SA80 Equipped to Fight

There was a flurry of news this week about the MoD considering extending the service of the SA80, with a handful of images reportedly showing prototypes of the A3 model.

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The images were released by the MoD as part of DVD2016 coverage, specifically on the Virtus contract for soldier equipment.

What this flurry of news seemed to have missed is the MoD letting a £2.7 million contract to Heckler and Koch GMBH & Co  for work on the SA80A2.

[box type=”custom” bg=”#F5F5F5″ color=”#” border=”#” radius=”0″ fontsize=”14″]The Dismounted Close Combat Programme team, part of the UK Ministry of Defence, intends to place a contract for the Equipped to Fight Improvement (EFI) programme for the modification of 5 000 SA80 weapons with Heckler & Koch GMBH & Co for work to be completed by March 2017. The estimated contract value is 2 700 000 GBP. The contract will require the supplier to modify the existing SA80 A2 weapon by fitting a combination of new and modified components. Specific tolerances of materials are needed along with exact dimensions and surface finishes on the components to allow for interoperability with the existing system, particularly when managing the variable interface caused by differing rates of wear of existing components which are recycled as part of the programme. There are very high risks involved in managing the variable tolerances and manufacturing processes when combining new and existing weapon components.[/box]

A replacement for the much, and probably unfairly, maligned SA80 is usually the subject of much debate but despite France only recently selecting the HK416 to replace the FAMAS, I get the impression the SA80 is not going anywhere fast.

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September 12, 2016 1:35 am

Last it was mentioned, SA-80 will stay until 2020-25.

September 12, 2016 9:57 am

The German firm Heckler & Koch, who was opposed to FN Herstal for the contract to replace the French FAMAS assault rifle, won the deal.

The HK416 is already in staffing in several specialized units of the armies (French Special Forces COS; CPA20, CP30, the GCP 11BP), will fully equip the French army.

This high quality gun, to benefit from the excellent Retex Afghanistan and recent French operations that are barkhane, Sangaris or Chammal (without forgetting the special operations of the FS, including Birao).

The contract is for 101,000 assault rifle 45 mm × 5.56 NATO to deliver for 14 years, including 50,500 AIF-S (standard) capable of firing rifle grenades and as many AIF-C short barrel. With 38 million exercise cartridges, 51,000 anti-personnel and anti-vehicle grenades, 13,000 grenades and smoke grenades 28,000 exercise.

September 12, 2016 2:55 pm

SA80’s start to life can genuinely be described as disastrous even by UK standards. Between 1985 and 1990, and after the L85A1 was accepted into service, 27 major design modifications were made. The weapon failed dismally during Gulf War 1, leading to Heckler & Koch being asked to update it. The L85A2 was fielded in 2002 and after extensive use in Iraq and Afghanistan has undoubtedly evolved into an accurate and reliable rifle. It is probably one of the most dependable weapons in service with any NATO army. For all of its advantages, I would say SA80 is respected more than loved by British troops.

H&K’s latest set of modifications, displayed at DVD 2016 last week by the UK MoD, build on its previous efforts and successes. Changes include a new continuous rail system for mounting accessories; a new forward hand guard that mounts flush with the upper receiver rail; an improved change lever; a new surface treatment; and a return to the birdcage flash hider. Overall, this is a relatively minor upgrade that will ensure changes made for Afghanistan are implemented across the entire fleet for the sake of commonality and ease of support. They don’t change the fundamental functionality of the weapon.

As far as i know, there is no out-of-service date for SA80. It was originally planned to retire it in 2025, but there are no longer any fixed plans to do this. How long it stays in service will depend entirely on what the US Army does. A couple of years ago, I wrote an article on Think Defence that made a case for NATO adopting a new single intermediate calibre to replace both 5.56×45 mm and 7.62×51 mm ammunition. It generated quite a few comments. Since then, most of NATO has introduced improved loadings for these ammo types, including the UK. So where are we on next generation small arms options?

At NDIA earlier this year the US Army and USMC announced that they would collaborate on next generation weapons with an intention to field a new system in around 2025. They also acknowledged that 5.56 mm NATO ammo has reached the limit of its development potential. Meanwhile, the US Army’s Marksmanship Unit (US AMU) has developed two experimental intermediate cartridges: .264 and .277. US RDECOM has continued to develop the Cased-Telescoped Small Arms System (CTSAS) in both 7.62 mm and 5.56 mm, but has recently produced an intermediate 6.5 mm round too. In all cases, the newer rounds substantially outperform 7.62 mm NATO ammunition in a smaller, lighter package.

The problem with intermediate calibres is that many reintroduce substantial recoil, which would make the task of training soldiers to shoot accurately at longer ranges, in combat, and under stress more difficult. Recent infantry weapon usage in Iraq and Afghanistan remind us that a hit with a small calibre round is invariably better than a miss with a larger calibre and the more rounds you can carry, the greater your probability of hitting a target. So maybe a new round that is only slightly larger than 5.56 mm NATO might do the trick? Or maybe we’ll just stick with the two calibres we already have, using 5.56 mm for assault rifles and 7.62 mm in machine guns? To cut a long story short, the US is presently evaluating its future needs and we should know its direction of future travel within 12-18 months.

If the US Army sticks with improved 5.56×45 mm ammunition and retains an upgraded M4, i cannot see the UK retiring SA80. In 2025, we may instead decide to upgrade the L85A3 to a yet unspecified A4 standard. For all of its reliability, SA80’s ergonomics are not great – awkward controls and weight – so there is more that could be done to improve it.

I think France was clever to select the HK416. This weapon has been developed over the last decade and adds a reciprocating piston rod system instead of directing gas back to reload the weapon. It should be no surprise that it’s been chosen by many of the world’s elite military and police units. I’d love to see the UK adopt the HK416 too, but don’t see it happening any time soon.

Stephen Duckworth
Stephen Duckworth
September 12, 2016 3:45 pm

Nice comment and good summation of the SA80’s history. To replace the British Army’s SA80’s with HK416 would costvpeanuts compared to some programs on the cards at present. ( a MR556, thecivilian version of the HK416, cost approx $3000 delivered bought individually RETAIL , so about £200m paying top dollar). But why replace it when it now works and has been seriously combat proven? Granted when wear and tear starts to bring reliability,accuracy and maintainance cost issues then by all means find a MOTS replacement.

September 12, 2016 4:42 pm

Thanks Monty, for the concise and informative piece.

RE “If the US Army sticks with improved 5.56×45 mm ammunition and retains an upgraded M4, i cannot see the UK retiring SA80. In 2025, we may instead decide to upgrade the L85A3 to a yet unspecified A4 standard.”
I posted in the “other place” that TD directed us to about the UK more or less simultaneously with the US Army announcing the procurement of the rounds that you refer to as “improved”. Indeed, they are much improved, and the US/UK differences are negligible.

September 12, 2016 9:01 pm

I’m no armourer but aren’t these things like Triggers broom? In that all the bits are often swapped and replaced? Only the actual housings are original aren’t they?

Stephen Duckworth
Stephen Duckworth
September 13, 2016 8:37 am

Even Trigger would struggle if no new(refurbished) handles and broom heads were unavailable.
Eventually the parts bins will empty and the HMT will request the Army is cut back from 82k to 41k so there is enough bang sticks to round as H&K will ask a ridiculous sum for newly manufactured parts but you could have new HK416 for only €…. !

September 13, 2016 12:47 pm

Actually, the differences between improved US and UK 5.56 mm and 7.62 mm ammunition are considerable. The UK rounds both have full metal jackets and rely on the yaw effect (tumbling to regain stability) of the projectiles to inflict lethal injury. The US rounds have exposed noses which cause the metal jacket to fracture and the projectiles to fragment. This means the US rounds are more effective in transferring energy into a target. EU members of NATO tend to have a stricter interpretation of the Hague / Geneva Conventions, so only use bullets with FMJs. What can be said, is that improved UK and US ammunition types overcome many of the previous performance concerns.

Yes, weapons can well be described as a “Trigger’s Broom”. Just about the only surviving parts on the original SA80 rifles produced all those years ago is the upper and lower receiver housing. We’ve burned through quite a few barrels, the gas system was changed, the hand guard has been changed twice, the bolt and carrier were changed, the return springs were changed, the trigger mechanism has been changed, the safety catch and change lever have been improved and the sights have been upgraded too. If the weapon were to be evolved further, changes might include improved ergonomics and reduced weight.

With so many AR15 derivatives in service across the globe, spare parts prices are very reasonable. Only the UK, Jamaica and possibly Bolivia, use the SA80 family, and spare parts are only made by Heckler & Koch. This makes it a very expensive weapon to maintain. Of course, if we bought the Hk416, we’d still want to buy it from H&K, but it would still be cheaper and consume fewer parts.

September 13, 2016 2:09 pm

I don’t see any reason to replace the SA-80 until a decision is made on a new rifle caliber. Once the US standardizes on a new caseless or polymer cased cartridge that or something compatible with it will almost certainly become the new NATO standard. Why invest a lot in something that will be obsolete soon?

I don’t think that it will simply be polymer version of the current ammunition because I don’t think it is ever going to be as reliable in a gun designed for metallic cased ammunition as metallic. Also, the case telescoped ammunition allows for a longer bullet which improves long range performance.

September 15, 2016 3:54 pm

it was a couple of years ago now but whilst at Shrivenham I was given a change to fire a selection of front line weapons (M4, AK-74, SA80 A2, G3 etc) and ,with the exception of the G3, the big differentiator between SA80 and the others was weight. Do we know how much of a difference these mods make to that?

Would have to do some digging for links but if memory serves DARPA is currently testing a new LMG using a plastic cased telescoped rounds (intermediate calibre I believe) and the weight of the weapon with a 100 round belt attached was less than an empty SA80 so moving to a personal weapon in that calibre would hopefully make an even greater difference.

September 15, 2016 4:57 pm

, the differences in construction between the UK and US new rounds do exist (as you say, due to different legal interpretations about fracturing on impact), but the performance (improvement) is identical, and further
“The M855A1 **is NOT yaw-dependent**. Like any other bullet, it “wobbles” along its trajectory. However, the EPR provides the same effects when striking its target, regardless of the angle of yaw. This means the EPR provides the same desired effects every time, whether in close combat situations or longer engagements. In fact, the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) verified through live-fire tests against soft targets that, on average, the M855A1 surpassed the M80 7.62mm round. **The 7.62mm, although a larger caliber, suffers from the same consistency issue as the M855, but to a higher degree.**”
[ the new round has now been introduced for 7.62, too]

Due to the shared pedigree, I find it difficult to believe that one is yaw dependent (ours) and the other (theirs) not?

I continue the quote below, makes interesting reading even though it is besides the point where we seem to differ:

“Hard-target performance is a second area where the EPR really shines (see Figure 2). The exposed, heavier, and sharper penetrator, along with a higher velocity, allows Soldiers to penetrate tougher battlefield barriers than is possible with the current M855. Although it’s not an armor-piercing round, the EPR can penetrate 3/8 inch-thick mild steel at distances approaching 400 meters (based on the range at which 50 percent of the rounds can pass through the barrier). The M855 only penetrates this material out to approximately 160 meters.”

Stephen Duckworth
Stephen Duckworth
September 15, 2016 7:07 pm

You may be recalling the LSAT programme.
It is still be given limited funding by the US Army.They trailing a 5.56 and a 7.62 of the same bullet profiles as existing US Army rounds for a like for like comparison as well as an intermediate calibre too. Both plastic cased and caseless are being trialed . Both a rifle and LMG so a total of 12 permutations!

Stephen Duckworth
Stephen Duckworth
September 15, 2016 7:09 pm

Correction – 24 permutations!

Slightly Agricultural
Slightly Agricultural
September 16, 2016 9:17 am

@stephen duckworth
Be very careful about underestimating the cost of changing a weapon system. 100,000 x £xxx per weapon is a VERY simplistic way of looking at it. You also have all the other ‘Defence Lines of Development’ (DLODS) to consider.

Some random examples:
Re-training every Armourer
Writing new PAMs and lesson plans for the new weapon
Re-training every instructor
Those instructors re-training every serviceperson
Replacing every weapon rack, in every vehicle that has one, in the entire UK Armed Forces (everything from Landies to Apache)
New weapon racks in every armoury
New weapon rolls for transport
Ranging, scaling & NSN codifying spares & ancils for the new weapon
New bayonet
New badge for the Infantry Corps, as a result of said new bayonet
New blank firing attachment
Certifying new blank firing attachment as safe
New TES fit
Modifying the underlying TES computer models
New weapon mockups for the DCCT simulator (indoor laser-based trainer)
New 3D visual models for all the virtual simulators

And most importantly of course, rewriting the drill manual!

All that is going to cost a lot more than £200M. Hence why the army has been unable to make the change when a lot of people would rather have an AR-15 derivative. They were lucky to scrape together the money for these proposals.

As others have said I believe it is the serialised components (e.g. the upper receiver) that count as the “broom”.

Stephen Duckworth
Stephen Duckworth
September 16, 2016 4:39 pm

@Slightly Agricultural
Thanks for the heads up . I used a figure of $3000 each based on the civilian version bought individually. Norway bought 8200 HK416 for $16.6m , $1500 inc spares and accessories in 2007 each so I left a comfortable margin an we would be buying x10+ .
An extra link on the LSAT programme
They are using a 6.5mm intermediate round with a profile based on the very efficient .338 Lapau bullet .This gives a better terminal effect than the 7.62NATO round at a similar weight.

October 8, 2016 5:40 pm

On the pistol front, I see the USMC Special Ops Command have decided to ditch full size Colt 1911 .45 & B 92FS, in favour of the compact Glock 19 9mm. They have bought over 1600 of them. Reasoning is that spec ops USMC are already laden down & just want a light, compact handgun as a secondary weapon.

Tommy lawton
Tommy lawton
January 1, 2017 11:01 pm

They really need rid f this weapon it is a 37 year old design

March 22, 2017 9:46 am

Will the A3 incarnation be lighter than the L85/ SA80A2, which is absurdly already heavier than the 7.62×51 L1A1 it replaced?

April 5, 2017 5:32 pm

@Slightly Agricultural

Considering the money we dish out on other gold plated platforms like the F-35, I don’t see why cost should be an issue for the service rifle.

Let’s not forget it’s the Infantry that still suffers the majority of casualties in any conflict or war.. look at the BBC’s Iraq and Afghanistan UK casualty list, the dead are overwhelmingly from the British Army infantry regiments and the Royal Marines… and they deserve the best rifle possible.

The USMC are seriously considering switching from the M4 to the 16″ barrel M27 IAR (HK 416) for all their 0311 riflemen after it’s excellent record as a SAW and European countries are like France are adopting it. It is pricey but it would be a seriously good choice if we were to switch from the SA80 soon, at least for our guys at the pointy end of things.

October 4, 2017 8:20 pm

Hello, does anyone know who owns the intellectual property to the SA80 ?


October 5, 2017 8:25 am

Looking at the number of unlicensed Colt 1911 pistols & M16 Rifles, that are cloned by a large number of manufacturers around the world, I suspect the SA80 is long out of patent & you could copy it should you wish. It has an action based on the earlier Armalite AR18, so it is hard to see what they could sue you for.

October 7, 2017 9:22 am

There’s a large difference between being allowed to copy something and being able to. Particularly with stamped parts, accounting for spring back is a non-trivial task. Knowing what the tolerances are is important.
The reason that there are so many M16 and M1911 clones is that, AIUI, the US govt. owns the design data and has made it publicly available.

October 8, 2017 10:41 am

Random list of guns that have been unofficially copied around the world. Walther PP, Sten gun, Uzi, Ingram Mac 10, Browning HiPower, Sig 226.

October 8, 2017 12:15 pm

All blowback weapons chambered for pistol rounds. Comparatively easier to design and make than a gas-operated rifle

October 8, 2017 4:45 pm

Plus of course the American made versions of the Kalashnikov, 100% made in the USA, to get around import bans.