The Lee-Enfield family of rifles first appeared at the end of the Victorian era, and served the British Forces well into the Cold War. This was a remarkable service length, and these were remarkable firearms.
The first rifle to use James Paris Lee’s bolt design was termed the Lee-Metford; it replaced the single-shot Martini-Henry and was the first British service rifle to hold multiple rounds. It was also the first weapon chambered in .303 ammunition, which was first developed using black powder. The Lee-Metford had an eight-shot magazine, and was soon replaced by the Lee-Enfield Mark I, with a 10-round magazine. However, the change in name was to indicate a new method of rifling developed at the Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield. Thus, the Lee-Enfield was born.
With the adoption of smokeless powder (cordite in this case), it was found that a shorter barrel length would still produce the range and accuracy needed. The Short Magazine Lee-Enfield (S.M.L.E.) was adopted in 1902. The term “Short” referred to the overall length of the rifle compared to its predecessors; weapons of a similar length had previously been considered carbines and issued to cavalry. Improvements were made on the design, including the addition of a charger bridge to aid in loading, resulting in the S.M.L.E. Mark III, adopted in 1907. This was the rifle that the British Tommy took to Flanders in 1914. Soldiers often pronounced S.M.L.E. as “Smelly”.
Prior to the Great War, infantry were expected to withstand cavalry charges with their bayonets. With the adoption of the shorter rifle, it was felt necessary to make up for the reduced reach by extending the length of the bayonet. The S.M.L.E. Mark III was issued with the 1907 pattern bladed bayonet, sometimes called a “sword bayonet” because of its size.
The S.M.L.E. Mark III also included long-range volley sights and a magazine cut-off. The cut-off was a sliding cover over the magazine; the intent was that the soldier would load and fire individual rounds, saving the ammunition in the magazine for when rapid fire was needed. In 1916, the cut-off and volley sights were determined superfluous, and these items were deleted from the Mark III* (the asterisk is typically pronounced as “star”).
The S.M.L.E. Mark III and Mark III* were outstanding rifles. The Lee bolt design was faster and smoother to operate than any of its rivals, giving the British soldier a faster rate of fire than his enemies (or his Allies). The Enfield also had twice the magazine capacity of the other rifles of the period, and its shorter size made it easier to maneuver in the close confines of trench warfare.
British troops were trained in the “mad minute”, to fire and reload as quickly as possible in a 60-second period. The minimum requirement was 15 rounds, with all hitting the target at 300 yards. Well-trained soldiers could fire 20 – 30 rounds, with the documented record being 36 aimed shots in a minute. When German troops first encountered the British at the outbreak of the Great War, they believed they were up against machine guns, not infantrymen with rifles.
The S.M.L.E. was slightly less accurate than the enemy Mauser, but it was accurate enough for the battlefield. The British soldier was expected to hit a man-sized target at 600 yards.
After the horrors of the Great War, Britain was reluctant to invest in new weaponry. Several improvements and prototypes were developed in the 1920’s and 30’s, but were not adopted. However, the naming system was revised in 1926, and the S.M.L.E. was renamed the Number 1 Rifle, with both Mark III and Mark III*’s in service (official abbreviations were No. 1 Mk III and No. 1 Mk III*). Finally, in 1939, the Number 4 rifle was approved for production.
The No. 1 rifle had been largely hand-made. The No. 4 Mk I was designed to incorporate new manufacturing methods to make mass-production easier. It also included a number of improvements. The bolt was reduced in weight, making it even faster to operate than its predecessor. The charger bridge was made as part of the receiver, rather than a separate piece, making it stronger. The sights were also improved. The No. 1 used a blade front sight and “V-notch” backsight, adjustable for range; it was good for precision shooting, but difficult for rapidly-moving targets. The No. 4 was given a ring-type backsight which gave much faster target acquisition. The backsight was of the “flip” type configuration, meaning it could be rotated from a short-range combat sight to a more precise long-range sight; the earlier versions were adjustable. The new rifle was the same length as its predecessor, and their weights were similar. Visually, the biggest difference was the short length of exposed barrel on the No. 4, as opposed to the No. 1’s nosecap mounted flush to the muzzle.
The Great War had seen the demise of traditional horse cavalry. Studies of the use of the bayonet between the wars indicated that the long “sword bayonet” was no longer needed. In an effort to reduce the use of steel and to maximize manufacturing efficiency, the No. 4 Mk I was issued with a simple spike bayonet. The troops often referred to the new bayonet as a “pig-sticker”.
Although officially adopted in time for the outbreak of World War II, the No. 4 Mk I did not see immediate service. It took time for the new rifle to enter production, and the first examples did not reach the troops until 1942. The British Expeditionary Force that reinforced France and Belgium in 1939 carried the same rifle as their fathers had before them.
Priority of issue for the No. 4 Mk I was for troops on Home Service, initially defending Britain against possible invasion, but then transitioning to the return to occupied Europe. When 21st Army Group arrived in Normandy, they were using the No. 4 rifle exclusively. In contrast, when 8th Army was in North Africa, they continued to soldier on with the old No. 1 rifle, and only received some No. 4’s as replacements late in the war as they fought in Italy. Similarly, 14th Army in Burma largely fought with the No. 1, with the No. 4 arriving late in the war, but never replacing the older rifle. Shorter versions of the blade bayonet were made in India for the No. 1 rifle, intended for use in the jungle.
During WWII, the No. 4 Mk I* was authorized with a revised bolt release. A number of minor modifications were also adopted during the course of the war, but not considered significant to renumber the rifle or create a new Mark. These included simplified sights, barrel bands, and other components, all of which were intended to ease production.
After the War, the No. 4 Mk II was adopted; this was essentially the same rifle, but with a different method of attaching the trigger. Additionally, a number of wartime rifles were retrofitted with the new trigger, and were labeled the Number 4 Mark I/II. Many of these retrofits were also refurbished and provided the original Mark I backsight, the most precise of the different versions. The wartime spike bayonet was replaced with a proper blade.
The Number 5 rifle was adopted very late in WWII; it was intended for use in the Far East and was often called the “jungle carbine”, although this name was never officially used. The No. 5 was essentially a shortened version of the No. 4, using the same bolt and sights, and fitted with a rubber recoil pad and an anti-flash cone at the muzzle. Because it fired standard .303 ammunition, recoil was ferocious despite the rubber pad; it also suffered accuracy problems. The No. 5 only saw limited production and very few saw front-line service.
The Lee-Enfield continued service after WWII, including the Korean conflict. Many overseas garrisons still had their old stocks of No. 1, Mk III’s, but most troops carried No. 4’s, either the Mk I or Mk II. Both the No. 1 and the No. 4 had been manufactured by Commonwealth nations as well as Britain; in fact, India and Australia never did adopt the No. 4, preferring the older design.
A number of .22 caliber Lee-Enfield variants were adopted for training purposes. There were also sniper adaptations of both the No. 1 and No. 4. After the adoption of the L1A1 Self-Loading Rifle in 1954 in 7.62 NATO, the L42A1 sniper rifle was adopted; this was a No. 4 modified to take 7.62 ammunition. The L42A1 was used as recently as the Falklands conflict and was finally replaced in 1990.
As a living historian, I am often asked which Lee-Enfield is correct for WWII. As seen in the above history, it depends on the theater and stage of the war. I am also frequently asked which rifle is “better”, and there is no easy answer. Both are typically well-made, although the No. 1 will often have better fit and finish. I have used the No. 1 Mk III* and the No. 4 Mk I and Mk II extensively. I have fired live ammunition at the range, and blanks at reenactments. The No. 4’s lighter bolt can allow for a slightly faster rate of fire; on the other hand, short blanks can sometimes misfeed, and the No. 1’s heavier bolt reduces this problem, as does using full-length blanks. As I’m getting older, the sights on the No. 1 are getting harder for me to use; but I have no problem whatsoever with the sights on the No. 4. These are also reliable firearms; I bought my first Lee-Enfield over 20 years ago, and have only had to perform one minor repair.
I love my Lee-Enfields, and my only regret is not shooting them as frequently as I would like.