SA80: Part 5 & 6 With Forgotten Weapons – Pre-Production to The L85A1 & A2

I’ve had more than one e-mail from our dear readers on why I continue to write up Forgotten Weapons’ L85 Series. Outside the complaints of repetitiveness, the complaint that struck as the reason why I am publishing them came out – that no one wants to hear of the L85. They would prefer, as ironic as the channel’s name implies – that the weapon be forgotten.

I contend that is a major mistake. Outside the fact that the A2 is actually a surprisingly good combat weapon, I assert that one who enjoys shooting weapons should also understand the monumental tasks of how companies and governments go about developing and fielding weapons. Rarely is is a stroke of genius – instead its often a long process with ups and downs. Most often, one can learn more from failures than from successes. In that regard, the L85 is an excellent case study.

In the latest two installments, Ian continues to push through the weapon’s more modern history, covering the final production models and importantly (and most interesting to me), the updates that the weapon underwent to the currently fielded A2 variant.

As one might expect from the beginning of the series, the update to the A1 was basically a frame-off restoration, with nearly the entire weapon being remanufactured and various modern bits were attached.

For all the details, enjoy the videos below.

 





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.

Nathan can be reached at Nathan.S@TheFirearmBlog.com

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


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  • QuadGMoto

    I love how he points out that the A1 is genuine because the butt pad is broken off.

  • Pete Sheppard

    Thanks for posting the videos; they have been fascinating to me, as an object lesson of how NOT do develop a weapon–you need artisans, not just engineers.

    • Independent George

      Except the problems here weren’t the engineers, but the bean counters and politicians. The early models were decent guns which could (and should) have been refined and improved as most products are. Instead, they got worse with each iteration as cost-cutting measures got implemented and the problems associated with them were covered up.

      It seems to be a recurring theme in service rifle development – a government gets enanored with an early prototype, then later realizes, “we have to buy how many rifles? It’s going to cost how much?”. Then come the orders to trim costs, and then you get a POS rifle. That’s more or less what happened with the M16.

      • Pete Sheppard

        Good points, thanks! A periodic purging of bean-counters might not be amiss. :p
        A comment I saw elsewhere regarding the SA-80: “They are like a civil servant–they don’t work, and you can’t fire them.”

      • CommonSense23

        Um. Thats not really what happened at all with the M16.

      • Rock or Something

        Following the story of the L85 from conception to initial production, the biggest problem in my opinion was that most of the engineers had little experience in firearm development prior to this. So any little mistakes that were knowingly or unknowingly overlooked in the prototype rifles get’s magnified in production. Yes things like politicians, budgets, and changing calibers will also be a problem, but having newbies designing it at the beginning just magnifies all the other problems. The early M16 was different because it was a rather sound design created by very experienced engineers, but totally let down by military and government malfeasance.

        • ostiariusalpha

          Sullivan did blame himself somewhat for agreeing to the assessment that chrome-lining the bore and chamber was unnecessary. I also personally think that they should have been aware that the case rim was too thin for a select-fire weapon’s ammo. The propellant bungling and case dimension inconsistencies, along with the lack of cleaning kit, certainly were not his or anyone in the ArmaLite or Colt engineering teams’ fault.

          • I doubt that the OSD would have approved chrome lined chambers or bores prior to 1967. At the time of the XM16E1’s adoption, no one was properly set up to chrome the interior of bores that small. Given that Gene Stoner didn’t think it was necessary, I suspect that the OSD would have balked at the time delay in starting production, plus the expense. Note that the Ichord Subcommittee’s report even criticized the added expense of the chromed chambers.

            Here is Gene Stoner’s comments from the hearings (pg 4551):

            Mr. Bray. Why didn’t you design the weapon originally with a
            chrome chamber? Did you take that into consideration?

            Mr. Stoner. Yes, sir; we took into consideration chroming the barrel and the chamber. The big problem was the expense involved and the difficulty of doing the whole thing. At the time, in all the tests I was in on, it didn’t seem to be indicated that it was necessary. We didn’t have any of these extraction problems. They were very remote.

            Also don’t forget that no one had yet perfected the ability to consistently chrome rifled bores that small. You could certainly plate it, but the application would either be too thin to be durable, or so inconsistent as to completely ruin accuracy. It ultimately required General Motors and General Electric to finally solve the issue for the Army.

            As to the issue of cleaning kits, that seems to be more of an in-country distribution issue. They definitely existed, and were being shipped to Vietnam.

            Federal Stock Numbers and nomenclature were assigned to the AR-15, bayonet, bipod, and cleaning rod during the week of May 13-17, 1963. During the November 21, 1963 meeting of the Technical Coordinating Committee (TCC), Colt’s W.J. Hutchins presented an engineering test model of a proposed buttstock storage compartment. The compartment could hold the three-piece cleaning rod, patch holder, bore brush, container of Lubriplate, and cleaning patches. Hutchins stated that they estimated the modification would add $0.73 to the cost of each rifle.

            The USAF’s representative William S. Aumen indicated that while the USAF had a requirement of such a feature, they had managed to get along without it so far. As a result, Aumen speculated that the USAF might not approve it given the cost.

            LTC Yount stated that the Army had already planned to store the cleaning matériel in the pocket of the bipod case. However, they would prefer the carriage of the items within the rifle. Like the USAF, the Army would hold off on the decision until the TCC’s next meeting in December 1963.

            The PMR Weekly Significant Action Reports for the summer of 1965 have multiple references to the development of improved cleaning rods and brushes for the XM16E1. It looks like they were nearly ready to ship during the week of July 19-23, 1965. In the notations on his copy, Gen. Besson recommended that the new equipment be airlifted straight to Vietnam, and the shipping data be forwarded so that the matériel was not lost in theater. (In a later note on the October 4-8, 1965 WSAR, Besson darkly commented that if such shipments were not met as soon as the cargo plane landed, they risked the cleaning rods being stolen and used as concrete rebar.)

          • ostiariusalpha

            Not chroming the bore because of the technical difficulties and expense was a sort of understandable choice, even if mistaken in hindsight, but not chroming the chamber was just facepalm level dumb. This was something they should have understood was a minimum requirement on a modern combat arm.

          • The US Army’s Chief of Ordnance had actually issued a directive in the mid-1950s that all future firearms should be produced with a chromed bore as standard. In addition, all replacement barrels acquired for legacy firearms should also have a chromed bore.

            However, the McNamara OSD short-circuited the standard procurement process.

        • FYI: The propellant issue was far more complicated than the popular narrative supported by the Ichord Subcommittee. More than a fair amount of mythology has been built up about the DuPont Improved Military Powder (IMR), and I suspect IMR 4475 would have posed its own problems in Vietnam if DuPont had not withdrawn it as a qualified propellant for M193. It certainly would not have solved the problems with chamber corrosion or non-existent case hardness standards.

          You have to remember that the Office of Secretary of Defense (OSD) saw the procurement of the AR-15 and its .223 ammunition as a Commercial Off The Shelf purchase. The expectation was that little tweaking would be necessary to field it successfully, and that the Army could simply adopt the commercial specifications for the rifle and ammunition as-is for their own Mil-Specs. For instance, the military’s original velocity and pressure specifications for 5.56mm M193 were based on Remington’s commercial specifications for .223. However, while the average civilian user of the .223 would have no way to tell if Remington had fudged their figures, the military did, and took Remington to task. All of the hype about the effectiveness of the rifle and cartridge was tied to its high velocity, and thus, a reduction of velocity could easily be seen as reducing its effectiveness. As the prime user of the rifle in 1963 when all of this was hashed out, the USAF was unwilling to accept a loss in range by relaxing the velocity specifications. (The same thing had occurred earlier when the USAF discovered that the bullet was unstable in cold weather with the 1-14″ rifling twist. The USAF testers suggested that the stability problem could probably be solved if the bullet was simply shortened by going to a flat-base design of the same weight, but the change in shape would reduce long range performance.)

          However, the refusal to budge from the velocity standards led to an additional complication when it was discovered that IMR 4475-loaded ammunition could not meet these specifications while consistently maintaining the proper tolerances for chamber pressure. Previously, Remington could simply cherry-pick lots of IMR 4475, but this would no longer be possible once M193 reached mass production. Some have asked why the chamber pressure specifications were such a problem, and why not simply increase the chamber pressure specifications so IMR 4475 could be kept. The problem was that the military evaluations in late 1962-early 1963 had already shown signs of pressure excursions like popped primers. Some of the over-pressure events during were probably the result of Remington and Colt not comparing notes on Remington’s changes in ammunition and chamber dimensions when they established SAAMI specifications for the .223. It appears that Colt’s chambers at the time were smaller than the final SAAMI specs for commercial .223, which is even smaller than what we now have as standard for 5.56mm. Increasing chamber dimensions partially helped moderate the pressure issue, but then likely resulted in a reduction in velocity.

          The first clue that the pressure/velocity specifications were going to pose a problem was when all of the major commercial ammunition manufacturers balked on bidding for M193 production contracts as long as the existing specifications remained in place. With no one willing to budge on pressure or velocity, the only other possibility was the propellant. The first to suggest a change of propellant from IMR 4475 was Remington themselves, in order to fulfill an existing USAF ammunition contract. Ironically, Remington proposed alternative was Olin’s WC846. (Mind you, Remington was owned by DuPont, the manufacturers of IMR brand powders.)

          A search for alternate M193 propellants was underway when Remington and DuPont withdrew IMR 4475 as a qualified propellant in March 1964. WC846 and IMR CR8136 were approved by the Army for M193 in April 1964. At that time, only Remington chose to load M193 with CR8136. Winchester and Federal went with WC846. By the end of 1964, Remington dropped CR8136, again due to lot-to-lot consistency issues. So this set off another search for alternative propellants, and IMR 8208M was approved for use in M193. This time, all of the commercial manufacturers, including Remington, went with WC846. As a result, Lake City and Twin Cities ended up loading M193 with IMR 8208M. IMR 8208M was not dropped from use with M193 until after the WSEG testing in 1968. The mere fact that other propellants, including IMR-types, were approved for M193 should put to rest the old myth that IMR 4475 was rejected so the Army could sole-source Olin Ball Powders like WC846. IMR 8208M had in fact been the off-shoot of another propellant developed by DuPont under Army contract for 7.62mm NATO. The 7.62mm propellant had to be modified as its grains were too long for automated loading given the 5.56mm’s narrower case neck.

          The stories that WC846 was never tested or that Colt did not know or approve of the change are also false. Colt had USAF ammo loaded with WC846 in early 1964, and pointed out the increase in cyclic rates in March. Colt went even further and had tests done at H.P. White to determine the cause of the cyclic rate increase. In April 1964, Colt’s senior product engineer Foster Sturtevant wrote in an internal report that the higher gas port pressures with WC846 were “in no way harmful to the AR-15” and would lead to more positive functioning of the rifle. It strikes me that the increased cyclic rate was initially tolerated because some uninformed souls saw it as a bonus feature, not a flaw. After all, the USAF’s aircraft armaments were designed around even higher cyclic rates. Imagine trying to argue in favor of revising the velocity specs of M193, when Remington and Colt have already signed off on a change in propellant. As for the claim that the propellants were not tested for port pressure, Colt simply didn’t know what the appropriate port pressure should be, and the OSD’s pressure to get the rifles fielded meant that no one wanted to wait to run tests to find out what the acceptable limits should be. William C. Davis, Jr. and his colleagues at Frankford Arsenal basically had to guess.

          Another myth is the idea that the military should have kept IMR 4475 despite its issues since it was part of the .223 design since the beginning. A curious point to come out of the Ichord Hearings was multiple mentions that Remington had not always used IMR 4475 for the early .223. Yount mentioned that some test ammunition had been loaded with IMR 4198, and one of the USAF witnesses claimed that they had IMR 4064 in the USAF’s initial 1963 specs until they contacted Remington as to their preferred powder and primer. Most damning was the DuPont witness who testified that Remington adopted IMR 4475 for the .223 as late as 1962. I find it particularly odd that Ichord never subpoenaed representatives from Remington, Olin, Federal, or Hercules.

          A seemingly unkillable narrative is that IMR was a new improved design sabotaged by traditionalists unwilling to give up outdated surplus propellants or offend a powerful vendor like Olin. First, the name “Improved Military Rifle” was merely a brand name. It signified the change from DuPont’s earlier “Military Rifle”-brand extruded powders, which used straight nitrocellulose to IMR’s deterrent coated nitrocellulose. IMR propellant types are actually older than Olin’s Ball Powder types. The specific type used, IMR 4475, was actually introduced back in the 1930s. To somehow suggest that DuPont was not a full-fledged, card-carrying member of the Military/Industrial Complex and had any less of a cozy relationship than Olin is patently ridiculous.

          Some of the problems in Vietnam were going to happen regardless of which powder type was used. Case hardness standards were left up to the individual manufacturer, who likely used the same case hardness specs that would be appropriate for hunting or target ammunition in a single shot or bolt action, but not for military ammo for an automatic weapon. The M16’s unchromed chambers were doomed to rust in a tropical environment, particularly given the widespread belief that the rifle needed little to no cleaning. Combine corroded chambers with soft brass, and you get failures to extract. As for the original action spring guide (buffer), its Edgewater springs had a tendency to seize when wet. When this happened, all buffering value was lost.

          • ostiariusalpha

            Exactly right, it wasn’t just Winchester that was to blame, Remington screwed up the ammo plenty enough themselves to start with.

      • iksnilol

        Armalite: “okay, you need to use X powder and you need to chrome line the barrel and some other parts”

        Army: “what about if we use Y powder and don’t chrome line anything?”

        Armalite: “pls don’t”

        Army: “We’re gonna do it”

        And thus, the M16’s bad reputation came to fruition.

  • XT6Wagon

    I hope they export them when they get done with them, as I don’t care how much I would want to use it outside of a range… Its just one of those rifles that looks right. More to the point since I shoot left handed, I’d not want to shoot it much, but its a properly military looking rifle.

    Course if Kel-Tec ever builds a run of the M43 version of the RDB I’d also buy that in a heart beat being a pretty gun and one I can shoot without brass in the face.

  • lowell houser

    That A2 charging handle is brilliant. It should be a standard part on any AR180.

    • KestrelBike

      Reminds me of Top Gear’s Amphibious Landing with the Ford Fiesta. Skip to 2:21 for charging-handle goodness:

      • iksnilol

        “oh, look, the cupholder fits smoke grenades perfectly”

      • valorius

        The UK military is so small now, it’s entirely possible that was the entire Royal Marine commando force in that segment.

  • CJS

    It is a good series (seen all 9), very interesting history. But then there’s something about that fugly box of bolts that I can’t help liking!?!

    I think with regards to this blog maybe posting the first video then waiting for the final one before posting again may have been less annoying to those who aren’t interested.

  • Brian Peterson

    Love these videos and am really grateful he did this particular rifle as the SA80 development really fascinates me :-).

    • Gary Kirk

      Think your spellchecker kicked in, you said SA80 “development”.. Think you meant disaster..

  • Samantha J

    I enjoy Ian’s methodical analysis style, and found the history of the L85 really interesting. Clearly, as the service rifle of a major power, it is far from forgotten, but perhaps the history has been. It is important to bring that history out into the light.

  • gunsandrockets

    Any firearm enthusiast who doesn’t make a regular habit of visiting forgottenweapons.com is seriously missing out on some awesome information.

  • John

    I have the feeling that the SA-80 will undergo a renewal with a bunch of interested parties (including fed up Americans who decide to just analyze the whole thing) and become as rugged as the M-16. Especially with Brexit.