The SA80A2 is a family of bullpup rifles that’s primarily used by European militaries—notably the UK. The SA80A2 replaced the beloved FN L1A1 in 1987.
The SA80A2 was the last weapon manufactured at the Royal Small Arms Factory operated by Enfield. This was essentially the last firearm Enfield ever produced.
Sadly, the very first versions of the SA80A2 (the SA80A1) had massive reliability issues. Casings caught in the bolt carrier. The trigger group link made fully automatic fire nearly unusable. And the firing pin commonly broke.
As if the reliability issues weren’t bad enough, the SA80A1 also weighed more than the L1A1 rifle it had replaced.
But, the design was handed over to Heckler & Koch in 2000. H&K redesigned the charging handle and bolt carrier group. This corrected the reliability issues. Additionally, the standard optic was upgraded to an ACOG, which was later replaced by an Elcan optic.
And the forend was fitted with a handrail that accepted Picatinny attachments.
In 2018, an A3 model was produced to update the rifle to fit modern warfare standards, based on feedback from forces deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan and other regions in support of the Global War on Terror.
Despite the challenges with the SA80A2, the UK Ministry of Defense has stuck with the SA80A2 over the years. And, by all accounts, the modern version of the rifle performs reliably (though, an ambidextrous version of the SA80A2 has yet to be developed).
So, why is it that this rifle cannot be brought down, despite severe setbacks in its early life? What’s so great about this rifle that it would remain in service for over 30 years?
Whether we like it or not, price plays a massive part in government equipment selections. The SA80 is built from a sheet of stamped steel, with welded inserts, which reduced production costs. And the British Ministry of Defense wanted to capitalize on both the economic and battlefield benefits of the 5.56mm NATO round.
So, once the Ministry of Defense had deployed the rifle, transitioning back to the L1A1 wasn’t a viable option. And, purchasing a new firearm was also off the table because the government didn’t want to pay for another round of development and initial purchase costs.
In short, it was more economical (or at least the Ministry of Defense believed it would be more economical) to redesign the existing platform rather than move to an entirely new platform. That’s why the UK went looking for outside help to fix up its rifle, which is how the SA80A2 ended up in the hands of H&K.
One of the huge features of the SA80A2 is the bullpup design. The SA80A2 standard assault rifle (L85A2) has a 20.4 inch barrel seated into a platform that’s only 30.9 inches in overall length. For comparison, the M4 carbine is 29.75 inches in overall length, but only offers a 14.5 inch barrel.
So, the SA80A2 offers excellent effective range (400 to 600 meters) in a compact package. That range-to-overall-length ratio is actually rather important to the UK military.
UK forces often work from vehicles (primarily the Warrior infantry fighting vehicle and Ajax armored fighting vehicle). A compact rifle is more important for vehicle borne forces than straight leg units, since entering and exiting the vehicle quickly and efficiently is a major part of vehicle borne operations.
With their focus on vehicle borne operations, the UK military planners felt that it was important to retain their compact individual weapon system. So, they doggedly stuck with their bullpup rifle through the tough times.
Lastly, NATO compatibility is a major consideration for countries that are members of the alliance. Since NATO had adopted the 5.56mm round, it would have been difficult to transition to a rifle that fired any other round (in addition to being costly after replacing stores of 7.62x51 ammunition with 5.56mm).
And, although NATO compliance is important, it was tactically and strategically wise to use the same round as cooperating nations. That way UK forces can easily be resupplied by US, Australian, and other coalition forces, if need be.
As we mentioned earlier, the SA80A2 is actually a family of firearms. The SA80A2 comes in three major variants: a light support weapon (similar to the US military SAW), an individual carbine, and a cadet rifle.
So, the SA80A2 is able to fill multiple roles within a rifle squad. This supports the economics of the rifle, because it reduces training costs. British soldiers only need to learn one weapon system to be familiar with all the platforms in their section.
The SA80A2 is Here to Stay
Overall, the SA80A2 is at least comparable to the AR-15 platform in terms of performance. And in some situations, the SA80A2 is a better option. U.S. and other forces that currently deploy other weapon systems have even trained with and purchased limited quantities of the SA80.
Although the HK416 has replaced the SA80A2 in certain roles, it’s unlikely that the SA80 will be replaced on a wide scale any time soon.
And why should it be? In its contemporary form, the SA80 is a reliable weapon that performs as well as any other rifle on the market that has earned its longevity.
GearScout contributor Jay Chambers is a pro free speech business owner based in Austin, Texas. Having lived through several natural disasters and more than a few man-made ones (hello 2008), he believes that resilience and self-sufficiency are essential in this increasingly unpredictable world. That’s why he started a business! Jay writes over at Minute Man Review.