The L85 rifle variant of the SA80 family has been the standard issue service rifle of the British Armed Forces since 1987, replacing the SLR L1A1 variant of the FN FAL. The improved L85A2 remains in service today. The remainder of the family comprises the L86 Light Support Weapon, the short-barreled L22 carbine and the L98 Cadet rifle.
The SA80 was the last in a long line of British weapons (including the Lee-Enfield family) to come from the national arms development and production facility at Enfield Lock. Its bullpup configuration stems from a late-1940s programme at Royal Small Arms Factory Enfield to design a new service rifle which was known as the EM-2, which though similar in outline, was an entirely different weapon.
The SA80 gained an initial poor reputation amongst British Soldiers and Royal Marines as being unreliable and fragile, a fact picked up by the UK media, and entertainment industry. The writer and former soldier Andy McNab said in his book Bravo Two Zero, that the British Army procured a “Rolls-Royce in the SA80, albeit a prototype Rolls-Royce”.
Immediately after the first Gulf war 1990, the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) commissioned the LANDSET Report (officially entitled ‘Equipment Performance (SA80))’, into the effectiveness of the L85A1 IW & L86A1 LSW. This report criticised the acceptance of the weapon into service. Neither weapon had managed to pass the sand trials and both frequently jammed. The mechanism of both weapons required “good” lubrication as the weapon became prone to seizure if fired “dry”, yet in sandy condition the lubricated weapon became unreliable due to the lubrication attracting sand into the moving parts. The LANDSET report identified in excess of 50 faults. Most notably the magazine release catch, which could easily be caught on clothing and therefore accidentally release the magazine; the plastic safety plunger which became brittle in cold climates; firing pins that were not up to repeated use and prone to fracture, if used in automatic fire mode. Although this report identified over 50 faults, and some of the rifle’s problems were corrected as a result, modification only addressed 7 of these issues and complaints over reliability in service continued.
As a result, a more extensive modification programme was executed. In 2000, Heckler & Koch, at that time owned by the British small arms manufacturer Royal Ordnance, was contracted to upgrade the SA80 family of weapons. Two hundred thousand SA80s were re-manufactured at a cost of £400 each, producing the A2 variant. Changes focused primarily on improving reliability and include: a redesigned cocking handle, modified bolt, extractor and a redesigned hammer assembly that produces a slight delay in the hammer’s operation in continuous fire mode, improving reliability and stability. There were equivalent LSW and Carbine modifications. The British Ministry of Defence describes the L85A2 revision as “modified in light of operational experience… the most reliable weapons of their type in the world”. Army trials indicated extremely good reliability over a range of climates for various operational scenarios, though with a decline in reliability in hot, and especially hot and dry conditions.
The modified A2 variants are distinguished by the ‘HK A2’ marking on the top of the weapon just forward of the buttplate, and the distinctive comma shaped cocking handle (shaped to aid the ejection of the empty round casing and prevent stoppages). A higher quality HK steel STANAG 4179 magazine is now used.