Weapons: Is the SA80 Rifle Worthless?


December 15, 2005: Is the British SA80 rifle (officially designated the L85) a piece of junk? This is a question of no small importance to the grunts in the British Army. The rifle has been plagued with numerous complaints, much as the M16 was in Vietnam 40 years ago. Part of the problem is the fact that the SA80s predecessor, the L1A1 SLR (a variant of the FN FAL) had performed well in combat in numerous climates (including the Falklands War in 1982).


The SA80 is a bullpup design, an effort to get a good rifle in a small package. The bullpup design allowed the designers to get a 20.4-inch barrel on a 30.7-inch rifle. Contrast this with the M16A2, which has a 20-inch barrel, but is 39.6-inches long. Both rifles fire the 5.56mm NATO round, and use 30-round clips. Nine inches might not sound like much, but for a grunt, nine inches can be as important as nine miles. A smaller rifle is lighter. It is also more compact - in vehicles like the Warrior (or Bradley), space is at a premium. Austria's Steyr AUG and France's FAMAS have also seen some service as well, with the former being adopted by a number of countries (including Austria, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Oman, Ireland, New Zealand, and Australia) and the US Coast Guard. The FAMAS has served with the French, UAE, and Senegal.


The M16 had its teething troubles in Vietnam, including severe jamming. Rumors flew that one Marine unit that had been overrun featured a number of casualties, each trying to clear a jam. These were solved by the use of a new gun powder and instructions for the troops on how to maintain them. The rifles stopped jamming by 1967. The SA80 has also had some serious jamming issues. The first upgrade, to the L85A1 standard, however, was not started until 1997 - after thirteen years (and Desert Storm). This still had not solved the problem, and a second upgrade, to the L85A2 standard, was started in 2000. The L85A2 has performed well in Afghanistan and Iraq (including with its new 40mm grenade launcher attachment), and seems to be on the way to recovering from twenty years of teething problems.


Will the SA80 recover from this? It's not known. Current British plans are to keep it in service until 2015. A possible replacement for this rifle is the Heckler and Koch G36, which was the basis for the recently cancelled XM8 rifle. The SA80, though, has become a solid rifle, and when it is replaced, the veterans at the time will complain about its replacement. This is no real surprise - grunts tend to develop a close relationship with their rifles. - Harold C. Hutchison (hchutch@ix.netcom.com)