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Malyuk: Ukraine’s Mystery Rifle

Written by George Colclough

Introduction

The ongoing Russo-Ukrainian War has seen the deployment of an eclectic mix of interesting and unusual firearms. From antique firearms such as the M1891 Mosin Nagant, as seen here in the hands of Russian Regulars and Donbass Separatists[1] and M1910 Maxim Machine Guns, as seen here in the hands of a Ukrainian soldier[2], all the way to ultra modern firearms such as the Beretta CX4, as seen here in Russian hands[3].

The InterProInvest Malyuk, an indiginous select fire Ukrainian assault rifle is chief among these weird and interesting firearms. To all intents and purposes it is a hyper modern bullpup AK rifle, this normally would be weird and quirky enough in itself, but the real interest in this rifle lies in how little we actually know about it, despite its keystone role in attempting to halt the Russian advance into Ukraine, and its regular guest appearances on the 6 o’clock news.

It is a rifle cloaked in mystery and the Ukrainian government has spoken little on it beyond the occasional press release, and even its manufacturer InterProInvest has released little information on it beyond technical specifications.

Today we will endeavour to begin to shatter this elusivity, and give you, the audience, the clearest possible understanding of the Malyuk’s design, development, and deployment from all presently available information.

This is already shaping up to be quite a long episode, so with that said, let us dally no further and jump straight into today’s video!

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Malyuk_assault_rifles.jpg

Design

Malyuk itself translates as “baby”, a term which in this instance is supposed to represent the beginning, or birth of, Ukraine’s modern small arms industry. InterProInvest, the Ukrainian company that designed the rifle, markets it as “Vulcan (Malyuk)” as does Ukrspetsexport, Ukraine’s state owned arms exporter. Media however, both Ukrainian and International typically refer to the rifle simply as “Malyuk”, so for the sake of ease and familiarity, today we shall do the same, and refer to it simply as “Malyuk”.

The Malyuk rifle is actually an AK derivative, as particularly eagle eyed viewers will no doubt have deduced from the giveaway shape of its receiver. But one should not allow the rifle’s 1940’s forerunner to cause any prejudice about this rifle being a highly modern, highly useful, and above all else highly lethal firearm, as this platform is one which is proven, understood, versatile, and still perfectly suited to the modern battlefield.

Derivative really is the keyword however, as the Malyuk in some regards is a significant departure from orthodox AK rifle designs, primarily because of its bullpup configuration. A bullpup firearm is one in which the breech, that being the rear facing space through which the firearm is loaded, is located behind the grip and the fire control group. The logic behind such a design is that by moving key components of the firearms backwards, into what would normally be the stock, and essentially dead space, the overall length of the weapon can be significantly shortened, therefore making it more concealable and manoeuvrable, without having to reduce the length of the barrel, and therefore compromise on accuracy.

The design of any machine however is of course a series of compromises, different refinements in a piece of machinery for the execution of one particular goal or task invariably make it less suited to others, for example, you can either engineer a car to be very powerful, or very economical, not both. Firearms are no exception to this trend, and the choice of a bullpup configuration, while absolutely improving the aforementioned characteristics do come at a cost.

In the case of the Malyuk, and bullpup rifles more generally, this cost is that typically moving the working components of the rifle to the rear makes them at best unsuited, or at worst completely incapable of being fired ambidextrously, as it places the operators face, very close to, or right in the path of the rifles spent cartridges, which typically eject to the right.

But Simon, you wrinkle brained adonis of a Youtuber I hear you all cry from the audience, why can’t you just fire a bullpup rifle right handed?

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ukrainian_soldiers_with_Maliuk_rifles.jpg

Well, you can, but as viewers who have seen our video on the SA80 will remember, this leaves the operator massively vulnerable when firing around right sided corners.

There are exceptions to this typical flaw however, as some rifles such as the FN F2000, which in the authors highly subjective and contentious opinion, is the single greatest battle implement ever devised, have cleverly engineered workarounds so that they eject spent cartridges out of the front, but the Malyuk has no such work arounds, and instead spits its brass out the side just like an SA80.

This does not condemn the entire rifle however, it is entirely a point of personal preference and subjectivity, some view it as a fair trade off, some, such as the author do not. Crucially, the Ukrainian operators who actually fight with the thing, from the limited testimony that can be found, appear to be more than happy with the trade off!

Beyond its bullpup layout the Malyuk is a relatively typical AK type rifle, with its internals basically being cloned from the AK74. It has a 16.3-inch barrel, and weighs just under 8.4 pounds empty. It appears to be 28 inches overall, although this last detail is difficult to confirm, with different sources disagreeing within a small margin.

As one might expect from an AK type rifle, variants of the rifle are chambered for both the 7.62x39mm and 5.45x39mm Soviet designed cartridges, and likewise as one would expect from an increasingly politically westwards drifting nation such as Ukraine, 5.56x45mm NATO.

Few official statements have been made on the rifles magazines, but looking at photographs Malyuk rifles can be seen using a mix of pre-existing magazine designs, and it would appear as though all the different calibre Malyuks use proprietary magazines taken from other rifles. For example, this rifle uses AK47 magazines, so presumably is a 7.62x39mm rifle.[4] Similarly, this rifle uses AK74 magazines, so is assumed to be a 5.45x39mm rifle.[5] Whether these magazines are simply taken from Ukraine’s sizable supply of Soviet manufactured magazines, or newly manufactured is presently unknown.

The Malyuk chambered in 5.56x45mm NATO is a more complicated matter, as the author was unable to find a clear photo of a Malyuk rifle using a STANAG type, or a similar 5.56x45mm NATO magazine, with two potential explanations: firstly, the 5.56x45mm NATO Malyuk’s use an adapted AK type magazine, or secondly 5.56x45mm NATO rifles are exceedingly rare, and generally not being issued to frontline combatants, likely to ease logistics and reduce the number of ammunition types that need to be supplied to combatants. Thanks to a clear and bold declaration on InterProInvests website however, we can confidently say that some 5.56x45mm NATO rifles exist, somewhere.

One detail regarding the magazine the author was unable to find clarity on, and would very much like to in the future, is how ergonomic the “Rock and Lock” style of loading is on a bullpup type rifle such as the Malyuk, that is to say, inserting the front facing side of the magazine first and then pushing up the rear.

Moving beyond the rifles magazine, the top of its receiver has a length of Picatinny Rail that allows for the attachment of various optics and there is another one under the forend for vertical grips and other accessories. There are other attachment points on the sides for lasers and lights.

A number of different variants of the rifle also exist. The key ones being the Malyuk K-01, and Malyuk K-02, commercial civilian models restricted to semi automatic firing, chambered in 7.62x39mm and 5.56x45mm NATO respectively,[6] the Malyuk “Shepit” built with a longer barrel, bipod, and suppressor[7], and the Malyuk “Riff” anti drone weapon.[8]

InterProInvest claims that the Malyuk’s new ‘chassis’, as they call it, makes heavy use of polymer material, and is also specially designed to ensure that heat radiating from the barrel after firing is sufficiently dissipated. This is a more important consideration for a bullpup rifle as compared to a traditional one, as generally speaking, a bullpup rifle will have more of its barrel buried within the weapon, which will choke airflow and limit cooling.[9]

InterProInvest claims that the Malyuk is a rifle which is “More Precise, More Reliable (and), and More Ergonomic than the Kalashnikov Rifle”, and given its identical barrel length of 415mm to the AK74 and essentially cloned AK74 internals, the author has doubts if it is really is “more” precise and reliable than a typical AK type rifle. On the final claim, that the Malyuk is more ergonomic, this seems credible in light of its bullpup layout. Given the lack of experience analysts have with this rifle however, consider the evaluation of all of these claims mothballed until more comprehensive data becomes available.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:%D0%A1%D0%BF%D0%B5%D1%86%D1%96%D0%B0%D0%BB%D1%8C%D0%BD%D0%B8%D0%B9_%D0%B0%D0%B2%D1%82%D0%BE%D0%BC%D0%B0%D1%82_%C2%AB%D0%92%D1%83%D0%BB%D0%BA%D0%B0%D0%BD%C2%BB.jpg

Development.

Prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine was a major contributor to the Soviet defence industry, being responsible for 30% of all defence production, and 40% of all research and development. The Soviet era Ukrainian defence industry was also significantly more advanced than popular legacy would typically imagine, for example the majority of Soviet inter continental ballistic missiles were produced in the Ukrainian city of Dnipropetrovsk, and the Black Sea Shipyard in Mykolaiv produced all Soviet aircraft carriers.

But despite Ukraine’s impressive feats in advanced military production, the nation’s small arms industry was comparatively primitive. Newly independent Ukraine had a spattering of relatively humble arms factories here and there, but lacked anything of the enormous scale of the Tula and Degtyaryov Arms Plant’s found in Russia, both of which were capable of churning out millions of small arms a year at full production rates.

To complicate matters further, often what the newly independent Ukraine inherited were not full and complete enterprises, rather a lot of what they had were small chunks and fractions of previously enormous armaments concerns, the fragments of which were now spread across 15 independent, but formally federalised republics, and now were carved up and divided up along purely geographic lines.

For a time, in the early 1990s these concerns were largely privatised, and left to their own devices to innovate, produce, and sell as they saw fit. In this period Ukraine also began to see the emergence of new private arms enterprises such as Fort, whose Fort 12 pistol went  on to see reasonable commercial success in many post Soviet nations, and XADO, who again went on to see reasonable commercial success, but this time selling, among other things, anti material rifles and machine guns.

Many of the aforementioned privatised industries were once again brought under state control in 1996, when they were amalgamated to form Ukrspetsexport, a new state enterprise tasked not only with developing and promoting a successful Ukranian commercial arms trade, but with also maintaining Ukraines rather sizeable stock of inherited Soviet arms.

It was this mixed and diverse arms industry that the Ukrainian government turned to in the early 2000’s when during a period of military modernisation it sought a new service rifle to replace its stocks of ageing Soviet AK’s.

The Malyuk, which is only one of many such attempts at replacing the aforementioned AK’s can trace its origin back to 1993, when a senior Ukranian Military armourer at the Nizhyn garrison by the name of Anatoly Anatolyev in conjunction with Sergei Naumov, one of his senior officers independently began work on a 5.45x39mm bullpup rifle converted from the venerable AK74. It remained a slow burning pet project of Anatolyev, and the staff of his depot for many years, until the filing of a patent for the conversion in 2001 brought the project to the attention of Anatolyev’s superiors, who ordered the project be transferred to an arsenal in Kyiv for completion.

It took a further two years for the project to reach completion, but finally in August 2003 a completed rifle, now dubbed the Vepr was proudly shown off to the public at the International Specialised Arms Exhibition, with a further nine examples being completed in the following 13 months.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Malyuk_assault_rifle,_Kyiv_2019,_02.jpg

Despite its space age appearance, the Vepr was actually a rather simple conversion of the AK74, differing in the following ways:

  • The standard gas-operated, rotating-bolt mechanism was removed from its furniture and a new butt plate was mounted directly on the rear of the receiver.
  • A polymer cheek rest was fitted to the receiver cover.
  • The trigger and pistol grip was positioned in front of the magazine well.
  • The charging handle was removed from the bolt carrier, and a new charging handle arrangement was placed on the left side of the forearm.
  • The replacement of the AK74 iron sights with an AR15 influenced design.

Simple it may have been, but there is nothing wrong with simple in the world of small arms, and the Vepr proved to be a competent little package, impressing the Ukranian Ministry of Defence with the reasonable improvement over a traditional AK type rifle, as well as the relatively low unit conversion cost of anywhere from $15 USD – $50 USD depending which source you ask.

Duly the Ukrainian Army announced in 2003 that it intended to convert tens and thousands of its ageing soviet AK74 stock into Veprs… and yet… it never happened, not a single rifle beyond that original batch of ten was ever converted, why?

Ultimately, we don’t know, sources typically claim that the Vepr was unsuccessful due to the Ukranian Governments want to move away from legacy Soviet calibres such as 7.62x39mm and 5.45x39mm, but this is a claim which makes little sense, as Ukrainian military procurement following the failure of the Vepr still tended to favour the aforementioned legacy Soviet cartridges, for example the Fort 221, a Ukrainian produced Tar-21 variant was still predominantly chambered in 5.45x39mm, and the vast majority of Malyuks produced appear to be chambered similarly. 

Following the failure of the Vepr, development on what would become the Malyuk itself started in 2005, initially as a response to a contract put out by the Ukrainian Security Bureau, for a modern, lightweight rifle. The aforementioned failed Vepr rifle was used as a starting point, which led to a relatively quick and speedy delivery time of the initial prototypes, which were delivered to the Ukrainian Security Bureau in 2008 for evaluation.

It is known that they loved the rifle, and were quick to adopt it. What is not known is how many were procured, and how they were used, as shockingly, the Ukrainian Security Bureau, like all intelligence agencies, isn’t exactly forthcoming in proclaiming details about its services and operations to the media. The rifle was spotted and photographed by eagle eyed members of the public from time to time during this period, but as the author is very much a fan of Ukrainian culture, was a regular visitor to Ukraine before the war, and would like to continue being so after the war, the author deems it pragmatic to keep those details to himself!

What is known is that it was so well liked, that elements of the wider Ukrainian military soon began to take an interest in it, and samples were provided to the Ukrainian Army some time in 2008 for initial trials and testing. There were then several years of little to no information on the rifle, before it made another appearance in 2015, where it was once again evaluated, but this time by the Department of State Security Guard, on behalf of President Petro Poroshenko.

We don’t know what the feedback was on either occasion, but in the latter instance it must have been positive, as in the same year the Malyuk was publicly unveiled at the 2015 Kyiv Arms & Security Expo. Soon after it made its first international appearance at the 2015 Istanbul International Defence Industry Fair in May in Turkey, before being seen internationally again at the 2016 Baku International Defence Exhibition, in Azerbaijan.

That same year the Ukrainian Army received its first order of 200 Malyuks in 2016, these were not rifles intended to enter frontline service however, they were trials rifles intended for exploration and further testing, as while the Ukrainian Army was no doubt interested in the rifle, especially inlight of the promising improvement since its earlier 2008 tests, the Army would need far more convincing than the Ukrainian Security Bureau before it committed to a large scale order.

The trial of the Malyuk then goes dark yet again, but we can infer that the 2016 trials were at least reasonably successful, as between 2016-2022 sporadic photos of the rifle in service were taken, with it usually being in the hands of special forces and elite units.

This illusivity would not last forever however, and a spotlight most bright and powerful was illuminated onto the Malyuk on the 24th of February 2022, when the Russian Army poured across the North, South, and Eastern borders of Ukraine and began its invasion.

The full mobilisation of the Ukrainian military in response, along with Russia’s complete failure to destroy Ukraines communications infrastructure resulted in a steady stream of amateur photographs of the rifle in service trickling their way onto social media, providing a wealth of sources for firearms analysts to work their way through, and the chance for you the audience to learn some more about this rifles use in service.

This photo was shared by Ukraine Weapons Tracker on the Second of March 2022, in it we can see a group of Ukrainian soldiers celebrating the successful capture of a Russian BTR-80 Armoured Personnel Carrier.[10] In this photo two Malyuk’s can clearly be seen, one on the soldier taking the selfie, and another behind him. What makes this photo interesting is the soldier standing between them – look at how differently he is dressed, the two aforementioned soldiers are clad head to toe in the latest style of military equipment; FAST style helmets, full body armour, and multicam pattern camouflage. The soldier in the middle is equipped much more modestly, he has no helmet, no body armour, and in their place has a spattering of multicam pattern camouflage, a simple webbing harness, and an old AK74. From this we can deduce that the soldier taking the photo, and the soldier to the right are likely Ukrainian military regulars, possibly, but not certainly special forces, with the soldier in the middle likely being a reservist. From this we can begin to deduce that there are not enough Malyuks in Ukrainian inventory for total adoption, and instead it is being prioritised for regular, or more elite troops.

This photo also emerged on the Second of March 2022 which further supports the hypothesis that Ukraine’s supply of Malyuk rifles are being prioritised for highly trained regular, and special forces troops[11]. Initially shared by Calibre Obscure on Twitter, two Malyuks can clearly been seen in the hands of what appear to be special forces, the give away being the high quality of their issued equipment, such as the previously mentioned FAST helmets, in addition to the Ground Panoramic styled night vision goggles (GPNVG’s) two of the soldiers can be seen equipped with, it is unclear whether or not these are American manufactured L3 Harris goggles, or an indigenously manufactured example, but either way they are not a cheap piece of equipment, retailing for around $40,000 USD off the shelf to you or me, and presumably marginally less for a wholesale military contract. Therefore, given Ukraine’s modest military budget, and its small number of GPNVG sets, we can assume that the soldiers holding these Malyuks are indeed special forces, and speculate even further that the Malyuk is being prioritised for well trained and elite regular troops. 

In addition to looking at photos of soldiers who ARE equipped with the Malyuk, we can also find details of its use by looking at photos of soldiers who AREN’T equipped with it, such as this one.[12] This photo, initially shared by war photographer Rodrigo Abd, shows what one would expect to see on a more “typical” Ukrainian soldier, he’s not terribly equipped by any measure, but nonetheless represents a significant departure from the previous two photos analysed. Rather than multicam camouflage he wears a mix of indigenous pattern camouflage, alongside British derived desert DPM camouflage, he has no helmet, and it is unclear whether or not his carrier has any plates inside of it, although of course it cannot be ruled out that these could be a personal preference on his part, or that he simply is not wearing it at the time the photograph was taken. Furthermore he carries a Soviet vintage AK74 with an underfolding stock, a rifle design we know from previously in the video the Ukrainian government was trying to move away from.

As previously stated, he does however much better represent the “typical” image of  a Ukrainian soldier in the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian War, and thus between this photo, and the previous two analysed, we are able to begin drawing conclusions that the Malyk rifle, which we know to have only been procured in limited numbers to begin with, is being prioritised for more elite troops.

For every rule, there is an exception however, and while it certainly appears as though the Malyuk is being prioritised for highly trained regulars and special forces troops, sporadic photographs have emerged of the rifle in the hands of irregular troops and militias, as seen in this photograph, first shared by Twitter user War Noir on the 27th of February 2022.[13]

The Malyuk has also been spotted being used by the controversial Special Operations Detachment Azov, more commonly known as the Azov Battalion, as seen in these photos released by the unit, it also appears as though they have quite a substantial number of them.[14] As this group was formally incorporated into the Ukrainian National Guard on the 11th of November 2014 it is likely these Malyuk’s are government supplied, although it should be stressed that this cannot be confirmed with presently available information. Why this group bucks the trend, and appears to be so well equipped for a reserve/militia unit, is also presently unknown.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Malyuk_assault_rifle,_Kyiv_2019,_01.jpg

Closing Remarks:

With that, there is little else to say about the Malyuk from presently available information, and our short and sweet look at the rifle comes to an end. Before we close however, there is one final thing to be said.

It is important to remember that as information on the Malyuk is sporadic and at times unreliable, this analysis is somewhat speculative, and should be contextualised within the scope of the sources presented. Due to the ongoing nature of the Russo-Ukrainian War, we, as analysts have to make do with the sources we have available, and in the future, when more transparent and comprehensive sources are available these hypothesis’ may of course be proven incorrect.


[1] https://i.ytimg.com/vi/yDd8NFftuXI/hqdefault.jpg ; https://preview.redd.it/gnndirql0yl81.jpg?width=640&crop=smart&auto=webp&s=df09e1d12d1d12b4795ea0763c82a1296ea74d61

[2] https://www.economist.com/img/b/834/469/90/media-assets/image/20220514_BLP503.jpg

[3] https://pbs.twimg.com/media/FPGozg6XMAQoVsQ?format=jpg&name=4096×4096

[4] https://www.thedrive.com/content/2022/03/Bullpup-Rifle-Ukraine-War.jpg?quality=85&auto=webp&optimize=high&quality=70&width=1920

[5] https://pbs.twimg.com/media/FM_SYD4XMAIhpfS?format=jpg&name=4096×4096

[6] https://tabuksite.files.wordpress.com/2022/04/malyuk-k-01-copy-2.png?w=1024

[7] https://tabuksite.files.wordpress.com/2022/04/glv05376-scaled-copy.png?w=1024

[8] https://tabuksite.files.wordpress.com/2022/04/img_viber_2020-06-22_13-32-50.jpg?w=1024

[9] https://www.thedrive.com/content-b/message-editor%2F1646948839994-malyuk-heat-transfer.jpg?auto=webp&optimize=high&quality=70&width=1440

[10] https://pbs.twimg.com/media/FM3NtnGUcAMeaNP?format=jpg&name=small Editors Note: According to its initial caption, there is a body in this photo, but I can’t see it… have a quick look to make sure its censored out, if in fact it is there!

[11] https://pbs.twimg.com/media/FM2LYSOX0AsUC8z?format=png&name=small

[12] https://static.timesofisrael.com/www/uploads/2022/03/Untitled-3-14.jpg

[13] https://pbs.twimg.com/media/FMo2yarWUAARLyf?format=jpg&name=large

[14] https://pbs.twimg.com/media/FMu5vjVXoAIoKpY?format=jpg&name=4096×4096 ; https://pbs.twimg.com/media/FMho4ewWYAIb9OY?format=jpg&name=large

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