bullpups, mag changes with the Tavor can be just as smooth as with an AR. After the bolt locks open an empty mag, the operator depresses a “trigger” in front of the magwell that drops the magazine free. A fresh mag is then inserted and the bolt is released by a smartly-placed bolt release behind the magwell—right where your thumb naturally falls when you’re inserting a new magazine. The entire operation feels natural and comes easily to people unfamiliar with the platform, as it should be with any modern small arm.

Some of the Tavor's controls are fully ambidextrous. Seen  here are the magazine release "trigger" (located just in front of the magazine) and the bolt release (which can be seen just barely peeking out behind the magazine). Note also the two locking pins for the trigger mechanism.
Some of the Tavor’s controls are fully ambidextrous. Seen here are the magazine release “trigger” (located just in front of the magazine) and the bolt release (which can be seen just barely peeking out behind the magazine). Note also the two locking pins for the trigger mechanism.

The selector switch is set up similarly to an AR (above the pistol grip, 9 o’clock safe and 12 o’clock fire) and can be configured for either a left- or right-handed shooter. My only slight complaint with the switch is that it’s a bit rough moving it from fire to safe, but I don’t consider it a huge issue.

The term “fully ambidextrous” seems to have a slightly ambiguous definition based on who you’re talking to. I understand it to mean a firearm whose controls are easily operable by both right- and left-handed users without “conversion,” in addition to a lefty-friendly means of spent casing ejection. By this definition, the Tavor is not fully ambidextrous. Its controls and ejection can be swapped to a left-handed configuration, but the processes require disassembly. In addition, while the firearm can be configured to eject spent casings to the left, it requires the installation of a left-handed bolt that must be purchased separately.* The magazine release and the bolt release are ambidextrous due to their central placement near the rear of the rifle. This conversion capability is certainly a plus and something that not all modern firearms feature.

The Tavor's non-reciprocating charging handle, configured here for a right-handed user.
The Tavor’s non-reciprocating charging handle, configured here for a right-handed user.

The Tavor comes with a short polymer Picatinny rail installed on the opposite side of its charging handle (so a “right-handed” Tavor will have the short rail on the firearm’s right side) at a 45-degree angle from the gun. It’s perfect for mounting lights, lasers, and so on. Its position can be swapped to the left-hand side of the gun, much like the charging handle, though obviously this will require relocating the charging handle to the other side of the firearm as well.

An additional short polymer handguard rail that screws into the bottom of the forend is available from IWI US for $25. This provides enough space to mount a vertical grip like Magpul’s RVG or a FAB Defense RSG. I found that the shorter and stouter variety of vertical grips were more comfortable to use with the Tavor, as longer grips tended to hang down below the handguard. The Tavor’s got no shortage of rail space for customization.

The Tavor's polymer 45-degree forward Picatinny rail.
The Tavor’s polymer 45-degree forward Picatinny rail. Like the charging handle, it can be swapped to the other side.

At the range

After the first time you shoulder the Tavor, you’ll immediately understand the appeal for sporting and defensive purposes. The rifle has a natural “pointability” to it that can only really be felt when shouldered—it can even be fired comfortably with one hand. To fully grasp how advantageous the the bullpup layout is, you only need to try moving around in a confined space (like an apartment) with the rifle shouldered and unloaded. Note how easy it is to open doors and manipulate objects with your off-hand while still keeping the gun at the ready.

Despite the fact that the TSB18 weighs in at 8.15 pounds unloaded (almost two pounds more than some modern ARs), you won’t notice the heft unless you try. With most of the gun’s mass concentrated at the rear, it’s very easy to hold it on-target for extended periods of time—likely much longer than with any other black rifle.

As previously mentioned, bullpups are notorious for having very heavy trigger pulls. Unfortunately, the Tavor’s trigger is no exception—IWI US officially states that it comes in at 11 pounds, eight ounces, and I believe it. It’s one of the heaviest triggers I’ve ever felt on a modern firearm.

A mark of quality on the Tavor's barrel.
A mark of quality on the Tavor’s barrel.

With that being said, I don’t find it to be a deal breaker. I was able to shoot comfortably, consistently, and well enough for what I’m looking for in a compact rifle. And despite its heavy trigger, I found that the fine balance of the firearm led to very quick and accurate reactionary shooting.

As much as I’d like to say I never had any problems with my Tavor, I cannot. Within the first 100 or 200 rounds, I experienced a few failures to feed and bolt lock-back failures. Using several different types of ammo, the gun would fail to strip another round off the top of an inserted magazine. Throughout the course of shooting on my first range trips with the Tavor, the gun’s bolt would not lock back on about every third magazine. This occurred with every type of magazine tested, including PMAGs, USGI aluminum, and polymer IWI US Mag17 magazines.

Frustrated with these issues, I contacted IWI US’ customer support and promptly received an electronic shipping label to send the gun in for examination. Upon receiving the firearm, IWI US disassembled, inspected, and test-fired it and was unable to reproduce my issues. They returned it to me and informed me they had not adjusted anything.

I was skeptical after hearing back from IWI US. I thought that I perhaps just had a lemon, and that IWI US simply hadn’t shot it enough to get the same problems. However, I’ve had the rifle back for nearly four months now and have put an additional several hundred rounds through it and have not experienced any more problems, save one more bolt lock-back failure, which may have been due to a sticky magazine follower. I can’t say whether there was something I did “wrong” with regard to cleaning and lubricating the gun or it simply had a rough break-in, but aside from the single additional failure it has functioned flawlessly since.

Regarding punching holes in paper, I found the Tavor to be suitably precise. Using a sandbag rest, the gun produced the following five-shot groups at 100 yards:

Manufacturer and type of bullet Average group (inches) Number of five-shot groups Best group (inches)
PMC X-TAC 62-grain “LAP” 5.56 2.5 10 2
Prvi Partizan 55-grain M193 5.56 2.25 10 2
Black Hills 77-grain OTM 5.56 1.5 5 1.5
Golden Bear 62-grain HP .223 3 10 3

In my opinion, these groups are good for compact semiautomatic rifle. Better shooters than me have reported shooting sub-MOA groups at 100 yards with match-grade ammo.

A side note about magazines—after my initial hiccups, the mags that worked the best (dropped free, inserted smoothly, properly locked back on empty) were Gen 3 PMAGs, the IWI US Mag17s, and Lancer L5s. Gen 2 PMAGs fed fine, but did not drop free and required a bit more “oomph” to get them to seat properly.

Optics

The Tavor is intended to be used with some sort of optics. The models issued to the IDF are paired with reflex sights. The long Picatinny rail on the TSB18 model will accommodate a wide variety of magnified sights, reflex sights, and magnifiers.

All Tavor models include backup iron sights.
The Tavor’s top Picatinny rail provides ample space for mounting a wide variety of optics. All models include backup iron sights.

I tested the Tavor with a Vortex SPARC, Aimpoint PRO, and finally an EOTech EXPS2-0 mounted on the top rail. All three yielded a comfortable and repeatable sight picture, with no neck straining or shoulder magic necessary. Optics generally sit higher over the bore on the Tavor than on an AR, but that will not affect your shooting in any significant way as long as your glass is properly zeroed. I dialed all my sights in at 50 yards and had no problems hitting targets anywhere between 10 and 100 yards.

Final words

Notwithstanding the problems I had that seem to have disappeared, the Tavor is worth its $2,000 price tag for the balance, compactness, reliability, and versatility it offers—not to mention its uniqueness. It’s an excellent sporting and self-defense arm. Should mine continue to operate without significant issue, I can’t think of any reason to not recommend it. Go to your local gun store and pick one up. You’ll understand immediately. In lieu of a longer conclusion, I decided to break up my final thoughts on the Tavor into two categories: what you get and what you don’t get.

What you get

  • Arguably the best ergonomics and fire controls available in a bullpup
  • Rifle-length ballistics in a super-compact package
  • A sensible, natural, and easy-to-learn manual of arms
  • AR-15 magazine compatibility
  • A good degree of customizability
  • The capability to configure the gun for right- and left-handed shooters

What you don’t get

  • A whole lot of money left in your bank account
  • “$2,000 gun” sub-MOA accuracy with most ammo
  • A match-grade trigger

*As of fall 2013, IWI US has begun asking that Tavor owners who want their rifles converted to left-handed models be sent in for conversion work instead of doing it themselves, citing the complexity of the procedure. There is no additional cost for the work beyond the cost of the left-handed bolt. IWI US has not issued a similar directive for the 9x19mm conversion kits.

Images by Matt Korovesis and Matt Keeler

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