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The SA-80 Assault Rifle

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The SA-80 is the standard issue weapon of the British Armed Forces, and the A1 version was introduced in 1985. Originally designed by Enfield as a mass-producible version of their experimental EM2 bullpup rifle, it was produced by Heckler and Koch after their takeover of Enfield. The improved A2 version was due to start being issued as standard armament on a replacement basis in December 2001.

Designed by target shooters, the SA-80 A1 was the second most accurate assault rifle on the planet (the most accurate is the Sig 552) and the A2 design is supposedly more accurate still. Its bullpup design1 makes it possible to have a longer barrel and a shorter overall weapon length, making it both more accurate and a lot less unwieldy.

Despite the SA-80's many good points, it is interesting to note that the British Special Forces (including the SAS) tend not to use it due to the fact that the safety catch is operated by the trigger finger, apparently making it difficult to set the catch to 'Fire' and open fire very quickly, as well as the old reliability issues. They like the M16 because you can fit a grenade launcher to it.


There are three major variants of the SA-80: the Individual Weapon (IW), the Light Support Weapon (LSW) and the Cadet General Purpose (GP). All the variants use a rotary locking bolt and ejector, which means very little grime gets into the mechanism from the barrel.

IW - Technical Specification

  • Designation: L85
  • Length: 785 mm (barrel 518 mm)
  • Weight: Rifle 2800 g, full magazine 480 g, optical sight 700 g
  • Rifling: 6 grooves, RH
  • Ammunition: NATO 5.56 x 45 mm
  • Muzzle velocity: 940 m/s
  • Rate of fire: 610-770 rounds per minute

LSW - Technical Specification

Although the LSW is technically a light machine gun, it's essentially an IW with a longer barrel, a bipod, a rear grip and a shoulder mount.

  • Designation: L86
  • Length: 1147 mm (barrel 880 mm)
  • Weight: Heavier than an IW 2
  • Muzzle velocity: 980 m/s

Cadet GP - Technical Specification

Cadets under the age of 16 are not allowed to fire fully automatic weapons in the UK, and the Cadet GP was introduced in order to allow cadets to train in SA-80 safety and firing drills. Because of the necessity of recocking the rifle after each shot, the L98 is fitted with a more ergonomically shaped and placed cocking handle. This cocking handle is impractical on the automatic variants because the large weight rocketing backward and forward would create unnecessary stresses on the firing mechanism, decreasing the working life of the rifle.

  • Designation: L98
  • Length: 755 mm (barrel 488 mm)
  • Weight: Slightly heavier than the IW.

Sighting Systems

The SA-80 can be fitted with one of two sighting systems. Combat units and LSW gunners are issued with a SUSAT (Sight Unit Small Arms Trilux) sight, which is a solid state prism-based telescopic sight with 4x magnification. It contains a large tritium-illuminated3 obelisk-shaped graticule4. At first it seems unnecessarily large, but when firing on automatic, it makes keeping shots on target far easier. The SUSAT is incredibly durable, too. It's possible to smack it against a fencepost or drop it, and it will still work fine. It is one of the best assault rifle optical sights in existence.

The other type of sight, issued to non-infantry units such as transport drivers or cadets, for instance, is an iron sight, with the rear sight mounted in what appears to be a carry handle, and the foresight blade above the gas block.

Problems with the SA-80 A1

Since its introduction in 1985, the SA-80A1 has been dogged by a series of problems, some of them pretty serious.

The most serious of these was with the magazine release catch, which initially had no guard to prevent accidental release of the magazine. When the rifle was held in a sling, the catch was often triggered, especially when at a run, depositing the magazine on the floor, and frequently spreading live rounds everywhere. This problem was soon fixed by adding a thin strip of metal around the catch.

But things didn't get better. Since then, the rifle has been widely criticised for its intolerance of extreme temperature variations, continually seizing up and causing vast numbers of stoppages. The firing pin and bolt were found to have been made out of a type of iron that was far too brittle, and the cocking lever's proximity to several sharp edges has been known to cause servicemen serious lacerations when cocked in a hurry. There have been numerous other problems too.

The A2 Version

Changes in the SA-80 A2 include a new breech block, breech bolt, cartridge extractor, cartridge ejector, recoil springs, extractor spring, firing pin, cocking handle, magazine (the whole magazine has been replaced), gas plug and cylinder, and the LSW has been given a new barrel and hammer.

The modified rifle has been tested in a variety of locations, (Alaska, UK, Brunei, and Kuwait): environments ranging from extreme cold and aridity to immense heat and humidity.

On average, the IW fired 25,200 rounds with less than two stoppages, and the LSW 12,9005. This is an incredible increase in durability, and transforms the SA-80's status from being one of the world's least reliable assault rifles into being one of the best6.

1The working parts are as far back as possible, inside the stock, with the trigger grip positioned in front of the magazine (unlike the M16, which has the magazine in front of the trigger grip).2It was impossible to get accurate figures for the weights of the LSW and Cadet GP. If you know the details, please contribute to the fora hanging off this entry.3Tritium is a radioactive isotope of hydrogen that glows an orange colour in the dark. It is used in self-powered lighting - watches, exit signs, etc - and in high-yield nuclear weapons).4Can also be spelled 'reticle' or 'reticule', meaning 'a series of fine lines in an eyepiece or oscilloscope screen, used as a measuring scale or an aid in locating objects' - The Concise Oxford Dictionary.5The lower figure for the LSW is explained by the fact that the LSW's test was a lot more severe (a fire mission of 960 rounds in 36 minutes as opposed to 150 in 10).6Bear in mind that for a USP (Universal Selfloading Pistol) the burn out time of the barrel is less than 20,000 rounds!

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