SA80 (Small Arms for the 1980s): The Sorry Saga of the British Bulldog's Bullpup

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Introduction
The Situation – Post World War II
The Need for a New Rifle
Replacing the SLR
The Early Stages
Accepting the SA80 into Service
Problems Arise
A Crisis Erupts
The Problems Continue
Heckler & Koch Become Involved
And Even More Problems . . .
Conclusion
Bibliography

Introduction

Few items that have come into service with the British Army have caused more controversy over their operating lives than that of the SA80 (Small Arms for the 1980s) series of weapons. This family of small arms, chambered for NATO’s 5.56x45mm ammunition, consists primarily of the L85 Individual Weapon and the L86 Light Support Weapon, but also includes the L22 Carbine and L98 Cadet Rifle. The L85 and L86 replaced the L1A1 Self-Loading Rifle, L4A9 Bren Light Machine Gun, L7A2 General Purpose Machine Gun and L2A3 Sterling Sub-Machine Gun. Officially handed over on 2 October 1985, production had reached over 323,920 when it finished in 1994.

L98A1 Cadet Rifle
L98A1 Cadet Rifle
This case study looks at the background, development history, problems and controversies surrounding this assault rifle. Such problems and controversies have always generated interest in specialist publications, the general media and the political sphere, with the result that there was a lot of material available on the weapon and its history, in this case, much of it critical – "a weapon or weapon system is usually written about because of its innovative design, its impact on the field of battle, or even on world events. This book is probably unique among all others on small arms because its subject, the SA80, is none of the above, and will be remembered for all the wrong reasons."1

The Situation – Post World War II

At the end of World War II, the British remained one of the few major powers that had yet to introduce a self-loading rifle into service. The Soviets had fielded the Simonov AVS36 in 1936 but had failed to trial it properly with the result all sorts of problems in reliability occurred in the field. Further development resulted in the Tokarev SVT38 and SVT40, both of which continued the 7.62x54R calibre. In 1943, they also developed the 7.62x39mm intermediate cartridge and the following year brought out the Simonov SKS carbine to use it, this being followed by the famous AK-47. The USA had adopted the M1 Garand in 1936 and during the war, the Germans had developed the FG42 paratroop rifle, the G41 and G43 self-loading rifles as well as the revolutionary StG44 (also known as the MP44). The British Army meanwhile, were still using the No. 4 Lee Enfield bolt-action rifle in .303 calibre, a rifle which, tried and tested though it was, traced its roots back to the late 19th Century. Experience during both world wars, and even the Korean War, questioned the need for infantry to have weapons chambered for full-power cartridges that are accurate out to as much as 2,000 yards. "In fact, despite the evidence that most shooting during WW1 was at short range, armies continued to show an interest in full-power rifle/MG rounds."2 World War II showed the need for infantry to be armed with light, selective fire weapons that required an "effective range of fire much longer than of submachine gun, but shorter than of conventional semi-automatic or bolt-action rifles."3

The concept of a bullpup service rifle for the British Army actually goes back to a decision taken in late 1945, at the very end of the war. The Ministry of Supply set up a 'Small Arms Ideal Calibre' Panel to determine the optimum cartridge for a lightweight self-loading rifle. A great deal of experimentation and testing took place, primarily of calibres between .250 and .270 (approximately 6.35 to 6.8mm), undertaken at the Armament Design Establishment, Enfield under Dr Richard Beeching, the Deputy Chief Engineer. The panel reported in March 1947, recommending the further development of two different designs. One was in .270 calibre (6.8x46mm) with a steel-cored 100gn bullet travelling at between 2,750 and 2,800fps (approximately 840 to 850m/s).4 This round retained 81 ft lbs of energy (109j) at 2,000 yards (1,830m) with 60 ft lbs of energy (80j) reportedly being necessary to injure an unprotected human being. The second was in .276 calibre (7x43mm), later re-designated as .280 to avoid any confusion with earlier ammunition, such as the British .276 Enfield P13 and American .276 Pedersen, both of which had been considered as potential new rifle calibres for their respective countries, in 1913 and 1932 respectively. Indeed, the M1 Garand may well have been chambered for the .276 Pedersen if it had not have been for the intervention of General Douglas MacArthur. This round was tested with a number of bullets weighing between 130 and 140 grains (8.4 to 9g), with velocities between 2,330 and 2,450fps (710 to 747 m/s). The 130gn / 2,450fps combination had a retained energy of 100 ft lbs (135j) at 2,000 yards (1,830m). In time, a combination entailing a Belgian-designed 140gn (9g) bullet fired at a velocity of 2,415fps (736m/s) was chosen for further development. The .280 calibre was slightly larger than originally intended but was selected in order to try and meet the American desire for good long-range performance. In line with this, and with an eye to the possibility of it being standardised within NATO, the original case rim diameter was enlarged slightly to more closely match that of the .30-06 round so it would be easier to re-barrel any existing weapons, with the result that the designation was changed to .280/30.

World War II had impacted on British small arms design in two ways. Firstly, in terms of actual small arms design, there was very little in terms of an indigenous knowledge / skill base for small arms design up until the outbreak of war. "There was very little 'know how' in Great Britain before the war. Practically all small arms were purchased abroad and as the Germans over-ran Europe, so a number of European gun designers managed to escape and come to England and join the Ministry."5 Secondly, the war had seen the capture of a large number of German weapons, many of whose features were incorporated into British designs. It was first thought that these new designs were 'ersatz' or cheap items due to the large amount of sheet metal stampings used, but closer examination proved that this was not the case. In the latter stages of the war, the Germans had suffered shortages of expensive alloys and so weapon designers had been forced to come up with equipment that used normal carbon steels wherever possible. The Germans had eventually mastered the art of mass production during wartime that meant that they could produce items at a price far cheaper than most of the rest of the world was paying (who were using the time-consuming, expensive method of extensively machined metal forgings) but without any loss in quality.
Two different weapons influenced the post-war bullpup designs from ADE Enfield. The first was a sniper rifle, also designed at ADE Enfield, which was intended to be a solution to the problem of snipers being visually spotted when operating the bolt on the No. 4 Lee Enfield rifle. Three designs were produced but only one prototype was built, in 7.92x57mm calibre. The second weapon became known as the EM-3 or Hall rifle and was developed from a design solution put forward to a problem set on the 8th SAT(War) Course at RMCS Shrivenham in 1944. The design solution, put forward by Major J E M Hall of the Australian Army, was favourably received by the staff at RMCS and additional development was undertaken to the point where a patent, No. 589394 was granted to Major Hall by the British Patent Office. It is interesting as it was even shorter than the Enfield designs under development, was completely sealed against the external environment and featured over-the-shoulder ejection, thus it was able to be fired either left or right-handed.

The Need for a New Rifle

Four design teams were formed at Enfield, under the overall project leadership of Noel Kent-Lemon. The first of the bullpup designs was the EM-1 or Korsac rifle, which originated with the Polish design team based at Cheshunt, Hertfordshire, headed by Roman Korsac until his retirement when Captain Januszewski (who later changed his name to Stefan Kenneth Janson) took over. This weapon was mainly used to investigate the feasibility of the bullpup layout in this sort of weapon and owed its design to German weapons produced during World War II, most notably the FG42 paratroop rifle. The initial FG42s were made by Heinrich Krieghoff Waffenfabrik of Suhl and first used in action during the rescue of Mussolini by German commandos led by Otto Skorzeny in September 1943. The design was such that the rifle used the same 7.92x57mm round as the regular Mauser Kar98k but was shorter and lighter. This was done by moving the magazine up to the left-hand side of the receiver and onto the same vertical axis as the trigger and pistol grip, along with moving a hollow, recoil-cushioned butt forward so that it surrounded the rear of the receiver. This design was moved to museum status on 25 September 1947.

It was succeeded by a new design, from a team led by Stanley Thorpe that in fact ran in parallel with a second design from the team led by Stefan Janson. This new EM-1 was therefore also known as the Thorpe rifle. It was a light automatic rifle that shared characteristics with the Mauser Gerät 06 No. 2 and a construction based upon the sheet metal stampings method pioneered by the Germans. The Mauser Gerät 06 No. 2 was a prototype weapon, itself the forerunner of the Sturmgewehr 45 (StG45), a replacement for the StG44, which had come into service with the Wehrmacht in late 1943. The StG45 was intended to be even simpler than the StG44 and therefore easier and cheaper to manufacture (45 Reichsmarks compared to 70 Reichsmarks). The first Thorpe rifle was proofed at Enfield on the 19 and 20 December 1949 to a pressure of 23 tons with a 130 grain .280 calibre bullet with a mild steel core and a charge weight of 30.1 grains. Due to problems with the steel stampings making up the body of the rifle, the complexity of the design and the time needed to field strip it, the design was eventually dropped in light of the advanced state of the EM-2, also know as the Janson rifle. This design employed the standard method of machining and finishing forged steel as used in the FG42 and Korsac rifle. It also used characteristics found in the Gewehr 43 (or Karabiner 43), a German semi-automatic rifle that was itself inspired by the Soviet SVT40 semi-automatic rifle, including a gas operating system and pivoting locking lugs. The Janson rifle kept all these features as well as incorporating lessons from the Korsac rifle, including an identical butt plate retainer and release, the same basic bullpup layout, a similar receiver design and methods of manufacture and an identical cocking handle location.

Both the EM-2 and FN lightweight rifle (the precursor to the FAL) were re-chambered for the .280/30 cartridge and a lot development work went into producing a competitive round in order to put forward a viable entry in the trials that were to take place in the USA during 1950. The two .280/30 rifles were trialled in the United Kingdom from late 1948 to late 1949 and then in the USA in a series of Engineering Trials at Aberdeen Proving Ground between March and May 1950, followed by Troop Trials at Fort Benning, Georgia, conducted by the US Army Infantry Board between May and November 1950. Despite being the most accurate and reliable weapon in the trial (the EM-2 and FN were pitted against the experimental American T25 rifle) the US Ordnance Board concluded that the EM-2 lacked power – they did however state their preference for the .280/30 cartridge over that of the T65. The British increased the bullet weight to 140 grains and velocity to 2,530fps but the Americans remained unconvinced. In reality, their lack of enthusiasm was unrelated to the actual performance of the .280/30 cartridge but entirely related to the military and political thinking of the time. The T65 cartridge (7.62x47mm) put forward by the Americans was a slightly shorter version of the 30-06 round that had been in use since the early 20th Century and having a domestic contender made all other contenders (especially if they were of foreign design) almost irrelevant. Whatever the merits of the .280/30 cartridge or the weapons designed to fire it, neither would see service in the US Armed Forces "because the 7mm cartridge was Not Invented Here and could not therefore be accepted by the US forces. Instead, after a great deal of argument, NATO got the 7.62x51 round as their standard".6

The conclusions of two reports were ignored and the recommendations of the Trials Board were overruled by the US Army Chief of Staff due to the general preference in American military, political and industrial circles for a domestically developed, full-power .30 calibre round. "They accepted the concept of standardisation, but only if their round was the one to be standardised. There was thus little hope of persuading them to re-tool to a new calibre, with all the attendant costs that would be incurred, especially if it was of foreign design."7 The T65 cartridge underwent further development, resulting in what became the standard 7.62x51mm NATO round, with many even in the United States considering it to be far too powerful for average infantry requirements. The US Government was however, in a position to pressure a bankrupt Western Europe into adopting its choice. Despite the adoption of the EM-2 as the 'Rifle No. 9 Mk 1' and the .280/30 cartridge as the 'Cartridge, SA, Ball, 7mm Mk1Z' in August 1951 by Emanuel Shinwell, the UK's Minister of Defence, a change of government in late 1951, led to the new Prime Minister Winston Churchill rescinding the decision (in a move that was seen by many, then and since, as bowing to pressure from the USA to maintain good relations within the NATO alliance) and opting instead to accept the new 7.62x51mm standard NATO cartridge which led to the adoption of the semi-automatic L1A1 Self-Loading Rifle (SLR), a British variant of the Belgian FN FAL rifle in 1957.

L1A1 Rifle
L1A1 Rifle
Having made the decision to adopt a 7.62x51mm version of the Belgian FN FAL (Fabrique Nationale Fusil Automatique Legere), the Ministry of Defence started trials of the new weapon and Noel Kent-Lemon, team leader for the EM-2 project, moved over to head the new team that would oversee the rifle's development and introduction. There were still problems to overcome however, the first being the time needed to get the weapon into full-scale production. Closely linked to this was the one of measurements. The technical drawings from FN were all done using the metric system, while Britain, Canada and Australia all used the Imperial system of measurement. Before production could begin, a set of drawings using the Imperial system had to be created and agreed by all three countries as the inter-changability of parts was an important factor. A set of prototype drawings, produced by the agreed Design Authority, Canadian Arsenals Limited of Long Branch, Ontario were finally accepted in May 1955. "Two years later, (ironically the same time frame as the EM-2 would have needed), after on-going trials and modifications, completed drawings became available".8 The Imperially-measured FN FAL entered British service as the 'Rifle, 7.62mm, L1A1' in 1957.

Replacing the SLR

The immediate background to the SA80 lies in the decision in the late 1960s, to start looking for a replacement for the L1A1 SLR. The 7.62x51mm NATO cartridge that it fired had always been considered overpowered by the British, even though it was designed as a compromise between the American .30-06 cartridge and the British .280 round. The nature of the compromise meant it was little more than a .30-06 cartridge with a shorter case and the round therefore fell between the two camps, that is, it was not quite as powerful as the rounds it replaced but too powerful to be a practical assault rifle cartridge. NATO adopted it in 1954 and the British, having been forced to adopt it and keep the cartridge and the rifle that fired it in service for what would turn out to be three decades, decided that next time, the decision would be based on firm technical and tactical requirements. Or so they thought. Once again, the British looked at data from both world wars and Korea but by this time could include data from the war in Vietnam. They decided that any future ammunition requirement would be based on the theoretical maximum engagement range that came out of an analysis of this data, which turned out to be around 400m.

Enfield 4.85mm Individual Weapon
Enfield 4.85mm Individual Weapon
The foundations for what would eventually become the Enfield Weapon System (EWS) were laid in the early 1970s. In 1970, the Director General Weapons (Army) asked Royal Small Arms Factory, Enfield to conduct a study, to be finished by the end of 1971, with the following objectives:

  1. To define what sort of target a future weapon should be able to hit and what criteria should be set out that would constitute defeating said target;
  2. To assess a range of ammunition calibres, ranging from 4mm to 7.62mm with regard to an effective range of between 400 and 600m;
  3. To look at a variety of weapon configurations with regard to a requirement that it be lighter than the current standard weapon and easier to handle;
  4. To investigate the possibility of incorporating an area-effect capability (for example, a rifle grenade);
  5. To investigate what was happening world-wide, with regard to the design and procurement of small arms.

RSAF Enfield reported back in December 1971 with the following findings:
The size of the target was determined as being 450mm x 900 mm (approximately 18in x 35in) and the criteria as being an energy of 466j, that being necessary to defeat the best steel helmet then in use (West Germany);

  1. An optimum calibre of around 5mm for both an Individual Weapon (IW) and a Light Support Weapon (LSW);
  2. It was unlikely that unconventional systems (such as caseless ammunition or flechette projectiles) would be able to be developed adequately in the timeframe stipulated so a conventional cartridge was recommended;
  3. There were no definite conclusions as to how best to incorporate an area-effect capability, although a grenade launched from the weapon's muzzle was considered preferable;
  4. Most small arms manufacturers were utilising advances in materials and technology to improve weapon handling, reduce weight and even offer unconventional solutions.

RSAF Enfield then looked at the system configuration, and came to the conclusion that:

  1. Both the IW and LSW should be of an unorthodox configuration with a straight butt, which would give a shorter overall weapon, save weight and improve handling;
  2. It be of around 5mm in calibre;
  3. Both be able to fire accurately out to about 600m;
  4. The commonality of components be as high as possible;
  5. It be capable of both semi-automatic and fully-automatic fire;
  6. It be gas operated;
  7. It have a multi-lug breech-operating system;
  8. It be fitted with an optical sight similar to the SUIT on the L1A1;
  9. If possible, the weapon would have a three-round burst limiter included;
  10. It have a cyclic rate of between 300 and 1,000 rounds per minute;
  11. The prototype LSW use a combined open / closed bolt operation – this would improve reliability and lower the chances of a 'cook-off' after fully automatic fire but mean a more complicated mechanism and lower commonality of components.

The result of this preliminary work was General Staff Target (GST) 3815, published in 1972. This document concentrated the project's future direction and laid down guidelines to be followed during the next two years of feasibility work. These guidelines were:

  1. The weapons would be in 4.85mm calibre, keeping the LSW as light as possible at the expense of having the IW fire a round that was slightly more powerful than optimum;
  2. The weapons are as light as possible, in a bullpup configuration and be adaptable to either left or right-handed use by a unit's Armourer;
  3. The weapons would have an optical sight that was as good as or better than the SUIT;
  4. They would be capable of accepting a night sight;
  5. Further research into the possibility of having an area-effect capability would be undertaken;
  6. Definite designs would be produced.

The Early Stages

RSAF Enfield began their feasibility work by looking at the ammunition. They eventually produced a 4.85x49mm cartridge that gave better performance and lower recoil energy than the 5.56x45mm M193 round. RSAF Enfield produced twelve weapons (eight IWs and four LSWs) to test various concepts and design features (for example, one was chambered for 5.56mm and another had a 40mm under-slung grenade launcher fitted) which resulted in a Feasibility Study report being submitted in March 1974. Its conclusions were:

  1. The 4.85x49mm cartridge meets the requirements set;
  2. More work needs to be done on producing an area-effect capability;
  3. The SUSAT (Sight Unit Small Arms Trilux) performance was satisfactory and improved weapon accuracy;
  4. The LSW had a limited sustained fire capability due to the heat produced during automatic fire, which could also impact barrel wear, affecting accuracy – a way around this would be to have a 'quick-change' barrel facility, similar to the Bren gun but this would increase cost and weight, as well as reduce the commonality of parts between the IW and LSW. An increase in its rate of fire would require the weapon to be belt-fed and contravene the GST which required a common magazine feed;
  5. Firing single shot produced more hits per rounds fired than the other modes of operation so the burst limiter and rate of fire control were judged to be unnecessary. It is a shame that the three-round burst option was eventually dropped as it should prove a more accurate option than full automatic and potential conserve ammunition, a useful factor during the heat of battle when re-supply might be problematical. As a counterpoint, the M16A1 when it was upgraded to the M16A2, had a three-round burst capability included;
  6. Any requirement for left-handed operation should be handled by Armourers at the unit level;
  7. An assessment regarding the need for night sights did not reach any conclusions.

SA80 Carbine Mk 1
SA80 Carbine Mk 1
Following this, the first REME Ease of Maintenance (E of M) assessments took place in May 1974 followed by the issue of the formal General Staff Requirement (GSR) 3518 that defined the characteristics of the weapons system that would enter service. Following additional user trials and another REME E of M assessment, RSAF Enfield incorporated a number of design changes to the weapons including changes to the trigger mechanism, removing the three round burst capability and strengthening the body and trigger housing mechanisms. The official unveiling of the new system took place on 14 June 1976 a year before the NATO Ammunition Trails were to begin. By allowing the Press and Public to view these weapons, which were in fact hand-built prototypes, it confirmed the MoD's faith in these weapons and that the "weapon would enter service without a hiccup, and the US Army and the rest of NATO would switch to 4.85mm when they saw what a great round it was."9 Unfortunately, this optimistic attitude was to be undone, as alluded to above, by the actions once again, of the lead player within NATO – the USA.

SA80 Carbine Mk 2
SA80 Carbine Mk 2
Backtracking slightly, continuing trials in the USA suggested that the new AR-15 assault rifle developed by Eugene Stoner and chambered for 5.56x45mm (.223) ammunition was superior to the M-14, the rifle chosen to chamber the 7.62x51mm cartridge. The Ordnance Department recommended that development should be pursued with a view to replacing the 7.62mm rifle, which had only been formally adopted for service two years before. With the US Air Force ordering the rifle in 1960 to replace the M2 Carbine and adopting it in 1964, while the US Army finally followed suit in February 1967. The British .280 cartridge, which, it must be remembered, had been shelved for over a decade by that point, had proved to be far ahead of its time with the USA replacing the M14 with the M16A1 in most combat units by the end of the decade. The M16A1 was designed to use the M193 cartridge but this has been the subject of considerable controversy over its reported lack of stopping power, reported by troops in Vietnam and since.

The USA's use of the 5.56x45mm cartridge in the M16 and its gradual introduction into service by several other countries within the Alliance led to an unusual situation of the Alliance having one official round and one unofficial round – "standardisation was thrown out the window."10 This situation led to NATO agreeing to hold another set of Standardisation Trials with a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) being signed in 1976, and the trials scheduled to take place for approximately two years from April 1977 with a report expected in early 1980. Where these trials differed from the ones in the 1950s, was that "no common arm was expected to emerge."11 These would be overseen by the NATO Small Arms Test Control Commission (NSMATCC), at Cold Meece in the UK, Hammelburg and Meppen in West Germany. The decision to choose a cartridge to supplement, rather than replace, the 7.62x51mm cartridge meant that it was highly unlikely that a true intermediate general-purpose cartridge would be considered and only a cartridge substantially smaller than 7.62 would prevail. The majority of entries into the competition (with the exception of the British and the West Germans) were 5.56x45mm with various combinations of bullet heads and charge weights, meaning that it was hardly a surprise when the 5.56x45mm won out. Although the British 4.85x49mm round performed well, it was not sufficiently better than the 5.56x45mm cartridge to prevail, given that several members were already using the calibre, the most important of whom was the USA who was unlikely to consider anything different in any case. Once again politics, rather than technical performance, scuppered the British cartridge. The only sweetener for the Europeans was that NATO decided to use the Belgian SS109 round instead of the American M193, which proved to have better accuracy, long-range performance and penetration. This was designed to be fired from a barrel with a fast 1:7 twist as opposed to the M193 that was designed to be fired from a barrel with a slow 1:12 – "it was seen by some as payback time after the defeats in the trials of the 1950s, as the USA had to re-barrel their M16s to accommodate the new NATO round."12

The British XL64 and XL65 (as they had been designated) weapons had performed poorly during the test, with almost 700 incidents being logged by the REME Armourers (a number that was probably under the genuine total), mainly due to the weapon system still being in the early stages of development. This included such faults as a failure of spot welds on the body assembly, failure to extract the empty case from the chamber, failure to eject an empty case, double-feeding and failure of the trigger / sear mechanism – many of which were associated with the ingress of sand and dirt into the weapon. The results from the NATO Trials were accepted after which the shape of the weapon started to change dramatically. These new models incorporated many design changes intended to simplify production and reduce manufacturing costs, as well as incorporating the lessons learned at the NATO Trials to improve the function of the trigger mechanism, the ammunition feed and the bolt, rod and carrier assemblies. It was obvious that sorting out these problems and converting the weapon from 4.85x49mm to 5.56x45mm would take time and push back the In-Service Date (ISD), therefore increasing development costs. At the same time this was happening, the Conservative Government under Margaret Thatcher, dogmatically wedded to selling off almost anything that was government-owned, set up a study group in 1980 to look at how Royal Ordnance worked, including its facility at Enfield – this did not bode well for the long-term future of the RSAF.

L86A1 Light Support Weapon
L86A1 Light Support Weapon
Three Production Rifles were built, in order to test the new design features and alterations that had come about due to the NATO Trials, but results were disappointing. Further tests and modifications would be needed – the LSW suffered from the same problems as well as a low first-shot accuracy when fired on single shot and automatic. This led to a postponement of the user-trials until late 1981 while the Ordnance Board Trials began in the February of that year. Trials by the Ordnance Board are intended to examine aspects such as the safety of weapons and ammunition under development as well as their suitability for service. The Ordnance Board initially used 'controlled condition' tests, simulating both general environments and extreme ones, to provide data on the weapon and the ammunition. In theory, these should have highlighted areas of weakness that would need to be addressed before the weapon and its ammunition went into full production and were meant to continue right through to the weapon's early service life. Unfortunately, they failed to uncover a whole host of problems that only came to light when the weapon had been subject to the rigours of actual usage. One such example being a cold test, where weapons were soaked and then placed in a freezer. One weapon split its barrel (which led to new specifications for metal and stress relief being issued) but this test failed to account for real conditions in the arctic, where high winds can drive snow into various parts of the rifle, causing ice to clog up the weapon. There were four phases, those being Phase A (February 1981 – December 1982), Phase B (April 1983 – April 1984), Phase C (April 1985 – July 1987) and Phase D (April 1988 – December 1988 and environmental trials between 1988 and 1990).

These ran alongside the Infantry Trial and Development Unit (ITDU) trials between 1981 and 1984. The ITDU, based at Warminster, are supposed to assess weapons and their ammunition before they go into production, putting them through a series of tests that would be represent a mixture of both training and tactical environments, to determine whether the weapon system had met the criteria as laid down in the User Requirements Documents (URDs). It is supposed to give an independent, accurate and reasoned assessment of any weapon system that has been sent to them for trial and give considered reasons for why any part of it should be modified or why it did not come up to scratch. The weapons they tested should have been very similar to the weapons that went forward to the Troop Trials and so the faults found there, should have been found during the User Trials by the ITDU. Criticisms have been raised and questions still need to be answered over the quality of the ITDU User Trials, the first being that according to one source, everything was done by the book – weapons were stripped, cleaned, fired and carried according to a strict adherence to rules and regulations, not necessarily how the actual user would do things. Secondly, if the tests on the weapon represented the most severe environmental and handling conditions, how could they have missed many of the problems that were shown up later? Thirdly, did the soldiers who actually perform the tests, write the actual reports? Fourthly, as many different people came and went from the project, perhaps it became more and more difficult for the Army to form a definitive opinion as to what its 'ideal' rifle would look like – soldiers are posted on a regular basis and therefore move onto different jobs. Fifth, how easy would it have been to raise objections, point out problems and cause dissent, especially given the impact on one's promotion prospects? "If the ITDU had undertaken what was asked of them and conducted serious trials when necessary . . . perhaps future problems would have been reduced."13 This was on the back of the statement by the then Defence Secretary, John Nott, in May 1982, that Royal Ordnance would be sold off to the Private Sector, floatation being scheduled for 1986. Following this, was the RSAF Final Comparison Report produced in 1983, where the 'new build standard' of weapon was put forward as the definitive design for mass production and compared to the GSR 3518, this comparison surprisingly being done by RSAF Enfield, rather than the MoD. Given that the order book at RSAF Enfield needed to be full in order for the Government to be able to sell it off at a good price to the Private Sector, is it any wonder that they found that they had met the majority of the requirements set out in the GSR, with barely a footnote to say that any areas of concern would be sorted out in the near future? Next, the ITDU completed their Trial No. 35/83 titled 'The Final Evaluation of Small Arms for the 80s to meet GSR 3518 (1983)' where they concluded that during "all activities the IW proved itself to be a robust, reliable weapon that suffered from few stoppages."14

Accepting the SA80 into Service

On 17 January 1984, a Provisional Acceptance Meeting was held in Room 254 of the Old War Office Building, Whitehall, under the chairmanship of Brigadier C W Beckett to examine the suitability of the SA80 weapon system for service with the UK Armed Forces. A member of the ITDU gave a short introduction to the weapon system and explained the components of and differences between, the IW and the LSW, an unusual occurrence as one would have thought that the people there would have been those with a high degree of knowledge of the project, given it was a meeting to accept the items in question into service. This meeting followed on from a pre-acceptance meeting held on 5 January. The meeting recognised that a large number of modifications had been incorporated into the latest model (but not necessarily all the modifications that might be needed) as a result the Ordnance Board and ITDU Trials and that as far as they were concerned, the IW and LSW were safe and suitable for service, with some provisos. One of those being the work still needed to be done on the LSW which was still not acceptable for service due to its inability to group shots to an acceptable standard and continued reliability issues (especially in terms of the failure of the breech to close properly). Another was that further modifications were in the pipeline and that no-one had tested or approved the methods that were going be used once the weapons moved over to full-production. In effect, they were accepting a weapon for limited production whose design characteristics were still subject to change with future modifications being untested and untried, which had never been produced in large quantities or using mass production methods. "Given the number of problems already encountered on basically hand-built weapons, it would seem a profound leap of faith to think that "gearing up" for full production would be "relatively trouble-free"."15 In addition, the Radway Green magazine was still under development, forcing the IW to continue using the M16 magazine.

As well as accepting the IW for limited production, another acceptance meeting was scheduled for September, focusing on the LSW, to give RSAF time to investigate the continued accuracy and reliability problems with the hope that these could be sorted out to a satisfactory degree. In the meantime, an accuracy meeting was held on 9 April 1984 under the chairmanship of Colonel J C Langlands in order to 'clarify' aspects of the operational requirements for the LSW. As it stood, the LSW was supposed to deliver effective suppressive fire out to a range of 600m but no-one had defined what 'effective' suppressive fire was. The problem the LSW had was that it was accurate enough when firing single shots, but produced two distinct groups when firing fully automatic bursts (the first round would hit in one place, the subsequent shots hitting in another). It was therefore decided to amend the accuracy statement in the GSR so that it was vague enough to encompass what was hoped the LSW would be able to achieve after eight months of further work. This included having a trained soldier, at 100m: being able to put a five-round group on a target within a diameter of 100mm; being able to produce an average burst size of 300mm in diameter with five, two to five-round bursts while firing at five different aiming marks; being able to produce a 400mm diameter group while firing twenty rounds in bursts of between two and five rounds fired at a single aiming mark. In addition, the Mean Point of Impact (MPI) for both the single shot and automatic fire groups should not deviate significantly (however that might be defined, which it wasn't) and be capable of producing comparative grouping qualities at 600m. The ITDU then undertook comparative trials, between the LSW, the FN Minimi, the HK13 and Steyr AUG, alongside the Bren LMG and GPMG. The trials staff seemingly preferred the Steyr for its ease of stripping, ease of handling, user control of the weapon, low recoil, lack of cook-off and overheating problems, light weight, reliability and accuracy when shooting on automatic, although it did not quite meet the GSR criteria for single shot accuracy. It was this, and the fact that it used a different magazine to the one on the IW that meant it was not acceptable to the Ordnance Board. It was agreed at the Acceptance Meeting on 13 September 1984, that given the improvement in accuracy due to additional modifications of the weapon in the intervening months (a different design of bipod, a strut incorporated under the barrel supporting the bipod, an additional pistol grip under the butt and a fold-over shoulder support brace) and the improvement in reliability expected by replacing the firing pin and extractor as well as the SUSAT sight azimuth screws, the weapon was accepted for limited production.

Problems Arise

RSAF Enfield was awarded the contract to produce the first 175,000 weapons in June 1985 with the first weapons being handed over to the 1st Battalion, Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters in a public ceremony on 2 October 1985.16 The ceremony was dampened slightly by firstly one the LSWs having black electrical tape around the bipod (to stop the legs springing open and accidently injuring the holder) and secondly Lord Trefgarne revealed that the weapon system had cost £500 million over the last fourteen years to develop. However, the general optimism and praise for the weapon system is evident in early publications, although a number of problems were quickly highlighted, by interested parties examining the new IW and LSW:

  1. The cocking handle was on the right-hand side, along with its ejection to the right means that the weapon has to be fired from right shoulder, problematical for left-handed shooters, as well as causing problems while firing from left of cover.
  2. Weight – an SA80, fully loaded with SUSAT is just 80g lighter than the L1A1.
  3. Balance problems – the bullpup design along with the position of the SUSAT sight, the use made of stamped sheet steel for the main body and nylon for the pistol grip and fore-grip  makes the weapon butt-heavy, a factor that exacerbates the high recoil when firing on automatic.
  4. High-sighting plane – the firer has to expose more of him or herself to fire over cover.
  5. Hard trigger pull – has an impact on accuracy.
  6. The position of selector switch and magazine release catch on the left-side of the weapon but away from the pistol grip means the firer could loose target acquisition if he needs to change magazine or the rate of fire. Also, the magazine release catch could be accidentally pressed when carried against the chest.
  7. The sling cannot be used as an aid to shooting.
  8. The shoulder-butt strap was configured to sit too high when the LSW was in the shoulder and served no useful purpose.
  9. The lack of a changeable barrel and belt-feed option on the LSW might limit its sustained fire capability.

 

Additional early problems included:

  1. The discovery that the weapon could fire if dropped muzzle first onto a hard surface with the safety off from more than three metres.
  2. The rate of fire was between 50 and 100 rounds per minute less than expected.
  3. The LSW occasionally ejected a case into the firer's face and magazines were difficult to fit when the bolt was closed.17
  4. Concern that use of the SUSAT would lead to the infantryman loosing track of the 'bigger picture' and ignoring dangers on the edge of their peripheral vision.18

 

Also, projected costs had risen from the 1978 figure of £320 to the 1983/4 figure of £523 or £799 if the SUSAT and its bracket are added.
Testing of the weapon system continued with both Ordnance Board and Troop Trials into the early 1990s. Both sets of tests, which included an interim report made in July 1986 and a final report in January 1987, indicated that while the weapons remained very accurate (and therefore excelled on the range) problems remained, primarily centred on the reliability of the weapons, especially during environmental trials and the build quality of individual components. Anonymous letters being sent to the press and MPs showed that unease and disillusionment were spreading through the Armed Forces especially in the light of the fact that, after fifteen years of development, things were still not sorted out. The Ordnance Board trials still showed a poor Mean Time Before Failure (MTBF) rate, even though the figures were generally massaged to include only critical failures rather than critical, serious and minor failures – "NB In the original trials any number of stoppages that could be cleared by the firer were not counted as failures. In the trials of the modified weapon more than one stoppage, including those that can be cleared by the firer, counts as a failure."19 Inclusion of the latter two categories meant that IW would fire on average two magazines before an incident occurred, while the LSW fired only one. The Troop Trials, some of which were in Norway, some of which were in the jungle, found these faults:

  1. Bayonet – tip breaks, fails to stay on, the retaining clips on the frog fracture, wire cutter distorts if used to actually cut wire, sharpening stone falls off.
  2. BFA – carbon build-up after firing causes problems in removal, leading to the screw being damaged when this is tried;
  3. Bipod – does not stay in when in the up position, the retaining screw sometimes falls out;
  4. Body Locking Pins – either seize up or fall out;
  5. Bolt – erosion from gases around the firing pin hole, fails to close or function properly if dirt, dust or sand get into the locking lugs;
  6. Butt – pulls out the retaining screws if pressure is applied via the sling to the rear sling loop;
  7. Butt Strap – stop lugs break, making the item unusable.
  8. Cleaning Kit – oil bottle leaks or cap splits, pull-through snaps or cannot be pulled through barrel, combination tool breaks or falls apart, brushes break or unwind or just inadequate to do the job, the rod 'T' piece fails to lock.
  9. CWS – difficult to attain the proper eye relief when wearing a helmet.
  10. Ejection Opening Cover (EOC) – breaks or freezes shut in arctic conditions.
  11. Ejector – fails to work, works erratically, still occasionally ejects case into firer's face, and in arctic conditions it freezes and fails to work.
  12. Extractor – sharp edges can cut brass from the case with the debris causing it to jam.
  13. Firing Pin – springs can loose strength and allow weak strikes, the tip fractures after long bursts on automatic.
  14. Functioning – ammunition fails to feed properly, rounds fail to eject, insufficient gas to cycle the weapon (especially in arctic conditions when locking lugs are fouled up), weapon fails to function unless spotlessly clean and well-oiled.
  15. Gas Plug – carbon deposits make removal difficult and doing so sometimes causes damage preventing re-assembly and gas-system operation.
  16. Guide Rod Assembly – spring weak, guide rods can distort or become loose.
  17. Hand Guards – brittle (especially in arctic conditions) with no means of repair once cracked due to heat shield inserts.
  18. HOD – fails to function and the button breaks off.
  19. Iron Sights – fracture if struck at the right angle, while the retaining screw breaks.
  20. Magazine Catch – fails to lock magazine when a full magazine is loaded, sometimes releases the magazine when the weapon is carried across the chest, in arctic conditions the magazine can freeze in place.
  21. Muzzle Cover – no way of keeping it secured on the weapon, use in arctic conditions causes it to freeze to the flash eliminator and shrapnel effects if fired through.
  22. Rear Sling Loop – distorts or pulls off the butt if any pressure is applied.
  23. Sight Rail – inconsistent welding leads to failure, rusting occurs under the rail itself.
  24. SUSAT – loss of adjusting screw lock nuts, loose sight clamp, range drum prone to jamming, eye lens prone to misting up and the rubber cap and front hood fill with snow in arctic conditions).
  25. Top Cover – catch fails leading to the cover opening.
  26. Trigger Mechanism – trigger fails to reassert when weapon set on 'R', the hammer stops distort and break, interceptor sear jams on hammer stud, safety sear does not always engage on the hammer fully or occasionally at all.
  27. Sight Cover – too rigid with no method of retention.
  28. Sling – plastic parts break.

 

In addition, the body extension was too weak to fully take the stress of the LSW's weight away from the barrel leading to it becoming bent, periods of automatic fire would lead to overheating and a residue build-up that would impede the full forward movement of the gas assembly and bolt carrier. And none of this was apparent to those who carried out the User and Troop Trials earlier in the decade? Of course it was, but more of that later. Royal Ordnance was eventually sold off to British Aerospace on 2 April 1987 for £190 million with the contract for the second tranche of weapons still to be signed, being held back as a 'sweetener' for whoever bought Royal Ordnance:

"The new revelations will increase suspicions that the system was ordered simply as a device to make Royal Ordnance an attractive proposition for privatisation. The cost of the development and production of the gun is understood to exceed £300 million."20

"One expert has suggested that the gun was chosen to help give Royal Ordnance a full order book ready for privatisation."21

After the sale, British Aerospace discovered that the viability of producing the second tranche was in question, unless production costs could be brought down or the price increased due to the delays in delivery of the first tranche. Given that the price they had contracted for was fixed, and found to be £100 less than the weapon's true cost, it was decided to move production to a new facility at Nottingham, at a cost of £15 million, the excuse being that the site at Enfield was outdated, too large and the buildings the wrong position, shape and size for diversification or improved production. The fact that the RSAF was located on a site that was highly desirable to redevelopers for commercial and residential property was not, apparently, part of the equation. Neither was explaining why the new facility could not be built on a site the size of RSAF Enfield or the money spent on upgrading the facilities already there. Finally, and despite all the problems listed above, whether due to political pressure or a misguided belief that these faults would be fixed soon, the Full Acceptance Meeting was held in October 1987, the recommendation being that the weapon was suitable to be accepted for full service, "in the face of clear, tabulated evidence to the contrary".22

A Crisis Erupts

The SA80 would see serious combat for the first time, not on the North German Plain facing a Warsaw Pact invasion of West Germany, but in the deserts of the Middle East where approximately 43,000 British troops were deployed between 1990-1991 during Operation GRANBY. This operation was conducted firstly, to protect Saudi Arabia and then secondly, to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi occupation, fulfilling UN Resolution 678. The experience they had with the weapons, blew the contention that the majority of problems associated with the IW and LSW were due to arctic conditions, out of the water. Moreover, problems were being encountered in all climatic conditions and only exacerbated in arctic or desert environments, for example, even

"after the most careful preparation, of those whom I observed, not one managed to complete the CQB course without at least one stoppage and some had repeated stoppages. Some 50% of these appeared to be magazine related and a further 30% may have been caused by the ingress of dirt. What happens in the Gulf, happens in Wales, too; and there is not too much sand flying about in Sennebridge. None, in point of fact."23

Indeed, the problems encountered with the use of these weapons in desert or sandy conditions, far from being new ones, had been apparent at the beginning of 1987, with a internal Army document outlining a 'sand ingress problem', as well as the various User and Troop Trials from 1981 onwards.

"It came as no surprise to me that the soldiers in the Gulf should have had these problems, since it was reported to me, by a person involved in the recording of the 1985 trials, that the SA80 had been submitted to the standard sand test three times and each time it failed, miserably. To that person's knowledge, it was never re-submitted after the last failure and, quite clearly, no work had been done since to solve that particular and most significant shortcoming."24

A report, entitled 'Equipment Performance (SA80) During Operation Granby (the Gulf War)', undertaken by the Land Systems Evaluation Team (LANDSET) after the conflict had finished, was scathing in its criticism of the weapon system. To quote:

"SA80 did not perform reliably in the sandy conditions of combat and training. Stoppages were frequent despite the considerable and diligent efforts to prevent them . . . It is extremely difficult to isolate the prime cause of the stoppages. It is, however, quite clear that infantrymen did not have CONFIDENCE in their personal weapon. Most expected a stoppage in the first magazine fired. Some platoon commanders considered that casualties would have occurred due to weapon stoppages if the enemy had put up any resistance in the trench and bunker clearing operations. Even discounting the familiarisation period of desert conditions, when some may have still been using the incorrect lubrication drill, stoppages continued to occur."25

A copy of the report was leaked to the press in August 1992, causing a furore. The MoD initially denied any knowledge of it (via The Daily Telegraph who was then sent a copy by a reader), then dismissed it as a 'fake', then claimed it was 'unofficial' and then grudgingly 'semi-official'. But it refused to go away, especially as it was clearly an official report listed under 'User Trials (Infantry Trial and Development Unit No. 20/91, 10 – 20 March 1991)'. Many of the major papers and shooting magazines carried articles about the SA80 and the issues highlighted in the LANDSET report, with many quoting directly from the report itself. This included units procuring as many SLRs, Bren guns and GPMGs as they could. Why? "The fact is that the older generation of weapons: Bren, GPMG, SLR and Sterling, were designed for reliability and for functioning in adverse conditions."26 It was also found that the problems with both the IW and LSW effectively turned British tactical doctrine on its head, with the LSW being fired using rapid single shots as full automatic fire caused overheating and affected accuracy with a split group risking friendly fire incidents, while the SA80 was often used on full automatic as the troops felt there was a reduced tendency to jam. Pressure quickly built on the Government from MPs around the House of Commons, including the Liberal Democrat defence spokesman Menzies Campbell, who wrote to Sir Nicholas Bonsar, Chairman of the Commons Defence Select Committee for a Parliamentary enquiry to be held. Thus, the first real independent investigation into the SA80 saga surrounded the issues arising from the Gulf War and was taken up by the House of Commons Defence Committee who investigated the matter in early 1993.

The Committee looked at several areas concerning the SA80 including its characteristics, accuracy, problems associated with firing from the left shoulder, performance with regard to other weapons, sales, the view of the user, faults, their causes and modifications to overcome them, the in-service date, reasons why faults were not corrected before acceptance and volume production, the length of time taken to introduce modifications, its reliability in sandy conditions and therefore its performance during Operation Granby, and the trials conducted. The evidence collected included a large amount of written evidence from the MoD and an interview (conducted on 22 April 1993) with several witnesses involved with the procurement of Army equipment, including Major General Anthony C P Stone (Director General, Land Fighting Systems), Colonel Donald R Wilson (Land Systems Operational Requirements), Colonel Martin E Romilly OBE (Project Manager, Infantry Weapons) and Lt Colonel Keith M Cook (Ordnance Board of the MoD). Of course, conspicuous by their absence was anyone actually involved in using the weapon on operations, particularly in the Gulf, or Government ministers, firing range staff or unit armourers. While the Committee were to some extent, dazzled by their trip to Warminster to fire the weapon under ideal conditions and out-manoeuvred by the MoD which was "achieved by giving the impression of full-cooperation and by bowing their heads to criticism that would be forgotten within months, if not weeks"27 , they still managed to level these criticisms at the MoD for their handling of the £384m project28 :

  1. Thirty-two faults were corrected at a cost of £24 million AFTER the first weapons had entered service;
  2. The ISD slipped (due to various factors) from 1983 to 1986 and that the Committee expected "the Ministry to be able to show real and quantifiable improvements in procurement performance as a result of the present risk management initiative";
  3. That the weapon was accepted into service at a premature stage in its development and that the faults that became evident soon after it entered service should have been detected and corrected during the Ordnance Board, Main User and Troop Trials. The Committee summarised that the "lesson the Ministry have learned is that the general usage of the weapon should be tested in the hands of soldiers during the design and development phase. We have to express some surprise that it has taken over three hundred years of personal weapon usage by the British Army to discover this fact";
  4. The Committee was "astonished that the Ministry should accept into service, and pay for, equipment such as the cleaning kit that appears to us to verge on the shoddy. We do not believe that a commercial organisation would have been prepared to accept and pay for goods which subsequently turned out to need so many modifications";
  5. The length of time required to fix faults had been far too long (up to four years in some cases) and urged the MoD to examine "its arrangements for making modifications to in-service equipment to determine where time savings can be made";
  6. The weapon that was accepted into service could only be fired from the right shoulder, causing problems to left-handed shooters, especially those with strong left-eyes and causing problems in urban patrolling situations, such as firing around the left of cover;
  7. That better export sales have not been achieved;
  8. The Committee accepted the MoD line that the LANDSET report represented a grassroots view of the performance of the weapon but should not be considered as the full picture and that the modifications that had been introduced and were being retrofitted solved many of the problems alongside the use of the correct cleaning regime. Nevertheless, they were concerned that it was only on the eve of a major conflict that the correct cleaning regime for sandy conditions began to be disseminated and that this "delay could have had disastrous consequences and we look to the Ministry to ensure that it does not happen again". The fact that the incorrect cleaning drills were still being used by some troops was a cause for concern and that "the Ministry investigate why this was so and what lessons can be learned."
  9. That overall, the "SA80 is a highly accurate weapon which is now sound when properly maintained. Its accuracy puts it into a different generation of weapon from earlier rifles. It needs to be treated with respect for its higher technology. However, it was delivered late and had many defects that, in our view, should have been detected and put right before it entered service. We trust that the MoD have learned from this costly story and we will be seeking evidence of this when examining future procurement cycles."

 

One thing the HCDC didn't pick up on was the inconsistencies in the results of the accuracy trials between the SA80 and L1A1. The L1A1 was fired over open sights while the SA80 was fired using the SUSAT optical sight, which has a set four-power magnification. Naturally, the better results were used to highlight the improvement in accuracy that the new system would give the troops but the bias in the trials was never picked up. Surely a more 'level-playing field' and truer indication of the difference in accuracy would have been to hold trials that compared the L1A1 firing both over its iron sights and using the SUIT optical sight with the SA80 firing both over the optional iron sights and using the SUSAT optical sight. While there is little chance that this would have altered the outcome, it would have given a more accurate picture as to the rifles' relative accuracy but also proved that the L1A1, fitted with the SUIT optical sight, was a more accurate rifle than it was ultimately given credit for.

The Problems Continue

By the second-half of the 1990s, with all the 'quick-fix' remedies applied to the SA80, it finally seemed as if things were beginning to improve – "this is the first chance I've had to shoot one extensively. One criticism of the rifle has been the lack of reliability, but my shooting companion and I put over a thousand rounds through our test rifle with only two malfunctions, neither attributable to the rifle."29 However, events continued to point towards issues that still remained unresolved and user confidence in the weapon remained low – "unlike the case of the M16, complaints about the qualities about the SA80 have continued to simmer underneath the surface."30 As a result, the IW and LSW were suspended from the NATO Nominated Weapons List, a list of those weapons used within the Alliance for testing ammunition that is seeking NATO qualification, in early 1997 - a move that was embarrassing for the MoD and Government Ministers.

But by then, even the MoD had been driven to the point of despair, with the Defence Procurement Agency (DPA) ordering a full appraisal of the weapon, in work that was carried out by Heckler & Koch GmbH (then a subsidiary of British Aerospace) between 1995 and 1997. The team from Heckler & Koch, led by Ernst Mauch, reported in 1998 with a list of modifications that they felt would improve the weapons' performance. At the same time, if confirmation were ever needed as to the astonishingly uncritical evaluation undertaken by the ITDU on the SA80 weapon system (and in particular the LSW) during the User Trials, the Commandant of the ITDU ordered an investigation to be carried out in 1998 into exactly this point. The report, entitled 'LSW Trials Investigation 1981 – 1996', was to assess the outcomes of the trials, not to prove how critical or uncritical they had been of the weapon but to highlight any areas that might leave the organisation open to criticism should any awkward questions be raised in the future. No particular priority was given to this, as only a single Warrant Officer was asked to carry out the investigation, but he approached his work diligently and with an open mind. The report, dated 8 July 1998, concluded that:

  1. The reports stated facts that were not even mentioned in the recommendations;
  2. That the guidelines set out in the GSR and GST pointed the ITDU in a particular direction as regards the suitability of the LSW but which were ultimately irrelevant as the MoD were going to accept the LSW whatever happened;
  3. Personnel reading the reports may not have interpreted them correctly;
  4. Not enough trials were done on the LSW;
  5. It was not until faults really became obvious that they started to trial the weapons properly;
  6. Decisions taken during the early part of the LSW's development were politically orientated and that someone further up the chain of command wanted the LSW accepted, whatever its performance, for some unspecified reason.

 

Heckler & Koch Become Involved

Meanwhile, following their recommendations, Heckler & Koch were awarded a contract in mid-1998 to modify 200 L85A1 and L86A1 weapons to the new 'A2' standard so that comprehensive climatic trials could be undertaken. This batch of weapons was delivered in January 1999, with the MoD conducting trials at: the US Army's Cold Regions Test Centre in Fort Greely, Alaska (cold / dry); Small Arms School, Warminster, Wiltshire, UK (temperate); Seria, Brunei (hot / wet); and Kazma, Kuwait (hot / dry) with a range of different ammunition NATO types. The majority of these trials were completed in July 1999 and the final report delivered to the Minister of State for Defence, Geoff Hoon, in December. The report concluded that Heckler & Koch had indeed solved the problems encountered during the previous twenty years by intensive and in-depth testing of both materials and their designs. As a result, the Government decided to award Heckler & Koch the contract to modify around 200,000 SA80 rifles to the new 'A2' standard. This however was only part of the story, as the MoD, in its review, had also looked at more drastic options:

"Industry experts also confirm that the UK MoD had considered replacing its entire armoury of 300,000 5.56 mm SA80 rifles with Colt M16 systems, prior to Heckler & Koch's (H&K) GBP92 million (USD179 million) revamp of the weapon in 2000."31

"After various attempts at denial, and years of applying minor fixes that eased some problems but failed to solve the big ones, the Ministry of Defence bowed to the inevitable in 1997. They considered buying the M16 and M4 "off the shelf", but in the end commissioned HK to undertake a thorough revamp of the SA80 (HK was by this time owned by Royal Ordnance, so was in effect a British company - it has since been returned to German control)."32

The planned upgrades were given urgency when it was revealed that the troops had continued to have problems with the weapons system during the operations in Kosovo (Operations Allied Force and Joint Guardian) and Sierra Leone (Operation Palliser). This extra work however, would mainly be undertaken by Heckler & Koch at their factory in Oberndorf, near Stuttgart with a small amount being undertaken by the small contingent located on the RO Nottingham site. The closure of RSAF Enfield and the movement of production to Nottingham had been greeted locally as an indication of long-term job security but restructuring within BAe would see the manufacture of large ordnance move to Barrow-in-Furness and with the contract to refurbish the SA80 going to Heckler & Koch, the site finally closed in late 2001 due to a lack of orders and sold for redevelopment, another pool of skills and experience being dissipated forever. "The politicians had finally won, and the British Armed Forces of the future would perforce need to buy a foreign weapon system manufactured by foreign workers, but paid for by British taxpayers."33
The new 'A2' version was officially unveiled by the Rt. Hon Adam Ingram, Minister of State for the Armed Forces, on 18 October 2001, the coincidence being that it was sixteen years, almost to the day, from when the SA80 was first handed over and about the same time as the RO Nottingham site was being closed. While a lot of rhetoric was being banded about, especially in terms of the weapon being "probably the most reliable rifle in the world"34 , nothing was said about "the fact that Britain lay bereft of any domestic small arms manufacturing capability whatsoever."35 On top of that, the cost of the programme had risen, from £80m to modify 300,000 weapons, to £92m to modify 200,000 weapons, with the remaining 100,000 being cannibalised and used for spares or being made available for export sale. The SA80 weapon system was finally admitted back onto the NATO Nominated Weapons List after the 'A2' variants began to be issued, in March 2002, with the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence, Dr Lewis Mooney, confirming that the MoD would not seek to obtain the re-admission of the A1 variant as that was the weapon being replaced. The changes to the weapon include:

  1. A new cocking handle, made of shaped nylon polyamide, which doubles as a cartridge case deflector;
  2. A new magazine, which is slightly longer, more curved and comes with a smoother spring feed action;
  3. The LSW has a heavier barrel;
  4. A new gas plug and cylinder made from superior materials;
  5. The catch spring has been widened to prevent jamming in the gas feed during re-assembly;
  6. The gas blowback cycle has been improved;
  7. One-and-a-half locking nuts removed from the barrel extension / chamber to accommodate a different extractor shape, which should also guide empty cases away from the ejection port;
  8. An all-new bolt head that has a larger, more robust extractor;
  9. The cartridge ejector has a new rim and a stronger multi-wire spring;
  10. The carrier has been polished to reduce the friction between it and the top-most cartridge in the magazine;
  11. A new sturdier firing pin has been installed, made from high-strength, quenched and tempered steel, with the stop moved from the rear to the front;
  12. The ejection port has been enlarged to improve the round ejection pattern;
  13. The magazine housing has been reinforced with additional welding to prevent it breaking;
  14. The weight of the hammer has been increased by 9g to prevent misfires caused by 'bouncing';
  15. The bolt release catch has been strengthened;
  16. A new recoil spring with a higher compression has been installed to even out the rate of fire.

 

And Even More Problems . . .

With Heckler & Koch converting some 3,000 weapons per month, the new A2 variant was due to be supplied to the 3rd Commando Brigade in March 2002. However, the UK's commitment to operations in Afghanistan (Operation Herrick) accelerated that process and the SA80A2 was first fired in anger by troops from the 2nd Battalion, The Parachute Regiment (2 Para) during fighting around Kabul in February. The fighting in Afghanistan, where British forces have been involved in operations against the Taliban as part of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), as well as the invasion of Iraq (Operation Telic) in 2003 and the subsequent conflict there, have all proven major testing grounds for the new weapons. At the same time as the 'A2' variants were being issued, the MoD also purchased 149 FN Herstal Minimi LMGs for use by the troops in Afghanistan, a number that would quickly rise to over 300, which were bought under an Urgent Operational Requirement (UOR) and designated either the MG L108A1 (the standard version) or the MG L110A1 (the para version). This presents an interesting turnaround, as the standard FN Minimi was trialled and rejected in 1984 as it did not meet the GSR accuracy requirement but it seems that "the GSR was conveniently ignored rather than put lives at risk."36 While 2 Para did not have any major issues with the weapons, at least three major stoppages were reported by the Marines of 45 Commando during operations in June and July. This sent the alarm bells going all the way back to the MoD and the Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon, ordered an immediate investigation with a team from the ITDU, DLO and Heckler & Koch under the command of Colonel Fraser Haddow, going out to Afghanistan to investigate the failures. The team interviewed the members of the patrol who had experienced the problems, inspected the weapons and the Marines then prepared their weapons for firing and conducted an exercise on the firing range. Of the twelve weapons used, only two performed to standard. The team looked at this outcome and concluded that:

  1. The Marines could not clean their rifles properly due to worn out, missing or incorrect brushes (not neglect);
  2. They were not oiling the weapons according to instructions in the cleaning pamphlet;
  3. Magazines became damaged easily;
  4. Safety catches were difficult to operate;
  5. Muzzle covers expanded in the heat and fell off, exposing the bore to dust and sand.

 

The Marines were then instructed in cleaning their weapons using the correct procedures and in a re-run of the test, this time using twenty-four Marines, only one rifle failed. The team concluded that the problems had been caused by not using the proper cleaning regime. To prove the point, they set up a trial using two Chinook helicopters, with a group of twenty-four and another group of twelve Marines (the control group) who disembarked seven times, in conditions approximating what would be found on operations, followed by firing their weapons on the range. The group of twenty-four Marines who had followed the new regime had a reliability rate of 87 percent while the control group had a reliability average of only 17 percent. It seemed that the team had proved their point and that the problems were the fault of the User. What the report also mentioned were recommendations that a replacement muzzle cover was required, a weapon cover was needed to prevent dirt and dust getting into the mechanism, the safety catch should be made of stronger material and the instruction leaflet needed to be clearer. With the blame being placed squarely on their shoulders, the Royal Marines reacted angrily, arguing that the weapon was inherently difficult to clean under operational conditions, the quality of the cleaning and maintenance kit was poor and the instructions, running to thirty pages, was difficult to follow. The CO of 45 Commando, Lt Col Tim Chicken, defended his troops against the accusations. A stand-up row even occurred back in the MoD between the Army and the Royal Marines with senior Army officers suggesting that the Royal Marines had caused the problems deliberately as they viewed themselves on a par with the Special Forces and wanted to be issued with the Heckler & Koch G36 assault rifle. However, in an unusual show of solidarity, the Parachute Regiment agreed with the Royal Marines, with a former officer in the Parachute Regiment dismissing the claims that the Marines were to blame and calling the weapon an "unmitigated disaster" and that the "first time I had concerns was when the magazine fell out onto my boots on exercise."37 Royal Marine officers branded the report a "whitewash"38 and stated that if "you're jumping out of a Chinook into that kind of heat and dust, it wouldn't matter how clean the rifle was beforehand. The minute you got off, it would be covered in shit."39

Arguments continued through 2002 with the MoD seeming to waver between first, replacing the rifle altogether and then deciding to keep the weapon and start a confidence building exercise. The trials were however, exposed as being conducted under controlled conditions, with hessian matting being laid on the firing points at the ranges being used during the trails, ammunition being drawn from factory-sealed boxes, the use of brand new magazines and SA80A2 weapons being transported to the trials in sealed bags. Despite this, the MoD maintained that the weapon would be in service until at least 2015 and has in fact seen service in Afghanistan until the present day as well as Iraq during the invasion of 2003 and the conflict that followed, until British forces were withdrawn in 2009. Although criticism of the IW seemed to die down as time went on, the same cannot be said for the LSW. With continued complaints coming from deployed units over its lack of firepower in the suppressive role, something highlighted when it was first introduced and related to the use of a 30-round magazine and non-changeable barrel, an alternative had to be found, and quickly. The DPA then began trials at the US Army's Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona, of four weapons, which included the Minimi, the Heckler & Koch MG43, the Israeli Military Industries Negev and the South African Vektor Mini SS. The DPA then selected the Minimi and MG43 for further testing in cold and hot-wet environment trials. Both FN Herstal and Heckler & Koch were then asked to submit tenders by the middle of February 2003 to supply 2,472 LMGs, with an initial batch of 200 being delivered by the end of the year and the remainder being delivered within three years. The MoD subsequently selected the Minimi but how unbiased was the trial? How could both the Viktor and Negev have failed the initial tests when their country's armed forces operate in arid, dusty conditions and surely would have been tested in such environments? With no small arms manufacturing capability left in the UK, both the Negev and the Viktor would have to be made under license and imported, the problem being that the main contenders for such a contract would have been FN and Heckler & Koch who were fielding their own weapons. The clear favourite was probably the MG43 as Heckler & Koch were the company that had just been awarded the contract to revamp the IW and LSW but given that the British Army already using the Minimi in substantial numbers, the decision had effectively been made. The MoD extended its purchase of the FN Minimi LMG to 4,000 units, as well as additional firepower upgrades including 9,000 night sights and 2,000 under-slung grenade launchers at a cost of around £30m, with another £35m of additional funding available if necessary. By the end of 2005, every infantry battalion was re-equipped, giving an eight-man section, four-times the capability of its World War II equivalent. Each section is split into two four-man fire teams, each with 1 x SA80A2, 1 x SA80A2 with grenade launcher, 1 x SA80A2 LSW and 1 x FN Minimi.

Conclusion

To conclude, the history of the SA80 weapon system is one that almost beggars belief. Given that the system was first unveiled in mid-1976, a year before the NATO Standardisation Trials, it has taken some thirty years for the British Army (and by extension the Royal Marines and RAF Regiment) to finally be equipped with an assault rifle that combines phenomenal accuracy with a decent level of reliability, particularly in adverse environmental conditions. This however, is only one half of the overall SA80 weapon system. The LSW too has had problems in reliability, in accuracy while firing on fully automatic (the split group syndrome) and in overheating (with the lack of a changeable barrel), which produced an inability to conduct sustained fire in order to fully suppress a target. It has therefore been relegated to the position of being a long-range rifle, its place being taken by the FN Herstal Minimi. It is almost inconceivable that after that length of time and the expenditure of over £500m on almost continuous modifications and upgrades, only one half of the weapon system is functioning correctly (and still being upgraded with lighter, improved sights and new handgrips that contain a quadruple Picatinny rail adaptor system). The other half has finally been recognised as being incapable of performing the job it was designed and produced for, to be replaced by a weapon that was first trialled nineteen years before and only rejected because it didn't quite meet the GSR accuracy requirement.
In retrospect, the main points of concern are . . .

Firstly, the SA80 was built around the major components of the Armalite AR-18 system, which the designers at RSAF Enfield used virtually unchanged, with the initial prototypes being put together through the purchase of several AR-18s by the MoD for use in trials. This was followed by a visit from Stan Carroll, then the Director of Small Arms at RSAF Enfield, to see what manufacturing processes Sterling were using to produce the AR-18 (built under license), being shown around the factory by David Howroyd, the General Manager, as Sterling were interested in obtaining any work that might be sub-contracted out. None however would be forthcoming, as RSAF Enfield obtained a similar capability through the acquisition of similar machines from the same manufacturer (probably the real reason for the visit). Indeed, the use of the AR-18 mechanism was confirmed by James Edmiston, the former owner and managing director of the Sterling Armament Co. Ltd at Dagenham and until the late 1980s, a successful British private arms company:

"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."40

"Not once did Enfield ever ask Sterling for information on the AR18 . . . I know of at least one component that they 'copied' incorrectly which could well have made a difference to reliability."41

In their enthusiasm to embrace the AR-18 design (produced by Arthur Miller after Eugene Stoner had left the company), the design team overlooked the original thinking behind the weapon. The multi-lugged rotating bolt had its roots in the .30 calibre automatic rifle designed before World War II by Melvin M Johnson and the short-stroke gas piston was based on that used in the German Gewehr 43 rifle, itself based on the Soviet Tokarev SVT40. The AR-18 was designed to meet the requirements of less-developed countries, lacking the fine engineering facilities required by the AR-15 / M-16 and so made extensive use of sheet-metal stampings and spot welds which would only require basic metal tooling, common in most countries. The multi-lugged, front locking, rotating bolt was seen by both Armalite and Enfield as a solution to the problem of body weight with the AR-18 utilising a single metal pressing to form the body, while plastics, alloys and case-hardening of metal components provided the remainder. Thus the AR-18 was seen as an inexpensive export weapon to supply in military aid packages to allies around the world and was never seen as a serious alternative to the AR-15 / M-16. Low production costs have a trade-off however, in terms of the quality of components and materials used as well as the weapon's reliability under adverse conditions. Equipping Third World militias with such a weapon was one thing, using it as a basis to equip the British Army was a different story.

There was also a misunderstanding over the impact that moving away from the traditional means of manufacturing small arms components would have. The precision components that made up the bolt-action Lee Enfield and the L1A1 SLR were machined by hand from solid blocks of metal while the EM-2 was made from the same sort of machined components as well as wood. The SA80 however was made from pressed steel and plastic – such materials would not go together with the same tolerances that properly machined components would, in this case, one or two microns. "Critically, Hance and his successors failed to come to terms with the realities of a new way of mass-producing guns, pioneered by the Germans during the second world war and taken up by the Americans." 42

Secondly, two aspects of the design were always going to cause problems, both of which were inter-dependant. First, the method by which the breech was locked involved a multi-splined bolt which was always going to be highly vulnerable to any foreign matter which managed to get into the weapon. Second, the reciprocating cocking handle meant that, even with an ejection cover fitted, it necessitated a slot running two-thirds the length of the body through which dust, sand and dirt could enter and an open or broken ejection cover just made the situation worse.

Thirdly, the LSW, a light-weight magazine-fed 5.56x45mm support weapon, firing with a closed bolt and a fixed non-changeable barrel was always going to have problems related to its rate of fire and overheating and the MoD has now purchased the FN Minimi to replace it in section support – "of the Gulf conflict one can say that the case for replacing the present LSW with the Minimi, Ameli or a similar seriously configured light machine gun was never more amply demonstrated."43

Fourthly, there has been a major question over the propellants used in the ammunition manufactured by the UK. Prior to the NATO Standardisation Trials in the late 1970s, 5.56mm / .223 ammunition had been manufactured for several years here in this country but not specifically for military use. With the NATO decision to adopt 5.56mm as a second round (more specifically the Belgian SS109 cartridge), the UK started producing 5.56mm ammunition (the M193 cartridge) initially for its M16A1 weapons but also in anticipation of the adoption of its own 5.56mm small arm. It was decided that the ammunition would be boxer primed for ease of manufacture, while propellant would be bought in until a home-developed alternative was available. In 1980, the first bulk order for propellant for use in the RG ammunition was for ball powder from Pouderie Belge (PRB) as used in the M193 ammunition being used at the time. In 1982, an NNN type of propellant was developed by Nobels Explosive Co. Ltd, which at the time was a subsidiary of ICI Ltd, who in turn ran the Government-owned factory at Powfoot on a management basis. Given that cut tubular propellant is generally cheaper than ball powder, it was natural that ICI would produce that type of propellant in order to minimise costs, a right they had under the terms of the contract and even had the Government recognised the disadvantages inherent in the use of cut tubular propellant as opposed to ball powder, there was nothing they could do about it. Thus the 5.56mm ball round that was approved in 1984 was loaded with 23.46gn of NNN cut tubular propellant. Cut tubular propellant has a slower and more progressive burn rate as compared to ball powder, which results in lower chamber and gas port pressures, which have a direct impact on cyclic rate and functional reliability. In addition, ball powder is smaller and compacts better than cut tubular propellant and so more propellant can be used in a cartridge case. Given that just about everyone else who uses 5.56mm ammunition uses ball power propellant, that fact should be seen as an indication as to its impact on how a weapon functions.

Added to this, is the multi-lugged Stoner type of bolt used in the SA80, a direct derivative of the bolt used in the AR-15 / M16 and AR-18. In all these weapons, the locking lugs require a movement of 22.5° to lock / unlock the bolt, but differences exist in the 'dwell time' (the time its takes the carrier to move in order for the bolt to lock / unlock) with the AR-18 having a much shorter 'dwell time' than the SA80. This, combined with the greater chamber and gas port pressures associated with ball powder which is used in the USA and most other countries that have 5.56mm weapons, means that greater energy is given to the parts of the weapon that need it, resulting in a faster and more positive action as well as the extraction and ejection of the spent case, the picking up of a fresh round out of the magazine and its placement in the chamber with the weapon's action ready to fire again. Therefore the action of the AR-15 / M-16 and AR-18 is able to overcome a greater degree of fouling than that of the SA80 due to it being inhibited by its slower, more sluggish action. It is unclear as to why something as basic as the propellant used and its impact on the cycling of the SA80 has not been investigated – even the £92m Heckler & Koch upgrade was mainly focused upon reducing friction within the system (indirectly easing the problem). Such an impact was admitted to in the questions posed by the HCDC:44

"Mr Trotter.
1640. Could I, before doing that, follow up on the ballistic matter? Would the range be different?
(Lieutenant Colonel Cook) The propellant will alter slightly the rate of fire of the weapon and that can have consequences on the functional reliability and indeed mechanical reliability.
1641. So there may be more jamming?
(Lieutenant Colonel Cook) It is possible but not necessarily so.
(Major General Stone) Different manufacturers of different ammunition produce a different energy in their round. Depending on the propellant you can have either a higher or lower energy. Clearly if you fire a low energy round the recoil, the movement of the working parts, is less precise perhaps than a higher energy round. Conversely, if you have a very energetic round it might force the working parts to the rear too severely. That is the sort of difficulty we are talking about."

Fifth, one of the most telling criticisms has been the almost complete lack of export orders. Bar a small number of weapons that have been supplied to Nepal, as well as Jamaica, Zimbabwe and Mozambique as foreign aid, there have been no other significant enquiries. The exception to this is Venezuela, whose Special Forces trialled the weapon in the mid-1990s with an eye to replacing their FN FAL rifles, but was so discontented with the weapon that they didn't proceed with the project any further. "Lucrative overseas sales are usually the result of a successful weapons system and exports of SA80 speak for themselves."45 The Falkland Islands Defence Force (FIDF) chose the Steyr AUG, as did Ireland, Australia and New Zealand. "FIDF conducted comparative trials and found that the AUG outperformed the SA80 in every respect and vastly outclassed it in terms of functional reliability."46 On top of the lack of export orders, the rifle was dropped from the NATO Nominated Weapons List in 1997, only being readmitted in March 2002. Finally, the SA80 has always been rejected by British Special Forces units, who have tended to go for the Colt 5.56mm M16 rifle or M4 carbine (or the examples made under license by Diemaco, a Canadian company, known as the C7 rifle or C8 carbine) or more recently the Heckler & Koch G36 assault rifle. In addition, the Pathfinders (from the Parachute Regiment) and Brigade Patrol Troop (from 3rd Commando Brigade) have also used these weapons whenever they can, although the improved reliability of the SA80A2 has caused this to be a less common event.

Sixth, there is a massive question mark over the roles of the Ordnance Board and the ITDU, as well as the trials they conducted. As mentioned above, the range, suitability and rigorousness with which these trials were conducted are all in question, given that most of the initial faults that were found were done so after the IW had been accepted for service and had to be corrected at a cost of £24m. In addition, Heckler & Koch, who had been subcontracted to do some work on the training ammunition, rang one of the officers on the project in 1985 and reported that the weapon went off if you dropped it. The officer immediately went to the armoury to source a weapon and dropped it – it went off. A dangerous safety flaw had been discovered after supposedly exhaustive testing by the Ordnance Board and ITDU, whose trials were later revealed to be far too biased towards tests in the laboratory, rather than conducting those in conjunction with tests conducted in the field by combat troops. "The second area of concern, or where we have learned a major lesson, is the need to have sufficiently comprehensive user-trials during design and development and to test the general usage of weapons in the hands of soldiers and not necessarily rely solely on clinical tests which we might assume have covered all sorts of angles".47 The MoD and Army realised, too late, that there was a huge difference between the weapons used in the pre-acceptance trials which were hand-built using traditional techniques and those rolling off the mass production lines. There was little in the way of proper project management – the soldiers would demand a change, the engineers would introduce the change but due to time pressure, the change would not be properly tested. The change would fail and another quick-fix solution sought. Plus it would take time for the changes to be fitted to all the weapons in service, totalling over 300,000 by the time production ceased. Instead of starting production slowly, and introducing properly tested modifications as faults were found, the Government and the MoD moved heaven-and-earth to get the weapon into service, ignoring any criticisms that came in:

"We were under a lot of pressure in those days to get something in as quickly as possible. The self-loading rifle was becoming increasingly expensive to maintain and the user had set us the demands of an in-service date of 1983."48

"Initially it was the plan that we would have a low rate of production such that as soon as difficulties became apparent with the small number in the field, we could take action quickly to put that right. Now, as you will be aware, we had the problem of the in-service date, we were slipping like mad, and the was increasing pressure from the user to get this weapon into service to replace the aging self-loading rifle and so we made the error, if you like, of increasing the rate of production to satisfy the pressures and demands which were upon us."49

Seventh, there was a missed opportunity to extensively trial an after-market modification in the form of the Datestyle Muzzle Stabilizer, designed in 1980 by Richard Cave. This was originally designed as a recoil reducer on a 7.62mm long-range pistol. Further trials on a FN FAL rifle and M16 rifle proved promising, with the company coming to the conclusion that if fitted to the IW and LSW, it may well improve the firing groups of both weapons. Apart from a muzzle brake being fitted to two '0' series LSWs, one of which was the only model to have a changeable barrel, the issue of using the muzzle blast to help control the weapon and for improving performance, seems to have been completely neglected. The ITDU conducted a two-day trial and included an AR-15, an L1A1, an IW and an LSW, all of which were fired in the keeling and standing positions. All the weapons involved showed a marked improvement in group size of between thirteen and sixty-one percent for the AR-15, of between twenty-six and fifty-five percent for the L1A1, of between eighteen and seventy-seven percent for the IW and between forty-one and sixty-eight percent for the LSW. An interesting side-effect seemed to be that the stoppages caused by poor ejection seemed to have diminished. As a result of the trial, a letter was sent by Andrew Watt of Datestyle to Royal Ordnance on 9 March 1992, asking for 10,000 rounds to continue trials at Warminster which gained a positive response from Royal Ordnance via a letter from Mike Kennedy over the signature of Ken Malia on 23 March 1992 indicating they would be prepared to proceed with the trials. Three days previous to that, Datestyle had sent a letter to LSOR2 outlining their proposals. On 14 April 1992, a letter arrived from Major P H Williamson MBE at LSOR2 indicating the MoD had 'no requirements' for any such muzzle stabiliser. This was confirmed by a letter from Colonel R H Forsyth, Project Manager Infantry Weapons, Procurement Executive, MoD dated 28 September 1992 (in response to Datestyle's letter to the Secretary of State for Defence dated 2 September 1992) merely repeating the official line that despite some initial teething problems, the Armed Forces were very happy with the weapon that met all their operational requirements and so further evaluation of the muzzle stabiliser was pointless.

SA80A2 UGL
SA80A2 UGL
Eighth, and perhaps most tragically of all, is the loss of a national UK firearms design and manufacturing capability, as a result of the closure of the RSAF Enfield site in October 1988 while "most of the skilled gun makers, designers and ballistics staff at Enfield accepted redundancy. A fair number have since set up independent companies and consultancies".50 RO Nottingham closed in 2001, as a result of restructuring in BAe and the lack of firm orders for small arms. In the dogmatic rush to sell off as much Government-owned industry or utilities as possible, the commercialisation, privatisation and then sell-off of RSAF Enfield left the UK's small arms manufacturing in the hands of a privately-owned corporation who were not accountable to the government and once production of the SA80 had ceased, there was nothing to stop them selling the site off for commercial development and profit. Even Heckler & Koch, once a subsidiary of BAe, has been bought out by a consortium of employees in December 2002 and is now an independently-owned company again, which begs the question, once the MoD contemplates the replacement of the SA80, who will it turn to? Whichever business is chosen, will mean reliance on a foreign company, for not only the acquisition of the weapons themselves, but for spares and logistic support too.

It has thus taken over twenty years since it was first issued, but SA80A2 seems to be the gun the Army should have had in the late 1980s, not perfect but a lot better. "It was accepted for service because of commercial and political pressures, not for sound military reasons"51 and is "a story of the decline of British engineering, the sacrifice of skills for political and financial gain, a complacent cold war military bureaucracy, and Britain's role as America's subservient ally in Europe."52 Finally, let's not forget that twice in the space of less than thirty years, was a British-designed small arm, firing a British designed and tested intermediate calibre cartridge, sacrificed on the alter of NATO standardisation, under pressure from the USA who were adamant that their calibre would be the one chosen as the new 'standard'.

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Rayment, Sean. 'Scrap British rifle and buy Heckler, say the generals', posted on 7 July 2002, located at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1400622/Scrap-British-rifle-and-buy-Heckler-say-the-generals.html, as of 19 August 2009.
Rogers, Simon. 'Broken guns and old radios: standard issue to British soldiers', posted on 03 January 2000 and located at http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2000/jan/03/balkans1, as of 13 August 2009.
Schaefer, Sarah. 'MoD will spend £80m on attempt to stop the Army's rifles seizing up' on http://www.independent.co.uk/story.jsp?dir=1&story=7859&host=1&printable=1, posted 24 June 2000, as of 30 August 2001.
Sengupta, Kim and Bruce, James. 'This 'reliable' gun's 82nd revamp has cost the taxpayer £80m, but still the SAS refuse to use it', posted on 23 January 2001 and located on The Independent website (http://www.indepedent.co.uk) as of 12 August 2009.
Smith, Michael. 'Army admits defeat over SA80 light machinegun' posted on 29 May 2003 at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1431349/Army-admits-defeat-over-SA80-light-machinegun.html, as of 20 August 2009.
Smith, Michael. 'Army chief 'wanted rifle scrapped'', posted on 26 September 2002, at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1408410/Army-chief-wanted-rifle-scrapped.html, as of 19 August 2009.
Smith, Michael. 'Army trials of new SA-80 rifle 'were fudged'', posted on 26 July 2002 at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1402602/Army-trials-of-new-SA-80-rifle-were-fudged.html, as of 19 August 2009.
Smith Michael. 'MoD under pressure to abandon SA-80 rifle', posted on 22 July 2002 and located at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1402138/MoD-under-pressure-to-abandon-SA-80-rifle.html, as of 19 August 2009.
Starke, Mike. Letter entitled 'More in the breech . . .' posted on 29 February 2000 and located at http://www.guardian.co.uk/theguardian/2000/feb/29/guardianletters1, as of 14 August 2009.
The Guardian. 'MoD urged to replace misfiring rifle', posted 5 July 2002 and located on http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2002/jul/05/military.politics, as of 19 August 2009.
Tran, Mark. 'Army set to recall 300,000 'unreliable' rifles', posted on 25 February 2000 and located at http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2000/feb/25/marktran, as of 10 May 2009.
Tweedie, Neil and Savill, Richard. 'Army's £93m revamped rifle 'still misfiring'', at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1400531/Armys-93m-revamped-rifle-still-misfiring.html, as of 19 August 2009 (posted 6 July 2002).
Tweedie, Neil. 'Infantry chief says gun must go', posted on 24 July 2000, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1350127/Infantry-chief-says-gun-must-go.html as of 18 August 2009.

BBC News Website

'Army rifles: What's gone wrong?', posted on 31 July 2000 and located at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/656786.stm as of 17 August 2009.
'British Army rifles defective', posted on 25 February 2000 and located at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/656050.stm as of 14 August 2009.
'Desert 'too tough' for Army's rifle', posted 11 March 1999 and located at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/294758.stm as of 13 August 2009.
'Faulty rifle gets £80m makeover', posted on 23 June 2000 and located at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/803182.stm as of 14 August 2009.
'Faulty Army rifles to be retained', posted on 17 September 2002 and currently located at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/2262685.stm as of 19 August 2009.
'Future uncertain for 'faulty' army rifles', posted on 26 July 2002 and located at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/2153355.stm as of 19 August 2009.
'Minister confirms UK rifle 'jammed'', posted 31 July 2000 and located at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/859812.stm as of 17 August 2009.

Books

Dockery, Kevin. Future Weapons, Berkley Caliber, New York, 2007 (Reprint).
Dugelby, Thomas B. EM-2 Concept and Design: A Rifle Ahead of its Time, Collector Grade Publications, Toronto, 1980.
Dugelby, Thomas B. Modern Military Bullpup Rifles, Arms and Armour Press, London, 1984.
Hogg, Ian V. Machine Guns: A Detailed History of the Rapid Fire Gun 1300 – 2001, KP Books, London, 2002.
Page, Lewis. Lions, Donkeys and Dinosaurs, Arrow Books, London, 2007.
Popenker, Maxim and Willliams, Anthony G. Assault Rifle: The Development of the Modern Military Rifle and its Ammunition, Crowood Press, Ramsbury, 2004.
Raw, Steve. The Last Enfield: SA80 – The Reluctant Rifle, Collector Grade Publications, Cobourg, Ontario, 2003.

Internet Resources

Cybershooters. 'SA80' webpage, located at http://www.cybershooters.org/sa80.htm as of 27 July 2009.
Elite UK Forces Website. See http://www.eliteukforces.info for the articles entitled 'Diemaco C7 Assault Rifle', 'SA80A2 Assault Rifle' and 'SAS Weapons - C8 SFW Carbine (L119A1)'. Retrieved 10 August 2009.
Hitguns.com. 'G&G L85 A2 Airsoft Electric Gun Enfield SA-80' Webpage located at http://www.hitguns.com/ProductDetails.asp?ProductCode=GG-L85-A2&Show=ExtInfo as of 12 August 2009.
'MoD Acts Over SA80 Concerns' on http://www.defense-aerospace.com, posted on 27 June 2000.
Popenker, Max R. 'Enfield EM-2 / Rifle, Automatic, caliber .280, Number 9 Mark 1 (Great Britain)' webpage, currently located at http://world.guns.ru/assault/as59-e.htm as of 17 July 2009.
The Army Rumour Service. 'SA-80' webpage located at http://www.arrse.co.uk/wiki/SA-80 as of 7 August 2009.
TripAtlas.com. 'SA80' webpage, currently located at http://tripatlas.com/SA80 as of 10 August 2009.
Waters, Daniel. 'The 5.56 X 45mm: 1990-1994' webpage, currently located at http://www.thegunzone.com/556dw-10.html, as of 10 August 2009.
Williams, Anthony G. 'Assault Rifles and their Ammunition: History and Prospects' webpage, dated 11 June 2009, currently located (as of 16 July 2009) at http://www.quarry.nildram.co.uk/Assault.htm.
Williams, Anthony G. 'SA80 – Mistake or Maligned – and What Next?' webpage, dated 04 October 2007, currently located at http://www.quarry.nildram.co.uk/SA80.htm as of 16 July 2009.
Williams, Anthony G. 'Why Bullpups?' webpage, dated 19 May 2009, currently located at http://www.quarry.nildram.co.uk/bullpups.htm as of 16 July 2009.

Jane's Information Group - Online

Cutshaw, Charles. 'Barrett's M468 special-purpose carbine', posted 02 April 2004, located on Jane's Website (http://www.janes.com) as of 16 July 2009.
Foss, Christopher F. 'BAE Systems RO Defence to close Nottingham facility in 2001', posted 25 August 2000, located on Jane's Website (http://www.janes.com) as of 18 August 2009.
Gander, Terry. 'As the SA-80's woes continue, it looks like time to start again', posted 11 July 2002, located on Jane's Website (http://www.janes.com) as of 10 June 2009.
Gander, Terry. 'UK fires up SA-80 programme', posted 11 September 2000, located on Jane's Website (http://www.janes.com) as of 10 June 2009.
Jane's Ammunition Handbook. '7.62 x 51 mm cartridge' webpage, posted 25 January 2005, located on the Jane's Website (http://www.janes.com) as of 17 July 2009.
Jane's Infantry Weapons. 'L85A1/L85A2 5.56mm Individual Weapon' webpage, posted 12 May 2009, located on the Jane's Website (http://www.janes.com) as of 16 July 2009.
Jane's Information Group. 'British forces do battle with rifle maintenance mythology', posted 17 October 2002 and located on the Jane's Website (http://www.janes.com) as of 10 June 2009.
Jane's Information Group. 'United Kingdom' from Jane's Defence Industry, posted 20 June 2003 and located at Jane's Website (http://www.janes.com) as of 10 June 2009.
Kemp, Ian. 'Light gun selection progresses', posted 24 January 2003, located on the Jane's Website (http://www,janes.com) as of 20 August 2009.
Kemp, Ian. 'UK begins testing new light machinegun', posted 01 August 2002, located on the Jane's Website (http://www,janes.com) as of 20 August 2009.
Kemp, Ian. 'UK MoD awards weapons contract', posted 27 June 2000, located on the Jane's Website (http://www,janes.com) as of 09 April 2001.
Kemp, Ian. 'UK selects FN Herstal machine gun', posted 30 May 2003, located on the Jane's Website (http://www,janes.com) as of 20 August 2009.
Sen, Philip. 'Revamped SA-80 "among the very best"', posted 30 October 2001, located on the Jane's Website (http://www.janes.com) as of 10 June 2009.
Sen, Philip. 'Upgraded SA-80 goes to war', posted 16 April 2002, located on the Jane's Website (http://www.janes.com) as of 10 June 2009.
White, Andrew. 'In the line of fire: close quarter combat fighters call for improved small arms", posted 12 March 2007, located on the Jane's Website (http://www.janes.com) as of 11August 2009.
White, Andrew. 'UK assault rifle to receive lighter, improved sight', posted 28 April 2006 and located on the Jane's Website (http://www.janes.com) as of 21 August 2009.
White, Andrew. 'UK MoD seeks further upgrades fro SA80 rifle', posted 23 August 2007 and located on the Jane's Website (http://www.janes.com) as of 21 August 2009.

Monographs

Kern, Danford A. The Influence of Organisational Culture on the Acquisition of the M16 Rifle, Master of Military Art and Science Thesis, US Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, 2006.
Notman, Dorian and Moore, Dr David. The Long, Slow Path to Capability: The Case of the SA80, Teaching Case Study, Cranfield University, Defence Academy of the United Kingdom, 2007.

Official Government / Parliamentary Documents

Hall, Donald L. An Effectiveness Study of the Infantry Rifle, Memorandum Report No. 593, Ordnance Corps, Ballistic Research Laboratories, Aberdeen Proving Ground, MD, March 1952.
Hitchman, Norman et al. Operational Requirements for an Infantry Hand Weapon, Operations Research Office, Johns Hopkins University, Chevy Chase, MD, June 1952.
House of Commons. 'SA80' in Hansard Written Answers for 23 June 2000 (pt 4), 23 June 2000, Column 318W (also available online at http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm199900/cmhansrd/vo000623/text/00623w04.htm#00623w04.html_sbhd6 as of 14 August 2009.
House of Commons. 'SA80' in Hansard Written Answers for 10 Apr 2002 (pt 8), 10 April 2002, Column 27W (also available online at http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200102/cmhansrd/vo020410/text/20410w08.htm).
House of Commons. 'SA80A1/SA80A2' in Hansard Written Answers for 22 Jul 2002 (pt 18), 22 July 2002, Column 758W (also available online at http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200102/cmhansrd/vo020722/text/20722w18.htm).
House of Commons. 'SA80 Rifle' in Hansard Written Answers for 10 July 2000 (pt 6), 10 July 2000, Column 377W (also available online at http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm199900/cmhansrd/vo000710/text/00710w06.htm).
House of Commons. 'SA80 Weapon System' in Hansard Written Answers for 24 Jan 2000 (pt 19), 24 January 2000, Column 70W (also available online at http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm199900/cmhansrd/vo000124/text/00124w19.htm).
House of Commons Defence Committee. 'Letter from the Minister of State for Defence Procurement on the SA80 Weapon System' in Annual Report of the Committee for Session 1997 – 98: Report and Annexes with Proceedings of the Committee and Appendices, First Special Report, HC273, 10 March 1999 (also available on http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm199899/cmselect/cmdfence/273/273r04.htm).
House of Commons Defence Committee. The SA80 Rifle and Light Support Weapon, Session 1992-93, Third Report, HC728, HMSO, London, 9th June 1993.
Ministry of Defence. Kosovo: Lessons from the Crisis, Cm4724, TSO, London, 2000, also available online at http://www.mod.uk/NR/rdonlyres/31AA374E-C3CB-40CC-BFC6-C8D6A73330F5/0/kosovo_lessons.pdf as of 17 August 2009.
Ministry of Defence. Record of an Acceptance Meeting to Consider the Suitability of the Enfield Weapon System Light Support Weapon (SA 80 LSW) for Introduction into Service Held in Room 254 Old War Office Building on 13 September 1984, D/OR12/2/8/36, dated 19 September 1984 (Restricted).
Ministry of Defence. A Report on the Hot Weather Trial of SA80, Infantry Trials and Development Unit, Annex E to TD/RIFLE/4, dated 07 November 1983 (Restricted).
Wright, Col A P. SA80 Full Acceptance, Loose Minute – dated 24 February 1987, D/DGW (A) 18/41/6.
National Audit Office. Ministry of Defence: Progress in Reducing Stocks, HC898, Session 2001-2002, TSO, London, 20 June 2002.

Wikipedia

'.280 British' webpage, located at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/.280_British as of 16 July 2009.
'EM-2' webpage, located at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/EM-2_rifle as of 16 July 2009.
'SA80' webpage, located at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SA80 as of 14 July 2009.
'StG 45(M)' webpage, located at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/StG_45(M) as of 16 July 2009.
'Taden Gun' webpage, located at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taden_gun as of 14 July 2009.


1 Raw, Steve. The Last Enfield: SA80 – The Reluctant Rifle, Collector Grade Publications, Cobourg, Ontario, 2003, p. xxxi.

2 Williams, Anthony G. 'Assault Rifles and their Ammunition: History and Prospects' webpage, dated 11 June 2009, currently located at http://www.quarry.nildram.co.uk/Assault.htm, as of 16 July 2009..

3 Popenker, Max R. 'Enfield EM-2 / Rifle, Automatic, caliber .280, Number 9 Mark 1 (Great Britain)' webpage, currently located at http://world.guns.ru/assault/as59-e.htm as of 17 July 2009

4 A note on terminology and measurements: fps – feet per second; m/s – metres per second; gn – grain with 15.43 grains equalling 1 gram; g – gram; calibre tends to be measured in millimetres on the continent but in inches in the USA, while the UK has generally moved from Imperial measurements (inches) to metric ones (millimetres). For example, 7.62mm is also known as .308 and 5.56mm is also known as .223.

5 Recollections from Lt Col Noel Kent-Lemon MBE, TD – reproduced in Dugelby, Thomas B. EM-2 Concept and Design: A Rifle Ahead of its Time, Collector Grade Publications, Toronto, 1980, p. 15.

6 Hogg, Ian V. Machine Guns: A Detailed History of the Rapid Fire Gun 1300 – 2001, KP Books, London, 2002, p. 172.

7 Op Cit. Raw, 2003, p. 8.

8 Ibid. p. 10.

9 Ibid. p. 35.

10 Upchurch, Lee. 'Enfield Weapons System' in S.W.A.T., December 1985, p. 56.

11 Dugelby, Thomas B. Modern Military Bullpup Rifles, Arms and Armour Press, London, 1984, p. 55.

12 Op Cit. Raw, 2003, p. 55; See also Popenker, Maxim and Willliams, Anthony G. Assault Rifle: The Development of the Modern Military Rifle and its Ammunition, Crowood Press, Ramsbury, 2004, p. 62.

13 Op Cit. Raw, 2003, p. 76.

14 Quoted in Ibid. p. 85.

15 Ibid. pp. 86 – 87. Also see Ministry of Defence. Record of an Acceptance Meeting to Consider the Suitability of the Enfield Weapon System Light Support Weapon (SA 80 LSW) for Introduction into Service Held in Room 254 Old War Office Building on 13 September 1984, D/OR12/2/8/36, dated 19 September 1984 (Restricted), p. 2 for a brief description of the 17 January 1984 meeting.

16 Steadman, Nick. 'The Enfield Weapon System' in Armed Forces, Volume 5, Number 2 (February 1986), p. 71.

17 Willis, Guy. 'The long and the short of it – the SA80 family' in International Defence Review, January 1989, p. 68.

18 Gelbart, Marsh. 'The SA80 Assault Rifle: A Costly Disaster' in Machine Gun News, April 1997, p. 25.

19 Williams, Anthony G. 'SA80 – Mistake or Maligned – and What Next?' webpage, dated 04 October 2007, currently located at http://www.quarry.nildram.co.uk/SA80.htm as of 16 July 2009; Also see Op Cit. Raw, 2003, p. 135.

20 Macrae, Callum. 'Revealed: MoD told in 1985 new rifle was a dud' in The Observer, 23 August 1992, p. 7.

21 Macrae, Callum. 'Secret report damns Army's assault rifle' in The Observer, 16 August 1992, p. 1.

22 Op Cit. Raw, 2003, p. 153.

23 Kirby, Charles. 'Cassandra and the Rifle' in Handgunner, February / March 1993, p. 39.

24 Ibid. p. 45.

25 The Army Rumour Service. 'SA-80' webpage located at http://www.arrse.co.uk/wiki/SA-80 as of 7 August 2009.

26 Stevenson, Jan A. 'Service Rifle Scandal – part 2' in Handgunner, February / March 1993, p. 13.

27 Op Cit. Raw, 2003, p. 180.

28 Op Cit. HCDC, 9th June 1993, pp. viii – xv; Kemp, Ian. 'MoD handling of SA80 buy berated' in Jane's Defence Weekly, 31 July 1993, p. 26; Stevenson, Jan A. 'Service Rifle Scandal – Part IV' in Handgunner, December 1993, pp. 34 – 38.

29 Thompson, Leroy. 'The SA80 (L85A1) Individual Weapon: Britain's Assault Rifle' in S.W.A.T., February 1996, p. 68.

30 Op Cit. Gelbart, April 1997, p. 27.

31 White, Andrew. 'In the line of fire: close quarter combat fighters call for improved small arms", located on the http://www.janes.com website as of 11August 2009, posted 12 March 2007 (in International Defence Review, April 2007).

32 Op Cit. Williams, 04 October 2007.

33 Op Cit. Raw, 2003, p. 280.

34 Sengupta, Kim and Bruce, James. 'This 'reliable' gun's 82nd revamp has cost the taxpayer £80m, but still the SAS refuse to use it', posted on 23 January 2001 and located on The Independent website (http://www.indepedent.co.uk) as of 12 August 2009.

35 Op Cit. Raw, 2003, p. 281.

36 Op Cit. Raw, 2003, p. 294.

37 Smith, Michael. 'Army trials of new SA-80 rifle 'were fudged'', posted on 26 July 2002 at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1402602/Army-trials-of-new-SA-80-rifle-were-fudged.html, as of 19 August 2009.

38 Rayment, Sean. 'Marines blamed for rifle failure', posted on 21 July 2002 and located at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1402063/Marines-blamed-for-rifle-failure.html as of 19 August 2009.

39 Smith Michael. 'MoD under pressure to abandon SA-80 rifle', posted on 22 July 2002 and located at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1402138/MoD-under-pressure-to-abandon-SA-80-rifle.html, as of 19 August 2009.

40 Macrae, Callum. 'How the Army got second best' in The Observer, 23 August 1992, p. 7.

41 Meek, James. 'Off target', posted on 10 October 2002 and located at http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2002/oct/10/military.jamesmeek, as of 19 August 2009 (quoting James Edmiston).

42 Ibid.

43 Op Cit. Kirby, February / March 1993, p. 47.

44 Op Cit. HCDC, 9th June 1993, p. 4.

45 Bloom, Pete. 'SA80 – The Rifle That Dared to Call Itself "The Last Enfield"' in Target Sports, February 2000, p. 59.

46 Stevenson, Jan A. 'Service Rifle Scandal' in Handgunner, October / November 1992, p. 29.

47 Op Cit. HCDC, 9th June 1993, p. 18.

48 Ibid. p. 13.

49 Ibid. p. 18; Op Cit. Meek, 10 October 2002.

50 Steadman, Nick. 'Britain Builds the Bullpup: Genesis of the SA80' in Fighting Firearms, Spring 1996, p. 15.

51 Op Cit. Gelbart, April 1997, p. 27.

52 Op Cit. Meek, 10 October 2002.

How to cite this article:Antill, P. (28 August 2009), SA80 (Small Arms for the 1980s): The Sorry Saga of the British Bulldog's Bullpup, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/weapons_SA80.html

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