It is no doubt that, despite serious issues, the SA80 was revolutionary in its design.
The rifle has a unique bull-pup design and was originally manufactured in Great Britain, in the Enfield works. However, while this rifle during its inception was touted as being revolutionary, based in part on its sci-fi appearance, its functionality came into question.
Soon after being adopted for service, problems began to surface. According to Anthony Williams in ‘SA80: MISTAKE OR MALIGNED’:
“…the first five years of this rifle’s service have been disastrous. A number of manufacturing defects showed up in service conditions, and it was not until the closure of the RSAF at Enfield and the setting up of an entirely new production line, with new computer-controlled machine tools, at the new RSAF Nottingham, that the quality of the production weapons began to improve. It will take some time for the poor reputation gained by the initial issue weapons to be overcome; the only consolation is that the same sort of thing has happened to other military rifles in the past, and they have managed to live down their early reputation and prove their innate reliability. It is to be hoped that the L85A1 will do so as well.”
The SA-80 is different to many rifles, as its magazine is located at the rear of the gun, behind the trigger. Firstly, the barrel length is longer to provide for accuracy and it is easily transportable. A paratrooper or armoured troops could use this gun, and actually, there is also a carbine derivative of this gun for use in the Army Air Corps, Royal Navy and other branches of services. It operates from a selective fire gas-operated design feature. As such, the weapon uses a short stroke gas piston located above the barrel, which is fed gas by a regulator. This is different to the M16 weapons platform which is based upon a direct gas impingement system. While the Colt M-16 is a very significant gun, it is prone to fowling in the chamber, as the spent gunpowder is still within the barrel, and it needs to be cleaned on a regular basis. Therefore, the SA-80 and its rotating gas impingement system have an advantage over its American counterparts.
The Bullpup layout means that the action of the rifle occurs behind the rigger system. This means that the design can be quite compact, and is achievable without compromising on its overall barrel length. The current barrel length of the modern SA-80A2 is 518mm. This makes this Assault Weapons system unique, and combat worthy in its current form. However, this has not always been the case as we shall see in this article.
The article is split up into three sections, with the history of the industrial design of the weapon, the deployment of the first SA-80 gun, and the design defects, thirdly, the attempt to remedy those defects by Heckler and Koch to create the SA-80A2 platform, and conclusion with a question as to whether we should carry on updating this design? Or should we purchase a superior weapons system – in my argument the Israeli ‘Tavor’ assault rifle, would be the best option?
Let’s start with the history of the rifle’s development. Its first prototype was named the EM-1 and the EM-2 respectively. The combat system started development in the late 1940s. The British government had an ambitious plan to change the cartridge of the new rifle and create a new type of assault rifle, which was different to the Lee Enfield bolt action rifle used in the Second World War. The experience of combat during the Second World War led designers to come up with a radically different new rifle concept – known as the EM-1 and the EM-2 (which were both of bullpup designs). These two prototype guns were supposed to have 7mm ammunition, however, political decisions at the top levels of NATO wanted to standardise its cartridges for small arms of member states to make it logistically simpler and easier to rearm. Therefore, when NATO adopted the current 7.62 x 51mm cartridge – otherwise known as the NATO cartridge, it brought a death knell to the revolutionary rifle development, and the government abandoned plans in favour of an off the shelf rifle. As such, the British Army adopted the Belgian FN FAL rifle.
Historically 1969 was the year, that brought this revolutionary design back on the table once again, and the Enfield factor began to consider a new type of small arms weapon system. In October, 2nd 1985 was the official launch of the new SA80 assault rifle in London. It was a crucial moment for the rifle to get the international recognition, with defence officials, and key industry specialists, generals, military attaches and journalists at the launch.
Gen. Colin Shortis who was at the time the British Army’s director of the infantry is quoted as saying at the official launch:
“We are delighted with the SA-80 – a really good weapon.”
However, the gun was actually not ready for the ceremony at all. It was kept a secret to the public. It was a testimony of the failure of the industry to fully be able to appreciate and understand the complexities of making a cheap, mass-produced gun for the Army. The industrial engineers who designed the gun never shot a gun, so in theory, their design looked good on the drawing paper, but in action, despite its science fiction appearance, this could not be further from the truth. In industrial design language, form and function were not matching the needs of the end user – in this case, the British Army infantry soldier being deployed on the front.
To quote the Guardian a series of defects became evident which included the following:
“The SA80 couldn’t be fired from the left shoulder making it dangerous to fire from corners and doorways. The firing pins broke, the magazine fell off, the bolt release button broke, the triggers got stuck, the cleaning kit wouldn’t clean, the butt plate broke, the cheek pad fell off, the check-pad melted, the cartridge cases wouldn’t eject properly, the bolt carrier didn’t fit properly, the locking pins holding the gun together were inadequate, and the safety catch wasn’t safe.”
When looking at the comparison between the original M-16 rifle made by Colt, and the original SA-80 to that of the AK-47 – the superior weapon to come out of these comparisons was ironically the Soviet Union’s AK-47 and its variant designs. This is a testament to how a simple manufacturing process, with a gun with a crude, but workable design, and 7 moving parts became one of the most prolific small arms in hot spots around the world.
However, the SA-80 had its first operations in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, and soon the FN FAL was replaced by these new bullpup designs. However, it was not until the First Gulf War that the true extent of the difficulties encountered by the infantry soldier of this design was uncovered. There were tales of British Army soldiers swapping their SA-80 rifles for AK-47s. The First Gulf War demonstrated the difficulties of fighting in desert conditions, with sand getting into the firing mechanism, and causing problems with the rifle’s ability to extract spent ammunition. The inability to fire meant that the Assault Rifle had to be cleaned during combat, and reassembled again in the hope of firing. This put lives in danger.
Due to the beleaguered nature of the rifle, the redevelopment of the rifle underwent a major update in 2002 by Heckler and Kock and the SA80A2 rifle remains in service as of 2017. While the SA80 rifles were upgraded to a new standard. This new design looked the same, but its internals was different. Also significant was the adoption of the railing system at the barrel which allowed for the inclusion of a grenade launcher. Also, a hand grip was introduced on the rail, which allowed for greater user-friendly experience, and better targeting of the rifle.
As quoted on the website Army-technology.com, the new rifle has:
“The rifle features a revolving cylindrical bolt integrating locking splines, an extractor and casing ejector. The rotation of the bolt is ensured by a cam pin. The fire-control lever allows the operator to select semi-automatic fire or fully automatic fire. The flash suppressor on the barre acts as a base for mounting grenades and a blank-firing adaptor or a bayonet.”
These updated rifles went into action with the British Army and saw service in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as Sierra Leone and other conflict zones where British troops were deployed. Overall, the SA-80 has been deployed to the following conflicts including the Troubles in counter-terrorist operations in Northern Ireland, to the Bosnian War in peacekeeping operations, the Kosovo War, under peacekeeping missions to the Sierra Leone conflict, the Iraq, and Afghanistan Wars.
Another interesting point to highlight is that there are a number of users of this platform, which enhances its credibility as a weapons platform. As part of British Aid, Zimbabwe had the SA-80, it has been used by Bolivia, in particular by its Special Forces, by Jamaica since 1992, Mozambique, and Nepal both part of British military aid, and Papua New Guinea. Over territories include Gibraltar as it’s the standard rifle for the Royal Gibraltar Regiment, and also used in Bermuda by the Royal Bermuda Regiment.
To conclude, while the original SA-80 assault rifle was seen to be a more accurate design it was beleaguered with problems which could only be remedied by a refit of the system in the form of SA80-A2. The government had to spend around £500 million according to some estimates to make numerous modifications and upgrades to make the weapon systems better. Now according to Janes Defence Weekly, there is a potential for an SA-80A3 version which could extend the weapon system lifespan to beyond 2025.
The main questions become: should the Ministry of Defence be looking for a more up to date weapon system? In addition, should it consider a weapons system being purchased from elsewhere?