SA80 History: L85 A1 vs A2 (and the coming A3)

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At last, we have reached the L85A2, when the rifle was finally made into something reliable and effective. In 1995, after extensive public scandal from the L85A1’s shortcomings being blatantly exposed in the first Gulf War, Heckler & Koch was given a contract to retrofit the rifles. At the time H&K was owned by British Aerospace, so this remained an arguably British program. The H&K retrofit consisted largely of subtle changes to materials, tolerancing, and finish, but it would lead to very significant improvements in performance (these were the ares where the original Enfield design team had the least experience). The parts changed included:

Cocking handle, bolt, extractor, extractor pin, ejector, ejector pin, firing pin, cam stud, hold-open, barrel extension, gas system, handguard, magazine, bolt carrier, hammer stop, hammer, barrel, ejection post, and all springs.

The new A2 rifles were introduced into service starting in 2001, and have receiver widely positive reviews. This is the rifle that the L85 could have and should have been from the very beginning. In addition, further improvements will likely lead to an A3 variant in the relatively near future. Currently the main improvement is HK’s “A3” (not yet a government designation) upper receiver, which is stronger and has an improved optics mounting rail.


  1. Would you say that taking a Sterling design without input from Sterling was the “original sin” that H&K had to remedy?

    • It sounds like the disaster we know as the Colt “All American” 2000. Knight and Stoner make a decent design which then gets tweaked in ways by Colt that make it totally useless in the intended role. And Colt attempts to sell the defective product and hires people to sing its praises. The whole thing flops and Colt goes bankrupt.

      Just like the Colt 2000, the SA80 (prior to modifications by Heckler & Koch) was a case of “decent idea progressively made worse and worse by idiots who think only of the money they’ll make by selling the final product.”

      Did I mess up?

      • That’s the not the same situation. Colt started with a good design but failed to convert it to mass production. They basically screw up the industrialisation stage. Just like Remington did recently with the R51.
        Enfield did not had a good design to start with. If the Research & Development stage can’t deliver a good design, it would be a miracle to get something correct out of the production line.

  2. Ian
    I was hoping you would have commented on the extraordinary circumstances that led to the how and why that H&K became involved with the Enfield rifle.
    From what I understand, H&K went bankrupt in the early 1990’s (due to the cost of the ill fated G11 project?). Royal Ordnance who built the rifles in England then bought H&K, setting up the relationship to eventually have them redesign/rebuild the Enfield rifle. The actual sale seems incredible in that why would the German government allow a company, in a country that they fought two major wars against buy the company that builds many of the small arms used by Germany?
    The other incredible thing is that when it came time to upgrade the Enfield rifles, they were shipped out of England to a foreign country (Germany) against which England had also fought two major wars.
    One can only wonder what Winston Churchill or Otto Bismark would think of all that.

    • Jim,
      the entire G11 program was financed by the Federal Republic and the design owned by the Government, not HK.
      Whatever the reason for HK’s financial troubles, its not the G11.

    • Not that remarkable, actually. Prussia was a long time ally of the UK prior to the naval race of the late 19th and early 20th century.

      Then of course there was the “little” thing called the Cold War against the Soviet Union, which made earlier conflicts largely irrelevant. While the Cold War ended in 1991, both the UK and Germany remained very much a part of the Western NATO alliance and that has not changed much even later. The UK will remain a very important member of NATO in the foreseeable future despite the upcoming Brexit from the EC/EU political and economic union.

      • Sorry if I offended you guys it all seemed very ironic to me and would have liked to have heard Ian’s take on it.

        • “Offended”? I can’t speak for others, but I was merely pointing out that for many reasons the two World Wars are not that relevant for Anglo-German relations and military co-operation.

    • “incredible in that why would the German government allow a company, in a country that they fought two major wars against buy the company that builds many of the small arms used by Germany”
      So, if they were deciding on base of first half of 20th century, then British would chose French firm do that?

  3. Any estimate on what A1s and A2s each have cost the British taxpayer? An “A3”? My gut feel is that the A2 is a $ 5000 rifle.

  4. Was the cost of development worth the British “vanity” of having their own unique design when they could’ve spent far less to adopt a proven, albeit foreign design like the AR?

    • I think a more interesting question is how much more the UK government is willing to spend on this considering that they will probably go with the H&K 416 like the French.

      • “H&K 416 like the French”
        Interesting, I don’t know that Armée de terre replaced FAMAS with H&K 416 or in other words bull-pup with classic layout.
        Are advantages of bull-pup layout worth it for infantry assault rifle, or maybe it is rather trend than solution of real problem?

        • Heard that just a few weeks ago. Yes it does seem like the bullpup platform didn’t work as well as they had hoped. I read today that the Chinese may be going away from theirs

        • The bullpup configuration is a way to keep a full length rifle barrel while still having a weapon that is quite compact. Compactness is especially useful for mechanized infantry, which has to fit in the usually rather cramped insides of APCs and IFVs with all the other gear that modern infantry also carries.

          The alternative to bullpups are carbine length barrels and folding stocks.

        • “I don’t know that Armée de terre replaced FAMAS with H&K 416”
          This is relatively old story. It will cost presumably “cash strapped” French military lots of dough/ pasta. U.S. Marines pay for basically same rifle something in order of 3grand apiece.

          • Do you mean the M27 IAR? I believe that’s a much more limited numbers item, since it has been purchased only by the USMC to partially replace the M249 LMG.

          • @E-weasel

            Yes, M27. But they are talking of desire to make it general issue for Marine corps in addition to already purchased 27-30k units. There is no real difference between M27 and 416F. They are both select fire; heavy and expensive.

          • The USMC just finalized the transition from the M16A4 to the M4 in combat units (the M16 will remain for training etc.) and now they want to go back to a full lenght rifle barrel? That does not seem plausible to me. There is of course always “talk”; when the war in Afghanistan was at its height some wanted to go back to the M14 for every Marine…

            The HK416F comes in two variants, namely 11″ and 14.5″ barrels. Both are much shorter than the M27 with its 16.5″ barrel. I also wonder if you have comparable data about the unit prices of the weapons when you say that they are expensive. Overall contract price tells us little, since it always includes stuff like spare parts, which different armies order in varying quantities.

    • “could’ve spent far less to adopt a proven, albeit foreign design like the AR”
      I am wondering: could British Army adopted Lithgow F88 bull-pup rifle? How it does compares against various… As* of L85.
      * – I am more accustomed to Mk.(Roman number) system (as used by Royal Navy), where it would be various Marks of

    • The AR-15 was one of the rifles the British replaced with the L85! They were in fact one of the first purchasers of it, and used it in Malaya, Borneo, and Northern Ireland. They were very familiar with the AR-15’s good and bad points.

      However, they wanted a bullpup rifle for use by armoured infantry vehicles and helicopter borne troops, and for urban fighting. This gives them a full length barrel in a very compact package. You can’t do that with an AR-15, you can’t even mount a folding stock on an AR-15.

      At the time the British started this project there weren’t a lot of other options which would give them what they wanted. There were the FAMAS and the Steyr AUG, but both had their own problems. The FAMAS required steel cased ammunition which wasn’t as widely available, and the AUG has its own detractors.

      The British never had an “NIH” attitude when it came to small arms, as every infantry rifle back to the Snider-Enfield conversion was either a license built version of a foreign design, or at least heavily based on foreign designs. The same was true for most of their machine guns. If there had been a reasonable off the shelf rifle available for licensing which gave them what they wanted, there was nothing in their past history which suggests they wouldn’t have licensed it.

      As for the HK 416, while the French may have bought it, other armies have tested it (e.g. NZ) and were less than impressed. The French are replacing the FAMAS because they’re worn out and the state arsenals which made them were shut down years ago. Their criteria now were that the rifle had to be made in the EU and had to be cheap. Their army is too strapped for cash to specify much beyond that.

      If you look at the other rifles in other armies, there are currently loads of complaints from the US about their M4 and demands to replace it, and there’s a huge scandal in Germany about how crap their H&K G36s supposedly are. The perfect rifle that nobody has complaints about simply doesn’t exist.

      • “However, they wanted a bullpup rifle for use by armoured infantry vehicles and helicopter borne troops, and for urban fighting. This gives them a full length barrel in a very compact package. You can’t do that with an AR-15, you can’t even mount a folding stock on an AR-15.”
        Thanks, that explain why small size was at premium; in Russian usage bull-pup seems to be limited to “special” weapons like for example ASh-12.7:

      • What is funny with the closure of French small arms arsenal is when GIAT (the public group owning all french arsenals) purchased FN, they thought they will rely on their new first class subsidiary for small arms, so they could close their less efficient national arsenals. All was good until FN started to loose money in the late 90’s and could no more give it to its parent company. At that point, the get rid of FN… and their ability to procure small arms somewhat on national basis.

        • This resembles, what is typically called “shooting oneself in foot”. Now they depend on Bosch. 🙂

          • True. But they came short of adopting the SCAR. Of the 6 official competitors, only 2 were retained: FN and HK with FN leading on technical points but they misinterpreted some French regulations on public contracts in their final offer and were thrown out so the Boches won by default.

        • The Thales group is partially owned by the French goverment and they make the F90, so they did have a sort of French option as well, but for some reason it wasn’t even seriously considered, I have heard. Some politics at play, as usual when it comes to arms purchases. Steyr-Mannlicher would have been ready to manufacture the guns for the French, so it was not like the F90 was not an acceptable option in principle.

          • Well known French author Jean Huon speculates that Thales wasn’t selected because of the improvements over the AUG were not of European origin.
            I do not know the licencing agreement between ADI and Steyr, but I don’t think the latter would be happy with the former promoting their previous product as Steyr was no more selected with its new STM.

          • I am not sure, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Ster still receives licensing fees from ADI. Reportedly they would have been willing to manufacture the F90 for the French, for the right money of course.

            Whatever politics were involved, the F90 not being of European origin does not really sound logical to me. The HK416, after all, is largely a derivative of the AR-18, and I’m sure the French Army officials were aware of that fact. I think it’s more likely that the HK416 was simply quite cheap, and for political reasons the French goverment wanted a German weapon instead of a multinational one, even if the latter was to be manufactured within the EU.

          • I suspect it is all politically based decisions; the thing we really do not want to talk about.

            The Aussie version of AUG is presented here by Tim

            I am not really keen on new artwork, but it has functionality of AUG with some additions. Major point in my view is that as much as AUG it does not require to do any fiddling with fire-mode switch somewhere deep underarm. And the safety is as plain as it gets and in right location.

    • The SAS, SBS/Royal Marines, Ghurkas, etc, actually did and do use the M16!
      Maybe there should have been some oversight when it became evident that the non-4.85mm was a non-starter…

      Of course, a good many UK armed police use the MP5 or G36… and the MoD have the MP7!

  5. Very Interesting video. I had always heard about the HK upgrades to the L85A1, but this is the first up close look at what HK actually i did that I have seen. Well done.

  6. Ian, great work. Excellent report.
    I (very) briefly owned an AR-180 way back in the 1980’s (I think) and was appalled at the lack of quality control. The joke was, “Every hundred rounds or so, invert rifle and vigorously shake to shed various broken parts.”
    Except it wasn’t a joke.
    A truly awful execution, but in fact an equally or greater awful design. About the only positive point was the folding stock, for those married to cramped transportation like APC’s or helicopters or some such. Interesting to note, even far into the ’90’s, even then the designers couldn’t get as simple a thing as modifying a folding stock to bullpup configuration.
    As always, beware [Rampent] [Colossal] [Enormous] incompetence (choose one, some, or all. Feel free to add R.L.E.)Real Life Experience) commentary.
    But then, maybe they do it different there.
    And one can’t be too snarky coming from an organization that developed the M-14.
    (But I really liked mine.)

    • So I guess I was only partly right about the AR-18 issues last time. The problems come down to design and quality control. It’s bad enough if your quality control doesn’t exist. It’s worse when the product hasn’t been marketed soon enough to compete with other long gun lines like the AR-15 and the AK family.

      David, how many breakable parts were there?

      • CD,
        good question.
        What parts broke?
        Response # 1; Many, many.
        Response # 2; Pretty much all of them.
        Oddly enough, the only thing not giving me trouble was the folding part of the folding stock but then California made that feature Objectionable/Illegal/Too war-like/Not pretty enough/Something a drug dealer might have/Law Enforcement Authorized Only/Etc, Etc…
        So I sold it to a known junkie who doubtlessly sold it to his dealer which is certainly, if you think about it, sweet justice. One should always dispose of weaponry of a non-functional nature to those of non-functional nature.
        It’s been the American way for centuries.
        Sale insurance on a deal like that is called, “Drop-A-Dime.”
        Don’t ask more but the dime was duly dropped.
        No more details as I’m not sure the statute of limitation is expired on that one, but rest assured the only way that was going to hurt someone was if it dropped on someone’s foot.
        Back in the day, the AR-180 went through at least three different manufacturers, none of which was exemplary, I won’t name names because I don’t recall which was which but my recollection was treasure came from the Lo-Bid-Queen “.
        Sterling, as I recall.
        The really funny part about all these machinations was, at the time, there was absolutely nothing against the law keeping the local Law Enforcement bastions from reselling the ordinance to FFL dealers for resale to the public.
        Go figure.
        I dasn’t say more:):):)

  7. Bullpups are just a fashion statement, unless they’re inherently and instantly ambidextrous — which must be a tough design problem, to judge from how few there are.

    • A little appreciated characteristic is how close the muzzle is to the shooter’s face.”Tavor face” is not just leakage from the ejection port.

    • If you ask the soldiers who actually use the L85 on ops in Afghanistan, most of them will tell you that being ambidextrous is pretty low on their list of priorities. It simply isn’t something that many of them are concerned about in a practical sense.

      On the other hand, the people who had experience with both the SLR (FAL) and L85 will all tell you that their shooting scores improved massively when they switched to the L85.

      • The Canadians had the same experience when they went from C1s (FALs) with iron sights to C7s with an optic. Curiously the difference in scores narrowed to nothing as troops entered service who had never fired a rifle without an optic and never fired a rifle more powerful than 5.56mm. This is doubly curious as the Canadians made no effort to improve the C1 and individuals made no effort to improve their personal weapon. Things have changed a bit and tinkering is now common but scores are about the same as always.

    • Lack of ambidextrous was a complaint from Street patrolling in northern Ireland, where it limited the ability to use doorways on both side of a street for cover.

      I’m not sure how much that was actually exploited, and whether it resulted in predictability in which direction patrolling would take place.

      • Aren’t English driving left? So patrol LH side of road and you are fine with RH only ejection. It’s called ‘adaptability’. 🙂
        Like PDB said one time: “life is cabaret”.

  8. In short, from the start they were very close to a (very) good rifle, because those HK changes seem just like the normal tweaking (with better made parts and real quality control) to me. Compare the first m16’s to the current ones and you see a lot of the same changes.

    (They stopped using the Susat?)

  9. PS: HK only rebuild half of the rifles, leaving about 100.000 (?) rifles in the crappy A1 condition? Why? Are the Brits so poor, they can’t find the money for it?

    • I don’t know, but we could say bad things about the former empire until the cows come home. Blame Parliament for wasting tax money…

      • The British state has the printing presses to print it’s own paper money,

        It has oil revenues from the north sea,

        it runs compulsory Ponzi schemes in the form of national insurance and state pensions (invented by Prince Bismarck, rather than by Carlo Ponzi. Neither Ponzi nor Maddof ever coerced anyone to join their schemes),

        it auctions off protected cartels in order to screw over the British population (eg 4g licenses) and both heavily taxes one of the five largest economies in the world (an economy that’s twice the size of the Russian economy!), and borrows on the surety that it can tax it even harder at some undisclosed time in the future…

        The institution of the British state has a very large income…

        You’ll have seen pictures of signs saying “don’t feed the bears”?
        The bears don’t understand that you have run out of food to give them and…

        The British state has lots and lots of bears that it feeds.

    • They had more rifles than they needed after downsizing the army after the end of the cold war, so they only converted as many as they needed.

      There’s also the L22 carbine version which Ian didn’t discuss, but which was adopted much later than the L85. Some were made by converting surplus L85/L86s. They are issued to vehicle crews, air crews, etc.

  10. Instead of piling “As” they should take fresh swipe at it; in my cheeky opinion. For starters, the SAR21 might be good point of reference or even this extravaganza packed Kel-tec rifle:

    Be it my call I’d start with getting rid of 2 silly rods which prevent decent cheek weld and have one with single recoil spring inside, much like SAR21 minus long recoil. Short stroke gas cylinder tappet type (like H36) might be just right; yes, this is partly LMG, true but there are such application in existence.

    Let the glory of British bull-pub live on!

    • Even with two guide rods and bulpup configuration, it is possible to locate them diagonally,or lower, to give a better fit to the firer.

      Guide rods do allow the bolt and carrier to be independent of the tolerencing of the receiver casing.

      There was also the plastic fantastic FN that Ian and friends reviewed a few years ago, that ejected empties forwards through a tube.

      With forward ejection, the main obstacle to ambidextrous firing is removed,

      A reciprocating operating handle can be retained, in an out of the way location.

      There does appear to be a problem or ten, with short barrels. Reports of poor functioning with the M4, are currently dismissed as being due to unskilled firers and insufficient attention to cleaning and lube.

      There are examples of multiple guns malfunctioning with special forces teams who’s transport had been downed, suggesting that the problem is with the M4, rather than with the users.
      It’s still an open question whether the difference compared to the earlier M16 is due to design or to crappy implementation.

      A longer barrel gives a proportionately greater freedom in locating and dimensioning the gas port, and the metering of gas into the system.

      There is also considerable wriggle room within​ The STANAG for varying the loading and pressure curves of ammunition. Despite the claims of standardisation, there is not interchangeability of rifle ammunition within the north Atlantic pact.

      Due to bureaucrapic expectations, 5.56 has always been over stretched, a slightly larger capacity case would have allowed the current performance to be achieved with less drastic (magnum level) pressures, and with a wider range of batches of propellant. A slightly larger diameter bullet would also allow greater flexibility in loading without such drastic pressures.

      The 5.45×39 takes a very simple route to lessening problems of the extractor tearing through the rim. It has a thicker rim.
      It also adopted the .303 Mkvii approach to bullet design, with a long sharp nose and two piece core,. Allowing good aerodynamics and penetration, without excessive weight.

      • “There was also the plastic fantastic FN that Ian and friends reviewed a few years ago, that ejected empties forwards through a tube.”

        That thing does not sell a smack and no wonder with that crappy trigger. AFAIK only Slovenia bought it. No matter how ejection is done there is always some fault with it. To me, push whole stack of empties in pipe forward is the least desirable way how to do it. Even with that Kel-tek gun (which is best in ejection department so far) there is one potential issue: clearing chamber. And we talk daylight; how about in dark.

        • Visibility into the feed path is an area where the vz58 is very very good.

          Back when Remington used to make guns that had been designed by skilled gun designers, rather than by generic engineers who were parachuted in from other DuPont companies, like General Motors
          (There’s a good reason why the parts of a Remington common fire control closely resemble the parts of a 1930s GM car door catch!)

          The Browning designed model 17 pump action shotgun, later copied and manufactured (arguably better) by Ithaca, when the patent ran out…

          Had a single, combined, loading and​ ejection port.

          Being a Browning design, it contained all of the little features that added to user safety, that were lost in the move to designs by generic engineers

          It also has an enviable reputation for reliability.

          Adapting that type of design to feeding from a box mag would be interesting, but, in the light of the nikonov, it would not be breaking too much new ground.


          On a slightly different line,
          Is direct view of the feed path necessary all of the time? Or, would a gun which easily opens, as the FAL does, be just as easy, or even easier to clear?

  11. Oh, one more thing…. and this is on attractiveness of Bullpup concept in general. Do you remember when 20″ barrel was king? Then they started to be gradually cut to 18, 16 and now even 14 inch for standard rifle/ carbine (one example is CZUB 806). Oh yeah, the bullet is not doing all those weird things any more, it got changed in the meantime to suit.

    So, when you look at it in this way the difference between 20 and 14 inches is exactly the overall length difference you were supposed to save in bull-pup. No need for b-pup; case is closed.

    • To some extent- yes- but a short barrelled bullpup could still provide some advantages in some circumstances. See the L22 carbine mentioned above for example- maybe it’s not that much more compact than a similarly short barrelled folding stock conventional carbine, but on the other hand it is ready to shoulder without any stuffing around.

      • Yes, perhaps true.

        There is one more item which I did not mention but observed when handling handful of bullpup rifles: they do not “point” naturally. What I mean is that due to length (and in many cases stepped down butt) you are normally able to point your rifle to target before actually acquiring full aim thru sights. To do the same with B-pup is impossible, at least in my observation.

        • …you may also recall that a ‘rail’ of some kind was found helpful and desirable to obtain “pointing” effect during ACR competition in late 80s. I checked this out and found it to be true.

        • ” To do the same with B-pup is impossible, at least in my observation.”
          Designers of A-91:
          made it this way to make center-of-gravity being more forward (due to grenade-launcher – it acts also as counter-weight) and make ejection of spent cases away of user’s face (it throws cases forward)

          • This one is new to me… and I can see Russian are plugging along on b-pup field. So many of them already and none in general service. Time to give it up.

          • “Time to give it up.”
            Small-size (compact) avtomat are seems to be preferred way (for example SR-3 Vikhr)

          • The Russian Army does not have the money to replace the perfectly adequate AK-74M already in service. At best they will purchase the AK-12, which is basically just a slightly modernized AK-74M, for some elite and special forces. So, every Russian assault rifle project not belonging to the AKM/AK-74 family is just experimental.

          • At least they (the Russians) have genuine 1913 interface on them which is not the case with Chinese rifles. How they imagine (if they do) cooperation in this field is a bit obscure.

  12. I would ask readers to check what follows for themselves. I will be relying on memory, which wish old men know is not to be trusted.

    I was a very small shareholder of a British company called Tomkins; which was a high quality British engineering company, which got bought out by a gobshite and expanded. I am fairly sure that the expansion made me a shareholder of Smith & Weston. I am less certain that it made me a shareholder of H&K. I am also fairly sure Iain mentioned the fact that H&K was British owned in his first video about the rifle that showed how clueless we had become.

    If memory serves me well that means the H&K upgrade was done by a British company.

    Tomkins went down the toilet, thanks to how much the chairman was managing to flush away, soon after.

  13. Every time the issue of the L85 comes up a bunch of British posters come out of the woodwork claiming the L85A2 is a great rifle. Every time I see this I remember an article by Michael Yon (written in 2010 or so, it’s been a while) about British troops in Afghanistan, and one fellow in particular who went really above and beyond maintaining his rifle. He even cleaned his ammunition with a brush. These British troops got in a gunfight, and this same guy’s L85A2 rifle immediately jammed.

    I wonder if the Royal Armories would let Ian do a mud test?

    • If all what you have at hand and eventually (after initial pains) got used to, sure it becomes “great”. It is not so much testimony of proves of the equipment, but human adaptability to it.

    • That’s anecdotal evidence, i.e. not real evidence in the scientific sense at all. The L85A2 seems to function at least adequately in field conditions and there is little reason to believe otherwise.

      • So is every mud test Ian does, but it doesn’t mean it’s not something to take seriously. The only evidence I’ve ever seen regarding the A2 model’s actual reliability has been from undemanding endurance tests conducted on a firing range. And I would be surprised if HK was unable to at least make the rifle function on a range. Its performance in actual field conditions is another matter altogether.

        A related “myth” is the common assertion, again generally by Commonwealth types, that the inch-pattern FAL is somehow better than the metric FAL. If Ian’s reading this, I think a comparison video would be very interesting if he gets the opportunity.

  14. There is a slim but well illustrated osprey book by Neil Grant on Amazon for about £15 that is a good primer on the subject and answers a number of the queries above. Though Ian has already detailed them in this fascinating series.

    I guess bullpups where the answer for large mechanised cold war conflicts where troops would be in and out of ACPs. The SA80 series were designed to replace a number of different weapons and to be carried by a broad range of personnel. Smaller packaging is then a boon also I guess. Ironically there are probably more types of arm in service than those they were originally designed to replace.

  15. The major reason for the bullpup, other than being trendy and futuristic-looking, was mainly to avoid needing two different weapons in the MICV.

    In the early part of the Bradley program, the U.S. Army had insisted on “fire ports” in the sides of the vehicle. This was a feature directly copied from the Russian BMP series APCs. The idea was to allow the infantry section to lay down suppressive fire before deploying from the vehicle, to avoid being trapped inside by a close assault and recon by fire by the other guys.

    The trouble was, the M16 was simply too long (39″/ 1m) to be used inside. What was needed was a much shorter weapon. But the Army still wanted it to be a 5.56, and preferably using M16 components, for logistics and tactical reasons.

    Enter the M231 Firing Port Weapon;

    Essentially an XM177 “Commando” minus the retracting stock and front sight, and with a special forend that allowed it to be locked into the ball-joint of the firing port much like a hull MG on a WW2 tank (Sherman, Pershing, etc.).

    That’s when the fun began. First of all, it was found that the FPW was even more contrary with M193 than the usual run of M16s, as in, tended to jam a WHOLE lot rather than just “a lot”. The problem was eventually traced to the shortened gas tube (shorter than even the XM177’s) that allowed way too much pressure to hit the Ljungman-style gas trap atop the bolt carrier, resulting in excessive bolt velocity. Heavier buffer needed, ASAP. Of course, it also suffered the same carbonate buildup problems as any other Matty Mattel when using M193.

    Then somebody (to this day fingers get pointed everywhere) got the bright idea that it needed to be usable “dismounted”, i.e. outside the Brad as a regular IW. So they started hanging things on it like a retracting stock (from the M3 Grease Gun), folding foresight to match the M16 rear sight, and etc. The result was a rather horrid mutant that wasn’t really effective as an IW, and added bulk and TSO (Things Sticking Out) to a gadget intended for use in what was already a restricted space to begin with. In the end, that idea (aka M231A1) was dropped.

    Even with this, it meant that the Bradley was going to be carrying two IWs for every man in the section, requiring additional storage space, etc. Please note that the whole point of the exercise in the first place was to make best use of the restricted space inside the vehicle while retaining a “mounted fire” capability.

    Other armies looked at the U.S. Army’s tribulations in developing a FPW for the M2/M3 series, and decided that the smarter course would be developing a standard infantry rifle that could also function as an FPW inside the MICV before bailing.

    Hence, the bullpup. A term derived from custom bolt-action rifles made in the 1950s for sporting use from a sitting position, often by shooters confined to wheelchairs due to loss of use of their legs. (Many of them disabled veterans of WW2 and Korea.) A bolt-action bullpup can be fired from such a position without requiring a rest, shooting stakes, or etc., although you generally have to take it off your shoulder to bolt the rifle for each shot.

    Bolt-action bullpups are not ambidextrous. If you want to fire one off your left shoulder, you need a left-handed action like the old Remington M700LH.

    Pump-action and semi-auto bullpups were attempted, but most had at least part of the action (like a recoil spring) in the stock, or else had an action you really don’t want right under your ear (the Garand type). Plus, they pretty much all ejected to the right, often rather violently and LOUDLY.

    (NB; if you’ve ever fired a Ruger Mini-14 in one of those bolt-on Muzzlelite stocks, you know what I’m talking about. The helmets the actors wore in the Starship Troopers movies didn’t have ear protection just for looks, it was for liability reasons when firing bullpup Mini-14s with theatrical blanks.)

    The reason bullpup military rifles all tend to have “bare” barrels with nothing stuck on, even a bayonet lug (hence the bizarre SA80 and FAMAS bayonets on the FAL pattern) is so they will slip easily into firing ports, with or without ball-joint setups.

    Remember, these are for the most part thirty-to-forty year old designs, intended for use in NATO/WP combat, Team Yankee-style. They had a decidedly different definition of MOBUA (Military Operations in Built-Up Areas) back then than is used today. It was called “don’t do any more damage to the civilian structures than needed, we’ll be fighting where we’re recruiting” as opposed to “screw it, call in arty and send in the Abrams troops to finish off the leakers”.

    The punch line is, when the Brad finally went into battle in 1991, those firing ports were mostly gone; the original four per side had been reduced to two by redesigns of the fuel system and augmentation of the armor. (During the “MICV= Light Tank” silliness. No, an APC is not a “tank”, and using it as such tends to get it and its occupants seriously dead.)

    By the second Iraq invasion, the firing ports had disappeared entirely, because the reactive armor was needed for RPG protection all over, including where they had formerly been.

    In actual combat, it was found that FPWs were largely ineffective. The enemy simply attacked from outside their limited fire arcs. The real answer was turret-mounted MGs, preferably more than one. Plus augmented passive defenses to make such attacks less dangerous to the APC’s occupants while the APC’s mounted guns made the attackers “good enemies”. Hence the TUSK (Tank Urban Survival Kit) program, that includes Bradleys even though they aren’t tanks.

    In short, the FPW and the bullpup rifle are, as Jeff Cooper once said, “an ingenious solution to a non-existent problem”. Most armies that have adopted them have either already retired them or are well on the way to doing so.

    As for 20″ barrels, with modern propellant powders most 5.56 and similar loads can do quite well developing their full rated muzzle velocities in barrels as short as 12″ (31cm). The major advantage of the longer barrel is less blast and flash, but that can generally be dealt with in a short barrel by a properly-designed flash suppressor. As for the purely aural report, the 5.56 is a loud little bugger in ANY barrel length.

    In the case of the United States, the major resistance to shorter rifle barrels is purely legal, and civilian; the National Firearms Act of 1934 prohibits civilians from owning rifles with barrels shorter than 16″ (40.6 cm) without a special license and tax. (These days, there are a lot of them about, anyway; look up “Short Barreled Rifle” and/or “SBR”.)

    IMPO, the restriction was silly in 1934, and should have been dropped a long time ago. Note that some antique .22 rimfire “boy’s rifles” had barrels around 14″ long. Imagine getting arrested for possession of a 19th Century Stevens Favorite or Quackenbush single-shot .22 “Bicycle Rifle”. Don’t laugh, it has happened due to that poorly-written law.

    Sorry this ran so long, but like most examples of “what were they thinking?”, the explanation is neither short, sweet, or particularly amusing.



    • “As for 20″ barrels, with modern propellant powders most 5.56 and similar loads can do quite well developing their full rated muzzle velocities in barrels as short as 12″ (31cm). The major advantage of the longer barrel is less blast and flash, but that can generally be dealt with in a short barrel by a properly-designed flash suppressor.”
      Designers in Soviet Union, competing in competition Модэрн (which give in effect AKS-74U with 206,5 mm barrel) do not have objection against shorts barrels, for example Драгунова МА has barrel 212 mm long, I can’t find now data of barrel length for ТКБ-0116, but its overall length (stock collapsed) was 458 mm, so on basis of photos I would said it was around ~280 mm long (with muzzle device)

    • “16″ (40.6 cm) ”
      Shouldn’t be 18?
      According to
      NFA 1934 states that The term ” firearm ” means a shotgun or rifle having a barrel of less than eighteen inches in length(…)
      Also Marble Game Getter query in English wikipedia states that this weapon with 18″ barrel become outside to NFA in 1939 due to actions of Bureau of Internal Revenue, so it seems that it should be 18 not 16.
      I am, as usual, confused about U.S. laws, so I have nothing against if anyone explain why that bureau can overwrite NFA.

      • The revision (GCA 68) stats that minimum rifle barrel length is 16″ (40.6cm), while minimum shotgun barrel length is 18″ (~46cm). As with the ten-round magazine capacity restriction in the 1994 Clinton assault weapon ban, I think they basically pulled the numbers out of a hat both times.

        Few rifle barrels in the U.S. are under 18″, but that’s less due to law than practicality. Namely, keeping muzzle flash and blast down to gawdawful as opposed to horrendous.

        Try firing a .22-250 with an 18″ barrel side-by-side with a 16″ barreled one sometime. The difference in muzzle “signature” is noticeable.



        • “Few rifle barrels in the U.S. are under 18″, but that’s less due to law than practicality. Namely, keeping muzzle flash and blast down to gawdawful as opposed to horrendous.

          Try firing a .22-250”
          What about smaller calibers? Like for example .22 Hornet or .32-20 Winchester Center Fire?

        • “minimum rifle barrel length is 16″ (40.6cm), while minimum shotgun barrel length is 18″ (~46cm)(…) I think they basically pulled the numbers out of a hat both times.”
          Which never give good result in cross between law and technology, like for example in case of The Locomotive Act 1865

          which require to have flag-bearer at least 60 yd of front of vehicles (hence it is sometimes dubbed Red Flag Act) and limited speed to 4 mph and 2 mph if town.

    • I serously doubt the FPW connection to the bullpups. While the timeline sort of fits if stretched a little, France and Austria were not going to use the MICV (M2 Bradley) and to my knowledge the UK never seriously considered purchasing them, either. The Warrior IFV never had firing ports and to my knowledge they were not even planned. The AMX-10P entered service already in 1973 and it never had any firing ports, either.

      The much more plausible explanation for the bullpups’ popularity is simply that IFVs have cramped insides and having a weapon that is immediately ready to use upon exiting is useful, while still having a full length rifle barrel. Folding stocks need to be unfolded before use and carbines have a shorter barrel. This explanation also fits the timeline of technology developments much better: before late 1960s infantry usually rode to battle on trucks or in relatively roomy box-like APCs like the M113. The IFV changed that and space inside the vehicle became much more premium. This is also one of the main reasons why the US Army switched to the M4 carbine with a retractable stock.

  16. As for barrel length, I remember an article by Walther when they were developing their KK Match Olympic target rifle. They tried various barrel lengths and came to the conclusion that as far as accuracy was concerned in a .22, anything over 12″ was superfluous. the only thing that the extra length gives you is increased muzzle velocity, and that soon runs out in small calibers.

    • “extra length gives you is increased muzzle velocity, and that soon runs out in small calibers”
      And anyway increase of muzzle velocity is not that great for .22 rim-fire cartridge, you can see experimental data here:
      the greatest difference between 12″ and 18″ barrel is for Remington 33 gr. HVTCHP Yellow Jacket that is 73, which give increase of about 5%.

    • Actually, increased MV with extra barrel length ends when the powder burning curve drops back to ambient air pressure. From then on, friction between the bullet and the bore actually slows the bullet, rather than increasing its velocity still further.

      This is why early .220 Swift caliber rifles had barrels of up to 28″ (71cm) in length, but after WW2 few had barrels much over 22″ to 24″ (56cm to 61cm). Most powders used in that caliber after about 1946 burned completely in 20″-22″ (50-56cm)of barrel; that extra 10-15cm of barrel was actually reducing emergent (muzzle) velocity, which was why in the Fifties a lot of angry shooters were writing letters to Field & Stream and the American Rifleman calling Philip Sharpe a liar for stating the .220’s MV as 4,000 feet per second. Sharpe, BTW, always used a 24″ barrel on the Swift (See The Rifle in America).

      Generally, there’s not much point in any rifle barrel being much over about 100 to 110 calibers (i.e., multiples of the actual bore diameter) in length with modern propellant powders. In fact, most get along just fine with barrels 70 to 80 calibers long, at most.

      Bigger guns (artillery, etc) don’t even really need that much. Hence the 16″/50 cal. main battery on the Iowa class battleships. The previous South Dakota class had 16″/45s, and there was almost no difference in the range and accuracy between the two types of “sixteens”.

      (Why did the South Dakotas have shorter “tubes”? To keep top burden down due to their lesser flotation than the bigger Iowas. Each “45” tube massed 2.5 tons less than a “50” gun tube. With nine tubes, that was a saving of 22.5 tons. Even on a 41,000 ton battleship, that’s not small change, especially when the guns are at 42 degrees elevation for maximum range and you make a hard turn.)

      The 5″/38 (single or dual turret) was standard secondary armament, and postwar was replaced by the 5″/54 dual-purpose, which was really more of a “high angle” (anti-aircraft) weapon than one for surface engagements. A worthwhile increase in MV was attained with improved propellants and only a 16 caliber increase in bore length.

      So as you see, aside from outsized freaks like the WW1 21cm Kaiser Wilhelm Geschutz (aka the Paris Gun), the “big boys” are considerably “shorter in the snout” than an average .22, in terms of multiples of bore diameter.



      • “This is why early .220 Swift caliber rifles had barrels of up to 28″ (71cm) in length, but after WW2 few had barrels much over 22″ to 24″ (56cm to 61cm). Most powders used in that caliber after about 1946 burned completely in 20″-22″ (50-56cm)of barrel; that extra 10-15cm of barrel was actually reducing emergent (muzzle) velocity”
        Have you analog data (“peak length” of barrel) for metallic-cartridge black-powder rifles, for example .45-70?

      • Hello Eon – always interesting reading your articles. The notion that propellants are totally consumed within 24 inch barrel length may be so for factory loaded ammunition. For long range competition shooters many prefer 28″ to 32″ barrels as they hand load their cartridges for optimum performance. Also, the notion that shorter barrels tend to be more accurate is being challenged due to the way competition barrels are being manufactured. Chronographs are becoming cheaper, more reliable and are becoming a must for competition shooters to test out their hand loads and keep the standard deviation of their velocity to a minimum. Generally there is approximately 25 – 30 fps for every inch of barrel length difference in velocity. The difference in velocity of say a 7.62 (.308) NATO cartridge between a 22″ and 32″ barrel can be as much as 250 fps which for long range competition makes a big difference in trajectory, wind sensitivity and staying on the supersonic region for long ranges i.e. 1,000 meters (1,200 yards). The choice of propellants, projectiles and barrel quality makes all this possible.

  17. I always recall my then partners, Bill & Sue, who carried tiny S & W Model 60 stainless 5 shooters with not-even-quite 2 inch barrels. Our esteemed late author, Tom Clancy, claimed a 2″ barrel only accurate at “closed-elevator” ranges.
    Bill, who very much knew better, manufactured a steady pocket-change income by range-betting all comers that he could keep all .38 Special rounds inside the black at 40 feet.
    Sue, who just plain didn’t know this was not possible, went right ahead and could do the same…every time. (Her now teen-aged sons are amazed…)
    Knowing this to be simply possible (that being the “secret”) Bill and/or Sue taught me to do the same with a 3″ Python and a 3″ Smith CS-1.
    Point being, even if one standing 50 to a 100 yards away, doing something someone doesn’t want you doing, do not be under the impression that someone cannot reach out and touch you.
    Research Billy Dixon.

    • I had similar experiences with a 2.5″ Colt Lawman Mk III and a 6″ S&W M27. Both consistently delivered equivalent groups out to 100 yards if I did my part.

      As for the idea that short-barreled Magnums have less MV, over an Oelher Sky Screen the difference with CCI Lawman 125 gr., Federal Hydra Shok 125 gr, and Winchester Silvertip 145 gr was an average 80-90 F/S between the two. Considering that the variance in MV within a given lot of ammunition due to powder load variables can be as much as 50 F/S with most smokeless powders, the actual variance due to barrel length alone may only have been around 40 F/S.



  18. As you may observe, we somehow collectively managed to sway center of talk from late revisions of L85/86 weapons. Is it a sin or disrespect to Ian’s work? I do not think so. It is quite natural as with any other subject AFAIK. Interested public wants to know and verify their knowledge.

    Thus, while we have gone so ‘far’ in coverage of various aspects of rifle type weapon, I’d suggest we touch on more essential subject which had escaped attention since failed ACR program. What that subject is, is “hit probability increase”. It was believed that more developed optics and burst fire will substitute for it. Well, rather expensive replacement, isn’t it? As this may be beyond bounds of current subject matter, I suggest separate article/ feature.

    To make it short I’d suggest that, instead of spending talent on new bullpups, designers should look at new dynamic solutions in rifles which will mitigate natural reaction to firing projectile, aka “recoil impulse” (as opposed to operating concept). Would anyone had ideas leading to that end (in future discussion)?

    I greatly appreciate this opportunity of friendly exchange and webmaster’s generosity!

    • With the end of the Cold War, there’s plenty of old-fashioned “Avtomats” and “assault rifles” and there’s no haste to develop anything all that new.

      Scotched the G-11 project. Seems the AUG has sold briskly, relatively speaking, in the mid-east and parts of South America. On the other hand, IWI is rather successful in Latin America too, with a sort of “product improved” Kalashnikov and the ability to help set up manufacturing like HK of old with the G3.

      Paging TRW’s Low-Maintenance-Rifle simplified Fallschirmjägergewehr with side-mounted STANAG magazines, 5.56x45mm cartridge, and all sorts of rails everyplace and pop-up iron sights.

      Maybe they’ll perfect miniaturizing the Rheinmetall 120mm smooth-bore gun, which seems to deliver discarding sabot armor piercing kinetic energy projectiles accurately, unlike the Swedish SAAB/Bofors CBJ project, which promised the simplicity of the 9mm blowback SMG with tungsten pellet ammo for use in warfare, and standard 9mm cartridges for LEO and/or lower cost training? The Swiss Oerlikon SSG36 with API blowback like the 20mm AA Oerlikon gun could be made smaller and rifle-sized… I mean, ol’ Sergei Simonov took his 14.5mm PTRS self-loading AT rifle and made a 7.62x54mmR prototype, and then further tweaked it to the 7.62x39mm SKS caribine slated for replacement by the Avtomat…

      I guess that’s sort of what France did… Buy a German-made, piston-operated Stoner AR design, and shorten the barrel to 11-in. so it is still the same length as the FAMAS but with a shorter barrel. Presumably they’ll also use suppressors with them? Sacrifice the ballistics for a rifle that can use Nato-standard ammo, magazines, and has the “good enough” reputation of the AR/M16 and its ergonomic fit and layout, plus the au courant du jour “modularity” of same…

      • “The Swiss Oerlikon SSG36 with API blowback like the 20mm AA Oerlikon gun could be made smaller and rifle-sized…”
        Wouldn’t it also need rebated rim cartridge? Or it might be done for rimless cartridge?

    • ” instead of spending talent on new bullpups, designers should look at new dynamic solutions in rifles which will mitigate natural reaction”
      These 2 two independent problem – one is for getting good overall length to barrel length, second is for better chance of hitting. Anyway maybe instead of bull-pup less radical solution in AO-46 style:
      might give enough good overall length to barrel length ratio.

      • Are you working over-night Daweo (3:22AM)?

        I looked back at that ASh-12.7 with extra beefy shot (I really like combination with different construction of projectiles) and noticed it works on barrel recoil principle. This is good and meaningful approach and apparently necessary in this case due to massive shot impulse. Perhaps something of this kind (and I did not see internal mechanism) would be path to reduced mentioned felt recoil as means to improve “hit probability” for common cartridges.

        Thanks for all your responses. Spasibo!

        • “3:22AM”
          Time zone.

          “recoil principle”
          To be more exact it is short recoil (короткий ход ствола), which (for Russian weapon) mean that travel of barrel is shorter than overall length of cartridge (ГОСТ 28653-90)
          Such principle was also used in ТКБ-0116 which I mentioned early, although without noting principle of operation, description in English:

          ТКБ-0116 use short-recoil/rotation principle, ejection direction is upward, it uses own 20-round magazine, but also accepts 30-round magazine for AK-74.

  19. Interestingly (at least to me as an observer of such things 🙂 ), but due to tragic recent events, it appears that the British Armed Forces are NOT the only user of the ‘SA80’ after all. I’ve just seen pictures in a recent news story, about increased numbers of armed police on UK streets, showing a couple of cops each carrying an L85 – unfortunately not clear enough to identify A1 or A2. The photo is of a group of four on the streets of Nottingham; in addition to the L85s, another has an AR15 variant & the last an HK MP7. In the past, the MOD police held SA80s but they replaced them with MP7s some time back. As such, it is possible these were MOD police & they’ve simply brought their SA80s out of storage due to current increased requirement for weapons. So maybe not a ‘new’ user, but one more than is commonly understood to be the case!

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