Gun writer Steve Coulston and photographer Jody Lewis go to Salt Lake City, UT for an exclusive media event featuring the new Desert Tech MDR bullpup prototype.
When it comes to innovation, a small, yet tenacious firearms manufacturer is hard at work pushing the envelope. Desert Tech (formally called Desert Tactical Arms) is located in Salt Lake City, Utah and is housed in an inconspicuous office park. There is nothing about their home that screams firearms or tactical. Rather, it’s quite the opposite and they like it that way. Founded in 2007, they have grown to roughly 50 employees. Their 35,000 square foot manufacturing facility produces some of the finest precision rifles in the world. They don’t make your typical long distance rifle, rather Desert Tech makes bullpup rifles, and they are damn good at it. Their flagship rifle is the SRS-A1, which comes in a variety of calibers and barrel lengths. The SRS and its more compact sibling the SRS-A1 Covert are magazine fed, bolt-action rifles that feature quick caliber and barrel change capabilities. These rifles are capable of 1/2-inch MOA or better at 100 yards. For larger game, like say armored personnel carriers, their HTI rifle is up to the task. The SRS family of rifles has been around for a while and is sold worldwide to any nation the US State Department permits.
Not one to sit on their laurels, Desert Tech has been secretly working on a project over the past three years. At SHOT Show 2014 they gave the world a glimpse of what they had been up to. The Secret Squirrel Project was their new Micro Dynamic Rifle or MDR. Like the SRS the MDR will be another bullpup rifle; however it will come in semi and select fire models. More on that later…
Even though it was just a 3D printed mock up, the MDR was one of, if not the most talked about firearm at SHOT Show 2014. During the show, I had the opportunity to get some time with Desert Tech and handle the prototype. I would later write about my first impressions, which were favorable. There were a lot of unknowns, but one thing was clear. Desert Tech was on to something and I wanted to see more.
The MDR has evolved in the past year and I was anxious to see what Desert Tech had been up to. As luck would have it, they wanted me to know as well. So during the last weeks of December, Desert Tech invited a select group of gun writers from across the United States and flew them to their headquarters in Salt Lake City, Utah. As a bonus, they also flew in two lucky winners from a giveaway hosted on Facebook and Instagram.
My flight out of Washington was less than ideal. The turbulence was so violent, no one was able to stand up and all food and drink service was suspended. One flight attendant said it was the worst flight she had ever been on. Great. Everyone on that flight was ready to get off the moment the plane touched down in Utah. Upon arrival, we gathered all the media folks and piled into a van and hit the road. After a quick stop at In and Out Burger, we drove an hour and a half until we were almost to the Idaho border. Turning onto a dirt road in the black of night we passed a large split boulder that was etched with a Desert Tech SRS and simply said “Sniper Country”. This was going to be fun.
Once at the large log cabin, we grabbed all our gear and piled inside. We had a quick meet and great and then bunk assignments. Afterward we had the chance to pass around an updated MDR prototype and ask questions. Dinner was served and the beers and Jameson were cracked until the wee hours of the night. That night the wind was howling as a storm front moved in. For whatever reason, I didn’t sleep at all.
Once morning finally came, we had a hearty breakfast and piled into the van and headed out to the range. The range consists of 80,000 acres of wide-open spaces. Yes, you read that correctly. 80,000 effing acres of glorious open range dedicated to firearms and tactics training. In my circles we call that heaven on earth. The range itself is a quick 10-minute drive from the lodge. The main area consists of 8 open bays and a long-range rifle course that ranges out to 1,800 meters with a high angle course of 2,400 meters.
After a quick safety brief we broke out into three groups. Each group would cycle through three different stages. One group would work with the Desert Tech MDR, Bushmaster ACR, Heckler and Koch G36 and Heckler and Koch MP5. The next would work an active pistol course with moving targets along with AK-47 and shotgun instruction. The final stage would be to work out the suppressed Desert Tech SRS in both .338 Lapua and .308. Desert Tech needed to burn 12,000 rounds of ammunition that day so it was time to get to it. It’s a tough job, but somebody’s gotta do it. I know you’re feeling bad for me.
The first stage I went to was the precision course. Russ Wallis of Desert Tech and Jesse Spelts of Deliberate Dynamics were standing by to get us up and running on the SRS. Both instructors are USMC combat vets and for the next hour and half they would be our instructors and spotters. After a quick low down on the SRS-A1, I hopped on the .338. We were using Kahles 6×24 glass with the AMR retical that Desert Tech Owner, Nick Young and Russ Wallis designed. Russ was spotting for me and started me out at 600m. After ringing steel he worked me through 700m, 800m and 1000m. Prior to this event I had only ever shot out to 800m. Shooting out to 1000m with the .338 Lapua was fun as hell, but quite frankly it was child’s play. After that, I repeated the process on the .308 version. Same thing, out to 1000m was a walk in the park. The SRS is an amazing rifle and the trigger is phenomenal. Yes, this bullpup had a badass trigger. The SRS-A1 will be by next precision rifle, no questions asked. Due to the time frame and the wind conditions 1000m was as far as we went. The hour and a half flew by and it was time to move to the next station.
Station two for my three-man group was the MDR stage. It was time to see what all the hype is about. The stage was held in a wide bay with a generous amount of targets. The tables had three MDRs, as well as the Bushmaster ACR, Heckler and Koch MP5 submachine gun and Heckler and Koch G36. Why the three, non-Desert Tech rifles you ask? Simple, Desert Tech wanted to show us some of the firearms that helped inspire specific features of the MDR. For example, the Bushmaster ACR has a quick-change barrel, the Heckler and Koch MP5 has a charging handle that can lock in the up position while the G36 has a smooth and slower cyclical rate when riding the fun switch. All of these features would be incorporated into the MDR. Before we shot the MDR we ran through a few hundred rounds on the ACR, G36 and MP5. Desert Tech wanted us to get a feel for these rifles prior to moving on to the MDR. I have lots of experience on the MP5 from my time in the Navy and I have owned the ACR in the past. The G36 was new for me and I must say I was very impressed with the ergonomics, ambidextrous controls and the rate of fire. Adding the G36 to my wish list…
It was finally time to shoot the MDR. So what’s the big deal? There are lots of bullpup rifles out there, right? What sets the MDR apart? Why create another bullpup? According to CEO, Tommy Alexander, the concept for the Desert Tech MDR started with four guys and the question: “What is the fucking coolest thing about an AR that you like?” and “What would you like to see on an AR?” It is those timeless questions that started the MDR design process. Tommy also said Desert Tech really wanted to “corner the AR market [and] take all the good things [they] saw in the AR and put it all into one weapon system.”
The Desert Tech MDR is a versatile, multi-caliber, select fire, bullpup rifle. It is made of metal and composite components. It features a quick-change barrel and is a multi-caliber system. Unlike other so-called multi-caliber rifles, the MDR will initially come to market in both 5.56 and .308 calibers. Other calibers such as .300 blk, 7.62×39 and 6.8 SPC will follow. The same chassis will work for all calibers and will necessitate different barrels, bolts and a magazine well block for the smaller calibers. The barrel lengths will initially be offered in a 16-inch length for the MDR and a 10.5-inch length for the MDR-C. The 16 inch MDR is 27.12 inches long while the MDR-C offering will be a short 21.62 inches in length. All NFA rules will apply. I should note that Desert Tech is really trying to shave the ounces off the MDR. The current prototype weighs approximately 8.15lbs. They are looking for a sub 7.00lb rifle in the 6.50lb range. In order to do this, they may look to lighter materials such as carbon fiber.
I like bullpups and own an IWI Tavor. I should also mention I am very happy with it. That being said, the MDR promises to go beyond the Tavor’s designed capabilities. The MDR is completely ambidextrous right out of the box. Unlike my Tavor, the MDR will not need to have parts swapped out in order to utilize left or right hand versions meaning no need to change out safety levers, charging handles and the like. The MDR sports safety levers on both sides and can be activated with the shooters thumb. The civilian version will be semi-auto only and a burst and full auto select fire version will be available to the military, LEO and NFA market. It has a non-reciprocating charging handle which is located above the shooters hand on both the left and right hand sides of the rifle. Like the MP5 the charging handle can be pulled to the rear and locked in the up position with one hand. No need to use both hands to lock the bolt to the rear. The magazine can be released using three different controls. There is a magazine release that can be activated with the trigger finger on both the right and left hand sides. It is positioned like one would find on an AR rig. In the 4th generation prototype, there is also a lever located in front of the magazine well that can be activated. This is similar to the Tavor. Once the magazine is stripped from the weapon a fresh mag is inserted. The charging handle can be used to charge the weapon or a button located behind the magazine well can depress with the shooters reloading thumb to release the bolt.
There is a continuous top rail that runs above the shooters hand all the way to the muzzle. The prototype we shot didn’t have top rail index markings, but I would hope the final production model will have them. The earlier version of the MDR I saw at SHOT 2014 had integrated back up iron sights. I didn’t notice these sights in the later versions.
When the shooter mounts the rifle, the cheek weld is on a protective steel cover. This cover protects the shooters face in case there is a catastrophic malfunction inside the rifle. Desert Tech has tested this feature and it does work. During early testing they accidentally had a round explode in the chamber. This resulted in two teeth breaking on the bolt and a small crack in the frame. Other than that, the system remained intact and the shooter was unharmed.
Like all bullpup rifles the magazine is inserted behind the pistol grip and trigger. This also means the rounds are ejected from the same location. One of the biggest bullpup gripes comes from left-handed shooters. The issue is when they shoot from their left shoulder; the brass is ejected into their face. Hot brass on flesh is never a good combination. The MDR uses a unique, forward eject system that throws the brass in front of the shooter. The forward ejection system is proprietary and is currently under lock and key. This is a very special part of the MDR platform and they don’t want to spill the beans on how it works internally just quite yet. They did say they have been fine-tuning the extractor which is complicated because of the variable gas settings which effects the ejection cycle.
In case you are wondering, the MDR forward ejection mechanism operates differently than the FN FS2000. Instead of stacking rounds in a tube and vomiting up a bunch of brass every so often, the MDR smartly ejects each spent case after it is fired. This allows left-handed shooters to save face. Literally. It also makes shooting next to a teammate much more pleasant. No need to do the not-so-happy-hot-brass-dance because your buddy dropped a bunch of sizzlers down your collar. In addition, the ejection ports can also be swapped from left to right side depending on shooter preference. This will allow forward ejection on the left or right hand side. Lastly, the forward ejection mechanism can be dropped down and traditional 3 or 9 o’clock ejection can take place. This is also beneficial should there be a malfunction that needs access to be cleared.
The stock and handguard of the MDR are made of polymer composite material. The handguard has space to attach rail sections should they be desired for lights and lasers. The hand guards will eventually come in a variety of configurations. It wouldn’t surprise me if other popular mounting solutions were also provided in the future. The handguard is easily removed by two levers that are located on either side of the rifle. This allows access to the gas block for maintenance as well as barrel changes. The upper and lower are easily separated by using simple take down pins similar to an AR.
Range time with the MDR was exciting. We were all very aware the MDR is still in the design development prototype phase. This was pretty evident by the fact that the majority of the polymer parts were still in 3D printed form. These were working prototypes and had been abused, cut, drilled and modified throughout the design process. We were shooting both their 3rd and 4th generation prototypes in .308. The manual of arms is simple. Insert a fresh magazine, charge the weapon, find a target through the mounted Eotech, disengage the safety and press the trigger. Easy day.
The trigger on the MDR was nice and felt to be about 5lbs or so. It was smooth for a bullpup and nicer than a stock Tavor trigger in my opinion. Shooting a .308 bullpup is a blast. Literally. The muzzle is much closer to the shooters face and each shot is felt more than a traditional rifle. Recoil was presently mild. This is probably due to the mass of the bolt as well as the muzzle brake. I can only imagine the muzzle flash on this bad boy at night. The good thing is they’re all set up to be suppressed, which will significantly help with blast and flash suppression. I shot the MDR right handed, left handed and even one handed. While it was a little on the heavy side, it is still manageable and easily controllable even with one hand. The forward ejection system kept the brass out of my face and in front of me. The ambidextrous controls worked like they should. I did find myself rotating the rifle to look at the ejection port after the last round was fired. Everyone did this thanks to AR muscle memory. Unfortunately there wasn’t much to see with the forward eject system up in place. Should there be a malfunction, it would be difficult to identify the issue. Desert Tech is working on some sort of viewing port to better see what is going on inside the belly of the beast. Take note, transitioning from an AR to a bullpup can be a mind bender and will take a little getting used to. No accuracy testing was performed during our range session.
After we all got our fill of the MDR and our questions answered it was time to move on. My third and final stage was working with TwistRate CEO Evan Hafer and TwistRate President Jeff Kirkham. These guys have decades of special operations experience and are using their skills to make more competent shooters. We worked with Evan on a variety of pistol drills that involved engaging a moving steel target while on the run all the while transitioning to a plate rack. Engage the rack then move to barricade while re-engaging the moving steel. Take cover and engage the moving steel again. Keep moving, keep shooting and reload on the go. I love this type of training and could do this all day, but it is much easier said than done.
After running that drill a few times Jeff took over and dropped some knowledge on the AK platform. Jeff is considered by many to be the foremost authority of the AK series of rifles in the United States. He ran us through a few drills that involved taking shots from behind a vehicle, reloading on the move and taking cover again and re-engaging. He discussed the history of the AK, the benefits, the misconceptions and how to best manipulate it. We then ran some shotgun on clays targets for fun. I should note, Jeff is also the creator of the R.A.T.S. Tourniquet. This is an extremely quick and effective tool to stop excessive bleeding on the arms or legs. He took the time to demonstrate the tourniquet, which is basically a ½-inch bungee cord that is attached to a metal cleat. The cord is wrapped tightly above the wound and secured in the cleat providing enough pressure to slow or stop the bleeding. It can also be carried in a special belt, holster or sling so it is always accessible. Genius.
By then it was getting dark so it was time to pack up. Upon arriving back at the lodge, we were greeted with an amazing BBQ spread. Good food and drink was had by all and the night wore on with good conversation.
After a quick breakfast we all packed up our gear and loaded up in the van to make the 90 minute trip back to Salt Lake City to the Desert Tech home office. Once there, we piled into the conference room and met with shop manager, Don McKay. Don gave us a tour through the 35,000 sf manufacturing complex. He went over how material is brought into the plant, fabricated, finished and assembled. We had the chance to check out all the CNC machines and hear how they work. We visited the QC room and got the rundown on all the various steps they take to ensure their strict tolerances are met. We even got to see some surprises that will make their appearance at SHOT Show 2015. My lips are sealed. It was all very fascinating.
After our tour we went back to the main conference room and compared the entire Desert Tech line up and asked questions. Of course we asked about production volume and schedule. Desert Tech is working to go to production and distribution by Fall 2015. They aim to have enough units manufactured to alleviate any ordering backlog. Their initial goal is to produce 400 to 500 units per month. They are also working with an unnamed sound suppressor company to develop a suppressor specifically for the MDR. Price for the MDR is still being worked on and will be released at SHOT Show.
It was soon time to leave and head back to the airport. A few hours later, Utah was behind me and my time with Desert Tech was over… for now. I hope to visit them again soon. The crew at Desert Tech are great folks and make a fantastic precision rifle system. They continue to push the limits with the MDR platform and I am really looking forward to seeing how the MDR progresses at SHOT Show. I appreciate the fact they are open to user feedback and they take constructive criticism seriously. The prototype has even been sent to SOCOM for initial testing and feedback has been received, however those comments are not available at the time of this writing. Desert Tech is out to develop the rifle of the future and they want it to be right prior to releasing it. They know the world is watching and that is why they will continue to work hard to develop tomorrow’s weapons.
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