UPDATE July 5th 2002 Today there was an article on the Lunchtime news that the "fixed" A2 version of the SA80 being used in Afghanistan has been malfunctioning and jamming. The US probably has enough M16s gathering dust in storage to equip all of the British combat units operating in Afghanistan.
Thanks to Don Loughlin for finding an online copy of the story.
The SA-80 or L85 assault rifle was adopted for British army service in 1985, but in fact the design is much older than this. The 5.56mm SA80 was originally the 4.85mm IW which was first produced in 1973 as a prototype weapon for the NATO calibre trials. Adoption of the 5.56mm SS109 round saw the IW become the SA-80.
When it was due for adoption many British Gun writers voiced concerns about the design, but these seem to have been politely ignored.
It was during the Gulf War in 1991 that the mainstream press became aware of the malfunctions, jamming and reliability problems that the SA80 was prone to, including, apparently, a tendency to fire if dropped or struck on the muzzle. In 1997 the SA80 was dropped from NATO's list of approved weapons because it was having difficulty firing NATO approved ammunition reliably. Eventually the MOD admitted that something might be wrong. It is reported that the weapon has undergone 83 modifications over 18 years, but despite this in 2000 a contract of £80 million was paid to Hecker and Koch to put the army's SA80s right. Apparently the reworked L85A2 weapons are ten times more reliable than the L85A1
To put this in perspective for a moment. The IW was built ten years after the first issue of the M16/AR15 but was not issued for another twelve years. One would think this would be enough time to test a weapon and correct any faults? The M16 was not without its birth problems, and still many consider some of its characteristics less than perfect but by 1985 it had been in service 22 years, including with certain units of the British army. During this time most of its faults had been identified and had been eliminated or ways to compensate for them perfected.
Even if the H&K remake has resulted in a weapon that will never jam, malfunction or misfire the truth is that the design is still flawed. The SA80 is a bullpup design so the ejector port is beside the firer's cheek. This means the weapon can only be fired from the right shoulder. Most other bullpups allow certain parts to the switched around to accommodate left handed shooters, but the SA80 is strictly right shoulder only. The flaw for this is best illustrated by the following two pictures.
The first shows an American Soldier firing around a right hand corner and firing his weapon from his left shoulder. Obviously he could not do this if he had a weapon that he had to disassemble and re-assemble before he could swap shoulders.
The second image shows a Para with a SA-80. The cover in this case is a tree, but it could just as easily be wall. Perhaps the other side of the tree can't be fired from because of thick undergrowth or enemy fire. He has to fire from his right shoulder, so the only way to fire from the right side of cover involves exposing most of his body to enemy fire. Such situations can occur in many types of terrain, but are obviously very common in MOUT. If you had to lean out a window to fire down the right side of a street you'd not only be a great target, you'd probably be leaning so far out there was a danger of falling out the window.
Another interesting point is made by combat veteran Ralph Zumbro
One of the oddball things we discovered in RVN was that if you add a few left-handers to your point squad, it has a better chance of surviving an ambush because they habitually carry their weapons pointed to the right. Also a non smoking point man can SMELL fish-eaters....And somone who is color blind compensates by seeing more texture and can usually spot camouflage, especially day old dead foliage.
Experienced weapon developer J.D. Jones, inventor of the Whisperâ rounds adds: One problem I have experienced with bullpups in steady semi auto fire or full auto is the fumes of firing escaping from the action are very irritating to the nose, throat and eyes. In my limited experience the bullpups offer much less in effectiveness when it comes to putting metal on a target in a hurry (full auto--semi auto --or mounting the gun) than a conventional M-16. But I readily admit I have experience with only a few of them.
PW: Interesting -and quite significant in that bullpups are often touted as being better for firing from vehicles. Fumes are a problem with any prolonged firing in a confined space such as a vehicle, but it seems this is likely to be an even greater problem with a Bullpup. The Chinese military seem to have encountered the same problem with their bullpup:-
The Type 95 assault rifle adopts a bullpup layout similar to the French Giat FAMAS and the British SA80 assault rifles. The efficiency of this design has been highly controversial from the experience of its fielding in the PLA. The weapon is generally regarded great when used for close-range, hip-firing. However, when the weapon is used for long-range accurate shoulder-firing, the smoke, noise, heat and disturbance of the ejected cartridges are widely complained.
Being patriotic and adopting a British design is all very well, but not if doing so puts the lives of British servicemen unnecessarily at risk. The modifications to the L85 had to be made in a Germany factory anyway.
The only honourable solution is to scrap the SA80 now. (We can't sell them, no other country has been foolish enough to want to adopt them)
The M16 series of weapons are now tried, tested and proven. They are considerably simpler than the L85 and lack all its tactical disadvantages. The 16 barreled M4 versions are only a yard long, making them ideal for most infantry tasks, including firing from vehicles or house clearing. If a more novel weapon that shows some improvements over the M16 is wanted the MOD might consider the Armalite AR-18, which was license built by the British Sterling company as the "Sterling Assault Rifle". The AR-18 was simpler to manufacture than the M16 series and eliminated the direct gas action system that many users object to. The latest re-incarnation, the semi-automatic AR-180B uses many readily available M16 components such as the trigger group and magazine.