Now the standard weapon for British soldiers across the globe, the SA80’s early years were surrounded in controversy after a series of dismal performances. It was prone to jamming in desert conditions, had several flimsy parts that would often break after repeated use and had an incredibly sensitive magazine catch. When these issues came to light the SA80 was lambasted by the news, leading to the Ministry of Defence ordering an extensive modification programme that dramatically improved reliability.
Combat accounts and in-depth analysis of the SA80’s performance in Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and Iraq guide the reader through its troubled life, while vivid artwork helps to illustrate the transformation it underwent; from an unreliable rifle disliked by the soldiers who used it to being one of the world’s most innovative and accurate small arms.
This book is dedicated to Arfon Williams (Wil 71), formerly of the Royal Regiment of Wales, who has been a good friend to my father.
The SA80 is among the most controversial small arms adopted by a major power since World War II. Strictly speaking, the term ‘SA80’ refers to the whole ‘Small Arms for the 1980s’ programme, including the L85 Individual Weapon (IW, as the British Army termed the rifle version), L86 Light Support Weapon (LSW), L22 Carbine and L98 Cadet Rifle. In practice, however, the term usually refers to the rifle version.
On paper, the concept looked excellent. The IW would replace both the 9×19mm Sterling submachine gun (SMG) and the 7.62×51mm Self Loading Rifle (SLR), while the LSW would replace those examples of the L4A4 Light Machine Gun (essentially re-barrelled World War II-era Bren guns) still remaining in service and most examples of the L7 General Purpose Machine Gun (GPMG), leaving only a few of the latter in use in specialized roles. The two new weapons would have a high degree of commonality, dramatically reducing the number of spare parts required in the supply chain. Their adoption would also simplify infantry training, since anyone familiar with one of the weapons would automatically be able to use the other. Meanwhile, advanced design features would result in the new weapons being more compact than anything else available – an obvious advantage given the British Army’s preoccupation at that time with mechanized warfare against Warsaw Pact forces in Central Europe and with urban patrolling in Northern Ireland. Even better, the new weapons and their ammunition would be significantly lighter than the designs they would replace, enabling soldiers to carry more ammunition despite the extra weight of the body armour coming into service at the same time as the new weapons.
The main weapons of the SA80 system – the L85A2 Individual Weapon (below) and L86A1 Light Support Weapon (above). The cocking handle changed from the original round type on the A1 weapon to a curved one on the updated A2 weapon. (Author’s Collection)
The reality proved less rosy. The British Army actually found itself fighting very different wars from those it had anticipated, and weapons designed for mechanized combat in Europe proved less suitable for dusty desert environments. Some felt that the older and more powerful 7.62mm rounds would have penetrated the thick mud-brick walls of Afghan compounds better than their lighter 5.56mm replacements. The compromises required to keep the LSW compatible with the rifle version proved incompatible with the qualities needed from a good machine gun, and combat experience led to the GPMG making a comeback. Worse, corner-cutting in design and manufacture led to problems of poor reliability; and the reluctance of the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to admit that the problems existed, and their tardiness in rectifying them, saddled the weapon with a poor reputation that damaged troop confidence and hindered any significant foreign sales. The problems with the SA80 became so notorious that they became a long-running scandal for the press to exploit. Serious consideration was even given to simply scrapping the weapon and buying a foreign design, rather than rectifying the problems.
Whatever one’s opinion of the SA80 family, it has undoubtedly been a significant weapon, albeit not always in a positive sense. It has armed almost every British soldier for the last three decades, and will continue to do so for at least another decade, making it a notably long-serving weapon. It has been involved in the heaviest and most sustained fighting British troops have experienced since the Korean War in the early 1950s, including the First and Second Gulf Wars, the Iraqi insurgency that followed, and the long campaign in Afghanistan. It has led to the most significant changes in British small-unit organization since World War II, with consequent effects on tactics and doctrine. Finally, although its replacement has not yet been selected, the SA80 will almost certainly be the last wholly British-designed and -built rifle issued to the British Army.
A soldier from The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers in Iraq. It is ironic that almost all of the SA80’s combat use to date has been in desert conditions for which it was not designed. (Cody Images)
A new rifle for a new era
THE EM-2 PROJECT
Armies entered World War II with rifles firing powerful full-bore cartridges, such as the German 7.92×57mm, the British .303in (7.7×56mm) and the American .30-06 (7.62×63mm). All were hard-hitting rounds designed for combat at relatively long ranges, with consequently powerful recoil. They could be fired from semi-automatic rifles such as the US M1 Garand or German Gew 43, and made excellent machine-gun rounds. Any weapon light enough to be issued to every infantryman would be uncontrollable when firing such rounds on full-automatic, however. As a result, the war years saw the high point of the SMG, firing pistol cartridges such as the 9×19mm Parabellum. However, although these weapons provided more or less controllable automatic fire, they were short-ranged and lacked the hitting power of the rifle. Moreover, German studies during the war showed that most infantry combat took place at ranges of less than 300m, so that much of the theoretical range of the standard rifle round was simply wasted.
The EM-2 rifle. Although many of the design concepts of this bullpup design reappeared in the SA80 programme, the SA80 was neither directly based on nor developed from the EM-2. (Author’s Collection)
The Germans shortened the case of their 7.92×57mm cartridge to create the 7.92×33mm Kurz (short) round, and designed a radical new weapon – the StG 44 – around it. This was the first ‘assault rifle’; a select-fire weapon firing an ‘intermediate’ cartridge with recoil low enough for the weapon to be controllable on automatic and feeding from an SMG-style box magazine. It was intended to replace both the bolt-action Kar 98k rifle and the MP 40 SMG.
The British Army was influenced by similar research when it wanted to replace the rather elderly Lee-Enfield bolt-action rifle. However, the ‘Ideal Calibre Panel’ set up immediately after the war felt that while the basic idea of a shorter round was sound, the Germans had shortened their 7.92mm round too much, and the cartridge could be a little more powerful and still remain controllable for automatic fire. They were not alone in this belief: even the Soviet AK-47, which followed the design of the StG 44 quite closely, made use of a longer 7.62×39mm cartridge. The British eventually settled on a .276in (7×43mm) cartridge as the ballistic optimum, though it was known as the ‘.280’ to avoid confusion with several .276in cartridges tested in Britain and the United States before the war. They then designed a pair of radical weapons to fire the new round. Both were capable of selective fire (i.e. single-shot or full-automatic) from a 20-round box magazine, and had three radical features besides the new cartridge.
First, they were the first major weapons to use the ‘bullpup’ layout, wherein the magazine and action sat behind the trigger, rather than ahead of it. This allowed the weapon to be much shorter overall, while keeping the same barrel length. Secondly, they were designed as ‘in line’ weapons. With a conventional rifle, the line of the barrel was higher than the line of the stock. This allowed the user to look along the barrel to sight the weapon, but also meant that recoil force when a cartridge was fired pushed the weapon both backwards and upwards. An ‘in line’ weapon placed the barrel and top edge of the stock in a straight line, so that the recoil force pushed straight backwards, with minimal muzzle climb. This was an excellent characteristic for an automatic weapon – and later used on the American M16 series, for the same reason – but it meant that the sights had to be raised above the barrel by fitting them atop a carrying handle. This in turn meant that the user exposed more of himself when firing over cover. Thirdly, both weapons were fitted with optical sights as standard, rather than simple ‘iron’ sights.
British soldiers armed with the newly issued EM-2 rifle and its predecessor, the Lee-Enfield No. 4, 1951. (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)
The short-lived EM-1 (‘Experimental Model 1’) used a roller-locked mechanism and was made from metal pressings to save cost. Both were new technologies in the UK at that time, however. The British thus preferred the EM-2, designed around conventional gas operation and made using traditional machining techniques, which were more expensive but better understood. The EM-2 did well in trials in both Britain and the United States in 1948–50; but the US military believed that aimed shots at longer ranges would remain important in future combat, regardless of evidence to the contrary. They therefore felt that the British .280in round was underpowered and preferred their own 7.62×51mm round, which was effectively just a slightly shortened .30-06 cartridge. The British and Canadians (who also favoured the EM-2) sought a compromise solution, producing several EM-2 prototypes chambered for somewhat longer cartridges. The United States remained insistent that their own 7.62×51mm round was the lightest they would accept, however, despite British arguments that rifles chambered for this cartridge would not be controllable on automatic.
The EM-2 was briefly adopted by Britain’s Labour government as the ‘Rifle, Automatic, No. 9 Mk 1’ in 1951, but trouble was looming. One of the key tenets of the 1949 NATO alliance was standardization of equipment, and especially ammunition. The US Ordnance Department made it clear that they would not adopt the .280in round, however; and when Winston Churchill and the Conservative Party returned to power in October 1951, the new British government decided that standardization with the United States was the most important thing, and reversed the previous government’s decision to adopt the EM-2 before it was issued to the troops. Instead, the British adopted a semi-automatic-only version of the Belgian FN FAL rifle in 1954, chambered for the US 7.62×51mm NATO round. This weapon became the L1A1 SLR and served the British Army well for 30 years.
As the British had warned, the 7.62mm rifle adopted by the United States – the M14 – was quickly found to be uncontrollable on automatic, while experience in the jungles of Vietnam demonstrated that a shorter, lighter cartridge would have been preferable after all. In a terrible irony, the United States itself quickly abandoned the powerful cartridge it had effectively forced the British – and the rest of NATO – to adopt, in favour of the M16 rifle and its 5.56×45mm round.
The L1A1 SLR was a reliable weapon respected by its users, but was notably long, as this comparison with an L85A1 IW shows. (Author’s Collection)
PRELIMINARY STUDIES (1969–71)
In one sense, the EM-2 was a dead end. Many of its design concepts reappeared in the late 1960s, however, when the British Army began looking for a possible successor to the SLR. The latter had served well in a number of small ‘end of Empire’ campaigns, and was generally popular among the troops; but it would reach the end of its economic life in the 1980s, by which time any replacement weapon needed to be developed and ready to enter service. Moreover, with the Army focused on armoured warfare in West Germany, the long (114cm) SLR was an awkward weapon for troops expecting to fight from armoured personnel carriers. Meanwhile, the lack of an automatic capability kept the Sterling SMG (a World War II design) in front-line service long after most other armies had given up such weapons. With even the Americans now accepting the logic of the short assault-rifle cartridge and using the 7.62×51mm round only in machine guns, the way forward seemed obvious – the British Army wanted an assault rifle, too.
Previous weapon procurements had generally involved competitive tests to select the best weapon from those available. This time, it seemed taken for granted that the new weapon should be designed in Britain, rather than bought from another country. Despite generally positive experiences with the M16 rifles the British Army had purchased for special applications, there was little systematic attempt to evaluate what was already available on the open market. The Royal Small Arms Factory (RSAF) at Enfield was selected to design the weapon the Army needed, and began preliminary studies for a potential replacement cartridge and rifle in 1969. These studies investigated calibres from 4.5mm to 7.62mm with an effective range of 300m to 600m. Caseless rounds (as later used in the German G11 rifle) and very small-calibre, very high-velocity flechette projectiles were briefly considered, but RSAF Enfield did not believe either could be developed and fielded within the timescale required.
Attention initially centred on a 6.25×43mm round – effectively, a necked-down version of the .280in round of the EM-2. This appeared to give similar penetration to that of the 7.62×51mm NATO round out to 600m, while having a low enough recoil to be controllable during automatic fire. By 1970, the focus had changed to a slightly smaller round (4.85×44mm) created by trimming and necking down standard 5.56×45mm NATO cartridge cases, before finally settling on a slightly longer (4.85×49mm) cartridge for both the IW and LSW. The study identified four possible configurations for the weapons to fire the new cartridge:
(1) Normal configuration (i.e. with magazine and action ahead of the trigger) and SLR-style dropped butt.
(2) Normal configuration and M16 style in-line butt for better control of recoil, at the cost of raising the sight line.
(3) Bullpup configuration (i.e. with magazine and action behind the trigger) and dropped butt.
(4) Bullpup configuration with in-line butt.
A compromise solution – fitting a conventional weapon with a folding stock – was dismissed because of concerns that such a stock would not be rigid enough for accurate shooting. This was a critical decision. Either of the first two options – those featuring a conventional layout – could be achieved by simply re-barrelling an existing design, or at least using it as a starting point, and would thus reduce risk and cost. Perhaps inevitably, given the history, the study opted for a bullpup configuration. This gave the benefit of a more compact weapon; however, since there were no bullpup weapons in service anywhere, it inevitably meant developing a new design from scratch, with obvious increases in development costs and risks.
Several wood-and-metal mock-up weapons were produced, to give an impression of what the eventual weapon designs might look like, but no actual prototypes were built during this phase. Existing weapons – including Stoner 63 and Armalite AR-18 assault rifles – were modified for firing tests of the new cartridges and to demonstrate various design concepts.
The preliminary study had also been asked to look at the future for the squad LMG. The terms of reference potentially allowed the selection of a larger calibre such as 7.62mm NATO for this, but instead the study advocated using a version of the IW, fitted with a bipod and a longer, heavier barrel to act as a ‘light support weapon’. On one level, this made good sense. A new LMG would be necessary anyway, and having all the weapons in the infantry section firing the same cartridge simplified logistics and allowed ammunition to be redistributed within the section if necessary.
The two weapons were intended to have an 80 per cent commonality of parts, bringing down the cost of manufacture for both weapons because only one set of drawings, masters, etc. would be needed, and reducing the number of spare parts required. Training would also be simplified, with infantrymen only needing to learn how to use, strip and maintain a single design, rather than a separate rifle and machine gun. It was not a revolutionary idea: the Warsaw Pact had adopted the RPK – effectively a version of their AK-47 assault rifle with a longer, heavier barrel and a bipod – as their standard LMG some years before. There were tensions between designing a good rifle and designing a good machine gun, however. Equally, the designers had to balance maximum commonality of design with optimizing the two weapons for their particular roles.
First, rifles are generally designed with accuracy in mind, and fire from a closed bolt. This means that cocking the action brings the bolt back to strip a cartridge off the magazine, then lets it go forward again to chamber the round. This round remains in the chamber until the trigger is pulled, when the cartridge detonates and the bolt moves backwards to eject the spent cartridge, strip the next round from the magazine and chamber it ready to repeat the sequence.
Pure automatic weapons (SMGs and machine guns) usually fire from an open bolt, however. Here, cocking the action brings the bolt back and holds it there. The chamber remains empty until the trigger is pulled, at which point the bolt runs forward, picks up a round from the magazine, chambers and immediately fires it. The detonation of the cartridge sends the bolt back, where it is caught and held, ready to go forward the next time the trigger is pulled, repeating the sequence. Open-bolt designs are less accurate, since the mass of the bolt slamming forward when the trigger is pulled moves the point of aim slightly, but they leave the barrel and chamber empty and open to the air for cooling between bursts. This latter feature is not important for a rifle, with its low rate of fire, but it becomes very important with machine guns because the chamber quickly heats up during automatic fire – sometimes to the point where chambered cartridges can ‘cook off’ and fire spontaneously.
Secondly, most NATO machine guns (including the British Bren and GPMG) have been equipped with quick-change barrels. The advantages are obvious: as the barrel starts to overheat from sustained automatic fire, the gunner can simply swap it out and continue firing using the spare barrel. Meanwhile, the original barrel is put aside to cool, allowing the machine gun to maintain a high rate of fire for a prolonged period. Fitting the LSW with a quick-change barrel required changes to the receiver, however, thus reducing commonality with the rifle. On the other hand, if it was fitted with a fixed barrel, its sustained-fire capability would inevitably be reduced.
Thirdly, the LSW would use the same 20- or 30-round box magazine as the rifle. This was not automatically a bad decision – the magazine-fed World War II-era Bren gun had been successful enough – and indeed box magazines had several advantages over belt feed. They were less likely to pick up contamination in muddy or snowy environments (which is why the Royal Marines often preferred the older Bren to the newer GPMG for Arctic deployments) and they were much easier to use on the move. It also meant that the riflemen and LSW gunners in the section could swap ammunition among themselves, even in action, without having to reload rounds from belts to magazines or vice versa. Using box magazines inevitably reduced the practical volume of sustained fire that could be achieved, however, and belt-fed machine guns had been preferred since World War II for exactly that reason. The obvious solution was to use a large-capacity drum that fitted into the same magazine well as the standard box; the Soviet RPK used a 75-round drum, for instance. While that worked for conventionally laid out weapons, however, the magazine well of a bullpup weapon was in the butt, making the use of a drum magazine awkward.
Although the designers were aware that all of these choices would reduce the weight of fire the proposed LSW could put down, their solution was simple. Whereas the weight of a conventional machine gun and its ammunition meant that each section could only carry one such weapon, the same section would be able to carry two of the new weapons and their lighter ammunition. Although each LSW would produce less firepower than a conventional machine gun, having two of them meant that the firepower of the section as a whole would actually be increased.
Based on the results of the preliminary studies, the MoD began to develop a General Staff Target (GST 3518) – effectively, a formal statement of what was required from a weapon system. Meanwhile, RSAF Enfield produced 12 test weapons, known as the ‘Double O’ series since their serial numbers ran from 001 to 012, to test the preliminary study concepts. The weapons were all based on a common bullpup design, and were fitted with 4× Sight Unit, Small Arms, Trilux (SUSAT) optical sights. All weapons were set up for right-handed use, though they could be converted for left-handed use by unit armourers. The design featured a 20-round box magazine released by a catch on the right-hand side of the body, and a push-through safety catch. The selector switch included a three-round-burst setting as well as the usual semi- and full-automatic settings. Since the muzzle of any weapon fired from the shoulder on automatic tends to climb sharply, this setting prevented ammunition being wasted by cutting off the burst after three rounds, before recoil pulled the weapon too far away from the point of aim. (A similar device was later fitted to the US M16A2, in response to infantrymen in Vietnam expending all their ammunition in ‘spray and pray’ bursts, rather than aiming.)
The first six weapons (001–006) were 4.85mm IWs, firing from a closed bolt in both semi- and full-automatic modes. Weapon 007 was identical, but chambered for the 5.56mm NATO round used by the M16 and fitted with the ‘handbag’ sling used by the later ‘O’ series. Weapon 008 was fitted with an experimental 40mm grenade launcher under the barrel, to give a capability against area targets. Weapons 009–012 were 4.85mm LSWs, with a longer, heavier barrel and a rearward-folding bipod fitted just ahead of the handguard. The four LSWs fired from a closed bolt on semi-automatic, but from an open bolt on automatic or three-round-burst. This preserved the best features of both, but at the price of a complex mechanism and reduced commonality.
Although the bullpup rifles looked radical from the outside, the mechanism bore a strong resemblance to that of the Armalite AR-18. Indeed, some of the internal components seemed to be straight copies, or even re-used Armalite components, leading to assertions that the design was ‘just a bull-pupped AR18’.
The feasibility study concluded that the 4.85mm ammunition exceeded the 300m effective range requirement set out for the IW, and just met the 600m requirement for the LSW. Based on these results, the MoD formalized GST 3518 as a General Staff Requirement (GSR) in 1974, defining the characteristics of the required weapon system. The new IW would replace the L1A1 SLR and L2A3 Sterling SMG, while the LSW would replace the L4A4 Bren and L7A1 GPMG. The new weapons would be shorter, lighter and handier, and their reduced ranges would not be a tactical disadvantage in the battle scenarios envisaged. They would simplify training, and reduce the soldier’s load. The GSR noted that the LSW only had a limited sustained-fire capability; but any significant increase in rate of fire would require belt feed, which was incompatible with the requirement to use the same magazine as the rifle. The possibility of providing the LSW with a quick-change barrel to improve sustained-fire capability was noted, but not actioned.
The 5.56mm Armalite AR-15 rifle was a radical design when it was adopted by the US Army as the M16 from 1965, but it required advanced materials and relatively complex tooling to produce. Armalite therefore developed the AR-18 as a simpler weapon, made mostly from steel stampings. It was a low-cost design intended for production in less-developed countries that wanted to adopt the 5.56mm cartridge, but had a more limited industrial base.
The AR-18 was a selective-fire 5.56mm rifle like the M16, but it used a conventional gas piston rather than M16-style direct gas impingement, in which propellant gas acts directly on the bolt carrier. Whereas the M16’s buffer mechanism protrudes into the butt and prevents use of a folding stock, the AR-18’s mechanism was fully contained in the receiver, allowing a side-folding stock to be fitted as standard.
The AR-18 was tested by the US Army in 1964 and the British Army in 1966. These trials found that its functioning was rather dependent on ammunition quality; and that although the basic design was sound, its reliability would need to be improved before it was acceptable as a service rifle. In particular, the British felt it performed poorly in the mud and sand tests.
Armalite produced only a few AR-18s itself, but licensed production to a Japanese company during 1970–74, and then to the Sterling Armaments Company in Britain during 1975–83. The Sterling factory was practically on RSAF Enfield’s doorstep, and RSAF engineers visited several times to view the AR-18 production line. Although never adopted by any army, a number of AR-18s found their way into the hands of Provisional Irish Republican Army terrorists during ‘the Troubles’ in Northern Ireland.
A 5.56mm Armalite AR-18 rifle with telescopic sight. (Courtesy Rock Island Auction Company)
THE IMPROVED ‘O’-SERIES PROTOTYPES (1975–76)
RSAF Enfield now began to develop and improve the initial prototype weapons, intending to have refined weapons ready by the NATO ammunition trials, scheduled for 1977. The first phase involved construction of another 12 prototypes, known as the ‘O’ series since their serial numbers began with weapon 01. Although these were similar to the previous ‘Double O’ series, detailed differences included a redesigned trigger and pistol grip, and repositioning of the sling-attachment points to the top of the weapon to allow it to be carried in what the designers termed a ‘handbag style’. The flash eliminator was modified to allow the weapon to fire NATO-standard 22mm rifle grenades, and the magazine release was moved from the right side of the body to the left – something that would cause problems later. Meanwhile, the selector switch was replaced by a rotary type with only two positions: single shot and automatic; the three-round-burst function of the ‘Double O’-series weapons disappeared.
Of the 12 ‘O’ prototypes, six were standard IWs, five of which were configured for right-handed use and one for left-handed use. Two extra IWs were built, one with flip-up emergency sights in case the SUSAT optical sight unit failed or was damaged, and the other with a stabilizing monopod beneath the barrel. Four LSW prototypes were constructed, two of which were right-handed models and one left-handed, all firing from closed bolt on single-shot and open bolt on automatic. The last of the four LSWs (also the twelfth and final ‘O’ prototype) was fitted with a quick-change barrel for improved sustained-fire performance, and a muzzle brake to reduce recoil rather than the standard flash eliminator. These modifications were rejected, however, since they increased both cost and weight while decreasing commonality with the IW – and commonality was a major selling point of the system. The improvement in sustained-fire capability was also relatively small, since the weapon remained magazine (rather than belt) fed.
Prototypes of the XL64 IW (below, with 20-round magazine) and XL65 LSW (above, with 30-round magazine). Note the bipod attachment halfway down the barrel on the LSW, and the SLR-style magazine release catch immediately behind the magazine well, rather than on the side. (Author’s Collection)
A publicity photo of the XL64E5 IW and XL65E4 LSW experimental weapons, June 1976. Note that the bipod of the LSW is attached much closer to the handguard than on the production LSW. (Cody Images)
The Enfield Weapon System was unveiled to the press in June 1976, ahead of the NATO ammunition trials scheduled for the following year. The publicity material implicitly assumed that it would become the British Army’s next infantry weapon system in due course, even though no formal acceptance – nor any trials – had taken place, and only a small number of essentially hand-built prototypes had actually been produced. The publicity material highlighted the innovative design of the Enfield weapons. It also emphasized the reduction in length and weight compared to the SLR and GPMG they would replace, while stating that although the detailed performance was ‘classified’, they were ‘at least as effective as the current 7.62mm weapons over normal ranges and conditions’ (quoted in Raw 2003: 37). Even the two photographs included in the press pack were carefully crafted to add to the image of modernity. In each case, the soldier holding the new weapon wore the latest equipment, including the new ballistic helmet, while his counterpart with SLR or GPMG was dressed in dated equipment and old-fashioned steel helmet.
THE XL64 AND XL65 SERIES (1976–77)
The weapons finally received formal service designations for the second phase of the feasibility study, which would finalize the design for the NATO ammunition trials. British weapon designations started with ‘L’ for ‘Land Service’, while experimental items were designated as ‘XL’ until they entered service. The standard right-handed version of the IW was thus designated as the XL64E5, while its left-handed equivalent was the XL68E2. Meanwhile, the LSWs became the XL65E4 (right-handed) and XL69E1 (left-handed). More prototypes would be needed for the NATO trials. In all, 36 IWs (33 right-handed and three left-handed, all firing from closed bolts) and 36 LSWs (32 right-handed and four left-handed, all still firing from a closed bolt on single-shot and open bolt on automatic) were produced.
These prototypes included several modifications compared to the previous ‘O’-series weapons. A hinged ejection-port cover was fitted, to prevent sand and grit entering the mechanism. The previous ‘push-through’ safety catch was replaced by a lever-type catch as used on the M16. The magazine release was moved once more, this time to a position behind the magazine where it could easily be accessed by both right- and left-handed users, but was unlikely to be activated accidentally. The ‘handbag’-style sling was replaced with a more conventional one, and a slightly curved 30-round magazine appeared for the LSW, supplementing the straight 20-round version which remained standard for the IW. Only limited testing could be conducted before the NATO trials, but it was hoped and expected that the Enfield Weapon System would do well in the latter, and would be adopted by the British Army with little further modification. As we shall see, this was not to be the case.
The SA80 went through significant changes as it evolved from the XL64 prototype (bottom) to the initial L85 production weapon (middle) and then the modified L85A2 with the 2009 Operational Handguard (top). (Author’s Collection)
THE NATO AMMUNITION TRIALS (1977–79)
Although NATO had adopted the 7.62mm NATO round as its standard rifle cartridge, the United States had effectively switched to the 5.56mm M16 during the Vietnam War, and several other NATO countries had followed suit. While it was agreed that the 7.62mm NATO cartridge would be retained for vehicle machine guns and sniping rifles, where its power was essential, a new ammunition trial would be held from April 1977 to select a second, lighter round. This would then become the new NATO standard for rifles and LMGs. Although the NATO trials were intended to select a new cartridge, rather than a new rifle, the British team anticipated that the trials would be a good test of the performance of the new weapon.
Any hopes that the 4.85mm round might be adopted as the new NATO standard round appear naïve in retrospect. Many of the other countries – including the United States – had already made significant investments in adopting 5.56mm weapons, and would have been reluctant to change again unless any new round offered significantly improved performance. Other than Britain, only one country – West Germany – had submitted anything other than a 5.56mm round. The German offering was a very radical caseless 4.7mm round, which did offer very considerable advantages, being only half the weight of an equivalent conventional round and considerably more compact. The technology was not sufficiently mature, however, and it had to be withdrawn from the trials after problems with rounds ‘cooking off’ in weapons after sustained fire. The British 4.85mm round performed better than some of the 5.56mm rounds, but not by enough to justify switching. The best overall performer was the Belgian SS109, a 5.56mm cartridge with a longer, heavier but more aerodynamic bullet than the existing US M193 cartridge, giving it improved range, stability and penetration. The SS109 was therefore adopted as the new NATO standard, though existing 5.56mm rifles could be adapted to use it simply by fitting replacement barrels with the correct rifling twist.
Comparing the XL65 LSW prototype (above) to the production L86A1 (below) shows how the controls changed over time. The magazine release moved from behind the magazine to the left side, and the lever-type safety catch above the pistol grip was replaced by a push-through type. (Author’s Collection)
Leaving aside the fact that its 4.85mm cartridge had effectively been rejected, the NATO trials had identified several issues with the XL64 and XL65. The ten XL64 IWs used in the tests fired a total of 66,023 rounds, during which they experienced 679 ‘incidents’. While the XL64 was a new design, and had not benefited from years of troop experience – the American M16 had been in service for more than a decade at that point, and had seen extensive combat use in Vietnam – this ‘Mean Rounds Between Failures’ (MRBF) figure of only 97 rounds was surprisingly poor. The two most common causes of failure, accounting for around 500 of the 679 incidents, were either failures to extract and eject spent cartridge cases properly, or failures with the trigger mechanism and sear. The latter cause of failure manifested itself both as the weapon firing on automatic when set to single-shot, and as the trigger not returning to the normal position after being pulled, thus preventing further firing. In either case, the problem seemed to be caused by grit and dust entering the trigger mechanism – an issue that would recur throughout the weapon’s life.
With the original ‘in service date’ (ISD) of 1983 in danger of slipping, the post-trial appraisal in October 1979 acknowledged that while the basic concept was sound, modifications were needed to improve the reliability of the weapon. It also had to be redesigned to accept the new SS109 5.56mm round and an M16-type magazine, the latter having also been adopted as a NATO standard. Despite the work required, it was decided that User and Ordnance Board trials would begin in mid-1981, to prevent the ISD slipping further. As an interim, ten of the trials weapons (five IWs and five LSWs, all standard right-handed models) were converted to 5.56mm, to allow some testing to proceed while the redesign was in progress.
THE XL70 AND XL73 SERIES (1980–84)
As a result of lessons learned from the NATO ammunition trials, three new weapons (the ‘Production Rifle’ or ‘PR’ series) were produced. These were still chambered for the 4.85mm round as an expedient to get them into production quickly; and they also went through a process of ‘Value Engineering’ (disparagingly referred to by the design team as ‘engineering by accountants’) to simplify manufacture and reduce the time to produce each weapon from ten hours to a more economically viable 7½ hours. This changed the rear body of the weapon significantly, to a wedge-shaped box of pressed metal, despite concerns that this configuration provided less support for the internal components. Other changes included making the flash eliminator a separate component rather than part of the barrel; using a cheaper method to manufacture the trigger mechanism; and adopting a modified gas system and a new (and cheaper) one-piece plastic handguard instead of the two-piece version used on previous weapons. The magazine catch moved to the left side of the weapon, this as a consequence of the way in which the new M16-type magazine locked into place. The safety also reverted to a push-through plunger.
One ‘PR’-series LSW was produced, by converting one of the three ‘PR’ IWs above, and fitted with a new forward-folding bipod. Testing of these weapons indicated that work was needed to resolve the outstanding problems, and it was agreed to delay the User Trials by three months, until October 1981. These ‘PR’ weapons were followed by the main production of the XL70 series, chambered for the 5.56mm cartridge. A total of 51 IWs were built, in both right-handed (XL70E3) and left-handed (XL78E1) configurations. In addition, 34 XL73E2 LSWs were produced, all in right-handed configuration; and since far fewer LSWs would be required, it was decided that no left-handed conversion kits would be produced. Externally, the main difference from the ‘PR’ weapons was a welded-on extension to the magazine housing, which protruded beneath the weapon’s body to give more support to the magazine. Internally, the gas system was modified, the bolt carrier and recoil guide-rod assembly was redesigned, and the extractor was replaced with a new design. Although the LSW had originally been intended to fire from a closed bolt on semi-automatic (for accuracy) and an open bolt on full-automatic (for better cooling), the XL73E2 fired from open bolt in both modes, significantly simplifying the mechanism.
As an experiment, one LSW was modified to fire from the closed bolt on both single-shot and full-automatic, using the trigger mechanism from an IW, and this ultimately became the preferred option. While firing from a closed bolt improved LSW accuracy, the problem of chamber overheating and the attendant ‘cooking-off’ problem – the reason the open-bolt option had been added in the first place – now returned, reducing the LSW’s sustained-fire capability.
An XL70E3 IW camouflaged with green tape and fitted with an image-intensifier night sight. (Cody Images)
THE ORDNANCE BOARD AND ITDU TRIALS
The Ordnance Board trials were intended to identify technical problems for correction before series production, and ran in parallel with the User and Troop Trials. Weapons were put through a number of tests including mud baths, drop testing and sustained-fire reliability tests, as well as being exposed to extremes of heat and cold. The methodology used would be criticized later by the Cabinet Defence Select Committee, for being too ‘clinical’ and using environmental chambers rather than testing how the weapons would actually be used by soldiers. For example, the icing tests were conducted by spraying the weapons with water in a freezer, which failed to replicate the effects of wind-driven snow clogging every opening in the weapon when troops actually deployed with it to Norway. Reliability was defined by ‘Mean Rounds Between Failures’ (MRBF), with a target of 2,500 rounds for the IW and 8,000 rounds for the LSW; the latter figure was obviously very ambitious, since the LSW had essentially the same mechanism as the rifle. Failures were classified into three categories:
(1) ‘Minor’ incidents could be rectified by the user employing the standard ‘Immediate Action Drills’, e.g. re-cocking the weapon to load a new cartridge after a misfire;
(2) ‘Serious’ incidents could be rectified by the user but needed more action, e.g. by stripping and cleaning the weapon to remove excessive fouling;
(3) ‘Critical’ incidents could not be rectified by the user, e.g. parts breakages.
The MRBF calculation counted only critical failures. While this was not intrinsically wrong – any MRBF target including the less serious categories would have necessarily been much lower – it did have adverse consequences. Since nothing except critical failures affected the MRBF target, the other categories were essentially ignored and little attention was paid to rectifying the causes, no matter how frequently they occurred. By contrast, troops in combat suffering stoppages every couple of magazines were unlikely to find this acceptable even if these were technically ‘minor’ incidents that did not affect the reliability target.
The MRBF calculation also led to a certain amount of manipulation as the LSW struggled to meet the reliability target. For instance, a fractured bolt was initially classified as a ‘critical’ failure. If a spare bolt was included in the tool wallet, however, the same incident immediately became something the user could theoretically rectify – no matter how unlikely in practice – and thus became merely a ‘serious’ incident which did not count toward the MRBF. Artificial as this may be, it is exactly what was recommended, and a complete replacement bolt was added to the LSW tool wallet for the trials. Once the MRBF target had been met, however, the standard contents of the wallet were quietly revised – and the spare bolt disappeared before issue.
The IW initially achieved an MRBF figure of 1,250, but this was ‘corrected’ to 2,500 by ignoring ‘critical’ failures caused by issues the design team believed could be eliminated by design changes before production; a rather optimistic way of conducting reliability trials. The LSW scored significantly better – 2,713 for rounds from an open bolt and 4,746 for shots from a closed bolt – but still fell well short of the target figure, even after correction. Both weapons were found to be very accurate in single-shot mode; but while the first round on automatic was generally on target, subsequent rounds were well off-target, particularly at longer range. This was inevitable to some extent, as muzzle climb on automatic will always push the weapon off-target. The effect was more severe than expected, however, especially for the LSW where the bipod should have stabilized the weapon. Rounds also started ‘cooking off’ after firing about 330 rounds at a rate of one per second – well above the rate at which a rifle would be fired, but not above that expected of a machine gun. Other problems included issues with the bipod catch and cracking of the bolt carriers.
The SA80 system was also assessed by the Army’s Infantry Trial & Development Unit (ITDU), in parallel with the Ordnance Board trials. The ITDU trials were not intended to assess reliability – that would be tested by the Ordnance Board – but to assess usability and effectiveness. For instance, the ITDU expressed concern that the LSW did not meet the requirement to deliver effective suppressive fire. Despite this, its final report indicated that ‘the IW proved itself to be a robust and reliable weapon that suffered few stoppages… the majority of the problems previously noted have now been overcome’ (quoted in Raw 2003: 85).
During the trials, the XL70-series weapons were replaced by the XL85E1 IW and XL86E1 LSW. These would effectively be the production build standard, and incorporated a number of changes. Only right-handed versions of both weapons were produced, the requirement for a left-handed version having been effectively dropped – a conversion kit was promised, but never materialized. The RSAF final report noted that the required MRBF for the LSW had still not been met, though the design team remained optimistic that this could be achieved. Overall, the acceptance meeting agreed to adopt the IW, and give limited approval for production of an initial tranche of 30,000 weapons. Concerns remained over the LSW’s accuracy on automatic and its ability to deliver a sufficient weight of suppressive fire, however. Its adoption was therefore deferred until these issues could be resolved.
Deferring adoption of the LSW gave the Army significant problems. The remaining L4A4 Light Machine Guns could not be kept in service indefinitely, as stocks of spare parts were exhausted; and retaining the GPMG at section level would necessitate significant purchases to replace existing worn-out weapons. It would also mean that infantry sections would need both 5.56mm ammunition for the IWs and 7.62mm ammunition for GPMGs, thus complicating logistics.
The SA80 was not the only bullpup rifle to be adopted. The Steyr AUG (top) was adopted by the Austrian armed forces in 1978, and has been bought by numerous other armies since then. The same receiver can accept any one of four interchangeable barrels – rifle, carbine, short carbine and a heavy squad automatic barrel with a bipod. It can even be converted to fire from an open bolt in the squad automatic role. The French armed forces adopted the FAMAS (middle) in 1978, replacing both the MAS-49/56 rifle and MAT-49 submachine gun. Both the FAMAS and the AUG are fitted with ambidextrous controls and easily converted at unit level to eject to either side for left- or right-handed use. By contrast, although a small number of left-handed XL70s were produced (bottom) the production SA80 could only be used by right-handed firers. (Author’s Collection)
Going back to the drawing board to design a new LSW that might meet the specifications more closely was not a serious option; it would take several years to develop a new weapon, and there was no guarantee that it would perform any better than the existing LSW. The preferred option was to allow RSAF Enfield a limited amount of time to rectify the problems. Meanwhile, the MoD would define subjective criteria (such as providing ‘effective suppressive fire’) more clearly, and indicate the minimum performance they would accept. Although this would require some compromise, the thinking was that this might be the best outcome for the Army if successful, as it retained the advantages of the original plan.
Finally, the MoD reviewed several foreign weapons that might fulfil the LSW role, including the FN Minimi, the Heckler & Koch HK13 and the Steyr AUG. While adopting a foreign weapon would be politically embarrassing, especially since it would effectively mean writing off the development costs of the British LSW, it provided a fall-back in case RSAF Enfield failed to come up with something that satisfied the revised criteria. As none of the available weapons exactly met the GSR specification – by not having a single-shot capability, not using the same magazine as the IW, or whatever – this would also have required some compromise, as well as losing the advantages associated with commonality.
The revised LSW, with the rearward-folding bipod mounted closer to the muzzle and supported by an outrigger rail, demonstrating the firing position with the left hand on the rear grip below the butt. (Cody Images)
Under the redefined requirements, the LSW had to meet a rather lower standard for providing suppressive fire, while the accuracy requirements were heavily weighted towards single-shot performance, rather than automatic fire where the weapon did less well. Meanwhile, the weapon itself had been modified with a second pistol grip beneath the butt, for better control during automatic fire, and a butt strap to take the weight of the weapon in the prone position. The original LSW prototypes had a bipod mounted just ahead of the handguard. This was changed to a rearward-folding bipod, mounted much closer to the muzzle, giving a more stable platform and improving accuracy; however, this meant extending an outrigger rail out from the handguard to the muzzle to support the bipod, which increased weight.
With these changes, the LSW was finally adopted for service, and a contract for the first 175,000 weapons – now formally known as the L85A1 IW and L86A1 LSW – was awarded in June 1985. The first weapons were handed over in an upbeat and well-publicized ceremony in October 1985.
Expectation versus reality
Acceptance and troop trials
After acceptance, the new weapons went through troop trials in 1986–87 with several units deployed in a variety of environments. It was originally intended that all regular infantry battalions, the Royal Marines and the RAF Regiment would have changed over to SA80 by 1987, and all regular Army forces by 1990. The RAF was to re-equip in 1991. Territorial Army (part-time reservist) units would be re-equipped 1991–93, with priority going to units intended to reinforce the British Army of the Rhine, the forces permanently deployed in West Germany to counter any Soviet invasion during the Cold War. The Royal Navy would be last to re-equip, in 1993.
Despite the earlier ITDU trials, the troop trials revealed a variety of issues with the weapons. Some components proved too flimsy and suffered frequent breakages, while the bipod lock often failed to hold the legs in the closed position. Issue insect repellent melted the plastic furniture, the metal parts rusted quickly in the jungle, sand clogged the mechanism in dusty environments, and the weapons suffered badly from icing in Arctic conditions. The weapons required careful maintenance even in normal conditions, but the cleaning kits issued were flimsy and inadequate. Although left-handed conversion kits were promised during the design phase, none were issued, and the weapons were impossible to use left-handed, as they ejected the hot spent case straight into the firer’s face. Most embarrassingly, the exposed magazine release caught on uniforms and webbing, dumping the magazine out of the rifle at inopportune moments.
Army Cadet Force and Combined Cadet Force detachments had traditionally been valuable feeder organizations for Army recruitment, as well as promoting community engagement and understanding of the Army. The SLR had been too heavy and had too much recoil to be used by young cadets, however, so .22in (5.6×15mm) bolt-action rifles were used for marksmanship training. The lighter weight and lower recoil of the L85 solved this problem, and a simplified version was developed as the L98A1 Cadet Rifle. This was fitted with dual leaf iron sights, while a straight-pull bolt action replaced the gas system, so the weapon was manually re-cocked for each shot. No flash hider was fitted, so the L98A1 could not mount a bayonet. A plastic oil bottle was initially fitted in clips above the barrel, replacing the gas parts, until it was found that the bottle melted as the barrel heated up. Ultimately, the L98A1 was replaced by the L98A2, essentially a semi-automatic-only version of the L85A2 service rifle. It was intended that cadet weapons would provide a reserve of weapons for the Army, as they could quickly be converted to service weapons, but this proved never to be necessary. The cadet force also had a limited number of standard LSWs, identical to the service version.
Since the bullpup design of the original L85 gave a relatively compact rifle (a length of 785mm versus 840mm for the US M4 Carbine, despite the L85’s barrel being 40 per cent longer), no carbine version was initially planned as part of the SA80 family. An extremely short carbine prototype was created by modifying an XL64 weapon used in the NATO trials around 1984, and converting it to 5.56mm. The barrel terminated immediately in front of the pistol grip, with no grip for the forward hand. The prototype was poorly balanced and difficult to use safely, as the left hand could easily slip forward over the end of the barrel, with obvious and painful consequences for the user.
A second prototype appeared in 1989, converted from a standard IW. This had a slightly longer barrel and utilized the rear grip from an LSW relocated beneath the muzzle to act as a pistol grip, so at least the user was unlikely to shoot his own fingers off. A third prototype was produced in 1994 with a rather longer barrel, and fitted with the standard LSW (rather than IW) handguard, in the hope that the ridge at the front would prevent the user’s left hand moving forward in front of the muzzle. This relatively low ridge proved inadequate, however, and the weapon was revised once again to mount an LSW rear grip beneath the muzzle as a vertical foregrip, with a prominent stop rib in front of it to prevent the user’s fingers sliding forward. This weapon was eventually adopted in 2003–04 as the L22 Carbine, sometimes known as the ‘Stubby K’. It was issued where space was at a premium, for example to armour crews or attack helicopter pilots. No L22s were actually produced as carbines; the small number in service (around 2,000 weapons) were converted by Heckler & Koch from existing LSWs, made redundant by the adoption of the Minimi LMG.
As might be expected from its short (442mm) barrel, the carbine has a shorter effective range than the rifle, at around 150–200m. It is notably louder than the rifle when fired, and has markedly harsher recoil and a tendency to muzzle climb, especially on automatic.
The L22 Carbine is usually issued to AFV and helicopter crews, but is also used in other situations where a short weapon is advantageous, as here by a boarding team of HMS Somerset. (Cody Images)