Printer Friendly

British rifles of The Great War: Part I: standard issue & substitute standard.


At the turn of the 20th century, Great Britain was the world's premier (only?) superpower. The expression "The sun never sets on the British Empire" was absolutely true. Britain had colonies and possessions on every continent on the planet whose millions of inhabitants were subjects of the British Crown (some more enthusiastically than others).

Britain's industrial might was the envy of the world, especially Germany and the USA. Her colonies provided an endless supply of raw materials that British factories and workers turned into manufactured goods that were sold around the world ensuring a constant stream of wealth poured into the country.

The Royal Navy, the largest and most powerful naval force in the world, protected the home islands, guarded the empire's colonies and protected trade. Her army, one of the largest, best trained and equipped in the world, policed and controlled her vast empire while keeping rivals at bay.

Great Britain and her people had every right to feel safe, smug and superior. They were the biggest dog on the block and no other mongrels dared to challenge them... until August 1914.

In the sleepy Bosnian city of Sarajevo, a Serbian terrorist, Gavrilo Pricip, ambushed and murdered Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire's throne, and his wife Sophie.

Austria-Hungary made series of demands of Serbia, which the Serbs refused. Goaded on by their ally, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, Austria declared war on Serbia on July 28, 1914. In response, Serbia's ally, Russia, declared war on Austria, which led to Germany declaring war on Russia. Russia's ally France then declared war on German and Austria-Hungary (the "Central Powers"). From that point on all hell broke loose!

On August 4, 1914 Germany invaded Belgium. Belgian neutrality had been guaranteed by Britain in the Treaty of London (1839), so when the small country was invaded Great Britain declared war on Germany that same day. The Great War had begun.

The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) landed in France in late August and first engaged the Germans at the Battle of Mons (August 23, 1914). The massed rifle fire of the professional British soldiers inflicted heavy casualties on the Germans who attacked en masse over terrain devoid of cover. The British held up the German advance until the evening when they began retiring to a second defensive where they stopped the German advance at the Battle of Le Cateau. The British victory at Le Cateau achieved its objective of enabling the BEF to retreat unmolested by the Germans for a further five days.


In December 1888, the British army adopted their first smallbore, magazine-fed rifle--the Magazine Lee-Metford Rifle Mark I, better known as the "Lee-Metford" because of its Lee box magazine and Metford-style rifling. Manufacture commenced at Royal Small Arms Factory (RSAF) at Enfield and Sparkbrook, British Small Arms (BSA) and the London Small Arms Company.




It had a removable, manually loaded, eight-round box magazine and was fitted with a magazine cutoff. The tactical doctrine at the time called for soldiers to single load their rifles unless a high volume of firepower was called for. The bolt was locked by the bolt guide rib bear on the front of the split bridge receiver while a second lug on the bolt body engaged a mortise in the left receiver wall. Bolt manipulation was very smooth allowing a high rate of fire.

It was chambered for the .303 Mark I cartridge that used a bottle necked, rimmed case that was 56mm long and loaded with 75.5 grain pellet of compressed black powder that pushed a 215-grain jacketed, round nosed bullet to approximately 1,830 fps. In 1892, the .303 Mark VI cartridge loaded with smokeless cordite propellant was perfected, and propelled the bullet to a velocity of 2,050 fps.


It soon became evident that the higher burning temperatures of the new propellant caused excessive bore erosion and wear. To rectify this problem, RSAF developed a new form of rifling that used square cut grooves instead of the Metford's rounded grooves not only doubled barrel life, but provided improved accuracy.

The improved Mark II and Mark II* featured 10-round magazines, improved sights and safeties.

In November of 1895, the Magazine Rifle Lee-Enfield Mark I was approved for service, being more or less identical to the Lee-Metford Mark II* except for the style of rifling.

Lee-Metford and Lee-Enfield rifles first saw service during the Sudan Campaign (1898) and the Second Anglo-Boer War (1898-1902). In the Sudan, the Lee-Enfield's rapid fire was the deciding factor in British troops defeating their numerically superior Dervish foes.



The Boers were well-mounted, experienced fighters who used their superior veldt craft, marksmanship and mobility to repeatedly confuse and defeat much larger British forces. Their charger-loaded M1895 Mauser rifles firing the 7x57 cartridge proved superior in almost every way to the Brit's manually loaded Lee-Enfields.

After the war, many proposals were put forth for modifying the Lee-Enfield, most prominent among them being charger (stripper clip) loading, shorter length to allow one rifle to be used by both infantry and mounted troops, and better sights. RSAF developed rifles with shorter 25-inch barrels, sight guards, charger guides machined into the bolt head and receiver wall while the safety was relocated to the left, rear of the receiver.

In 1902, the design was approved as the Short Magazine Lee-Enfield Mark I. In 1906, a new bridge-type charger guide and rear sight was adopted and the designation changed to Mark I*, while yet further development and modifications resulted in the Mark I*, I**, I*** rifles. In official documents, the new rifle was often referred to as the S.M.L.E.--an abbreviation the British Tommy quickly, and affectionately, corrupted to "Old Smelly."

In 1910, the .303 Mark VII cartridge with a 174-grain FMJ spitzer bullet at a velocity of 2,440 fps was adopted requiring new sights and small changes in the receiver and magazine resulting in the Short Magazine Lee-Enfield No. 1 Mk. III.

Like earlier British service rifles, No. 1 rifles had auxiliary long-range volley sights on the left side of the receiver and forearm to allow long-range volley fire (a job soon to be preempted by the machine gun) and magazine cutoffs. The No. 1 Mk. Ill rifle is instantly recognized by its blunt nose cap that also functions as a bayonet mounting bar and front sight guard, providing a distinct silhouette that can't be mistaken for any other rifle.


In addition to the RSAF at Enfield, Sparkbrook and Birmingham, No. 1 rifles were also manufactured by British Small Arms (BSA), London Small Arms Company, Standard Small Arms and National Rifle Factory No. 1, both of Birmingham. The Ishapore Rifle Factory in India and the Lithgow. Small Arms Factory in Australia produced No. 1 rifles for local use and export to Britain. (1)

The only modifications made to the No. 1 rifle during the war--the deletion of the magazine cutoff and long-range volley sights--were intended to speed up production. The Short Magazine Lee-Enfield No. 1 Mk. III* was approved in 1916 and earlier rifles were usually upgraded to Mk. IIP specifications when in for repairs.

The No. 1 Mk. III was the standard British rifle throughout the Great War and proved an excellent battle rifle--rugged, reliable, sufficiently accurate and with such a high rate of firepower that, as shown at the Battle of Mons, the Germans believed the British army was equipped with many more machine guns then they in fact had.

With the rapid expansion of the British armed forces and battlefield attrition of weapons, production of the No. 1 rifle could not keep up with demand. While they attempted to equip all front line troops with No. 1 Mark III rifles, photos from early in the war show "long" Lee-Enfields being used for training. In addition they were issued to "second line" and support troops, the Royal Marines, the Royal Naval Division (who carried them at Ostend and Gallipoli) and saw wide use by colonial forces--both white and native--in India and Africa.




Between 1914 and 1918, the No. 1 served in conditions varying from the Arctic snows of Murmansk to the steaming jungles of German East Africa and the mud of Flanders to the deserts of Mesopotamia. It served with reliability and distinction and the British Tommy came to love and depend upon "Old Smelly."

The Pattern 14 Rifle

In 1914, the British army was prepared to junk the Lee-Enfield in favor of a new rifle. During the aforementioned Second Anglo-Boer War, the Mauser-armed Afrikaners taught the British army a rude lesson as to the deficiencies of their Lee-Metford/Enfield rifles.

In Great Britain, the target shooting fraternity decried the Lee-Enfield's rear locking bolt as too weak for high-pressure cartridges and providing insufficient locking strength and support needed for true accuracy. With the lessons of the Boer War still fresh in their minds, the British army decided to adopt a rifle with a Mauser-type action with its stronger, one-piece bolt.

In 1910, RSAF Enfield began work on a rifle that included features of both the M1895 Mauser and the U.S. M1903 Springfield. Three years later a new rifle, the Rifle, Magazine, .276 inch, Pattern of 1913 chambered for a high performance cartridge were introduced.

Known simply as the P/13, it was novel for its time with a receiver-mounted aperture protected a set of prominent ears. The magazine was a flush-mounted box that held five rounds, which were loaded with a charger. It's one piece, cock-on-closing bolt with dual frontal locking lugs was copied from the M1895 Mauser and featured a curiously bent bolt handle.

Like the No. 1 Mk. III rifle, the P/13 and the later P/14 (see below) had a long-range volley sight mounted on the left side of the forearm.

The .276 Ball Mk. I cartridge consisted of a rimless, bottlenecked 60mm case loaded with a 165-grain spitzer bullet that a 49.3-grain charge of cordite propelled to 2,785 fps. Problems arose almost immediately as the cordite-loaded cartridge produced severe muzzle blast, flash, overheating, metal fouling, recoil and barrel erosion.

The firm of Vickers-Armstrong had produced a number of prototype P/13 rifles chambered for the .303 cartridge and after examining these, engineers at the Remington Arms Company told the desperate Brits that they could easily mass produce the rifle. Remington received a contract to produce the rifle, renamed the Rifle, .303 Inch, Pattern 1914, Mark 1, at Bridgeport, Conn., factory and a remodeled locomotive factory in Eddystone, Penn. The following year, a similar contract was signed with Winchester and by the time these contracts were canceled, the three American factories had produced in excess of 1,200,000 rifles.

The British reserved P/14s for training, rear echelon units, the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Navy. I have been unable to find a single photo showing British troops on the Western Front equipped with P/14s.

P/14s made by Winchester proved significantly more accurate than the No. 1 Lee-Enfield. In 1915, a limited number of Winchester rifles were fitted with special rear sights capable of fine adjustment, known as the P/14 Mk. 1 W(F), and issued to selected marksmen. In 1916 the British approved the issue of telescopic sights and rifles fitted with these were known as the P/14 Mk. 1*W(T). It was adopted as the official sniper rifle of the British army and earned a fine reputation, being considered by some the best of the WWI sniper rifles.

After the war the Brits supplied thousands of P/14s to nationalist forces in the Baltic region who were fighting the Bolsheviks.

The Martini-Henry & Martini-Enfield

In 1871 the British army adopted one of the most legendary rifles of all time, the Rifle, Breech-loading, Martini-Henry Mark I. The Martini-Henry series would serve the Empire for over four decades.

A dropping block, single-shot rifle the Martini was chambered for the "Cartridge SA Ball Boxer Henry for 0.45 inch Martini-Henry Rifle Short Chamber 85 grain."

Better known as the .577-.450, this was a rimmed, bottlenecked boxer-type cartridge containing a 480-grain round-nosed, paper-patched lead bullet that was propelled to 1,350 fps by 85 grains of black powder. The Martini-Henry went through a number of modifications during its service life. Even after the adoption of the Lee-Metford and Lee-Enfield rifles, .450 caliber Martinis were issued to native troops in India and Africa well into the 1920s.


The Martini action proved strong enough to handle the new smallbore smokeless powder cartridges, so between 1890 and 1903, large numbers of rifles and carbines were fitted with .303-caliber Metford, and later Enfield, style barrels. Martini-Metford Mark I and Martini-Enfield Mark I and II rifles and carbines saw service with training units, colonial troops, police, the Yeomanry, and the Territorials, while considerable numbers were used by Canadian, Australian, and New Zealand units during the Second Anglo-Boer War.

During WWI, rifle shortages forced the British to issue Martini-Enfield rifles to training units, the Territorials, and home guard forces while others were provided to the irregular Arab forces of Colonel T.E. Lawrence ("Lawrence of Arabia"). African and Indian troops also used them well into the 1920s.

One of the most unique tasks the Martini-Henry was put to was "balloon busting." Even before the outbreak of war in 1914, the War Office were well aware of the potential dangers posed by Germany's fleet of Zeppelins, and as early as 1913 had considered the use of explosive or incendiary bullets to successfully ignite the hydrogen gas upon which Zeppelins relied. They realized that the .303-inch bullet would be unlikely to carry enough incendiary mix, so they turned their attention to the .577/.450 Martini-Henry cartridge.


For this purpose, the Royal Laboratories developed a special cartridge, the Cartridge S.A. Incendiary, .45 inch Mark I. This consisted of a drawn brass .450 Martini case containing a 270-grain bullet consisted of a heavy brass envelope with two raised bands and one cannelure filled with 50 grains of a mixture of 20 parts potassium perchloride and 7 parts aluminum with 20 grains of an igniting mixture of barium thermite and copper. (2)

The tactic was to spray a Zeppelin with machine gun fire to puncture the gasbags, allowing the hydrogen to escape and then the aeroplane observer would fire incendiary rounds from a Martini carbine into the hull to ignite the highly flammable gas.


In 1916, the .45-inch SPG Tracer round was adopted, which used a 295-grain bullet containing a larger amount of tracer compound.

As the demand for rifles grew, greater arsenals and warehouses were emptied of Martinis and long Lee-Enfield rifles and carbines for issue to training units and second line and support troops. But it was not enough, despite their vaunted industrial capacity, in addition to the British-design P/14 rifles mentioned earlier. His Majesty's armed forces were forced to buy rifles from foreign sources, the three major ones being Imperial Japan, Canada and the United States.

Foreign Rifles in British Service Type 30 and 38 Arisakas

In 1914, the French army purchased 50,000 Type 38 Arisaka rifles and carbines from Taihei Kumiai, a Japanese government corporation that marketed military weapons to foreign customers. These were never issued to French troops but instead--by some roundabout means--were transferred to the British who, also were short of rifles.

Japan's first smokeless powder, repeating rifle was designed by Colonel Nariakira Arisaka at the Tokyo Artillery Arsenal--later known as the Koishikawa Arsenal. The new rifle used a charger-loaded, staggered box magazine similar to that of the M1895 Mauser.



The rifle's cock-on-closing bolt was similar in concept to the German Infanteriegewehr 88, with a separate bolt head containing the extractor and ejector while dual locking lugs were on the bolt body directly behind the head. A straight bolt handle located at the rear of the bolt body turned down into an L-shaped cut in the receiver and provided emergency locking strength. It had a very prominent hook shaped safety, which was pulled to the rear and rotated upward 90 degrees. (3) After trials in 1897, the new rifle adopted as the Meiji 30th Year Type.

It was chambered for the 6.5mm Type 30 cartridge, which consisted of a bottle necked, semi-rimmed case 50mm in length topped with a 161-grain round nosed, FMJ bullet which was propelled to approximately 2,250 fps.

Service in the Russo-Japanese War (1902-1905) revealed a number of shortcomings in the Type 30 and the Imperial army assigned Capt. Kijiro Nambu the task of correcting them.

By 1905, Nambu had redesigned the rifle to the point where the army was satisfied. It used a one-piece bolt and trigger system based upon that of the M1895 Mauser, with a separate, non-rotating extractor that prevented double feeding of cartridges. The safety was a mushroom-shaped cap on the end of the bolt that could be turned using the flat of the hand.


With the Type 38 rifle, the Japanese updated their service cartridge. The 6.5mm Type 38 cartridge utilized a 139-grain FMJ spitzer bullet traveling at 2,600 fps.

With the outbreak of WWI, many nations found themselves short of rifles for their rapidly expanding armies and turned to Japan for weapons. Imperial Russia purchased more than 600,000 Type 30 rifles and carbines in addition to Type 38 rifles and carbines.

In addition to the Type 38s received via France, the British placed additional orders with the Taihei Kumiai. British purchases included both Type 30 ("Rifle, Magazine .256-inch Pattern 1900") and the Type 38 ("Rifle, Magazine .256-inch Pattern 1907") in addition to small numbers of Type 38 carbines ("Carbine, Magazine, .256-inch Pattern 1907"). By 1916, approximately 150,000 of all models had been obtained and were issued as training rifles to the Royal Navy, Royal Marines, Royal Flying Corps and other service troops so as to free up No. 1 Mk. Ill Lee-Enfields for use by front line units.

Only 6.5mm Type 38 ammunition--known in British service as the Cartridges, S.A., ball .256-inch Mark I--was issued by the British, so apparently the Type 30 weapons they received had been re-sighted for the new round. Ammunition was purchased from the Japanese while local manufacture was undertaken at J. Blanch & Son, Kynoch and the Royal Laboratory for both British. Another firm, Kings Norton Metal Company, Ltd., assembled 6.5mm ammunition from components supplied by the Japanese. The British also manufactured large quantities of the 6.5mm Type 30 cartridge--the Cartridges, S.A., ball .256-inch Mark II--for their Russian allies. (4)

As Lee-Enfield production began to meet demand, the Arisakas were withdrawn from service and 128,000 were sent to the still rifle-hungry Russians in 1916, where they saw service throughout the war, the Russian Revolution and ensuing Civil War.

As an interesting aside, the British supplied quantities of Type 30 and 38 rifles to the Arab forces commanded by Colonel T.E. Lawrence who were fighting the Ottoman Turks in Arabia, Syria and Palestine. Reportedly, Lawrence was less than pleased with the rifles his forces received. (5) Some of these "Lawrence Type 30s" reportedly showed up in the hands of Jewish Hashomer (settlement guards) in post-WWI Palestine.

In the Part II of this report we will examine other nonstandard and foreign rifles used by the British during the Great War including those from Canada, the USA, Chile, Brazil and Italy.

I would like to thank the following for providing information, photos and materials used to prepare this report: the late Tony Edwards, Vince DiNardi, Doss White, Danie Bootha, Roy Marcot, Jim Curlovic, Lisa Warren, Joel Kolander, Noel Schott, John Wall, Barry DeLong, Chris McDonald, Grant Rombough, Stuart Mowbray, Terry Wilson, Remington Collectors Association, Rock Island Auction Co., James. D. Julia Auctioneers and all my friends on and the Great War Forum.

(1) During WWI India provided the British with 50,000 Ishapore-made No. 1 rifles.

(2) -577-450-inch-m-h

(3) Collectors often refer to the Type 30 as the "Hook Safety" Arisakas.

(4) A.O. Edwards. British Secondary Small Arms 1914-1919 Part 1: Arisaka Rifles & Carbines. Solo Publications, Canterbury, Kent, 2004. Pages 31-41.

(5) Ibid. Page 23.

Photos by James Walter & Nathan Reynolds (unless otherwise indicated)



Caliber: .303 Mark VI

Overall length: 49.5 in.

Barrel length: 30.2 in.

Weight: 9 lbs.

Magazine: 10 rds.

Sights: Front: Blade Rear: V-notch adj. by ramp and leaf from 200 to 1800 yards

Bayonet: 12 in. blade



Caliber: .303 Mark VII

Overall length: 44 in.

Barrel length: 25 in.

Weight: 8.5 lbs.

Magazine: 10 rds.

Sights: Front: Blade

Rear: U-notch adj. by tangent from 200 to 2,000 yards

Bayonet: 14 in. blade



Caliber: .303 Mk. VII

Overall length: 46.2 in.

Barrel length: 26 in.

Weight: 9.1 lbs.

Magazine: 5 rounds

Sights: Front: Blade

Rear: Aperture fixed for 400 yards with fold up leaf aperture adj. from 200 to 1,650 yards

Bayonet: 14 in. blade



Caliber: .450 Martini

Overall length: 49 in.

Barrel length: 33.2 in.

Weight: 8.75 lbs.

Sights: Front: Inverted V-blade Rear: V-notch adj, by ramp and leaf from 200 to 1,400 yards

Bayonet: Socket & sword style



Caliber: .303 Mark VI

Overall length: 49.25 in.

Barrel length: 33.2 in.

Weight: 8.75 lbs.

Sights: Front: Inverted V-blade Rear: V-notch adj. by ramp and leaf from 200 to 1,400 yards

Bayonet: Socket-and-sword style



Caliber: 6.5mm Type 30

Overall length: 50 in.

Barrel length: 31 in.

Weight: 9 lbs.

Magazine: 5 rounds

Sights: Front: Inverted V-blade Rear: V-notch adj. by leaf from 300 to 2,000 meters

Bayonet: 15.5 in. blade


Caliber: 6.5mm Type 38

Overall length: 50 in.

Barrel length: 31 in.

Weight: 9.2 lbs.

Magazine: 5 rounds

Sights: Front: Inverted V-blade Rear: V-notch adj. by leaf from 300 to 2000 meters

Bayonet: 15.5 in. blade
COPYRIGHT 2016 InterMedia Outdoors, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2016 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Scarlata, Paul
Publication:Firearms News
Geographic Code:4EUGE
Date:May 20, 2016
Previous Article:Clone wars: building a Lee-Enfield sniper clone.
Next Article:RPK Part IV: maximum AK-47 Firepower: with the barrel set in the trunion, it's time to add the fixings to the barrel and complete the budget-priced...

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters