SA80-A3 (L85A3) UK MOD © Crown copyright 2021

Weapons and Kit

SLR v SA80: Here’s What You Think Is The Best

The Forces community gives their verdict on their favourite rifle

SA80-A3 (L85A3) UK MOD © Crown copyright 2021

Almost everybody serving in the Armed Forces today and the veterans who came before them, it seems, has a view on which of the two rifles  – the SA80 or the L1A1 Self Loading Rifle (SLR) – is better. 

Scores of those who haved used the rifles in the Armed Forces community have flooded our inbox and social media pages with comments after we at forces.net asked who had used both the SLR and SA80 during their service and if so, which weapon did they prefer? 

A mass of people have given their verdict, and here, a selection of those comments are presented – but the debate is sure to rage on, as one commentator on Facebook pointed out, saying:

"Oh god you had to ask that question - this thread will be the longest in history now.”  

The SA80 (or SA80 A2) has been the standard issue weapon used by personnel across the branches of the military after it was officially introduced in 1985. 

That rifle has undergone upgrades and seen action around the globe, most notably in Northern IrelandThe Gulf WarBosnia and more recently, Afghanistan and the Iraq War.  

Now nearing its 36th anniversary as the British Army's standard service rifle, the weapon system has stood the test of time. 

However, in terms of the number of years in service it has enjoyed, the SA80's predecessor – the L1A1 Self Loading Rifle – is equally impressive. 

But what do you, the Forces’ community think? There has been a mix of emotional responses. 

 

New SA 80. UK MOD © Crown copyright 2021

The overwhelming majority of responses has been in favour of the SLR, with some asking asking questions over the reliability of the SA80 over its predessessor. As Chris Wolfenden put it:

“The first thing about the old lady, is she was just a brilliant bit of kit.”

However, many in the Forces who had used both weapons said that although the SA80 was far from perfect at first, with modifications it became the superior rifle.

Dean Mahon, who served in the RAF in the 1980s and the British Army from 2000 to 2006, said: “Initially the SLR was the better weapon system as it was more reliable than the SA80 A1. You could drag an SLR through a swamp it would still work! 

Due to modifications though, the SA80 A2 is a much better weapon system due to its weight, size and versatility.” 

There are others who strongly disagree with Mr Mahon. 

Mr Wilfenden, a Royal Regiment of Artillery veteran gunner who has trained extensively with the SLR, added that he thought the SLR rifle was superior on all counts. 

While the Small Arms 80 was lighter in weight and “didn’t take as much room as the SLR” it was prone to some snags, he argued.

One of the most comprehensive answers came from Mark Emson, who served in the RAF and said he had used both weapons during his time, but never at a live target.

He added: "As an armourer, it was clear the last of the SLRs were getting tired but the new SA80s were prone to all sorts of problems that I gather have now been largely ironed out.

"As for which is better… it’s not really a fair comparison even though their intended end purpose is essentially the same.

"The SLR is a bit of a beast. Bigger and heavier to lug around, awkward in vehicles, bigger and heavier ammunition and mags to lug around too.

"Kicks like a mule if you don’t respect it when firing.

"However, I found its length made it more naturally aimable than the SA80 if firing from the hip. Greater range and with, larger rounds, pure physics suggests it would do more damage to anything it hit.

"Usually lacking the full automatic mode was probably more of a phycological problem than an actual problem as you’d need to be both big and brave to control it on auto."

He added that the SA80's shorter length meant that small deviations in aim from the hip resulted in greater inaccuracy at the target but, at the shoulder or prone, the decrease in weight made it easier to hold in aim.

He said: "The smaller lighter 5.56mm round and shorter range didn’t give as much confidence at the 7.62mm of the SLR but again, that’s probably more of a psychological thing.

"I doubt it would often be fired at the far extent of its range anyway. I was never convinced by the fully auto mode and the rate of fire. Blazing away at over 600 rpm would soon empty the magazine and at that rate of fire you’re not taking aimed shots.

"Obviously, auto is intended more for 2-3 shot bursts but I would imagine in the heat of the moment it takes a cool head to learn that level of control - maybe the change lever should be called panic mode!"

Mr Emson, rounded his views off emotively, saying:

"Ultimately, I feel it’s a competition between head and heart. In my heart I love the SLR and given the choice it’s what I would choose. My head, however, knows that the SA80 is far more useable in more situations."

Retired Warrant Officer Class 2 David Lording also questioned if the SA80 was as sturdy as its predessessor and said, in his view, "you couldn't switch shoulders (a really useful thing in close-quarter combat such as NI presented)."

Since the Small Arms 80 replaced its predecessor in 1985, it has gone through two modifications. However, a long-contested issue that the rifle is a challenge to fire left-handed remains a hot topic.  

Mr Lording has 23 years of service behind him, like several others pointed, he did not think the SA80 was as good a weapon for left-handed people in his opinion. 

When his unit was presented with the trial issue of the SA80, he describes it as “a shock”, elaborating that “even if you were lucky enough to be given the adapter kit for left-handers", the rifle still posed an issue for those who were left handed.

The two rifles saw distinctly different conflicts. 

Introduced in 1954, the SLR has seen action during the Cold War, and in colder climates such as Ireland during the Troubles in the 70s and 80s and the Falklands.  

The SA80 was introduced in 1985 and has been upgraded twice since. It has seen conflict in diverse environments, notably The Gulf War, Bosnia and more recently, Afghanistan and the Iraq War. 

According to William Mooney, who served from 1968 to 1991 and used both weapons during his 22 years with the military, he encountered issues with SA in sandy conditions, adding: "The SLR would fire in any conditions and easier to maintain.”  

Retired Commanding Officer John Whitchurch had a chance to use both rifles in a variety of different environments during his career which lasted from 1975 to 2014. 

He carried the SLR during the Cold War and the Troubles in Northern Ireland and the SA80 in Gulf War 1, as well as in other places around the world.  

For him, the newer weapon was the overall winner. 

He said: “I preferred the SA80. Although I was a big fan of the SLR, particularly when shooting at long distance (500 yds) but the compactness of the SA80, the low recoil, its 30 rd magazine, its optical sight and its sling make it the better weapon for most occasions.” 

Quite a few veterans expressed strong loyalties to the SLR, even without having had the chance to fire the SA80.

Cledwyn Jones, who served from 1976 to 1979 with the Royal Welch Fusiliers and did three tours of Northern Ireland, said: “SLR it was a weapon that was tried and tested and it had the stopping power - didn’t matter if the bad guy was hiding behind a wall, the bullet went straight through it."

Ex-infantry man Tony Havlin had a very diplomatic answer, saying there were pros and cons for both weapons. He said for stopping power, range and ease of stripping and cleaning, the SLR wins. However, the SA80 gets  points for being lighter.  

Many veterans have echoed Mr Harvin’s sentiment. 

Brian Sherrington enlisted with the Royal Engineers at the young age of 17 years old in 1975. 

He deployed to Northern Ireland in 1977 with the SLR and used it again in the Falklands Conflict in 1982.

When he deployed to Saudi Arabia in 1990 to prepare for the Gulf War, the SA80 was his personal weapon and remained so until he retired. 

Having used both rifles over the course of his extensive career, Brian agreed that was not an easy choice to make: “Clearly the shorter and lighter SA80 appealed for obvious reasons, but in terms of actually firing the weapon, its effective range and the devastating power it had, the SLR has to be my ultimate weapon.”  

L1A1 SLR

The SA80 is considered by some to be more practical as a weapon that serves a wider range of requirements.

Although the SLR is heavier and longer, some described it as a ‘proper rifle’ with killing power, whereas they argued that the SA80 was designed to wound rather than kill.

As conflict scenes moved from the Cold War to more urban combat environments, the requirements of rifles and their capabilities evolved to fit modern needs.

The SA80 with its modifications has been greatly improved since it was issued 36 years ago and fits the current requirements of the Armed Forces.

As pointed out by a combat medic David Bates: “I was always taught that whatever the weapon, it is good musketry drills that make the difference on the battlefield.” 

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