UK Special Forces’ M16 Variant: the L119A1

In 1999, the UK Ministry of Defense put out a tender for a new rifle for UK Special Forces (UKSOF). The elite units of the British military were definitely not going to be using the L85! There was some competition (including the SIG 550 series), but it was pretty much known going in that the contract would be going to Diemaco (later Colt Canada) for a version of their C8 SFW (“Special Forces Weapon”). That was the case, but only after very extensive trials, which actually cost more than the procurement contract itself. The rifles were tested in all environmental extremes, including Alaska, Kuwait, and Brunei.

The rifle ultimately adopted had a number of unique features. It was at heart a Diemaco C8, with Diemaco’s early flat top upper (which predates Picatinny adoption, and is actually a bit closer to Weaver – but still compatible with modern accessories). Two barrel lengths were purchased, 10.0 inch and 15.7 inch. Other details include:

Stepped buffer tube
Textured telescoping stock
Permanently attached rubber buttplate
Lone Star grip
Knight’s RAS with locking clamps on both top and bottom rails
Strengthened gas block (usually but not always)
SureFire 216-A flash hider
Unique castle nut details
Ambidextrous charging handle

The barrel profile chosen for the L119A1 is quite heavy, and the 10 inch barreled version is substantially overgassed. The guns were heavy, but very reliable, and have since been adopted as the standard service rifle of the Royal Marines. The SOF opted to seek out a replacement around 2013-2016, and that would result in the L119A2 (a significantly different rifle).


    • Experience of the L85, perhaps…?

      Most of the UK sqauddies who did cross-training on small arms with us were seriously anti-L85 after some stick-time and instruction on the M16/M4 family. The L85 is not a weapon beloved by its users, and if it were left up to most of them, it would have never been brought into service. One of the senior Warrant Officers I knew had been involved in the testing phase of the L85’s development, and his commentary on the weapon was entirely profane. I’ve never seen it anywhere else, but supposedly they had had control weapons during the testing that ranged from the M16 to the AUG, but the L85 did so poorly by comparison that they got rid of the controls during the testing, leaving the L85 with no real competitor to be examined against. This might be BS, but that’s what he told me.

    • There were supposedly three different reasons why they went with a C8 derivative instead of the L85. One was that they wanted certain specific features, and they were able to get those features with off the shelf aftermarket parts using the C8. There was no aftermarket for the L85, so getting custom changes (especially the development and testing) would have been eye wateringly expensive for a small order.

      Another reason is that UK special forces often operate in places where the government want to deny having sent anyone. If they were to be photographed from a distance with an L85 there would be difficult to deny they were British troops. If their photo appears in the press carrying an AR-15 derivative, then it’s hard to prove they are British, as they won’t wear any other standard distinctively British kit either.

      The third reason is that because they are “special forces” they wouldn’t want to be seen carrying the same rifle as the rest of the infantry, as that would make them less “special”. You have to look stylish if you’re “special forces”.

      • The other reason might just be that the L85 is a crappy rifle for actual combat. And, in oh-so-many-ways…

        The one thing that I think a lot of weapons designers seem to leave out of their thinking is “How does this work under fire, in combat?”.

        L85, both the reload and the immediate action drills require pulling the weapon off the shoulder and directing your attention to the rifle. AR-15? You can, with sufficient practice, easily run that rifle without ever losing situational awareness. Presuming, of course, that you’ve been properly taught.

        L85? LOL… I would wager that there have been a bunch of “blue-on-blue” incidents that are wrapped up in the comparatively massive amount of attention you have to give that rifle to get it to work. You have to think about everything you’re doing with it, and direct the attention that should be keeping up with what’s going on around you to your weapon, which is simply not a good idea.

        You can run an AR-15 design-derived weapon on virtual autonomous muscle memory; the controls and the rest are right there, and the index features of it all play into the natural tendencies of the human body. The magazine goes in right where your firing hand fingertip ought to be when not firing; that makes a magazine insert incredibly easy and a lot more “natural” than having to fumble around somewhere randomly along your upper arm/armpit region. All of the controls are right there “to finger” for your firing hand; the charging handle is easily managed by your off hand, should it be necessary.

        Hell, it’s been nearly a decade and a half since I last had to “do the drills” on an M16, and just talking about it has my hands and arms wanting to do their thing with the rifle. It’s a case of ingrained muscle memory, which I think could be done with an L85, but with the way that thing is so ass-backwards in layout, I’d hate to think how many hours you’d have to spend perfecting the reload. I used to sit at the TV with my personal AR-15 and practice, practice, practice until my fingertips bled, shucking magazines out of web gear, into the rifle, into the dump pouch or onto the floor, depending on what I was thinking was appropriate in that period.

        The ability to do that kind of training is one reason I’m a fan of firearms ownership; armies where they make the weapons too hard to access? You can’t get the time in with them, in order to really get the reflexes in and engrained. After enough time, it really does look like sleight-of-hand to an outsider.

      • “(…)The third reason is that because they are “special forces” they wouldn’t want to be seen carrying the same rifle as the rest of the infantry, as that would make them less “special”. You have to look stylish if you’re “special forces”.”
        Also L119A1 is continuation of usage of customized foreign-made weapons for example G3 SG1
        a standard G3 with the addition of a special barrel, bipod, ergonomic butt-stock, trigger-group and sniper scope

      • Well, two good reasons out of three… 🙂

        In a similar direction to aftermarket parts: SF saw the need for lasers, lights etc. much earlier than the rest of the force and – as was the case for many other armies – putting those on their standard weapon in a way that made sense was a bit of a hassle back then.

        Especially if you have the sort of close cooperation the Brits had and have with the Americans, it is very understandable to go “Well, with THEIR rifle it all just fits…why not get us a few of those?”

        Apparently the Australian SAS had pretty much exactly the same reasons to go with an AR-15 variant instead of the AUG (which undoubtedly was a much better gun than the L85A1 and still is well above the L85A2).
        The Austrian Jagdkommando are kind of an outlier with them also using the AUG – but it is very much not the same kind of AUG the regular Bundesheer uses. Still, they rather put the effort in to get their AUGs up to SF speed instead of getting AR-15s and being done with it.

        • The brutal truth is that the L85/SA80 was and is a PoS. It was badly designed at the start (essentially a “bullpupped” AR-18 action), and was built initially for a micro-bore 4.85 x 49mm round that nobody wanted (0.280in aka 7 x 43mm EM2 all over again), and then re-engineered to take 5.56 x 45mm. In the process anything like the reliability and sturdiness of the original AR-18 design evaporated.

          Then it was produced with what can only be described as a complete lack of QC. Resulting in a horrendous litany of malfunctions and plain breakages not seen since (sorry, Ian) the Chauchat in .30-06. The bit about the plastic forearm crumbling when exposed to issue insect repellent was especially…repellent. The retainer-pin breakages which would literally dump the lower half of the gadget at your feet wasn’t nice, either.

          Simply put, it would not stand up to actual use, let alone being fired for any length of time. 200-300 rounds would do it in- in the climate of the UK. When it got to the much more hostile climate of the Middle East in 1990-91, the result was an utter disaster.

          To make matters worse, the Light Support Weapon (LSW) version, intended as the SAW, proved to be (guess what?) incapable of even a modicum of automatic burst fire without breaking something. In AFPAK, the LSW was re-dubbed the DMW (Designated Marksman Weapon) as the MoD tried to paper over the faults by convincing everyone that it was a sniping weapon. One that only fired full-automatic, BTW. (?) It didn’t work for that, either.

          On a personal note, I knew the Royal Army was desperate when, in spite of the traditional British phobia about handguns in the hands of the peasantry, they were issuing Glock 9mms to basically every foot soldier with an L85, on the grounds of not if but when it packed in, the soldier could at least defend himself.

          Bringing Heckler & Koch in to somehow “rejuvenate” RSAF Enfield and improve the L85 series weapons was both an “economy” move by an increasingly-financially-strapped British government and a desperate last-ditch effort to make the IW version at least something that soldiers wouldn’t throw away in disgust as soon as they’d acquired something workable from an enemy who didn’t need it anymore. It didn’t work. Even HK couldn’t make anything out of the L85, other than “tacticooling” it like the Australian version of the AUG.

          Someone should explain that accessory rails on all sides of the forearm make said forearm basically impossible to grasp correctly. And don’t even think about doing it without heavy gloves on, unless you like your fingers looking (and feeling) like you stuck them in a cheese-shredder.

          The L85/SA80 has been a disaster from start to finish, and everybody who has ever dealt with the beast knows it. In fact, there is an entire book on the subject, courtesy of Osprey;

          If you think I don’t like the thing, you probably better not read that book. To say the author doesn’t like it, or the system that created it, is an understatement.



          • “(…)On a personal note, I knew the Royal Army was desperate when, in spite of the traditional British phobia about handguns in the hands of the peasantry, they were issuing Glock 9mms to basically every foot soldier with an L85, on the grounds of not if but when it packed in, the soldier could at least defend himself.(…)”
            Uhm… British Army is not Royal Army, if I am not mistaken due to actions of Oliver Cromwell. As far as I know Royal Army moniker might be rightfully used to denote Italian land forces (Regio Esercito) during Great War. Hopefully someone with better grasp of United Kingdom military history will be able to explain that.

    • M4 because it’s the best on the market.
      Canadian M4, because it is the best of all M4s.
      Special Forces don’t go to parades, so they don’t care “what it looks like”, it “just should work”.
      As for the L85, with proper training, this is a perfectly usable rifle. Not great, but still better than the Pakistani G3 or AK after 1990.

  1. “(…)UK Special Forces (UKSOF)(…)”
    Now I am extremely confused. I always though all-uppercase name for UK Special Forces is SAS. It is not? Also when I throw “UKSOF” at search engine it lead me to
    Should I understand this is just cover name, like in case M113 armoured vehicle whose manufacturer was hidden under name of FOOD MACHINERY CORP?

    • No, it’s just a catch-all term for things like SAS, SBS, and the other sneaky-beakies of the UK.

      Blame the English language–Here in the US, there’s a distinction between “Special Forces”, which are the Green Berets (informal term…) and “Special Operations Forces”, which are all the forces like Rangers, SEALs, Force Recon, AF Pararescue… Pretty much everyone they put under Special Operations Command, or SOCOM.

      The UK also continues the practices that led them to being dubbed “Perfidious Albion”, in that they like to maintain a certain amount of ambiguity about a lot of things regarding intelligence and special operations.

    • @Daweo, the Special Air Service regiment is part of UK Special Forces, arguably the most recognised element, but not the entirety. Try UKSF for a more successful search.

    • Oh, and Daweo…? Despite what one with an Eastern European background and acculturation to Russian/Soviet paranoia might think, there was zero intent to obfuscate anything about that whole “FMC” thing. It’s just that the company was a natural fit for building armored vehicles because of its then-primacy in building industrial machinery for food production… Sort of the way that you had a lot of European rail manufacturers going from train engines to tanks.

      Wasn’t a “cover identity”, at all… Just a case of a company that specialized in building great, big machinery going into the construction of other large machinery. If you look at the “history” page of their website, you’ll see that they damn near don’t even mention their defense industry activities:

      I’m not even sure who the hell owns their military vehicle end of things, any more… I think I vaguely heard that it got purchased and rolled up into United Defense (or, BAE…) at some point, but I can’t trace out all the details with casual research.

      Nevertheless, it wasn’t any attempt at creating a cover identity; they got into manufacture of armored vehicles by way of building the LVT series of vehicles during WWII, and it just kinda grew, from that.

  2. I really dislike the super-short barreled AR-15 variants; unless you couple that configuration with a change in ammunition, they’re all a bit of a nightmare when it comes to keeping the damn things running, long-term. Yeah, if you’re SF or Ranger, the armorers are right there, and they have the budget to swap out parts preventatively, but… Man, those are just not happy guns, beating themselves to death in fairly short order. You also lose one hell of a lot of ballistic potential with them.

    I still say that what they should have done, post-Vietnam, was not to go with the A2 configuration at all–They should have, instead, gone for a true mid-length carbine in about 16″, a mid-length gas system, and entirely eschewed building more “musket-configuration” guns and those XM-177 derivative M4 carbines. A 16″ barrel gives you only moderately worse ballistics than the old 20″ ones, it’s easier to handle, and if you had a mid-length gas system on it, the guns would run better. The M4 configuration was an actual afterthought–Nobody meant for the M4 to become the basic infantry combat weapon. At. All. It was supposed to be a weapon “for the rest of the Army”, a true carbine for guys not going directly into combat. Because of that, they gave testing its ballistics a lick and a promise, and accepted the lower ballistic performance because the components were off the shelf, and did not require development or more money.

    Then, the Infantry bubbas saw the M4s coming in to the support troops, decided that the A2 configuration was an utter waste, and went to the M4 in droves. By intent, the M4 was never supposed to be issued to anyone but drivers, officers, and other peripheral positions in the Infantry units, but the M4 became so much the preferred weapon that every unit that got them for their support troops diverted them over to the Infantry. Originally, the M4 was supposed to be for the Artillery, Engineers, and others; we never saw them, and it was well into the 2000s before anyone bothered actually letting them get to us.

    Root issue? The idiots who were tasked with improving the post-Vietnam M16 really had no idea what the troops needed. Nobody came out of Vietnam saying “Yeah, the M16 is great, just make it heavier, longer, and give it a set of sights that ain’t nobody going to bother with actually using, in combat…”.

    The A2 should have been a 16″ mid-length gas system carbine configuration with A1 sights and a set of tritium nightsights integrated into it. Everything about the M885 cartridge was predicated on a 20″ barrel, so they should have also rebalanced the specs on that, as well. True ambidextrous controls would have been nice, as well…

    • Thank you. That’s the kind of informed and educational comment that got me charged to check this channel. I don’t think I even know it was o YouTube when I first watched it. I have tended to check YouTube first, because films get posted there first, sometimes hours earlier, but here is obviously still the place for the best comments.

    • “The idiots who were tasked with improving the post-Vietnam M16 really had no idea what the troops needed.”(C)

      And I thought that the elements of converting A1 to A2 were proposed by a couple of civilian enthusiasts.
      And initially, it was not any “improvement program”, but only their personal idea of ​​”how it could be better.”
      And Colt just combed it and put it on himself.
      And, of course, he took the money… 😉

      • Oh, no… The M16A2 was all the fault of the Marines, who were very proud of what their efforts led to. No civilians really involved, at all.

        What I love about the whole thing is this: Follow the path, as it happened. The US military was faced with having to recapitalize its small arms fleet in the late 1970s and early 1980s, due to most of the inventory being worn out past cost-effective rebuilding. So, the Marines got out ahead of everyone, and produced the ultimate Known-Distance Range range toy, in the A2. This was such a stunning success that as soon as the majority of the combat troops saw the M4 showing up in the divisions for their support troops to use, which started out in the Light Infantry Divisions, they glommed onto the M4 with such fervor that we never actually got the support troops the carbines that they’d been promised until well into the 2010s. I’m not even sure that they ever got them issued out to everyone who was originally slated to get them in the first place, TBH.

        The M4 was basically a poorly-tested compromise. They selected things like barrel length and gas system based off of what was available, and the attempt to maintain backwards compatibility with things like the M203. The external ballistics were known to be questionable as far back as Somalia, but despite the abundant evidence that there were problems with lethality, nobody did anything about it until late in the early 2000s.

        So, the M4 becoming the basic combat weapon? Totally an unintended thing. It happened in a design vacuum, just like the M240 did. Nobody tested it for the use it was pressed into, nobody bothered to go back and ask “Hey, WTF? Those guys who were behind the M16A2? How’d they get so much fundamentally wrong with that thing that everyone voted with their feet for what is, on paper, a totally inappropriate kludge…?”.

        That’s the real question that needs to be answered, along with the travesty of how the M240 was adopted. The system is so totally dysfunctional that we selected our basic individual weapon for combat troops through what I can only describe as a series of epically and profoundly accidental events that resulted in what we’re fielding today. It’s insane; Congressional inquiries should have been held, and people should have been held accountable, losing their jobs. Honestly, I think I’d have sterilized the lot of them as a means of improving the species, culling all of the responsible parties from the gene pool.

        I’m still amazed that there haven’t been investigations and large-scale recriminations, because the whole thing is just such an epic and sordid series of failures on the part of the procurement system that it’s not even funny. At this point, I’m not sure if we wouldn’t be better off handing the whole enterprise off to a randomly-selected set of Call of Duty players, and letting them make the decisions based on what’s looking cool in the game, this year. I can’t see how it would result in much more random effects, or worse results. The whole thing is just epically insane…

  3. As usual, Kirk’s opinion is spot on. I’d also add there is nothing more ridiculous than a guard at Buckingham stomping his feet and growling while armed with an L85 and bayonet. Somebody get those kids a fucking SLR!

    • I dunno, to be honest… On the one hand, I find a lot of the rumpy-pumpy drill BS to be an utter waste of time. It looks good, as they said about the Charge of the Light Brigade, but is it war?

      The value of a weapon is in its ability to keep you alive by making it easier to kill your enemies. Taking that as my guiding principle, I’m not too concerned what it looks like doing parade drills that bear no relation to what I need to do with the rifle in order to kill the enemy.

      The SLR was a weapon you could argue did both things reasonably well. The L85? It does nothing really well, in that it’s not a good tool for killing in combat. It’s one that I’d term was “marginably effective”, but I would never, ever want to take it into any situation where I was at risk of going mano-e-mano with someone at close quarters. Any rifle you have to look down at to reload or do immediate action on? That’s a failure of design, and likely one that came from a designer who had no earthly idea what a fighting rifle needs to be able to do.

      If you go out and look at weapons design across the board, what you’ll find is a serious lack of real knowledge about what goes on in combat with many designers. The L85 is a weapon that was designed in an industrial engineering vacuum; nobody working on it ever seemed to consider investigating what someone fighting with that rifle would need to do, in order to win a fight at bad-breath range. By contrast? Glock went out and sought out people who knew what a pistol would need to be able to do, and designed it to match that vision. The Glock is a design that’s about as close as you’re going to come to one of those idiot-proof personal fire extinguishers, and you could probably get away with issuing it as a one-time use item in a sealed holster that you broke a seal on and drew to fire at the enemy. The paradigm is that simplistic; there are no distractions, no extra controls, between that pistol and killing someone that badly needs killing in your immediate vicinity. If you carry it holstered and loaded, all you need to do is draw and shoot; you’re ready to go. Contrast that with the knuckleheaded ergonomics on the L85, and you start to understand why anyone in the UK military that has a choice in the matter, chooses something else. Anything else.

      • The Glock is about the nearest thing to a double-action revolver that has ever been called an “automatic” in terms of how it’s used. Literally “grab, point, and pull”.

        When U.S. police departments went from revolvers to automatic pistols (I was there at the time), the number of stoppages, malfunctions, and ADs on the range alone would convince most sane, reasonable people that cops shouldn’t have sidearms, period. (Truth in advertising; I was an instructor at that time.) The multiplicity of types (“Do we want Berettas like the Army? Or Smith & Wessons? Or Colt 2000s?”) didn’t help any, either.

        Anymore than the idiotic decision to adopt the FBI’s 147-grain subsonic hollowpoint 9 x 19mm; a round intended for the sole purpose of making HRT’s H&K MP5KSD suppressed SMGs function reliably. Unfortunately, it behaves like a 148-grain .38 S&W circa 1890 at the receiving end, which was more or less what we were trying to get away from with the .38 Special about that time.

        When departments decided 9 x 19mm wasn’t getting the job done, along came the .40 S&W. Which was no improvement. I had direct input to S&W during its development, and told them that the more it performed like a .357 Magnum, the better off everyone would be. Instead, they turned it into a 165-grain subsonic, IOW a version of the 185-grain match target .45 ACP. And everybody wondered why, like the 147-grain 9mm, it failed badly “on the street”.

        (Incidentally, I tested and evaluated the S&W Sigma, in .40, for my agency. Side by side with the Glock 20 10mm. There was no contest. The Glock was everything the Sigma should have been. The Sigma…just wasn’t. It even kicked harder than the Glock, with the latter loaded with full-throttle Norma 10mm ammunition. Think about that for a while.)

        Finally, everybody ended up going to the 9 x 19mm in the Glock on the grounds that it was simply easier to train officers (many of whom today have no “military background”) to actually hit something with. And with proper loads like a 115-grain or 124-grain JHP at about 1,150-1,200 F/S, the 9 x 19mm does about the same job as a .357 125-grain JHP at about the same velocities. (FTR, I prefer 125-grain at around 1,400, which requires at least a 6″ barrel.)

        The Glock is the automatic pistol that should have replaced the revolver in police work to begin with. And now most U.S. departments that carry autopistols are in fact Glock users.

        All’s well that ends. I guess.



  4. The narrow front sight post is a Canadian-ism. And notice who uses Kitchener, Ontario’s products – Canada, Norway, Denmark, Netherlands, UKSF.

    • One of the things that contributes to that fact is that Diemaco bought a state-of-the-art Cold Hammer Forge barrel production system, and Colt itself could not offer that. The CHF barrels are much, much better in terms of accuracy and longevity.

      The US military habit of “freezing” a technical data package and not updating it has led to a lot of problems when it comes to slipstreaming in new technologies. The fact that we’re still specifying button-broached barrels on the M16 and M4 is, flatly, insane–I think that it’s only the M4A1 packages from Crane that have the CHF barrels on them, and that’s one thing that contributes to their superior performance.

  5. How many hordes of dead idiots will it take to get the British Army to abandon the L85 altogether? For that matter, how many idiots will have to be shot in the groin to get the US Army to start an effective weapons program that uses actual field conditions (mud, rain, and a few stressed out test-takers) in testing? I could be wrong.

  6. As has been mentioned in previous threads about Stoner’s AR-15, while very many things about the “accidental rifle” (to use C.J. Chiver’s term from his Kalashnikov book _The Gun_), are well-known, we still don’t really know who else worked on the various ergonomic issues of the rifle design… Odd considering it has become something of the “gold standard” for more modern rifle designs?

    As for Britain’s Special forces, these have long used the M16, even when the L1A1 SLR and 9mm Sterling SMG were still standard issue… The SAS long used the type–absent the “forward bolt assist” even–as did others, and also the Ghurkas for jungle warfare.


    One of the things that has bemused me (I’m 70 so I have memories of the Vietnam Era) is how the AR-15 and its derivatives have gone from being derided and despised to beloved and having a reputation as being “world class” and “America’s Gun”

    • Yeah… From “jammin’ jenny” and a host of other names to the “standard” against which all other things are judged, no?

      • I’m going to go out on a limb and state that a lot of the reputation that the early M16 earned stemmed mostly from a totally (and, I speculate… Deliberately.) inadequate fielding process that put the weapons out there in the field with little to no real support. When you have guys writing home to Mom and Dad, begging for .22 caliber rifle cleaning kits…? You’ve really, profoundly screwed the pooch as a small arms provider.

        The powder issue was another point. I think that the early days of the M16 can be read as a petulant denial of the obvious failure of the M14 under modern combat conditions, and a desire to sabotage the “interim” system such that it would not interfere with the coming thing, the SPIW. Which never actually, y’know… Came.

        There are good reasons why MacNamara did what he did with regards to Springfield Arsenal. I think that the lot of them should have been tried for murder, with the names of every soldier in Vietnam who died due to a weapons failure being held against them, because there was just too much that was done which could not have been anything other than deliberate. Hell, they ignored Stoner when he told them the rifle wasn’t finished in the development cycle, yet, and that he recommended that they chrome-plate the barrels. This was ignored, sooooo… Yeah.

        The irony is, had they done their work honestly back in the 1950s, we could have had an AR-10 in a true intermediate caliber, and bypassed all that SCHV BS until it was actually validated.

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