The Lee-Enfield rifle played a huge role in winning two world wars. Let’s see how variants spawned as this line of rifles developed from its inception. It was the standard rifle of the British military from 1895 until 1957, which is an amazing testament to its service!
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In The Early Years
In 1885, the Magazine Lee-Metford rifle was adopted as the last black powder rifle of the British Army. It used James Paris Lee’s bolt and magazine system and William Ellis Metford’s rifling system. It replaced the lever action, single-shot Martini-Henry rifle in 1889.
It featured a detachable box magazine and a Lee-pattern bolt. The bolt cocked upon closing, which was a new concept, and one that helped the shooter manipulate the action faster than other rifles.
Because it used black powder, it produced large clouds of smoke when it was fired, which obviously gave away the position of the riflemen. It was used during the Second Boer War and was put up against the Boer’s Mausers. Their Mausers were more accurate at a longer range than the Magazine Lee-Metford (MLM).
Although it was officially replaced by the SMLE in 1904, the Magazine Lee-Metford did see service during the First World War. It remained in service until the 1920s, but by the start of World War II, it had been nearly totally replaced by more modern rifles.
The SMLE (Short, Magazine Lee-Enfield), or “Smelly”, as it was affectionately known, was adopted in 1904. It featured a 25-inch long barrel, which was considered to be “short” in those days. The overall length of the rifle was 44.5 inches and its weight was approximately 8.75 pounds.
I want to take a moment to note that the SMLE indicated a shift in philosophy regarding military weapons. For a long time before, the powers that be dictated that barrels had to be very long (in excess of 30 inches) in order to achieve the necessary accuracy. It was thought that shorter barrels would sacrifice marksmanship, and so that trend was frowned upon.
Eventually, though, enough people began to oppose that way of thinking, which is how the SMLE came into existence. They realized that a shorter barrel had numerous advantages. First, it used up fewer natural resources and materials and was faster and easier to produce. Next, shorter barrels were lighter for soldiers to carry, causing less fatigue. They also made it easier to maneuver the weapons during battle.
The SMLE marked a metamorphosis in the philosophy of weapons and warfare.
It was fed by a removable 10-round magazine. Despite the fact that it was removable, only one magazine was issued with each rifle. The method of loading the rifle was using 5-round stripper clips, also known as “chargers.”
An interesting facet of the SMLE was a magazine cutoff. When this was being used, the rifle would be loaded using single rounds each time it was fired. If the action became hotter, the cutoff could be deactivated (it was a piece of metal that fit over the magazine in the chamber and could be flipped outside the receiver to deactivate), thereby allowing the shooter to fire the rounds in the magazine. Being able to access the rounds in the magazine guaranteed a much higher rate of fire.
This feature was useful for trench warfare. When things were stagnant, a high rate of fire really wasn’t needed most of the time, so the cutoff was useful. If the enemy was charging a trench, the British wanted to be able to utilize a high rate of fire to repel the attackers.
During the initial times that Germans faced British troops armed with the SMLE, they first thought that they were facing a large number of machine guns because the rate of fire from the British was so high. The Mausers that the Germans used only held five rounds and were not able to be fired as quickly as the British rifles.
Also, long-range volley sights were mounted on the left side of the rifle. These sights allowed massed troops to fire in volleys against enemy positions that were very far away. The rounds would lob in en masse, similarly to how artillery was used. They weren’t firing at individual soldiers, but rather positions. The hope was that out of the hundreds of rounds fired in unison, some would find their mark.
A good British rifleman could fire 30 aimed shots per minute with his SMLE, which was considered to be phenomenal for the battlefield of the day. During those times, a strong emphasis was placed on individual marksmanship.
By 1915, Britain realized it couldn’t maintain the high standards of manufacturing during the war that it could pre-war. As a result, modifications were made to the SMLE, which became known as the SMLE MK III. Rifle stocks became more rudimentary and not as refined. The magazine cutoff was done away with. The long-range volley sights were also discontinued at this time.
These rifles were made throughout the rest of WWI, and in 1926 became known as the Rifle No. 1 MK III.
Between The Wars
During the period between World Wars I and II, the British endeavored to improve the Lee-Enfield in a quest to simplify the design and make it more efficient.
From 1922 through 1925, 20,000 SMLE No. 1 MK V rifles were made. Among the changes to the No. V was the addition of a flip-up aperture sight to the rear of the receiver. A fixed aperture covered ranges up to 200 yards, and a folding ladder-type sight was for ranges out to 1,400 yards. By mounting these sights at the rear of the receiver, the sight radius was dramatically increased, considering the sights on the SMLE were mounted midway down the barrel.
Interestingly, on these rifles, the magazine cutoff was again added. An extra strengthening band was also added near the muzzle.
Despite their quest for an easier-to-produce rifle than the original SMLE, the MK V was actually more labor-intensive to produce.
As the latter 1930s approached, Britain, along with the rest of the world, saw the storm clouds of war looming once again.
This saw the introduction of the No. 4 MK I, which became the standard issue of the British Army. While it was a little heavier than the MK III, it was also stronger. It had the same action as the SMLE, but was easier to produce in large numbers.
The No. 4 MK I did not have the blunt nose of the MK III, instead having a barrel that protruded slightly.
Some models utilized a flip-up aperture sight, while others used an aperture and ladder-style long-range sight.
Nearing the end of WWII, a new version of the Lee-Enfield was introduced. It featured a shorter barrel and was designated the No. 5 “Jungle Carbine.” It was designed for use by paratroopers, in jungle warfare, and in urban warfare. It also weighed about two pounds less than the standard No. 4 rifle. It was officially adopted in 1944 as the No. 5 MK I.
The stock was shortened and lightning cuts were made into the barrel. Allegedly, this caused a “wandering zero”, in which rifles were difficult to keep zeroed in. Interestingly, I’ve owned a few specimens of this rifle over the years, and never once had an issue with keeping the rifle zeroed in. It really makes me wonder if this was an actual issue, or if it’s one of those urban legends that we sometimes hear about in the firearms world. I can report to you that the Jungle Carbine is a wonderful rifle to carry and use. Recoil is more stout than with a full-size No. 4 Lee-Enfield, but that light weight comes at a price. Recoil, however, was not punishing, so I think the lighter rifle is worth it.
This rifle also sported a conical flash-hider that looked very neat.
Because of the so-called “Wandering Zero” issues, the No.5 MK I was declared obsolete in 1947.
Following WWII, the British Army went on to use the No.4 Lee-Enfield in the Korean War. Dozens of other countries also used the Lee-Enfield, including India and Pakistan. Even today, factions are using the Lee-Enfields in the Middle Eastern wars.
In 1954, the L1A1 self-loading rifle was adopted by the British Army, and they abandoned the .303 Lee-Enfield bolt action rifles that had served them so well for decades.
Despite that, some rifles were re-barreled to 7.62 NATO in 1970. The more accurate No. 4 rifles had this done and they were intended to serve as sniper rifles. A lighter stock was added, along with a raised cheekpiece and scope. Magazines were redesigned to accommodate the new round.
These new sniper rifles were designated the L42A1. They saw action in Oman, Northern Ireland, and the Falklands campaign. The last of the L42A1 rifles were retired in the late 1980s, to be replaced by the Accuracy International L96A1.
These days, collectors enjoy buying the SMLE in all its forms. The historical significance of military surplus arms is not lost on people. Also, reenactors buy up these rifles in large numbers.
Unlike the No.5 Jungle Carbine, the No. 4 MK I rifles do not exhibit marked recoil; quite the opposite, their recoil is tame. Given their weight and the moderate velocity of their ammunition, this is not surprising. Accuracy is typically decent, with groups being 2-3 inches with open sights at 100 yards. All in all, they are very pleasant shooters.
They make just as good shooters today as they did in the last century. This, along with their historical significance, accounts for their popularity today.