Factory Tour: The IWI Factory
ABOVE: The original UZI with wooden furniture.
Israel is a small country with an interesting history. Since their declaration of independence in May 1948, the Israelis have fought numerous wars and anti-terror operations to defend their land and thus created their own weapons industry based on necessity. They manufacture their own naval ships for the Israeli Navy and produce Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) for the Israeli Air Force. They also produce their own main battle tank, called the Merkava, which is now on its fourth variant. They are famous for the Iron Dome missile defense system, the first of its kind, developed to counter artillery rockets from the neighboring Gaza Strip. Israel is one of only eight countries in the world capable of launching satellites into space, and they boast a set of reconnaissance satellites.
Israel Weapon Industries (IWI) is the small arms division of IMI Systems (formerly known as Israel Military Industries), which is privately owned by a conglomerate called SK Group. Israel Military Industries was founded after World War II in an underground facility that protected them from being attacked or bombed. They have an extensive portfolio of products, ranging from the infamous UZI submachine gun to the Galil rifle, which is based on an improved design of the Finnish Valmet AK variant, to the JERICHO series of pistols, which are based on an improved design of the Czech Republic’s CZ 75/85. The Galil was originally developed as a general infantry weapon, while the UZI was designed to be used by IDF special forces due to its compact size relative to a rifle.
The standard UZI was introduced in 1954, and it was originally fitted with wooden furniture, which was soon changed to plastic with a metal folding buttstock. It had a 10-inch barrel with an automatic rate of fire of 600 rounds per minute when chambered in 9mm. The .45ACP variant was a bit slower at 500 rounds per minute. In 1980, the MINI UZI was introduced, which measured only 14.2 inches with the stock folded and had a 7.8-inch barrel. Weighing in at 6 pounds, it has a higher rate of fire of 950 rounds per minute. The MICRO UZI is an even smaller version introduced in 1986. It is 11 inches long with the stock folded, and it has a 4.6-inch barrel. The most recent variant, the UZI PRO, was introduced in 2010 with polymer components to make it even lighter. It fires from a closed bolt only and has Picatinny rails on top and at the 3 and 9 o’clock positions for accessories such as optics, lasers and flashlights. The charging handle was moved to the left side instead of the top.
It was in early November that I sat in front of my computer and watched the showcase YouTube video of a new bullpup rifle from IWI: the TAVOR 7. On the same day, they released another video about their all-new polymer striker-fired pistol called the MASADA. I heard rumors of the company working on a polymer pistol over a year ago, but there was very little information on the new rifle. I immediately contacted IWI in Israel and made my travel arrangements. Ten hours after stepping on the plane, I found myself for the first time in the Middle East.
IWI is located in Ramat HaSharon, a city about 25 minutes north of Tel Aviv. Going into IWI is not easy, as the facility is housed within IMI Systems, where they also produce parts for the Merkava main battle tank and other munitions. The whole site is fenced in, and there are cameras everywhere. I was strongly advised not to take any photographs of the site. The front gate has four automatic rising bollards the size of big tree stumps. They certainly will block most vehicles, including large tanks. I had to check in at the security building and provide my passport. I also had to be escorted by an IWI employee at all times once on site.
The tour begins in the CNC machines section, which contains over 50 large CNC machines that fill the entire section of the building and appeared to run continuously for several hours. Some of the machines were cutting the receivers for the NEGEV light machine gun. After machining, the parts were checked against a jig to ensure the dimensions are correct.
Every IWI firearm features their cold-hammer-forged barrels. The factory has a total of five cold hammer forge machines made by GFM of Austria, with one dedicated machine specifically set up to produce 40mm barrels for their grenade launcher. The main benefits of this process are added strength and extended barrel life. The barrel blanks are several feet in length and cut according to the barrel length required. First, a hole is drilled in the center. Then, the barrel is fed into the hammer forging machine, which has four hammers that apply thousands of pounds of pressure to the workpiece while pushing and turning it slowly to create the signature swirling pattern. This process only takes a few minutes, and the finished barrels are elongated to double their length due to the realignment of the steel’s molecular structure. Fresh from the machine, the barrels are warm to the touch. After that, the rifling and chamber will be cut, polished and chrome-lined. The profile of the barrels will be further machined down, hence the finished product does not exhibit the swirling pattern.
The assembly is done manually. Each assembler has his or her own station, with gun parts neatly organized in small blue bins and a parts breakdown diagram on the wall for reference. One person puts together the bolt carrier assembly, while another might be installing the Picatinny rail and ejection door on the polymer furniture. After assembly, each firearm is test fired at their test range nearby. Quality control will randomly pick a few guns from a batch and shoot one or two full magazines to ensure reliability. For the Galil Sniper, however, they will take each rifle to the shooting range and do a 10-shot group at 100 meters to ensure sub-MOA accuracy with match ammunition.
The TAVOR 7 is more similar to the original TAVOR than the newer X95 in appearance. One would assume that their mechanisms of operation are similar, and that the newer rifle has simply been upsized to accept the larger 7.62x51mm NATO ammunition. Nothing could be further from the truth. While they are all bullpup in design, the TAVOR 7 uses a short-stroke gas piston system instead of the long-stroke mechanism of both the original TAVOR and X95.
As an improvement over the X95, it features Magpul M-LOK attachment slots for accessories at 3 and 9 o’clock. This saves weight over the Picatinny rail, as M-LOK accessories can be attached directly. A Picatinny rail is retained at 12 o’clock for optics and is hidden by a hand stop cover at 6 o’clock for their 40mm grenade launchers, vertical grips and bipods.
One of the major complaints about the TAVOR/X95 platform is how difficult it is to lock the bolt back when making the rifle safe. The user has to pull the charging handle to the rear and pull the bolt lock tab behind the magazine with the other hand to lock the bolt back. While this function is retained in the TAVOR 7, it features a bolt lock design similar to that of the MP5, which requires the charging handle to be rocked all the way to the rear and flipped upward 45 degrees. It can be released simply by lightly hitting it downward, but some people like to slap it for a more dramatic effect.
The cold-hammer-forged barrel comes in 17-inch or 20-inch variants, with four gas settings that can easily be changed with a bullet. Position one is normal, position two is for harsh conditions, position three is the suppressor setting and the last position shuts down the gas completely, which will cause the rifle not to cycle. The 5/8-inch-24 muzzle thread means that the rifle is compatible with muzzle devices designed for AR-10 rifles.
The TAVOR 7 can quickly be reconfigured from right- to left-handed setup (and vice versa) using only the tip of a bullet as a tool. The complete process takes less than a minute with some practice. The process starts with switching the charging handle, which is held by a detent that is pushed out by a bullet. Next, the ejection ports are essentially sliding doors. Pull the right-hand-side deflector out and slide it toward the muzzle. Rotate it 180 degrees and you will feel it locking into position and seating in place. Once the bolt carrier group is removed by popping out the rear takedown pin and dropping the buttpad, the retaining pin for the firing pin assembly can be popped out with the tip of a bullet and the firing pin will fall out with a simple shake. By removing the cam pin, the bolt can be rotated 180 degrees to the opposite direction. The cam pin is then reinstalled in the proper orientation, as it has the letters “L” and “R” engraved on top, with the correct letter facing you (“L” in this instance), so that it can only be installed correctly. Reassemble the rifle in reverse order of the above and voila.
With all of this said, it was when I got to the range that the TAVOR 7 really shone. It is extremely easy to control, due to its weight being balanced more toward the rear. It is not heavy compared to other 7.62x51mm rifles due to the heavy use of polymer including the handguard. With the right stance, one can place full-auto three-round bursts on target within 50 meters off hand. The compensator is very effective at taming the heavy recoil of the 7.62x51mm cartridge. Within minutes, the user can attach a bipod and a scope. In so doing, the rifle becomes a Dedicated Marksman Rifle (DMR) that can reach out to 800 meters, the round’s maximum effective range.
Sadly, I was unable to test the TAVOR 7’s accuracy. IWI only had a limited number of prototype rifles available, and this particular example had sent over 10,000 rounds through its barrel as part of its torture testing. IWI claims it is 1MOA capable with match ammunition. When this model hits the store shelves and it is in customers’ hands, there will certainly be more reports on this.
Despite the number of rounds fired, the rifle showed little wear externally and internally. This is certainly a testament to its engineering and its creator’s 80 years of knowledge about small arms manufacturing. I cannot wait to get my hands on the production rifle and add it to my own collection.
Simply put, the IWI MASADA is modeled after the tried and true design of the most popular striker-fired polymer pistol on earth: the Glock 17. The G17 is currently used by the IDF, Israeli police and many other law enforcement and special units. It’s also not surprising that the G17 is the most popular pistol owned by Israeli civilians. The MASADA improves upon it by having an enlarged trigger guard for use with gloves, aggressive and deep slide serrations for improved grip—with the addition of front serrations that have become the new industry standard. It has interchangeable back straps that come in three sizes, and both the width and length of the grip can be changed.
Its steel magazines hold 17 rounds and are manufactured by Mec-Gar in Italy. They have slots along the magazine body to channel water, dirt and dust. The polymer base pads feature raised tabs for grabbing with your fingers, in case the magazine does not drop free due to a malfunction.
The slide and magazine releases are on both sides, making the pistol completely ambidextrous out of the box. The trigger weight is between 5.5 and 7 pounds; it felt nearer to 5.5 pounds on the example I tested. The prototype pistol had already had a few hundred rounds through it, which might explain this. The reset feels positive, I would rate it between those of the Glock 17 and Smith & Wesson M&P.
To begin with, I was shown an early prototype at the factory that had a very long reset, like that of a Beretta 92FS. The newer prototype at the range does not have this long trigger reset issue, and I was told it is more representative of the trigger in the production units. Rapid firing was very easy once I got comfortable with the trigger reset, which did not take very long, as I am a long-time user of the Glock 17 myself. I found that, with my medium-sized hands, I can either use the medium- or small-sized back strap. The small size gave me a bit more purchase around the grip, but I am sure this will be even more noticeable if the shooter has smaller hands.
The ambidextrous magazine release is in a good position, and it protrudes slightly from the frame. The button on the opposite side did not get in the way, which is a plus.
Production of the MASADA has yet to begin at the time of writing. It is expected to be available sometime in 2018, and it has already generated interest from Israeli special forces.
Working closely with the Israeli Defense Forces, IWI can quickly test and get end user feedback on its weapons. This formula to success is unique to this company and to the small arms industry as a whole. There is no doubt that IWI will continue to thrive, with plans already in place to open a brand-new facility in India to expand its manufacturing capability. The Indian factory will be set up to produce the X95, Galil Sniper, TAVOR and NEGEV light machine gun. The components made there will also be exported back to Israel then exported worldwide. There are also rumors of the company going public by doing an initial public offering (IPO), with the total sum of its shares estimated to be around US$565 million. The additional funds from the IPO can be reinvested into further research and development and production improvements. I would love to revisit them in the near future to see the new products they will have for us.