SA80 History: The First Mockups (Sterling and Stoner)

Armament Research Services (ARES) is a specialist technical intelligence consultancy, offering expertise and analysis to a range of government and non-government entities in the arms and munitions field. For detailed photos of the guns in this video, don’t miss the ARES companion blog post!

The British military had been working towards a reduced-power cartridge since the end of World War 2, and the ultimate adoption of the FAL/SLR in 7.62x51mm NATO did not end their interest in the concept. It would not be long before the roots of SA80 would take hold, and today we are looking at the very first mockups of the concept that would become the L85A1 and L86A1.

As part of a preliminary study to decide the basic layout and capabilities of a future new individual weapon and light support weapon, five wooden and metal mockups were produced in conventional and bullpup layouts, and also with/without ‘dropped’ stocks to facilitate sighting. The favored mockup was the bullpup seen here, which gave rise to the whole Enfield Weapon System/SA80 family. It is relevant to note that the concept included a universal standard optical sight from the very outset, as this was a cutting edge concept at the time. In addition, note the small features like safety, sling swivels, and magazine catch, as these would vary back and forth through the development program.

After the wooden guns, two functional (or mostly functional) guns were produced. These were standard off-the-shelf rifles converted into bullpup configuration – one Stoner 63 and one Sterling AR18. Neither company was contacted for licensing or technical assistance.


  1. Optical sights all good, in conjunction with a 25″ barrel a configuration which the bullpub facilitates via a shorter rifle.

    I’m still welded to the Em2. The 5.56mm works better out of a longer barrel. At the time “The Soviets” didn’t have optics, generally.

    I’m saying the LSW is actually the better rifle, we turned into a LSW. A poor LSW.

    I am sure it was 800yrds I hit multiple times with the LSW, because I had a thumbhole Sniper “Whatever it’s called” which I didn’t like also which was probably set up for longer ranges.

    Unless it was 600… I forget. It was significantly better than the rifle though, I noted that.

    • 31″ the Em2 is shorter than the Fal. I just think, the point of bullpups is the longer barrel length in a shorter overall rifle. Shortening the barrel therefore, is not optimal.

    • Hitting the enemy is important. The Afghans popped at us from longer ranges, apparently. Indicating they didn’t abide by the 300 or less yrd concept.

      • True, but they only fell back to 500m and beyond after losing several thousand insurgents at closer ranges to no effect. In truth engaging at longer ranges requires them to mostly use heavy weapons. And it doesn’t save them from our real battlefield firepower: guided munitions from aircraft or heavy ground emplacements. They still lose with little effect on us.

        • Road side bombs, aka. “IEDs” ensure that artillery can be delivered on target of Israeli personnel in South Lebanon vs. Hezbollah back a few decades ago, and U.S. and allied personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan without being obliterated by counter-battery fire, artillery and air strikes. A hyper modern armed forces like the U.S. will really bring the pain.

          In Vietnam the PAVN/NLF used land mines and booby traps. When the U.S. left, they went all Soviet mechanized tanks and so on. In the civil war in El Salvador, from 1984 on, the FMLN rebels used–you guessed it–land mines. No one wants to go “toe to toe” with a U.S. or even U.S. supplied military. First, the Imperial Japanese army and SNLF fought very close to avoid U.S. artillery. Later they fought a defense in depth from caves and bunkers. The PAVN tried to advocate “grabbing the Americans by the belt” to help mitigate against U.S. firepower. Dense jungle and hilly terrain helped this proposition. In Afghanistan, the opposite applied: Try to fire at very long range and then skedaddle. Fire a belt or two of 7.62x54R from a PKM and then run for it… Asymmetrical ain’t no new thing.

          • “Asymmetrical ain’t no new thing.”
            For 19th century examples of such warfare, see 1st Boer War
   states that
            Drawing on years of experience of fighting frontier skirmishes with numerous and indigenous African tribes, they [Boers] relied more on mobility, stealth, marksmanship and initiative while the British emphasised the traditional military values of command, discipline, formation and synchronised firepower.

    • That Australian gun bolt, with triangle shaped lugs might have been better. The forward assist problem was not rectified by the A2.

  2. Sorry if a lot of this was covered in the vid, my crappy internet connection doesn’t like playing more than a minute of Ian’s vids;. It’ll play the full half hour of Ron Paul speaking with Julian Asange, straight off,. But it won’t play more than about a minute of Ian.

    The .280 that was adopted by the 1947 labour administration, then dropped by Churchill in the name of NATO standardisation and sucking up to the well and truly bankrupt British states largest creditor…

    Was itself a sop to united state ordnance Dept (and especially Studler’s) prejudices.

    The British state’s military Ideal Calibre panel, had recommended a calibre between .250″ and .270″

    Going to .276, and calling it .280, so that it wasn’t so reminiscent of the inter war controversies over .276 Pedersen round, increasing the case rim to .473″ to match the bolt faces in united state guns, and significantly upping the loading were all measures intended to appeal to united state military people’s prejudices

    They were also performative contradictions of the main arguments used:
    That the calibre choice and performance were based on scientific analysis (they clearly were not)
    And that the EM2 was built around this scientifically​ designed round.

    Move on a few years, and Churchill’s sop to the united state military bigwigs in the name of NATO cooperation and standardisation, was thrown out, with the united state unilaterally adopting the abortion that was the 55gr 5.56 in a 47mm case, that was next to impossible to get the specified performance out of at realistic pressure
    And crappy mags with a. Built in sticking point in the form of a corner.

    • Firefox with add-ons download helper and ad block plus has helped me with slow internet speeds, less so if you get dropped a lot. Not perfect but helps a lot. There are other software solutions, but I haven’t tried them.

  3. I have seen Mr. M’s video of him test-shooting a 7.62 EM2 (a creature whose existence I had previously been unaware of). Are there any shootable .280 EM2s out there, let alone the ammunition? A difficult gun to manufacture (but therefore sturdy), and apparently very pleasant to shoot (I have seen a photo of Stefan Janson, the designer, firing an example while holding it target-pistol style). The optical sight was very smartly incorporated into the carrying handle.

    Another lost by-product of the SA80 program was the 4.85 cartridge, which had some interesting ballistic properties (flat trajectory out to 300 yards!) though with rifling twisted so tightly that a writer from Jane’s wondered how quickly barrels might wear out.

  4. The British 4.85mm was partly informed by assessments of what the British state’s military nerds thought that infantry “should” be doing on a battlefield,

    And experiences of what was happening in northern Ireland.

    The story goes that miscreants would use a big protest March or funeral procession as a human shield and cover to shoot at cops and soldiers, then to sneak away.

    Exactly who those miscreants were, and whether the scenario was true, is open to question, especially after the emergence into public awareness in 1990 of Operation Gladio and parallel structures within NATO states faking”terrorism”
    The timescale, game plan and level of infiltration by state unintelligence operatives are remarkably similar between Gladio and the Irish “troubles”.

    Anyway,. Squaddies blasting away at “gunmen” (whoever they were) concealed in a crowd, with open sighted FALs loaded with 150gr fmj ball…

    Was a PR/ propaganda disaster

    Crap target discrimination, crappy grouping, massive over penetration, big bloody butcher’s wounds…

    4.85mm and a 4x scope was intended to address the need felt by some individuals within the state apparatus, to murder selected people in crowds without causing a propaganda disaster.

    • It was a propaganda disaster with 7.62mm bloody sunday.

      With 4.85 etc, maybe it would have been blooded sunday.

      Catholics, Protestants…

      NATO… Cold war, no point going back over it- It will only cause more hurt.

      • Those who fail to learn from the lessons of history,are destined to repeat [history]

        The facts that:
        NATO headquarters directed the operations collectively and popularly known as Gladiolus, which resulted in ?all terrorism in Europe between around 1968 and 1990,.
        And that​ that was actually once known to the European public

        Are rapidly slipping away down the orwellian memory hole.

        That history (which is inconvenient for some) might well be being repeated right now

        Who knows, some future Andreotti might someday stand up in front of an assembly, and admit it as true

        Just as Andreotti did as prime minister of Italy, stood up in front of the Italian parliament.

        We can add those to some of history’s other little glimpses into the inner machinations of states; like Herman Goering’s disclosures on the staging of terrorism including the Reichstag fire pre 1933 in order to facilitate the NSDAP’s coup d’etat of 1933, and the later staging of the Gleiwitz incident, or Kruschev’s disclosure that Stalin had ordered Soviet artillery to shell the Russian town of Mainilla, in order to provide a pretext for the winter war invasion of Finland.

        There was also a short period of time where it was as good as admitted that the Soviet Threat was more of a convenient fabrication than it was a fact (the Soviet union was bailed out numerous times in terms of management, technology, manufacturing, militarily, territory/Lebensraum and financially, including during the cold war).

        One former scholar at the Hoover Foundation (which holds many early Soviet documents) described it, the Soviets were “the best enemies that money could buy”.

        Here, we’re looking at the artifacts which embodied the ideas of the people who were involved in one way or another in the generation of the narratives which we call the “co?d war” , “the troubles” “the red brigades” “Gladio” etc

        To look at the artifacts without looking at the full context in which they originated, is to only half understand them.

        And looking at that full context helps us asses what we’re seeing today

        For example, how can the CIS, with the fourteenth largest economy in the world, possibly be a threat to the united state?

        And what the hell is “the global war on terror”? Have we seen its like before?

        And what of the artifacts that it’s ideas have spawned? Ian has shown us some of them already.

          • I think it’s a modern code.

            “Early 20th, late 19th c If you crack it though, don’t tell anyone.”

          • “Numbers etc, Algebra all that.”
            If it can’t be deciphered it might some connection with Secret signaling system patented by Gilbert S. Vernam
            after usage of this cipher, ciphertext can NOT be deciphered without key, as long as:
            – key is used only once
            – key length is not smaller than input
            As described in patent, it used what is now called XOR, equivalent for decimal system is add without carry, which was part of Soviet VIC cipher. Assuming + denotes add without carry then for example:

          • Hi Mikee,

            The parallel structures in Europe during the cold war were a conspiracy,

            But, they were not “theory”

            Gladio was “discovered” by Italian investigating magistrate Felice Casson, in his investigation of the 31st of May 1972 Pateano bombing.

            Gladio was publicly admitted to by Christian Democrat prime minister, Giulio Andreotti, in an address to the Italian chamber of deputies, on the 24th of October 1990. The subsequent Italian parliamentary enquiry was chaired by Giovanni Pellegrino.

            Parliamentary enquiries into equivalent parallel structures and their involvement in terrorism and creating a strategy of tension, were also held in Switzerland and Belgium.

            A very good summary, is given in a three part documentary by the late Alan Francovich, which was broadcast on BBC2 in 1992 (the most serious of the 4 terrestrial TV channels available in Britain at that time). They’re available on YouTube, unfortunately with poor sound and image quality. As I said, this information is fast disappearing down the memory hole.

            Googling the names I’ve given will get you more information, both on Gladio in Italy, the Italian “years of lead” and on the equivalent structures which were revealed in other NATO members and even in neutral European countries.

            How is this relevant to Ian’s latest video and the discussion here?

            The 4x optical sight and the 4.85mm calibre were informed by military experience in “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland. I can find the ref for a PhD thesis which examines the SA80 files held at Leeds, and explores the sociology of the SA80 development, as a reference supporting the northern Ireland influence on the development.

            I have already shared the ref with Ian.


            No Gladio type structures were admitted to in Britain (at least not to the best of my knowledge)

            However several lines of evidence and reasoning suggest that such a structure and strategy of tension were very likely to be present in Britain.

            These are;
            geography – Britain is in western Europe, and the “Soviet invasion” or socialist election or coup argument applies equally in Britain as it did in the states where Gladio type structures were admitted to.

            The timing
            The playbook
            And the level of security agency infiltration, involvement and collusion in “The Troubles” are all strikingly similar to what emerged about Gladio.

            This raises the interesting and farcical possibility that one hand of the British state (ok, a small bunch of individuals) were developing a new rifle and a potential new NATO rifle round

            As a tool to deal with something that may well have been the British version of the bloody street theater and false flags that were orchestrated by other individuals in intelligence​ agencies and NATO, and that emerged into the open as Gladio.

          • Daneile Ganser, _Nato’s Secret Armies: Operation Gladio and Terrorism in Western Europe_
            UK, USA, Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, Belgium, Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Germany, Greece, Turkey.

            As for “parallel” organizations, why what should be made of the “Auxiliary” during WWII in the U.K.? Under the “crowd cover” of the regular Home Guard militia, there’s an old boy’s network of saboteurs, assassins, and covert “stay behind operatives” assigned secret operational zones and told they won’t survive very long at all… One former Auxiliary actually broke protocol and examined his first “secret order” which he found, to his consternation and distress, involved bumping off the local post office employee… Apparently his one contact and also one of the few people who knew of his top secret assignment to the Auxiliary!

          • Keith’s citation:
            “The 4x optical sight and the 4.85mm calibre were formed by military experience in “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland. I can find the ref for a PhD thesis which examines the SA80 files held at Leeds, and explores the sociology of the SA80 development, as a reference supporting the northern Ireland influence on the development.”

            That is incredibly revealing and just tiny step short of shocking. Indeed ‘they’ can, if it goes their way. Thank you.

          • “were developing a new rifle and a potential new NATO rifle round”
            I want to note that at time, very small caliber was trendy topics.
            It is quite logical if you consider history of development of metallic cartridge, it clearly show that caliber is lower and lower vs time.
            Other examples are:
            4.7×45 DAG XPL
            4×37 IWK EXPERIMENTAL
            4×27 mm CETME experimental
            3,5×51 Belga

      • Hello Keith,

        Thank you for your reply. The sociollogy of small arms design (and anything for that matter) tends to gloss over the technical issues involved in such explicit ventures. Some examples; a) Small sub-calibres were experimented with in the late 19th century; b) Optics design and development, though rather slow, didn’t progress due to technical issues and the issues regarding the physics of light transmission; c) Smokeless powders and propellants improved through chemical engineering processes as the behaviour of propellants were better understood through the scientific method of experimentation and observation. d) Bullpup design can be traced back to the Thornycroft rifle and some others at the turn of the 20th century. My point is that the politcal machinations and the resulting social commentary tends to largely ignore the industrial capabilities of the nation state at that time through a lack of understanding of the scientific, technical, resource and engineering implications and in the worst case scenarios ignorance of the subject being discussed.

        Probably the worst case example is all the conspiracy theories – “what if” -scenarios regarding the Nazi regime. Sure, there are papers and manuscripts that make predictions about some new war winning technology etc., etc., But it never happened! Why? Because all of the elements, political, social and technical, could not be mustered at the exclusion of myriads of other projects and all the material inputs required to make something work.

        The bottom line is that most “concepts” will never see the light of day for reasons way beyond the discussion taking place in this blog. A very fertile environment for conspiracy theories!

        • There are two strands:

          1 The British army in Britain and Europe had two main areas of activities at that time, one was sitting around on the Rhine, waiting to be rapidly overwhelmed by the feared Soviet attack,

          the other activity was in the northern Irish troubles. Rifles for use in Asia wasn’t a question, British forces in Asia used AR15s.

          Whoever was pulling the puppet strings of the Irish factions, the shooting and killing of the Irish Troubles was very real.

          The first job of just about any prospective united state commie in chief, is to claim Irish ancestry (even the Keynesian claimed Irish ancestry) in order to pursue the “Irish” vote.

          Innocent funeral goers, and innocent civil rights protestors getting shot, and bloody bodies with big exit wounds were a PR and propaganda disaster, especially when shown in the united state.

          Britain and the united state share “intelligence”. Individuals within the last Kennedy regime, had leaked British intelligence to Republican groups, through the united state embassy in Dublin. Northern Ireland was a conflict point in the relationship between the British state, and it’s “special relationship” with its biggest military ally and major financial creditor.

          Use in Northern Ireland, was a major factor considered in the Small Arms of the 1980s project, both a posteriori and​ a priori.

          2) how ironic, if the SA80 development team were designing a rifle in response to a British intelligence black operation. The omniscient and omnipotent british state chasing it’s own tail.

          I’m quite surprised at the resistance to the suggestion

          The strategy of Divide et impera is well enough established, and has been used in Ireland since the time of Strongbow.

          When news of Gladio became public in 1990, versions of it were found almost everywhere in western Europe. Revelations about Britain were conspicuous by their absence. Why everywhere else, but not Britain?

          The timing and playbook of the “Troubles” also closely match the terrorism which Gladio was revealed to have been​ behind on the continent, and the British state was revealed to have been involved with the Gladio type “stay behind” groups from their inception.

          Time will tell,
          The British state does have a habit of slapping 100 year closure orders on files and documents. Dribs and drabs have emerged, they make the news in Ireland.

        • On the sociology ignoring the technical

          Unfortunately, that’s the way that it happens in real life.

          Different groups interpret the same artifacts and in the same data in very different ways.

          Most currently published history of firearms is implicitly very strongly “Whig” .

          It abstracts completely from individual humans interpreting and choosing, and instead gives an impression that technology is somehow determined independent of humans, in a path of forever upwards and towards the light.

          The rifle and calibre controversies of the 1950s provide a clear contra Whig example.

          The British a united state ordnance people, had widely different interpretations of wound ballistics, and very different ideas of what infantry “should” be doing on a battlefield.

          The artefacts which came from that were widely different; the EM2, and when it eventually emerged several years later, the M14.

          The British state’s military had adopted a selective fire assault rifle in the early 1950s,

          Despite many, very promising assault rifles appearing in the subsequent decades, the British military establishment then took until the mid 1980s to actually issue a selective fire assault rifle.

          The technical, was clearly not the determining factor in those instances

          A sociological examination is therefore necessary to understand what factors, and who’s personalities were at play, and how they interacted in order to arrive at a consensus.

          • “The technical, was clearly not the determining factor in those instances”
            I would say that:
            When some new technology, giving big advantage, will be implemented by (potential) enemy then equivalent (or counter-weight) will be surely, sooner-or-later, developed
            Depending on circumstances real combat might be needed or not.
            First case is HMS Dreadnought [1906], which started new stage of naval arms race, despite being not engaged in real combat until First World War.
            Second case might be Schlacht bei Königgrätz and breech-loadings guns.
            Thus all weapons development might be considered “sword-and-shield race” or “challenge(question)-answer”.

          • is: “(…)real combat might be needed or not(…)”
            should be: “(…)real combat might be not needed or needed(…)”

  5. All the various .276/.280in/etc. projects from the Pattern 14 Enfield on up through EM-2 and then the American 6mm/7mm SAW program in the 1970s were a waste of time. Because every single one ended up as a ballistic and often dimensional twin of the 1892-vintage 7 x 57mm Mauser.

    The 7 x 57 works quite adequately through self-loading and even full-auto actions, either magazine or belt-fed. It’s also about midway in size physically between .308 (7.62 x 51) and .30-06 (7.62 x 63).

    Considering that plant to make it had been around for sixty years by the time NATO embarked on the 7.62 x 51mm NATO contretemps’, it would have made much better sense to standardize on 7 x 57mm and forget about it.

    For a “small-bore” or less recoil-intensive assault rifle round, the 1895-vintage 6 x 57 Mauser would probably have gotten the job done. Alternatively, the 1957-vintage 17/222 wildcat round, forerunner of the modern-day .17 Remington, would probably have satisfied all requirements.



    • The .30-06 was a 7×57 scaled up

      Have you seen some of the pictures of the 1902 Springfield?

      The early versions really did look like the illegitimate results of a drunken one night stand between a 1893 Spanish contract Mauser and a krag and Jorgensen – only fuglier.

      Fyoderov had the right idea, chambering his avtomat for 6.5 Japanese in order to be controllable in full auto.

      The 276 pedersen was remarkably similar in dimensions to the 6.5mm Japanese and carcano cases.
      And to its daddy, .236 Lee Navy, and grandfather, the .303.

      • “Fyoderov had the right idea, chambering his avtomat for 6.5 Japanese”
        It wasn’t his choice, originally it was new cartridge (6,5×57)
        In one of his book Fyodorov give following data for it: 8,5g @ 860 m/s (source: Эволюция стрелкового оружия)

    • “waste of time”
      Notice that .280 British is shorter than 7×57 (65 mm vs 78 mm), so would be better suited for assault rifles.

    • “Considering that plant to make it had been around for sixty years by the time NATO embarked on the 7.62 x 51mm NATO contretemps’, it would have made much better sense to standardize on 7 x 57mm and forget about it.”
      For me it seems that 7.62 x 51 was supposed to full-fill mutually exclusive requirement: being useful for full-auto rifle AND being useful for medium machine gun. I am not sure whatever they were content with 7 x 57 for medium machine gun – notice that in 1940s Spain used medium machine gun chambered for 7,9×57 (ALFA M44)

      • The 7.62×51 of the 1950s, is approximately the same size, same powder capacity, and assuming that you loaded the older round with 150-180 gr boat tail spitzers and 1950s powder, same performance as the 1889 Turkish, Belgian, Chilean etc 7.65 Mauser.

    • “17/222 wildcat round”
      For me it seems that often main reason for abandoning “small-bore” (at its time) were problems with tracer bullets rather than normal FMJ.

  6. An AR15 converted to bullpup was originally considered but the buffer tube at the time prevented this. The AR18 and Stoner 63, not only for the folding stocks allowed the bullpup conversion but the fact both weapons in full auto stayed on target. Both prototypes were later chambered in the 4.85mm round.

  7. It cost the British government / taxpayer 90+ million pounds to correct the mistakes caused by not consulting the original designers and licensed manufactures of the AR18, which involved replacing nearly all the working parts.

    The original concept for the L85 was to manufacture a cheap stamped sheet metal weapon, it ended up the most expensive modern assault rifle around, multiple times the cost of an M16a2, the true cost to the tax payer will probably never be revealed.

    Ouch !

    • Back when Jan Stevenson’s “Handgunner” magazine published the long laundry list of complaints about the guns, and dared to suggest that they​ might not be the bestest guns evahhh.

      The title of the piece was “service rifle SNAFU”

      The magazine was forced to close down for several months. Publishing news of the SNAFU, clearly did not please some individuals in the British state establishment.

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