The UK’s efforts to acquire a new battle rifle for the British Army’s Special Operations Brigade appear to be moving forward, with Project Hunter thought to be nearing the down select decision, which in turn could inform the eventual wider replacement of the SA80 series under Project Grayburn.

First entering service in the 1980s, the SA80 bullpup assault rifle has gone through a series of upgrades and iterations, with the SA80A2 being created in 2002 following a mid-life upgrade, followed by the SA80A3 in the mid-to-late-2010s. The latest variant, known as the L85A3, has been gradually rolled out across the British Army.

It has been used by UK forces in recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as more distant conflicts such as the first Gulf War and the unrest in Bosnia as part of UN peacekeeping operations, the SA80 suffered through significant jamming and operational failures when employed in adverse environmental conditions, prior to the introduction of the more recent variants.

Manufactured by Heckler and Koch, the SA80 fires the NATO standard 5.56×44 ammunition.

In January 2022 a Parliamentary written response revealed that the UK had a total inventory of 134,912 SA80A2 variants and 17,900 SA80A3 variants, held across defence.

Hunter to influence Grayburn?

Speaking recently at the Future Soldier Technology conference in London, British Army officials confirmed to Army Technology that Project Hunter was nearing down select, and that, in turn, the results of the programme could influence Project Grayburn, which was still in the concept phase.

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The timeline for Project Grayburn to begin sifting through the possible options for an SA80 replacement could be around 2025, with a “modular” weapon system potentially an option.

The UK military has in recent years been exploring the potential to introduce new personal weapons systems for use in special operations units as well as regular forces. In mid-2021, a contract notice was issued detailing the planned procurement and support of an Armalite rifle platform Alternative Individual Weapon (AIW) system.

Stage 1 of this process would see the down select of operators to be issued an invitation to tender for a place in the project’s framework agreement. Stage 2 would then award a maximum of six operators the follow up programme to supply and support AIW trials.

A third and final stage would then invite industry representatives who had passed through Stage 2 to a competitive phase involving separate assessments of the rifle and optic systems. The AIW weapon was intended to be issued to the newly formed Ranger Regiment, operating under the British Army’s Special Operations Brigade, with a requirement for up to 10,000 weapons supplied over a ten-year period.

Project Hunter is still an active competition in the tender evaluation stage, with the preferred bidder yet to be identified with no contract as yet awarded. The scope of the programme is to provide the British Army’s Special Operation Brigade and Commando Force.

Speaking to Army Technology on Project Hunter, a UK MoD spokesperson said: “The procurement of an individual weapon system for the Army Special Operation Brigade and Commando Force is still ongoing. We cannot comment further due to commercial sensitivities.”