My first experience of the SA80 rifle came a quarter of a century ago when I was young and it was new. Since then we have grown old together, though both of us have changed in many ways over the years.
Our initial encounter took place when, as a Junior Non Commissioned Officer. I attended the very first Section Commanders’ Battle Course along with 79 other men. The weapon was the replacement to the much heavier SLR. Because the magazine was behind the pistol grip, the SA80 was a much shorter rifle than its predecessor but its barrel length remained roughly the same ensuring accuracy. Its fully automatic capability was a direct result of experience from the Falklands war where the Argentinians use of the FN version of the SLR – complete with auto fire function – often left the British floundering in engagements.
On paper the SA80 seemed to mark a major advancement for the ‘poor bloody infantry’, but as I and my colleagues soon discovered the reality was rather less impressive. The fielding of the new weapon was done without adequate equipment checks, field trials and thought as to how it might integrate with other technological developments in fighting systems. In the jargon of this age it was a weapon not fit for purpose.
The SA80’s flaws were extensive. The magazine wouldn’t stay on the weapon – as you patrolled, should your body brush against the magazine release catch the magazine would fall off and rounds would be sent spinning all over the floor. The low-tech solution was to tie the magazine in place with a bit of string and a small locally purchased clip. If you wore mosquito repellent the rubber cheek-piece on the weapon would melt. The bayonet didn’t attached correctly. The bolt and recoil spring assembly were under-engineered and not strong enough to do the robust job they needed to. This led to major stoppages and soon it became known as an unreliable weapon in the heat of battle.
It was common for the strength of the spring to be insufficient to force the bolt carrier rearwards and so a new round was not picked up and fed into the breach after the previous one had been fired. This was assuming the spent cartridge case had been ejected at all, as it was also common for the extractor to rip off the base of the round so preventing its successful disposal.
Add in the fact that the weapon could only be fired by a right-handed soldier – if a ‘southpaw’ pulled the trigger he could expect a face-full of brass or at least the man beside him could – and it was unsurprising that the answer to all the British Army’s problems soon gained a questionable reputation, one that has proved hard to shake off. Even with the subsequent arrival of the new improved model, the SA80A2 that came without the faults which bedevilled its earlier namesake.
What the SA80A2 does retain is the accuracy of the original version, something that has only been enhanced by the ACOG sight. Add to this the development of an under slung Grenade Launcher allowing it to fire 40mm HE grenades. A picatinny rail so the weapon can now except a down grip for close quarter battle, laser light module for night engagements and various other gadgets and gismos that would embarrass the US military, then you can see that the weapon has been developed into a seriously versatile fighting system.
Yet despite the changes the stigma remains. Performance might have improved but the new version looks like the old and essentially has the same name. It is all about confidence and that is something that is still missing after all these years. Many of my colleagues look longingly at the American M4 as an alternative to what they believe they are burdened with. In fact UK Special Forces already use the M4 or the C8 rather than the SA80A2 but then they always tend to have something other than standard issue kit regardless if it is better or not. It sets them apart from the average ‘green troops’ and underlines their elevated status by being different.
But to pine after the M4 ignores the facts. In side-by-side trials the UK weapon comes out on top almost every time. It has better accuracy; better penetration; better resilience to the harsh conditions found in both the desert and the jungle. Stoppages are low and it now does what it should always have done – combine a reliable, fast-rate of fire with the characteristics to make it a formidable weapon in the closest proximity to the enemy.
During the six months I spent in Afghanistan in 2010-11 I fired over 900 rounds without any stoppages. In 2008 I fired thousands of rounds, again without a single stoppage, not one. It was the same back in 2006 on my first tour of Helmand.
I am happy to fight with whatever I am given, as are most soldiers because that is what we do – dare I say it the Irish more than most. We like to fight – we find excuses allowing us to engage the enemy, rather than excuses not to. But still we are soldiers and as such we will always moan about something or other. And if there is one thing that has been moaned about more than others over the past 25 years it is the SA80. My fighting life if probably over. Perhaps it is time now for the SA80 to also leave the battlefield quietly after 27 years.