Maybe This Upgraded Version of the British Army’s Main Rifle Will Suck a Little Less
SA80A3 offers some improvements over its lackluster predecessor
by MATTHEW MOSS
The British Army could be getting a new rifle. The SA80A3 is an upgraded version of a weapon that, to put it kindly, sort of sucks.
The SA80A3 prototype debuted at the DVD military exposition at Millbrook Proving Ground, Bedfordshire, in September 2016. The improved rifle was part of the dismounted soldier exhibit, one of the expo’s three major displays.
The prototype may be part of the British Army’s Future Infantry Soldier Technology program, which has been in progress since the early 2000s. The Ministry of Defense launched FIST to improve the combat effectiveness of dismounted troops.
With its emphasis on new optics, communications and information systems, FIST is similar to the U.S. military’s Future Force Warrior and Land Warrior programs.
The British Army adopted the SA80 in 1985 to replace the L1A1, Britain’s version of the FN FAL. The army optimistically describes the SA80 Individual Weapon system as “a first-class weapon system and world leader in small arms.”
While the rifle’s reliability has improved with recent upgrades, the early weapons suffered design flaws and manufacturing defects. Performance during the 1991 Gulf War was poor. The weapon’s furniture proved to be fragile and its reliability questionable.
The SA80 is part of the first generation of bullpup rifles, appearing just a few years after the Steyr AUG and the French FAMAS. With the FAMAS approaching the end of its useful life, the British Army also expected the SA80 to leave frontline service by the late 2020s.
With this deadline fast approaching and with defense budgets shrinking, a life-extending program of improvements may be the British Army’s best option for retaining an effective infantry weapon without the expense of developing a new rifle.
The first wave of major upgrades began in 2000, when Heckler & Koch refitted 200,000 weapons to improve their reliability — an initiative that ended in 2006. In 2008, the army added rails to the SA80.
The new SA80A3 reportedly incorporate a number of improvements including a new pistol grip and free-floating fore-end with Picatinny rails and additional KeyMod attachment points, a safety stud on the trigger mechanism housing to ensure that this lever does not overtravel, a full-length Picatinny rail on the top of the rifle to allow the optimal fitting of optics, a redesigned upper receiver that improves reliability and a change of color for better compatibility with the British Army’s Multi-Terrain Pattern uniform.
It’s unclear whether the A3 rifle includes weight-saving new materials and whether it incorporates integrated powered rails providing a built-in power source for optics, lights and other accessories.
The army produced 10 prototype SA80A3s for feasibility testing, the results of which are forthcoming. It’s unclear just how much more performance the British can wring out of a nearly 30-year-old weapon that was never great to begin with.