HS Produkt VHS-2 Assault Rifle

VHS-2 assault rifle was developed and produced by HS Produkt, a privately owned company best known as a designer and manufacturer of the well-known HS pistol line. The company in fact started with design of the pistol: HS means “Hrvatski Samokres”, which translates into “Croatian Pistol”. But for a long time, the company already had in its development and production line other products, such as assault rifles and grenade launchers.

It is precisely the assault rifle that is currently the most interesting, or at least the second most interesting, product of HS Product. Assault rifle VHS (Višenamjenska Hrvatska Strojnica – Multipurpose Croatian Machinegun) was first presented in 2005. In 2007., Croatian Ministry of Defense bought a number of rifles and started testing them on the battlefield. Soon after, MoD ordered a number of rifles, and in 2013 an improved variant – VHS-2 – was presented.

For Croatian Armed Forces, VHS rifle was a complete novelty. It was the first bullpup assault rifle to be utilized on large scale by the Croatian military, as up until that point, AK-47 and its derivatives were the mainstay of infantry armament. Specifically, primary assault rifle of the Croatian military was Zastava M70, an almost direct copy of AK-47. While other rifles were also used, the only rifle of bullpup construction that saw any service before introduction of VHS rifle was Belgian FN F2000, used exclusively by Croatian Special Forces.

VHS series had begun development during the Homeland War, when omnipresent M70/AK-47 had shown itself to be unreliable under combat conditions. Thus, in 1992., Croatian Army requested a new model of rifle. Development of VHS-1 lasted until 2003., and in 2005. the first models were produced – VHS-D and VHS-K. But as the model had some flaws, in 2013. a modernized version was produced under moniker of VHS-2 (VHS-2K and VHS-2D). VHS-2D has a 19 inch barrel, while VHS-2K has a 16 inch barrel.

VHS-1 was a butt of jokes

Both classical and bullpup construction have advantages and disadvantages. Most important advantage of the bullpup rifle lies in the fact that barrel is much longer in bullpup rifle than it is in a normal rifle of the same length. This allows projectiles to have much better ballistic characteristics with regards to muzzle velocity and stability, leading to longer effective ranges and greater lethality at any given range. Compared to 10-inch barrel of AR-15, 16-inch barrel of VHS-2 will give 500 ft per second of additional velocity. Alternatively, bullpup rifle can be much shorter for the same barrel length. On average, a bullpup rifle is around 25% shorter than normal assault rifle that has the same barrel length. Bullpups tend to be much better balanced, with center of mass much closer to the shoulder, thus allowing them to be used for extended periods of time without fatiguing the user. Better balance and shorter length also allow them to be maneuvered more easily, especially in confined spaces. They tend to reach shoulder more quickly, thus allowing better reaction time in case of a surprise situation. And since there is shorter distance between the action and the butt plate, there is less leverage to create muzzle rise. All of this is also true for VHS-2 rifle, which is very maneuverable, easy to control and to get into tight spaces. This is due to both short length and also center of mass which sits around middle of the rifle. VHS-2’s barrel sits in the middle of the buttstock, which means that it doesn’t have tendency to climb that rifles such as AK-47 have. Even during full auto, rifle vibrates around the center but does not rise.

Main disadvantage of a bullpup is its ejection system, which typically meant that left-handed shooters faced threat of brass to the face. While Keltec RDB features downward ejection, VHS allows the direction of ejection to be changed from left to right and reverse in a relatively simple manner, and all controls are duplicated on both sides of the rifle. Even if the direction is not changed, face shield and nature of ejection means that casings are ejected forward and past the user’s face as opposed to being ejected into it. Trigger also needs a long connector to reach the firing pin, making it less responsive than a trigger of normal-design rifle. This is also true for VHS-2, which has trigger pull weight of 5 – 6 lbs. This is actually very light for a bullpup, with FAMAS having a trigger pull weight of 8 – 9 lbs and Steyr AUG of 9 – 10 lbs, but it is still heavier than traditional rifles which have trigger pull weights of 5,5 – 9 lbs for M-16, 5,5 lbs for G36 and 3 – 7 lbs for AK-47. Magazine is also not visible from normal position, which means that shooter needs to either count the bullets or lift the rifle from face to see how many bullets are remaining in the magazine, and it is also more difficult to change. In case of failure, this happens right beside the face – but on the upside, bolt being ejected from rear of firearm, may not kill you.

First VHS variant was designed in two lengths as well as fixed mechanical sights located within the carrier handle. But while it was a big step forward compared to rifles previously in service, VHS-1 still had flaws. Its high silhouette made shooter more vulnerable, fire controls were in an inaccessible place, and casings could be ejected only on the right side. It also had no Picatinny rails. These flaws were fixed in the VHS-2, which contains some solutions that were first ever seen on a bullpup rifle.

Adjustable chamber ejection

Main criticism of VHS-1 was that direction of chamber ejection could not be adjusted, and thus chambers were always ejected from the right side of the rifle, which did not allow rifle to be shot from the left shoulder. On VHS-2 rifle, ejection can be set up to be either left-side or right-side. Ejection ports are also equipped with deflectors which prevent the casings from hitting shooter’s face even when shooting from the side where casings are being ejected to. Unlike majority of other bullpup rifles, changing the ejection side does not require installation of additional parts nor additional adjustments; once the switch is done, it is done. While alternative solutions do exist, such as ejection of casings forwards or downwards, these cause additional complications and complexity in construction of the weapon itself. Changing the direction of ejection is simple. Rifle is taken apart until bolt is reached. Bolt itself is then rotates 180 degrees in a desired direction.

VHS-2 rifle ejection port
VHS-2 rifle ejection port. There is an identical port on the left side.

VHS-2 rifle also includes dust covers, which protect the firing mechanism from dust that might cause stoppages. Dust cover of the ejection opening that is not used is fixed in place, while dust cover on the opposite side opens only when chamber is being ejected.

Adjustable buttstock

Adjustable telescopic buttstock is not, in and by itself, anything new. This is however the first time it had been used on a bullpup rifle. Buttstock has six possible positions, allowing soldier to adjust the rifle to his build as well as to the equipment carried. Butt also has ergonomically shaped cheek rests, which allow comfortable rapid fire.

Butt pad itself is interchangeable. It can be easily detached from the back, allowing one to switch between convex, concave or flat butt pad at will.

Picatinny carry handle

Carry handle was one of details often criticized in earlier models of VHS rifles, in particular, the targeting sights located atop the handle. Due to these complaints, VHS-2 rifle received completely new carrier handle which now doubled as a accessory platform. Compared to handle of VHS-1, VHS-2’s carrier handle is 2,5 cm lower and 15 cm longer. This lowered the shooter’s silhouette, and longer target line allowed installation of folding mechanical sights. These sights are adjustable for windage and elevation. Entirety of the upper side of the handle is taken by a single Picatinny rail which allows installation of various sights and other accessories. Below the rail is the charging handle.

Changes in geometry

VHS-1 rifle had some issues with its physical design. Primary complaint was the fire selector, which was often criticized. This and other complaints led to a complete redesign of that part of the rifle, including moving the fire selector to position above the handle. Fire selector is also completely ambidextreous (as is rest of the rifle), and can easily be reached by thumb of the trigger hand. Selector has three positions: locked, single-shot and full auto. Bolt catch release mechanism was moved to the opposite side of the weapon, behind the magazine well. Second way of bolt release is by pulling back the cocking handle after full magazine had been inserted.

After experiences with VHS-1 had shown that handle can easily tire out user’s hand, the handle was redesigned based on the XDM series of pistols produced by HS Product, and it received additional texture to help against slippage.

Magazine well

Magazine well itself is interchangeable. Theoretically, this would allow VHS-2 to utilize whatever type of magazines that country has in its inventory. So far, VHS-2 is capable of using G-36 magazines, which are also the default option, AR-15 pattern (STANAG) as well as FAMAS magazines. Magazine release lever is positioned at the rear of the well, in keeping with the principle of ambidexterity that the rifle is designed around.

Inherited Solutions

VHS-2 can also equip a grenade launcher, a bayonet, as well as mount rifle grenades. Grenade launcher is mounted simply by removing the front barrel cover and placing the launcher in its place. Thanks to its bullpup construction, it does not lose balance which means that it is, unlike classical rifles, easy to balance even when accessories are mounted. Picatinny rails are mounted atop the handle and on the sides and bottom of the frontal cover, allowing the large number of different accessories to be mounted.

VHS-2 with a grenade launcher
VHS-2 with a grenade launcher

Kinetic part of the rifle remained the same as on the previous VHS model. This means that VHS-2 also works based on the tappet type of closed gas system (short stroke piston) which makes it have less recoil than direct gas impingement rifles. Breechblock works based on rotation. Magazines are same as on the VHS-1, with capacity of 30 rounds and made of transparent plastic. They have two points for magazine coupling, but these are extraneous seeing how duct tape does exist, and in fact only cause trouble when taking magazine out of the pouch. Magwell has remained the same as on the previous model, but VHS-2 has interchangeable magwell which means that rifle can easily be adjusted to whatever magazine is necessary. Magazine is secured from the side, which is a solution adapted from M16 rifle for sake of interchangeability, but is notably inferior to AK-style solution of securing the magazine from front and rear. Rifle is made from a combination of polymer and metal parts, which are held together by interchangeable metal pins.

Maintenance

VHS-2 is relatively easy rifle to disassemble. Disassembly is all done through push pins, and requires no special tools.

Reliability

Several reliability tests had been done on both VHS-2 and its US adaptation, Springfield Armory Helion. First to be considered here will be mud test by InRangeTV:

Mud Test: Springfield Armory Hellion (VHS-2) – YouTube

As was noted by the tester, VHS-2 has very tight clearances. This can be a good and a bad thing. On one hand, it means that stuff is less likely to get where it is not supposed to be. But on the other hand, once stuff does get where it is not supposed to go, it is much more likely to adversely affect the operation.

With dust cover closed, mud does not appear to enter anywhere important, and rifle does five rounds without stoppages. With dust cover open, and mud poured into the dust cover, rifle manages 18 rounds before the first stoppage. After that, on a second mag, it manages to go through three rounds, and then only one at a time before gun has to be repeated. Even rinsing with water does not help much. As it turned out, problem was the ingress slot where the charging handle is: the mud went into it, and the down it into the fire group controls. Rinsing rifle with water made the problem worse as the mud got into the fire group controls.

This is not that big of a problem in normal operation since charging handle is on top, so it is less likely to come into contact with stuff during use. Still, some kind of cover for the charging handle slot might be useful.

It can be compared with AK-47 mud test:

AK47 (AKM): Mud Test – YouTube

AK-47 fires only one shot, and then jams because it tried to double-feed. This was, as noted, with the cover shut. After cleaning and doing the same try again, scenario repeats again. Mud bath turned AK-47 into a bolt-action rifle, having to be manually cycled after every single shot. All of this was with dust cover closed. InRange did not even bother testing the AK-47 with dust cover open, as there was no point.

Overall, it is clear that VHS-2 is far more reliable than AK47 / AKM rifle.

And lastly, AR-15 mud test:

AR15: Mud Test – YouTube

AR15 manages five rounds with dust cover closed with no issue. With dust cover open, AR15 does ten rounds before running out of ammunition. Whether it is more reliable than VHS-2 however is an open question.

While I have myself suggested that relaxing tolerances of the firing mechanism itself might have helped, it turns out that was wrong. VHS-2 is an AR pattern rifle, which means that tighter tolerances are actually desireable as they prevent dirt and mud from getting in. And if enough stuff gets into the mechanism, any rifle will stop working, including the AK.

The reason why AK-47 got its reputation for ruggedness is not realiability: it is not, in fact, a very reliable rifle. However, a relatively simple construction means that even a village idiot can clean it without much trouble. With British L1A1 SLR, attempt was made to improve reliability with looser tolerances, but it did not work.

Overall, the only fix that VHS-2 needs is covering the charging handle slot so that mud does not get into it. Once that is done, it will work perfectly fine. As it is, it is just “fine”.

Croatian Ministry of Defense ran gun through 50 000 rounds without a single breakage.

VHS-2 in Service

Iraq

Iraqi special forces as well as Shiite paramilitary troops used VHS-2 during war against ISIS, especially operations in Mosul. Rifle had been selected to arm the Iraqi military in 2015., with Iraqi government as well as Kurdish autonomous government buying 10 000 pieces each. Rifle cost around 2 000 USD per piece.

Iraqi media and soldiers were well pleased with the rifle. It is considered to be well-designed, ideal for close combat, very accurate and reliable in all conditions. In fact, VHS-2 is probably the most popular rifle in the Middle East: it was used by the Iraqi army, Shiite volunteers, and Kurdish Peshmerga. Through combat, rifle had also made its hands to other groups, including ISIS.

Iraqi Special Operations Forces soldier with VHS-2 assault rifle
Iraqi SOF soldier with VHS-2

Iraqi troops noted several characteristics of the rifle they see as major advantages. One such is the ability to mount up to eight accessories thanks to its Picatinny rail. But most important characteristic is the ability to very quickly mount 40 mm grenade launcher, which can also be used as a standalone weapon with addition of a simple handle with telescopic guard. Rifle behaves well, and does not have any gun rise, unlike AK-47. This means that it is much more accurate at distance, allowing soldiers greater effective firepower, whereas before they had to rely on squad machine guns for longer-ranged engagements.

Rifle is also extremely reliable in desert conditions. Sand easily gets into the rifle and essentially “sandpapers” its components, while at the same time getting everywhere and causing jams. This means that rifles have to be serviced often, typically in a workshop. But with VHS-2, components of the rifle are easily accessible to soldiers, allowing the rifle to be cleaned easily and regularly even in the field. This means that the rifle can last much longer before visits to the workshop.

Afterword

VHS-2 is already a well-recognized rifle. In a competition for equipping the French army with a new assault rifle, VHS-2 made it to the finals, alongside Belgian FN Herstal SCAR and German Heckler&Koch HK416. Final bid was won by HK416, largely on political grounds, but VHS-2 was a runner-up in the finals.

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