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The Lee-Enfield was the primary infantry rifle used by British and Commonwealth forces during the first half of the 20th century. Introduced in 1895, it was a magazine-fed, bolt-action rifle that replaced the earlier Lee-Metford. Constantly improved and enhanced, the Lee-Enfield moved through a multitude of variants during its service life. The Short Lee-Enfield (SMLE) Mk. III was the principal rifle used during World War I, while the Rifle No. 4 version saw extensive service in World War II. Variants of the Lee-Enfield remained the British Army's standard rifle until 1957. The weapon and its derivatives continued to be used around the world.
The Lee-Enfield traces it roots back to 1888, when the British Army adopted the Magazine Rifle Mk. I, also known as the Lee-Metford. Created by James P. Lee, the rifle utilized a "cock-on-closing" bolt with rear locking lugs, and was designed to fire the British .303 black powder cartridge. The design of the action permitted easier and faster operation than similar German Mauser designs of the day. With the shift to "smokeless" powder (cordite), problems began to arise with the Lee-Metford as the new propellant caused greater heat and pressure which wore away the barrel's rifling.
To address this issue, the Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield designed a new square-shaped rifling system which proved resistant to wear. Combining Lee's bolt-action with the Enfield barrel led to the production of the first Lee-Enfields in 1895. Designated .303 caliber, Rifle, Magazine, Lee-Enfield, the weapon was frequently referred to as the MLE (Magazine Lee-Enfield) or the "Long Lee" in reference to its barrel length. Among the upgrades incorporated into the MLE, was a 10-round detachable magazine. This was initially debated as some critics feared that soldiers would lose it in the field.
In 1899, both the MLE and the cavalry carbine version saw service during the Boer War in South Africa. During the conflict, problems arose regarding the weapon's accuracy and a lack of charger loading. Officials at Enfield began working to address these issues, as well as to create a single weapon for both infantry and cavalry use. The result was the Short Lee-Enfield (SMLE) Mk. I, which possessed charger loading (2 five-round chargers) and vastly improved sights. Entering service in 1904, the design was further refined over the next three years to produce the iconic SMLE Mk. III.
Lee Enfield Mk. III
- Cartridge: .303 British
- Capacity: 10 rounds
- Muzzle Velocity: 2,441 ft./sec.
- Effective Range: 550 yds.
- Weight: approx. 8.8 lbs.
- Length: 44.5 in.
- Barrel Length: 25 in.
- Sights: Sliding ramp rear sights, fixed-post front sights, dial long-range volley sights
- Action: Bolt-action
- Number Built: approx. 17 million
Short Lee-Enfield Mk. III
Introduced on January 26, 1907, the SMLE Mk. III possessed a modified chamber capable of firing the new Mk. VII High Velocity spitzer .303 ammunition, a fixed charger guide, and simplified rear sights. The standard British infantry weapon of World War I, the SMLE Mk. III soon proved too complicated for industry to produce in sufficient numbers to meet wartime needs. To deal with this problem, a stripped down version was designed in 1915. Dubbed the SMLE Mk. III*, it did away with the Mk. III's magazine cut-off, volley sights, and rear-sight windage adjustment.British forces with their SMLE Mk. IIIs in the trenches during World War I. Public Domain
During the conflict, the SMLE proved a superior rifle on the battlefield and one capable of keeping up high rates of accurate fire. Many stories recount German troops reporting encountering machine gun fire, when in fact they had met trained British troops equipped with SMLEs. In the years after the war, Enfield attempted to permanently address the Mk. III's production issues. This experiment resulted in the SMLE Mk. V which possessed a new receiver-mounted aperture sighting system and a magazine cut-off. Despite their efforts, the Mk. V proved to be more difficult and costly to build than the Mk. III.
World War II
In 1926, the British Army changed its nomenclature and the Mk. III became known as Rifle No. 1 Mk. III. Over the next few years, Enfield continued to improve the weapon, ultimately producing the Rifle No. 1, Mk. VI in 1930. Retaining the Mk. V's rear aperture sights and magazine cut-off, it introduced a new "floating" barrel. With tensions in Europe rising, the British began searching for a new rifle in the late 1930s. This resulted in the design of the Rifle No. 4 Mk. I. Though approved in 1939, large-scale production did not begin until 1941, forcing British troops to begin World War II with the No. 1 Mk. III.
While British forces in Europe deployed with the No. 1 Mk. III, ANZAC and other Commonwealth troops retained their No. 1 Mk. III*s which remained popular due to their simple, easy to produce design. With the arrival of the No. 4 Mk. I, British forces obtained a version of the Lee-Enfield that possessed the updates of the No. 1 Mk. VIs, but was heavier than their old No. Mk. IIIs due to a longer barrel. During the war, the Lee-Enfield's action was utilized in a variety of weapons such as jungle carbines (Rifle No. 5 Mk. I), commando carbines (De Lisle Commando), and an experimental automatic rifle (Charlton AR).
Post-World War II:
With end of hostilities, the British produced a final update of the venerable Lee-Enfield, the Rifle No. 4, Mk. 2. All existing stocks of No. Mk. Is were updated to the Mk. 2 standard. The weapon remained the primary rifle in the British inventory until the adoption of the L1A1 SLR in 1957. It is still used by some Commonwealth militaries today, though it is more commonly found in ceremonial, reserve force, and police roles. The Ishapore Rifle Factory in India began producing a derivative of the No. 1 Mk. III in 1962.