British Army Begin Rollout of Upgraded SA80A3

    Grenadier Guardsman with new SA80A3 (British Army/MOD)

    The British Army have begun issuing the newly upgraded SA80A3, the Grenadier Guards are the first regiment to receive the newly refitted bullpups. News of the upgrade to the British Army’s L85/SA80 first emerged back in 2016, but it appears the rifles are about to make their operational debut.

    The British Army’s L85A2 is an accurate, battle-tested weapon, a far cry from the much maligned earlier L85A1. However, since the L85’s A2 upgrade (c.1998-2002), the rifles have seen over a decade of extremely hard service in both Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2016 steps were taken to begin a mid-life enhancement programme, known as the ‘Equipped to Fight Improvement’.

    L85A2 with ACGO

    The ‘Theatre Entry Standard’ L85A2 with interim ACOG, as used in Afghanistan, in the background an L85 with earlier forend and an L86 light support weapon (British Army)

    The SA80A3 prototype debuted at the 2016 DVD military exposition at Millbrook Proving Ground, Bedfordshire, in September 2016. The improved rifle was part of the dismounted soldier exhibit, which featured some of the 10 initial prototype SA80A3s built for feasibility testing. An A3 was next seen at Heckler & Koch’s stand at the 2017 Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI) exposition in London. We covered that here.

    The first clue to the impending unveiling of the upgrade came when the Grenadier Guards posted a photograph showing off the rifle with the caption: “We are the first regiment in the British Army to be equipped with the SA80A3. Newly upgraded equipment helping us meet the varied and demanding objectives around the world” In the photograph (see header image) the rifle can be seen with an ELCAN SpecterOS 4x optic and Shield CQS Close Quarter Battlesight mounted on top, a Laser Light Module Mk3 can also be seen.

    Virtus L85A3

    The L85A3 shown off as part of the British Army’s new Virtus equipment system in 2016 (British Army/MOD)

    The Grenadier Guards initially promised enthusiastic and inquisitive commenters on the image that a video would soon be posted detailing the A3’s improvements, however, after just a couple of days, the post was taken down. When contacted the Grenadier Guards didn’t explain why the post had been deleted but did say the video would be posted in the near future.

    While the video hasn’t yet been posted a number of other posts from the Guards have shown the L85A3 in action. A short video clip was shared showing the rifle firing during training at the Pirbright Ranges, see the video embedded below:

    The rifle is clearly distinguished from earlier A2s by its new Heckler & Koch forend featuring the HKey attachment system. In addition to the video footage another photograph featuring men of Inkerman Company training with the new rifles.

    Two men of Inkerman Company, Grenadier Guards armed with new L85A3s (British Army/MoD)

    What’s Improved on the A3?

    Despite near continuous piecemeal changes to the rifle over recent years, the new set of upgrades are the first to garner a change of designation. While some have suggested that the rifles are essentially rebuilt from the ground up utilising only several key components like the bolt and lower receiver, the extent of this remains unclear. But if the new rifles have the upper receiver that Forgotten Weapons got to check out last year then the A3s are probably based on original lower receivers. This ensures that the A3 has better bolt guide rail welding to prevent warping which occurred in earlier rifles. An added benefit of a new upper is the ability to have a full-length Picatinny rail which integrates with the new forend, it should be noted that this was not present in the early A3 upper which Ian examined, which had an improved pre-Picatinny NATO STANAG rail for SUSAT mounting. The new full-length rail allows the fitting of both day and night sights in tandem.

    It’s worth noting that the improved HKA3 SA80 uppers will be the standard replacement part fitted to all SA80 pattern rifles going forward, regardless of their official Land Service designation – meaning L85A2s may be fitted with the replacement (improved) HKA3 upper, but not be upgraded with the other new changes seen in the L85A3. It is also uncertain how many of the HKA3 uppers were purchased with the improved Pre-Picatinny mounting rail and how many will have the new Picatinny section.

    The gas block has been cut down (this should help offset some of the added forend weight) and is now enclosed within the new forend. The gas block mounting point for iron sights in no longer needed as the full-length Picatinny rail allows for the mounting of low interference back up iron sights. The new foreend from HK, which replaces the quad rails from Daniel Defense is substantially more ergonomic with 6 o’clock and 12 o’clock Picatinny rails and HKey attachment points at 3 and 9 o’clock. The new forend attaches directly to the lower receiver which is said to improve accuracy by allowing for a more free-floating barrel.

    Soldiers from The Household Division firing L85A2s during a live fire exercise in the Falklands. (British Army/MOD)

    The L85A3’s receiver has been refinished in flat dark earth finish replacing the original black. This better fits the environments British troops have recently found themselves deployed in and fits with the British Army’s MTP camouflage uniforms. The original style of an olive green plastic pistol grip, cheek piece, and buttplate have been retained.

    While the weapon’s controls have not been fundamentally altered a safety stud has been placed above the change lever to ensure the selector does not over travel. Despite the addition of the new forend the rifle’s overall weight has also been reportedly reduced by 150g or 5.3 ounces. There are still relatively few details available about what, if any, internal changes have been made but it is likely parts have been refurbished to align the rates of wear on the various parts.

    How Many L85’s will be Updated to A3 Configuration?

    Back in August 2016, it was announced that the Ministry of Defence had awarded Heckler & Koch a £2.7 million ($3.8 million) contract to upgrade existing SA80A2s. The contract called for:

    …the supplier to modify the existing SA80 A2 weapon by fitting a combination of new and modified components. Specific tolerances of materials are needed along with exact dimensions and surface finishes on the components to allow for interoperability with the existing system, particularly when managing the variable interface caused by differing rates of wear of existing components which are recycled as part of the programme.

    The contract called for a tranche of 5,000 rifles to be retrofitted to a new specification, this puts the contract’s per unit cost at an estimated £540 ($755) per rifle. This appears to be have revised, however, as the contract award posted in January 2017, was valued at £1.5 million (or $2 million). If the quantity of the rifles upgraded remained the same, this would place the per rifle cost at £300 or $420.

    With the L85’s 2025 out of service date rapidly approaching the British Army is reportedly eager to refit a substantial number of rifles to the new A3 configuration. Speaking at the recent Future Soldier Technology conference, MilTech reported that, Lt.Col. Alex Hutton, the Senior Requirements Manager, Soldier Training and Special Programmes, Defence Equipment and Support, confirmed that the British Army would continue to ‘significantly increase the size’ of its SA80A3 upgrade inventory. He also went on to confirm that the army is also seeking to increase the number of L129A1 designated marksman rifles.

    Overall, from the available information, the A3 package is not a major upgrade in the same way the A2 was. While it improves ergonomics and possibly further improves the rifle’s accuracy is does not address some of the rifle’s more fundamental deficiencies like the position of the selector, its weight or the advancing age of some of its major components like the lower receiver.


    ‘Precision vs Suppression’, Military Technology, retrieved 13/03/18, from source

    ‘Weight Continues to be the Biggest Burden’, Military Technology, retrieved 13/03/18, from source

    ‘Infantry Modernisation’, UK Armed Forces Commentary, retrieved 22/03/18, from source

    Grenadier Guard’s Facebook – various posts retrieved from source

    Matthew Moss

    _________________________________________________________________________ – Managing Editor – Managing Editor

    Matt is a British historian specialising in small arms development and military history. He has written several books and for a variety of publications in both the US and UK. He also runs Historical Firearms, a blog that explores the history, development and use of firearms. Matt is also co-founder of The Armourer’s Bench, a video series on historically significant small arms.

    Here on TFB he covers product and current military small arms news.

    Reach Matt at: [email protected]