Historical Firearms: The Lee Enfield .303

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Designed at the tail end of the 19th Century, the British-designed SMLE rifle was, in its time, one of the great wonders of the world. In fact, these guns were so well received that they were the standard arm of the King's soldiers for more than sixty years, spanning both World Wars.

Why were they invented?

The Martini-Henry rifle, one of the first practical breech loading rifles, was adopted by the British military in the 1870s to replace muzzleloading smokepoles forever. The 9-pound Martini was hard-hitting, with a huge .577-caliber round, and could be fired fast, up to a dozen rounds per minute by a trained operator. Well by the 1890s, the single-shot Martini was outclassed by more modern French, Russian and German designs. This meant the King's Tommies needed more firepower.


By 1895, the Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield created a design that combined American inventor James Paris Lee's turnbolt style action with a .303-caliber rifled barrel based on the design of English engineer William Metford. This, coupled with a huge ten-round detachable box magazine under the bolt-action created the "Magazine Lee-Enfield."

This huge rifle, with its 30-inch barrel, looked rather like a Russian Model 91 Mosin with a blocky magazine. After a dozen years of field trials that included hard service in the Boer Wars against Mauser-armed South African commando-units, the gun was improved and shortened by five inches, creating the "Short Magazine Lee-Enfield" aka the SMLE or commonly just called, "smelly," by Commonwealth soldiers.

Iraqveteran8888 giving a brief overview of a Lee Enfield No. 4 MkI SMLE Service Rifle .303 British.


(Brits with the Enfield in France during World War One. Note the duckbill shaped wirecutter attachment on the rifle of the Tommy at the rear)

This gun proved the standard rifle of the British and her allies (Australia, India, Canada, etc.) in both World Wars. In 1914, when the Germans under Kaiser Wilhelm met the "old contemptible" of the pre-war British Army at Mons, the rate of fire generated by the Brits astounded the Germans.

(British soldiers in North Africa in 1941-- still with the Enfield. If it aint broke...)

You see, with that huge 10-round magazine, a trained Tommy could unload his weapon, charge it with stripper clips, and commence firing again at rates that no other bolt-gun could touch. In fact, one British Sargent fired 38 *aimed* rounds in a field trial inside of just one minute.

(Irish troops headed to the Congo in the 1960s with, wait for it, SMLE rifles)

By World War Two, the Enfield was starting to show its age, but when facing Italian troops (armed with the bolt-action Mannlicher-Carcano), Nazi Germans (Mauser bolt actions) or those of Japan (Arisaka bolt-actions), the 'mad-minute' of the old Smelly still proved enough. For quick actions, Commonwealth troops carried STEN, Lanchester, Owen, and Thompson subguns as well as BREN light machineguns for extra firepower.

(In many parts of the world, especally Afghanistan, the Enfield is still a revered gun. During the Soviet-Afghan wars, CIA handlers smuggled huge stocks of .303 ammo into the country to help keep these old warhorses fed)

However, by the late 1950s, after the Enfield saw service in the Suez and Korea, Soviet-designed SKS and AK-series rifles had finally outclassed the gun. This led to their replacement with the Brits, Australians etc.

The guns however are still seeing use with border guards and police in India, Pakistan, and with auxiliary units such as the Canadian Army Rangers. Not bad for a 120-year old design.

(The Canadian Army Rangers, as well as others around the world, still use the Enfield)

Getting your own

Estimates of these guns made range to as many as 20-million. These guns were produced not only by the Brits (true Enfields as well as BSA, LSA, and Sparkbrook-made guns), but by Australia (marked Lithgow), Canada (Long Branch Arsenal), the US (by Savage-Stevens in World War One, marked US Property), and India (Ishapore).

The last gun mentioned was made as late as the 1970s in a 12-shot 7.62x51mm chambering and many were imported for bargain prices in the 1990s. Note the different shaped magazine.

(A brief review of the Ishapore, the most modern Enfield)

These guns run the gamut from old-school pre-WWI guns and Mark 5 Jungle Carbines, which are the most collectable at prices that run well over $500 for correct copies to more affordable WWII-era guns that are closer to $250. With such a wide range of types, the best way to figure out what you have is to inspect the gun for markings and compare them with databases of what is out there.


Now when you find what you have, say an Australian No. 4 Mk II gun, then you want to see if it is in correct condition. This means that its virtually the same as when it served in the wars and hasn't been altered. The thing is, most Enfields in the US have been converted years ago for use as deer rifles. You know how Russian and Chinese made Mosin Nagants run for $50-$100 these days? Well the Enfield was the Mosin-Nagant of the 1960s and 70s, with guns being sold at give-away prices. Since people didn't pay a lot for them, they didn't care if they changed them or not, so this led to decades of stock, barrel, sight, and other modifications.


These 'sporterised' Enfields are no longer collectable, but are still very shootable and will make great range toys, inexpensive deer rifles, or ranch guns. I've had a few of these pass through my hands in the past decade or so, all at about the $100-$150 range.

Besides a dwindling stock of surplus .303 ammo out there, Remington and others still make factory fresh loads (usually classified as ".303 British") for about the same price as 30.06 rounds. If using some of the old surplus stuff, be sure to clean your rifle extra well due to the possibility of corrosive military-grade primers.

It's very hard to get a gun with more history, craftsmanship, and value for the price that is currently out there.

Rule Britannia

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April 24, 2014  •  04:30 AM
I have a No4 Mk1 and it is a great shooter.
I grew up shooting 303s since age 13 as a cadet at school.
More accurate and stronger than most are led to believe.
Mine shoots to 1.4moa. Good deer rifle out to 300yds with the right pills.
May 9, 2014  •  10:42 AM
I find it odd, that what isn't mentioned is the Lee-Enfield was a modification of the Lee-Metford rifle of 1888. The Lee-Enfield didn't use Metford rifling. The reason for the modification was the grooves were too shallow and wore out too quickly.

One other "mistake" I noticed. The Martini-Henry didn't fire a .577 round. It fired a .450/577 round. It was a modification of the .577 Snyder cartridge, which was a straight walled cartridge, turning it into a bottlenecked .450 round.