The development of the SA80 (Small Arms for 1980s) system, which included two weapons - SA80 IW (Infantry Weapon) assault rifle and SA80 LSW (Light Support Weapon) light machine gun, began in the late 1960s when British army decided to develop a new rifle, which will eventually replace the venerable 7.62mm L1 SLR (British-made FN FAL rifle) in the 1980s.
When NATO trials were announced in 1977 to select a new cartridge, British state-owned Enfield Small Arms Factory developed its own small-caliber, high velocity round, which was more or less representing the US .223/5.56mm case necked down to accept 4.85mm (0.19 inch) bullet. When cartridge came out, Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield developed a new weapon around it, initially designated as XL65. This weapon, being somewhat similar in outline to the much earlier British Enfield EM-2 assault rifle, was internally quite different, and, basically, was more or less the US-made Armalite AR-18 rifle, put into bullpup stock and rechambered for 4.85mm cartridge. After NATO trials, which resulted in adoption of the Belgian SS-109 version of the 5.56mm cartridge, Enfield engineers rechambered XL65 for this cartridge and continued its development under the designation of XL70. Due to Falkland war new system was actually adopted only in 1984. Original SA80 weapons (both L85 and L86) were plagued with many problems, some being very serious. In general, L85 was quite unreliable and troublesome to handle and maintain, so, finally, in the year 1997, after years of constant complaints from the troops, it had been decided to upgrade most L85 rifles then in service.
The upgrade program, committed in years 2000 - 2002, was completed by the famous Heckler&Koch, which was then owned by British Royal Ordnance company (German investors bought the HK back in the 2002). About 200 000 rifles were upgraded into the L85A2 configuration, out of total 320 000 or so original L85A1 rifles produced. While official reports about the upgraded weapons were glowing, the actual field reports from the British troops, engaged in the Afghanistan campaign of 2002, were again unsatisfactory. The future of the L85 rifle remains unclear but there's some rumor that it could be retired from British service around the year 2006, and replaced by another design (most probably, the Heckler-Koch G36 assault rifle).
Other than the basic L85A1 variant, the SA80 IW also appeared in the shortened Carbine version, which never got an official "L" designation, and in the manually operated L98A1 rifle, which got its gas system removed and a larger cocking handle attached. The L98A1 is used to train the army cadets for basic rifle handling and shooting skills, and the rifle is fired as a manually operated, straight pull magazine repeater rifle.
In general, the only good thing about the L85 is its SUSAT 4X telescope sight, which is quite good and allows for accurate shooting. Even regardless of all internal bugs, found in the L85A1 rifles, these rifles are somewhat heavy and clumsy by modern standards, with most of the weight located toward the butt, which does not help to control the muzzle climb during the automatic fire.
The L85 is a gas operated, magazine fed, selective fire rifle of bullpup layout.
The receiver of the L85 is made from stamped sheet steel, reinforced with welded and riveted machined steel inserts. The steel of the receiver is somewhat thin and can be dented when rifle is handled roughly, possibly resulting in serious malfunction. The gas operated action has a short stroke gas piston, located above the barrel. The gas piston has its own return spring. Gas system has a3 positions gas regulator, one position for a normal firing, second for a firing in adverse conditions and the third for launching the rifle grenades (gas port is shut off). The machined bolt carrier rides inside the receiver on the two parallel steel guide rods, with the single return spring placed above and between the guide rods. The typical rotating bolt has 7 lugs that locks into the steel insert in the receiver, just behind the barrel breech. The charging handle was rigidly attached to the left side of the bolt carrier, and prior to A2 upgrade caused some problems by reflecting the ejected cases back into the action, thus causing stoppages. In the L85A2 configuration the charging handle was redesigned to avoid such problems. The charging handle slot is covered by the spring-loaded dust cover. The bolt and its extractor claw also were upgraded in the L85A2, to achieve more reliable extraction of the spent cases.
The trigger / hammer assembly of the L85A1 is also typical for a modern bullpup rifle, with the long link from the trigger to the hammer unit, located in the buttstock. The hammer assembly of the L85A2 was redesigned to introduce a slight delay before the hammer release when the gun is fired in the full auto. This did not affected the cyclic rate of fire but improved the reliability and stability of the weapon during the automatic fire. The fire mode selector is located at the left side of the receiver, behind the magazine housing, and allows for single shots of full automatic modes of fire. The cross-bolt safety button is located above the trigger.
The barrel is rifled for a NATO-standard 5.56mm ammunition, with 1:7 twis, and is fitted with a NATO-standard flash hider, which allows to launch the rifle grenades from the barrel.
The L85 is fed using NATO-standard (STANAG) magazines, similar to M16 type magazines, with the standard capacity of 30 rounds. Early L85A1 steel magazines caused a lot of troubles, as well as a magazine housing itself, which had a thin walls that could be easily dented, thus blocking the magazine way. Both magazines and its housings were upgraded in the L85A2 configuration, too.
The standard sighting equipment is the 4X SUSAT (Sight Unit, Small Arms, Trilux) telescope, with illuminated reticle. The SUSAT is mounted on a quick-detachable mount at the top of the receiver, and features an emergency backup open sights at tits top. The SUSAT is, probably, the best thing out of the whole ill-fated SA80 package, since it allows for an accurate fire (mostly in single shots) out to 400 meters or so. For a second-line troops an alternative sighting system is available, that consists of the removable front post sight with high base and post protection "ears", and a detachable carrying handle with built-in diopter rear sight.
The L85 can be fitted with the proprietary knife-type multipurpose bayonet. The bat thing about this bayonet is that it uses its hollow handle as a mount - the handle is put around the muzzle of the rifle, so when rifle is fired the bayonet handle becomes really hot.
Automatic Rifle (Bullpup)
Gas operated, rotating bolt
5.56 NATO (.223rem)
5 kg with SUSAT optical sight
780 mm (709 mm in Carbine variant)
518 mm (442 mm in Carbine variant)
Rate of fire:
about 500 meters (with SUSAT sights)