The SA80 is the British Army’s main assault rifle, and everything about it just screams “1980s.”
The British Army Rumor Service — a message board and comedy site — described it as the weaponized version of civil servant, “as it doesn’t work, and can’t be fired.” The rifle even has the decade built into its name. SA80 stands for “Small Arms for the 1980s.”
Like so much from the era, the SA80 represented sleek modernity. Generals and bureaucrats at the Ministry of Defense wanted it to be the most accurate and reliable assault rifle in the world.
Instead, it was a bloody disaster. First introduced in 1985, the SA80 comes in the bullpup configuration and fires the 5.56 x 45-millimeter NATO round. It was supposed to be a compact and technologically advanced replacement for the venerable L1A1 battle rifle — better known as the Fabrique Nationale FAL.
But problems plagued the SA80, which is still in service in a variety of configurations. To be fair, some British soldiers say the L85A2 — the most recent incarnation of the SA80 assault rifle — is reliable most of the time.
Still, past versions of the SA80 were notorious for their stoppages, particularly in harsh environments found on a typical battlefield. The rifle frequently had “bits” that would break or fall off the weapon. There are even stories of fixed bayonets “going ballistic” when soldiers opened fire.
“The main issue with the SA80 is now one of confidence,” Terry Gander, editor of Jane’s Infantry Weapons, told The Daily Mail. “The lads don’t like it, and the slightest problem will tend to be magnified.”
But despite some talk of replacing the weapon, the British military plans to keep the SA80 until at least 2020 — whether or not the lads like it.
Development of the SA80 dates back to the 1950s. The British military was interested in developing a bullpup-configured weapon even then. But it wasn’t until the 1970s that the United Kingdom built actual prototypes of the SA80.
At the same time, the U.S.-produced M-16 had become the most common NATO rifle, if for no other reason than the sheer number of American soldiers in the alliance. The British were still holding onto the FAL — a reliable, hard-hitting weapon that had served soldiers well in Malaysia, Vietnam and the Falklands.
However, some soldiers considered the FAL a stodgy weapon that wasn’t keeping pace with technological advances. For one, newer rifles often included higher-powered optics for low-light conditions.
In the upper echelons of the British military there had long been complaints about the FAL’s 7.62 x 51-millimeter NATO round. Many thought the round was far too powerful for full-auto fire.
So the FAL’s replacement — the SA80 — would use the same, smaller round as the M-16. This would make logistics and supplying the ammo easier, and allow soldiers to control their weapons when firing in automatic. Early tests of the SA80 indicated it was highly accurate and ready for the battlefield.
At least … in theory.
In 1990, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and ignited the Persian Gulf War. British troops — armed with SA80s — rushed to Saudi Arabia and joined the counter-attack. But soldiers quickly discovered their rifles had major problems.
For example, the SA80 didn’t have a guard around the magazine release catch, which often caused the magazine to drop out when the weapon bumped against its user’s body. The designers built it for right-handed shooters — a major oversight that left-handed troops with an awkward and clumsy gun to fire.
More ominously, the SA80 frequently jammed in the dust and grit of the Middle East, a malfunction that could render a soldier’s weapon useless at the worst possible moment.
“I think the design of the SA80 is just okay,” a former British Army soldier told War Is Boring. “The original iteration of the weapon fared really badly. Reports from those using it in the first Gulf War pointed to a lot of problems — especially compared to the SLR, the British-made version of the L1A1, which was still on issue at the time.”
“The older soldiers would constantly compare the two, talking about harder-hitting rounds and the fact that you could shoot the SLR from either shoulder,” the soldier continued. “For me that was something I really didn’t like about the L85, you couldn’t shoot left-handed when you needed to — if you did you would end up with a nice bruise on your left cheek.”
Years of upgrades and tinkering went into improving the SA80. Ultimately, British soldiers received the modified L85A2 assault rifle in 2001, in time for the NATO mission in Afghanistan.
“It was a weapon I didn’t really have to worry about and it did the job I wanted,” he said. “I’ve not heard many complaints about it since the A2 upgrades were implemented. It’s just a shame it took so many years for things to be worked out.”
But that’s not enough to make all British soldiers embrace the assault rifle.
The SAS can select any firearms they want to fulfill their missions, but they refuse to use the SA80. The Royal Marines in Afghanistan are also swapping the SA80 for the Canadian-made C8 Diemaco, a version of the Colt M-16A3.
Further, the SA80 is a failure as an export weapon. Only Bolivia and Jamaica purchased it, meaning the British government never recouped the rifle’s considerable development costs.
So what about replacing the SA80 with something else? Well, a counterargument is that the Brits have spent so much money on upgrades already, getting rid of the rifle now would be economically and politically disastrous.
So it looks like the SA80 is here to stay in the British Army for at least a few more years — a rifle whose worst critics say was “designed by the incompetent, issued by the uncaring, and carried by the unfortunate.”
This first appeared in WarIsBoring here.