The British Soldier and his Arms
By Tony Cude Ex Royal Marine
“All the souldjers aforesaid to be armed with good Firelocks”
These words penned by a Whitehall clerk on the 28th day of October, 1664,
in an order of King Charles II, for the raising of “1200 Land Souldjers in
readynefs to be distributed into His Majesty's Fleats ready for sea”, clearly
states what arms they were to be issued with, and ever since that time,
the British soldier and his sea-going counter-part the Marine has always
been able to rely on well tried and tested arms. During our period of
service we were all familiar with at least one type of rifle, some of us
several. But what of those who preceeded us or followed in our footsteps,
with what were they armed ?
In this series of articles I shall try to describe and illustrate most
of those that were used by those who served in British Armed Forces throughout their long
What then were the 'Firelocks' mentioned in that order of 1664 ?
The term can be applied to any arm that can be ignited by means of a live
coal, slow-match or spark. It cannot be said for sure which actual musket
was issued to these first marines for there are no records remaining. The
English soldier's standard arm of the 1600's was the study, simple and
inexpensive 'tricker' (trigger) matchlock, which had beeen in use since the
last quarter of the 16th century.
The French flintlock had been known since 1615 and a variation of this
lock had been manufactured in England for many years following it's
invention. These so called “English” locks were memntioned in 1643 by
Antonio Patrini, an Italian gunmaker, who wrote: “they are made in very
great quantity in England, of rough finish and poor contruction, but are
excellent for giving fire”
As every lock had to be hand made by the Tower gunsmiths, it is
doubtful if they could have produced the 1,000 ordered of the more
intricate flint locks in time available, for the first 250 muskets actually
reached Southampton in November, coming by cart from London.
Two paintings of the period also add to the confusion in that one of a
Private in the Admiral's Regt of 1664 show what appears to be a flintlock or
'Snaphance' (early type of flintlock system) arm, while that of a Private of
the Prince's Regt C1685, clearly show a man armed with a matchlock.
It is possible that as each compnay was formed, they were issued with
what was readily available in the Armouries. Matchlock or Flintlock both
had the same specifications which could account for the differences noted.
In 1664, the official government standards for all military arms set
up in 1630 were still in force. These were:
Barrel Length Bore
MUSKET 48 inches “12 balles to ye pounde rollinge in”
CALIVER 39 inches “17 balles to ye pounde rollinge in”
NOTE: No mention is made of the type of lock to be fitted.
“BROWN BESS' – 1722-1839
In the days of lace-ruffles, perukes, and brocade
Brown Bess was a partner whom none could despise -
An out-spoken, flinty-lipped, brazen-faced jade,
With a habit of looking men straight in the eyes -
At Blenheim and Ramillies, fops would confess
They were pierced to the heart by the charms of Brown Bess. ”
— Rudyard Kipling, 1911
By the late 1600's it was realised that the matchlock, the snaphance and
first crude flintlocks that which had been the main arms of the Briish military
forces for nearly a century, were no longer adequate and that the cost of
manufacturing a true flintlock was now such that they could be produced cheaply
and in bulk, so that by the beginning of the 18th century the matchlock had been
completely abandoned, and the musket which came to be known as the 'Brown Bess'
introduced. The exact date of it's introduction into the service is not known,
but it is believed to be about 1722.
This simple, sturdy yet elegant weapon was to remain the principal arm of
the British infantry soldier up to the middle of the 19th century. Over those
years the design and detail varied but it remained estentially the same weapon.
1st Model. Designated the 'Long Land Patterm' A smooth bore musket of a
nominal .75inch calibre, with a 46inch barrel held by pins passing laterally
through the body of the stock. The stock was of walnut, fitting to within a few
inches of the muzzle, the barrel was browned or 'russeted' (a method of rusting
and then polishing to prevent further rusting) and fitted with brass
furniture. It was at first issued with a wooden rammer, but as these tended to
break they were gradually replaced by a steel pattern.
2nd Model. Called the 'Marine & Militia Pattern' it was introduced about
1756. It had shortened 42inch barrel but was otherwise identical to the earlier
model. Around 1758 another variation of this shortened model, the 'Short Land
Pattern' was adopted. The differences between the Short Land and the Marine &
Militia patterns were minor variation in the furniture fitted, and by 1793, it
was the standard arm of the army. Great numbers of the 1st Pattern were later
shortened to the new length. The Marines of the First Fleet were issued with
brand new “Short Land Pattern” muskets with steel ramrods after Captain Shea
inspected the arms issued to the battalion at Plymouth and condemned them as
3rd Model. First produced in India for the Honorable East India Company's
army, it was adopted about 1793 for general issue for the British army and
designated the “India Pattern.” With a barrel length of 39 inches, simpler
construction and of a lower quality, it was easier and cheaper to produce than
the Short Land model.
Early models retained the rounded cock but a flat sided model was later
fitted. Produced in large numbers for the Napoleonic Wars which lasted until
1815. About 1811, a new model, the 'New Land Light Infantry Pattern' was
developed but because of the heavy demands of the war very few were actually
produce before 1815. Similar to the 'India Pattern' except for a simplified
stock and even plainer furniture, it was the first issued armed to have a rear
sight, a simple “V” notched block mounted to the rear of the barrel. This
pattern was issued exclusively to Light Infantry Regiments which may have
included the Corps.
All models were issued with a triangular socket bayonet with a blade of
17inches in a black leather brass mounted scabbard.
The Percussion Arms 1839-1866
The flintlock system of ignition had several drawbacks least of which was
it's suscepability to miss-fire in wet or damp weather, and the short delay
between spark and ignition which caused some soldiers to flinch at the time of
firing, thus deflecting their aim.
During the latter half of the 18th Century in attemts to counteract these
problems and to find better propellants, many experimented with various
compounds including various fulminates (salts derived from disolving metals in
acids) but these proved too unstable and powerful as a propellant until a
Scottish clergyman, Alexander John Forsyth, a sporting shooter, trying to find a
way to speed ignition and mask the flame of ignition which he believed was
warning birds as he fired, used Fulminate of Mercury but only as an igniter
charge. This produced a fast hot flame when struck with a hammer. His problem
was that the resulting explosion burned too fast to ignite the main charge.
He finally succeeded in devising a system that directed the flame to the
main charge in 1805 and patented his new system in 1807. From this system,
which was very expensive to manufacture and too complicated for a military arm
there was developed the simple yet highly effective percussion cap. Who thought
of it, impossible to say, as it was developed simultanously in several
countries. It England it was attributed to James Purdey, one of England finest
In 1839, a musket based on the new system was approved for the army. Of
.753 inch calibre and designated as the Pattern 1839, it was, except for the
lock, almost identical to the Short Land Pattern, because it utilised many of
the parts held in stock for the now obsolete Brown Bess. A number of the Short
Land pattern were also converted to the new system.
In 1842, with some minor improvments in the method of manufacture, changes
to furniture and the addition of a “V” notch rearsight, another model was put in
to production as the Pattern 42. A Pattern 42 Sea Service Musket with a 30
inch barrel,a patch box in the butt and a heavier fore stock was made up for the
use of the Royal Navy & Royal Marines. In 1852 all models were rebored to .758
inch. All three model were manufactured concurrently until superceded by rifled
In 1851,the first British military arm to rifled was approved. The bore
of .702 inch having 4 groove Minie rifling, a ladder type rearsight graduated
from 200 to 1,000 yards and a “V” notch set for 100 yards. By the time it
reached the troops in 1853, this model was already out-dated, for production of
a new rifle had commenced. Production of the 1851 model ceased in 1855.
The new model, the Pattern 1853 Rifled Musket, saw the first large
reduction in bore size, being of .577 inch. The 39 inch iron barrel had three
groove Endfield rifling and iron furniture. Other inovative features were the
holding of the barrel to the stock by three iron bands instead of being pinned
as all previous arms had. The rearsight bed was graduated to 400 yards in 100
yard steps and the ladder sight to 900 yards.
Three models of the 1853 were produced all with only minor variations in
furniture etc. All being supplied with the standard 17” socket bayonet but now
with a “Lovell” pattern bayonet catch.
In 1856, a shortened model, with a barrel length of 33 inches held by only
two bands was issued. Often called the Sergeant's Model, it was issued with a 23
inch 'Yataghan' type bayonet.
In 1858, a short model, similar to the Pattern 1856, but fitted with all
brass furniture and a 26.6inch Naval cutlass bayonet was issued as the Pattern
1858 Naval Rifle.
The Snider-Enfield 1866-1871
A Snider squibbed in the jungle
Somebody laughed and fled
And the men of the First Shikaris
picked up their Subaltern dead
With a big blue mark on his forehead
And the back blown out of his head.
It soon became clear that it was easier and faster to load a gun from the
breech than from the muzzle. Putting a charge of powder, a ball and wadding down
a barrel from the front end and ramming it home was not just time consuming but
almost impossible to do lying down. Soldiers in action usually had to load
while standing exposed to the enemy fire. In the heat of battle misfires went
un-noticed and second and even third charges were often loaded on top of the
first – with a chance of bursting the barrel when it did fire and killing the
firer. In the confusion of action, paper cartridges might be loaded ball first
making the gun useless until the reverse load was removed. Loading from the
breech would solve all these problems.
A board of officers was convened to study all available breech-loading
systems to find the best permanent replacement arm and what they consider the
most suitable type of cartridge for that arm.
In all, one hundred and twenty systems and forty-nine different cartridges
were tested over a period of five years before a decision was made and even this
was not a permanent one.
It was decided, that to give more time for the board to reach a decision,
they would adopt one of the offered systems tested to convert the existing
stocks of rifles to a breech-loader.
The system selected for this was that of an American, Jacob Snider. This
system consisted of removing 4 inches from the breech end of the barrel which
was then threaded and screwed into receiver with a side-hinged breech block that
opened to the right and which could then be pulled back to extract the fired
case. No ejector was fitted so the rifle had to be tipped to the left to
allowed the fired case to fall free. The firing pin which passed downwards
through the breech block was struck by the original hammer which was bent to
left and had had the hammer face reground. The breech block had no locking
device and was held in place simply by it's own weight. The new breech was
chambered for a rolled brass case cartridge with an iron base and a lead bullet
in the original .577” calibre invented by Colonel Boxer. The cost of the
conversion was only 7/6d per arm.
The first model, designated the Mk1, soon earned itself the name as the
“Suicide Model' from the habit of the breech block blowing open if not properly
seated. It was soon realised that the system was unsafe especially under active
service conditions and a spring mounted catch was added to the the left side of
the breech block that locked into the receiver wall, thus securing the block
from blowing open. It was adopted as the Mk11.
When stocks of the existing Enfield Rifled Muskets including the 1856
Short or Sergeant's Pattern and the 1858 Naval rifles had been converted, a
model Mk111 was issued, these were newly manufactured rifles fitted with a steel
Although only a stop-gap weapon while the tests for a new system were
continued, it proved to be not only a hard hitting weapon, but also a lot more
accurate that the original Enfields.
The Martini 1871 – 1888
When 'arf of your bullets fly wide in the ditch
Don't call your Martini a cross-eyed old bitch
She's as human as you are-you treat 'as sich
...An' she'll fight for the young British soldier
The trials and test to find the right breech-loading system for the Army
continued on after the issue of the Snider conversions of the Enfield rifle in
1866, and it was not until April of 1871 that a breech-loading system that met
the requirements of the Board of Ordnance was finally adopted.
The system, a lever action tilting block with internal powered striker,
was that of a Swiss, Freidrich von Martini, and was based on an earlier design
by an American, Henry O. Peabody, which had an external hammer.
The block, hinged at the rear and operated by depressing the trigger guard
lever, caused the block to drop down at the front exposing the chamber. On
closing the action the striker was cocked which was indicated by a small pointer
on the left side of the receiver. The face of the chamber include a claw
extractor operated by the downward movement of the block face.
The 49.5 inch barrel was bored to .450 inch with the Alexander Henry (a
Scot)rifling and chambered for the .450” rolled brass foil bottle neck cartridge
loaded with 85 grains of black powder and a 480 grains lead bullet. These were
later replace by the drawn brass case cartridge. The rear leaf sight was
graduated to 1,300 yards.
Designated the Mk1 Approved, the first issues reached the troops in 1874.
In 1877 a revised model, the Mk11 was produced to correct certain problems found
with the Mark 1, mainly the deepening of the “V” in the rear sights and a new
cleaning rod end. In 1882, a MK111 was introduced, these had new steel breech
block pins in place of the bronze ones fitted, new rear sights, a wider breech
block and the striker and striker hole increased by .02”.
In the mid-1880's a new model, the Mk1V was designed at Enfield with a
smaller .402 bore, designated the Enfield-Martini Rifle, but the decision to
adopt .303 cartridge and the Lee bolt-action as the standard, it became a supply
officer's nightmare and the Mk1V's were converted back to the .450” calibre
Henry pattern, these can be recognised by their long trigger guard lever.
Production of the Martini Henry's ceased in 1889, but it was decided to
rebarrel existing stocks to take the new .303” cartridge. New steel barrels with
Metford's segmental rifling were fitted and the designated as the Martini-
Metford Rifle Mk1.303, the name Metford does not appear on the receivers. The
Metford rifling was adopted as it was not as prone to fouling as was the Enfield
With the adoption of the new propellant, Cordite in 1895, it was soon
found that the shallow segmental Metford rifling was very soon wore out, so new
deeper cut rifling was designed at Enfield and the majority of the Martini-
Metfords were rebored to the Enfield system, changing the nomenclature from
Martini-Metford Mk1 .303 to Martini-Enfield Mk1 .303.
Historical Note: On the 28th Nov 1878, Lord Chelmsford was heard to remarked:
“I am inclined to think that the first experience of the Martini-Henry's
will be such a surprise to the Zulu that they will not be so formidable after
the first effect.”
Two months later at Isandlwana he found quite to the contrary.
The Martini-Henry was issued in three desinct bayonet types, Socket, Cutlass, Yataghan, while the .303 model was fitted with double-edged 12" Pat 1988, designed for the magazine Lee.
The Magazine Lee 1888-1902
Repeating rifles were well known by the second half of the 19th century. In
the United States, Tyler Henry and later Oliver Winchester in 1866, had produced
repeating arms for their armed forces, but in Europe at first, the relative low
power cartridges and complicated mechanism of the lever-action Henry's and
Winchesters were not accepted as suitable for military use. But the race between
nations to equip their armies with repeating arms gathered momentum.
In 1871, the Swiss developed the Vertelli, a 10 round tube magazine bolt
-action rifle based on the design of Tyler Henry as their service rifle, the
problem with the tube magazines of both the Henry and the Winchester being
considered prone to damage being overcome by enclosing the tube in a heavy wood
Germany soon followed suit by converting their Mauser Model 1871 to a
tubelar system in the fore stock and issued it as the M71/84.
France, not to be out-gunned, developed the Model 1886 Lebel, also a boltaction,
with a 10 round tube magazine in the forestock.
Great Britain lagged behind, the reason was that the tube
magazine was not considered suitable for military use even when
inclosed in a strong wooden forestock, but in 1888 they finally
adopted the bolt-action of James Paris Lee, an American of
Scottish birth, allied with an eight round box magazine, a 30.2”
barrel with seven groove Matford segmental rifling and chambered
for the .303 cartridge as the Magazine Lee-Metford Mk1
The cartridge was loaded with 71.5 grains of compressed
black powder with a 215 grain nickel jacketed round nose bullet in a drawn brass
The rifle was fitted with a safety catch on the left side of the receiver
and a magazine cut-off on the right. The detachable box magazine held eight
rounds in a single column and the bolt fitted with a sliding sheet steel dust
cover. The rear sight was graduated from 200 to 500 yards on the bed and to
1,800 yards on the leaf. A long range dial volley sight fitted was to the left
side of the receiver, ranged from 1,800 to 2,900 yards. The butt plate was of
steel with a trap door for an oil bottle. Overall length of the arm was 49.5”.
With weeks of it being issued changes were made to the sights and the
safety catch was removed, and the modifcations caused a change in nomencature to
Rifle Mk1*. All existing stocks of the Mk1 were converted to the new Mark.
In January 1892, a Mk11 was approved and embodied some signicant changes,
the most obvious being the introduction of a wider but less deep magazine that
would hold 10 rounds in two staggered columns and the changing of the butt plate
from steel to gun metal.
In May 1895,this was advanced to Mk11* when a new extended bolt body was
introduced, to the rear of which a safety catch was fitted, the fitting of a
shortened clearing rod (two of these were screwed together to make a full length
rod)in the fore-end under the barrel, and the moving of the lower sling swivel
from the front of the trigger guard to the butt
A new 12” double edged sword pattern bayonet in a black leather steel
mounted scabbard was issued with this rifle as the Patt 1888 Bayonet.
Note: The main differences between the Vertelli and Mauser bolts and the Lee
system adopted by Great Britain is in the locking systems. Vertelli and Mauser
both had locking lugs at the head of the bold, while the Lee bolt had rear
locking lugs. The forward system provided a stronger lock than the Lee, but the
Lee bolt was faster and much smoother to operate.
The Short Magazine Lee-Enfield 1902-1939
Adopted as result of constant requests by senior officers of the services for a
statnd arm for issue to all branches of the services, the SMLE Mk1 was introduced on
the 23rd December 1902 followed by some minor changes to the original pattern on the
14th September 1903.
The new arm was 5 inches shorter and a 1¼lbs lighter than the Magazine Lee-
Enfield Mk1* it was to replace. The receiver and bolt head were fitted with Charger
Guides to fascilliate the easy loading of the five round stripper clips. Stronger at
the breech, the barrel had five groove rifling of progressive depth.
The folding leaf rear sight was graduated to 2000 yards, with fine adjustment
for both windage and range. Like the MLE M1* a long range dial sight was fitted to
the left of the receiver and a long-range pointer on the left of the fore stock. A
Safety-catch was fitted to the left of the receiver and locked the the cocking piece.
A magazine cut-off similar to that of the was incorporated into the design of the
receiver. The rifle was full stocked and a heavy cast muzzle cap fitted to take a
On the 15th March 1906, a new model, the Mark 11 was approved, being the
conversion of old stocks of Magazine Lee-Metford and Magazine Lee-Enfield's to the
new configuration, initially for issue to the Royal Navy.
On the 26th March 1906, the nomenclature was advanced to Mk1* & Mk11* with the
replacing of the steel butt plate with one made of gun-metal. Further small
refinements saw the advance of some arms to Mk1 & M11** and Mk1 & Mk11***.
All models were issued with the Pattern 1888 12” bayonet which had a modified
grip and pommel, and designated as the Pattern 1903.
In 1907, another new model was adopted as the Mk111, the main features being
removal of the Charger guide on the bolt head and the fitting of a fixed Charger
bridge on the receiver body and improvements to the sights.
It was considered by some officers that the 12 inch bayonet fitted to the new
shortened rifle, put the British soldier at a disadvantage with the armies of most of
the European powers and so a new 18 inch single edged bayonet, designated as the
Pattern 1907 was issued to replace the Patt 03, thus offsetting the shortened length
of the rifle.
This rifle was adopted by all the commonwealth countries, with Australia
keeping it in service throughout WW2 and the Korean War, not adopting the No4.
In 1916, due to the expediency of war, the Mk111 underwent several changes to
simplify and speed production, these entailed the discarding th elong range
sights,the magazine cut-off and the windage adjustment on the rearsight, advancing
the model to the Mk111*
In 1922, a MkV was introduced, being a conversion of the Mk111* by moving the
the rear sight from the barrel to behind the Charger bridge, but only about 2,000
To simplify the accounting of weapons stocks, in 1926, Britain made a complete
change in the nomenclature of all arms held in stock. All models prior to the SMLE
Mk1 were declared as obsolete and were to be sold off.
The remaining arms were then given a new desigation, the SMLE Mk1 became 'Rifle
No1 Mk1', the Mk11 was reclassified as a Mk111 & with the Mk111 changed to Rifle No1
Mk111, the Mk111*'s became Rifle No1 Mk111*. The .22 Training rifle was renamed
Rifle No2 MkIV.
Between the years 1926 and 1935 a series of trials were held on the rifle. In
1926 a Pattern “A” was tested. Between 1929 and 1931 a revised Pattern “B” trialled
and 1935 a Pattern ”C” was tested.
The results of these tests were to produce, in time, the rifle we know as the
The No 4 Rifle 1939 – 1954
Approved on the 15th November 1939,the No 4 rifle was the production model
developed from the No1 MkV of 1929 and the No1 MkVI types “A”, “B” & “C”. The
heavy cast nose-cap and abyonet boss of the SMLE No1 rifles was replaced with a
stamped sheet steel band, leaving the last 2½”inches of the barrel exposed. The
charger bridge was integral to the receiver and the rear leaf sight moved to the
raer of the charger bridge as in the experimental MkV. This sight had a fixed
peep sight to 100 yards and the leaf calibrated in 50 yard clicks from 200 to
Due to the pressure of World War Two, no production could , at first, be
undertaken in the U.K., whose factories were heavily engaged in refurbishing all
existing stocks of No1 Mk111 and 111* rifles to replace those lost at Dunkirk,
to begin re-tooling for the new rifle.
Although it's basic design was still that of a Lee bolt action paired with
Enfield pattern rifling, none were ever produced by the Royal Ordnance Factory
at Enfield. The bulk being produced under licence by arms manufacturers in the
United States and Canada. So the No4 became the first standard arm of the
British forces of which more were to be manufactured overseas than in Britain.
In June 1941, a Mk1* was approved, which was adopted to simplify and speed
production in the USA and Canadian factories. The differences from the original
Mk1 being dispensing with the bolt locking catch in favour of a small machined
slot cut in the bolt head guide rail and a simplified safety catch. Other
wartime production variations included the finish to the cocking piece, and the
number of rifling grooves, these varying from two to six, depending on the
Again to simplify wartime production several types of rear sight can be
found fitted, the most common being the Mk2, a simple “L” shaped flip sight, one
arm set to 300 yards the other 600 yards, (see next page)
Experiments were carried out to reduce wastage in manufacruring process of
the stocks, first by using laminiated plywood, and in 1941 a rubber compound
coated all steel stock was tested, followed by one manufactured of bakelite and
finally a plastic one. None were really successful or adopted.
By early 1942, assembly plants had been set up, mainly in Birmingham,
which already had a long established connection with the arms manufacturing
trade, to assemble the rifles from parts manufactured and supplied by subcontractors,
large and small, from all over Great Britain. (See list of
contractors on following page.) The first of the new rifles to be issued
actually reached the troops early in 1943.
The bayonet for this rifle was a totally new concept, being a 7 inch
pointed round spike which locked directly on to the barrel, several models of
these can be met with depending on where they were manufactured and when.
On the 31st March 1949, a Mk11 rifle was approved, basically to correct
the deterioration in quality caused by wartime expediency, these were, changes
to the fitting of the trigger and the pull, replacing the various Mk's of rear
sight with the original Mk1 pattern and general improvements to the overall
finish carried out.
Stocks of existing Mk1 and Mk1*'s were upgraded to the same standard as
the Mk11. The Mk1 upgrades were redesignated as Mk1/2 and the Mk1* to Mk1/3.
Also about this time several models of bowie blade bayaonets based on that of
the No V rifle were introduced
With the introduction of the L1A1 Self-Loading Rifle in 1956, a quantity
of No4 rifles were converted to take the 7.62mm NATO cartridge, these being
designated as, Rifle L8A1-L8A5, depending on the mark of rifle converted. These
were then placed is storeage as reserve arms.
THE NO 5 RIFLE
Although not strictly a standard issue arm, the No5 Rifle or as it is more
commonly known 'The Jungle Carbine' was used extensively by members of the Armed Forces
who served in the Malayan Campaign of the
early nineteen fifties and therefore merits a mention in this series of
Since the Boer War nearly fifty years earlier, there had been no
requirement by the British Armed Forces for a carbine length arm, the concept of
the short rifle was to provide an all services all-purpose arm, and this the
Short Magazine Lee-Enfield and later the No4 Rifle had achieved, but by 1942 it
was being appreciated that a shorter lighter arm was needed by those troops
fighting the Japanese in the dense jungles of South-East Asia.
It was not a new design but basically a modification of the standard No4
rifle then being used. The first prototypes were therefore referred to as the
No4 Lightened Rifle.
Extranneous metal was removed from the body and the barrel shortened to
20½” including a flash illiminator fitted to the muzzle. Half stocked with a
rubber recoil butt pad fitted, it was 2 pounds lighter and 5 inches shorter than
the No4. It was adopted as the Rifle No5 Mk1 on the 12th September 1944.
It was handy robust weapon well suited to the conditions in which it was
to be used, but firing as it did the standard .303 rifle cartridge, it was noted
for the effect of it's somewhat heavy recoil. Although consideration was given
at the end of the war to it being adopted as the standard arm in place of the
No4, there was concern aired as to it's ability hold Zero, which, in part,
eventually led to this idea being dropped, and the relatively short life of the
Two Marks of rear sight can be
encountered, the original machined Mk1 of
the No4 but graduated from 200yds to 800yds
with a fold down battle sight and a MkII,
similar in design but of pressed steel.
Two variations of stock finish were
produced, the original, which had a pressed
steel end cap on the fore-end and a later
model with no cap on the fore end, but with
the wood rounded off and sealed.
A new pattern of bayonet was designed,
being an 8” bowie blade with a large muzzle
ring to fit around the flash illiminator.
This bayonet was later modified and
adopted to fit the No4 Rifle, the Sten
Gun,the Patchett SMG, and subsequent arms.
A little over 251,000 No5's were
produced, mainly at BSA Shirley and the
Royal Ordnance Factory at Fazakerley. All
production ceased at the end of World War
The Author with a No5 rifle serving in "A" Troop 42 Cdo RM, Perak, Malaya 1952
The L1A1 S.L.R. 1954 - 1980
Under pressure from the United States, who at that time were opposed to
small calibre arms, Great Britain did not proceed with the development and
production of it's new .280”(7mm) E.M.2 assault rifle (this rifle will the first
weapon covered in a new series of articles on British arms starting in June
2010), and instead, in 1953, in concert with it's NATO allies, accepted the
US .308 (7.62x51mm) cartridge as the standard Nato calibre and in 1954 adopted a
modified version of the Belgian F.A.L. Rifle as its standard arm, under the
nomenclature L1A1 Rifle.
A gas operated self-loading weapon, it was operated by a gas bleed onto a
piston mounted in a tube above the barrel, which when driven to the rear acts
directly onto the breech block, unlocking it. The block moving backwards,
extracts and ejects the spent case and cocks the internal hammer. When fully
back, the block is then driven forward by a return coil spring mounted in the
butt, picking up a new cartridge from the magazine, feedng it into the chambers
and locking the breech block.
Issued to fire repetition only, it could with minor modifications be
converted to full automatic fire, the safety catch mounted on the left side of
he body acting as a three position change lever (Safe/Repartition/Auto) similar
to the B.R.E.N.Gun.
Except for the lower receiver, barrel, breech block, breech block carrier,
piston tube, piston and gas regulator, the metal parts were mainly of stamped
Originally dressed with wood furniture, the barrel being stocked for only
half it's length by the forward handguards. Later models were introduced with
plastic furniture. A sliding aperture rear sight seated above the receiver was
graduated in set 100 metre stops from 200 to 600 metres. A carry handle was
fitted which folded down the right side of the receiver when not in use, the
Cocking handle and Safety catch being on the left side of the receiver. A
slotted flash illiminator is fitted to the muzzle. This was the first standard
British rifle to be fitted
with a pistol grip.
Using a 20 round detachable
box magazine, each rifle was
issued with four magazines
(which could, in an
emergency, be used by the
L4A2 7.62x51mm B.R.E.N. Gun,)
plus a boxed cleaning kit.
The bayonet issued with
this arm was a modified
version of the bowie pattern
first issue with the No 5
An accurate and easy weapon
to fire, it weighed a little
over 10lbs when fully loaded,
but because of it's design,
it was not considered by some
(author included) to be as
robust or as handy as the No
4 Rifle that it replaced.
Author carrying L1A1 SLR leading RM's
on the Lord Mayor Day Parade, London, 1964.
Final Chapter Part 11
The SA80 1984
The development of the SA80 (Small Arms for 1980s) system, began in the
late 1960s when British army decided to develop a new rifle, which was
designed to eventually replace the venerable 7.62mm L1A1 SLR in the 1980s.
When NATO trials were announced in 1977 to select a new cartridge, the
British state-owned Enfield Small Arms Factory developed its own small-caliber,
high velocity round, which was more or less representing the US .223/5.56mm case
necked down to accept 4.85mm (0.19 inch) bullet. When the cartridge came out,
the Royal Small Arms Factory developed a new weapon around it, initially
designated as SA80-IW or XL65. This weapon, being somewhat similar in outline to
the much earlier British Enfield EM-2 assault rifle, was internally quite
different, and, basically, was more or less the US-made Armalite AR-1 rifle, put
into bullpup stock and rechambered for 4.85mm cartridge. It was a selective fire
weapon operated by a rotating bolt and gas blow-back system, and fitted with a
four powered optical sight with night illuminating power.
After the NATO trials, which resulted in the adoption of the Belgian SS-109 version of the 5.56mm cartridge for all NATO forces, Enfield engineers
rechambered the XL65 for this cartridge and continued its development under the
designation of XL70.
The SA80 prototypes were trialled in 1976, but due to the Falkland War,
the new system was actually adopted only in 1984, as the L85A1.
The original rifles were plagued with many problems, some being very
serious. In general, it was quite unreliable, constantly jamming and troublesome
to handle and maintain, so, finally, in 1997, after years of constant complaints
from the troops, it was decided to upgrade most of the rifles then in service.
The upgrade program, committed over the years 2000 - 2002, was completed
by Heckler & Koch, which company, was then owned by the Royal Ordnance company
(German investors bought the HK company back in 2002). About 200,000 of the
L85A1 rifles were upgraded into the L85A2 configuration, out of a total of
320,000 or so, of the original L85A1 rifles produced.
While official reports about the upgraded weapons were glowing, the
initial field reports from the British troops, engaged in the Afghanistan
campaign of 2002, were unsatisfactory. Most of the problems, however, were
traced to improper care and maintenance of weapons, and now the L85A2 performs
fairy well both in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The L85 Rifle of the SA80 family has now been the standard issue service
rifle of the British Armed Forces since 1987 and the improved L85A2 continues to
remains in service today.
The remainder of the SA80 family comprises the L86 Light Support Weapon,
the short-barreled L22 Carbine and the L98 Cadet rifle, both of which suffered
similar problems to the L85A1 and had to be up-graded.
The SA80 is the last in a long line of British weapons (including the Lee-Enfield family) to come from the Government arms development and production
facility at Enfield Lock. Its bullpup configuration stems from a late-1940s
programme at Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield to design a new service rifle
which was known as the EM-2, which though similar in outline, was an entirely
different weapon. (The EM-2 will be covered in a future article).
The SA80 bayonet has a 8 inch, clip point Bowie shaped blade of stainless
steel with widely spaced serrations along the first half of the main edge. The
blade is fitted with a hole to enable the bayonet and scabbard to be connected
for use as a scissors-type cutter.
Copyright Tony Cude 2009