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Sterling SAR-87 & Royal Ordnance SA80

The SA80 (below) and SAR-87 (above) which competed for use against the SA80 in the 1980's.

The SA80 (Small Arms for the 1980s) is a British family of 5.56mm small arms. It is a selective fire, gas-operated firearm. SA80 prototypes were trialled in 1976 and production was completed in 1994.

The L85 rifle variant of the SA80 family has been the standard issue service rifle of the British Armed Forces since 1987, replacing the L1A1 SLR 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-barrelled L22 carbine and the L98 Cadet GP 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 system's history dates back to the late 1940s, when an ambitious program to develop a new cartridge and new class of rifle was launched in the United Kingdom based on combat experience drawn from World War II. Two 7mm prototypes were built in a bullpup configuration, designated the EM-1 and EM-2. When NATO adopted the 7.62x51mm rifle cartridge as the standard calibre for its service rifles, further development of these rifles was discontinued (the British Army chose to adopt the 7.62mm L1A1 SLR semi-automatic rifle, which is a license-built version of the Belgian FAL).

In 1969, the Enfield factory began work on a brand new family of weapons, chambered in a newly-designed British 4.85x49mm intermediate cartridge. While the experimental weapon family was very different from the EM-2 in internal design and construction methods, its bullpup configuration with an optical sight was a clear influence on the design of what was to become the SA80. The system was to be composed of two weapons: an individual rifle, the XL64E5 rifle and a light support weapon known as the XL65E4 light machine gun. The sheet metal construction, and the design of the bolt, bolt carrier, guide rods, gas system and the weapon's disassembly showed strong similarities to the SAR-87, which was under development by Sterling Armaments Company of Dagenham, Essex.[1]

In 1976, the prototypes were ready to undergo trials. However, after NATO's decision to standardize ammunition among its members, Enfield engineers re-chambered the rifles to the American 5.56x45mm M193 cartridge. The newly redesigned 5.56mm version of the XL64E5 became known as the XL70E3. The left-handed XL68 was also re-chambered in 5.56x45mm as the XL78. The 5.56mm light support weapon variant, the XL73E3, developed from the XL65E4, was noted for the full length receiver extension with the bipod under the muzzle now indicative of the type.[2]

Further development out of the initial so-called "Phase A"[2] pre-production series led to the XL85 and XL86. While the XL85E1 and XL86E1 were ultimately adopted as the L85 and L86 respectively, a number of additional test models were produced. The XL85E2 and XL86E2 were designed to an alternate build standard with 12 components different from E1 variants, including parts of the gas system, bolt, and magazine catch. Three series of variants were created for "Environmental User Trials". XL85E3 and XL86E3 variants were developed with 24 modified parts, most notably a plastic safety plunger. The E4's had 21 modified parts, no modification to the pistol grip, and an aluminium safety plunger, unlike the E3 variants. Lastly, the E5 variants had 9 modified parts in addition to those from the E3/E4 variants.[2]


After receiving feedback from users and incorporating the several design changes requested, including adapting the rifle for use with the heavier Belgian SS109 version of the 5.56x45mm round and improving reliability, the weapon system was accepted into service with the British Army in 1985 as the SA80. The SA80 family originally consisted of the L85A1 IW (Individual Weapon) and the L86A1 LSW (Light Support Weapon). The first rifle was issued on 2 October 1985 to Sergeant Gary Gavin, a 26-year-old in the Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters.[3]

The SA80 family was designed and produced (until 1988) by the Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield Lock. In 1988 production of the rifle was transferred to the Royal Ordnance's Nottingham Small Arms Facility (later British Aerospace, Royal Ordnance; now BAE Systems Land Systems Munitions).

In 1994 production was officially completed. Over 350,000 L85A1 rifles and L86A1 light machine guns had been manufactured for the United Kingdom. They are also in use with the Jamaica Defence Force.[4]

Design details[]

Operating mechanism[]

With the exception of the L98A1, the SA80 system is a selective fire gas-operated design that uses ignited powder gases bled through a port in the barrel to provide the weapon's automation. The rifle uses a short-stroke gas piston system located above the barrel, which is fed gas through a three-position adjustable gas regulator. The first gas setting is used for normal operation, the second—for use in difficult environmental conditions and the third setting prevents any gas from reaching the piston, and is used to launch rifle grenadesTemplate:Citation needed. The weapon uses a rotating cylindrical bolt that contains 7 radially-mounted locking lugs, an extractor and casing ejector. The bolt's rotation is controlled by a cam pin that slides inside a helical camming guide machined into the bolt carrier.


The family is built in a bullpup layout (the fire control group is behind the trigger lever), with a forward-mounted pistol grip. The main advantage of this type of arrangement is the overall compactness of the weapon, which can be achieved without compromising the barrel length, hence the overall length of the L85 rifle is shorter than a carbine, but the barrel length is that of an assault rifle. However, the adoption of this layout also means the rifle must be used exclusively right-handed since the ejection port and cocking handle (which reciprocates during firing) are on the right side of the receiver, making aimed fire from the left shoulder impossible. Other bullpup rifles use various mechanisms to get around this, usually by having left and right hand parts made for an ambidextrous reciever.

The SA80 family is hammer-fired and has a trigger mechanism with a fire-control selector that enables semi-automatic fire and fully automatic fire (the fire selector lever is located at the left side of the receiver, just aft of the magazine). A cross bolt type safety prevents accidental firing and is located above the trigger; the "safe" setting blocks the movement of the trigger.

The L85 rifle features a barrel with a slotted flash suppressor, which also serves as a mounting base for attaching and launching rifle grenades, attaching a blank-firing adaptor or a bayonet.

The weapons are fed from a STANAG magazine, usually with a 30-round capacity. The magazine release button is placed above the magazine housing, on the left side of the receiver. When the last cartridge is fired from the magazine the bolt and bolt carrier assembly lock to the rear.

The weapon's receiver is made from stamped sheet steel, reinforced with welded and riveted machined steel inserts. Synthetics were also used (i.e. the handguards, pistol grip, buttpad and cheek rest were all fabricated from nylon). A Picatinny railed handguard was also developed for the type.


Rifles used by the Royal Marines, infantry soldiers (and other soldiers with a dismounted close combat role) and the RAF Regiment are equipped with a SUSAT (Sight Unit Small Arms, Trilux) optical sight, with a fixed 4x magnification and an illuminated aiming pointer powered by a variable tritium light source (as of 2006 almost all British Army personnel deployed on operations have been issued SUSATs). Mounted on the SUSAT's one-piece, pressure die-cast aluminium body are a set of back-up iron sights that consist of a front blade and small rear aperture. Rifles used with other branches of the armed forces when not on operations are configured with fixed iron sights, consisting of a flip rear aperture (housed inside a carry handle, mounted to the top of the receiver, replacing the SUSAT sight) and a forward post, installed on a bracket above the gas block. The rear sight can be adjusted for windage, and the foresight—elevation. In place of the SUSAT a passive night vision CWS scope can be used, and also—independent of the SUSAT—a laser pointer.

Weapons used by some Royal Marines, infantry, and other soldiers with a dismounted close combat role in operations in Afghanistan have had the SUSAT replaced with the Trijicon Advanced Combat Optical Gunsight (ACOG).


The L85 is supplied with a sling, blank-firing adaptor, cleaning kit and a blade-type bayonet, which coupled with the sheath can double as a wire cutter (the sheath contains a small saw). The rifle can be adapted to use .22 Long Rifle training ammunition with a special conversion kit. The rifle variant also accommodates a 40 mm under-barrel grenade launcher.


There are 4 main variants that make up the SA80 'family': the L85A1/L85A2 IW Rifles, the L86A1/L86A2 LSW, the L22A1/L22A2 Carbine and the L98A1/L98A2 Cadet rifles. (the 'L' designation is for "Land Service".)

L85 Rifle[]

The L85 rifle in its improved L85A2 version (full name Rifle, 5.56mm, L85A2) is the standard individual weapon for the British armed forces.

On operations the rifle is often fitted with a LLM01 Laser Light Module.[5] The L85A2 can also mount the L17 40 mm grenade launcher in a configuration similar to the M203 grenade launcher. The addition of the grenade launcher adds another 3.30 lb (1.49 kg) to the L85A2's weight.

Magazines issued with the L85A1 were aluminium, and not very robust. There are now two types of magazine issued with the L85A2, one is of steel construction with a stainless steel follower, and the other made of polymer, and issued to combat troops. The main variants (both steel and polymer) is for live ammunition, and the other (steel only) is exclusively used for blank ammunition. The blank variant is identified by yellow stripes on the magazine (sometimes painted all yellow), and is designed to prevent the loading of live rounds. As blank rounds are shorter than live rounds, live rounds will not physically fit into the blank magazine. Blank rounds will fit into the normal magazine, but their slightly shorter length creates problems with jamming.

From 2007 an upgrade including the provision of ACOGs, a new handguard incorporating Picatinny rails (with optional hand grip/bipod),[6] and a new vortex style flash eliminator is being introduced for use by selected units.[7]

L86 LSW[]

The L86A1 LSW is magazine-fed automatic weapon originally intended to provide fire support at a fireteam level. It has a longer barrel than the L85A1 rifle and a bipod, shoulder trap and rear pistol grip, together with a shorter handguard. The extended barrel provides an increased muzzle velocity and further stabilises the bullet, giving a greater effective range. The weapon is otherwise identical to the L85 version on which it is based, and the same 30-rd magazines and sighting systems are used. Like the L85 rifle, it has a rate-of-fire selector on the left side behind the magazine housing, enabling either single shots or automatic fire.

The increased barrel length, bipod and the optical performance of the SUSAT gives the weapon excellent accuracy. From its inception, the L86 was a target of criticism on much the same basis as the L85. The LSW has the additional issue (shared by any light support weapon derived from a rifle, for example the heavy-barrel FN FAL) of its inability to deliver sustained automatic fire as it does not have a quick-change barrel, and is not belt fed.[8]

The primary use of the LSW has shifted to that of a marksman's weapon within many infantry sections, capable of providing extremely accurate precision fire at ranges of over 600m.[9] The role of a light support weapon is instead filled with the L110A1 FN Minimi which is a belt fed weapon with a quick-change barrel.

The L86A1 was upgraded to the L86A2 at the same time as L85A1 rifles were upgraded to L85A2 standards, undergoing the same set of modifications.

L22 carbine[]

Based on the L85A1 a compact carbine known as the L22A1 was also developed with a short, 442 mm barrel (the weapon's weight, with the optical sight – 4.42 kg, length – 709 mm). The forward handguard was replaced with a vertical grip. The weapon uses the same SUSAT sight as found on the full size L85. The weapon has been upgraded with a Picatinny rail accessory rail instead of the fixed front grip. These carbine variants are used in small numbers by armoured vehicle crews.

L98 Cadet General Purpose Rifle[]


The L98 Cadet General Purpose (GP) Rifle was a manually-operated single-shot version of the L85 that lacked a gas system and fire selector. The rifle incorporated a large cocking handle and extension mounted on a distinctive external rail. The rifle was equipped with iron sights only. With an adapter kit it could be used to fire .22 LR rimfire rounds. The L98A1 began being replaced in 2009 with the L98A2, but is still being replaced in certain counties.

There is a 'DP' (Drill Purpose) version of the L98A1, known as L103A1. It is similar to the 'GP' rifle, however, modifications have been made in order to deactivate it: the barrel is sealed by filling it with lead, the firing pin is cut and welded down to the bolt face and the hammer is filed down, making reactivation uneconomical. The weapons are used by cadets for weapons drill training without the fear of negligent discharge (ND) of a live round. The 'DP' can be identified by a white stripe on the hand guard and near the butt of the weapon with the letters 'DP' in the stripe. the bolt carrier assembly (bolt) is painted red and this can be seen from the breech on the right hand side of the weapon.


This variant is nearly identical to the L85A2 rifle, and is manufactured by Heckler and Koch. The rifle differs from the L85, however, in having no change lever, and the parts permanently fixed to repetition (semi automatic) fire. The muzzle incorporates a flash suppressor. This significantly enhances cadet safety, as the Safe Firing System (SFS), consisting of a Blank Firing Attachment (BFA) and blank-only magazine, prevents injury either from blanks or from the firing of live rounds. The weapons system is fitted with standard L85 iron sights. In the same way as the L98A1, a drill purpose (DP) version of the rifle is also used, designated L103A2 and identified in the same way as the L103A1.


A semi-automatic variant has been manufactured for the US market in limited quantities by Prexis as the PL-85. This rifle is very much like the L98A2 mentioned above but can be recognised by its A1 style cocking handle[10].

LEI SA-80[]

A rimfire variant of the L85-A1 is being offered by LEI - Law Enforcement International Ltd. of St. Albans, HertfordshireTemplate:Citation needed. It is essentially identical to an L85A1 assault rifle, except for being only semi-automatic in operation and feeding through a small, curved magazine of various capacities chambered for the .22 Long Rifle cartridge. The LEI SA-80 is available on several civilian markets in Europe.

Service and modification[]

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,[8] and entertainment industry.[11] 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 (Operation GRANBY), the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) commissioned the LANDSET Report (officially entitled 'Equipment Performance (SA80) During Operation Granby (The Gulf War))', into the effectiveness of the L85A1 IW & L86A1 LSW.[12] 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 (e.g. the magazine release guard and trigger), 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.[8] 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".[13] 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.[14].

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.


The SA80 has been used in all conflicts in which the British Army has been involved with since its introduction in the mid-80s. Deployments include Northern Ireland, the First Gulf War, Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, the Second Gulf War and Afghanistan.



  1. Off Target by James Meek, The Guardian, Thurs 10 Oct 02 'Many of the key parts of the SA80 were poorly copied by Royal Ordnance engineers from the Armalite AR18 and its British SAR-87 derivative, then made in Britain under licence by the Sterling Armaments factory in Dagenham, using the pressed-steel technique. The former owner of the factory, James Edmiston, says that his chief designer had seen an early prototype SA80 at an arms fair, stripped it down and discovered that the bolt, bolt carrier, magazine, springs and firing pin had been taken from an AR18. "Not once did Enfield ever ask Sterling for information on the AR18," he says. "I know of at least one component that they 'copied' incorrectly which could well have made a difference to reliability." '
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Template:Cite web
  3. The Guardian, Thursday 10 October 2002
  4. Template:Cite web
  5. Template:Cite web
  6. Template:Cite web
  7. Template:Cite web
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Template:Cite news Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "grauniad" defined multiple times with different content
  9. Template:Cite web
  11. for example the Bremner, Bird and Fortune satirical comedy documentary Between Iraq and a Hard Place included the line: "The SA80 is a lethal weapon, especially for anyone trying to fire it," similar to a description of the Vietnam War era M16.
  12. Raw, Steve. 'The Last Enfield: SA80 - The Reluctant Rifle', Collector Grade Publications, Cobourg, Ontario, 2003, pp. 172-3.
  13. UK Ministry of Defence (Army) - SA80 A2 Individual Weapon and Underslung Grenade Launcher (UGL)
  14. [1], mirrored at [2]