Anthony G Williams


Seventh revision, April 2013, with thanks to the many individuals who have provided more information 


The British SA80 series weapons have been severely criticised for many years as being ill-conceived, seriously unreliable and generally hopeless as military equipment. Is this fair, or are the weapons better than their reputation suggests? And what is going to happen when it is due for replacement?

I should start by saying that I have no military experience and have never even fired an SA80. However, I have been gathering information about them for years (much of it contradictory) and this article is an attempt to provide a balanced judgment of this weapon.


First of all, what is the SA80 and how does it relate to the L85 and L86? SA80 is the name of a family of rifles and light machine guns produced for the British armed forces. The two combat weapons of this family are the L85 IW (Individual Weapon) rifle and the L86 LSW (Light Support Weapon) light machine gun, which is very similar to the rifle but has a longer, heavier barrel and a built-in folding bipod. It should be noted that the terms L85 and L86 should not be used on their own, as they are always followed by an "Ax" designation. The first models of both were the L85A1 and L86A1; they have since been succeeded by the A2 versions of both. There is also a manually-operated training weapon in the SA80 family (the L98A1), and a short-barrelled carbine was initially offered but few were made. More recently, a very short-barrelled L22A2 carbine has been adopted for service for tank and helicopter crews.

The L85A1 and A2 and L22A2 are described in detail and illustrated on Max Popenker's excellent site at with the L86A1 at

The SA80 was designed in response to a NATO competition, held in 1977-79, to establish a rifle and MG cartridge to replace the 7.62x51 NATO, together with the associated weapons. The British developed a 4.85x49 cartridge and the SA80 (then known as the Enfield Individual Weapon) to fire it. However, the result of the cartridge competition was really a foregone conclusion as the USA had already adopted the .223 cartridge and M16 rifle. This was duly adopted as the 5.56x45 NATO round, albeit in a different loading with a heavier bullet at a lower velocity. The winning loading was the Belgian SS109 semi-armour-piercing; the US version of this is the M855, whereas the original US round is designated the M193. The heavier and longer bullet required a barrel change for the US weapons, as the rifling twist had to be increased to stabilise the bullet (apparently a specific problem with the tracer round).

The British had of course realised the almost certain outcome, so their 4.85x49 round was based on the 5.56x45 case, and converting the SA80 to fire the new NATO cartridge was simply a matter of changing the barrel, although other modifications were made as a result of the trials. The US Army adopted the M16A2 and the British the L85A1, together with the L86A1, in 1985; other nations produced a variety of weapons designed around the new standard cartridge.


The SA80 was unusual for the time in being a bullpup design, i.e. the action and magazine are behind the pistol grip. This had been favoured by the British since the late 1940s, and featured in the 7mm EM-2 rifle (which is probably the most famous military rifle never to see service). This preference initially resulted from a desire to select a cartridge which combined a good long-range performance (so it could replace the .303" in rifles and MGs) with a light enough recoil for fully-automatic fire from the shoulder (so it could replace the 9mm SMGs). To achieve the latter aim, the rifle had also to be very compact, which led to the bullpup layout.

In the years since the EM-2 design, the importance of compactness had become all the greater since infantry were increasingly being carried in armoured vehicles and even helicopters, in which space was short. So the bullpup layout was retained in the SA80.

To give an idea of the benefits of the bullpup, the L85A1 with a 20.4" (518mm) barrel is 30.9" (785mm) long, whereas the M16A2 with its 20" (508mm) barrel is 39.6" (1,006mm) overall. The short-barrelled M4 carbine version of the M16 is 33" (840mm) overall, or 760mm (29.9") with the telescoping butt collapsed, but to achieve this means shortening the barrel to 14.5" (368mm). In other words, the M16 can only match the L85A1 in length by losing six inches (150mm) from its barrel and having its stock collapsed. To give another comparison, the L86A1 LSW has a 25.4" (646mm) barrel but is considerably shorter than the M16A2 at only 35.4" (900mm) overall.

The SA80 is of course not the only bullpup 5.56mm rifle around. The futuristic Steyr AUG and the French FAMAS both use this layout, as do other recent military rifle designs in this calibre, perhaps most notably the FN F2000 and the IWI Tavor which has been adopted by both the Israeli Army and Indian special forces. Apart from the American weapons (which all consist of variations on the M16 theme) the only significant new Western non-bullpups in recent years are the Heckler & Koch (HK) G36 and 416, and the FN SCAR.

The main criticisms of bullpups are that they tend not to feel as well-balanced in the hands as conventional rifles (although to some extent that is a matter of what you are used to), and they are not suited to left-handed shooting as the spent cases are normally ejected to the side, which in a bullpup means into the left-handed firer's face. Some, like the AUG, can be easily converted for left-handers, but that isn't much use if the user merely wishes to switch to left-hand firing for a few seconds when firing to the right around the corner of a building, for instance. The only bullpup to solve this completely (apart from the caseless HK G11) is the new FN F2000, which ejects the cases forwards and downwards so is suitable for either hand without modification. The SA80 was reportedly offered with a left-hand conversion kit, but in British Army service is strictly right-handed only.

The mechanicals of the SA80 were derived from the AR18, an American design which was intended as a lower-cost rival to the M16 but never adopted by a major army. In theory, putting the AR18 mechanism into a bullpup layout was a simple and risk-free task. However, that proved not to be the case.


The SA80 was the last weapon developed at the Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield. It experienced considerable development problems despite a trials programme which lasted years; some tests were repeated over and over. One problem was the constant change in project staff, at least three changes occurred during the development period. This seemed to result in some of the repetition of the testing. Ejection was always a problem; the angle of the ejected case varied considerably as the gun heated up and the rate of fire changed, which is why the ejection opening is so big (one reason why it had so many problems with sand).  The conversion from 4.85 to 5.56 also caused a complication, the rate of fire dropped dramatically as the gas port was left in the same position but the pressure/time curve of the rounds were different, so the gas ports had to be enlarged considerably. This was less marked on the LSW due to the longer barrel. The situation was made worse by the insistence of Radway Green producing 5.56 using chopped tube rather than ball powder. The chopped tube gave a lower port pressure and rate-of-fire. The 'girder' under the LSW barrel came about as the Army wished to fire two round bursts from it. With the original bipod which was attached to the gas block one round went high right and the second low left. Firing a succession of double taps gave two distinct groups and the additional ironware and the muzzle mounted bipod was the final solution..

Although adopted for service, problems soon began to surface: To quote Ian Hogg (Military Small Arms of the 20th Century) writing in 1990:

"…the first five years of this rifle's service have been disastrous. A number of manufacturing defects showed up in service conditions, and it was not until the closure of the RSAF at Enfield and the setting up of an entirely new production line, with new computer-controlled machine tools, at the new RSAF Nottingham, that the quality of the production weapons began to improve. It will take some time for the poor reputation gained by the initial issue weapons to be overcome; the only consolation is that the same sort of thing has happened to other military rifles in the past, and they have managed to live down their early reputation and prove their innate reliability. It is to be hoped that the L85A1 will do so as well."

It was not to be. Only a year later, the SA80 went to war in the Gulf, and the results were appalling. Of course, dirt is the enemy of any automatic weapon, and there is plenty of it in terms of sand and dust in the Gulf. The L85A1 proved seriously unreliable in semi-auto mode (a bit better in full-auto) whereas the L86 ironically performed the other way round. For the first time, the SA80's problems went beyond the military and into the public arena. Every man in the street learned that the British Army had a dangerously inadequate weapon; the popular press were demanding change.

Apart from the reliability issue, other complaints raised about the SA80 were:

After various attempts at denial, and years of applying minor fixes that eased some problems but failed to solve the big ones, the Ministry of Defence bowed to the inevitable in 1997. They considered buying the M16 and M4 "off the shelf", but in the end commissioned HK to undertake a thorough revamp of the SA80 (HK was by this time owned by Royal Ordnance, so was in effect a British company - it has since been returned to German control). The changes were expensive (92m - about 145 million dollars/euros) and comprehensive, as follows:

Some 200,000 weapons were converted to the A2 specification between 2000-2002. The MRBF (Mean Rounds Between Failure) test scores achieved by the L85A2 in a variety of environments averaged 25,000, although dropping to just under 8,000 in the hot and dry conditions of Kuwait. The L86A2 was subjected to a tougher test and achieved a much lower overall average (just under 13,000) but performed slightly better than the L85A2 in Kuwait. Much confidence was publicly expressed that the problems had been resolved and the British Army now had a rifle to be proud of. Details are provided on the British Army's official website at: as follows:


The Armed Forces Minister, The Right Honourable Adam Ingram, today announced the results of the exhaustive SA80 A2 modification trials programme. As a result of the modifications the A2 is one of, if not the most reliable 5.56mm rifle in the world.

Both variants of the SA80 A2, the Individual Weapon (IW) and the Light Support Weapon (LSW) were subjected to a series of gruelling tests during which over 3 million rounds were fired. The trials were conducted in four phases and were designed to test the A2’s reliability in a range of challenging climatic conditions.

The tests set by the MOD are the toughest reliability criteria imposed by any nation. On average, across all of the trials, the IW fired an average of 25,200 rounds before it failed a test, known as a battlefield mission*. The LSW, which has a much tougher mission requirement, fired an average of 12,897 rounds before it too failed. This compares very favourably to all of the small arms in its class** and exceeds the expected service life of the A2 (10,000 rounds, after which it is refurbished). It is, therefore, possible for an A2 to suffer no failures during its service life.

The A2 will be issued on a phased basis from December 2001. Although the unmodified SA80 is a capable weapon the modification programme can be brought forward, if there is an operational requirement to do so. There are currently around 10,000 modified weapons in stock.

The modification programme will cost around 92 million, including the cost of spares, trials etc. Around 200,000 weapons will be modified.

The Armed Forces Minister, The Right Honourable Adam Ingram said “The trials were designed to push the weapons to the very limit of their endurance. I’m delighted to say that the SA80 A2 passed with flying colours. It is more than capable of the task that we have given it and it will equip our armed forces until a new small arm is introduced in around 2015.”

Major Andrew MacDonald (Princess of Wales Royal Regiment (PWRR)), the head of the trials team said “I’m convinced that the SA80 A2 is the best 5.56mm rifle in the world, if there is a better one I haven’t seen it yet.” He added, “If I was going to go to war tomorrow I couldn’t think of a more reliable and accurate weapon to take with me than the A2. It would certainly be my weapon of choice.”

Flight Lieutenant Ian Caesar (RAF Regiment) added “I was in Brunei for the tests where I was impressed to the point of boredom. Whenever there was a stoppage, which was very rare, people woke up and came running to have a look. The reliability of this weapon has been hugely improved”.

and here: as follows:

SA80 A2 – Questions and Answers

Q What is the SA80 A2 weapon system?

A It is the name given to the SA80 Individual Weapon (IW) and Light Support Weapon (LSW) that were introduced into service in 1986 as the new general purpose small arm for the Armed Forces. The A2 variant is the modified version of both the IW and LSW.

Q How does the MOD measure reliability?

A It is measured by how often the weapon fails during a battlefield mission. It is presented in terms of Mean Rounds Between Failure (MRBF).

Q What is MRBF?

A This is a measure of the average number of rounds that are fired between failures of a battlefield mission test. The battlefield mission requires the IW to fire 150 rounds in 8 minutes 40 seconds and for the LSW to fire 960 round in 36 minutes (see the Q&A on the SA80’s initial in-service reliability on page 5 for further information).

Q What is the A2’s MRBF?

A The MRBF varied in each of the test environments and between weapon variants:


Individual Weapon

Light Support Weapon

Trials Type/Location



Cold/Dry - Alaska



Temperate - UK



Hot/wet - Brunei



Hot/Dry - Kuwait






The minimum expected life of the new components is 10,000 rounds. It is, therefore, possible for an A2 to suffer no stoppages during its life.  

Q Why does the MRBF vary between environments?

A Each test environment – arctic, jungle, desert and temperate – places different demands on the weapon system. Deserts, for example, are the most challenging environments for all mechanical devices, not just weapons. Sand makes its way into the weapons mechanism and this causes advanced wear and can foul the working parts. All weapon systems, such as the M16 and AK47 display different levels of reliability in each climatic environment.

Q Where were the tests run?

A The arctic tests were run in Alaska (US Army’s Cold Regions Test Centre in Fort Greely), the jungle tests in Brunei (Seria), the desert tests in Kuwait (Kazma) and the temperate tests in the UK (Warminster).

Q What has been modified?

A The list includes:

1.       Breech block,

2.       Breech bolt,

3.       Cartridge extractor,

4.       Cartridge ejector,

5.       Recoil springs,

6.       Extractor spring,

7.       Firing pin,

8.       Cocking handle,

9.       Magazine (the whole magazine has been replaced),

10.   Gas plug and cylinder,

11.   Hammer,

12.   Barrel extension

13.   Barrel (LSW only).

Q Do these minor changes really make that much of a difference?

A Yes. For example, the firing pin, a known problem area, has not suffered a single problem during the trial programme – around 3 million rounds have been fired without one breakage.

Q How much will the modification programme cost?

A The modification programme is expected to be around 92 million. This includes the cost of spares, trials etc. The cost is within the overall cost envelope approved in June 2000 (92.25 million).

Q How long will it take for all of our Armed Services to receive A2s?

A Based on the current estimate it will take four years and three months – from December 2001 to February 2006.

Q Why is it taking so long?

A This isn’t a particularly long time. The MOD is modifying around 200,000 weapons. These have to be withdrawn from service, modified and reissued. This all takes time. Ideally we would like to issue all of the armed forces with the modified weapons at the same time but this isn’t practical. Nor is it unusual for weapons to be gradually introduced into service. When the SA80 A1, for example, was originally introduced it was phased into service between 1986-93.

Q How many A2’s are there?

A We currently have 10,000 modified SA80's in stock. This will increase to 15,000 in  December 2001.

Q Can the modification programme be put into a higher gear?

A Currently H&K are modifying 3,000 weapons a month. This is already planned to increase to 4,000 a month in May 2002.  It is theoretically possible to increase these numbers still further . This would, however, increase the cost of the programme.

Q Are there plans to increase the number of SA80's modified each month?

A Currently no. The details of the UK’s participation in the current conflict are undecided. A decision will be made in light of any possible military involvement.

Q Are there plans to issue A2’s to any troops who may be involved in combating international terrorism?

A The SA80 A1 is a good weapon. The A2, however, is more reliable in extreme environments. It is the MOD’s intention to ensure that our troops have the best weapons available to them. If and when any troops are deployed they will be equipped with equipment appropriate to the task. The A2 is already available in considerable numbers, and if we need to bring forward the issue of the weapons we will do so.

Q Why does the MOD have a stock of A2s?

A It was always the MOD’s intention to shave an operational stockpile for just this sort of contingency. This is designed to give the MOD the option of issuing A2’s, if appropriate, to units ahead of the planned rollout programme.

Q Why were A2’s not issued to troops involved in exercise Saif Sareea?

A The troops involved in exercise Saif Sareea deployed at a time when the MOD was building up the operational stockpile. Issuing A2’s would have eaten into the stockpile. There are, moreover, no current plans to deploy any troops involved in exercise Saif Sareea at the end of the exercise.

Q Will the phased introduction reduce the combat effectiveness of our Armed Forces?

A The unmodified SA80 is a capable weapon system. So units who have not received the modified weapon will still remain effective. It is, however, fair to say that the modified SA80 system will increase the combat effectiveness of the units that are issued with them in extreme environments. Priority will be given to units in the JRRF and in operational theatres. In this way the troops who have the most urgent operational requirements will receive the weapons first.

Q When will X unit receive the modified SA80?

A The issue programme is still being drawn-up. The current plan, however, is for the Infantry Training Centre (ITC) Wales to be the first to receive supplies of the modified weapon (December 2001). The ITC conducts the key battle courses for junior and senior NCOs. The full rollout will commence in the New Year with 3 Commando Brigade (May 2002). We will, of course release further information in due course.

Q Which units are the lowest priority?

A The units with the lowest operational requirement.

Q How will the modified weapons be issued?

A The modified weapon will be issued to whole formations, such as 3 Commando Brigade, in one go. All of the units that make up the formation such as infantry, armour, artillery and signals will receive modified weapons. This will avoid any problems associated with having a mixed fleet of weapons e.g. fitting unmodified spares to the modified weapon.

Q What would happen if modified and unmodified components were mixed?

A Depending on the part the most serious effect would be to reduce the weapons reliability. At worst the weapon would fail to function. There are no known safety risks.

Q How difficult is the A2 to maintain?

A It isn’t difficult to maintain. As with any mechanical system good cleaning and preventative maintenance are essential to ensure the best performance.

Q How lethal is the A2?

A Because of its accuracy the A2 is very lethal. The average user of an A2 has a higher probability of incapacitating their target than they would using a comparable service rifle, particularly at longer ranges.

Q The A2 fires the 5.56mm round. Aren’t larger rounds better at penetrating body armour etc?

A The 5.56mm round travels at a very high velocity. When it comes into contact with a target a great deal of force is directed in a small area and this gives it very good penetration characteristics.

Q Will the A2 be able to be fired from the left shoulder?

A No. They will continue to be fired from the right shoulder. Left-handed troops are, however, able to accurately fire the weapon from their right shoulder.

Q The design goes back to 1945 so it isn’t surprising that the SA80 is unreliable?

A No. The Royal Small Arms Factory Enfield produced the first bullpup prototype in 1945. The current SA80 bears only a superficial resemblance to the 1945 model. The technology, materials, optics, manufacturing processes etc have all moved on since 1945. Indeed, the gas operating system used in the modern automatic and semi-automatic rifles first appeared in 1905.  So just because it is an old principle it doesn’t mean that it is flawed!

Q Will the A2 be readmitted to the NATO nominated weapon list?

A The SA80 is fully compatible with all of the 5.56mm rounds produced by other NATO countries. We fully expect the SA80 to be readmitted and the trials are currently ongoing. The results of the trials are expected by February 2002.

Q Isn’t the modification programme an admission that the SA80 is seriously flawed?

A No. Weapons are routinely modified during the course of their service life. The SLR, for example, was modified 54 times

Q How many weapons will be modified?

A The MOD expects to modify around 200,000 weapons. Any unmodified weapons will, as far as possible, be cannibalised for spares.

Q How many lives have been lost as a result of the SA80’s reliability problems?

A None.

Q How will the Armed Forces be able to tell the difference between a modified and unmodified weapon?

A For five reasons:

1.         The soldiers will be issued with their own modified SA80,

2.         The modified weapons will have H&KA2 stamped on it,

3.         The cocking handle is visibly different,

4.         Some internal components will be differently coloured,

5.         It will be more reliable.

Q Why wasn’t the SA80 reliable when it was introduced?

A When the SA80 was accepted into service the stated battlefield mission, which determined the characteristics of the weapon, was for the rifle to fire 120 rounds over a 24 hour period. The LSW had to fire 800 rounds in 24 hours. Against these criteria the unmodified weapons are very reliable. Today the battlefield mission is for the IW to fire 150 rounds in 8 minutes 40 seconds. The LSW needs to fire 960 round in 36 minutes. It is, therefore, not surprising that the SA80 weapon system needs to be modified. Comparing the battlefield requirements set for the SA80 system in the late 1980s to the current one is similar to comparing the Vauxhall Astra of 1986 to the current model. The latest version is much more reliable. It is the same with the SA80.  NB In the original trials any number of stoppages that could be cleared by the firer were not counted as failures. In the trials of the modified weapon more than one stoppage, including those that can be cleared by the firer, counts as a failure.




Old Mission

120 round in 24 hours

800 round in 24 hours

New Mission

30 rpm (single shot for 40 seconds

10 rpm (single shot) for 6 minutes

30 rpm (single shot) for 1 minute 10 x 4 rounds (in bursts) 1 minute

Total 150 rounds in 8 minutes 40 seconds

60 rpm (in bursts) for 3 minutes Wait of 1 minute (replicates change of position)

60 rpm (in bursts) for 3 minutes

Wait of 2 minutes (replicates refill 5 magazines and move)

60 rpm (in bursts) for 2 minutes 30 seconds

Wait of 10 minutes (replicates move, reload, receive orders and move)

30 rpm (single shot) for 10 minutes

Wait of 2 minutes (replicates refill 5 magazines and move)

60 rpm (in bursts) for 2 minutes 30 seconds

Total 960 rounds in 36 minutes

A battlefield mission was counted as a failure when there was more than one stoppage that the soldier could clear immediately on their own or there was a stoppage that required an armourer or a tool to clear. 

Q Why didn’t the MOD replace the SA80 weapon system with a new weapon system?

A There are two reasons:

1.      The A2 would achieve the required levels of reliability.

2.      It is more cost effective to modify the SA80 than it is to buy a new weapon system. To procure and support a new system would cost around 500 million . This includes spares, additional infrastructure (rifle racks, blank firing adapters etc), training etc. The modification programme is expected to cost around 92 million – a fifth of the cost of procuring a new weapon system.

Q Why doesn’t the A2 use a plastic magazine?

A The A2’s magazine housing, where the magazine fits into the body of the weapon, cannot be increased in size to accommodate the larger plastic magazine that would be required. The walls of a plastic magazine must be thicker than its metal equivalent to provide the same strength, making a plastic magazine bulkier. Plastic magazines also require horizontal reinforcing ridges around the walls to provide rigidity. These ridges and the additional bulk cause the magazines to jam in ammo pouches or pockets. A thin plastic magazine also flexes and this can cause further failures – the round is not correctly inserted into the feed mechanism. These problems make them inappropriate for use by the British Army.    It has also been suggested that transparent plastic magazines would help soldiers know how many rounds they had in their weapon. This is true to a degree but where the magazine attaches to the rest of the weapon the magazine is obscured.

Q Why wasn’t the weight of the A2 reduced?

A The weight of the weapon contributes to its low recoil. This is a major factor in its accuracy. Moreover, the A2 isn’t that much heavier than most other rifles when the optical sight is removed from the weapon. The optical sight is only issued to troops involved in dismounted close combat e.g. infantry.

 IW unloaded (without SUSAT)   3.8 Kg

 M16A3 unloaded                        3.4 Kg

 G36 unloaded                              3.3 Kg

Q Why use optical sights if they are so heavy?

A To enhance the capability of the soldier in the field by making target easier to locate and engage. These are contributory factors to its accuracy. The SUSAT also greatly enhances the soldier’s ability to engage targets in low light (dawn, dusk and moonlight) and provides every user with a magnifying observation device. The SUSAT adds 0.8 Kg to the weapons overall weight.

Q What grenade launching ability does the A2 have?

A It fires a rifle grenade. This is slipped over the barrel of the IW and fired using an ordinary round of ammunition. The round strikes a bullet trap on the grenade and this provides the energy to launch the grenade. The MOD is content with the capability of the current rifle grenade.

Q Is it true that the optical sights zero is destroyed when a rifle grenade is fired from the A2?

A. No. The standard rifle grenade that is currently used will not affect the optical sight's accuracy.

Q Will the Cadet Forces receive A2s?

A No. There is no operational requirement.

Q Why has it taken so long to modify the SA80?

A It hasn’t taken that long. The SA80, in common with all weapon systems, has been subject to constant revisions throughout its life. The current programme is a major refurbishment programme that will extend the weapons in service life until 2020. The trials programme can’t be rushed through. It is important to properly test the weapon. The trials have, indeed, identified a number of minor issues that have been addressed.

Q Will the A2 be upgraded again?

A There are no large-scale modifications planned. A small number are expected to be modified in 2009 to include a rapid area effects weapon that is part of the FIST roll out plan.

Q Will the Future Integrated Soldier Technology (FIST) make the A2?

A Not initially. The A2 is expected to remain in service until 2020 and will form part of the initial operating capability of the FIST programme

Q Will the blank firing adapter (BFA) be modified?

A The BFA is being modified slightly to ensure its reliability of function.

Q Do the UK’s Special Forces use the SA80 weapon system?

A I am sure you will understand that the MOD cannot divulge details of the weapons used by the SF as this would assist potential adversaries in countering or neutralising UKSF capabilities.

Q Why did the Police recently buy the G36 and not the SA80 IW or LSW?

A The SA80 IW and LSW are no longer in production. The last one to roll-off the production line did so over eight years ago. It was not, therefore, possible for the police to acquire either the unmodified or modified SA80.

     NB The MOD Police make extensive use of the SA80 IW to guard certain establishments.

Q Is a belt fed machine gun better than the LSW?

A A belt fed machine gun and a LSW have different capabilities. The current belt fed machine gun used by the Armed forces is the GPMG. Although this has a greater rate of fire than the LSW it is much heavier, less accurate and the ammunition is not compatible with the IW. The capabilities are, however, complimentary.

The first of the A2s were rushed into action in Afghanistan late in 2001. However, reports started to emerge that the L85A2 was still jamming, despite all of the modifications. The British popular press made much of these stories, and many were the voices baying for the scrapping of this fundamentally flawed weapon. By now the British Army's rifle had become the subject of derision around the world, and attempts by the Army, following an urgent enquiry, to explain that the soldiers had not been taught the proper cleaning procedure were dismissed as cover-ups. Public speculation assumed that the SA80's remaining life was short and focused on which weapon might replace it. In the Gulf, British regular troops are now being equipped with the FN Minimi LMG (it has been in service with special forces for some years as the L110A1), a move taken to mean the end of the LSW. But is this fair?

An Evaluation

There seems little doubt that the L85A1 and companion L86A1 were flawed to an unacceptable degree. They might just about pass in the northern European environment, but the adverse conditions of desert warfare showed their weaknesses all too clearly. About the only good thing which could be said about them, apart from their compactness, was that they were always very accurate even with iron sights. This characteristic is fully expoited by the SUSAT (Sight Unit Small Arms Trilux) four-power telescopic sight, standard issue for front-line combat units. The LSW is even more accurate, and was reportedly marketed as a sniper rifle, being effective out to 600m; in fact, some criticise it for being too accurate to deliver effective suppressive fire.

But what of the L85A2? It should be remembered that only a handful of cases of jams were reported from Afghanistan, and the problems were much less serious than the news media made out. Here is what happened, from the man in the centre of it: as follows:

Testing times for new weapon: 13.11.02 11:40

Sgt Jamie Miles is a Platoon Weapons Instructor – a specialist in weapons and tactics – with the Royal Marines, and was part of 45 Commando during operations in Afghanistan last year. He sent back one of the three defect reports about problems with the SA80 A2 weapon. In Sgt Miles’ own words:

“The SA80 A2 was introduced to us at 45 Commando last November, we conducted the usual static firing weapons test and initial reaction to that was ‘OK, this weapon looks the same but it is actually performing extremely well.

“Normally we’d fire some men through a couple of basic shoots and every man would probably incorporate a couple of stoppages. With the entire company, at that stage we had none.

“We then went off to our training area. We conducted everything from single-man close-quarter battle all the way up through to section attacks, troop attacks, company and everything, and 110 men had fired approximately between 3,500 rounds and 4,200 rounds each. We had five stoppages, four of them were down to the firer.

“So now we are looking at: ‘This weapon is fantastic. Yeah, OK, it looks like a Lada but actually we are driving a Porsche 911.’ And we are now confident, and the feeling within the company was very good.

“We were then launched into HMS Ocean as part of the Amphibious Ready Group and deployed subsequently to Operation Jacana. And then went on to a sub-op called Operation Ptarmigan.

“For the first time in 20 years, a Royal Marines Commando unit had formed up, supported by artillery, mortars, heavy machine guns, and more importantly, the rifleman had confidence with his A2.

“And we successfully went on Op Ptarmigan, dominated the ground, lined out for the first time in 20 years and it was a pure success. At that point there were no real issues with the weapon.

“But we had noted that the heat made it a little bit more difficult to keep clean. We had noted that the dust started sticking to the insides, a little bit of sludge – the downdraft from the Chinooks - weapons are starting to look shabby, and we’ve got this mindset in 3 Commando Brigade that if you look at a weapon that’s dirty, they think it’s ineffective.

“When you’re a recruit, when you’re a trained Marine, when you’re a sergeant, if your weapon looks dirty, you clean it. We need to come away from that – does it work?

“We then later started getting a few more difficulties on the range. The ammunition was starting to feel a little bit different but this is only coming after a matter of time. And I thought ‘Have we ruined these weapons because of the amount of ammunition we’ve fired through?’

So we thought ‘Hang on a minute, this dust mixing with all the oil – is that what’s slowing it up?’ So Royal Marines being Royal Marines, a clean weapon is a good weapon and we then stuck liberally with the oil.
As a rule people were still oiling but it was liberally. And some people tried dry and all sorts of regimes were coming out.

“We’ve got men deploying on to the ground with a little bit of confidence knocked now – considering the highs that we were on before we got on ship.

“So it wasn’t a massive, major issue, although it would have been if things had turned for the worse. So I then wrote a report saying ‘The A2 – there are problems.’

“And then all of a sudden – boom! Heckler and Koch are arriving, Col Haddow’s arriving, the trials team’s arriving: ‘Let’s sort this out.’

“So the trials team came out, Col Haddow conducted his second day of trials, the day I left theatre, and two weeks later the brigade were out of the theatre.

“So I’m now going to Oman to conduct the confidence demonstration. There were nine Royal Marines out there, four RAF Regiments, one Parachute Regiment guy and so on, it was a good mix, tri-Service.

“There were three people there on the confidence course, there was myself, C/Sgt Ryan, and Sgt Evans, who had reported problems.

“I went out, I was still pro-A2, but you know I had it clear in my head that there were issues that needed addressing. So I went out there for the two weeks and sat on the fence, if you like, and wanted the clinical trials results to show me – I wanted to see fact.

“I sat on the fence as far as a decision, but as far as input into it went, it was a massive think-tank. We sat there and went: ‘Well, actually, we’ve got someone from the DPA here and the DLO, you’re the people who are meant to be giving us kit. So this is what we want.’

“And for two weeks we hounded them with ideas upon ideas – everything from the way we train people to the kit that we require to the re-education of the Brigade and to everything else that is going to be an issue with the SA80.

“They gave us a pamphlet, the existing cleaning regime, and we looked at it and went ‘Well, sorry, that’s rubbish’ – and it was now 30 pages long, which is too much.

“We have got the average recruit who has got a lot of information to take in – we’re not saying he’s solid, we’re saying he has already got a lot to learn.

“So C/Sgt Ryan came up with a cleaning regime in line with what they wanted, but ten times simpler. But I don’t know if anything is going to come of that.

“And we have now walked away from there, very, very happy; we’ve also got some extremely good results.
There are other weapons in service, but in comparison the A2 has come out superior.

“A weapon system is called a system for a reason. It is not just a weapon, it is a cleaning kit, it is a person, it is the bayonet, it is everything.

“The weapon system is a package, and the package needs work, and if we do that, we are going to turn the 95 per cent pass rate to 99 per cent.

“And there is no other weapon system in the world that can do that. For a basic infantry weapon, that the Royal Marines need, the A2 is the weaponhead.

“You can use it in the desert, you can use it in the jungle, you can use it in the Arctic, you can use it for offensive operations or to blow up areas. It’s a good compromise for everything that we need. We don’t need a new weapons system. This system does it all.

“I have sat on the fence on this one, I have seen the results, I have fired the weapon operationally and on the ranges. I am convinced there is no problem.

“If you want a weapon that looks Gucci and good, well great, look somewhere else. But I am telling you now, I don’t care what it looks like, the A2 is the better weapon.

“Those people who keep writing into the Daily Telegraph are bored ex-Royal Marines who are fed up of doing the gardening and don’t know what to do today. I’m currently serving in the Royal Marines and I’ve got a message for you: this A2 is a hoofin’ weapon – write to me!

“There are issues, but we’ve got the information – we just need to get out there and tell people. We’ve got the regime to get this squared away.”

Facts and figures

Trials in Afghanistan:
Led by: Col Fraser Haddow RM. Team: experts from Infantry Trials and Development Unit, Defence Logistics Organisation (DLO), and Heckler & Koch; two operational analysts from the Permanent Joint Headquarters

First trial method: Interviewed Royal Marines from the patrol whose weapons had suffered stoppages in contact; inspected weapons and asked them to prepare using existing routines;
12 firers to range: 150 rounds in just over eight minutes, simulating contact engagement and an assault
Results: Only 2 weapons performed satisfactorily

Initial findings:
• Men unable to clean weapons properly, not through neglect but incorrect or worn-out cleaning brushes
• Not oiling according to pamphlet
• Damaged magazines
• Safety catches stiff
• Muzzle cover expanded in heat and slipped off weapon
Action: Taught correct cleaning regime and increased firing party to 24, firing 3,600 rounds
Result: Only one weapon failed test

Second trial method: Trials team set out to replicate the heat and dust conditions on operations with 36 Royal Marines (24 from the first test, but 12 new as a control group). Two Chinook helicopters flying, on each landing Royal Marines deploy and took up firing positions, then helicopters take off, land again, and Royal Marines re-embark – seven times (five with extreme brown-out conditions). Returned to range, lay weapons directly on the sand, left there for an hour in the hottest part of the day – up to 52 degrees Centigrade. Then straight to firing point, dustbowl with constant 20-knot wind
Battlefield mission test repeated with all 36: 5,400 rounds fired
Results: 24 Royal Marines who had been previously instructed, 87.5% reliability; control group, 17%

Recommendations included:
• Replacement muzzle cap
• Weapon cover
• Safety catch made of more resilient material
• Weapon pamphlet – more specific and clearer

Demonstration in Oman
Led by: Lt Col Tony Thornburn; team of 39: 21 uniform personnel from all three Services; representatives of Defence Procurement Agency and DLO

• Demonstrate reliability of SA80 A2 in harsh, challenging conditions
• Enhance confidence
• Validate the extant cleaning and maintenance regime
• Assess proposed revisions of the A2 pamphlet

Prior to deployment, survey results:
• 68% felt A2 had reliability problem
• 85% happy with accuracy
• 57% felt difficult to clean in field

Demonstration: Tactical missions replicating operational situations with SA80 A2 and rivals: such as vehicle moves, helicopter deployment, fire and manoeuvring procedures on the firing point. Empty magazines recharged with ammunition in a tactical manner, lying in the sand

On completion, survey results:
• 95% felt A2 reliable
• 100% happy with accuracy
• 100% felt it was easy to clean in the field (operational oiling taking approx 10-15 seconds)

Results: The Individual Weapon fired 165 battlefield missions, each comprising 150 rounds over a period of 8 mins 40 secs. A total of 24,750 rounds fired and only 51 stoppages
• Out of 165 battlefield missions, A2 passed 156: of the 9 failures stoppages were easily cleared and not mission critical
• A2 achieved a 95% success rate, above operational requirement of 90%, and its nearest rival of popular choice achieved only 47%

One interesting comment from a soldier involved in the trials, is that not all NATO 5.56 mm ammunition performs in the same way. The trials were conducted using British ammo, but some German and American types were tried. It was found that the German ammo fouled the gas ports very quickly, whereas the US ammo sometimes didn't seem to produce enough pressure to cock the gun reliably, with a stoppage occurring once every one or two magazines.

At the same time, the US troops using the Army's M4 carbine were reporting a catalogue of problems: among them, 20% reported double feeding, 15% reported feeding jams and 13% reported that the feeding jams were due to magazines. Only 89% reported confidence in the weapon (see: ) as follows:

M4 Carbine Lessons Learned

 One US Special Forces soldier is quoted on the 'Stars and Stripes' website as saying that: "the M4 with optics and the newer hand guards tends to be a pretty good weapon....misfeeds don't happen too often with good weapon maintenance." This indicates that perfect reliability is not something expected of a military weapon. Even the FN Minimi LMG, in US service as the M249, has recently been seen on television jamming in action, which illustrates that such problems affect even the best weapons.

The fact is that desert conditions will test any automatic weapon, and malfunctions are always likely if they are not kept clean. This can be particularly difficult when troops are disembarking from helicopters, as the rotors whip dust into everything (it is reported that British troops have been wrapping plastic bags around their rifles until they are clear of the helos). The British have continued testing the L85A2 in adverse conditions, and have reported that it consistently beats all competition (most notably the M16 family) for reliability - and by a considerable margin too. There have been no reports so far of problems in the current Gulf conflict.  Furthermore, the FN Minimi has not been issued to replace the LSW. The version of the Minimi chosen by the British is the short-barrelled 'Para' type (L110A1) and it is being used to supplement the firepower of infantry units by delivering suppressive fire out to 300m; the L86A2 is being retained for its long-range accuracy, and infantry four-man fire teams are therefore armed with two L85A2 (one with a 40mm UGL), an L86A2 and an L110A1.

In conclusion, it seems clear that the L85A2 is now at least as reliable as any other 5.56mm weapon, and a lot more so than most. In military rifles probably only the Kalashnikovs are superior, but they were designed to achieve reliability in the face of complete neglect by untrained troops, and suffer the consequences in terms of poor accuracy. So how does the L85A2 now compare in other respects?

One of the downsides has already been mentioned; it can only be shot right-handed. It is also on the heavy side, weighing 8.37 lb (3.8 kg) compared with 7.5 lb (3.4 kg) for the M16A2. The weight with a loaded magazine and the SUSAT is no less than 11.5 lb (5.2 kg) while the L86A2 has an all-up weight of 15.4 lb (7.0 kg). However, it retains the benefit of a short overall length and its commendable accuracy.

Given the importance of striking velocity to the effectiveness of the 5.56mm bullets, the higher muzzle velocity conferred by the longer barrel, compared with the American M4, is significant. Once source ( ) states that when fired from the short M4 barrel, the bullets will only reliably fragment (and thereby achieve maximum effectiveness) out to 50-100m compared with 150-200m in the L85 and M16 barrels, and further still in the L86, which has a muzzle velocity of 970 rather than 940 m/s (3,180 rather than 3,080 fps). Given recent American complaints about the lack of effectiveness of the 5.56mm cartridge, apparently associated with its use in the short-barrelled M4, that is important.

The Future

Experience in the 2003 Gulf War and its aftermath has revealed that the SA80's problems had been (almost) solved by the A2 rebuild. The only reported issue concerned the safety catch: soldiers on several occasions released the safety catch only to find they still could not fire. Armed forces minister Adam Ingram said afterwards: "Work has been undertaken on the safety catch/plunger, and following successful trials of a revised safety plunger, a contract will be let shortly". Despite this glitch, reports from troops have been almost universally favourable, so the future of the SA80 is assured until its planned out-of-service date. In autumn 2007 an urgent operational requirement was expressed for an enhancement for the rifles consisting of a new fore-end with Picatinny rails to take (among other things) a forward vertical handgrip with a built-in bipod (ironically, HK had suggested this at the time of their makeover, but this had been rejected as unnecessary). New optical sights to  replace the SUSAT have  also been adopted, initially the US Trijicon for some troops but since 2011 the ELCAN SpecterOS 4x Lightweight Day Sights (LDS) has come into general use.

Also in 2011, Cranfield University announced the results of a study carried out in conjunction with Frazer Nash Consultancy into the potential for a significant SA80 weight reduction as a part of the "Reducing the Burden on the Dismounted Soldier" project. They achieved weight reductions to some specific components as follows:

The combined result of these savings was a total reduction of around 20% in the weight of the gun+grenade launcher. It seems that the modifications were succesfully tested but there is no sign that they will be adopted.

In any case, the SA80 is now an old design which has not been manufactured for a long time, so the army has been thinking about its replacement for some years. In July 2006 a Minister of Defence confirmed in a Parliamentary answer an in-service date of 2020 for its replacement, and this remained the target for the next few years. However, more recently some informal views were circulating to the effect that there was no urgency over this project - lots of spare parts being on hand - and the army saw no point in replacing the SA80 unless a step-change improvement came along.

This is very interesting since it is hard to see any of the current 5.56mm assault rifles offering such a major improvement, nor is it clear how they could ever do so. Should the LSAT project result in a US adoption of such a system then the substantial weight reduction of the plastic-cased telescoped ammunition would deliver such a step-change, but the probability of that happening in the near future seems to be fading as the US Army has just adopted the M4A1, a modified version of the current carbine. Furthermore, hybrid polymer/metal versions of the current cartridge cases seem close to offering weight savings which are not far short of the LSAT's.

The only other change which might be substantial enough to attract the British Army's interest could be the introduction of a new cartridge, able to match the long-range performance of the 7.62mm with a lot less weight and recoil, as discussed in other articles on this website. However, the UK would never "go it alone" with such a change, so there would have to be substantial support within NATO.

Whatever the future brings, the one virtual certainty is that the British Army's next rifle will be bought from abroad. The country no longer has the design skills or manufacturing experience to produce its own automatic weapons. This will of course be no more than a return to previous practice, the old 7.62mm SLR and the current 5.56mm and 7.62mm belt-fed infantry machine guns being of Belgian origin, while the tank machine gun and new 7.62mm "Sharpshooter" rifle are American. So the SA80 seems likely to go down in history as the final attempt to design, make and field an indigenous standard infantry rifle for the British Army.