But Britain’s Armed Forces has for nearly four decades issued a rifle that easily tops those two American military small arms for controversy: the SA80 rifle, or the L85A1 and L85A2.
Indeed, while many people hate the M16 and M9, plenty of others love them both.
I have yet to meet a single bloke who professes to love the SA80.
But is the SA80 truly as bad as critics insist, or has it been unfairly maligned?
There are similarities between the selection of the M16 as the replacement for the M14 battle rifle and the selection, two decades later, of the SA80, which replaced the L1A1 SLR (Self-Loading Rifle). In both instances, the more powerful 7.62x51mm NATO (.308 caliber) chambering was replaced by a rifle employing the 5.56x45mm/.223 Remington round, which is less powerful, but also weight-saving and less heavily recoiling.
When the British Armed forces adopted the SA80 in 1985, it became the first NATO nation to adopt a bullpup rifle — one that places the magazine and firing mechanism behind the trigger group. Initially, the rifle was designed and produced by the Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield Lock in North London.
In 1988, production was transferred to the Nottingham Small Arms Facility, which closed down in 2001 before eventually being reopened by Heckler & Koch (HK), the German arms maker known for churning out highly renowned firearms such as the G3 battle rifle, MP5 submachine gun, and P7 semiautomatic pistol.
The SA80 A2 sports a barrel length of 20.4 inches, an overall length of 30.9 inches, and a weight of 11 pounds, with a cyclic rate of fire of 610 to 775 rounds per minute, a muzzle velocity of 3,100 feet per second, and a maximum effective range of 1,312 feet against a point target.
The weapon’s firing cycle is provided by combusted powder gasses. The gas is fed into a short-stroke gas piston system on the barrel through a three-position adjustable gas regulator. The gun uses a rotating cylindrical bolt, ensured by a cam pin, that integrates locking splines, an extractor, and a casing ejector.
SA80: Inauspicious Battlefield Performance?
Alas, much like the early versions of the M16 during the Vietnam War, the SA80/L85A1 proved itself to be a bit of a problem child.
As Kyle Mizokami explains:
“Numerous design flaws continued to go unaddressed–more than two dozen issues were catalogued by 1990, including corroded bolts, extractor issues, broken firing pins, and faulty magazine release mechanisms. The weapon showed extremely poor reliability in Operation Granby, the UK’s participation in the 1991 Persian Gulf War… The rifle was praised for its accuracy when it worked properly, but that was nowhere near often enough. A number of fixes were implemented to address the most severe problems, but the L85A1 continued to have problems throughout the 1990s.”
After HK took over production starting in 1998, the reliability of the weapon, in the guise of the L85A2, was remarkably improved. This came too late to reverse the stigma against the weapon, and to this day not a single other nation’s military forces has ever purchased the rifle.
Me Matey’s Shooting Impressions
I have never fired an SA80 myself, so I have to consult some mates of mine who actually served in the British Army and garnered hands-on experience with the weapon. For starters, I turned to one of my former colleagues from my glory days as a private military contractor in Iraq — more specifically someone I worked with at the Port of Umm Qasr back in 2013. Before his PMC days, my friend Pete Almond served with the 2nd & 5th Battalion of the Royal Anglian Regiment and 1st & 2nd Battalion of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, retiring at the 23-year mark with the rank of Warrant Officer Class II.
Here’s what Pete had to say about this controversial weapon:
“The A1 was highly accurate but s***, mags fell off, no ambidextrous safety or safety selector, magazines where of such poor quality it was shocking it even passed muster. (The Guards were the main trailers of the weapon…. Says enough!)
“The A2 rectified a lot of the reliability problems. (Fifty percent of stoppages were attributed to the mags, stronger firing pins and H&K did the work.) Still more accurate than most assault rifles/carbines. I can’t tell you about the A3 but apparently it’s very good all in all, 93 million spent on updates and improvements. Still not the most ergonomic to use, still heavy, however I’ve always liked the optics and size. But I would’ve been happier with a FN FAL with para stock upgraded recoil and optics and 7.62mm, a little over the top maybe in 6.5mm.”
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Christian D. Orr has 33 years of shooting experience, starting at the tender age of 14. His marksmanship accomplishments include: the Air Force Small Arms Ribbon w/one device (for M16A2 rifle and M9 pistol); Pistol Expert Ratings from U.S. Customs & Border Protection (CBP), Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE), and the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) Criminal Investigator Training Program (CITP); multiple medals and trophies via the Glock Sport Shooting Foundation (GSSF) and the Nevada Police & Fires Games (NPAF). Chris has been an NRA Certified Basic Pistol Instructor since 2011. In his spare time, he enjoys (besides shooting, obviously) dining out, cigars, Irish and British pubs, travel, USC Trojans college football, and Washington DC professional sports.