Choosing the name of the most popular home video cassette system for your nation’s rifle might not have been intentional, but that’s the association that the Višenamjenska Hrvatska Strojnica (multipurpose Croatian automatic weapon) would not be able to shake off easily. Anyone who knows anything about weapons would also recognize the source of the stylistic inspiration – the French FA MAS F1 “Bugle,” an icon of the 1980s on par with the Phillips video cassette recorder system called the Video Home System.
The history of the Croatian rifle, brought to the market by the HS Produkt company of Karlovac (named after their first market hit, the HS9 semiautomatic pistol, known in America as the Springfield XD) started in 1992, during the Croatian War of Independence. The ancestor of the company, IM Metal, built a prototype bull-pup rifle based on the M70 Kalashnikov AKM copy manufactured by the Crvena Zastava for the pre-war Yugoslavia. The limited technological capabilities of the war-time company and lack of experience on the side of designers doomed the rifle from the start, but the military was hooked on the easy-handling bull-pup and more prototypes appeared, along a hectic development timeline, revisiting almost every automatic rifle design concept ever devised. The first prototypes (1992 and 1996) were AKM developments, gas-operated with a long-stroke piston. Then in 1999, the first French connection took place when the designer, Marko Vuković, put a delayed blowback mechanism straight out of “Le Clarion” (the Bugle) into it. This was not necessarily a success, as just a year later he beat a hasty retreat to the gas-operated gun, this time making it a direct gas impingement with novel forced ventilation feature forming a pneumatic cushion behind the bolt. The patent was applied for in that form, and its vague description coupled with a blurry drawing misled many authors to form a myth of a “gas cushion” feature with powder gases being bled behind the bolt – which was never the case. Externally the 2000 rifle was a very much cluttered eclectic mix resembling somewhat the Singapore’s SAR-21 or Israeli Tavor coupled with a HK G36 style enormous carry handle, armed to teeth with 1913 rails in such a quantity, that one could hang an impressive array of fashionable tactical extras all over. This was the form of the VHS that was shown in a series of promotional photos in 2005. But even as that display was taking place, a final form of the VHS was eventually taking shape as of 2004. This time it was a bare-bones short-stroke piston-driven gas-operated weapon with all the frills of the prototypes gone. And surprisingly, then the French connection came back with a vengeance, but this time only in external features of the rifle.
The first 50 VHS-D rifles (20-inch barrel) and VHS-K carbines (16-inch barrel) were for troop testing in Croatia, but also in Iraq and Afghanistan, when Croatian contingents were deployed with NATO forces, were ordered on November 19, 2007, and handed-over on November 24, 2008. The testing (including a service-life testing, reportedly aborted after 50,000 rounds with no main parts breakage) took part in the first quarter of 2009, followed by a decision announced by Croatian MoD, Mr. Branko Vukelić, to accept the VHS into the inventory of the army and initially order 1,000 each of both variants, at a unit price of ca. 1,500 EUR (since then lowered to ca. 1,000). The Croatian Army announced their intentions to replace 60,000 aging ex-Yugoslav Kalashnikovs with the VHS, which were eventually also to replace the HK G36 carbines (G36K and G36C) bought for the Special Forces and foreign deployments in order to achieve interoperability with NATO.
With such ambitious intentions the purchasing rate fails to overwhelm so far: after initial 2,000, the next batch of 3,000 were, due to budget austerity measures, ordered in 2011, and then 2012 procurement figures are as feeble.
Bugle On the Outside
The external looks of the VHS reveal the source of inspiration to be the French FA MAS rifle, but even the first glance inside makes it obvious, that the inspiration is only on the outside – thankfully. Instead of the Király-style lever-delayed blowback bolt, the VHS has an honest rotary bolt head, and is a gas-operated weapon with a short-stroke piston. The military VHS is a selective-fire weapon, capable of semiautomatic and fully automatic fire, with no burst option. The civilian-legal version would be available in semi-only configuration.
Both D and K barrels are fitted with a birdcage-style flash-hider, and the D offers rings turned into the barrel to control the rifle grenade launching range. According to the photographs of the Croatian military in action, their version also has got a French-style sliding grenade boom guide impaled on that barrel, as well as a swing-arm grenade high-angle launching sight, which can be used with the rifle held turned on the side. Contrary to the French model, which is bolted to the receiver under the carry handle, the Croatian grenade sight is bolted to the underside of the carry handle. Both features are absent from the export model.
Gases are bled from the bore to a gas chamber above the barrel. There, they are channeled through the gas regulator, inserted from the front. The regulator has three positions, ‘normal,’ ‘high’ (larger opening for reliable operation with weaker ammunition) and ‘cut-off’ for grenade launching. The regulator is impaled on the gas piston, fitted with a return spring of its own. Due to different barrel lengths, VHS-D and VHS-K each has its own regulator, with different diameters of the ‘normal’ and ‘high’ channels, so each is marked accordingly on the front bar. The bar (or rib) is marked ‘1’ on one end, serving as a regulator position indicator (points to barrel on ‘normal’) and ‘K’ or ‘D’ depending on weapon’s type.
The regulator body has got three retaining/positioning lugs around the circumference, and is (piston) spring-loaded. To change the position one has to press it inwards enough to withdraw the lugs from the abutments, then turn towards the next setting through 120° and release, letting the spring reposition it in the gas chamber. If the gas assembly is released before the next abutment has a chance to catch the lugs, the whole assembly will pop-up from the rifle, and can be withdrawn for cleaning. How’s that compared to the gas piston removal procedure from the SCAR?
Channeled trough the regulator, the gases push against the gas piston. The piston hits the operating rod, extending all the way forth, from the bolt-carrier – similar to the SCAR. The operating rod is hollowed to cut down weight, and houses the return assembly – a captive spring on a guide rod anchored in the receiver back plate. The bolt-carrier is hung beneath the operating rod. The bolt is of the recently (i.e. for almost half of a century) most popular system – turning bolt head with a multiple locking lugs engaging into the barrel’s locking ferrule. It is popularly associated with Eugene Stoner, who was indeed a great fan of it (AR-10, AR-15, AR-16, AR-18), but in fact it was first used by Melvin Johnson, albeit for the short-recoil operated weapon.