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SA80

Written by George Colclough

https://flic.kr/p/H2NJgp

Introduction:

Marketing executives love the term “military grade” when shilling products. The phrase conjures mental images of rugged, utilitarian, no-nonsense products that are able to take a beating and continue operating in the harshest of conditions. You only have to grace the aisles of a supermarket to see such branding being applied to protein bars, diy-tools, and underpants, to name but a few.

The problem with “military grade” branding however, is that it’s absolute nonsense. Military hardware is rarely made with a bottomless budget and a want to provide service men and women with the best gear for their tough and arduous tasks. Instead military equipment is procured from whoever makes the greatest promises, regardless of how grounded in reality they may be, at the lowest price.

Often a groundbreaking piece of hardware will be abandoned by bean-counting bureaucrats sitting safely in air conditioned offices, in favour of equipment which promises the earth at a rock bottom price, only for it to be subsequently replaced, or upgraded when it turns out to be as much use as a chocolate fireguard, and of course, this inevitably ends up costing significantly more than just buying decent equipment in the first place.

The British military is no exception to this trend, and has a habit of procuring and adopting, usually at great expense to the British taxpayer, gear that is: obsolete before its even introduced, eventually works after having the GDP of a small nation invested into its refinement, is worse and more expensive than off the shelf civilian equivalents, and is easily rendered inoperable by a testosterone fuelled soldier.

The subject of today’s post is a weapons system which typifies the enigma and mystery that is British military procurement. The infamous, and much hated SA80 individual weapon.

Background:

The SA80 is a family of 5.56x45mm NATO bullpup small arms that has been in service with the British Army since 1985, and has been the force’s service weapon since 1987. The family comprises the L85 rifle, L86 light support weapon, L22 carbine, and L98 Cadet General Purpose Rifle, and replaced the L1A1 Self Loading Rifle.

The venerable L1A1 SLR served the British Army well during the immediate post World War II period, and is loved by many of the men who once carried it.

https://flic.kr/p/9fdDK SLR L1A1, Dragunov SVD

Official documentation and prim and proper accounts speak of its reliability, and the stopping power of its meaty 7.62mm NATO round as reasons for its veneration. Personal accounts and enquiry will laud the cocking handle being the perfect shape for opening beer bottles, as well as a rather handy little trick where the rifle could be converted for automatic firing with nothing more than a humble match stick.

What’s more, the L1A1 was one of the few weapons ever issued by the British Army that one may claim to be squaddie proof. For the uninitiated, close your eyes and imagine the most indestructible item in the universe, able to overcome the rigours of an unstoppable force, or even the lord almighty himself. A British squaddie can break it. Take this same item, put it through a decade long and multi billion pound development and refinement program, and a British squaddie can still break it. Squaddie proofness refers to the state of transcendence in which an issued item can withstand the destructive force of a British soldier.

Squaddy proofing is the holy grail for defence contractors, because like mighty Atlas eternally holding the heavens aloft on his shoulders, the stresses and toil that issued equipment endures never alleviate. As a wise man once said: “Make something idiot proof and someone will make a better idiot”.

So on account of its robustness, beer opening capabilities, match-stick fun button, and a round powerful enough to drop both your target and his mate standing behind him, it is safe to say the L1A1 SLR is generally revered by the men who once carried it.

This is not a universal truth however. By the powers that be in the British government, the L1A1 was only ever viewed as an intermediary design – the best foreign design that could be quickly licensed and procured after the collapse of the indigenous EM2 rifle project immediately after World War II, a story so full of scandal and conspiracy itself that it no doubt warrants a post of its own in the future.

The British government wanted to move to an intermediate rifle cartridge immediately after World War II, that is to say a round bigger than that of a pistol, but smaller than that of a traditional rifle. Data from the war had shown that the power and range of full length rifle cartridges such as .303 British, 7.92 German, and .30-06 American simply wasn’t needed on the modern battlefield, as most engagements tended to occur at distances of under 300 yards, rather than the many hundreds, if not thousands of yards range that these rounds were designed for. Furthermore, the Germans had also more than proven the validity of the concept with their 7.92x33mm Kurz cartridge used in their Sturmgewehr 44 rifle during World War II.

The L1A1 SLR, venerated though it was by the enlisted man, fired such a cartridge, so consequently its replacement was always a hot button issue amongst senior military staff and the Ministry of Defence.

Development:

Work on the L1A1’s replacement formally began in 1969, when the Royal Small Arms Factory began preliminary work on a completely new family of weapons chambered in 4.85×49mm British, itself an experimental intermediate round which had been in development for a number of years by the Royal Small Arms Factory.

The 4.85x49mm British cartridge came about after the American “Cartridge Monopoly” was broken in the 1960’s. The 7.62x51mm became the universal round of NATO after World War II, after America had used its sway as the predominant power of NATO to override localised pushes in Europe for intermediate cartridges, and insisted upon universal adoption of the full powered rifle round.

H&K G3 rifles https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:DCB_Shooting_G3_pictures.jpg

Despite all evidence that pleaded for the contrary, Europe diligently did as instructed, and Britain adopted the aforementioned L1A1 SLR and West Germany adopted the G3. This was all fine and dandy until the 1960’s, when the US military began having the revelations that the Europeans had had 20 years prior: The 7.62x51mm was too large and too powerful for the modern battlefield, and thus the floodgates for indigenious cartridge design were thrown open again, as the debate raged on what would replace the 7.62x51mm cartridge.

This sparked the British to begin their own cartridge development, and resulted in the 4.85x49mm cartridge, which was used during the development of the SA80 family – itself a derivative of the 5.56x45mm cartridge that would become the new standardised NATO intermediate round.

At this point, we need to pause and talk about the EM2 in some detail. Often, in popular discussion of the SA80 weapons system you will see the claim, or claims to the extent that the SA80 was a further development, or continuation of the EM2. It was not, at most the EM2 served as a proof of concept.

The EM2 was a bullpup optically sighted rifle that fired the intermediate .280 British cartridge, which was briefly adopted by the British Army in 1951. It was a phenomenal weapons system no doubt, and would have revolutionised the small arms world had it not been crushed by the machinations of politicians, but it was a VERY different mechanical design to the eventual SA80 family.

The success of the EM2, particularly during testing in Malaya did however prove the viability of the basic concept, and certainly helped to prevent bickering and squabbling at the Royal Small Arms Factory during the early development of the SA80, and in that regard it did to some degree help to shape the bullpup, intermediate cartridge, optical sight layout of the SA80 family.

With that put to bed, let us get back to the development of the SA80 proper.

The first experimental rifle to appear from what had now been dubbed the Enfield Individual Weapon programme to replace the L1A1 SLR was the XL60 series. The XL60 series, which encompassed the XL64 and XL65 experimental rifles, was essentially a bullpup AR18, with a few improvements and modifications by the Royal Small Arms Factory Team.

At face value, this would appear to be a winning strategy. The AR18 itself was a weapons system designed to be cutting edge, yet easily manufactured, but already in this early stage of development problems began to occur which would typify and plague the SA80 for much of its service life.

https://flic.kr/p/8LSP13

The XL60 Series was symbolic of “design by committee”. With senior management not only having at times wildly different visions of what shape the project should take, but also management themselves also frequently changed and swapped, leaving little common vision or simple direction in the project. Small features were regularly changed with little notice or warning to the drafting team actually designing the thing: the locations of the sling swivels, a push button or a lever safety, a push button or lever fire control assembly, a magazine release on the side of back, all of these changed repeatedly during development.

What’s more, much of the design team was relatively inexperienced, or at least with little specific experience in designing small arms. So comparatively little work was done to refine the inner workings of the rifle, as opposed to its comparatively superficial accruchments.

Despite this, the XL60 Series developed enough that a few functioning prototypes were produced, dubbed the L64/65.

The next step was the development of the XL70 series, in theory, this was just meant to be a final refinement of the earlier XL60 Series; to work out a few kinks of the design, and to suitably modify it for full mass production.

In reality however, the XL60 Series required significantly more than a bit of tinkering to make it into a dependable and deadly weapon for Her Majesty’s finest. In testing the Mean Rounds Between Failure, or to put it more simply, how many times the rifle fired before failure on average, was found to be severely lacking.

The rifle was given a target of 2500 Mean Rounds Between Failure, and the Light Support Weapon 8000. In reality, both types achieved one to three hundred rounds between failures in testing, a simply unacceptable figure for what was intended to be a new service weapon.

Rather than fixing these problems however, as one might assume was the logical approach, the British civil service in all its wisdom instead decided to get philosophical, and start asking: what is a failure anyway? And rather than fixing the issues with the weapon, redefined the terms of failure to look more favourable.

Failures instead were categorised as minor, serious, and critical, with only the latter being given any serious airtime in reporting in order to present a false picture of the weapon’s reliability.

The people involved in development who were actually committed to producing a decent weapon had far bigger concerns than reliability. They were concerned with safety – stopping the thing from exploding in the operator’s hands and other such concerns, which were sadly prevalent during testing.

So by the time development had finished, and the final XL85 rifle and XL86 Light Support Weapon prototypes were ready to formally enter service as the SA80 we all know and hate, they had a flawed system, which had its development rushed by bureaucrats more concerned with meeting targets than producing a quality product, but at least had been saved from the point of comic book absurdity by a committed team determined to resist the bean counters.

So get ready to pick your jaws up from the floor dear readers as I reveal unto yourselves a shocking revelation.

It turns out.

That this rushed, flawed weapons system.

Was an absolute steaming turd.

https://flic.kr/p/9jVs2v

Failure

On the second of August 1990, the Iraqi military invaded the neighbouring State of Kuwait, and a coalition of 35 nations raced to give Saddam Hussein a good shoeing in response.

The third biggest contributor to this coalition was the United Kingdom, which duly sent 53,462 handy blokes over to Iraq all armed with shiny new SA80’s, which had been formally adopted in 1985 as the L85A1 rifle and L86A1 Light Support Weapon.

The British fought well and put on a good show in the war, but it was blatantly apparent that the SA80 was simply not up to scratch, and was nothing short of an absolute failure.

The British Army investigated, and the failings of the weapons system were outlined in a 1991 LANDSET report entitled Equipment Performance (SA80) during operation Granby (the Gulf War), which was leaked to the press in August 1992. This report highlighted 50 total flaws with the L85A1, and to appreciate the full length and breadth of this disaster, let us take a moment now to look at some highlights:

● The rifle fired spontaneously if dropped on its muzzle while loaded.
● A brittle safety catch that often broke off when articulated.
● A bayonet that fell off, snapped, and was all but impossible to sharpen.
● A trigger that didn’t reset properly, and required adjusting manually after firing.
● The rifle jamming and failing to feed if a grain of sand did so much as look at it.
● A magazine of such poor construction that it could be loaded with no more than 26 rounds before it misfed, and caused a failure of the rifle.
● Bumping the rifle caused the magazine to fall out.
● Plastic furniture that would melt and fall off when exposed to the hot Iraqi sun.

The aforementioned issues could all be attributed to a lack of refinement and quality control during the manufacturing of the rifle, which as we have previously discussed were certainly present, but the report also highlighted a number of fundamental flaws with the initial concept of the rifle, which could never be resolved and could only be solved by the rifles retirement and replacement with a completely different model.

Most of these fatal issues come from the implementation of the rifle’s bullpup layout. As previously discussed, a bullpup configuration places the magazine behind the trigger group, and shortens the rifle. The problem with this, the ejection port also moves backwards, and unless clever workarounds are engineered, this consequently places the operator’s face right in the path of the rifle’s ejection pattern when firing from a left handed position. This is far from ideal, when spent cartridges leave a rifle hot enough to cause first or second degree burns.

And don’t think this problem can be circumvented by simply training all of your soldiers to fire right handed, because while this certainly stops the problem of burning yourself in the middle of a firefight, it presents an arguably even bigger problem: since the rifle has to be welded to your right shoulder, you cannot fire around a right sided corner without exposing your entire body.

The ensuing political scandal following the paper being leaked to the public was probably the single greatest scandal in the history of British military procurement, an impressive feat when every new conflict and piece of equipment issued seems to bring a new procurement scandal in the United Kingdom.

In true Ministry of Defence style, when this report was leaked to the public, they tried to deny it, and claimed the report was fake. Then they were forced to admit the report was real, but tried passing the blame to the now defunct Royal Small Arms Factory, forgetting that it had been a nationalised company, so this hardly exhororated the government.

Various government departments took it upon themselves to launch enquiries into the failings of the rifle. The House of Commons Defence Committee took the lead and launched an investigation in 1993, and the Defence Procurement Agency partnered up with German arms manufacturer Heckler and Koch and launched a full enquiry, with a view to finally fixing the rifle once and for all.

This culminated with Heckler & Koch proposing 110 modifications to save the rifle, and being awarded a contract in mid 1998 to modify 200 L85A1 and L86A1 weapons to the proposed ‘A2’ standard so that comprehensive climatic trials could be undertaken.

This initial batch of weapons was delivered in January 1999, and the Ministry of Defence conducted stress trials in various climates. Trials occurred at: the US Army’s Cold Regions Test Centre in Fort Greely, Alaska; the Small Arms School, UK, Brunei, and Kuwait with a range of different ammunition NATO types. The majority of these trials were completed in July 1999 and the final report was delivered to the Minister of State for Defence, Geoff Hoon, in December.

The report concluded that Heckler & Koch had indeed solved the problems encountered during the previous twenty years and as a result, the Government decided to award Heckler & Koch the contract to modify around 200,000 SA80 weapons to the new ‘A2’ standard, at the cost of £400 each. Heckler and Kock completed the work at a rate of three to four thousand weapons per month, with the last rifle being converted in February 2006. The first batch of modified rifles reached their units just in time for the Invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, and the A2 model went on to be the mainstay of the British armed forces throughout the Iraq and Afghanistan war.

Despite the intrinsic flaws with the implementation of the SA80’s bullpup configuration, Heckler and Koch to their credit appear to have taken the absolute steaming turd that was the A1 model and polished it into a perfectly adequate weapons system

In testing, the L85A2 achieved an average reliability rate of 25,200 average rounds between failures, and the L86A2 achieved 12,897 average rounds between failures, and both have higher reliability rates in wet, dry, and temperate climates. Furthermore, the minimum expected life of A2 components is 10,000 rounds, meaning they might never suffer stoppages during their lifetimes – so a big thumbs up and pat on the back for the Ministry of Defence there!

The A2 model received a midlife upgrade package in 2009 and was formally replaced by the further refined A3 model in 2018, in an effort to further adapt the SA80 family to the ever changing nature of combat.

The new A3 model, which was adopted in, and delivered to units in 2018, implemented a “free-floating barrel”. A free-floating barrel makes minimal contact with the rest of the rifle and handguard. This isolates it from shooter movements and impulses during recoil, improving accuracy.

This new barrel design also allowed a modernisation of the rifles’ furniture, and the front handguard was replaced with a new design which incorporated M-LOK mountings on the side, and picatinny rails on the top and bottom, which was extended further along the entire length of the top receiver.

Only the L85 rifle received the A3 upgrades however, as the L86 LSW was finally withdrawn from service, having long been supplanted by the L108A1 and L110A2, licensed-produced variants of the FN Minimi.

https://flic.kr/p/H2NJf2

There is hope for the British squaddie however, because as much as the Ministry of Defence would no doubt love to squeeze every penny they can from their investment, and beat the Brown Bess’ 129 year record for longest serving rifle in the British Army, the SA80 is finally scheduled for replacement from 2025, with what, we don’t know. We can do little at this point but keep our fingers crossed, and hope its implementation is less botched than that of the SA80.

Closing Remarks:

The legacy of the SA80 is nothing if not divisive, some claim that in spite of the rifles initial flaws, it’s upgrades and refinements have turned it into a perfectly serviceable and dependable family of weapons, and others claim that the system is nought but a polished turd, and its final scrapping and replacement cannot come soon enough – can you guess which side the author falls on?

Such a damning condemnation on the author’s part should not be taken as an objective fact however, and now in many ways the SA80 debate is a subjective one. Objective metrics, such as accuracy, reliability, and the weapon not disassembling itself in the operator’s hands have all fallen in the system’s favour thanks to extensive upgrades and refits. Instead the debate becomes largely personal preference.

But for one such as the author, who is rather fond of the left side of his body being free from bullet holes – it’s a big thumbs down.

A close-up view of a British SA-80 fully assembled. https://picryl.com/media/a-close-up-view-of-a-british-sa-80-fully-assembled-0d2694

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