The Rifle that Changed Rifles
December 06, 2017
If you opened your 1984 edition of Gun Digest and instantly fell in love with the Steyr AUG, pictured there for the first time, you are not alone. The AUG's exotic looks, along with its revolutionary design and construction, appealed to anyone who had seen Star Wars and loved rifles. It also appealed to military men and security forces, from Austria to Australia, as well as some hush-hush U.S. security agencies. Within a few years, it was in official use all over the globe.
Designed in 1977, the Armee-Universal-Gewehr (AUG) was Austria's entry in the modern infantry-rifle stakes—up until that time dominated by the AKs, ARs, and FN-FAL—and the AUG upped the ante considerably. Designers at Steyr have been iconoclastic, not to mention quirky, since the company was founded 150 years ago, and the AUG fit that pattern.
Steyr's designers threw out rifle-design preconceptions and started fresh. First, the AUG is a bullpup, with the receiver set well back in the buttstock. The magazine is inserted behind the pistol grip. This design reduces overall length by a foot compared to a conventional rifle. The stock itself is composite, originally in a soft green color. Barrels are instantly interchangeable.
Originally designed for both semiauto and full-auto fire, the firing mode was controlled by the trigger. A short pull fired one shot and squeezing it all the way to the rear unleashed full-auto. With magazines holding up to 42 rounds of 5.56mm ammo, the AUG provided serious firepower. The magazines were made of translucent polymer and were virtually unbreakable. Instead of conventional military sights, it had a swept-back carrying handle that incorporated a fixed optical 1.5X glass with aheavy, black, donut reticle. For the civilian market, the AUG was semiauto only.
In 1977 all of this was extraordinary. When Steyr began exporting the AUG to the United States in 1983, it was an instant sensation. But if riflemen found it sensational, the antigun crowd found it terrifying. The AUG went onto every antigun hit list, and with the first "assault rifle" legislation in 1989, importation of complete rifles was halted. The AUG did not fully return to the American market for 20 years.
Meanwhile, Steyr attempted to "civilianize" the AUG to meet U.S. requirements by changing some features, such as removing the bayonet lug and redesigning the stock into a thumbhole type. The USR (Universal Sporting Rifle) was half the price of the original AUG, and 3,000 were imported. Original AUGs, imported before the ban, hit $5,000 used.
When the assault-weapon ban lapsed, the AUG returned but with radical changes. Today, Steyr USA assembles the AUG at its plant in Alabama, and American-made parts are combined with some Austrian-made parts, with matching serial numbers, which puts Steyr on the right side of any future banon imported rifles. Receivers are made by Abrams Defense, and barrels are made by FN in South Carolina.
The design itself was changed, mainly by providing a variety of features in several different models. The "A" series omits the fixed optical sight and carrying handle and fits the rifle with Picatinny rails instead. This allows users to install their preferred sights (battle and optical) as well as accessories. It is available in different colors, including black.
Barrels from 16 to 24 inches have been available, including some with a heavy profile and integral bipod. This means the AUG can fill an enormous range of military applications, from close-quarters combat gun to sniper rifle, and do about anything a civilian competitor might require.
Forty years is a long time in the life of a modern rifle, but the AUG still seems as modern as anything out there. It changed the way we think about rifles.