SA80 (Small Arms for 1980s) is a family of related arms that include the British Army's standard combat rifle. They were introduced to service in 1985, and will likely remain the primary infantry weapon until 2015.
The SA80 family is made of three weapons, the L85 IW (Individual Weapon), the L86 LSW (Light Support Weapon) and the manually operated L98 CGP (Cadet General Purpose). All three are similar in most respects, they all fire the 5.56mm NATO round from a 30-round box magzine, and can mount the SUSAT (Sight Unit; Small Arms; Trilux), a 4x optical sight with a tritium-powered glowing action for limited night sighting. They are designed in the bull-pup configuration with pistol grip foward of the magazine and the mechanism in the butt. This allows the use of a long, accurate barrel in a weapon with compact dimensions. Combat Support and Combat Service Support troops, as well as cadets, are equipped with a simple iron sight incorporating a carrying handle, though they retain the SUSAT on the LSW.
The LSW is a section-level magazine fed light machine gun. For this role it adds a bipod, buttstrap and rear pistol grip, and has a different design of handguard. Its longer barrel also improves muzzle velocity for longer range. The gun is otherwise identical to the basic L85 and the magazines and all removable internal parts are interchangeable. This weapon is now being replaced in the sustained-fire role by the FN Minimi, a box-fed weapon capable of longer bursts of fire. The L86 is being retained for the sniper role.
The CGP is broadly similar to the IW, but lacks a gas system and charge lever. They were built in order to allow Cadets to train on something similar to the IW, while not being fully-automatic, which was prohibited by law until recently. Instead, the working parts are re-cocked by hand after each shot, using a large cocking handle. This is connected to the bolt by an external rod, and runs on a slide on the side of the body well forward of the working parts, making it far easier to use in the prone position than that of the IW or LSW. It has the fastest action of any manual rifle.
Due to its long, heavy barrel the SA80 has a very high muzzle velocity and, combined with the superb SUSAT sight, is widely regarded as the most powerful and accurate mass-production 5.56mm rifle.
Royal Small Arms Factory developed the XL65 bull-pup rifle to fire the new .190" (4.85mm) round it had designed for submission to the NATO new cartridge selection trials announced in 1977. The 4.85mm round was a "necked down" but otherwise standard US 5.56mm cartridges from the M-16. It was unsuccessful and the 5.56mm SS109 round was accepted as NATO standard.
The XL65 was essentially an AR-18 redesigned in a bull-pup configuration. (The AR-18 internals are also the basis for the Heckler und Koch G36 rifle). The SA80 was further development rechambered to fire the 5.56mm round.
The initial version of the weapon quickly gained a poor reputation for dependability and durability in trials. Lack of a guard for the magazine ejector button meant the magazine would sometimes fall out while walking. The walls of the receiver were so thin that the bolt could be stopped from moving by squeezing it, and was prone to being dented. Occasionally the top cover would fly open while the weapon was being fired and needed to be taped down. These problems were rectified with the A1 version which became the main production model, but its reputation had been made. Further, the worst problem remained - the weapon constantly jammed, due both to a poorly designed cocking handle that sometimes deflected empty cartridges back into the ejector port, and sensitivity to dirt. Reports by H&K have also suggested that over-zealous cleaning had a detrimental effect on the rifle. This includes both using abrasives on parts not suited to them, as well as simple over-cleaning. The rifle and LSW are both criticised for their weight; approximately 1kg heavier than other 5.56mm weapons (however this reduces recoil and increases accuracy). Much of the weight is in the butt of the weapon requiring a small weight in the front handguard to balance the weapon. The safety switch requires the use of the trigger finger (rather than thumb on the M16), and the reciprocating bolt on the right-hand side of the weapon means it is impossible to fire from the left shoulder.
In 1997 the SA80 was dropped from NATO's list of approved weapons. This appears to have been the final straw and an upgrade programme was finally started. In 2000 Heckler and Koch were contracted to fix the problems. Two hundred thousand SA80s were remanufactured at a cost of £400 each producing the A2 variant of the weapon. By 2002 the upgraded versions were deployed in first line formations. The upgrade involved replacement of many internal parts and has greatly increased reliability, putting the weapon on a par with any other modern assault rifle. However the SAS, Royal Marine Special Boat Squadron, Royal Marine Brigade Recce Group (Formerly Mountain and Arctic Warfare Cadre) as well as other specialist UK formations often use the Diemaco C-7 or C-8 (Canadian licence-built copies of the M4 carbine) over the SA80 due to its lower weight, despite having only two-thirds the effective range of the SA80. This is because of their different combat requirements.
The Heckler and Koch upgrades are a matter of some debate; the UK Ministry of Defence could have ordered 100,000 G36 rifles for the same cost.
In a further Heckler and Koch upgrade a number of L85A2 rifles are now being fitted with the HK AG36 40mm grenade launcher in a configuration similar to the M203.
L85 Individual Weapon
- Calibre 5.56 mm
- Weight 4.98 kg (with loaded magazine and optical sight)
- Length 780 mm
- Barrel Length 518 mm
- Muzzle Velocity 940 m/s
- Feed 30 round magazine
- Effective Range 500 m
- Cyclic Rate of Fire 650 rounds per minute
L86 Light Support Weapon
- Calibre 5.56 mm
- Weight 6.58 kg (with loaded magazine and optical sight)
- Length 900 mm
- Barrel Length 646 mm
- Muzzle Velocity 970 m/s
- Feed 30 round magazine
- Effective Range 1000m
- Cyclic Rate of Fire 650 rounds per minute.
- British Army SA80 page (http://www.army.mod.uk/equipment/pw/pw_sa80.htm)
- Modern Firarms - L85A1 (http://world.guns.ru/assault/as22-e.htm)
- SA80: Mistake or Maligned? (http://www.quarry.nildram.co.uk/SA80.htm)