The British Lee-Enfield: 15 Facts That You May Not Know

The Lee-Enfield is a bolt action, magazine-fed rifle that served as the main battle rifle through a couple of world wars. We’re going to take a look at some known (and little-known) facts. How many are new to you?

British troops armed with No. III Enfields.
British troops armed with No. III Enfields.

1. Smelly

The versions that were used in WWI are referred to as the SMLE (Short, Magazine Lee Enfield). It was also referred to, affectionately, as the “Smelly.” It is chambered for the .303 British cartridge.

Mk I Enfield.
The SMLE, Lee-Enfield Mk. I in .303 British. The mainstay of British and Commonwealth forces through WWI and also WWII. – Wikipedia Photo.

2. Black Powder

One of its predecessors was the Lee-Metford, which was adopted by the British Army in 1888 and was a black powder rifle. The Lee-Metford didn’t serve very long before it was replaced by the SMLE.

3. Blistering Rate of Fire

The SMLE’s magazine held 10 rounds and was fed by five-round stripper clips through the top of the action. It also had a magazine cutoff, so that it could be fired by loading single rounds. The magazine was held in reserve. If the action became hot and heavy, the magazine cutoff was flipped off so rounds would feed from the magazine, increasing the rate of fire.

Although the magazine was detachable, spare magazines were not issued and the rifle was loaded solely by stripper clips. Germans who faced British and Commonwealth troops armed with the Lee-Enfield initially thought they were facing massed machine guns because of the high rate of fire. The German forces, on the other hand, were armed with the Mauser, which only held five rounds and had a slower rate of fire. It’s been said that the Mauser made a great hunting rifle and that the Enfield made a terrific battle rifle.

British troops armed with Enfields and a Lewis gun.
When Germans faced British troops armed with the Lee-Enfield, they thought they were facing machine guns because of the heavy volume of fire. (Photo: The Field)

4. Aimed Fire

A soldier armed with a Lee-Enfield could fire 20-30 aimed shots per minute, which made it the fastest firing rifle of WWI.

5. Widespread Use

It was used by India, Africa, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and others).

6. Longest Serving Bolt Action

Amazingly, the Lee-Enfield bolt action rifle remained in British service until well into the 1960’s! Officially, it was replaced by the L1A1 in 1957, but those were not available in sufficient numbers to arm everyone.

7. A Sniper Rifle From Way Back

It was the basis for the L42A1 sniper rifle (caliber 7.62×51), which served well into the 1990s. For a rifle that started life before WWI, this is absolutely incredible.

No. III sniper rifle.
The sniper version entered service in 1942. A version of it soldiered on for decades, serving until the mid-1990s as the L42A1 in 7.62 NATO. This version appears to be a No. III SMLE, possibly used in WWI. (Photo: American Rifleman)

8. Origins

The “Enfield” in the name pays homage to the town just north of London where the rifle was made. The “Lee” portion of the name refers to James Paris Lee, who had a hand in designing the rifle.

Various Enfield bayonets.
A wide selection of bayonets existed for the various Lee-Enfield models. (Photo: Pinterest)

9. Dimensions

The overall length of the SMLE was 44.5 inches, with a barrel length of 25 inches.

10. Mass Production

The SMLE (also referred to as the No.1, followed shortly thereafter by the No. III) continued being produced into WWII, with over 250,000 being produced during that war by BSA. Ishapore of India produced 600,000 more rifles in WWII, and Lithgow of Australia produced 500,000. The No. 4 was adopted in the late 1930s as well, with both being produced during WWII.

No. 5 Jungle Carbine.
The No.5 Jungle Carbine. These are light and short, with excellent handling characteristics. (Photo: The Firearm Blog)

11. The Carbine of the Jungle

The No. 5 Mk 1 (also referred to as the “Jungle Carbine”) was produced in smaller numbers. It was a very short, handy rifle, noted for having more recoil than its full-sized brethren. The shorter length gave it an advantage for maneuvering through jungle undergrowth and tight spaces. They were manufactured from 1944 to 1947.

I’ve fired several examples of the Jungle Carbine and have not noted that the recoil was punishing, by any means. It was more pronounced than the longer versions of the Enfield, but not prohibitive.

12. Improving The Sights

The No. 4 Enfield utilizes an aperture rear sight, which is a vast improvement over the forward-mounted sights of the SMLE. The No.4’s barrel is also heavier than that of the No. III and the magazine cutoff was eliminated.

No. 4 Enfield.
Lee-Enfield No.4 Mk. 1 in .303 British. The aperture sight was a marked improvement over the No. III’s sight. Photo: Cowanauctions.

13. An Old Sniper

In 1942, the No. 4 Mk 1(T) was approved. This model had a high-comb cheek piece and a telescopic sight. It was designated for snipers and 25,000 to 30,000 of them were manufactured during WWII.

No. 4 Mk I (T) sniper rifle.
The sniper version, the No. 4 Mk 1 (T), along with its accessories, including a case. First introduced in WWII, a variant of this sniper rifle served well into the1990’s. Photo: Captain Stevens.

14. Mass Quantities

During WWII, just over one million No. 4 rifles were produced.

No. III SMLE.
The SMLE was produced in huge numbers, as were all other variants, including the No. 4. Photo: Guns & Ammo, Philip Schreier.

The Enfield No. III and No. 4, along with their variants, soldiered through two world wars and some smaller ones. They did so reliably while defeating evil. These rifles were looked upon fondly by the troops who used them. They were easy to fire, with recoil being low. Additionally, they were easy to clean and maintain. This rifle will go down in history as one of the most effective arms ever made.

15. Volley Sights

The Metford (first equipped with volley sights), Long Lees, and SMLEs were equipped with volley sights, which were a long range sight that allowed formations to fire in volleys. How long range? Up to 3,500 yards! The angle of the fire was high and the infantrymen would fire together. The rounds would form a cone around the target and were intended to harass concentrations of infantry or fortifications. Volley fire was intended to be fired by units of 100 or more troops.

These sights were not meant to be precise, but rather to blanket an area in mass fire. After 1915, most rifles no longer came equipped with volley sights, and they were eliminated from production.

Jim Davis served in the PA Dept. of Corrections for 16 ½ years as a corrections officer in the State Correctional Institute at Graterford and later at SCI Phoenix. He served on the Corrections Emergency Response Team (CERT), several of those years as a sniper, and also the Fire Emergency Response Team (FERT). For 25 years, he was a professional instructor, teaching topics including Defensive Tactics, Riot Control and Tactical Operations, Immediate Responder, and cognitive programs as an adjunct instructor at the DOC Training Academy. He was then promoted to the title of corrections counselor, where he ran a caseload and facilitated cognitive therapy classes to inmates. His total service time was close to 29 years. He was involved in many violent encounters on duty, including incidents of fatalities.

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