Weapons and Kit

When Will The SA80 Ever Be Replaced?

The SA80 has come a long way since its introduction in the battlefield


For more than 30 years, the L85 or SA80 variant has been the standard issue rifle of the British Armed Forces, it replaced the L1A1 Self Loading Rifle (SLR).

Once dubbed the ‘civil servant’ by troops amid complaints over its reliability - the SA80 has been the go to rifle for the British Armed Forces on operations all across the world to this day.

The first prototypes were created in 1976, with production of the A1 variant starting in 1985. There was excitement that the Armed Forces were soon to be given the world's most advanced rifle, made - and designed - in Britain.

SA80 A1 Rifle
L85 A1 SA80 Rifle

However, the L85 A1’s life came with some teething problems, with soldiers fighting in the desert of Iraq complaining of what they saw as flaws with the weapon.

Complaints included criticisms over the reliability of the mechanism holding the magazine in place, robustness of the firing pin and complaints about how it fired from the left shoulder, plus other issues about the safety catch.

After many of the issues with the A1 were raised, there was a significant upgrade package in the early 2000’s by Heckler & Koch. Then in came the L85 A2 variant which still remains in service as of 2019.

SA80 A2 (L85A2) 5.56mm Rifle fitted with the ELCAN SpecterOS 4x and Close Quarter Battlesight (CQB) MoD/Crown copyright 2016
SA80 A2 (L85A2) 5.56mm Rifle fitted with the ELCAN SpecterOS 4x and Close Quarter Battlesight (CQB) (MoD/Crown copyright 2016)

The L85A2 is a magazine-fed, gas-operated rifle locked by a rotating bolt, engaging in lugs behind the breech and carried in a machined carrier running on two guide rods; a third rod controls the return spring. It is capable of firing in both single shot and fully automatic.

Major problems with the A1 were ironed out, including a new cocking handle which was designed to deflect the empty cartridges when fired. This improvement meant fewer rounds became lodged in the chamber causing stoppages - a huge problem with the A1 variant.

The A2 has now been widely used for well over a decade, with relatively little problems reported during the more recent operations for the British Armed Forces fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.


5.56mm NATO ammunition (Pic: MoD/Crown Copyright)
5.56mm NATO ammunition (Pic: MoD/Crown Copyright)

Then came a debate about the calibre of round. Did the 5.56mm NATO round pack enough punch?

Some reportedly said that, while on operations, the 5.56mm round could not drop enemy combatants in some situations.

They argued the previous standard issued rifle, the SLR’s 7.62mm round provided a more sufficient level of firepower on the battlefield.

This led to rumours that the SA80 would be replaced altogether.

However, this was short-lived when the Ministry of Defence agreed a contract with Heckler & Koch in 2017 to upgrade a substantial number of L85A2 rifles to the new L85A3.

According to data released by the Ministry of Defence, some 27 million 5.56mm rounds were fired from either the standard SA80 A2 assault rifle and Lightweight Machine Gun (LMG) during the Afghanistan conflict.

SA80 A3
SA80 A3 without sight (MoD/Crown Copyright)

Five thousand A2’s have been upgraded to the A3 thus far.

The project will cost an initial £5.4 million and the British Army is set to receive up to another 44,000 upgraded L85A3’s over the next five years. Although the deal will not see the whole British Army SA80 A2 inventory upgraded.

When it was announced by Defence Minister, Guto Bebb, who was responsible for procurement at the time, he said:

“This multi-million-pound upgrade will give our Army a lighter, more hardwearing, better-camouflaged combat rifle so our soldiers can perform on the frontline of some of the most dangerous locations across the world.”

Changes to the rifle include a more durable hardwearing coating, it is 100g Lighter than the A2 and easier to handle, with a streamlined foregrip which also comes with a new sight that is smaller and requires fewer batteries.

Grenadier SA80 A3
Grenadier carrying SA80 A3 (MoD/Crown Copyright)

The A3 variant was first issued in 2018 with several new improvements - fixing the issues with over-rotation of the selector lever, adding a new upper receiver.

A new custom for-end from H&K has been added with a full-length top rail which improves optic mounting and the rifle is also cerakoted in 'Flat Dark Earth' colour, to improve camouflage.

The rifle’s barrel is also free-floating - which improves accuracy.

The Grenadier Guards, who were the first infantry battalion to fire the new weapon system, put some of the new features to the test when they recently deployed on three separate operational tours on Op Toral to Kabul, Op Trenton to South Sudan and Op Shader in Iraq.

When Defence Minister Guto Bebb announced the SA80 A2 assault rifle would be upgraded into the A3 model, he said it was so that the weapon could remain in service until at least 2025.

So, anyone thinking they might see a change of rifle before then, think again.