During the First World War British troops were equipped with a modified 1888 weapon but the Lee-Enfield would become the quickest-firing bolt-action rifle of the 20th century
There are many iconic images from the First World War but perhaps the most enduring of them is the British Tommy wearing a wry smile and with a fag hanging from his lower lip, his cap on the back of his head and his trusty Lee-Enfield rifle slung over his shoulder.
The rifle that the regulars of the British Expeditionary Force carried into France in August 1914 was officially known as the “Rifle, Short, Magazine Lee-Enfield Mk III”. This was abbreviated to SMLE and immediately bastardised into “The Smelly” in soldiers’ vernacular. Although the SMLE Mk III was introduced into British service in January 1907, it was simply a modified version of a service rifle adopted much earlier – in 1888.
In 1871, the British Army was equipped with the legendary Martini-Henry rifle, which fired a gargantuan 483-grain, .450-calibre lead bullet from a necked-down .577in cart-ridge case. The single-shot Martini was a good, soldier-proof rifle but the perfection of a nitroglycerine-based powder by the French chemist Paul Vielle in 1884 rendered it, and every other military rifle, obsolete overnight. Vielle’s powder produced very little smoke to betray the rifleman’s position and could be used to drive copper-jacketed 8mm bullets at velocities in excess of 2,000ft per second. The adoption of the Modele 1886 Lebel rifle by the French immediately prompted every other major power to start to develop a small-calibre, smokeless-powder magazine rifle.
By this time, the British military authorities had become aware of the work of a Swiss officer, Colonel Eduard Rubin, who was experimenting with small-bore rifle bullets propelled with compressed charges of black powder. In 1888 Britain bought 350 of James Paris Lee’s patent rifles chambered for the .303 Rubin cartridge, which had a rimmed case and its bullet held centrally by a washer. After some further development, Britain’s first .303 service rifle, the Lee-Metford Mk 1, was adopted officially on 22 December 1888. This combined the Lee’s action (with its eight- round magazine) with William Ellis Metford’s seven-groove rifling and a modified version of Rubin’s cartridge. In 1895, the rifle was modified again with an enhanced 10-shot magazine, improved five-groove rifling developed at the Royal Small Arms factory at Enfield and a smokeless cartridge that used cordite as a propellant. This was the first in a long series of .303 Lee-Enfield rifles.
The Long Lee-Enfield, as it became known because of its 30in barrel, was the standard British rifle throughout the Second Boer War (1899–1902). It was supplemented by a carbine version with a 21in barrel carried by the cavalry. The Royal Irish Constabulary had its own special carbine; this version would accept a bayonet, presumably for crowd control.
The British were routinely outshot by the Boers with their state-of-the-art Mauser Model 1896 rifles. Although the Lee-Enfield had a 10-shot magazine it had to be loaded with individual cartridges, which took time. The Mauser’s magazine could be loaded with five cartridges in a single action by means of a charger. This gave a higher rate of fire. The Mauser’s 7mm cartridge was ballistically superior and enhanced the average Boer’s al-ready impressive marksmanship skills.
After the Boer War, the military sought to remedy the Lee-Enfield’s shortcomings. In what was a classic example of British government thriftiness and pragmatism, the SMLE was born. The basic concept was that there should be a standard rifle for all arms of the service, whether infantry, cavalry, artillery, engineers or the Royal Navy. This would be capable of having its magazine loaded by the use of two five-round chargers of cartridges. The bayonet would no longer be supported by the barrel but fixed to a separate nose-cap that incorporated “ears” to protect the foresight.
The new universal rifle had a 25in barrel, a 10-round magazine and a Japanese-inspired sword bayonet with a wicked, 17in blade. The barrel was encased in a wooden hand-guard. Although the SMLE was only an updated version of an earlier rifle, it was to become the quickest-firing and most effective bolt-action battle rifle of the 20th century. The British regular soldier was expected to be able to fire 15 aimed shots a minute from his rifle. The SMLE’s effective range in competent hands was about 400yd. However, it was fitted with long-range sights calibrated from 1,600yd to 2,800yd. These were intended for mass volley fire when large bodies of men fired at large targets, such as an artillery battery at long range. The cleaning kit – a brass oil bottle and a pull-through – was carried in the butt.
In 1914, tensions in Europe were running high. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Archduchess Sophie in Sarajevo on 28 June caused international outrage and polarisation. A month later, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia and within days all of Europe followed suit. Britain went to war with Germany on 4 August.
The alliance with France required this country to deploy the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), consisting of about 80,000 men. This was a tiny army by European standards and may have led to Kaiser Wilhelm’s apoc-ryphal “contemptible little army”. Although surviving British soldiers dubbed themselves the “Old Contemptibles”, there is no evidence to suggest that the Kaiser ever used this term. If anything, it is likely to have emanated from British GHQ as a piece of propaganda.
The Germans invaded neutral Belgium to try to take Paris in a surprise manoeuvre. The BEF fell back in good order in front of the German advance until it reached Mons on 23 August, digging in on the Mons-Conde canal to protect the French flank. As the Germans advanced, they came under withering rifle fire. Some of them believed the volume of fire came from the mass deployment of machine guns rather than riflemen. Eventually, determined German attacks forced the British to withdraw. However, the casualties inflicted on the Germans at Mons and Le Cateau on the 26th allowed the BEF to disengage, joining the French for the Marne counter-offensive in September. The British lost about 1,700 men at Mons; the Germans about 5,000. Mons has acquired a semi-mythical status as epitomising British pluck in the face of overwhelming odds. At the time, the myth of the warrior Angels of Mons was widely repeated.
Thereafter, the tactical significance of dis-ciplined, long-range rifle fire declined as armies dug in. Artillery and machine guns predominated. Rifles were of little use in a trench battle in which opponents fought with grenades, revolvers, knives and even clubs. However some SMLEs were fitted with telescopic sights and proved to be effective in the battle against German snipers. Others, fitted with cups, were used with blank cartridges to launch Mills grenades. Some were fitted with devices to cut barbed wire. The actions of damaged SMLEs were used as firing units for Stokes trench mortars. In January 1916, a simplified version of the SMLE was introduced. This was the Mk III*, which did not have long-range sights or magazine cut-off. Several types of .22 SMLE were produced for training.
After the First World War, the SMLE was redesigned to have better sights, a shorter bay-onet and heavier barrel for accuracy. That rifle eventually became the Lee-Enfield No 4, which went into production in 1941. Ironically for a rifle known as the Lee-Enfield, the No 4 was not built at Enfield, production taking place in Liverpool, Birmingham, Yorkshire, the US and Canada. The No 4 was a wartime rifle that used components made in small factories without skilled labour. The rifles were assembled centrally using mainly female labour. The SMLE remained as Britain’s ser-vice rifle until sufficient No 4s were available.
The SMLE soldiered on in the hands of the Home Guard and with Commonwealth forces such as those of India and Australia. The last SMLEs were made in India in the Sixties.
The SMLE is an iconic rifle and is great fun to shoot – .303 ammunition is readily avail-able. If you want one you must apply for a Firearm Certificate and join a Home Office- approved rifle club. I own several variants of the SMLE, including one made in 1913. In this, the 100th anniversary year of the outbreak of the First World War, it has a special place in my collection. When I look at it I wonder whether it was at Mons. If there were warrior angels on that desperate battlefield, they would have worn khaki and carried SMLE rifles.