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Best of British service rifles, really?

Most of you will have either held or seen a Lee-Enfield rifle. However many people often incorrectly assume that the rifle is of British design, when it is actually an American design. This inadvertent and unintentional plagiarism is widespread throughout ‘British’ service rifles. The Snider-Enfield was invented by an American, Jacob Snider. The Martini action was invented by an Austrian/Swiss chap called Friedrich von Martini. So it does make me chuckle when people drone on about how ‘we used to make everything in this country’ and other such snobby elitist comments, probably an hangover of our British Empire era. I mean come on, next you’ll be telling me Jesus was really a Yorkshire man. It is in my opinion that when knowledge is shared and then adapted for the purpose intended is what we, the British were very good at.

Enfield Arms Factory

Anyway after that rant, it brings me nicely round to the Lee-Enfield (or long or short Lees). The “Enfield” element is the government arms works on the northern outskirts of London which was established in 1804 to assemble the “Brown Bess” flintlock muskets. The “Lee” is from the design of James Paris Lee (1831-1904), a Scottish born American arms inventor. It is also worth mentioning William Ellis Metford (1824-1899) who was English and instrumental in perfecting the .30 calibre jacketed bullet and the rifling to accompany it.

Of course the service rifle version has been built to be soldier proof, however if you look closely at the original James Paris Lee patent drawings (pieces of art in themselves) you will see the quality of the engineering in the original design. Trigger design remains pretty constant although the rest of it was slowly value engineered to reduce production costs and serviceability in the field.

What follows below is a more detailed history of the variation of the Lee-Enfield rifle and is more of an educational piece than witty banter, so feel free to zone out if you aren’t interested. If the below bores you to tears, then be sure to check out the other far more interesting reads in our blog, ‘Perfect Gun’.

The Long Lees

The first British bolt-action magazine rifle was developed through trials beginning in 1879, with adoption of the Magazine Rifle Mark I in December 1888. This rifle is commonly referred to as the “Lee-Metford,” or “Magazine Lee-Metford” (MLM). It has an overall length of 49.5 inches, the same as the Martini-Henry. Minor changes led to the adoption of the MLM Mk I* in 1892, the MLM Mk II in 1893, and the MLM Mk II* in 1895.

In November 1895, changes in the rifling and the sights were made to accommodate smokeless powder cartridges, and the new rifle was designated the Lee-Enfield Magazine Rifle Mark I, or in common parlance, the “Magazine Lee-Enfield” (MLE). Minor changes led to the adoption of the MLE Mk I* in 1899 and the MLE Mk I (India Pattern) in 1905.

From 1903 to 1909, a good many MLM and MLE rifles were converted to SMLE configuration by having shorter barrels installed and other minor modifications made. Around the same time, a good many others had charger bridges installed and were re-designated Charger-Loading Lee-Metford (CLLM) and Charger-Loading Lee-Enfield (CLLE) rifles.

In 1894, a carbine version of the Lee-Metford was approved, having an overall length of 39.9 inches. 1896 saw the approval of the Lee-Enfield Cavalry Carbine Mk I, with minor changes leading to the LEC Mk I* carbine in 1899. In 1900, a version of the carbine fitted with a P-1888 bayonet was approved, and in 1903 the Magazine Lee-Enfield Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) carbine was approved. The final Lee-Enfield carbine was the Australian Rifle Club Pattern, approved in 1904.

Since the MLM and MLE rifles are 49.5 inches long overall, they are often referred to informally as “Long Lees.”

The Short Lees

The Short Magazine Lee-Enfield Rifle, or SMLE, was developed to provide a single rifle to replace both the Magazine Lee-Enfield Rifle (MLE) and the Lee-Enfield Carbine (LEC). With an overall length of 44.5 inches, the new weapon was referred to as a “short rifle”; thus, the word “short” refers to the length of the rifle–not the length of the magazine.

Beginning in 1901, trials were conducted at the Royal Small Arms Factory (RSAF) in Enfield on the new short rifle, resulting in the adoption in December 1902 of the Short Magazine Lee-Enfield Mk I. (marked “SHT L.E.” and “I”). Production of the SMLE Mk I began in 1903 at RSAF Enfield and in 1904 at RSAF Sparkbrook, the Birmingham Small Arms Co. (BSA), and the London Small Arms Co. (LSA). Minor modifications led to the adoption of the SMLE Mk I* in 1906, with production at Enfield, Sparkbrook, BSA Co., and LSA Co.

In 1903, conversions of various “Long Lees” to SMLE configuration were approved. These converted rifles were designated SMLE Converted Mk II (marked “SHT L.E.” and “ConD II” with varying numbers of stars, or asterisks). “ConD” is an abbreviation for “Converted.” In 1907, additional conversions were approved, designated SMLE Converted Mk IV (marked “SHT L.E.” and “ConD IV”).

Further improvements and simplifications of the SMLE led to the adoption in 1907 of the SMLE Mk III. Production of the Mk III began in 1907 at Enfield, BSA Co., and LSA Co. (RSAF Sparkbrook having been acquired by BSA Co. in 1906). Production of the Mk III also began in 1909 at the Ishapore Rifle Factory in India and in 1913 at the Lithgow Small Arms Factory in Australia.

Earlier Mk I* and Mk II rifles were upgraded to include several of the improvements of the Mk III, yielding the SMLE Mk I** in 1908 and the SMLE Mk I*** in 1914. Similar upgrades done at the Ishapore Rifle Factory were designated the SMLE Mk I* I.P. and the SMLE Mk I** I.P., with the “I.P.” designating “India Pattern.”

To allow for more rapid production of rifles during WWI, further simplifications were approved, leading to the adoption in 1916 of the SMLE Mk III*. Production of the Mk III* did not begin simultaneously at all rifle factories; BSA Co. actually began production of the Mk III* in 1915, while LSA. Co. didn’t begin producing the Mk III* until 1918. After the cessation of WWI hostilities in November of 1918, both Ishapore and Lithgow reverted to Mk III production. In Great Britain, the LSA Co. factory closed, but BSA Co. continued to produce both Mk III and Mk III* rifles–for use by the British military and for overseas sales through the “trade.” RSAF Enfield shifted its focus to developing trials rifles with aperture rear sights.

In 1922, the SMLE Mk V was approved as a trials rifle, although some 20,000 of them were manufactured from 1922 through 1924 at RSAF Enfield. In 1926, the No. 1 Mk VI rifle was approved as a trials rifle, with B, and C patterns following in 1929 and 1935. The Mk VI eventually became the No. 4 Rifle.

In 1926, the British government changed the nomenclature of its rifles, redesignating the .30 caliber SMLEs as No. 1 Rifles, the .22 caliber conversions of SMLEs as No. 2 Rifles, and P-14 Enfields as No. 3 Rifles. Purists will distinguish between earlier SMLE rifles and later No. 1 rifles, but for all practical purposes “SMLE” and “No. 1 Rifle” are alternate names for the same weapon.

It is not correct to think of the SMLE (or No. 1 Rifle) as a solely a WWI firearm. While it is true that the British government adopted the No. 4 Rifle in the late 1930s, production of the No. 1 Rifle continued, with more than 250,000 of them being produced during WWII by the BSA Co. factory at Shirley. In addition, the Ishapore factory in India manufactured more than 600,000 No. 1 Rifles during WWII, while the Lithgow factory in Australia produced more than 500,000 No. 1 Rifles between 1939 and 1945.

Except for several thousand Mk III rifles manufactured by Lithgow from 1939 to mid-1941, all of the WWII No. 1 Rifles are in the Mk III* configuration. Ishapore changed over from Mk III to Mk III* production circa 1936, while Lithgow did so in 1941. All of the No. 1 Rifles produced by BSA-Shirley were Mk III* rifles.

Production of No. 1 Rifles continued at Lithgow until circa 1956 and at Ishapore until circa 1974, with a number of improvements to the design of these rifles being implemented at both the Ishapore and Lithgow factories. All post-WWII rifles–both Lithgow and Ishapore–are Mk III* rifles. Circa 1949, Ishapore began using Arabic numerals rather than Roman numerals for the Mark number (“Mk 3*” rather than “Mk III*”).

In the mid-1960s, Ishapore developed a version of the No. 1 Rifle in the 7.62mm NATO cartridge, which was designated the Rifle 7.62mm 2A, with minor modifications leading to the Rifle 7.62mm 2A1. For several years in the early 1970s, Ishapore resumed production of Mk 3* rifles in .303 British caliber.

The Pattern 1914 (No. 3) Rifle

Although not a Lee-Enfield, the Pattern 1914 is most often considered an Enfield rifle inasmuch as it was designed by engineers at the Enfield Royal Small Arms Factory.

In 1910, the British War Office began considering a replacement for the SMLE Mk III. Field experience with Mauser and Springfield rifles had indicated the desireability of a one-piece stock, a receiver-mounted aperture rear sight, and forward-mounted bolt locking lugs. Also under consideration was a rimless cartridge with a smaller caliber, higher velocity bullet. Over the next two years, various prototypes were examined and trials were conducted, leading to extended field trials in 1913 of over 1000 new rifles. Manufactured by the Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield, this new rifle was designated the .276-Inch Enfield Magazine Rifle, or as it is more commonly known, the Pattern 1913 rifle.

With the outbreak of WWI, the War Office decided both to continue production of the SMLE and to commence production of the new rifle–but in .303 British caliber. In October 1914, the .303 Pattern 1914 Rifle was approved. A contract was let to Vickers, Ltd. for 100,000 rifles. Vickers had difficulty getting into production, however, and other British rifle factories were tied up with SMLE production, so the War Office approached the American firms of Winchester Repeating Arms Co. and Remington Arms/Union Metallic Cartridge Co. to manufacture the P-14. Production began in January 1916.

Winchester manufactured the P-14 at its New Haven, Connecticut plant. Remington/Union manufactured the P-14 at its Ilion, New York plant and also purchased a half-finished locomotive factory in Eddystone, Pennsylvania through its subsiderary, the Remington Arms Co. of Deleware. This factory became known informally as the “Eddystone Arsenal.” In the rush to get arms to the British, each factory operated independently in making design improvements. This led to some parts incompatability, so in June 1916, three separate models were approved: the Pattern 1914 Mk I E (manufactured by Eddystone), the Pattern 1914 Mk I R (manufactured by Remington), and the Pattern 1914 Mk I W (manufactured by Winchester).

In December 1916, a new bolt with a longer locking lug was approved. Rifles fitted with the new bolt are designated the Mk I* E, the Mk I* R, and the Mk I* W.

By April 1917, the manufacture of 1.2 million P-14 rifles for the British was nearing completion. An additional 100,000 had been sent to India. With the U.S. entry into WWI on April 6th, the need for additional American rifles was acute, and both Remington and Winchester offered to design a .30-06 caliber version of the Pattern 1914 and retool for its manufacture. The rifle became the U.S. Rifle, Caliber .30, Model of 1917, with production beginning in the summer of 1917.

By the fall of 1917, the need for a British sniper rifle was apparent. A new backsight was developed which had a micrometer adjustment for elevation. In November 1917 this backsight was approved for installation on Winchester-made P-14 rifles, the Winchesters having proven more dependable and more accurate than the others. Rifles with the fine adjustment backsight became known as the Mk I W (F) and Mk I* W (F), the “F” indicating “fine adjustment.” In April 1918, a scope-sighted model was approved. Again, only Winchester-made P-14s were fitted with scopes. These are designated the Mk I* W (T), the “T” indicating “telescopic sight.”

After WWI, both the P-14 and the M1917 were relegated to substitute standard or reserve status, with significant quantities of P-14s being sent to Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. Nearly 700,000 P-14 rifles and over a million M1917 rifles were put storage.

In 1926, the Pattern 1914 rifles were redesignated as the Rifle No. 3 Mk I, the Rifle No. 3 Mk I*, with both the (F) and (T) models carrying the Rifle No. 3 designation as well.

In 1939, the British government began removing P-14 rifles from stores and returning them to service status, as specified in the Weedon Repair Standard (WRS). Work was done at RSAF – Enfield and at a number of private firms, including B.S.A., Purdy, Greener, Holland & Holland, and Paker Hale. Rifles were de-greased and inspected, and the long range volley sights were removed. A number of new stocks were manufactured as well, the new stocks not having inletting for the volley sight dial. Rifles equipped with these stocks are designated the Rifle No. 3 Mk II, although all rifles converted to WRS specifications are sometimes referred to as Mk II rifles.

In 1941, a quantity of P-14 (No. 3) rifles were fitted with Aldis scopes, utilizing a low side mount. The low mount required that the sight protector “ears” on the receiver be milled off. In addition, a wood cheekrest (similar to that of the No. 4 “T-Model” rifle) were attached to the buttstock. This rifle was designated the No. 3 Mk I* (T) A, the “A” designating “Aldis.”

Also in 1941, the American government began removing M1917 rifles from stores and returning them to service status. Over 100,000 M1917 rifles were shipped to England, for use by the Home Guard; another 152,000 were sent to China; and 40,000 were sent to other allies. The remainder were issued to U.S. troops.

In 1944 and 1945, large numbers of P-14s and lesser numbers of M1917s were provided to the resistance fighters of the Free French and the Free Dutch. Following WWII, Great Britain send a large number of P-14 rifles to Greece, as well. The “American Enfields” have been observed in Palestine in the 1960s, in Pakistan and Angola in the 1970s, and in Afghanistan in the 1980s; and sporterized P-14s and M1917s are currently used for hunting the world over.

The Lee-Enfield No. 4 Series Rifles

The Lee-Enfield No. 4 rifle was developed to provide a receiver-mounted aperture backsight similar to that of the Pattern 1914 (No. 3) rifle. The No. 4 rifle also reflects a new (British) standard in screw threads, making nearly all threaded components incompatable with those of the SMLE (No. 1) rifle. In addition, the No. 4 rifle incorporates a heavier barrel than that of the No. 1 rifle, stronger steel in the action body and bolt body, and a short “grip-less” bayonet that mounts directly to the barrel, rather than to a separate nosecap mounted on the fore-end. The Lee-Enfield No. 5 rifle is a shortened and lightened version of the No. 4 rifle; while the L8A1 through L8A5 rifles are 7.62mm NATO conversions of No. 4 rifles.

Beginning shortly after WWI, trials were conducted at the Royal Small Arms Factory (RSAF) in Enfield on a rifle with a receiver-mounted backsight. Trials continued through the 1920s and 1930s, yielding the No. 1 Mk V rifle in 1922 and the No. 1 Mk VI rifle in 1926. In 1931, the No. 1 Mk VI was altered slightly and redesignated the No. 4 Mk I. Trials resulted in the adoption in November 1939 of the No. 4 Mk I Rifle as the new British service rifle.

In England, two new Royal Ordnance Factories (ROF) were established to manufacture the No. 4 rifle: one at Fazakerley (a suburb of Liverpool) and one at Maltby (near Sheffield). In addition, BSA Co. built a plant in Shirley (a suburb of Birmingham) to manufacture the No. 4 rifle. Production was under way at these plants by the middle of 1941.

The British government also contracted with the Savage Arms Company in the U.S. and with Small Arms, Ltd. in Canada to produce the No. 4 rifle. Production of Mk I rifles began at the Savage-owned Stevens Arms Co. plant in Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts in July 1941, while production of Mk I rifles began at the Small Arms Ltd. plant in Long Branch, Ontario in September 1941.

In February 1942, a telescopic sighted version of the Mk I was approved as No. 4 Mk I(T) Rifle. Mk I rifles were selected for demonstrated accuracy and had high-comb cheek rests and scope mounts added. The “T-Model” rifles were issued as a kit, consisting of the rifle itself, a leather sling, a No. 32 scope, a scope carrying case, a carrying chest for the rifle and scope. Some 25,000 to 30,000 Mk I(T) rifles were produced by RSAF Enfield and Holland & Holland. In addition, SAL Canada converted several thousand Mk I* rifles to T-Model configuration at the Long Branch factory and issued them as the No. 4 Mk I*(T) rifle. The scopes used were marked “C No. 32,” although mounts by Griffin & Howe and Lyman Alaskan scopes were used on some Canadian T-Models.

Modifications to the bolt release mechanism of the No. 4 were approved for Savage and Long Branch rifles, leading to the changeover at these factories in 1942 from the No. 4 Mk I to the No. 4 Mk I* Rifle. About the same time, Savage began producing rifles under the Lend Lease program, with these rifles being marked “U.S. PROPERTY” on the left side of the receiver.

In 1943, trials began on a shortened and lightened No. 4 rifle, leading to the adoption in 1944 of the No. 5 Mk I Rifle, or “Jungle Carbine,” as it is commonly known. The No. 5 rifle was manufactured by ROF-Fazakerley and by BSA-Shirley from 1944 until 1947.

Production of No. 4 rifles ceased at Savage in June, 1944, with a total production of just over 1 million rifles. Production of No. 4 rifles was suspended at Long Branch in 1945. In December 1945 Small Arms Ltd. ceased operations, and the Long Branch factory was operated after that by the Small Arms Division of Canadian Arsenals Ltd. (CAL). Production of No. 4 Mk I* rifles resumed at Long Branch in 1949 and continued until 1955, with a total production (1941-1955) of just over 900,000 rifles. CAL ceased operations at Long Branch in June 1976.

In 1944, Long Branch developed a .22 caliber version of the No. 4 rifle for training purposes. This was designated the C No. 7 .22 in Mk I Rifle. It has the same overall appearance as the No. 4 rifle, but the backsight is somewhat different. The British version of this .22 trainer–the No. 7 Mk I Rifle– was developed in 1948. It, too, has the same overall appearance as the No. 4.

Introduced at about the same time as the British No. 7 rifle was the .22 No. 8 Mk I Rifle–a competition version of the No. 7. This rifle has a pistol-grip stock, a shortened fore-end, and a special heavy barrel with a hooded foresight. Many of these underwent FTR in the late 1960s at the Enfield factory.

In 1947, the design of the trigger mounting was changed to allow the trigger to be hung from the action body rather than from the trigger guard. In addition, light-colored beech wood was approved for rifle furniture, and Arabic rather than Roman numerals began to be used to designate various Marks of components. These changes led to the adoption in March 1949 of the No. 4 Mk 2 Rifle, with production beginning at ROF-Fazakerley in July, 1949. Production continued until 1955, with Fazakerley being the only plant manufacturing the No. 4 Mk 2.

At the same time that the No. 4 Mk 2 rifle was approved (March 1949), authorization was given to convert earlier rifles to the new configuration. The converted No. 4 Mk I rifle was redesignated the No. 4 Mk I/2 Rifle, while the converted No. 4 Mk I* rifle was redesignated the No. 4 Mk I/3 Rifle. Conversions were done at ROF-Fazakerley.

Production ceased at BSA-Shirley in the late 1940s, and in the mid-1950s the rifle fabrication machinery was sold to the Pakistan Ordnance Factory in Wah, Pakistan. The Pakistan Ordnance Factory (P.O.F.) undertook an extensive FTR program, refurbishing a good many No. 4 Mk I and Mk 2 rifles.

Additionally, No. 4 series rifles were refurbished and parts were manufactured in South Africa and in Indonesia. Rifles and parts so marked show up from time to time.

In the late 1950s, the Royal Navy contracted with the firm of Parker-Hale to convert circa 3000 No. 4 Mk 2 rifles to .22 caliber. This rifle, designated the .22 R.F. No. 9 Mk 1, has the same overall appearance as the later No. 4 Mk 2 rifles–including the beechwood furniture.

In the late 1960s, the British government approved conversion of various Marks of No. 4 rifles to accommodate the 7.62mm NATO cartridge. Conversions of the No. 4 Mk 2 rifle were designated the L8A1 Rifle, while conversions of other Marks of the No. 4 rifle were designated L8A2 through L8A5. The conversions were accomplished by installing new barrels and new extractors, enlarging the magazine wells slightly, and installing new magazines.

Also in the late 1960s, a 7.62mm NATO competition target rifle was approved as the L39A1 Rifle. The L39A1 rifles were converted from No. 4 Mk 2 and Mk I/2 rifles by installing 7.62mm barrels, shortening the fore-ends, and installing micrometer-adjustable aperture rear sights. Also, many L39A1 rifles had pistol-grip buttstocks installed. The L39A1 rifles were set up as single loaders, the standard .303 British magazine being used only as a loading platform. About the same time, the Enfield factory issued a commercial version of the L39A1 which they called the 7.62mm Envoy Rifle.

In need of a sniper rifle chambered for the 7.62mm NATO cartridge, the British government approved the L42A1 Rifle in August 1970. The L42A1 rifles are essentially 7.62mm conversions of No. 4 “T-Model” rifles with shorter and wider fore-ends and shorter handguards. The L42A1 rifles use magazines which are similar to those of the L8 rifles. The L42A1 rifle remained in service until 1992.

Finally, in the mid-1970s, a non-firing drill purpose conversion of the No. 4 rifle was approved for use by cadets. Designated the Drill Rifle L59A1, this conversion amounted to rendering No. 4 rifles incapable of being fired by milling away portions of the breech, the action body, and the bolt and welding a plug into the breech. L59A1 rifles were converted from No. 4 Mk I, Mk I*, and Mk 2 rifles.



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