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.303 Lee-Enfield Britain's classic battle rifle.

It seems about mandatory, when writing about British arms, to start the piece with some jingoistic Kiplingesque quote about Pathans or Fuzzy-Wuzzies taking Tommy Atkins' bullets in various parts of their anatomies.

We are going to forego this tradition. The Lee-Enfield is far too successful an arm to need this sort of lurid introduction.

Its long service record speaks for itself. It is arguably the world's greatest bolt-action battle rifle.

The casual firearms enthusiast is certainly familiar with the famed Mark IIIs and No. 4s of the two world wars, but the many models of Lee-Enfields, and their extensive useage, makes the history of this arm at least as exciting as that of Mausers or Springfields.

Like two earlier general issue rifles, the Snider and the Martini-Henry, the Lee had its design antecedents in the United States.

James Paris Lee was a naturalized American citizen whose parents had come from Scotland to settle in Canada in 1835 when James was 4 years old. He initially followed his father's occupation of watchmaking, but maintained more than an abiding interest in firearms. Eventually, Lee moved to Wisconsin and took up gun designing full time.

Though he didn't actually conceive the box magazine, Lee did perfect it, and a bolt-action repeater of his invention was tested by both the United States Army and Navy. This "Remington-Lee" soon gained the attention of the British authorities, and in 1980, versions of the Lee, chambered for drawn brass .577- 450 "Gatling" varsions of the British service round, and fitted with Martini-Henry barrels, successfully eliminated several and domestic rivals.

Serious trials continued throughout the 1880s with modified Remington-Lees, as well as with "stock" .45-70 and .43 Spanish models. Another strong contender was the Lee-Burton which employed a curious hopper-style "Bethel-Burton" magazine mated to the Lee's bolt action.

Though the British had been considering adopting .402 as the service caliber (Mk IV Martini-Henrys originally were slated to be chambered for this round), the efficiency of a .303-caliber cartridge designed by Swiss Col. Eduard Rubin caused the plan to be scrapped and for experiments to be conducted with the smaller bore.

Finally in 1888, prototype Less, fitted with barrels featuring the seven-groove rifling of William E. Metford, were tested (using the .303 Rubin round), and in December of that year the first Lee magazine rifle was officially accepted into British service.

The .303 round eventually settled upon had a drawn brass case and 215-grain round nose, cupro-nickel-jacketed bullet. The cartridge was Boxer primed and had a powder charge of 71-1/2 grains of black powder compressed into a pellet. Though ordnance officials were planning to use smokeless powder, pending the adoption of a suitable propellant it was decided to stay with black powder for a time.

Britain's first general-service repeating rifle, the "Magazine Lee-Metford Rifle Mark I," was a revolutionary arm. Featuring a bolt action, and Metford-rifling, it had an eight-shot sheet metal box magazine which protruded from the stock in front of the triggerguard. The magazine was detachable, though it was linked to the gun and not intended to be routinely taken from its well.

The bolt, while not as strong as many Mauser designs, was adequate to the pressures developed by the .303 round. Locking was achieved by means of a lug and solid rib on the bolt. The former engaged a recess in the receiver, and the latter was secured against a shoulder. The bolt head was a separate piece which threaded onto the bolt body, and by snapping it out of a rail on the receiver, the entire bolt assembly could be freed and removed rearwards out of its housing. The gun cocked upon closing, and proved to be one of the smoothest military actions ever built--one which could be operated with considerable rapidity. A rear-mounted cocking piece allowed the gun to be armed or disarmed with the bolt closed, and incorporated a handy half-position safety notch as well.

While the gun was a repeater, it was fitted with a sliding cutoff that permitted single shot firing. The rounds in the magazine were originally intended only to be used in an emergency situation. In fact, there was no provision for rapid loading of the magazine, a la the clip-fed Mausers--cartridges had to be manually pressed into the box one at a time.

The Mk I's rear sights were graduated to 1,900 yards, and the rifle was also fitted with a curious "dial" sight on the right side of the stock which allowed the soldier to fire for effect at ranges up to 3,500 yards.

Overall length of the piece was 49-1/2 inches, and the barrel measured just over 30 inches. Like the Lee-Metfords and Enfields that would follow it, the Mk I Metford had a two-piece walnut stock. The butt was secured to the receiver by means of a long bolt that passed through its length. The grooved fore-end was secured by a combination of screws and barrel bands, and extended to within a few inches of the muzzle.

Military arms were marked with a sovereign's crown over "VR" (for Victoria Regina), the place of manufacture (Enfield, B.S.A.--Birmingham Small Arms Co., Sparkbrook, or L.S.A.--London Small Arms Co.), the date of Manufacture and the "Mark" number. Arms for the civilian market were stamped "LEE-SPEED PATENTS", referring to James Paris Lee, and Joseph Speed, assistant manager at Enfield, who made a number of improvements to Lee's mechanism. This marking system would hold true up to World War II, when the military stampings were simplified to the model designation, manufacturer, date and serial number, or in the case of American-made rifles, an angular "S" (for Stevens) and the model.

In early 1892, a number of slight changes were made to the Lee-Metford. Modifications on the Mk I (A "Mark" signified a major change, while a "*" or "star" indicated only a minor alteration), included elimination of the safety catch (originally located on the rear portion of the receiver); substitution of a brass stock identification disc for the steel one; and regraduation of the rear sight to 1,800 yards and the dial sight to 2,900 yards.

In 1893, a Mk II Lee-Metford was authorized. Most importantly, it had an increased magazine capacity of 10 rounds, but other modifications, such as no finger grooves in the fore-end, a brass buttplate, improved bolt, sturdier nose cap and simplified cutoff were also included. The identification disc was done away with, as the new buttplate had an elongated tang which could be used for unit markings in the manner of earlier muzzle-loading Enfields.

Two years later a Mark II rifle was brought out which included a safety catch that was mounted on the cocking piece.

the Lee-Metfords sent to India and other far-flung outposts of the Empire out-stripped the older Martini-Henrys and native weapons handily, and won considerable praise from their users. Perhaps the most dramatic example of the effectiveness of this modern repeating arm vs. primitive weaponry occurred in the Sudan on September 2, 1898 at the battle of Omdurman.

In an effort to re-establish European dominance of the area, an Anglo-Egyptian army of 20,000 men led by General Horatio Herbert Kitchener, confronted 50,000 fanatical Sudanese followers of Sayyid Khalifa. Kitchener's troops were armed with a conglomeration of Lee-Metfords, Martini-Henrys, Remington Rolling Block, and Maxim guns, supported by field artillery and gunboats of the Royal Navy. The majority of the Khalifa's men, on the other hand, carried spears, swords and muzzle-loading muskets.

In his book The River War, Winston Churchill, who charged with the 21tst Lancers at the battle, described the enemy hosts: "Suddenly the whole black line which seemed to be the zeriba [a perimeter of thorn bushes and branches] began to move. It was made of men, not bushes. Behind it other immense measses lines of men appeared over the crest; and while we watched, amazed by the wonder of the sight, the whole face of the slope beneath became black with swarming savages. Four miles from end to end, and as it seemed, in five great divisions, this mighty army advanced--swiftly. The whole side of the hill seemed to more. Behind the masses horsemen galloped continually; before many patrols dotted the plain; above them waved hundreds of banners, and the sun, glinting on many thousand hostile spear-points, spread a sparkling cloud."

The British were ready for them, and abetted by the single-shot Martinis and Remingtons, machine guns, cannon, and gun-boats, the Lee-Metfords proceeded to do their deadly work. According to eyewritness G.W. Steevens' With Kitchner to Khartum, "A shiver of expectancy thrilled along our army and then a sigh of content. They were coming on. Allah help them! They were coming on . . . The line of flags swung forward, and a mass of white flying linen swung forward with it too. They came very fast, and they came very straight; and then presently they came no farther. It began with the Guards and War-wicks-section volleys at 2,000 yards; then as the Dervishes edged rightward, it ran along to the Highlanders, the Lincolns and Maxwell's Brigade. The British stood up in double rank behind their zariba; the blacks [Egyptian allies] lay down in their shelter trench; both poured out death as fast as they could load and pull the trigger . . . From all the line came perpetual fire, fire, fire, and shrieked forth in great gusts of destruction.

"And the enemy? No white troops would have faced that torrent of death for five minutes, but the Baggara and the blacks came on . . . it was the last day of Mahdism, and the greatest. Rifles grew red hot; the soliders siezed them by the slings and dragged them back to the reserve to change for cool ones. It was not a battle but an execution."

When the smoke cleared, some 11,000 of the Khalifa's men lay dead. Some 16,000 were wounded and another 4,000 taken prisoner. The British lost 48 men killed and 328 wounded.

While artillery and Maxims certainly accounted for their share of the casualties, the real victor was the Lee repeater. Wrote Steevens, "Nothing could have come alive up to our Lee-Metfords . . . An examination of the dead--cursory and partial, but probably fairly representative--tends to the opinion that most of the killing, as usual was done by rifles. From the British you heard not one ragged volley: every section fired with a single report. The individual firing was lively and evenly maintained. The sastifactory conclusion is that the British solider will keep absolutely steady in action, and knows how to use this weapon: given these two conditions, no force existing will ever get within a half mile of him on open ground, and hardly will try."

While the Lee-Metford served admirably as an infantry arm, at almost 10 pounds, it was just too unwieldy for mounted use. Thus, in 1894, a carbine version of the arm was approved.

The Magazine Lee-Metford Carbine Mk I had the barrel shortened to 20-3/4 inches and the overall length to just under 40 inches. The carbine weighed somewhat less than the rifle (7.7 pounds) and featured a smaller six-round magazine to allow the gun to be easily removed from a saddle scabbard.

To allow better mounted carriage, the bolt handle knob was flattened, presenting a slimmer cross section. A safety catch was also added to the bolt's cocking piece several months prior to it being used on the military rifle. As might be expected, the Lee-Metford carbine was not fitted for a bayonet.

On November 3, 1891, Britain's first smokeless powder rifle load was adopted. The "Cartrdge, S.A., Ball .303-inch Cordite (Mark I)" featured the black powder round's drawn case and 215-grain bullet, but was charged with 31 grains (or 60 strands) or Cordite, a spaghetti-like propellant made from nitroglycerine, guncotton and mineral jelly. The Boxer primer composition was changed, as well.

While the relatively smoke-free Cordite was a born to the tactician (it boosted the muzzle velocity of the .303 round from 1,850 feet per second (fps) to 1,970), unfortunately, it burned much hotter than black powder that the Metford rifles and carbines were experiencing considerable bore erosion because of this.

accordingly, experts set to work to modify the Lee's riflying to take better advantage of the new round. What emerged was a more angular, deeper five-groove rifling that would not be affected by the new propellant. Termed "Enfield" rifling because it was developed at the Royal Ordnance Factory at that site, it heralded the beginning of a firearms legend--the Lee-Enfield rifle.

The first Lee-Enfield was approved on Novemeber 11, 1895, and the premier models, produced at Enfield, Sparkbrook, L.S.A., and B.S.A., made their appearance the following year.

Externally, the Mk I lee-Enfield was virtually identical to the late Lee-Metfords, even down to the sight graduations. It was this gun, as well as its modification, the Mk I (which eliminated the cleaning rods), that the British infantrymen took to war against the Boers in 1898.

As might be expected, a cavalry version of the Lee-Enfield was also recommended, and in the fall of 1896 the Mk I Carbine was officially approved. Externally it resembled its Metford counterpart, however the rifling was Enfield variety, and the sling bar eliminated.

A Mk I Lee-Enfield carbine introduced a new nose cap which eliminated the hole for the cleaning rod. In fact, the rods were even removed from the Mk Is in service, without their caps being plugged.

Despite poor British generalship, the Lee-Enfield acquitted itself well against the Boer's Mausers. Some sighting problems, coupled with the inability of the magazine to be charged rapidly, however proved to be a problem when facing European-style soldier using modern arms.

At the disastrous battle of Spion Kop, January 24, 1900, this need was sorely felt. As later reported by the editors of With the Flag to Pretoria, "A cyclone of death had smitten the summit. No words can describer the appalling uproar and confusion; all around the thunder of guns and the incessant roar of rifles; on the summit clouds of dust and the yells and oaths of the combatants; the groans of the wounded; the shrieks of the dying . . . the British soldier in these dreadful monents is rarely untrue to the call of duty. He was at a grave disadvantage, for the rifle with which he was armed was awkward to load lying down; the boer weapon, with its clip holding five cartridges could be charged easily in a second or two."

In fact, the .303 cartridge itself had undergone slight modifications, and in 1893, the Boxer primer was done away with in favor of the Berdan. As well, a cartridge with an exposed lead tip, designed at Dum Dum Arsenal in India, was being lauded for its mushrooming capabilities--a feature later condemned by Britain's enemies as "inhumane."

In 1897 the Mk III and MK IV cartridges were introduced. These were similar to the Mk II, with the exception that the bullets had hollow points. The Mk IV had a metal cup inserted in the bullet's nose, while the Mk III had its cavity exposed. In August, 1899, a Mk V round was authorized, having a slightly longer bullet and lead core alloyed with 2 percent antimony.

The lessons of the Boer War were not lost on the authorities, and plans were set into motion to design a short rifle that could be used by both cavalry and infantry--and which could be loaded rapidly. After extensive testing the Mk I Short, Magazine Lee-Enfield (SMLE) was approved, just prior to Christmas, 1902.

this gun was a handy 44-1/2 inches overall, with an Enfield-rifled barrel of slightly over 25 inches it was stocked to the end of the muzzle, and had a generous nose cap which formed a pair of large "ears" to protect the front sight.

The rear ladder sight was marked to 2,000 yards, the slide being released by a pair of buttons on either side. dial sights, marked to 2,800 yards were inlet into the left side of the stock.

The gun had fore and rear handguards running the entire length of the barrel. As well, the rear sight was protected by a pair of robust "ears", thus correcting some complaints received from India and Africa that the sight was too exposed and somewhat liable to damage.

The bolt head was fitted with a guide, which permitted the use of a five-round stripper clip or "charger". now 10 rounds could be loaded into the magazine in just seconds.

While Mk I SMLEs were manufactured at Enfield, Sparkbrook, L.S.A., and B.S.A., some were also converted from earlier pattern Long Lees and Lee-Metfords at Enfield and Sparkbrook. These converted guns have their original date and sovereign marks on the right side of the butt socket and an additional manufacturer, date, and pattern designation on the lefthand side of the socket.

A Mk I was sealed (adopted) in mid-906, its main modification being the substitution of a brass buttplate for a steel one, and the addition of a trap to accommodate an oil bottle and cleaning pull-through. Some older long pattern rifles (termed "Mk II Cond.") were also converted to this configuration.

Meanwhile, a Mk VI pattern bullet had been sealed, which, though substantially similar to the Mk II, had less jacket material covering the core at the nose. Also, Cordite had been improved by altering the proportions of its components and by forming it into tubes to enable it to burn more efficiently. This new propellant was referred to as "Cordite MDT," and while, three other Cordite propellants were also being loaded, MDT became the most widely used.

January 1907 saw the Debut of the Mk III SMLE--a gun that was to perform yeoman service during two world wars, as well as campaigns in India and other remote parts of the world. Perhaps one of the most famous rifles ever made, the Mk III, was a reliable, study arm that operated admirably in extreme conditions.

Externally, it resembled the Mk I a great deal, with the major change being the addition of a charger bridge across the receiver. This robust design was a considerable improvement over the bolt-end guide, and one that was greatly appreciated by the soldiers to whom the arm was issued.

The Mk III's rear sight was slightly modified and strengthened, however the graduations on it and the dial sight were the same as those on the Mk I. The shape of the rear sight's protective "wings" was changed, and they were removed from the handguard and screwed directly on to the fore-end. Other minor modifications involved the strengthening of the cutoff and front handguard, the lightening of the nose cap, a change in position of the middle band, and reintroduction of the earlier style butt trap.

Experiments were also being conducted to improve the .303 Cordite cartridge, which had hardly changed since its inception. Various bullet shapes and weights were tested, and finally in 1910, a considerably different round, the Mk VII, made its debut.

It had a pointed cupro-nickel-jacketed bullet of 174 grains, with a 37-grain charge of MDT, but otherwise was similar to its predecessors. this round would remain basically unmodified up to the demise of the Lee-Enfeld in 1916, however, when an Mk VIIz, located with nitrocellulose, was approved for machine gun use.

The Mk III was the primary longarm Britain carried into World War I. As the conflict progressed and more and more rifles were urgently needed, certain manufacturing shortcuts were adopted. These included the elimination of the cutoff, dial sights, rear sight wind gauge, and identification discs. As most of these features were superfluities anyway, their omission did little to affect the Mk III's (now termed Mk III) effectiveness.

To assist the SMLE in the sniping role, a number of optical devices, including a sight setup based on the principle of the Galelean telescope, were employed. More traditional rifle scopes of British and American manufacture were also adapted to the SMLE.

To say that the Mk III acquitted itself well in battle would be something of an understatement. To begin with, the British soldier was given exhaustive training with his rifle, and most emerged as better-than-average marksmen. This, coupled with the Lee's 10-round magazine capacity, and inherent accuracy, caused the Huns to believe more than once that they were facing machine guns, rather than massed bolt-action Enfield fire.

In such early affrays as the holding action at Le cateau, during the retreat from Mons, the British continued to pour in an accurate, withering fusillade against the Bosche--sustaining a rate of fire double that of the official War Department estimate of 16 aimed rounds per minute. At Le Cateau, for instance, a small detachment of Royal Scots virtually decimated a substantially larger German force at a range of some 500 yards, temporarily halting the entire enemy attack.

Still, following the war, the British authorities felt that their battle rifle could be improved upon, and began redesigning the Lee once more.

What finally emerged, between 1922 and 1924, was a gun which resembled its predecessor, but had a number of interesting modifications. The Mk V, as it was called, employed the first of the Lee receiver sights. This wide ladder-type arrangement was hinged at the rear of the action, just above the butt socket. While the battle sight could be utilized with the ladder folded forward, when it was raised an adjustable slide could be brought into play. This slide had a rather large catch which was the cause of some consternation, for it proved to be less than positive, and had a tendency to slip during firing.

As well, the Mk V had an additional band located behind the nose cap, and while the dial sights were eliminated, the cutoff was curiously resinstated.

Though authorities had originally intended to modify Mk IIIs into Mark Vs, the cost proved to be prohibitive, and several thousands of the new rifles were made up from scratch and sent to a number of different climes for troops trials. All Mk Vs were made at Enfield and will be found dated between 1922 and 1924. Despite obvious care in design and manufacture, criticisms of the Mk V were such that it was withdrawn from contention as a new service general rifle and many of the test guns were sent to India for service there.

Ordnance authorities felt that now was the time to introduce an improved arm that would be substantially different from the Mk III/V. In fact, the basic design for the new "Mk VI" emerged during the period of the Mk V trials in 1926. As it evolved, this new rifle was quite unlike any of its predecessors. It had a heavier barrel that was exposed at the muzzle, a different front sight block, two-piece striker mechanism, longer stock, more robust backsight, etc. Many of the early guns also had coarsly checkered fore-ends--a dubious feature that was abandoned on the later trials and issue guns.

In 1926, the service rifles' nomenclatures were also altered. Initially, the Mk III was to be called the No. 1, Mk III and the Mk VI became the No. 1, Mk VI. After progression through several modifications, the gun emerged, in 1931, as the No. 4, Mk I.

With The approach of hositilites with Germany, tests on the No. 4 were stepped up, and in late 1939 the paftern was officially approved. This gun, which, along with the Mark III, would be Britain's main battle rifle during World War II, was made at a number of British facilities, as well as in Canada by Long Branch Arsenal, and in the United States by Savage.

As finally okayed, the No. 4 Mk I measured about 44-1/2 inches overall, with a slightly-over-25-inch barrel. The action was beefier than that of the Mk III, and the screw-adjustable rear aperture sight graduated from 200 to 1,300 yards. The barrel stuck out of the fore-end almot 3 inches, allowing the bayonet (or grenade launcher) to be easily fixed directly to it.

In 1941, a No. 4 Mk I was approved which had a simpler bolt-head release system. These guns were made by Savage and Long Branch. As well, both Marks of no. 4 were later fitted with a simple flip type, two-aperture battle sight intended for 300 and 600 yard ranges.

The No. 4 proved to be more than adequate for the sniping role and a number of these arms, designated No. 4 Mk I (T) (and minor variants), were mounted with the excellent No. 32 scope by Enfield, Holland & Holland, B.S.A., etc. These guns, and their scopes, were fitted into special olive-drab-painted wooden carrying cases. the scopes, in turn, were secured within special steel boxes, which, depending upon the Mark used, often included tools for adjusting the sight. Scopes were numbered to their particular rifle, and even after being removed and re-fitted, steadfastly returned to zero.

As the war progressed, it was discerned that the conditions in the asian theatre required a different type of rifle than the one was proving so effective in Europe.

Originally designated the "No. 4 Lightened Rifle," the No. 5 "Jungle Carbine" became one of the most distinctive variants of the Lee-Enfield ever devised. The barrel was shortened to 20-1/2 inches and featured a cone-shaped flash hider. The fore-end and handguard were also trimmed back to expose more of the barrel, and a lug was added to the base of the foresight assembly to accommodate a unique Bowie-bladed knife bayonet.

As the weight of the No. 5 had been reduced by almost 2 pounds over that of the No. 4, and increased recoil was considered to be something of a problem, the Jungle Carbine was fitted with a rubber butt pad. The right side of the butt was equipped with a sling loop, in the manner of the earlier Lee-Metford carbine.

While the No. 5 was used in the Far East during World War II, its late date of adoption (Sept. 1944) limited its employment somewhat. The Jungle Carbine did see some postwar use in such places as Malaya, however. The gun performed well enough, but there were some legitimate complaints from the field that the gun had a perpetually wandering zero.

Though the .303 Lee-Enfield had served Britain and the Commonwealth faithfully through the reign of six monarchs, with the adoption in 1953 of 7.62mm as the official NATO round, the arm's fate was sealed. While efforts were made to adopt the No. 4 to this round, firearms technology simply overtook the old warhorse, and in 1954 Britain, Australia and Canada adopted the semi-auto Belgian FN FAL, termed by those countries as the L1A1.

Given the intricate history of the LEE-Enfield, I acknowledge that this article is little more than a brief overview. We have purposely chosen not to include the many experimental and .22 versions of the Lee, as well as some of the more arcane sporting and government models such as the charger-loading Lee-Metfords and Enfields. For those wishing to delve into this fascinating subject more deeply. I highly recommend The British Service Lee, Ian Skennerton, Arms & Armour Press, London, 1982 and The Lee-Enfield Rifle, Major E.G.B. Reynolds, Cox & Wyman Ltd., London, 1960. Like tha Lee-Enfield itself, both of these volumes are classics in their field, and are required reading for anyone with an interest in the subject.
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Author:James, Garry
Publication:Guns & Ammo
Date:Aug 1, 1984
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