History of the SA-80, Part 3 – It Comes Together and Gets Worse

I don’t know about you, but I try to give any movie I watch in the theaters at least 30 minutes to see if it will get good. Case in point – John Wick – which if you don’t stay through at least 20 looks to be an incoherent mess. Now, over a half hour into the history of the SA-80, one can see how thoroughly a mess that rifle was, guided by expert Ian McCollum of Forgotten Weapons. 

To continue the metaphor, the British should have walked out on this movie at this point.

Into the XL models, Ian guides us through the consistently poor decision making on behalf of RSAF Enfield and the continued choices to throw good money after bad, good time after bad, and an utter refusal to drop the platform. Further, they don’t just keep moving towards full adoption, they make the weapon worse.

As the case when any project starts to go over budgets, the Royal Armory started to go through full cost-reduction model on the platform. The choices, including a reduction in material quality, usage of mandated materials not appropriate for the application, and not solving obvious grouping issues just kept making the long-term problem worse.

To cap it off, the British opted to change the testing standards when the weapon failed to measure up to the test. Sound familiar?

To hear the trainwreck as it happened, check out Part 3 of the history on the SA-80 from Forgotten Weapons:

Nathan S

One of TFB’s resident Jarheads, Nathan now works within the firearms industry. A consecutive Marine rifle and pistol expert, he enjoys local 3-gun, NFA, gunsmithing, MSR’s, & high-speed gear. Nathan has traveled to over 30 countries working with US DoD & foreign MoDs.

The above post is my opinion and does not reflect the views of any company or organization.


  • Major Tom

    Sounds like the story of the M16, the F-35, the Bradley and a few other programs give or take a degree of severity. Aka typical government procurement screw ups.

    • ARCNA442

      Except all three of those systems were/are among the best in their class and their reputations are entirely the result of personal vendettas and media spin. Look at the Bradley – it has performed near flawlessly in combat but a comedy movie claimed it was a disaster so everyone cites it as an example of government waste

      • CommonSense23

        AR15 is still dominating, and I have got to meet a lot of fighter pilots and they all look forward to the F35.

      • Kurt Akemann

        A movie that left out the part about the Bradley’s design being altered in response to US evaluation of a captured BMP-1. It made no sense to continue development of an APC with a 20mm cannon when then Red Army was fielding an IFV with frontal armor designed to survive shells from said cannon. But a sequence like that wouldn’t have been very funny or absurd and absurdity was what the movie-makers cared about.

      • Independent George

        Ok, I know I’m being dense, but which movie?

        • ARCNA442

          “The Pentagon Wars”

      • It actually WAS a disaster in development.

    • Gary Kirk

      Think INSAS or FAMAS would be better examples..

      • Kurt Akemann


      • Major Tom

        INSAS is an example of what NOT to do, not a screw up.

    • oldman

      The difference is at least with the M 16 and Bradley the problems were found and fixed and are quite good the F 35 has yet to prove its self but it may surprise you.

      • 8166PC1

        The USA never fixed the gas system of the M16/M4

        • oldman

          No they have not but it has proven reliable and functional in the field.

          • Wordmahn

            Amen, that. M16 haters just can’t give it up. The platform soldiers on, the longest running US service rifle platform of all time, copied and coveted all over the world. Foreign fighters who can choose, often keep choosing it over their own nation’s platforms. It’s was and still is an incredibly effective design.

          • pbla4024

            Wasn’t model 1795 in service for 70 years?

          • No. Not in anything approaching front line service. Not after percussion ignition was fielded…

          • oldman

            I believe in two principles to small arms 1) K. I. S. S. 2) If it aint broke don’t fix it.

          • Get over it Fanbois

            The m16 is still around is because the suits can’t admit they made a mistake. With the LSAT LMG, LSAT Carbine, and the move to 6.5mm. The DI pos days are numbered.

          • 8166PC1

            It’s a heavily copied design, but one thing they never copy is the gas system.

          • ostiariusalpha

            Both the Chinese and Iranians copied the gas system.

          • 8166PC1

            The Chinese don’t have a domestically designed rifle using Stoner’s gas system, the Iranians on the other hand do have a bullpup that used it which isn’t a popular design.

          • ostiariusalpha

            “The Chinese don’t have a domestically designed rifle…”
            Right, that’s the point; they copied the entire design instead of trying to cram an op rod into it.

          • 8166PC1

            The Chinese copy just about anything whether it’s good,just okay, or bad.

          • Only if you count the evolution of a round ball, smoothbore, flintlock, .69 caliber musket into a Minie ball, percussion, .58 caliber rifle.

            Hell’s Bells, might as well include the Trapdoor Springfield as being a “1795”, then. LOL

        • Out of the Blue

          It wasn’t broken. Some idiot (or idiots) insisted on using the wrong kind of powder in the ammunition.

          • 8166PC1

            Why can an AK use ball powder without issue?

          • Out of the Blue

            Looser tolerances. Also makes it easier for mud to gum it up. Everything’s a trade-off. Besides, I don’t think it’s all ball powder, just the ones that tend to leave a lot of residue.

          • ostiariusalpha

            If the AK was being run on the old WC846 formulation with its excessive proportion of calcium carbonate stabilizer, even it would have failed. It was not fit for any gas operated firearm.

          • 8166PC1

            I’d love to see Vietnam era ammo in a 5.56×45 AK to see if it would make it fail like it did with the M16 and if it failed then I would say I was wrong.

        • UppercutsForCharity

          Don’t fix it if it ain’t broken.

      • Major Tom

        So far the only thing I’ve seen the F-35 be stellar at besides wasting taxpayer money is providing outstanding evidence in favor of UAV’s being the next generation Air Force. The F-35’s problems have proven the Fighter Mafia as technologically obsolete. If we don’t need dogfighting capabilities, we don’t need pilots in harms way. All we’ll need is more drones, with more long-range missiles than any enemy can muster to counter them and the sensor suite with which to do it all.

        • oldman

          as i said it has yet to see combat so we don’t know if it will live up to its hype or wether it will fail to meet expectations. In the late 60s early 70s guns were obsolete on fighter aircraft they were wrong then and may prove to be wrong again. Though I do agree drones could be a serious force multiplier.

        • John Collins

          You want to build a supersonic stealthy multi-role drone it’s going to be expensive too. UCAVs aren’t mature enough to entirely replaced manned fighters.

          • Major Tom

            Yeah they are if the doctrine of modern war is simply launch missiles from standoff ranges either against aerial foes or ground targets. (Which is pretty much the F-35’s schtick.) Don’t even need stealth for that. UAV’s are 100% expendable in the grand scheme of things.

            And if you don’t need stealth and you don’t have to notify a family that a pilot’s been killed when it gets shot down, you drive the cost of the UAV way down. Given modern missile technologies, you might not even need it to be supersonic but it would be nice to have for the interception role.

  • Zebra Dun

    History is filled with dead ends in weapons developments.
    The Pederson quick change device for the 1903 Springfield comes to mind.
    Never had a chance really to show whether it would have worked or not.
    The AR-15 platform has become standard and has matured into the best Assault Rifle of the Western world.
    The Bradley was too tall, and they tried to pack too many missions into a vehicle that started out as an upgraded, uparmed Battle Taxi for use in an NBC contaminated environment.
    The F-35 is in the same trend, too much is being added before the system is even tested as sound.
    The SA-80 (A reconfigured AR-180) was trying too hard to make something work that had yet to be determined if it would work.
    As it is, the Rifle was a nice looking package.