What do you get when you combine what’s widely regarded as one of the best rifle operating mechanisms ever invented, an innovative and promising concept, and a factory with over 150 years of history making some of the finest small arms in the world? If you said “the best rifle ”, you’d be out of luck, because today we’re talking about the L85A1, and how a weapon that seemed to have everything going for it ended up being possibly the worst modern rifle developed by a major party.
The SA80, a term which denotes the family of weapons to which the L85A1 belongs, had a long and troubled history, beginning in the late 1960s with a trial of the Armalite AR-18 rifle in Britain in 1966. This trial helped kick off a line of development of domestic British-made AR-18 derivatives, including the production of AR-18 rifles at the Sterling Armament Company, most famous for their excellent L2 machine gun. Sterling was very close to the famous RSAF Enfield, who soon began using Sterling parts to manufacture prototype rifles based on AR-18. The first true prototypes in this development were the XL64 series, which chambered an unusual 4.85x49mm round that has been covered previously in the Modern Intermediate Calibers series here at TFB. These were followed by the prototype XL85 and XL85 weapons, which were eventually adopted in modified form as the L85A1 Individual Weapon and L86A1 Light Support Weapon.
I have glossed over the details of this history, because I think there is really one good source to learn about this firearm’s history and unfortunately I do no have it with me as I travel during the holidays. That is The Last Enfield – SA80: The Reluctant Rifle by R. Blake Stevens and Steve Raw. This book covers, in lavish detail, the almost unbelievable issues, political drama, and shady dealings that characterized the SA80 program from start to finish. From the beginning of development to introduction of the A2 variant, the program was characterized by corruption, incompetence, and bad engineering.
The Heckler & Koch A2 variants were a substantial improvement over the previous guns, but this program did not prove to be as inexpensive as the MoD had hoped: Each gun cost about £484 to convert, which is the equivalent of about $1,030 today – practically the price of a new rifle entirely. The resulting L85A2s didn’t cure every ill of the SA80, either. The rifles, fundamentally, were still nearly 20 years old by the time the program was completed, they were still extremely heavy, and there was also no straightforward path to replacement of worn-out units. The number of SA80s in the world was fixed, no more would ever be made. To this day, the consequences of this decision to try to “fix” the SA80 are still being felt; the fleet is now over 30 years old, and will need to be replaced soon. However, with a shrinking small arms budget and the promise of new technologies on the horizon, is the answer for Britain to stick with the L85A2 until something better comes along, or bite the bullet and replace it with something else now, ending the rifle’s troubled service life once and for all?