British L85A1 at the Range: Will It Work?

I am excited to have a chance today to take a trip to the range with a proper, factory L85A1 rifle (it’s in the United States as a post-1986 dealer sample). I had a chance a while back to shoot one of these in the U.K., but I only had 10 cartridges to work with at that time. Today, I have several magazines to play around with. So, let’s give it a go! How long will it run before it malfunctions?

For all the information you could ever want on the L85 (and the whole SA80 program, from the first prototypes to the H&K A3 program), grab a copy of “Thorneycroft to SA80: British Bullpup Rifles”, by Jonathan Ferguson:

Thanks to Woody’s Weapons and Sienna Armory for the opportunity to film this extremely rare rifle! This example will be selling this summer as a no-letter post-86 sample.


  1. Since the L85A1 is long obsolete in British service, rebuilt into the A2 variant, and now the A3 variant, all that will be proved is that thankfully the initial weapon was rebuilt!!!

    • IIRC Jamaica got a few L85 A1 as aid from the UK and those are still on the books. I don’t know if actually in service today or collecting dust in an arsenal.

  2. With that strange “post” front sight it looks like it might have originally started life as a cadet rifle which normally came with iron sights only

    • Only combat units like infantry got the SUSAT scopes. the rest had to make do with iron sights.

  3. Why not just issue a conventional Armalite-pattern rifle instead? At least it won’t take a full minute to reload under stress, and it would be harder to accidentally lose the magazine. Plus, a conventional pattern weapon wouldn’t have to sacrifice handling and ease of use for the sake of accuracy. I could be wrong.

    • The British wanted a bullpup, and they had wanted one since the end of WWII. There are numerous advantages to a bullpup when going in and out of APCs and helicopters, and when fighting in urban areas. They wanted a universal rifle just the the SMLE replaced long rifles and carbines for all soldiers a century ago.

      As for ease of handling, the L85 is what British soldiers are trained on and are used to, and all the ones that I have talked to who have actually used them in battle as infantry have said that they don’t have any problems with how it handles or the magazine changes. They also don’t have a problem with it not being what they’re used to, because since that is the rifle they use all the time it *is* what they’re used to. They like the compact size, they like having a full length barrel, they like having the weight distribution closer to their body, and they like how accurate it is.

      The only complaint they generally have is about the weight, and a good deal (although not all) of that is the sight. The British were very early in adopting optical sights as standard for infantry across the board, so the early ones were a good deal heavier than what you can buy today.

      As for tapping the cocking handle as Ian mentions, most of the British soldiers that I have talked to have said that it’s completely unnecessary in their experience and that it’s just something that instructors teach for no good reason that anyone can think of.

      • British troops don’t know what they don’t know. The “skill-at-arms” thing is predicated on what they do know, the L85, so they don’t “get” that you should be able to do a magazine change without shifting focus from maintaining situational awareness of the battlefield to compensating for the horrendous ergonomics of the weapon your military has saddled you with. Even the trainers don’t know any better, and that goes back to the earliest days of the L85.

        I did joint training with the Brits back in the early 1990s. There were still some residual “learned to shoot on the SLR” types around as senior NCOs, but the vast majority of the troops were “L85 only” sorts. When we did cross-training on our individual weapons, and I handed off what I’d been taught in terms of skill-at-arms with the M16-series weapons, most of them were left entirely befuddled by my insistence that you were supposed to keep your eyes up and downrange on the threat while changing magazines, and that you should be able to perform immediate action doing the same. As well, they were amazed to watch me shuck through seven mag changes, at speeds that meant I was done before they’d gotten to two or three with the L85. There was a lot of “gunfighting” that they just had no idea about, but which the Vietnam-era trainers I’d had spent hours beating into my head.

        The L85 is not a tool for taking into a fight, period. In any of its iterations–Widely separated controls, shitty magazine changes, and a general lack of attention paid to human engineering all militate towards that–Just like most bullpups.

        As an exercise to demonstrate why, without a weapon? Take a felt-tip pen, and draw a magazine-sized rectangle on the inside of your upper right arm; then, take something about magazine-sized and at least 25cm in length and try to consistently place the end of that rectangular thing into that drawn rectangle. Now, imagine doing it under the influence of adrenaline, when someone is trying very hard to kill you… Oh, and you can’t take your eyes off that guy down the street you’re watching, either. That’s changing the mag in an L85.

        Now, take your right forefinger and extend it out, as you would be able to do when indexing for an M16 mag change, trying to hit your right forefinger tip with the end of our improvised magazine stand-in. Note how easy that is, and ohbytheway, that’s happening literally right in front of your nose; you can shift attention to that task ever so slightly, and still maintain situational awareness.

        Go look up the British Army combatives and CQB videos that have been posted on YouTube; you’ll note, in officially-approved training, that the victims of said training are shown not only pausing to reload, but removing their attention from their surroundings when doing so–Right in front of their trainers. This is the standard British Army practice, and has been since I last trained with them back when. It’s a system designed to teach an individual how to get himself killed dead in close combat, and the weapon they’ve saddled their troops with is a sad joke of a combat rifle.

        There’s a hell of a lot more to rifle and weapon design in general than most appreciate. The L85 got just about everything wrong, in terms of combat skills for the individual soldier trying to survive by himself in a gunfight.

        I could go on for quite a bit more, in other respects, but that gives you an idea of why this is such a crappy weapon to have inflicted on British soldiers. You’ll note that the SAS, who get to chose what they take into battle, do not carry the L85. There are reasons for that, and they stem from just this very point about ergonomics.

        • This is all correct. L85 is a poor to mediocre weapon. The A2 and A3 are quite nice to shoot prone on a range, and are reliable, unlike the A1, but handling and mag changes are still nearly as bad.

          • Yeah, if you have to think about what you’re doing, while taking your eyes and attention off your surrounding environment? The designers of your weapon fundamentally screwed the pooch–And, ohbytheway, you.

            I don’t know what was going through Stoner’s and Sullivan’s minds while they were designing what became the AR-series of rifles, but they got the ergonomics as close to perfect as anyone of that era did. The only thing I’d have added or changed would have been fully ambidextrous controls and the same sort of bolt-catch/release mechanism as the Robinson rifles have. The basic principles are a study in excellence-in-ergonomics.

            The L85? That’s an almost perfect example of the diametric opposite; if there were a wrong way to handle ergonomics in a combat rifle, they did it. And, with malice aforethought…

            Frankly, if I’d have been either Sterling or Armalite, I’d have sued the shit out of Enfield not for infringement, but for suggesting that they’d taken anything, anything at all from my weapons. The L85 is a living, breathing negative advertisement for anything related to the AR-18, from the operating system to the construction. It’s almost as bad a relationship as the M60 has to the FG42 and the Lewis gun–Excellent principles in theory, crippled by piss-poor implementation and mindless copying performed by the mechanically inept.

          • The most obvious tactical problem of the SA80 series weapons is one shared by almost every bullpup design, and few conventional ones. Namely, it cannot safely be fired from the left shoulder. Doing so almost guarantees a face-full of hot brass, especially in burst fire.

            The SLR manual said that in MOBUA, to shoot around a right-handed corner of a structure, transfer the SLR to the right shoulder, thereby minimizing your exposure to the enemy.

            The SA80 series’ solution? Take two steps out from the corner and continue as usual.

            I’m sure the Taliban and Co. appreciate that bit of drill on the part of Her Majesty’s Forces.

            Any bullpup weapon should eject its empties straight down or straight forward. Or else use a cartridge system (combustible plastic-cased or similar) that does not have to eject empties at all. This is one of the few things Heckler & Koch got right with the G11 4.7mm caseless design. Which was otherwise an overcomplicated Rube Goldberg accident looking for a place to happen.



            The SA80 family is only mildly less disastrous in service than the G11 would have been.



          • Damn. That should have been “transfer the SLR to the LEFT shoulder.”

            More coffee, eon.



          • “(…)shared by almost every bullpup design(…)cannot safely be fired from the left shoulder(…)”
            Nonetheless apparently there was for many years attraction to bull-pup design in Great Britain. For example British requirement spawned F.N. .280 AUTO CARBiNE Short Model see 4th image from top here:
            Note position of fire-mode selector. It was not pursued further as FN considered the design to be a dead-end, and development continued on the conventional

          • I honestly don’t think that the “can’t fire off the left shoulder” issue is really all that important, in the grand scheme of things. Yeah, it’s nice to be able to do that, but… The amount of accuracy and ability to deliver effective fire from your “off” shoulder is probably about the same as what you’re going to get in full NBC gear–Which is, frankly, laughable. At least, up until the advent of general-issue optical sights like the M68.

            If you’ve got a situation where you need to do it, well… Yeah, that’s usually a thing where you’re far more likely to stick the rifle around the corner and do a literal “spray-and-pray” thing, dumping an entire magazine or so as a discourager for the enemy while you try to get yourself into a position where you actually can deliver accurate fire. Or, you fling smoke grenades, satchel charges, and whatever else you happen to have to hand while doing the same.

            Your mileage may vary due to Rules of Engagement, and a general desire to avoid killing the odd “innocent bystander”, but by-and-large, the whole “fire from the left shoulder” deal is mostly an artifact of people overthinking crap who don’t really have actual experience. I can’t think of a single time over my 25-year career where we were ever allotted ammo or opportunity to train “off-shoulder” shooting. Not. Once. Unless, of course, you count blanks and other such-like idiocies.

            Kinda similar to full-auto or burst, when I think about it. I could, were I to try to remember it, probably count up the number of times I flicked my selector switch past “semi” during officially sanctioned marksmanship training with live ammo on the thumbs of one hand. Literally–We did it the one time during Basic Training for familiarization with the M16A1 in the Automatic Rifle mode, and that was it for the rest of my career. Any other such “opportunities” were conducted either due to the rare case where there was excess ammo and time on a range we’d completed, and were done entirely outside the constraints of the training standards regulation. I clearly remember one occasion where my boss got into a whole heap of trouble because he’d chosen to let us actually use our fun-switches when trying to expend a mass of left-over ammunition in the short time we had available. The powers-that-were didn’t think he’d gotten the maximum “training value” out of it, and that he should have had his range cadre fire up the 20,000 rounds of ammo he’d been instructed to open and render unfit-for-turn-in by those same idiots. We’d have still been there the next morning, had we done that, when the next unit showed up to use the range…

            Ah, Army accounting processes. I swear, if you let me do it, I could probably save the government half the military budget simply by doing away with two things: One, the “use it or lose it” budget mentality, and the excessively onerous ammunition turn-in policies, which mean that an awful lot of ammo gets burnt up rather than turned in unfired. If you’re a taxpayer, y’all simply do not want to know all the ins and outs of all that…

          • EM2s were trialed in a small way in the ‘Malayan Emergency’.
            I think Jonathan Ferguson’s book has details.

        • Kirk,

          You are right about British soldiers. If they like the L85, it is because they know no different. No British youngster has the chance to use a modern rifle in the UK before joining the service. They have nothing to compare the L85 family to. I would imagine the majority of recruits have never fired a full bore rifle. Some may have had .22 training with army cadets, but that would be it. The SLR has been gone for 30 years now, so I imagine there is no institutional memory of it. As you say, the elite troops who get to choose the rifle they use do not choose the L85. It’s good enough for the infantry, but not the SAS.

        • Admittedly, the M16/ AR Stoner has excellent ergonomics… When did the magazine changes of the “accidental rifle” become the “gold standard?” For a while, there were any number of solutions deemed “good enough” as you know?

          So, for example, the Kalashnikov has the “rock-in” magazines. The magazine change is slower in comparison to the AR type. On the other hand, the magazine was designed from the outset to hold 30 cartridges. Not like a Bren gun with “30” as theoretical and 28 in reality due to cartridge rims… Not like the AR-15/M16 series, which had a 20-round straight magazine. My limited understanding of Vietnam in the American phase of the war has it that U.S. troops requested 30-round magazines for parity with the Kalashnikov by 1966, if not earlier? Said 30-round magazines did not arrive until… Was it 1969? Or 1970? A booster of things Soviet and/or Russian would note that the Kalashnikov magazine is built hell for stout… The first 20-round AR magazines were loaded 18 cartridges only to avoid squishing the springs… And the 30-rounders had trouble with followers and the “curvature” of going from curved to straight for a very, very long time it seems?

          To lighten the already light AR-type rifle, we cut off the barrel and make an M4… Or go even shorter and get an 11.5-in. barrel on things like the new French PDW/service rifle for combined arms. With the bullpup, like, say, the AUG, you get the full 20-inch barrel and a more compact weapon. Of course, then the IDF comes along and crops the barrel on an already short Tavor bull-pup, right? I’d say the mag changes of the Uzi/sa 23-34-25-26 smgs and the AR/M16 are tip top… But there were other trade-offs in the design, yes?

          We can bemoan the strange weirdness of the SA80, but recall that the original No. 9/ EM-2 had a magazine that automatically closed the bolt and stripped-off and chambered the top round *upon insertion* of the magazine… Mighty quick!

          • Dave, as I said… I’ve never seen anything from either Stoner or Sullivan about the ergonomic design process they used, or what they were thinking at the time. I’d love to know if it was sheer accident, or carefully worked-out and planned from the beginning, but… I’ll be damned if any of that process ever got documented and preserved. From the looks of the literature and what I’ve been able to eke out from the interviews they did, it sure appears as though the AR-series ergonomic design leapt forth like Athena, fully-clothed from Stoner’s forehead in a bit of divine inspiration.

            I rather doubt that, but… Yeah; that’s how bad the actual evidence is.

            As for the magazine change issue…? Well, look at the weapon–The AR-series all share a similar setup with a pistol-like paradigm. The well is there, straight insertion, and its even somewhat flared to aid in it all. When you factor in the idea that they had for all the magazines being pre-loaded and disposable, well… Then, the entire flimsy nature of the thing and the constraints of the magazine well make sense. I believe that a proper fielding process should have weeded that bit of idiocy out of the weapon, and had Ordnance really done their jobs, then the M16 would have had a somewhat beefier magazine system and we’d not be discussing that problem today. It’s an irony that it took until the late 1990s before anyone started to really do anything about the magazines, and blessed be MagPul for doing what they did.

            Of course, I blame Ordnance for the stagnation, with their mentality that the M16 was only ever an interim design on the way to something far better, something birthed in the proper, Ordnance-approved manner.

            It’s really too bad nobody ever sat down and discussed this stuff with any of the actual designers–And, then bothered to write it down for the rest of us. I haven’t seen any test dummies for the ergonomics, ever, so it does rather look as if it all sprang forth, fully-blown. Which proposition I find highly dubious.

            The M16A2 and the M4 are both indicative of the entirely random process going on with US small arms. Nobody came out of Vietnam saying anything like “Yeah, the M16 is great… If only it were a little longer, a little heavier, and had a rear sight that was so complex and fussy that nobody will ever use it as designed in combat…”. They turned a serviceable little combat rifle into a freakin’ range toy that was designed to be the ultimate Service Match rifle, ignoring the fact that said “Service Match” ranges were so far from combat reality as to be in the genre of fantasy fiction. Then, they came up with a sop to the poor bastard drivers and other service troops who had to lug that overweight abortion around, and created the M4 out of off-the-shelf parts, without ever bothering to really validate it as a full-scale infantry combat weapon–‘Cos, y’know, it’s only them ash-and-trash service troops who’ll be issued the things, right…? Not important at all; they can get by with 200m lethality. (I remain dubious of the proposition that they knew this back then, as well… I think they tested for accuracy alone, and left “lethality” as an afterthought).

            Then, the infantry saw these handy little things arriving, and the M16A2 was cast off like the boat anchor it was, with entirely unseemly haste. None of those after-thought M4 carbines ever actually made it down to the support troops, and the infantry bubbas couldn’t get their hands on the M4 fast enough. Colt made a lot of money off that deal, ‘cos the M4 was proprietary, and the Army never negotiated for the actual TDP and rights to manufacture it because they never intended to procure it in the numbers they wound up buying.

            Whole thing has been a comedy of error since the 1950s. I think there should have been another Ichord Committee set up to look into the whole issue, and I’d have given them a mandate to seek out and apply capital punishment to all the varied and sundry perpetrators of that mess, if only to improve the species by weeding out the unfit.

            What the M16A2 and M4 should have been? I say a stiffer CHF 16″ barrel, mid-length gas system, full-auto capable, collapsible-stocked weapon with a provision for growth into optical sights. Instead, we wound up re-capitalizing our infantry small arms system twice inside of a single decade, and nobody wants to admit how much money went down that rathole.

            But, the men who did it? They’re geniuses, geniuses, I tell you. Never mind that they got it all wrong, and what reality’s “desire path” worked out to was another in a long line of less-than-what-it-could-have-been basic infantry weapons. We’d be in a much different place, had the assholes in the fifties followed the handwriting on the wall, and then, if they hadn’t, had at least allowed for a thorough fielding and wringing-out process for the M16. Which it never got, ‘cos “interim”.

        • You point about magazine entry equilibristic is right on. That sheet metal mag well without any meaningful guide-in flair hit me first in the eye when I saw it. If it was me who designed it, I’d make a large entry piece out of polymer with generous inlets in all four directions. I have seen similar idea applied on Taurus SMG. But, British want it the hard way. Let them have it.

          In comparison, when I look at HK416 or G36, that looks like a modern rifle, not the SA-85. French were right with their choice.

          • Another one I missed – and I feel almost ashamed for it, because it is so major. Can anyone who tried tell me, how it feels when someone forces you to do a cheek weld with something, which is boxy instead of triangular (aka Stg77)? I don’t get it. Some of Brits have nice round faces; how they cope with it?

          • When I was cross-training with the L85, I did not really note a major issue with the cheekweld. It was a little chunky, but it worked.

            What I did notice was the cheap tinniness of the receiver. I have only seen one military general-issue weapon whose functioning could be degraded by holding the receiver too tightly, and that was the L85/86. Didn’t notice it on the L85, but when I went to use the L86 support weapon in its first iteration, I did the usual M60 MG hold on it, gripping the top of the receiver with my off hand to steady it on the bipod. Bad, bad idea–That extra pressure from gripping it that way caused just enough extra friction on the bolt carrier to ensure a misfeed on about every other round. The young British soldier I had for a range coach spotted what I was doing, and had me move my off hand back to underneath the receiver behind the mag well for my hold. For whatever reason, I don’t remember there being one of those cute little HK MP5k forward-pistol grip thingies back there, when I was shooting it. It could be that the one I was shooting had been broken, the part fell off, or that was before they applied that particular fix to it. I do remember that a bunch of the plastic bits-and-bobs were having “issues”, and they had a guy there with superglue to put them back on the rifles on the range.

            The British senior warrant officer I was working with for that cross-training was a bit embarrassed by the whole deal, and kept apologizing for the L85/86, saying they were still “wringing them out”. I was equally embarrassed by our M60s, sooooo… It all worked out. End of the day, I wanted the L7s they had, and all of them wanted our M16s. They were particularly enamored of my personal AR-15 that I’d snuck out to the range (weekend, outside of official US Army time…) with an ACOG on top of it. I had set that up on a Colt HB with a heavily adapted HK bipod setup that I’d built into an M16A2 handguard, and that bastard was a tack-driver. They had a guy who’d been through the British Army snipers course, and he fell in love with that setup. I had trouble getting it out of his hands, again…

        • SAS, SBS and (some) Royal Marine Commandos have been using Armalite AR-15 rifles in the sixties. Among the first adopters really. And they have basically only replaced old guns over time. Mostly Made in Canada from Diemaco/Colt Canada. While the rest of HM armed forces was still toting the long stick SLR. And writing of thwe SLR. Magazine changes there are much easier than ion the SA80 as well. So someone should have noticed that it gets worde with the SA80. But NIH got in the way. And I guess just buying AR-18 from Sterling would have been kind of ironic considering “the troubles”. And is a conventional layout rifle. French FAMAS was out of course and France not really being in the export business anyway. Which would have left ohnly the Steyr Sturmgewehr 77/AUG in the early eighties. I guess NIH struck that one down and sunk cost fallacy. Ironically the Falkland Regiment not being formally a part of the British Army got handed a budget in the eighites for replacing their SLRs and got told to buy a bullpup rifle. Insinuating the SA80 of course. Someone on the little sheep islands must have been a smart guy and went out to buy a few FAMAS, AUG and L85 and compared each. The Royal Falkland Regiment ended up buying Steyr AUG, because it was easy to use, and a good package overall. Few years ago they have changed over to the L85 A3 for commonality wih the British forces on the islands. But still funny that this little regiment did something much more sensible.

      • “tapping the cocking handle” is described as forward assisting. In that you assist the bolt, to go forward I.e. Into battery. Well I certainly wouldn’t say it was completely unnecessary personally…

  4. You TELL us it is “very accurate”, but you NEVER show us the target or the holes in the target. WHY? Your videos are SO LAME compared to C&R and most other Gun Videos on You Tube. Has You Tube made it a rule that you cannot show holes in a target? Your videos lack some quality of reality because you will not show any targets . We don’t really know that you are not missing the targets all together.

    • David, you’re being offensive. You could have made exactly the same points in a civilized and agreeable manner.

    • Look forward to seeing your Finish Brutality YouTube video. Make sure you post a link here.

      • I support this motion.

        And besides, this video is about the L86 reliability and as many others have already said, in slow motion it looks like it is close to stove piping on each and every shot. With a bit of dirt and wear on the rifle added it will stove pipe all the time. Really not a good design.

  5. I watched in slow motion and saw that, when the gun is in full auto, the casings would still be in the path of the bolt when it slammed home. So, if that was the case for all L85A1’s I would think that it would be a problem eventually too. It would be something that would not been able to determine (easily) in the 1970’s, so the reliability issue came about. (I am NOT an expert, this is just my opinion!)

    • Yes, even when the SA80 worked, it only just worked, and that is with a clean gun on the range. Factor in dirt and dust and you can see why it failed so often. Even on the range it managed one malf, just to be polite.

      • During “Iraqi Freedom” (in Basra area) they carried them in textile pouches. This was never seen at battlefield before, unless they were precision snipers. And yes, when unpoached, they failed randomly.

    • Actually slow motion movie cameras and hoigh speed photography have been used for more than a hundred years by now. Today everybody with a bit of money to spare can buy a high speed camera for video or photo, but back then a governemnt procurement office was certainly able to to get ahold of this veryuseful tool to analyze a working machine.

  6. Serious question to anyone who shot such a rifle with high post sights: Does it hinder intuitive aiming? I suspect that sights close to the barrel allow me to easily aim along the barrel as I would do in a shotgun. Is this lost in the bullpup design?

      • Second thought, I probably misunderstood the question. Most bullpups require a high sight line. But except given a shorter line of sight, this doesn’t really make a difference with an inline design like an AR-15.

  7. I am not a Patreon, but I would really really really like to see Ian shooting at a paper target at 100 yards for riles and 25 yards for pistols. It is not important that he is not a good shot. But if he consistently uses the same targets we can compare weapons.

  8. POS! Canada quietly adopted the “off-the-shelf” M-16. Political trouble followed, but soldiers got a solid and reliable rifle. That Canada’s new rifle could be cheaply procured certainly benefited the tax payer.

    • “(…)Canada quietly adopted the “off-the-shelf” M-16. Political trouble followed(…)”
      Wait, so it was not problem for Canada to field U.S. aeroplanes (like CF-104) but when trying to adopt rifle it spurred political trouble? Why is so?

    • And now the Royal Marines have dropped the L85 in favour of the Colt C7, which I think is Canadian.
      I presume that the rest of the UK armed forces will follow suit as soon as it’s politically acceptable or necessary.

      • Except the army have recently invested in developing and fielding the L85A3, which is a small improvement on the A2.

        The money would of course have been better spent on any or all of: more C7/C8 for the “warrier” units; (b) more LMT 7.62 Sharpshooter rifles for more units; (c) research into next-gen rifles (or as they would probably be called “Personal anti-personnel general-purpose general-issue handheld weapon systems”).

        • At this point, I think that the British Army is welded to the L85 until death do them part… Like most military forces around the world, pragmatic acknowledgement of reality and the admission that they were wrong about something like the procurement of the L85 is simply (and, likely literally…) unthinkable.

          Sorta like the US and 7.62 NATO, the US and the M14, the US and the… Well, you get what I’m saying, no?

          There’s far too much “institutional pride” tied in with these things. It is practically pathologic, this inability to admit or acknowledge error. What’s really amazing is to observe how men who weren’t even involved in said decision-making become part of the problem, once they’re in charge, because they simply cannot allow the “institution” to look bad, ‘cos that would, by extension, make them look bad and call into question any decisions that were made which affected them… For example, their own career progression into those positions of authority.

          There is probably an entire school of thought out there, lying on the ground and awaiting some bright light to pick it up and reduce it to a learned academic field of study, regarding this syndrome. The mentality is, as I’ve pointed out, quite the opposite of pragmatic, and objectively pathologic in nature.

          • Kirk, I am sure you are right in that. No-one in the service now had anything to do with procuring the SA80, but the full force of institutional inertia means we are stuck with it for many years to come. At least H&K have made it function quite well, but as you say, it is still unergonomic. From the point of view of the British Army, a rifle which actually fires is such a welcome development that they will cling to it with joy. The Marines have their own procurement process, and are not wedded to the SA80 on an institutional level, so have ditched it.

            Speaking of dogs which cannot be ditched, I have a question about your old friend, the M60. I have always wondered why a spare barrel came with a new gas tube and bipod, adding weight and making it very difficult to change the barrel when on the bipod.

            Given that one good feature of the M60 was its stellite barrel, would doctrine have been not to change the barrel when using it as an LMG? But if it was used as an MMG on a tripod, having a new gas system with the new barrel would be helpful. The bipod would be folded anyway, and so would not interfere with the barrel change, and might even be of help as a grasping surface.

            No other GPMG that I am aware of has a new gas tube attached to the spare barrel like the M60 does. I felt there had to be some rationale for it, and this is the only one I can come up with. Does it make any sense to you?

          • John… I honestly don’t think there was a rationale behind much of anything with the M60. It surely worked out the way you describe, but… Did they actively plan it that way…?

            Color me in as “dubious” of that entire proposition. I think that what happened was that the quick-change barrel was designed in after the rest, and that was the only way it would work. Then, they rationalized it as “well, you get a whole new, clean gas system with the new barrel…”.

            Reality? LOL… Yeah; right. What actually happened was that that “new, clean gas system” would have all sorts of unpleasant things happen to it while the barrel was cooling. You’d have guys flop the thing into the dirt, and that open end where the piston was would get clogged with filth, and on and on and on.

            The whole thing was a triumph of “failing to comprehend” what they were looking at in the FG42, MG42, and the Lewis Gun, combined with a half-assed approach to copying things without thinking them through. Oh? The MG42 has spare barrels…? Let’s give the M60 two of those things, then…

            Unfortunately, they neglected to copy over the fact that any MG42 can use any MG42 barrel. No need to headspace the damn things to the bolts; you could pick up barrels pretty much from anywhere in the German system, and have them function–Some crews carried as many as six spare barrels, and they were treated as semi-consumable items.

            You try that crap with an M60, and there’s a blown-up weapon somewhere in your future.

            The M60, like the L85, is a weapon system whose study is replete with examples of “Here’s how not to do something…”, and feckless overconfidence in the entire enterprise. As well, they both share a design lineage with some very good weapons, and the early prototypes were far better designs than what got into service. There are an eerie number of parallels between the two, when you get right down to it…

          • Kirk:

            You are right, I may be over-rationalizing the M60 design process. I just felt there had to be some reason for attaching the gas tube and bipod to the spare barrel. In your experience, when used on the bipod, did anyone bother to change the barrel? Did they actually carry the spare barrel?

            As to the SA80 story, some years ago I was talking to a friend in the RAF Regiment. It was just after the L85A2 had been adopted. He said the scuttlebut had been that H&K had said to the MOD that they could make the L85A1 much better for a certain price, or if they were prepared to pay more, they could make it perfect. I thought this must be the usual service rumour, but it seems to have been right. The L85A2 is the “better” rifle, and now the MOD have coughed up the cash for the L85A3, the “best” rifle. But since you cannot polish a turd, the L85A3 is as good as the SA80 system is ever going to get.

          • @JohnK,

            You sound like me, as a young soldier… “There has to be a reason they did this… What was it…?”.

            Kinda like that kid who wanted a pony for his birthday, only to come home from school to find a load of horseshit delivered for the garden in the driveway. Cue parents coming home to find him digging through the pile, spreading it all over hell’s creation: “Why are you doing that?!?!?!” “Well, with so much shit here, there has to be a pony, somewhere…”.

            I never did find that pony. I don’t think there’s one to be found, TBH. I’ve dug through the literature from back then, and I can’t find squat on the reasoning that went into most, if not all of their design decisions. I have concluded that there wasn’t a hell of a lot of actual reasoning going on…

            Based on what limited sources I can find, talking to a couple of people who were on the periphery of it all, and with supposition to fill in the blanks (based on what I know of how things work these days in US military procurement, which is to say, more accurately, usually actually doesn’t work…), I think that what happened was about like this:

            Firstly, nobody was really in charge–There wasn’t one guy like Garand running the show. It was design by committee, and the committee kept changing. The actual weapon itself became what it was because of the collective idiocy of the committee working on it, none of whom really understood the whole of the gun.

            And, the pressure was on: The M1919A6 was both long in the tooth, and not entirely satisfactory. So, they had this thing in the labs they’d been playing around with, which was the antecedent to the M60, based on a mishmash of an FG42 and an MG42. Thing was, nobody in the committee really grasped all the little details of why certain things had been done in those designs, like the extra cut in the bolt to keep the op rod tower from peening the forward face of the bolt cam track, or the extra set of pawls in the feed cover. I suspect that those things got left out due to “value engineering”.

            And, there were all those “good ideas” that they threw in, like the “quick change barrels” that were done in an absence of understanding for why such things were, and what actual features they needed to have across the entire weapon, in order for them to work properly. Little details like being unable to zero each barrel independently such that you didn’t have to screw with the rear sight upon changing the barrel–Which was a nightmare. I had a gun, once upon a time, whose two barrels were so friggin’ different in terms of point of impact from them that you absolutely had to re-adjust that rear sight considerably in order to hit anything with either of them. They were far enough apart that you couldn’t find a happy medium and then use Kentucky windage one way or the other to compensate–I had to keep a little tag on the damn barrels with the zero settings on them, telling me where to take the rear sight from mechanical zero.

            There was probably a reason I was the only guy in the company that ever shot “Expert” on our MG qualifications, and that was because I was also the only idiot that took the time to pay attention to little details like that. Most of the rest of the company weren’t really even aware that you were supposed to zero those rear sights to the barrels in the first damn place…

            So, the design kept accruing all these little problems that nobody was really responsible for, and when those problems turned up, they kludged their way around them.

            Another case in point–The gas system’s spontaneous self-disassembly, which they solved by the simple expedient of providing every company armorer with a set of aircraft safety-wire pliers and instructions to wire up the nuts and bolts so they wouldn’t come apart.

            There are inspired little bits of things in the M60, like the Stellite barrels. But, there is no overarching “sign” that one person was responsible for the whole–It is a set of parts moving in loose proximity, trying to imitate a machinegun, and they really don’t want to be a part of such an endeavor. Which is why that gun keeps trying to beat itself to death–It really does not want to be a machinegun. I am unsure what that mechanism really, truly wants to be, but it ain’t a GPMG. I think it’s fundamentally embarrassed by that idea, and really wants another purpose in life.

            Overall, I think what you see in the M60 is design by a committee of the uninspired and marginally skilled, who were satisfied to simply produce something a little better than the M1919A6, which is a pretty low bar for a GPMG. You can tell this is so by way of the rest of the kit for the gun–The tripod, for example? It’s the same POS they issued for the M1919 air-cooled .30 cal Brownings. Same T&E, same pintle with a little modified platform for the M60 (at least, initially… A yoke came in, later–But, the old platform and M1919 pintle combo were on issue still, when I was a private…), which goes to show how hard they were squeezing the nickels.

            I don’t know what they should have issued in lieu of the M60, but I think I could have done better simply by going out and doing a market survey, and then buying off the shelf–Either MG3 or the MAG58. What they should have done was to stop and re-think their entire approach to small arms, because the idiocy of trying to shoehorn in a multi-purpose caliber that could do MG work as well as individual weapon service…? Left us with a solution that was really a little too light for the support role, and far too heavy for the individual weapon. I still think we’d have been a lot better off admitting honestly that we’d screwed the pooch with the 7.62 NATO and gone back to the .280 British and something more like the Swedish 8mm MG cartridge for the support weapon. The natural “desire path” for small arms in combat would seem to be “dual caliber” with a controllable-on-full-auto individual weapon, and a heavier round to chew through light-to-medium cover for the support weapon–And, you need that in your squads, not kept up at platoon or company level.

            Or, so says my experience and research.

          • Kirk:

            As you say, the M60 was like the horse designed by a committee. I am not sure if it was even better than the M1919A6. Less cumbersome, certainly, but a better machine gun?

            I suppose part of the problem was that the USA had just won WWII and become a superpower, so they were not going to buy rifles and machine guns from a pipsqueak country like Belgium, even though they had said they would buy FALs as a quid pro quo for forcing 7.62mm on NATO.

            When the M14 and M60 were being designed, oh so slowly, it is perhaps surprising that any money at all was found for mere small arms. Doctrine then was that if the Russians invaded West Germany, NATO would have gone nuclear from minute one. Even fighter planes like the F84 were adapted to take a nuke, so who cares if the M60 only lasts 10,000 rounds? The war’s going to be over in a day. Of course, no-one saw Vietnam coming did they?

            As you say, training on the machine gun is poor. The fact that the tripod from the M1919A4 is still used is some sort of sick joke. The M1919A4 was never meant to be the medium machine gun. I am not really sure what it was meant to be. Too big and heavy to be an LMG, not big and heavy enough to be an MMG, but it did give firepower to American units for whom the BAR was the only other option.

            I expect you are right, the M60 was designed by people who had been told to design a GPMG because the Germans had one, without doing any of the thinking which led the Germans to conclude that they wanted a GPMG in the first place. I agree with you, the concept of the GPMG is flawed, but at the time they thought the M14 was going to replace the SMG, carbine, rifle and BAR. Maybe the pistol too. It was a strange time, to be sure, but it would have worked so long as they were never, ever, used in combat.

          • “(…)M60 was designed by people who had been told to design a GPMG because the Germans had one, without doing any of the thinking which led the Germans to conclude that they wanted a GPMG in the first place.(…)”
            For me, it looks like development was directed by or at to liking of creature called marketroid which did
            promises users that the next version of a product will have features that are not actually scheduled for inclusion, are extremely difficult to implement, and/or are in violation of the laws of physics; and/or one who describes existing features (and misfeatures) in ebullient, buzzword-laden adspeak
            What is striking is lack of competition i.e. alternative design to M60 during development. What would become have numerous competitors, TKB-521 design is probably most known as being close 2nd, but far from sole – see TKB-464 xor Garanin xor АО-22

          • @JohnK,

            It is my opinion that the general truth you and I are both outlining is that the US Army and the Marines simply have never taken infantry and infantry combat all that seriously, other than as a source of manpower to hold terrain once the other supporting arms have effectively blasted the enemy out of their positions.

            I further opine that the cult of the “individual rifleman” has warped what little sense there is in the whole endeavor entirely out of contact with reality. Which is not to deprecate the individual rifleman, merely to point out that no matter how well they are trained and how well equipped, they still wilt in front of massed firepower. You can’t cope with something like a PKM on a tripod at range, well-positioned, and do it only with M4 carbines and poorly trained MG teams working off of bipods and some poor bastards shoulder.

            The entire concept of American infantry combat is predicated on supporting arms; take away those arms, and you’re screwed, screwed, screwed.

            This is actually why I have such a mania for the MG; as a Combat Engineer, we were never, ever authorized to have access to things like the indirect fire control net; we’d be slated to be out in front, laying in obstacles to “shape the battlefield”, and the miserable miserly pricks would tell us that all we had were our organic weapons, which were basically the bare minimum for the infantry units two generations back… So, yeah; I had to learn the MG, and learn it better than most of my infantry peers, for whom it was only ever a somewhat unappreciated and underutilized club in their golf bag-o-supporting fires.

            The US Army does not operate in close proximity to reality; even after years in Afghanistan, they train and operate as though they were never going to have to operate in the absence of supporting arms. I blame that on a lot of things, not the least of which is the mentality that surrounds the training areas–For most of the 1980s and 1990s, the National Training Center was literally the Army operating in a vacuum, with zero real attention paid to things like the fact that we were training in an environment with zero civilians. Sure, they paid lip service to “civilians on the battlefield”, but… Sweet Jesus, realistic scenarios wherein the roads were clogged with refugees? Potential reporting on our activities by local civilians? Real guerrilla operations? LOL… Nope. None of that, not us, not ever.

            You would not believe the issues I had trying to get people to pay attention to the implications–I knew, from listening to my stepdad, who’d been an 8 year-old runner and spy for the partisans in Slovenia during WWII, just what a bunch of “harmless” civilians could do to you. Try incorporating that into training? Oh. My. Gawd. The horror, the horror… My bosses were not best pleased with me, whenever I did that. “Wasting valuable training time…” was the least of their complaints. Cue Bosnia and Kosovo, and a few of my training victims were telling me that I’d been the only person that had ever prepared realistic training for them, in that regard.

            The small arms issues are entirely of a piece with this delusional fantasy-land mentality. They were papered over, for decades, ‘cos nobody ever thought or planned what they were going to do in case of a situation wherein they could not use all those supporting arms they’d predicated everything on. And, it’s not that we have really bad small arms, either–It’s just that the mentality has been to deprecate their use as anything other than close assault and close defense tools. Nobody bothered to retain all those challenging little things like the delivery of indirect fire from the MG on the assault, ‘cos you had other tools to use for that which were a lot easier to use, and for which it was a lot easier to get budget and training time for. So, all the little bits and bobs of fieldcraft and skill-at-arms gradually evaporated over the years. Weren’t being used, weren’t important enough to emphasize in what little limited training we were able to do under the budget constraints, and here we are: Essentially unarmed in terms of technique and practical skills with basic organic infantry weapons.

            I’m here to tell you that I’m going to go to my grave convinced that a WWII German Alpenjager unit could have turned most of the Taliban they would run into in Afghanistan into so many live-action pop-up targets, and do it with only their organic weapons. Meanwhile, modern US infantry units complain they’re “overmatched”, ‘cos they don’t have a decent tripod or know how to use one in order to return fire in a dynamic tactical situation… It’s not the guns, dummies; it’s the friggin’ training. You know how many guys I’ve talked to who were MG crew members, who’d had access even to simple fire control tools like binoculars? I know one guy, and he was someone I trained and who’d had to buy his own set. Everyone else was stunningly unaware of how to use a reticle and a T&E in order to direct and correct fires with an MG. Lost art, see…?

            Gets worse. I was taught this technique via osmosis; old-timers from Vietnam showed me how, when I was a gunner. Tried training as many as I could, over the years, but the opportunities were fleeting and hard to arrange. Not long ago, I was talking to a guy who wanted me to put together a piece on how to do all that, correcting fire from a tripod, and I go looking through the manuals for the official “how-to”.

            Care to guess what I found? Nada, in the Army manual. In the Marine version, which has typically been better for such things, what I find upon close examination is that they’re using the same text and illustrations in that manual today that were in the manual for the M1919, dating back to the 1940s. The. Same. Ones. Exactly. Right down to the illustration of the extremely obsolete bino reticle which went out at the end of WWII. The manual was effectively useless for anyone trying to puzzle out the “how-to” of that stuff, so I presume that whatever technique remains was strictly word-of-mouth, the way I got it. I’m embarrassed to say that I never really noticed this, because that was always one of those “We’ll get to that when we can…” sort of things, due to the personnel turbulence in the ranks. You don’t get a chance to do the advanced stuff when you’re loosing your trained gunners and crew every six months or so… It’s an endless repetition of “A,B,C… Back to A, A,B,C,D… Damn, it lost Smith to a driver’s slot, back to A…”. You never, ever get to Task “G”, let alone the really complex and advanced stuff like “M” and so forth…

            What was really aggravating was taking the time, as a retiree, to call up the nice people at the Marine headquarters that writes these manuals, point out the fact that they were illustrating what I think is a fairly important task with an utterly obsolete illustration of a reticle that went out circa 1944, and get utter disinterest in return. One of the guys I spoke with had difficulty understanding what the issue was… A reticle is a reticle, right?

            Like a lot of things, machinegunnery is a lost and dying art. And, I would say, that’s a symptom of the rest of the issue, as well. The Army doesn’t think small arms are important, and the Marines are kinda lost down that rabbit hole of “marksmanship uber alles”, forgetting that the point is to kill the enemy, period. You don’t do that with a mass of individual riflemen, I’m afraid. They can, but the root of your firepower solution is that friggin’ MG, and your low-level indirect like the mortars and grenade launchers. I don’t think they really get that point, any of them, and the situation going forward is only going to get uglier. Why? Because one of the side-effects of the drone revolution (as on display in Armenia…) is that I think we’re going to lose the fire support assets we’ve become accustomed to, and combat is going to consist of a lot of stealthy buggers with only what they can carry, trying to get into positions to launch and control their own drones, while observing the enemy and calling in fires from way far back behind the combat zones…

          • Kirk:

            Your replies are always interesting and most informative.

            I think small arms usage in the practical sense (as opposed to range qualification) is neglected because the American way of war is to use artillery and air support instead of men. Which is a good thing in many ways, but when you are in the sort of counter-insurgency wars that have been the norm since Vietnam is a problem. Then, skill with small arms really does come into its own.

            It is sad that there seems to be no institutional memory about the use of the machine gun in the US. I do not know if things are better in the UK, but the withdrawal of the Minimi would suggest not.

            The survival of the M1919A4 tripod to this day in US service is a case in point. The M1919A4 was not a proper MMG, just as the BAR was not a proper LMG. Both seem to have been shoehorned into these roles for the lack of any alternative. That the US Army then ended up with the M1919A6 was just shameful.

            As you say, the US Army ended up with the M16 by accident, and then spent decades making a good gun worse. Strange indeed. Let’s hope the USAF don’t finally succeed in getting rid of the A10s!

          • @JohnK,

            The whole thing boils down to this: The culture of the US military does not put much, if any, real emphasis on the low-level nuts and bolts of warfare. You could try to argue otherwise, but the reality is that the people running the enterprise have always been more concerned about things like how many flunkies a flag-rank officer rates at each level than about how best to organize a squad for conducting operations in combat.

            Because of this, we came out of WWI more worried about “big picture” issues instead of the low-level stuff; most of the men who’d actually “done combat” were the “Christmas help”, the Reserve/NG types and the wartime-only types. The Regular Army sorts who staffed the place in peacetime had spent their war mostly up at the higher levels, running the administrivia of it all. What few cranks there were who recognized that the individual rifleman had emphatically not won the war were sidelined and ignored. This is why you see the US focusing on the Garand to the exclusion of all else, and why you see that the very first thing the French replaced after the war was the Chauchat. Same-same with the Germans–Both armies recognized that firepower trumped all in combat, and both armies spent what limited cash they had on developing better MG systems. US Army? LOL… “Yeah, we got those Browning things, we good…”. Never mind that the Army had not had a really good idea of how war worked when they’d specced those out for John M., they were good. And, so, nothing was done about the MG, other than some minor tweaks.

            Same thing happened in WWII. Very few of the guys who’d been on the tippy-tip of the spearhead eviscerating the Germans and Japanese managed to even stay in the Army after the war, and even then, everyone thought that conventional war was a thing of the past–You’d really only need a rifle for symbolism during occupation duty, if you even did that. So, they let Studler do what he did, in a fit of unconcern. Same with the M60 and all the other excresences of the mid-20th Century US machinegun procurements. The M73/219 fiasco springs to mind…

            It is a cultural issue, when you get down to it. The people running things do not think small arms and their effective combat use are things which are important, and so we do not do much about them. All the money and emphasis goes into stuff like the tanks, the missiles, the artillery, and so on–Which is great, so long as you can actually bring all of that to the fight, but… It creates certain difficulties when you cannot. We learned that going up against the AK-series in Vietnam, and we’ve reiterated that experience going up against the PK in Afghanistan.

            You can fight wars without really good small arms and men who know how to use them. The problem comes in when you find yourself in a conflict where you can’t use your other options, and you have to send in the hard men with rifles and machineguns.

            If it were me, I’d take the position that if you’re going to build yourself an army reliant on heavy supporting firepower, then you don’t put that army into situations where you can’t bring that firepower to bear. Unfortunately, as I pointed out to my bosses about route clearance and demining, sometimes you don’t get to choose your conflict or how you’re going to fight it. You have to do what you can with what you’ve got, and if that’s not good enough, then you’d better figure out why and do something about it.

            I’ll continue to assert, however, that that “something” should not be to whinge about “overmatch” and demand an entire new suite of small arms tailored to dealing with that perceived issue, which I am not even sure is an accurate reflection of reality. I think the money and mindspace spent on the NGSW would be far better spent on figuring out how to deal with drones, and that they ought to do a lot more in the way of actual realistic training on the current suite of weapons before we blow big money replacing them.

          • Kirk:

            I think you summed it up in your last line. “Blowing big money” is what it’s all about. The US military budget is ten times that of the next nation for a reason. The military-industrial complex does not make much money from a rifle, but F35s at $100 million each are the way to go. So the push in the USAF is to get rid of cheap and simple A10s that really do the job, in favour of F35s which won’t. But the makers of the F35 will certainly be able to give very lucrative “consultancies” to senior USAF officers when they retire. Having the best weapon to fight is very much a secondary consideration.

            It’s a big problem. The US should have been able to fix small arms procurement and training, but it cannot do even that. They would rather spend money on bullshit programmes which never deliver anything. Until you understand that the point is not to deliver anything, but to spend the money, and then suddenly it all makes sense!

          • @JohnK,

            It isn’t that the US can’t fix its issues with small arms. It is, instead, that it won’t. Just like the UK, the powers-that-be-and-which-were simply do not care about the issue. Why? Because they will not prioritize on it, and see no value in doing so.

            It’s a matter of choice, and they’ve deliberately, with malice aforethought, chosen these courses of action down the years. Nothing is going to change that until they’re up against the wall, and come to the conclusion that these are more than trivialities–Which is likely gonna mean they’re going to have to lose a war, or come to some other significant come-to-Jesus moment of epiphany over the issue.

          • Kirk:

            You are right to say that by and large politicians do not care, and for the sort of career bureaucrat who rises to the top of the peacetime military, these things are secondary to lining up that retirement gig with Lockheed Martin.

            I always remember reading that when the Argentines invaded the Falklands, Mrs Thatcher thought we could send the Ark Royal. She had somehow missed that that carrier had been scrapped three years before. And she was meant to be a hawk on defence!

            Sadly, I think you are over optimistic if you think it will take losing a war to improve matters. We have lost in all but name in Afghanistan. The Taliban already control most of the country, how long will Kabul hold out when the US departs? So many dead, and so much money spent, and for what? We cannot beat the Taliban? Really? I suppose Sleepy Joe is too busy to worry about it!

  9. there are several times in slow mo you can see the cases barely make it all the way out the ejection port before the bolt closes, narrowly missing a stove pipe failure.

  10. There’s a sticky ejector plunger and or a weak ejector spring.

    The receiver looks like it could have done with a couple of inches more for bolt travel, the impact of the bolt carrier can be seen rippling Ian’s shirt and arm.

    I’ve no experience of the SUSAT. Is eye relief not factory or armourer adjustable?

  11. The foresight post is detachable and is usually not fitted when using optical sights. The SUSAT fits on rails and can be locked in three positions. When these were new those of us trained on SLR were more accurate using iron sights than infantry who had used nothing but SA80 with SUSAT.

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