At the end of WW2 the British Army was still equipped with the fifty-year-old Lee Enfield
bolt action .303
rifle, at a time when the rest of the world was adopting smaller-calibre rounds and automatic operation. In pursuit of such a rifle, and enthused with post-war optimism, engineers at Enfield
Arms developed a revolutionary bullpup
design - the EWS
, 'Enfield Weapons System', later the EM
- chambered for .280
, and equipped with a non-magnifying, permanently-mounted scope. In common with many technological projects in Britain at this time (the V-Bombers, the Comet
airliner, the TSR-2
interceptor and so forth), it was very clever, years ahead of its time, almost certainly brilliant, and doomed. Defence cuts - justifiable and inevitable, but no less galling - and the brain drain
meant that for every Harrier Jump Jet
-style success, there were half a dozen missed opportunities.
By 1951 this design, by now the EM2, had been developed to sufficient standard for use by the British Army. It came within a hair's breadth of becoming the world's first army-issue bullpup rifle, but was cancelled by Winston Churchill's incoming Conservative government due to political machinations within NATO, which was then searching for a standard weapon with which to fight the Soviets. The FN FAL chambered for 7.62x51mm, was deemed acceptable to all, except for the US, who developed the M14, and later went on to adopt the AR15 as the M16, with initially disastrous results. But that's another story.
From 1955 until the mid-70s the FAL served Britain well, in Ireland, Cyprus, Aden, Borneo, and a dozen other one-time outposts of the British Empire (the 'savage wars of peace', they were called; a series of Vietnam-esque disengagements from financially crippling colonial obligations, coupled with military action against a wave of Marxist insurgencies). By the mid-70s it was clear that smaller-calibre weapons were the way forward, however, and a replacement was required. In concept at least, the EM2 was still state of the art, and was dusted off and given a revamp.
The redesign was shorter, although the shape remained identifably the same. During the 1970s Sterling, Britain's other major firearms manufacturer, had been granted a licence by Armalite to produce the AR-18. Rather than go to the time and expense of designing a completely new rifle, or redeveloping the original EM2, Enfield and Sterling united to produce a bullpup conversion of the AR-18, equipped with a 4x scope (the SUSAT - 'Sight Unit, Small Arms, Trilux'). This was initially called the XL70 and was chambered for a new 4.85mm cartridge, although the idea of using a new round was dropped in favour of 5.56x45mm. The SUSAT was originally to have been an integral part of the rifle, although as it turned out there is also a combination carrying handle / front sight post with which the rifle can be alternately equipped.
By 1980 the rifle was essentially finished. Called the SA80, for 'Sterling Arms, 1980' (or 'Standard Arm', 'Service Arm' and other backformations), the rifle remained in development for several years. Sterling folded in the early 1980s and the rifle briefly became the EIW, for 'Enfield Individual Weapon' (under which name it was offered for export, although the protracted development and high cost meant that there were no substantial export orders). The FAL had a last gasp of triumph in the Falklands War, but by 1985 the SA80 was ready for use, replacing the SLR, the Sterling SMG and to a certain extent the LMG, the modern version of the Bren gun. Adopted that year as the L85A1 it quickly won praise for being compact, lighter than the FAL, and accurate at long range. On the downside, the rifle could not be converted to fire from the left hand - despite the presence of a blanking plate which suggested that this option had been scrapped at a late stage - and it was a kilogramme heavier than competing designs such as the Steyr Aug and the French FAMAS, which had been adopted in 1975, twenty years after the EM2 had been shelved. Both the Aug and the FAMAS were capable of left-handed shooting.
More serious problems became apparent. The Special Air Service evaluated the rifle but stayed with the AR-15, as they felt that the L85 was too fragile for the extreme environments in which the regiment fought. Furthermore, the rifle was fussy about feeding anything less than top-quality ammunition; as time went on and the rifles became worn, the handguards started to break; field stripping was laborious and many small parts were easily lost; it overheated and jammed in hot weather, froze in cold weather, and rusted in damp weather; and the rifle felt fragile and tinny. The charging handle was on the right side of a weapon designed to be fired from the right shoulder, which made chambering the first shot tricky. These problems were also common with the L86 LSW - the sustained-fire 'Light Support Weapon', essentially an L85 with a longer barrel and a bipod. As with the Bren LMG, the L86 fired from a thirty-round box magazine. Although much lighter than the Bren, and equipped with an optical sight, the L86 was more a long-range rifle than a machinegun; an analogue of the Russian SVD Dragunov. Apart from abortive compact versions of the L85, the other significant variation was the straight-pull, bolt action L98 cadet rifle. Where once the Commonwealth had been happy to adopt Britain's infantry rifle (the SLR was once standard in Canada and Australia, and is still used in India and Jamaica), it was ignored in favour of the Steyr Aug or versions of the AR15. In the end it is this that did the most damage to the SA-80's reputation; the almost total lack of export sales compared to the success of the Aug or even the relatively obscure French FAMAS.
Until the Gulf War there was no great hurry to improve the L85. When the US Army fielded the M16 en masse during the Vietnam War it was quickly found that soldiers had to be extra careful about cleaning the weapon. As there was a war on, this problem was fixed in double-quick time. From 1985 until 'Gulf War 1', however, the British Army was only engaged in Northern Ireland, and stoppages and other design flaws could be tolerated. This was not acceptable in the desert sands of Kuwait and Iraq, and the L85 and L86 were so unreliable that old Sterling SMGs and Bren LMGs had to be dug out of stores. This led to angry questions in the House of Commons. A further failure in Sierra Leone caused a press uproar.
It still took almost a decade for something to be done, though, during which time Enfield had been bought by BAE SYSTEMS who had, in turn, bought top-notch German firearms company Heckler and Koch. For a time it seemed as if the L85 was going to be ditched in favour of Heckler and Koch's G36, or the Diemaco C7, a Canadian version of the AR-15 which is currently used by some elements of the British Army, but instead H&K's engineers were set loose on the L85 in 2000 at a cost of £80 million. A number of improvements were made, the rifle was greatly strengthened, the build quality was improved, and the rifle became the L85A2. Preliminary testing indicated that the weapon was a great improvement. The first deployment was in Afghanistan, to the accompanyment of much press speculation as to the weapon's future. The fault reports which emerged were jumped upon by the press, although current wisdom has it that the rifle was no less reliable than the American M16A2, and that all self-loading rifles were bound to encounter problems in the environment of Afghanistan. Barring major failures the SA-80 will remain in service until at least 2015; BAE SYSTEMS are currently working on a clever set of integrated electronic improvements to the rifle, including a built-in rangefinder, controls to alter the cyclic rate of the weapon, and an in-scope electronic display.
In summary, them, although the SA80's concept had been in development for twenty years, its eventual execution was rushed. The weapon was a mixture of clever ideas and ropy execution, with the money saved on the original design being spent many times over in eventual improvements. In this respect it is, like the Sinclair Spectrum or the Mini, a very British thing. Political pressure coupled with the decline of Britain's manufacturing base means that there are no companies or individuals left in Britain to design or manufacture a home-grown replacement; the designers of the original EWS and its troubled successors have long sinced died or retired, and the last batch of SA-80s was manufactured in 1994.
The SA-80 has many positive virtues. Its bullpup arrangement means that it is short, in such a way that the barrel's length is not compromised. It is apparently an extremely accurate weapon, moreso given the optical sight. It will accept standard NATO M16-style magazines. In its A2 form, it appears to be at least as reliable as the competition. Many of its supposed 'flaws' are minor problems, common with many other similar designs and are exaggerated and talked-up by the press. Although seemingly an anchronism, the bayonet has nothing wrong with it, except for a tendency to overheat during fire (it slides over the end of the muzzle); it comes with a tough scabbard which contains a fold-out saw, with which the knife can be combined to form a wire-cutter, in the manner of later AK-47 bayonets.
As mentioned above, reports emerged in the media in June 2002 that the newly-modified L85A2 was jamming in Afghanistan, albeit in extremely adverse conditions. An offical report recommended that new cleaning instructions be issued. Subsequent reports suggested that the American army was having even worse trouble with its new M4 carbine. The picture is complicated further by extensive tests in Oman, which suggested that the jams in Afghanistan would have happened to any other rifle, and that the SA80 was cured of the worst of its foibles; furthermore, the rifle seemed to sail through the second Gulf war without a hitch. It is entirely possible that, for once, something went right.