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Springfield Armory Hellion: Croatian Sensation

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The U.S. market has never been particularly receptive to the concept of the bullpup, but in certain applications they offer significant advantages over conventional layouts. If you’ve ever tried manipulating a 16-inch barreled AR-15 in and around vehicles, or inside a building, you quickly come to appreciate the merits of an SBR, despite giving up a significant amount of muzzle velocity and downrange ballistic performance. With its 16-inch pipe, the Springfield Hellion is the same length as a 10.3-inch Mk18. Let that sink in. No tax stamp, no “mother may I” note to transport to another state, and about five times the fragmentation range for M193 ball. If (God forbid) the “AFT” gets its way and outlaws pistol braces, then the criterion of short overall length can be met in other ways …

Springfield Hellion

The HS Produkt VHS2, on which the Springfield Hellion is based, is the result of two decades of development in Croatia, where it’s their issued service rifle, carried by all branches of the military, including SF, as well as police SWAT teams. While we at RECOIL can dissect it, shoot it on the range, and offer an informed opinion, there’s a limit to how deep we can dig due to deadlines, and there are problems that just don’t come to light unless it’s been put through the wringer by hundreds of different people. In the name of thorough investigative reporting, we conducted in-person interviews with some of these operators, fueled by copious amounts of Slivovitz, in order to find out their honest opinions following years of service. Bottom line: They like it and haven’t seen any major problems. So much for background; let’s look at the gun.

Hands On

From the outside, the Springfield Hellion looks like it sprung from the fertile mind of H.R. Giger — almost all polymer apart from a hint of steel at the muzzle and its aluminum top rail, it exudes the kind of cool, alien menace found in all the best sci-fi movies. Beneath its plastic skin, however, there’s a good amount of steel and aluminum reinforcement where it counts, and it seems as though the Croatians have learned from the mistakes of the G36. For example, rather than bolt the optics rail directly into the polymer upper receiver, the receiver is sandwiched with steel screws in eight places, along with molded rails to keep things where they should be. The M-LOK forend is likewise railed and keyed, so that there’s almost no chance of zero shift should you mount an IR laser to it. Whoever designed the injection molds for this project deserves a bonus, as once the rifle is assembled, there’s absolutely no slop or wiggle between the major components. It’s an unconventional design, and as such there’s a lot to unpack, so we’ll tear it down and note any significant aspects as we go. 

We’ll start by proving clear and using the ambidextrous, non-reciprocating charging handle to cycle the action and leave the weapon cocked. By pushing out the rear, captive takedown pin, we can remove the adjustable buttstock, revealing the single, central recoil spring wrapped around its guide rod (think AK), along with a second, smaller guide rod located off to the left. Below both is a white polymer buffer. The buttstock assembly is spring loaded and has five positions, roughly ½ inch apart. 

We can now remove the bolt carrier group by either pulling back on the charging handle or using momentum to shuck it out. The carrier features a long extension reminiscent of that on an AK, but omits the piston you’d expect to find, while the multi-lug bolt is familiar from western designs. Looking like a beefed-up AR bolt, it features seven lugs, radiused at both tip and root, and measures 0.785 inch in diameter, versus 0.742 for the AR. The lugs are also longer (0.316 versus 0.284), so assuming decent material specification, it should outperform the Stoner design in terms of longevity. The firing pin is spring-loaded, with a firing pin safety deactivated by the hammer to address any drop safety concerns. 

Pushing an identical captive takedown pin up front allows us to slide off the handguard. Once that’s out of the way, we can then press a large button just forward of the integrated, pop-up rear sight and lift up on the upper receiver to remove it, along with any mounted optics. This provides access to the gas system, comprising a short, spring-loaded operating rod and a shorter, chromed gas piston with gas rings. The gas block itself is double-pinned to the hammer forged barrel, with a two-position valve for normal and suppressed use. When using a can, excess gas is vented to the atmosphere, rather than restricting the amount of gas entering the system. The barrel itself has a logical profile, with a heavy section over the chamber that tapers progressively to 0.590 inch in diameter at the muzzle. 

Springfield Hellion Disassembled
Below its skin, the Hellion is a fairly conventional short stroke gas piston design. The beauty is in the details.

One of the changes for the U.S. market made at the request of Springfield Armory was to the grip frame, which will now accommodate any AR-15 grip, so long as you can operate a screwdriver. Above the grip lies a two-position selector switch with pictograms for “safe” and “fire,” almost identical to the Croatian version, which swings lower to reach the “happy fun time” position. In order to rotate further to reach it, the factory positioned the lever higher on the selector drum than is ideal for semi-auto use. This is one of the few things we’d change — it sticks uncomfortably into the thumb in use and while you could break out the Dremel, it should be corrected from the get-go. 

Springfield Hellion forend

Moving back along the receiver, we encounter a third takedown pin which captures a removable magazine well. There’s not much to gain by popping it out, but it spurs tantalizing thoughts of a 7.62×39 version in the future. At the very rear lies the ejection ports (yes, plural), which are configurable at the user level to accommodate lefties. To change over, simply lift up on the cheekpiece, remove a locking pin in the left side ejection port cover, close the right-side cover, replace the pin in the same location, and you’re off to the races. Well, not quite, but apart from pulling the cam pin and rotating the bolt so that the ejector is now on the right side, you’re pretty close. 

Look closely and you’ll discover a bunch of other cool design touches — such as the cassette-mounted fire control group that can be pulled out of the lower receiver at the press of a button; or the Aramid-wrapped locator pin in the upper receiver, which latches into the gas block but doesn’t transfer heat to the sling swivel stud that passes through it; or the gap between the op rod and BCG extension, which effectively free-floats the barrel. For fans of industrial art, the Springfield Hellion keeps on giving. 

Of course, build quality and clever engineering don’t count for sh*t if the end product won’t perform in the field, so we put the Springfield Hellion through its paces in both its home country and the Arizona desert to get a handle on its weaknesses. 

Springfield Hellion

There are four common criticisms leveled at bullpups, namely that they’re slower to reload, their triggers generally suck, you can’t shoot them left-handed unless you want to lose teeth, and their balance is a bit wonky. We put in several range sessions to see how the Springfield Hellion performs against these criteria. 

Competition use aside (and this assuredly isn’t a comp gun), if you’re accompanied by several of your closest friends who are similarly armed, reload speed is pretty much irrelevant, until you get into Brown Bess territory. As anyone who’s used a 5.56 system for realzies will tell you, we take steps to ensure that not everyone runs dry at the same time during initial contact, and after that the fog of war takes over with everyone expending ammo at different rates, so there’s always someone sending rounds downrange. But what about the rugged individual, alone against an advancing horde? We thought you’d never ask. 

Rounds Downrange

To see just what kind of a disadvantage the Springfield Hellion imposes in terms of reload speed, we set up an IPSC B/C zone steel target at 50 yards along with a shot timer and a couple of decent shooters with ARs. To eliminate as many variables as possible, we used the same mags, ammo, nylon gear, and optic, in this case a Nightforce 1-8×24 LPVO. Putting both guys on the clock, the shooters would start from the low ready with a round in the chamber and an empty mag in the gun, place one hit on steel, perform an emergency reload, then place another hit on steel. This would not only test ability to get ammo back into the rifle, but also to get rounds on target once it was back in action. With their go-to AR-15s that had sent many thousands of rounds downrange, a comfortable mean time from beep to second shot was 3.5 seconds. 

Springfield Hellion iain at the range
Selector lever design makes sense when you can rock and roll, but the semi-auto version can be a bit awkward to manipulate.

Despite adapting on the fly to a bolt release that operates with the support side index finger, rather than using a thumb that has hit the AR’s paddle many thousands of times in both live and dry work, our shooters turned in times with the Springfield Hellion averaging 4.4 seconds. We suspect there’s another couple of tenths to shave off once the drill becomes second nature. When it came to preemptive reloads where the magazine was retained, or when reloading from a plate carrier, the relative ease of removing a retention tab or finding a dump pouch had a much more significant impact on reload speed than the weapon layout. 

Springfield Hellion Iain Firing a
The Hellion is also compatible with underbarrel grenade launchers, should you happen to have one.

While the Hellion’s stock trigger is nowhere near the quality of a finely tuned bolt gun, it’s also no detriment to getting hits on man-sized targets out to 600 meters. If you’re used to striker-fired polymer pistols, then you’ll be right at home with the Springfield Hellion’s trigger feel — given how close it is to an AR design, we expect the usual cadre of aftermarket U.S. companies to jump in and make a kit to improve it. In terms of user experience, think Gen 3 Glock, with about a half inch of take-up before the wall, a somewhat mushy, rollover break, no over travel, and 3/8ths of reset. We used it to print 1.25-inch, 10-round groups at 100 meters with SIG 77-grain OTM ammo, so evidently it doesn’t disturb your sight picture too much.

Shooting from the support side shoulder is a non-issue. Although skeptical at first, we switched shoulders around barricades so often that our necks were rubbed raw by the sling, and never once did we receive an empty case in the mouth. So it would seem the case deflector works well. Of course, if you place your head directly over the ejection port, you’ll instantly regret it, but that’s not exactly a problem unique to this system.

As far as the balance thing goes, this is perhaps the most subjective criticism of bullpups as a whole. Yes, it takes some getting used to. Much of the rifle’s mass is shifted rearward, and with an LPVO in place, there’s a top-heavy component to contend with, particularly when manipulating it with one hand. When patrolling, many come to prefer the butt-heavy aspect, as weight is carried inboard of your torso and long miles are less fatiguing as a result, but anyone with a lot of time behind a conventional rifle will have a period of adjustment. 

Loose Rounds

We had reservations about the gun’s lack of an external bolt hold open, as its presence is an integral part of stoppage drills on many other platforms. And while we never experienced a problem in many hundreds of rounds of different ammo, ranging from 55-grain steel-cased Russian to 77-grain match fodder, it’s an inevitable part of life, and one which should form part of anyone’s training regimen. We staged a double feed to assess the difficulty of clearing it, and the Springfield Hellion performed at least as well as an AR in this respect, though the procedure is somewhat different. In both cases, you forcibly strip the mag, but instead of using your firing hand to reach under the receiver and lock back the bolt, just grab the charging handle with your support hand and use your thumb to lock around the pistol grip after shifting the butt to your left shoulder. Your firing hand is then free to perform the tactical tickle, which is slightly easier due to the Hellion’s bigger ejection port and shorter magazine well. 

In the case of administrative handling, the bolt hold open can be activated by sticking a finger into the magwell. 

Will the Hellion ever unseat the AR-15 as America’s favorite rifle? Not a chance. 

But if you’re looking for a very competent alternative that can fill the same role and excel in familiar circumstances, then it’s definitely worth a look. If you spend much of your time in vehicles or in an urban environment, it’s pretty much tailor-made for you, and while it presently doesn’t have any of the aftermarket support the AR enjoys, you could argue that it doesn’t need it. It’s SBR length out of the box, has all the optics-mounting space you could need, is overengineered for reliability, and capable of placing rounds on target at any distance inside the performance envelope of the 5.56 cartridge. 

Springfield Hellion
It takes time to learn how to get the most out of the Hellion, but the payoff is a gun shorter than a 10.3-inch barreled AR — with the external ballistics of a 16-inch carbine.

We either own or have extensively shot all of the alternative bullpup designs currently on the world market and are pretty familiar with the pros and cons of the concept, having carried one professionally for a decade. The Hellion is right up there with the AUG and Tavor and is supported by a major U.S. manufacturer. Choice is good, and now you have another. 

Just not this particular one, because we’re keeping it. 

Springfield Armory / HS Produkt Hellion

Caliber: 5.56 NATO
Capacity: 30 rounds
Barrel Length: 16 inches
Overall Length: 28 to 30 inches
Weight: 8.07 pounds
MSRP: $2000

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