Kel-Tec KSG vs. UTAS UTS-15: Gun Review
We stage a battle of bullpup shotguns that have remarkably similar capabilities—both hold 15 shells—but with different designs.
Every once in a while, people who don’t communicate with each other get the idea to build something similar at the same time, but come at it from different directions. For the end user of the product, it usually ends up being an interesting, and sometimes expensive war for the marketplace. Like when VHS went up against Beta in home video formats, and again, later with Blu-Ray battling HD DVD.
In the gun world, this happened quite recently as two companies tried to create a compact bullpup pump-action shotgun that had a higher capacity than any other pump on the market. Since pumps have been introduced, their capacity has been limited to the length of the magazine tube running under the barrel. There are, of course, exceptions. Many trap and other competitive shooters use magazine tube extensions that extend farther than the gun’s barrel, and there are kits that will let some pumps feed from a box or drum magazine, but they’re specialty products that aren’t so easily adapted to field use.
Let’s start with what a bullpup is, and why there is such a thing. On a traditional long gun, the order of parts from front-to-back goes muzzle/barrel/action/stock. The stock (with the exception of AR-style rifles with a buffer tube that extends into the buttstock) is usually a bunch of wasted space, mechanically. Some are a solid hunk of wood or some synthetic material, others incorporate a mechanism that allows the user to adjust for overall length and length of pull.
A bullpup seeks to eliminate that space by using the buttstock to contain the firearm’s action. This allows for a shorter overall firearm to be built without sacrificing barrel length.
For instance: A standard military M4 carbine has a 14.5-inch barrel and an overall length, with the stock fully retracted, of 29.8 inches and a length of 33 inches with the stock extended. The IWI Tavor SAR B16, a bullpup rifle, is only 26.125 inches long overall, with a 16.5-inch barrel. That makes it at least 3.6 inches shorter, yet with a 2-inch-longer barrel, than the M4.
There are, of course, drawbacks. Learning to operate a bullpup can be difficult for someone trained on a conventional rifle, simply because many controls are in a different place. Also, they aren’t typically very friendly for ambidextrous use because of the location of the ejection port in the stock, near the shooter’s face. But advancements in firearm design are mitigating these drawbacks, and bullpup rifles such as the FAMAS, the Tavor, the Steyr Aug, and the British L85 have seen extensive military use.
When it comes to bullpup shotguns, there haven’t been many. But recently, two companies went back to the basics of shotgun design and came up with an interesting design for a bullpup: put two magazines tubes on one on pump gun.
What resulted were the KSG from Kel-Tec, a sleek little 12 gauge with a whopping capacity of 14+1 2-3/4-inch shells; and the UTS-15 from UTAS, with a matching capacity but a completely different arrangement and action. Both feed shells from two different magazine tubes into one barrel, but in totally different ways.
Let’s compare them, point by point.
Looks and Handling
The UTS comes with an A2-style pistol grip. It can be swapped out for any AR grip, which is nice. It’s a strange looking gun, evoking memories of the Plasma Rifle from the Aliens movie or some other boxy futuristic weapon, rather than a real shotgun. The fact that the entire housing is plastic doesn’t help, either, but yes, it’s a real gun in there.
At first, the UTS might feel a little top-heavy with so much gun perched upon that narrow grip, but once it’s shouldered, in settles right in like most bullpups do, and feels compact and maneuverable, as you would expect with just an overall length of 28.3 inches and an 18.5-inch barrel.
The more compact frame makes the KSG feel more handy overall, and it actually is 2.2 inches shorter than the UTS, with an overall length of just 26.1 inches and an 18.5-inch barrel.
As it is with nearly all bullpups, there’s no adjusting the stock for length of pull on either gun, so it is what it is. For most people, it will be comfortable enough. For larger framed folks with long arms, both guns can be an odd fit.
Controls and Features
The UTS safety matches the pistol grip, in that it’s the simple AR-style lever set-up. It’s not very friendly for lefties, as the shells eject from the right side of the stock, in line to hit southpaw shooters in the face. This ejection cannot be reversed.
The UTS magazine tubes are located side-by-side above the barrel, making sort of an upside-down triangle shape. Since the slide can’t be mounted on the barrel, which is at the bottom of the gun, another tube has to be added to the receiver for the slide to be mounted to—but UTAS doesn’t waste this space, offering an optional combination tac light and laser sight that lives inside that otherwise hollow tube. Overall, the arrangement makes for a fairly tall gun.
The UTS has a full-length top rail, with no rails on either side, but that’s mitigated by the fact that UTAS offers a flashlight/laser combo unit that fits right into the otherwise hollow tube on which the slide is mounted. It also ships with a fairly nice set of iron sights that are perfectly capable.
The KSG has a large, easy to read button-type safety operated by the trigger finger. The shells don’t eject left or right but down (more on that later).
The KSG comes with nothing but a top rail and some sling loops built into the gun. It does not come with iron sights. (For testing, I actually installed the UTS-15 irons on the KSG and used an old set of AR sights with a carry handle on the UTS, to match the A2 grip.)
The KSG slide has a bit of plastic rail built into the actual polymer of the slide that can be used to attach a vertical foregrip, a popular accessory for the short gun, along with angled foregrips (like I’ve installed), or a simple hand stop, which is a recommended accessory for a gun this short, because it is physically possible for a shooter to reach the muzzle with his non-shooting hand.
The KSG mag tubes are located below the barrel and the slide is simply wider, mounted around both tubes.
The company offers a variety of custom accessories for the UTS-15, including a single-point sling mount and a barrel extension that threads right into the choke tube threads (it accepts Benelli-style choke tubes).
There are plenty of aftermarket products you can get for the KSG, including a cover that mounts on the top rail and adds shell carriers to both sides of the gun and extensions for the rail on the slide so there’s room to add a laser or tac light. You also can get stick-on patches that make the metal receiver more comfortable for your face while shooting. The grip on the KSG is integral and can’t be swapped out like the UTS, but it will accept more grippy covers like those offered by Talon, or sleeves like the one I installed from Hogue.
Loading the UTS-15
Here’s where the designs of the two models really stand apart.
On the top of the UTS, toward the rear, each magazine tube has a port with a metal flap covering it, similar to the ejection port cover on an AR. They’re held shut with simple spring detents that pull open with enough force. To load, pop them both open, revealing the two followers that must be pushed forward and locked out of the way to reveal the loading ports.
Then, you can start pushing shells into the tubes. The seventh shell in each tube will just kind of sit in the loading port until you close the loading port door and the followers are released, pushing it partway into the receiver. There isn’t enough room for it to fit in the actual magazine tube.
Once you close each the loading gate doors on both tubes, the action is ready to be pumped and chambered. It’s kind of an odd operation. If you want to top off a magazine tube and you open one of the loading port doors, you’ll see parts of two shells. You will actually have to push the existing shells forward until they lock in the tube to clear the loading gate so you can push in more rounds.
Here’s a video from UTAS that shows you exactly how it works:
A small lever on top of the receiver dictates which magazine tube the shotgun will feed from, allowing a shooter to load say buckshot in one tube and slugs in another, or any combination of loads, and switch back and forth at will. But remember, the lever is actually blocking one magazine tube or the other, it’s not a selector switch. So from the shooter’s perspective, it’s inverted: if the lever is pushed to the left, it will feed from the right tube, and vice versa.
If the switch is in the center, the gun will feed from each magazine tube alternately, allowing the shooter to run through all 15 rounds without stopping.
The UTS, like most pumps, has a slide release, and its location can make using it challenging. The release is a button on the very bottom of the buttstock, pretty far back. This makes it very difficult to release the slide with the shotgun still shouldered, and impossible to do while keeping both hands in the shooting position. You either have to let go of the pistol grip with the shooting hand or let go of the slide. Either way, it’s a multiple-step operation and perhaps the weakest aspect of the gun’s design.
Loading the KSG
The KSG loads very differently, and perhaps in a more familiar way for most shooters, because the magazine tubes are underneath the barrel.
Everything happens through a large port underneath the action/stock. It serves as the ejection port, directing the empty shells straight down, which is good for lefties. Both magazine tubes, as well as the tube selector, can be accessed from here. It has a lever-type magazine tube selector like the UTS, but it doesn’t have the capability to feed alternately from either tube, just one at a time.
Likewise, the lever must be switched to the appropriate tube to load it. You do this by simply pushing the shells into the tube until they catch the shell stop just like on a normal pump gun, except there are two stops, side-by-side. The KSG could be tactically reloaded on the run, if necessary, and it’s fairly easy to top off the tube, something that’s not really possible with the UTS-15 without setting the gun down.
Neither gun likes to be short stroked, so the slide must be worked forcefully and deliberately for reliable feeding. The only jam I had in the KSG was when I loaded it up with some low-brass target rounds. It didn’t like the low brass, leaving a big indentation in the jammed-up shell right above the top rim of the brass, pushing it into the plastic hull. It looked like the hoofprint of an extractor. I stayed away from the low brass on both guns from then on and had no more problems with the KSG, but more on jams below.
The KSG also has a slide release located in the most convenient place possible. The ambidextrous butterfly lever is mounted right in front of the trigger guard and can be easily operated with the trigger finger.
Clearing a Jam
What happens when you experience a stoppage, which occurred to both guns during my testing? On the UTS, when the slide refuses to slide or the hammer just goes click, you must lift up the metal cover that comprises the top of the receiver/stock. This reveals the gun’s bizarre loading mechanism. When the slide is pulled back, a shell from one of the magazine tubes is fired back into this area by the tube spring. As the slide is pushed forward, it’s slapped down by a sort of upside-down elevator into the action, closing the breech and chambering the shell. Sometimes, the shells didn’t do what they were supposed to do in there and had to be pried out or pushed back into their magazine tubes.
I’d known about some difficulties running the UTS-15; there are plenty of Youtube videos of the first incarnations of the guns simply refusing to work. I also knew the problems with the design and materials had since been worked out by UTAS. So, when it started to jam up right at the start, I stuck with it, and tried not to blame the gun.
I realized quickly that you not only have to avoid short-stroking the action by really hammering it back and forth, but you also have to make sure the stock and action are firmly tucked into your shoulder while doing so. Making these small adjustments, the gun ran fine for the rest of the day with 2-3/4 and 3-inch shells.
So there is a learning curve when it comes to loading and operating the UTS-15. There isn’t as much of one with the KSG, which has a simpler operation with fewer moving parts. The UTS is slow to load, especially with gloves on, and speed loaders won’t work.
Don’t get me wrong—the KSG isn’t exactly a breeze to reload either, especially if you have larger fingers (the design also precludes the use of speedloaders) and the one jam I did have was kind of a nightmare to clear because of the limited dimensions of the port. I didn’t have to resort to disassembling the two major parts of the shotgun, but came close. However, the KSG isn’t nearly as sensitive to user error during operation as the UTS. And that brings us to…
Results at the Range
Learning curves and user-caused jams aside, both shotguns performed admirably, hurling buckshot, birdshot, and slugs downrange through their smoothbores with the accuracy and pattern you’d expect from open-choke, 18.5-inch barrels. As a turkey hunter, all I could think was how comfortable the little KSG would be in a turkey blind, which would be feasible since Kel-Tec makes an adapter that will allow you to use screw-in choke tubes to get tight turkey patterns.
Though the UTS comes choke-tube ready, I had no real desire to take it into the field. Yes it was shorter than my normal turkey gun, but my Mossberg 535 with a pistol grip simply feels more nimble and handy.
The UTS-15 is the larger, heavier gun and it seemed to absorb recoil much better than the KSG, which is a notorious kicker. I tried a few rounds with the stock stock rubber buttpad, which is pretty pathetic, so I slid on a Limbsaver small-sized recoil pad. Then I decided to punish myself by trying a few 3-inch turkey rounds. I only got through about four. In that little gun, they kick—hard. But regular 2-3/4inch 00 buckshot loads were very comfortable, and so were 1-ounce slugs, especially with the Limbsaver in place.
The felt recoil of the turkey rounds was a bit less in the UTS, but they still kicked hard on account of the gun’s light weight.
Once I learned how to run them, blasting through 14 or 15 rounds at a time was a whole lot of fun, and the damage it did to the targets, even when firing birdshot, is a testimony to just how much shot these little guns can put downrange.
I will say that the short stocks tend to spread the recoil to the shooting hand a bit more. After two days of 200-plus rounds, my paw was hurting.
Both the UTS and the KSG are awesome guns. They’re innovative, striking, and fun to learn and shoot and they do what they’re supposed to, namely hold 14 rounds in the magazines and let the user deal with a sizeable threat without having to reload.
That being said, the KSG seems to be the better designed, and the easier of the two to use, with far less potential for frustration. There are just too many things that can go wrong with the UTS, too may pieces that could break off, too many moving parts to get dirty and gummed up and frankly, in two days at the range, I had a lot more problems with the UTS, regardless of whether the source was the ammo, the user, or the gun itself.
The KSG is more compact, easier to load, and a more agile firearm. I would hesitate to call it more reliable without a more rigorous, long-term test of both guns, but on the short term, it functioned better. In the drawbacks column, the KSG doesn’t come with nearly as many bells and whistles as the UTS-15 (it can’t come with iron sights, really?) and is less customizable.
Here’s the specs on both guns:
A special thanks to Federal Premium Ammunition, Kel-Tec, Ted Hatfield at UTAS, and the Sportsmen’s Center in Bordentown, NJ.