The SA80 was initially one of the worst rifles to ever be fielded. However, over time, the weapon stretched its legs and became a capable assault rifle.
When I say SA80, you likely picture a bullpup rifle, and you’re not wrong, although it’s wise to know that term SA80 refers to an entire family of small arms, and not just the rifle variant. The SA80 consists of the L85 rifle, the L86 light support weapon, the L22 carbine, and the L98 Cadet rifle. They are all derived from a single family of rifles and systems but utilize various configurations for different roles. Sadly, the entire family of weapons tends to suck, or well, they sucked for a long time.
The SA80 History and Development
In the late 1970s, the Brits were still armed with the L1A1 rifle, a derivative of the FN FAL. The world was moving from the heavy 7.62mm battle rifles to the lighter, more compact 5.56-caliber assault rifles. The British military turned to the Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield Lock to develop the family of weapons that became the SA80.
The British had been experimenting with bullpup rifles and lighter cartridges for quite some time. In fact, the Brits developed the EM-2, a bullpup rifle in .280 British in 1951, although they abandoned the program to standardize with NATO. The Enfield L64 was a very early assault rifle in an intermediate 4.85 caliber. It was prototyped in 1969 and was also a bullpup.
The Brits loved bullpups. A bullpup takes a standard rifle and moves the action behind the trigger. This shortens the length of the weapon considerably and makes it much handier and way better suited for combat inside buildings and use in and out of vehicles and armored personnel carriers.
When the Brits wanted a new, lighter rifle, they predictably went with the bullpup layout and kept their 4.85mm round. They liked the design of the AR-18, which offered a short-stroke gas piston, as well as the stamped sheet metal construction. They produced a bullpup variant of the AR-18 but moved on shortly after.
The Birth of the SA80
Eventually, the Engineers at the Royal Small Arms Factory developed the SA80 family of rifles. They were dragged, kicking, and streaming to chamber the new rifles in 5.56. The Brits obliged NATO, and throughout the 1970s, the rifles would keep improving. They had a lot of influences from the AR-18 rifles to the point where the weapons are almost directly related. These weapons would be known as the L85A1 and the L86A1.
Almost immediately, the rifles were plagued with problems. The L86A1’s bipod tended to fail to lock, were weak, and generally crappy. Additionally, the plastic melted when it interacted with bug repellant, and the metal rusted easily. The weapons were found to be unreliable in both arctic and desert environments.
The SA80 family used stamped steel, which the Brits had experience with in the form of the Sten gun. However, the Sten had much lower tolerances than the SA80. The tighter tolerances required more skilled labor and better machinery. This led to tons of waste and slow production of the SA80 family of rifles and squad support weapons.
Their first trial by combat came to be in the Gulf War and then later in African operations. It’s tough to say anything nice about these weapons’ performance in the desert. Both the L85A1 and L86A1 proved to be unreliable. The L85A1 worked best on fully automatic, and the L86A1 worked best on semi-auto. This created was the inverse of how the weapons were intended to be used.
The polymer furniture fell apart easily. The magazines and the magazine catch proved problematic. It was too easy to access and would cause soldiers to accidentally drop magazines. The top cover catch required tape to hold it in place. The weapons needed to be kept incredibly clean and could deform if gripped too hard.
The weapon overheated quickly, the firing pin was fragile and broke easily, and dirt could accumulate behind the trigger and prevent it from being pulled. The safety selector could swell when it got wet and render the weapon useless. SAS operator and Gulf War commando Chris Ryan stated that the SA80 was “poor-quality, unreliable weapons at the best of times, prone to stoppages, and it seemed pretty tough to have to rely on them.”
The MoD Report
It’s easy to see why the rifles sucked. The British Ministry of Defence commissioned a report that stated,
“The SA80 did not perform reliably in the sandy conditions of combat and training. Stoppages were frequent despite the considerable and diligent efforts to prevent them. It is extremely difficult to isolate the prime cause of the stoppages.
It is, however, quite clear that infantrymen did not have CONFIDENCE in their personal weapons. Most expected a stoppage in the first magazine fired. Some platoon commanders considered that casualties would have occurred due to weapon stoppages if the enemy had put up any resistance in the trench and bunker clearing operations.
Even discounting the familiarisation period of desert conditions, when some may have still been using the incorrect lubrication drill, stoppages continued to occur.”
The HK Solution
Over time the Brits began improving the weapon. In 2000 the rifle was given to Heckler and Koch to fix. At that time, the British BAE Systems owned HK.
HK went to town on the gun and focused on producing a more reliable SA80 family. The L85A1 and L86A1 LSW underwent an extreme amount of changes. HK redesigned the cocking handle, modified the bolt, extractor, and the hammer assembly. HK turned the failure of a small arms family that is the SA80 into a reliable and capable rifle and light support weapon.
HK’s improvements also made a carbine variant possible with the development of the L22 Carbine. This ultra-short rifle utilized a 12.5-inch barrel that would make the weapon even shorter and handier for close-quarters combat. These carbines were issued to personnel in armored vehicles and later the Royal Marine Fleet Protection Group.
The Future of the British Rifle
In 2016 the A3 program was underway. The program promised to modify the SA80 family into more modern platforms. The L86A2 would be upgraded and would exit military service. The A3 program offered soldiers a full-length rail for accessories, and its weight was reduced slightly. We also get an FDE finish to enhance camouflage across a multitude of environments.
As of now, the Brits don’t seem to be in a rush to replace the SA80 family of firearms. They continue to serve across the world in the hands of regular troops. It’s worth noting that the SAS utilized the C8 Carbine, which is essentially an M4 carbine. For the time being, the Queen’s troops wield the L85A2 and A3.