From Thorneycroft to SA80 Book Review

It has been twenty years since Steven Raw’s history of the SA80, The Last Enfield, was published. A lot has happened in British Army development of its SA80 platform since then including two large scale conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq that have given the British Army far more operational experience with the rifle. It was therefore time for a new book on this controversial rifle and Jonathon Ferguson’s book ‘From Thorneycroft to SA80, British Bullpup Rifles 1901-2020’ has been eagerly awaited. As the title indicates, this is far more than just a study of the SA80 platform and instead looks at the history of bullpup rifles in Britain across the whole of the twentieth century from weird Edwardian prototypes, through the abortive EM2 programme to the adopted SA80 platform and its trials and tribulations. Although all these projects were organised and run separately and were many decades apart, this broad overview is very helpful in seeing the way engineers had to overcome the same problems inherent in a bullpup design and how the emergence of new manufacturing technology allowed problems.

The author is the curator of firearms at the National Firearms Centre in the Royal Armouries at Leeds, this collection contains many items form the old Enfield Pattern Room so he has access to the prototypes of many of the firearms he is discussing. This combined with the superlative photographic images makes it much easier to follow the development of each pattern of bullpup rifle. The production quality of the book in general is worth commenting on as it is extremely high. The cover is embossed and the edges of the pages gilded. The paper is thick and glossy with excellent reproduction of the images and the ribbon bookmark is a helpful touch; all in all the book is a pleasure to hold and open. High quality production values are of secondary importance compared to the text, however, and Jonathon Fergusson has an easy to read style with plenty of information. He does assume a level of prior technical firearms knowledge so if you are completely new to the subject it would be helpful to know a little about the different operating systems used in automatic rifle design etc. Happily the book is very well referenced, with end notes to each chapter and an extensive bibliography. Although standard practice in academic books, many military history books are not extensively referenced which does make tracking down where an author got his information from problematic. Happily that is not the case here.

The sections on the 1940s and 1950s British rifle development are particularly welcome as this has become something of a unicorn firearm amongst many interested in British small arms procurement and has achieved a legendary status not unlike the TSR2. Fergusson picks this apart and highlights both the innovations and strengths of the design, but also its weaknesses. It becomes clear that the rifle was innovative for its time, but had flaws that would have needed further developmental work to iron out. It would be fair to say that Fergusson takes a more nuanced approach to the tortuous history of the SA80 rifle than Raw did in his book. He recognises the politics behind decisions, but also looks at the shortcomings within the design team and although not dismissing them, does place them into a wider context. This more measured approach gives the book a more balanced approach and forty years after its introduction it is helpful to acknowledge the good as well as the bad. He also digs into the myths surrounding the SA80 and tries to separate legend from fact which helps steer the book away from polemic which was perhaps one of the shortcomings of Raw’s book.

Whether you are interested in British military firearms specifically, or the development of weapons, this book is highly recommended. At nearly 600 pages, it’s a weighty tome and the quality of research and information within is second to none. The book is published by the American publisher Headstamp Publishing, however the Royal Armouries in the UK has the book for sale at £96 and can be purchased here. This is far from a cheap book, however the quality of the research and the book itself are both extraordinarily high and so it is well worth biting your lip and paying out for a copy as you will not be disappointed.

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