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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
14. Mass Quantities
During WWII, just over one million No. 4 rifles were produced.
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.