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The SA80 (Standard Arm for the 1980s) is a family of related arms that include the British Army's standard combat rifle and light support weapon. They were introduced to service in 1985, and will likely remain the primary infantry weapon until 2015.

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For much of the pre-WWII period the German army had relied on the machine gun as the primary infantry weapon, with rifles as a support weapon only. However in close combat both weapons proved largely ineffective, the machine guns being too heavy and powerful to move in "snapshot" situations while walking, and the rifles having far too slow a rate of fire. Combat teams increasingly started using the sub-machine gun in place of rifles, and by 1943 "close combat" troops were common in the German army.

While they served well in this role, the sub-machine gun's lack of power was a concern. Such weapons were useful only in the short range role, leading to similar but opposite problems as the longer range rifle had earlier. The answer was a weapon half-way between the sub-machine gun and rifle, one that was fully automatic but used a less powerful round to control recoil. Using a new "cut down" version of their standard 7.92mm round known as the Kurtz (for short), a new rifle was designed for this role. When it was introduced in late in WWII as the StG44, it quickly created an intense demand that was not met before the war ended. Today this concept is known as the assault rifle.


In the immediate post-war era the British Army, like many other forces, started research into their own versions of the StG44. The army had planned to replace their .303 rimmed cartridge before WWI but were forced to keep it due to time and money constraints for another 30 years. With these constraints removed they discovered Fabrique Nationale[?]'s new .280" (7mm) round and decided to develop a new weapon to fire it.

The result was the very advanced Enfield EM-2. It was the first bullpup style rifle to be build, making for a gun some 20% shorter than traditional designs. It also included a 20 round magazine with "stripper" reloads, a simple optical sight for fast shooting, and a carrying handle built into the top of the weapon. It could fire semi-automatic or fully automatic bursts, and was accurate to 800 yards. The weapon was largely finished development by the late 1940s, and was tested alongside an FN developed conventional design in 1950. Both proved to be a huge advance on the existing .303" SMLE/Bren combination and the decision came down to which of the two designs to deploy.

It was at this point that the US put forth its own designs for NATO standardization, using the .308" (7.62mm) round in their M-14 rifle[?]. Matters came to a head in 1951 in a shoot-off, with the US claiming the British round was underpowered, and the British claiming the US round was too powerful to be used in a full-auto mode. A series of lengthy debates followed, which were finally settled in an unlikely fashion when Canada stated they would use the British .280 round, but only if the US did as well. It was clear this would never happen. Winston Churchill felt a NATO standard was more important than any qualities of the gun itself, so the 7.62mm round was soon deployed after licensing the FN-FAL design that fired it – a modification of the original FN .280 design re-chambered with the 7.62mm round.


It soon became clear to the US that the British had been correct all along, and the M-14 proved incapable of being fired in fully-automatic mode due to recoil. This meant the US had spent a lot of money changing from one semi-auto system, the Garand, to another, the M-14. Other forces found themselves with the same problem, leaving NATO with semi-auto weapons against the true assault rifles being built by the Soviets and deployed world-wide.

Into the story comes Eugene Stoner[?] and the CONARC project to develop a new light-weight weapon for US use. His design combined the EM-2's carrying handle with the hinged design of the FN, added a mechanism from a Swedish rifle, the ejector port cover from the StG44, and used an inline stock for better control in automatic (as opposed to most designs where the stock is bent down from the barrel). The result was the AR-15 firing a .223" (5.56mm) round, which handily beat the other designs tested by CONARC. After special forces used it in Viet Nam and universally praised it, the new M-16 rifle became the standard US weapon.


Needless to say others in NATO were less than happy with this turn of events. Once again the British Army started looking at new designs, this time with even lighter rounds. Their research suggested that a slimmer bullet of the same general weight as the M-16's 5.56mm (.223") would result in the same ability to be fired in fully automatic, while having much better penetration. The result was the .190" (4.85mm) round fitted in "necked down" but otherwise standard 5.56mm cartridges from the M-16. They were fired from removable magazines in a modified EM-2, the L64, first introduced in 1972.

In 1976 it was decided to try NATO standarization once again, and the various newer rounds were tested head-to-head starting in 1977. The British round proved to do what the designers had imagined, completely outperforming the standard US 5.56. However FN also introduced a new 5.56mm round at the competition, the SS-109, which had performance equal to the British. In the end it was selected largely due to similarity with existing US weapons; a theoretical advantage only, but a politically useful one.

L70 and SA-80

The L64 was re-chambered with the 5.56mm round, creating the L70. The MoD asked for a series of minor changes, and the SA-80 family was born. Deployment was to have started in 1980, but the Falklands War interviened and the FA-FAL was retained for the duration. The weapon officially became standard in 1985.

In service the weapon quickly gained a very bad reputation. Poor placement of the magazine ejector button meant the magazine would sometimes fall out while walking. The safety was operated by the trigger finger, making for slow "rapid shoot" response. But the worst problem was that the gun constantly jammed.

In 1997 the SA80 was dropped from NATO's list of approved weapons. This appears to have been the final straw and an upgrade program was finally started. In 2000 Heckler und Koch, the new owners of Lee-Enfield, were contracted in to fix the problems. By 2002 the upgraded versions were fully deployed.


The SA-80 family is made of three weapons, the L85A1 IW (Individual Weapon), the L86A1 LSW (Light Support Weapon) and the bolt-action L98A1 CGP (Cadet General Purpose). All three are similar in most respects, they all fire the 5.56mm NATO round from a 30-round box magazine, and mount the SUSAT (Sight Unit; Small Arms; Trilux) 4x optical sight.

The LSW is a section[?]-level light machine gun. For this role it adds a bipod and a longer barrel that also improves muzzle velocity for longer range. The gun is otherwise identical.

The CGP replaced the mechanism with a straight-pull bolt action version in order to allow Cadets to train on something similar to the IW, while not being fully-automatic, which was prohibited by law until recently. Contrary to the poor reports for the IW, the CGP is considered by many to be the best bolt action mechanism ever.

The Heckler und Koch "upgrades" are a matter of some debate, as the program replaced almost all of the internal workings of the rifle for $160m. The L86 received an even heavier barrel, while the CGP was no longer needed due to changes in the law. These new A2 versions are outwardly similar to the original A1 versions.

IW Specifications

  • Weight - 4.98kg (with loaded magazine and optical sight)
  • Length - 750mm
  • Muzzle velocity - 940m/s
  • 30 Round magazine
  • Effective range 500m
  • Cyclic rate of fire - 610-770 rounds/min

LSW Specifications

  • Weight - 7.28kg (with loaded magazine and optical sight)
  • Length - 900mm
  • Muzzle velocity - 940m/s
  • 30 round magazine
  • Effective range 500m
  • Cyclic rate of fire - 610-770 rounds/min

External links:

L85A1 (http://world.guns.ru/assault/as22-e.htm)
Enfield EM-2 (http://www.securityarms.com/20010315/galleryfiles/1700/1793.htm)
The SA-80. Shame of the British Army. (http://www.angelfire.com/art/enchanter/SA80)

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