When I say SA80 you're probably picturing a bullpup rifle, and you're not wrong, although it's wise to know that the term SA80 refers to an entire family of small arms, not just the rifle variant . The SA80 consists of the L85 Rifle, L86 Light Support Weapon, L22 Carbine, and L98 Cadet Rifle.
They are all derived from the same family of rifles and systems, but use different configurations for different roles. Unfortunately, the whole weapon family tends to suck, or at least it has for a long time.
History and development of the SA80
In the late 1970s, the British were still armed with the L1A1 rifle, a derivative of the FN FAL. The world was changing from heavy 7.62mm battle rifles to lighter and more compact 5.56 caliber assault rifles. The British Army turned to the Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield Lock to develop the family of weapons that became the SA80.
The British had long been experimenting with bullpup rifles and lighter cartridges. In fact, the British developed the EM-2, a .280 British bullpup rifle in 1951, although they abandoned the program to standardize with NATO. The Enfield L64 was a very first assault rifle in an intermediate caliber of 4.85. It was prototyped in 1969 and was also a bullpup.
The British loved bullpups. A bullpup takes a standard rifle and moves the action behind the trigger. This significantly shortens the length of the weapon and makes it much more maneuverable and much better suited for combat inside buildings and for use in and out of vehicles and armored personnel carriers.
When the British wanted a new, lighter rifle, they predictably opted for the bullpup layout and kept their 4.85mm cartridge. 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 soon after.
The birth of the SA80
Eventually, engineers at the Royal Small Arms Factory developed the SA80 family of rifles. They were dragged, kicked and punched, to chamber the new 5.56 rifles.
The British obeyed NATO, and throughout the 1970s rifles kept getting better. They were heavily influenced by AR-18 rifles, to the point that the weapons are almost directly linked. These weapons are known as L85A1 and L86A1.
Almost immediately, the rifles ran into trouble. The L86A1's bipod tended to not lock, be weak, and generally not work. In addition, the plastic melted when it came into contact with the insecticide and the metal rusted easily. The weapons proved unreliable in arctic and desert environments.
The SA80 family used stamped steel, which the British were already familiar with in the form of the Sten pistol.
However, the Sten had much lower tolerances than the SA80. Tighter tolerances required more skilled labor and better machinery. This resulted in tons of waste and slow production of the SA80 family of rifles and squad support weapons.
Towards the war
Their first combat test was in the Gulf War, and later in operations in Africa. It is difficult to say anything positive about the performance of these weapons in the desert. The L85A1 and L86A1 proved to be unreliable. The L85A1 worked best in fully automatic mode, and the L86A1 in semi-automatic mode. These weapons were created in reverse of how they were meant to be used.
Polymer furniture falls apart easily. Magazines and the magazine latch proved to be problematic.
Too easy to access, it encouraged soldiers to accidentally drop magazines. The top cover latch required tape to hold it in place. Weapons had to be kept incredibly clean and could deform if grabbed 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 wet and render the weapon unusable.
SAS Operator and Gulf War Commando Chris Ryan said the SA80 was "a shoddy weapon, unreliable at the best of times, prone to breakdowns, and seemed pretty hard to rely on. "
The MoD report
It's easy to see why rifles sucked. The British Ministry of Defense has commissioned a report which states,
"The SA80 did not perform reliably in the sandy conditions of combat and training. Shutdowns were frequent despite extensive and diligent efforts to prevent them. It is extremely difficult to isolate the root cause of these shutdowns. .
It is quite clear, however, that the infantry did not have confidence in their personal weapons. Most of them expected a stop from the first magazine fired. Some platoon commanders felt that casualties would have been caused by weapon failures had the enemy put up any resistance during trench and bunker clearing operations.
Even disregarding the period of familiarization with desert conditions, when some could still use the incorrect lubrication drill, the stops still occurred."
The HK Solution
Over time, the British began to improve the weapon. In 2000, the rifle was given to Heckler and Koch for repair. At that time, the British company BAE Systems owned HK.
HK tackled the weapon and focused on producing a more reliable SA80 family. The L85A1 and L86A1 LSW have undergone an extreme amount of changes. HK redesigned the cocking handle, modified the bolt, extractor and hammer assembly. HK has turned the failed family of small arms that is the SA80 into a reliable and capable rifle and light support weapon.
Improvements made by HK also resulted in a carbine variant with the development of the L22 Carbine. This ultra-short rifle used a 12.5 inch barrel which made the weapon even shorter and more maneuverable for close combat. These carbines were issued to armored vehicle personnel and later to the Royal Marine Fleet Protection Group.
The future of the British rifle
In 2016, the A3 program was ongoing. The program promised to modify the SA80 family to more modern platforms. The L86A2 would be upgraded and leave military service. The A3 program offered soldiers a full-length rail for accessories, and its weight was slightly reduced. We also get an FDE finish to improve camouflage in a multitude of environments.
For now, the British do not seem in a hurry to replace the SA80 family of firearms. They continue to serve around the world in the hands of regular troops. It should be noted that the SAS used the C8 carbine, which is basically an M4 carbine. For now, the Queen's troops use the L85A2 and the A3.
The SA80 was initially one of the worst rifles ever used. Fortunately, over time, the weapon developed into a capable assault rifle.