By R.K. Campbell
Among the most enduring and famous rifles of all time is the British Lee Enfield. Designed by the Scott born American immigrant James Paris Lee and manufactured in America, Britain and Canada as well as India and Australia, the Lee Enfield is in use today in Afghanistan by both our allies and our adversaries. Khyber Pass copies have been beat out on a rock in Afghanistan. These copies are still in action in the present war as they have been for generations alongside original rifles. Ammunition supply is the main problem with the Lee Enfield’s use in that war. Notably, while the rifles still show up as captures, very little ammunition is usually recovered. Like many military rifles, more than a few Lee Enfield .303 rifles are still in use in the hunting fields. Whether you own an American made Savage rifle or an Indian Ishapore arsenal rifle, the Lee Enfield is an important piece of history. The Lee Enfield rifle is among the first of a generation of bolt action repeaters. The rifle is also among the very best of the breed ever produced. The Lee Enfield was conceptionized as a bolt action repeater for military use even before many of its contemporaries were on the drawing board. Mr. Lee was a man with an innovative bent for the time and he began to design what became the Lee Enfield rifle prior to 1880. A rifle recognizable as the later Lee Enfield was available in basic form in 1879. The Enfield part of the moniker comes from the Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield Lock. The Lee Enfield was part of the English rifles trials in 1887. The rifle was the lead rifle during the testing and was an innovative weapon in every way.
A problem surfaced with the type of rifling used. The rifle used Metford rifling, which is a shallow land rifling using some of the principles of modern polygonal rifling. However, the first cartridges that were tested by the military were black powder loaded. With the advent of modern and very hot burning cordite powders the Metford rifling was far from ideal. Cordite quickly burned out the shallow rifling. Deeper and wider lands were introduced that were more conventional for the day. Most authorities agree that the first Lee Enfield as we know it was in service in 1895. Like most rifles of the day, the original Lee Enfield was long and heavy but the ten round magazine and short throw bolt action were features of the rifle that remained in service during its lifetime. Important modifications continued to 1906 with the introduction of the SMLE, Short Magazine Lee Enfield, or “Smelly” as the rifle was known. The Lee Enfield’s modification into a shorter and lighter rifle was largely a result of experience during the Boer wars. The Lee Enfield No. 1 Mk III was adopted about 1906. This rifle weighs about nine pounds and features a 25.2 inch barrel. The forend is full length and the rear sight is of the standard leaf type mounted on the barrel forward of the receiver. Notably, there are robust guards in place to protect both the front sight and the rear sight as well. The later No. 4 Mk I weighs about 8.5 pounds and features an aperture sight mounted on the rear bridge of the receiver. This is the rifle adopted in 1941 and which was used throughout World War Two and Korea.
While the German made Mauser is often praised for precision and the American Springfield is a more accurate rifle, the Lee Enfield is among the finest bolt action military rifles ever produced. The Lee Enfield is reliable above all else, accurate enough for the task at hand, quick-loading and offers a ten round magazine. The important features include a one piece steel receiver with a strong bridge that contains a slot for the rapid use of fast loading stripper clips. The bolt is a two piece assembly with a non-rotating head and opposed dual locking lugs. The extractor and ejector are robust military grade construction. While the ten round detachable magazine was an innovation for the time the rifle was normally loaded with stripper clips in the field. Even after some considerable research, this author cannot find an instance of the magazine being changed in combat; the stripper clips being preferred. Over time, the barleycorn front blade was replaced by a blade type front sight. There was a succession of leaf type rear sights followed by vertical ladders with peep sights and a simpler peep sight with two apertures for short and long range fire. Weight of the rifle varied from about 8.12 to 8.8 pounds by model.
While the rifle was a great battlefield implement there is always room for improvement and this improvement came with a series of modifications that began just before World War Two. These series of modifications would result in a superior rifle. The result was the No. 4 rifle. Previously, changes in the rifle had been primarily a means of achieving faster production during war time. The No. 4 was designed for greater strength and combat ability. The primary practical advantage was in the use of modern aperture sights that were faster to acquire in combat but which also allowed precision fire. The receiver bridge was also stronger. During World War Two the superior No. 4 was used by Britain and Canada however, for some reason, the Australians continued to produce the older Mk III pattern at Lithgow. Perhaps it was logistics and there was no time to change in the face of Japanese advances. A similar situation existed in Isadora. In any case the No. 4 rifle was produced in the millions. The rifles’ numbering and marking system was wide ranging and would demand a volume on its own. The British system of proof marking and serial numbering was adhered to and the British love to mark all over the surface of their rifles. However, the majority of rifles are marked on the left side of the receiver. The Number Four may be marked:
No 4 Mk I
No 4 Mk I*
No 4 Mk 1/2
No 4 Mk 1/3
No 4 Mk ii
There were other variations including the T marked sniper rifles and the No. 5 Jungle Carbine. Production was in the millions total for all types of Lee Enfield rifles, with some two million produced in World War One alone - so there are plenty of Lee Enfield rifles. The problem is about nine out of ten we find for sale are no longer original. Many have been cut down into hunting rifles for lightness, and there have been any number of commercial variations fitted with adjustable sights and sporting stocks. While fine shooters, these rifles have no collector value. The most desirable shooters, in my opinion, are the World War Two variants including the Canadian produced Long Branch rifles. The No. 4 action is improved in several ways over the older Lee Enfield. The steel is generally regarded as better in the 1940s era rifles. The bridge of the receiver is higher and the most noticeable difference is that the slot for quick loading the stripper clips is shallower, making for a more solid and stronger receiver. The bolt head is redesigned and so is the gas escape fail safe. The sights are a great improvement with the new peep sight system proving superior in combat shooting as well as precise shooting. The No. 4 is sometimes overlooked as a classic battle rifle but the fact is this rifle represents a great step in the evolution of the Lee Enfield rifle. But perhaps the greatest advantage of the Lee Enfield rifle is the short throw of the action used in every variation of the rifle. The Lee Enfield action is durable and rugged but also smooth in action. A trained shooter is able to get off a considerable number of rounds in aimed fire faster than with any other bolt action rifle.
Firing the Lee Enfield
An important consideration with these rifles is the working of brass and headspace. The .303 British cartridge headspaces on the case rim and is among the last military cartridges to do so. There is plenty of loose motion to allow for dirt and grit in the action. For this reason the Lee Enfield is arguably the most reliable bolt action rifle ever made. The rifle features rear locking lugs and a cocking on closing action. While the cock on opening action Mauser may thrill some when you are in the trenches you really want a cock on closing action. While a superior battle rifle system in the end, the Lee Enfield action works cartridge cases a great deal more than other types of bolt action rifles, practically on a level with self loading rifles; perhaps even worse. There is often evidence of a primer backing out or of working of the brass in rifles fired extensively with handloads. The .303 case is notorious for lasting but a few reloadings and suffering case head separations. The military does not reload brass, but hobby shooters do. No one intended for the Lee Enfield to be a target grade rifle or a sporting rifle, so we must live with these limitations. Just the same with sizing only the case neck and with careful load practice I have enjoyed good results with the .303 and handloading for economy. The late model No. 4 may be adjusted somewhat for headspace by changing the bolt head. This is a cheap fix. The superior gas relief of the No. 4 gives a great margin of safety but no one wishes to suffer a blown primer or case head. I mention this as a practical matter because so many shooters enjoy using and firing the Lee Enfield. Surplus ammunition is becoming increasingly scarce.
There are several sporting loads offered for the .303 British caliber. I used a load of proven properties, the Winchester 180 grain jacketed soft point. In my experience this is among the most accurate commercial loadings. On a clear day with no wind I was able to carefully bench rest the Long Branch rifle. The long two stage military trigger is what it is and breaks about six pounds. It is very consistent. I used the standard aperture and the ladder peep as well, striving for precision. In the end, the results were serviceable and demonstrated the accuracy potential of this rifle. Firing at the standard testing distance of one hundred yards my Long Branch Lee Enfield grouped three shots into three inches on average, with the smallest group about 2.4 inches at 100 yards. Recoil is mild and the action smooth and flawless in operation. I found that the Lee Enfield was suitably accurate at ranges well past 200 yards. My research indicates that the record for accurate aimed fire from the Enfield is 38 aimed shots in one minute, all hitting a twelve inch target at 300 yards. I cannot equal this feat but I can easily see how a British Tommy would have confidence in this rifle. As one officer remarked when using the Lee Enfield in Korea when you hit something with the .303 it stayed hit.
Triple check the rifle for ammunition. Be certain it is unloaded. Work the action to the rearmost position. Rotate the bolt head by lifting on the extractor lug and pull the bolt from the receiver. The Mk 4 has a bolt head release near the rear sight, making things a bit easier. On late model Mk 4 rifles simply pull the bolt out of a notch on the receiver. The stock and buttplate trap are easily removed if need be by loosening and removing screws. The barrel bands spring out away from the stock with slight bending. The trigger guard screws are removed to remove the barreled action from the stock. When attempting to cure headspace problems you will sometimes change the bolt head. The bolt head unscrews and the extractor screw must be removed. The extractor is pulled out and the bolt head, extractor and screw are replaced with a new bolt head. Replacing the bolt head is all that is needed to cure the headspace problems sometimes attributed to well worn Lee Enfield rifles.
Accuracy Testing of Lee Enfield Rifles
Three shot groups fired from a bench rested position
No. 4 rifle
Long Branch No. 4
Winchester 180 gr. JSP
Seller and Bellot
Seller and Bellot
Winchester 180 gr. JSP
Seller and Bellot
|100 yard group
Lee Enfield No 4 rifle .303 British caliber
Overall length: 44.49 inches
Barrel length: 25 inches
Overall height: 4 3/4 inches
LOP: 12 3/4 inches (Several stock Configurations were offered by different size and height soldiers.)
Capacity: 10 rounds
Action finish: Blue
Action type: Bolt action
Barrel finish: Blue
Magazine type: 10-round detachable box magazine
Trigger pull weight: 5.45 lbs
|SUBSCRIBER COMMENT AREA|
Comments have not been generated for this article.