A British soldier firing a L85A2 with an attached L123A2 Underbarrel Grenade Launcher.
Type Assault rifle
Light Support Weapon
Place of origin United Kingdom
Service history
In service 1985–present
Used by See Users
Wars See Conflicts
Production history
Designed 1970s–1980s
Manufacturer BAE Systems
Produced 1985–1994
Number built Approx. 350,000
Variants L85A1 Rifle
L85A2 Rifle
L86A1 Light Support Weapon
L86A2 Light Support Weapon
L22A1 Carbine
L22A2 Carbine
L98A1 Cadet Rifle
L98A2 Cadet Rifle
Weight 3.82 kg (8.4 lb) (L85A2 empty)
4.98 kg (11.0 lb) (L85A2 with SUSAT sight and loaded 30-round magazine)
6.58 kg (14.5 lb) (L86A2 LSW)
4.42 kg (9.7 lb) (L22A1)
Length 785 mm (30.9 in) (L85A2 & L98A2)
900 mm (35.4 in) (L86A2 LSW)
709 mm (27.9 in) (L22A1)
Barrel length 518 mm (20.4 in) (L85A2 & L98A2)
646 mm (25.4 in) (L86A2 LSW)
442 mm (17.4 in) (L22A1)

Cartridge 5.56×45mm NATO
Action Gas-operated, rotating bolt
Rate of fire 610-775 RPM
Muzzle velocity 930 m/s (3,051 ft/s) (L85A2 & L98A2)
950 m/s (3,116.8 ft/s) (L86A2 LSW)
Effective firing range 300 m effective range used by one soldier. Effective at 600 m as a section using the LDS (lightweight day sight)
Maximum firing range 1000 m (L86A2)
Feed system 30-round detachable STANAG magazine
30-round detachable polymer Magpul EMAG
Sights Telescopic SUSAT, ACOG and ELCAN LDS scopes, aperture iron sights

The SA80 (Small Arms for the 1980s) is a British family of 5.56×45mm NATO small arms. It is a selective fire, gas-operated assault rifle. Mechanically, it has been derived from the Armalite AR-18, which had been manufactured under licence in the UK by Sterling Armaments Company. The first prototypes were tried in 1976, and production ended in 1994. It is due to remain in service until 2025.[1]

The L85 rifle variant of the SA80 family has been the standard issue service rifle of the British Armed Forces since 1987, replacing the L1A1 variant of the FN FAL. The improved L85A2 remains in service today. The remainder of the family comprises the L86 Light Support Weapon, the short-barrelled L22 carbine and the L98 Cadet rifle.

The SA80 was the last in a long line of British weapons (including the Lee–Enfield family) to come from the Royal Small Arms Factory, the national arms development and production facility at Enfield Lock.



The system's history dates back to the late 1940s, when an ambitious programme to develop a new cartridge and new class of rifle was launched in the United Kingdom based on combat experience drawn from World War II. Two 7mm prototypes were built in a bullpup configuration, designated the EM-1 and EM-2. When NATO adopted the 7.62×51mm NATO rifle cartridge as the standard calibre for its service rifles, further development of these rifles was discontinued (the British Army chose to adopt the 7.62 mm L1A1 SLR semi-automatic rifle, which is a licence-built version of the Belgian FN FAL).

In 1969, the Enfield factory began work on a brand new family of weapons, chambered in a newly designed British 4.85×49mm intermediate cartridge. While the experimental weapon family was very different from the EM-2 in internal design and construction methods, its bullpup configuration with an optical sight was a clear influence on the design of what was to become the SA80. The system was to be composed of two weapons: the XL64E5 rifle (also called the Enfield Individual Weapon) and a light support weapon known as the XL65E4 light machine gun.

The sheet metal construction, and the design of the bolt, bolt carrier, guide rods, gas system and the weapon's disassembly showed strong similarities to the Armalite AR-18 which was manufactured under licence from 1975 to 1983 by the Sterling Armaments Company of Dagenham, Essex,[2][3][4][5][6] and which had been tested by the UK MoD in 1966 and 1969.[7][6] During the development of the SA-80 a bullpup conversion was made of an AR-18 and a Stoner 63 at Enfield.[8][9]

Technically, in the mid-1970s, the 4.85×49mm round was seen as superior to the then existing version of 5.56mm M193 round in use by the US (for the M16/M16A1) and by other forces. (This was the expressed view of trials team members whilst demonstrating the XL64E5 prototype at the British Army School of Infantry at Warminster.) It should be noted that development of small-arms munitions have a long and continuous life and it was estimated by the trials specialists from Enfield that this weapon would ultimately be superior in the 4.85mm configuration. For the 4.85 mm round, both propellant and projectile were at the beginning of their respective development curves. Also, weight for weight, more rounds of ammunition could be carried by an individual soldier – a considerable advantage on the battlefield. It was regarded as probable at the time that the argument for the 5.56 mm standard within NATO had more to do with the economics involved. Over the lifetime of a small-arms weapon type, far more money is spent on the munitions than the weapons themselves. If the 5.56 mm supporters had lost the argument in favour of a British 4.85 mm round, the economic impact would have been very large and political pressure undoubtedly played a part in the final decision.

In 1976, the prototypes were ready to undergo trials. However, after NATO's decision to standardise ammunition among its members, Enfield engineers re-chambered the rifles to the American 5.56×45mm NATO M193 cartridge. The newly redesigned 5.56 mm version of the XL64E5 became known as the XL70E3. The left-handed XL68 was also re-chambered in 5.56×45mm as the XL78. The 5.56mm light support weapon variant, the XL73E3, developed from the XL65E4, was noted for the full length receiver extension with the bipod under the muzzle now indicative of the type.[10]

Further development out of the initial so-called "Phase A"[10] pre-production series led to the XL85 and XL86. While the XL85E1 and XL86E1 were ultimately adopted as the L85 and L86 respectively, a number of additional test models were produced. The XL85E2 and XL86E2 were designed to an alternate build standard with 12 components different from E1 variants, including parts of the gas system, bolt, and magazine catch. Three series of variants were created for "Environmental User Trials". XL85E3 and XL86E3 variants were developed with 24 modified parts, most notably a plastic safety plunger. The E4's had 21 modified parts, no modification to the pistol grip, and an aluminium safety plunger, unlike the E3 variants. Lastly, the E5 variants had 9 modified parts in addition to those from the E3/E4 variants.[10]

SA80 development was complicated from the start. One complication was at least three project staffing changes at the Royal Small Arms Factory, which resulted in repetition of testing several times. One problem with the design of the gun itself was that the cases would be ejected at constantly varying angles as it heated up and the rate of fire changed, resulting in a large ejection port. The conversion from 4.85 mm to 5.56 mm also caused a complication, as the rate of fire dropped dramatically as the gas port was left in the same position, but the pressure and time curve of the rounds were different. The 4.85 mm round was based on the 5.56 mm case in anticipation of the need to convert calibres. The barrel was changed easily, but the gas ports had to be enlarged considerably. This was made worse by the production of ammunition with power that gave a lower port pressure and rate-of-fire. Pressure problems had less of an effect on the LSW due to its longer barrel.[11]


The L85A1 GP rifle with a SUSAT scope attached to it.

After receiving feedback from users and incorporating the various design changes requested, including adapting the rifle for use with the heavier Belgian SS109 version of the 5.56×45mm round and improving reliability, the weapon system was accepted into service with the British Armed Forces in 1985 as the SA80. The SA80 family originally consisted of the L85A1 IW (Individual Weapon) and the L86A1 LSW (Light Support Weapon). The first rifle was issued on 2 October 1985 to Sergeant Gary Gavin, a 26-year-old in the Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters.[2]

The SA80 family was designed and produced (until 1988) by the Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield Lock. In 1988, production of the rifle was transferred to the Royal Ordnance's Nottingham Small Arms Facility (later British Aerospace, Royal Ordnance; now BAE Systems Land & Armaments).

A field-stripped L85A1 GP

In 1994, production was officially completed. More than 350,000 L85A1 rifles and L86A1 light machine guns had been manufactured for the United Kingdom. As responsibility for the funding and supply of the home defence regiments of the British Overseas Territory (which are only loosely integrated within the British Army) has been handed to the local governments of the territories (although the regiments themselves come under command of the national (British) government), the SA80 was not automatically supplied to these units. The Falkland Islands Defence Force instead adopted the Austrian Steyr AUG while the Bermuda Regiment (since 2015 the Royal Bermuda Regiment) adopted the American Ruger Mini-14 in 1983 (although it has held small stocks of the L85A1 and L85A2 since the 1980s for the purpose of familiarisation training as many of its personnel attend courses or attachments in Britain). The Royal Gibraltar Regiment, which is more closely integrated into British Army, adopted the SA80. In 2015, the Royal Bermuda Regiment replaced the Mini-14 with the L85A2.[12]

The L85 is also in use with the Jamaica Defence Force.[13]

Design details

Close-up of a L85A2 with the polymer Magpul EMAG. Note the clear round counting window.
A Royal Marine aims a L85A2 equipped with a L123A2 (AG36) grenade launcher.
A US Marine operating the bolt of a L85A1, 2000.

Operating mechanism

With the exception of the L98A1, the SA80 system is a selective fire gas-operated design that uses ignited powder gases bled through a port in the barrel to provide the weapon's automation. The rifle uses a short-stroke gas piston system located above the barrel, which is fed gas through a three-position adjustable gas regulator. The first gas setting is used for normal operation, the second is for use in difficult environmental conditions, while the third setting prevents any gas from reaching the piston and is used to launch rifle grenades. The weapon uses a rotating cylindrical bolt that contains seven radially mounted locking splines, an extractor and casing ejector. The bolt's rotation is controlled by a cam stud that slides inside a helical camming guide machined into the bolt carrier.


The family is built in a bullpup layout (the action is behind the trigger group), with a forward-mounted pistol grip. The main advantage of this type of arrangement is the overall compactness of the weapon, which can be achieved without compromising the barrel length, hence the overall length of the L85 rifle is shorter than a carbine, but the barrel length is that of an assault rifle. However, the adoption of this layout also means that the rifle must be used exclusively right-handed since the ejection port and cocking handle (which reciprocates during firing) are on the right side of the receiver, making aimed fire from the left shoulder difficult. This can also give rise to a tactical disadvantage when firing around the left side of cover, where the shooter must expose the majority of his body. However left shoulder firing can be achieved by tilting the right hand side of the rifle downwards, reducing the impediments of the cocking handle and the ejection port.

The SA80 family is hammer-fired and has a trigger mechanism with a fire-control selector that enables semi-automatic fire and fully automatic fire (the fire selector lever is located at the left side of the receiver, just aft of the magazine). A cross bolt type safety prevents accidental firing and is located above the trigger; the "safe" setting blocks the movement of the trigger.

The L85 rifle features a barrel with a slotted flash suppressor, which also serves as a mounting base for attaching and launching rifle grenades, attaching a blank-firing adaptor or a bayonet.

The weapons are fed from a STANAG magazine, usually with a 30-round capacity. The magazine release button is placed above the magazine housing, on the left side of the receiver. When the last cartridge is fired from the magazine, the bolt and bolt carrier assembly lock to the rear.

The weapon's receiver is made from stamped sheet steel, reinforced with welded and riveted machined steel inserts. Synthetics were also used (i.e. the handguards, pistol grip, buttpad and cheek rest were all fabricated from nylon). A Picatinny railed handguard was also developed for the type.


View through a SUSAT sight.

Rifles used by the Royal Marines, British Army infantry soldiers (and other soldiers with a dismounted close combat role) and the RAF Regiment are equipped with a SUSAT (Sight Unit Small Arms, Trilux) optical sight, with a fixed 4× magnification and an illuminated aiming pointer powered by a variable tritium light source (as of 2006 almost all British Army personnel deployed on operations have been issued SUSATs). Mounted on the SUSAT's one-piece, pressure die-cast aluminium body are a set of back-up iron sights that consist of a front blade and small rear aperture. Rifles used with other branches of the armed forces when not on operations are configured with fixed iron sights, consisting of a flip rear aperture housed inside the carrying handle and a forward post vertical blade foresight, installed on a bracket above the gas block. The rear sight can be adjusted for windage, and the foresight—elevation. In place of the SUSAT, a passive night vision CWS scope can be used, and also—independent of the SUSAT—a laser pointer.

L85A2 carrying upgraded Laser Light Module Mk 3 with 800 m range.

Weapons used by some Royal Marines, Infantry, RAF Regiment, Ministry of Defence Police and other soldiers with a dismounted close combat role in operations in Afghanistan have had the SUSAT replaced with the Trijicon Advanced Combat Optical Gunsight (ACOG).

In 2011, the Ministry of Defence began issuing ELCAN SpecterOS 4× Lightweight Day Sights (LDS) in an effort to replace ageing SUSAT units across the British Armed Forces, forming the first stage of the FIST infantry enhancement project.[14] In order to mount the new sight, the weapon has been provided with an adapter to convert the existing sight rail to the Picatinny standard, in keeping with the updated handguard. The FIST project has also seen upgrades to the existing Qioptiq CWS (4×) and Maxi-Kite (6×) night vision scopes, and the introduction of the FIST Thermal Sight, following operational experience with the VIPIR-2+ thermal weapon sight in Afghanistan. All of the new FIST weapon sights have the capacity to accept Shield's Close Quarter Battlesight reflex sight.[15]


Bayonet attached to an L85A2 rifle. Note the barrel to the left.

The L85 is supplied with a sling, blank-firing adaptor, cleaning kit and a blade-type bayonet, which coupled with the sheath can double as a wire cutter (the sheath contains a small saw and sharpening stone). The rifle can be adapted to use .22 Long Rifle training ammunition with a special conversion kit. The Small Arms Weapons Effects Simulator can be used on the L85 when in training with blank ammunition. The rifle variant also accommodates a 40 mm under-barrel grenade launcher such as Heckler & Koch AG-36 40 mm grenade launcher variants.[16]


There are four main variants that make up the SA80 'family': the L85 IW Rifle, the L86 Light Support Weapon, the L22 Carbine and the L98 Cadet rifle. The family has currently undergone two major models, LxxA1 being the first issue weapons, and the LxxA2 to distinguish weapons which have undergone H&K upgrades. The 'L' designation is for "Land Service".

L85 Rifle

A Royal Netherlands Marine Corps captain fires the L85A2

The L85 IW ("Individual Weapon"; full name: Rifle, 5.56 mm, L85A2), in its improved A2 version, is the standard rifle for the British armed forces.

On operations with ground close combat units (Infantry, Royal Marines, RAF Regiment), the rifle is often fitted with an LLM01 Laser Light Module.[17] The L85A2 can also mount the L123A2 UGL[18] 40 mm underbarrel grenade launcher (British variant of the H&K AG36). The addition of the underbarrel grenade launcher adds another 3.30 lb (1.49 kg) to the L85A2's weight.

Royal Marine with L85A2 with Picatinny rail

Magazines issued with the L85A1 were aluminium, and not very robust. There are now three types of magazine issued with the L85A2, the most recent being the plastic Magpul EMAG purchased as an Urgent Operational Requirement (UOR),[19] the other two are of steel construction with a stainless steel follower. The main variant is for live ammunition, and the other is exclusively used for blank ammunition. The blank variant is identified by yellow stripes on the magazine, and is designed to prevent the loading of live rounds. As blank rounds are shorter than live rounds, live rounds will not physically fit into the blank magazine. Blank rounds will fit into the normal magazine, but their slightly shorter length creates problems with jamming.

From 2007, an upgrade including the provision of ACOGs, a new handguard incorporating Picatinny rails (with optional hand grip/bipod),[20] and a new vortex style flash eliminator is being introduced for use by selected units.[21]


LSW during training

The L86A1 LSW ("Light Support Weapon") is a magazine-fed automatic weapon originally intended to provide fire support at a fireteam level. It has a longer barrel than the L85A1 rifle and a bipod, shoulder strap and rear pistol grip, together with a shorter handguard. The extended barrel provides an increased muzzle velocity and further stabilizes the bullet, giving a greater effective range. The weapon is otherwise identical to the L85 version on which it is based, and the same 30-rd magazines and sighting systems are used. Like the L85 rifle, it has a rate-of-fire selector on the left side behind the magazine housing, enabling either single shots or automatic fire.

The increased barrel length, bipod and the optical performance of the SUSAT give the weapon excellent accuracy. From its inception, the L86 was a target of criticism on much the same basis as the L85. The LSW has the additional issue (shared by any light support weapon derived from a rifle, for example the heavy-barrel FN FAL) of its inability to deliver sustained automatic fire as it does not have a quick-change barrel, and is not belt fed.[22]

For a time, the primary use of the LSW has shifted to that of a marksman's weapon within many infantry sections, capable of providing precision fire at ranges of over 600 m,[23] however it was replaced in this role by the Rifle, 7.62 mm L129A1[24] The role of a light support weapon is instead filled by the L110A2 Light Machine Gun FN Minimi, which is a belt fed weapon with a quick-change barrel.

The L86A1 was upgraded to the L86A2 at the same time as L85A1 rifles were upgraded to L85A2 standards, undergoing the same set of modifications.

L22A1 and L22A2 Carbines

Carbine variant as used by an aircrewman.

There have been three attempts at a carbine, the first was in 1989 (length overall 556 mm, barrel length 289 mm). The second attempt, which was in 1994, used the standard L86 LSW handguard and a 17.4-inch barrel (length overall 709 mm, barrel length 442 mm). The third attempt (2003–2004) is also the only one to officially be adopted - the L22. This resembles the 1989 model but has all the necessary A2 upgrades, it has a 318 mm (12.5 in) barrel and an overall length of 585 mm. Around 1,500 were "manufactured" from surplus L86 LSW's, more were built with the increased demand. Due to the shortened barrel (12.5 in), it is less accurate and less powerful, especially at long ranges. Because there is no handguard, these guns are outfitted with a vertical front grip. (Exists in A1 and A2 variants). Initially issued to tank and armoured vehicle crews for emergency action out of vehicle, the L22 has been seen in the hands of the Royal Marines Fleet Protection Group and pilots of all three services due to the compact size.

L98 Cadet General Purpose Rifles

Cadet with a L98A1 GP

The L98A1 Cadet GP Rifle was a general-purpose (GP) rifle used by the Combined Cadet Force and Sea, Royal Marine, Army and Air Cadets in the United Kingdom. It was introduced in 1987 to replace the .303 Lee–Enfield No 4 rifles and .303 Bren guns used for weapons training. The L98A1 rifle began a phased decommission in early 2009 and is now no longer in use. UK cadet forces have now received the updated L98A2 rifles. The L98A1 was similar to the L85A1, but lacked the gas components. It was a manually operated, single-shot rifle, with a cocking handle extension piece mounted on the right side of the weapon, and was cocked with the right hand. It was also fitted with adjustable iron sights.

The L98A1 had a number of design features that caused problems. A stoppage occurred if the cocking handle was not fully retracted and released because the spent round failed to eject cleanly fouling the breech and preventing the loading of the next cartridge. This fault was often caused by poor cleaning as dirt, grit and rain easily foul and remove the oil from the exposed cocking handle slide making the action harder to cycle. The absence of the flash suppressor also prevented the fitting of a blank firing attachment (BFA) thus increasing the safety distance from 5 m to 50 m.

A conversion kit existed that enabled the L85A1, L86A1 and L98A1 to fire .22 LR rimfire cartridges instead of the standard 5.56×45mm NATO cartridge. This was designated the L41A1. This allowed the weapon to fire live rounds on .22 ranges when full size military ranges are unavailable. The kit consisted of modified working parts (springs etc.), a special magazine that is the same size and shape as the standard 5.56 mm magazine and a breech insert, shaped like a 5.56 mm cartridge, which was fitted into the weapons breech. This adapter contained a smaller breech into which the modified bolt inserts the .22 cartridge. The modified magazine locked into the magazine housing exactly like a normal one would. It allowed .22 rounds to be fired semi-automatically using direct blow back against the bolt to cycle the next round. If the kit was fitted to the L98A1 a standard L85 cocking handle had to be fitted to allow semi automatic fire. The conversion was not permanent and could be removed from the weapon in the time it took to normally strip and reassemble the weapon. This kit was not compatible with the A2 upgrade and was removed from service, however a quantity have been modified to work in A2 weapons and have been approved for use in the L98A2, this kit has been designated as the L41A2.

There was a Drill Purpose (DP) version of the L98A1, known as the L103A1. It was similar to the 'GP' rifle, however, modifications had been made in order to deactivate it: the barrel was sealed by filling it with lead, the firing pin was cut and welded down to the bolt face and the hammer was filed down, making reactivation uneconomical. The weapons were used by cadets for weapons training. The 'DP' could be identified by a white stripe on the hand guard and near the butt of the weapon with the letters 'DP' in the stripe. The bolt carrier assembly was painted red and this can be seen from the breech on the right hand side of the weapon.

The L98A2 GP Rifle was introduced in 2009, as a replacement for the L98A1 Cadet GP Rifle.[25] Unlike the L98A1 the A2 has the same cocking handle and operation as the L85A2, the L98A2 can also be distinguished from the A1 via the presence of a 'HK A2' stamp on their gas cylinders. The L98A2 can be fitted with the Safe Blank Firing System (SBFS) incorporating a Blank Firing Attachment (BFA) and a blank-only magazine. It can only be distinguished from the L85A2 by the absence of a selector switch meaning it is locked on semi-automatic fire.

The L103A2 (a drill purpose L98A2). Though rarely the case, note the absent front sight

The L103A2 Cadet DP (Drill Purpose) Rifle is a deactivated L98A2 used by cadets for practicing rifle drill and weapons handling tests. The L103A2 contains similar working and gas parts to the standard live firing weapon but has been extensively modified so it is impossible to convert it back to a functioning firearm.


The SA80 has been used in all conflicts in which the British Armed Forces have been involved since its introduction in the mid-1980s. Deployments include Northern Ireland, the First Gulf War, Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and Iraq. The British went into battle with fixed bayonets on the SA80 in Iraq, the first time fixed bayonets had been used since the Falklands War.[26] On several occasions, fixed bayonets have been used during the Afghanistan conflict also.

Service and modification

Soon after being adopted for service, problems began to surface:

…the first five years of this rifle's service have been disastrous. A number of manufacturing defects showed up in service conditions, and it was not until the closure of the RSAF at Enfield and the setting up of an entirely new production line, with new computer-controlled machine tools, at the new RSAF Nottingham, that the quality of the production weapons began to improve. It will take some time for the poor reputation gained by the initial issue weapons to be overcome; the only consolation is that the same sort of thing has happened to other military rifles in the past, and they have managed to live down their early reputation and prove their innate reliability. It is to be hoped that the L85A1 will do so as well.
Ian V. Hogg, 1990[11]

When the L85A1 and L86A1 were first sent into major combat during the Gulf War, their performances were appalling. The L85A1 proved unreliable in semi-auto mode, and slightly better in full-auto, while the L86A1 performed oppositely. Specific complaints included: the poor quality plastic furniture fell apart and the gun was damaged easily; the magazine release catch was easily knocked accidentally and dropped the magazine; the catch on the housing over the gas mechanism was too weak and constantly popped open, so it had to be taped down; only 26–28 rounds could be loaded in a magazine because the springs were weak, and it also had to be kept very clean and the lips checked for dents; the LSW had a small magazine capacity for its role and overheated after 120–150 rounds fired in bursts; the weapons were difficult to strip and reassemble, with the gas plug easily jamming in place and requiring an armorer to remove; and ergonomic issues related to the safety catch, cocking lever, and the location and stiffness of the fire selector switch.[11]

The SA80 initially gained a poor reputation amongst British soldiers as being unreliable and fragile, a fact picked up by the UK media,[27] entertainment industry,[28] and members of the House of Lords.[29] The writer and former soldier Andy McNab said in his book Bravo Two Zero, that the British Army procured a "Rolls-Royce in the SA80, albeit a prototype Rolls-Royce".

Immediately after the first Gulf war (Operation Granby), the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) commissioned the LANDSET Report (officially entitled "Equipment Performance (SA80) During Operation Granby (The Gulf War)"), into the effectiveness of the L85A1 IW & L86A1 LSW.[30] This report criticised the acceptance of the weapon into service. Neither weapon had managed to pass the sand trials and both frequently jammed. The mechanism of both weapons needed to be well lubricated as the weapon became prone to seizure if fired "dry", yet in sandy condition the lubricated weapon became unreliable due to the lubricant attracting sand into the moving parts. The LANDSET report identified in excess of 50 faults. Most notably the magazine release catch, which could easily be caught on clothing and therefore accidentally release the magazine; the plastic safety plunger which became brittle in cold climates; firing pins that were not up to repeated use and prone to fracture, if used in automatic fire mode. Although this report identified over 50 faults, and some of the rifle's problems were corrected as a result (e.g. the magazine release guard and trigger), these modifications addressed only seven of these issues and complaints over reliability in service continued.

The Ministry of Defence applied various minor fixes to problems in the guns or simply denied that a problem existed. The MoD finally began to address issues with the SA80 family in 1992 but procuring entirely new weapons was considered too expensive.[11]

A Ministry of Defence Police Officer on duty with an L85A2

As a result, a more extensive modification programme was executed. In 2000, Heckler & Koch, at that time owned by the British defence conglomerate BAE Systems, was contracted to upgrade the SA80 family of weapons. Two hundred thousand SA80s were re-manufactured at a cost of £400 each, producing the A2 variant. Changes focused primarily on improving reliability and include: a redesigned cocking handle, modified bolt, extractor and a redesigned hammer assembly that produces a slight delay in the hammer's operation in continuous fire mode, improving reliability and stability. There were equivalent LSW and carbine modifications.[22] The British Ministry of Defence describes the L85A2 revision as "modified in light of operational experience... the most reliable weapons of their type in the world".[31] Armed Forces trials indicated extremely good reliability over a range of climates for various operational scenarios, though with a decline in reliability in hot, and especially hot and dry conditions.[32]

The L85A2 has achieved an average reliability rate of 25,200 mean rounds between failure, and the L86A2 achieved 12,897 mean rounds between failures. Both weapons have higher reliability rates in cold/dry, temperate, and hot/wet conditions (over 31,500 MRBF for L85A2), but lower rates in hot/dry environments. The minimum expected life of A2 components is 10,000 rounds, meaning they may never suffer stoppages during their lifetimes. The L85A1 was required to be able to fire 120 rounds over 24 hours, and the L86A1 was required to fire 800 rounds in 24 hours. The L85A2 is required to fire 150 rounds in 8 minutes 40 seconds, and the L86A2 is required to fire 960 rounds in 36 minutes. The first A2-style SA80 weapons were rushed into action in Afghanistan in December 2001, and all 200,000 were converted by February 2006. Three to four thousand weapons were converted per month. Despite the modifications, reports started to emerge that the L85A2 was still jamming. In reality, there were few jams and problems were much less serious than were made out to be, stemming from isolated cases of soldiers not cleaning their weapons correctly.[11]

The modified A2 variants are distinguished by the "HK A2" marking on the top of the weapon just forward of the buttplate, and the distinctive comma shaped cocking handle (shaped to aid the ejection of the empty round casing and prevent stoppages). A forward Picatinny accessories rail supplied by Daniel Defense was incorporated from 2008. The Magpul Industries polymer EMAG magazine was introduced from 2011 to replace the Heckler & Koch steel STANAG 4179 magazine.[33]

Continued testing of the L85A2 in adverse conditions demonstrates its reliability over contemporary rifles, including the M16. Although it is heavier than most conventional and more modern bullpup rifles, its full-length barrel gives higher muzzle velocities and better terminal performance than both the M4 and the M16. Rounds from an M4 will only reliably fragment out to 50–100 metres, while the L85A2 and M16 allowed fragmentation out to 150–200 metres, and the L86A2 has an even longer fragmentation range. Despite these modifications, the L86A2 did not overcome efforts to replace it with a belt-fed machine gun. British troops were issued with L110A1 machine guns to add suppressive fire out to 300 metres; despite these officially being supplementary weapons, they all but replaced the L86.[11] The L129 was issued to provide increased terminal effect at long range, to compensate for the limitations of both L85 and L86 weapons.


The SA80 has been used in the following conflicts:


See also


  1. Janes Defence Weekly, 2 Oct 13, page 6, UK Considers Small Arms Updates, Nick Brown
  2. 1 2 Meek, James (10 October 2002), "Off Target", The Guardian "Many of the key parts of the SA80 were copied from the US Armalite AR18, then made in Britain under licence by the Sterling gun factory in Dagenham, using the pressed-steel technique."
  3. A Historical Review of Armalite: Edition of 4 January 2010 (PDF), ArmaLite Inc., archived from the original (PDF) on 2014-06-12, It’s especially interesting to note that the RSAF’s later 5.56 mm rifle, the SA-80, (later adopted as the L85) was nothing more than a bullpup version of the AR-180
  4. Hogg, Ian V.; Weeks, John (1981), Military Small Arms of the 20th Century (4th ed.), ISBN 0-910676-28-3
  5. Macrae, Callum (23 August 1992), "How the Army got second best", The Observer, via, p. 7, In 1976 Edmiston and his designer, Frank Waters, saw the prototype SA80 at the British Army Equipment Exhibition in Aldershot. It was a bullpup design, a squat rifle with a minimal butt, and its operation looked curiously familiar.'Frank was allowed to take it apart,' Edmiston told The Observer. 'He found our bolt carrier, our magazine, and parts out of our gun. These weren't even copies. They had bought some of our guns and were using the parts to make the SA80 prototype.' A former weapons designer with Royal Ordnance confirmed that claim. He added that the original prototypes, basically an amalgam of the Armalite AR18 and the bullpup design of the old RO EM2, were good, promising guns ... 'but the design was fiddled with by committees in the MoD and Royal Ordnance'. The gun, he says, has never been the same since.
  6. 1 2 Dolazell, Harry, "Armalite / Sterling AR-18 5.56mm Rifle",, if you ever take an SA80 apart, or see a picture of one fully disassembled, then look very closely at the bolt and gas system, as it’s almost a direct copy of the old AR-18 system
  7. A Historical Review of Armalite: Edition of 4 January 2010 (PDF), ArmaLite Inc., archived from the original (PDF) on 2014-06-12, The AR-18 suffered similar results in the United Kingdom as well. The Ministry of Defence first evaluated the AR-18 in March 1966...A Howa version was evaluated by MOD in January 1969.
  10. 1 2 3 Wetters-Chronology. "The 5.56 X 45mm: 1974–1985 – A Chronology of Development". Daniel Watters, The Gun Zone. Retrieved 2007-05-05.
  11. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Williams, Anthony G., SA80: Mistake Or Maligned
  12. 1 2 Rifles worth $1.4m donated to Regiment. By Lisa Simpson. The Royal Gazette. Published 5 August, 2015
  13. 1 2 Watters, Daniel. "The 5.56 X 45mm: 1990–1994". Retrieved 15 June 2009.
  14. "Desider magazine – Issue 36" (PDF). Ministry of Defence.
  15. "Shield CQB". Retrieved 23 December 2014.
  16. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 28 August 2008. Retrieved 2008-08-28.
  17. "Kit Magazine" (PDF). Ministry of Defence.
  18. DE&S response to freedom of information request
  19. "Magpul's EMAG gets 2nd window; Brits sign up for 1 million, thanks".
  20. "Supply of Handguards and Downgrips for SA80A2". European Defence Agency. The Combat Support Equipment Integrated Project Team (CSE IPT), part of the Ministry of Defence United Kingdom, has a requirement for design, production and supply of a new handguard and downgrip for the SA80A2 Rifle to give improved grip capability. There is a possible requirement for up to quantity 8,000 of each item for Urgent Operational Requirements. There is a further possible requirement for up to quantity 15,000 to replace in service equipment.
  21. "Kit Magazine, Issue 62 Winter 2007" (PDF). Ministry of Defence. Archived from the original (PDF) on 1 October 2008. Retrieved 2008-03-16. This technology is here now! So if you see strange-looking SA80s being carried by strange-looking men, then rest assured, those users that had the requirement, had the make-over, at a price.
  22. 1 2 Hastings, Max (2004-07-31). "''Don't Buy British'', ''Guardian'' Article". London: Guardian. Retrieved 2009-04-22.
  23. "Light Support Weapon (LSW)". Ministry of Defence. Retrieved 2008-05-25. LSW has a heavier and longer barrel allowing greater muzzle velocity and accuracy than the standard SA80.
  24. "Taking Back The Infantry Half-km: Britain's L129A1". 8 June 2010.
  25. "Army Cadet Magazine Spring 2009".
  26. Wyatt, Caroline (28 April 2009). "Remembering the Battle of Al Amara". BBC News. Retrieved 9 April 2011.
  27. Off TargetThe Guardian, 10 October 2002.
  28. for example the Bremner, Bird and Fortune satirical comedy documentary Between Iraq and a Hard Place included the line: "The SA80 is a lethal weapon, especially for anyone trying to fire it", similar to a description of the Vietnam War era M16.
  29. "The Defence Estimates 1990". Retrieved 23 December 2014.
  30. Raw, Steve. 'The Last Enfield: SA80 – The Reluctant Rifle', Collector Grade Publications, Cobourg, Ontario, 2003, pp. 172–3.
  31. 1 2 "SA80 individual weapon". Retrieved 2009-04-22.
  32. , mirrored at
  33. "Troops in Afghanistan get new lightweight rifle magazines".
  34. Johnson, Steve (31 December 2012). "SA80 in Bolivia". The Firearm Blog. Retrieved 16 March 2014.
  35. ncoicinnet. "Web Site of the Jamaica Defence Force". Retrieved 23 December 2014.
  36. "Light Support Weapon (LSW)". Retrieved 2009-04-22.


  • Raw, Steve. The Last Enfield SA80 - the Reluctant Rifle. Cobourg, Ontario, Canada: Collector Grade Publications Incorporated, 2003. ISBN 0-88935-303-4.

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