Royal Marines SA80 Rifles
The L85A1 with SUSAT sight.
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
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.
Development 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 AR-18, which was being manufactured under licence by the Sterling Armaments Company of
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.
Further development out of the initial so-called "Phase A" 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
A field stripped L85A1 variant
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.
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.
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 grenades. 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
The family is built in a bullpup layout (the magazine is behind the trigger), 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.
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
A Royal Marines Commando with an L85A1 fitted with a blank firing adapter
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.
Variants (more info to follow)
L98 Cadet General Purpose Rifle
The L103A2 (a drill purpose L98A2)
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, 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
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. 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. 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.
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.