Longevity of the Lee-en­field ri­fle

The Short, Mag­a­zine Lee-en­field was quintessen­tially Bri­tish, pop­u­lar with troops and an em­blem of wartime vic­tory – but does it merit such iconic sta­tus?

The Field - - Contents - writ­ten by jonathan fer­gu­son

An em­blem of wartime suc­cess. By Jonathan Fer­gu­son

There is a ten­dency in the study of mil­i­tary his­tory for cer­tain pieces of tech­nol­ogy to be­come semi-leg­endary. The Spit­fire is the clas­sic ex­am­ple; strik­ing in ap­pear­ance, pow­er­ful, ca­pa­ble and – most im­por­tantly, per­haps – there when it was needed. The near­est equiv­a­lent in small-arms terms is the Short, Mag­a­zine Lee-en­field (SMLE), sup­pos­edly nick­named “Smelly” by the sol­diers who used it (although ev­i­dence for this is lack­ing). The stan­dard is­sue ri­fle of the First World War pe­riod, it was an im­proved vari­ant of the old Mag­a­zine Lee-met­ford and Lee-en­field ri­fles (MLM and MLE), in­tro­duced in 1888 and 1895 re­spec­tively. Early ac­tions against the Boer fighters in the South African War (18991902) had led to com­plaints against both Bri­tish stan­dards of marks­man­ship train­ing and the Lee ri­fle, which for many seemed to pale in com­par­i­son with the Mauser ri­fles in Boer hands. Their skilled marks­man­ship led some to con­clude that Bri­tish sol­diers must have a more ac­cu­rate ri­fle, but the ex­pe­ri­ence of the Bri­tish In­dian Army, then in com­bat on the North West Fron­tier, showed that new tac­tics were the key, along with a ri­fle tuned to com­ple­ment them. At this time, de­spite the use of re­peat­ing mag­a­zine ri­fles and even ma­chine guns, it was still stan­dard prac­tice to line up in close for­ma­tion in the open and fire si­mul­ta­ne­ously, act­ing upon spe­cific fire or­ders. This could be dis­as­trous when fac­ing an en­emy that chose not to fight in this or­dered fash­ion. The new In­dian Army ap­proach per­mit­ted sol­diers to fire in­de­pen­dently and as rapidly as nec­es­sary as tar­gets be­came avail­able. Bet­ter use was to be made of cover and open or­der.

To suit these tac­ti­cal changes it was de­cided that any new ri­fle had to be “hand­ier”, eas­ier to ma­noeu­vre around cover and through build­ings, and less fa­tigu­ing to march with but not so short and in­ac­cu­rate as the tra­di­tional cavalry or ar­tillery car­bine. Thanks to more ef­fi­cient pro­pel­lants, it was pos­si­ble to re­design the En­field as a “short ri­fle”, hence the “Short” in “Ri­fle, Short, Mag­a­zine Lee-en­field”. At 44in long and 8lb 2½oz un­loaded, the SMLE was 5½in shorter and 1lb 1¼oz lighter than the cum­ber­some “Long” Lee. Much of the de­sign re­mained in­tact; in fact, early ex­am­ples were con­verted from the older weapons. Im­por­tantly, though, a sys­tem of charger (clip) load­ing was retro­fit­ted, al­low­ing rapid load­ing of five rounds, just like the Mauser. Front and rear sights were also brought closer to­gether, al­low­ing the shooter to align them quickly for a “snap” shot, and they be­came quicker to ad­just. In the­ory, the shorter sight “base” sac­ri­ficed long-range ac­cu­racy, yet pre­ci­sion shoot­ers would later re­port re­sults as good as or even bet­ter than the de­lib­er­ately ac­curised No 4 that re­placed the SMLE from 1941 on­wards. Fi­nally, a new, eas­ily op­er­ated safety catch was fit­ted in a con­ve­nient lo­ca­tion for the fir­ing hand thumb. This win­ning,

com­bat-ori­en­tated con­cept was, by wartime ne­ces­sity, fur­ther re­fined in the Mark III* ver­sion of the SMLE. This did away with an­ti­quated aux­il­iary “dial” sights for massed ri­fle fire at ex­treme range, the windage (lat­er­ally) ad­justable rear sight, and made sev­eral small tweaks to speed up pro­duc­tion. Dur­ing its pro­duc­tion run, the mag­a­zine cut-off plate, in­tended to keep the mag­a­zine in re­serve, was with­drawn (although many Mk III*S have it). This Vic­to­rian fea­ture re­flected strict vol­ley-fire or­ders out of use by 1914 and added need­less com­plex­ity. Top­ping off the new ri­fle was the Pat­tern 1907 bay­o­net, its long blade (com­pen­sat­ing for the ab­bre­vi­ated ri­fle) fash­ioned af­ter the Ja­panese Arisaka.

De­spite its leg­endary sta­tus to­day, the SMLE was not uni­ver­sally loved, re­quir­ing mul­ti­ple fixes and im­prove­ments be­yond those em­bod­ied by the Mk I SMLE in 1902. The most im­por­tant of these were a solid charger guide in­stead of a slid­ing two-part af­fair and the in­tro­duc­tion of the Mk VII .303 car­tridge with its higher ve­loc­ity and greater wound­ing ef­fect from the in­her­ently un­sta­ble pointed bul­let that tended to tum­ble in­side the body. The rimmed car­tridge re­mained a po­ten­tial weak point, re­quir­ing care­ful en­gi­neer­ing of the mag­a­zine and spe­cific load­ing drills to pre­vent a “rim over rim” jam. Even the de­fin­i­tive Mk III of 1907 was seen as no more than ad­e­quate, al­beit a ma­jor im­prove­ment over the dis­ap­point­ing MLM and MLE, about which Ma­jor Wil­liam An­struther-thom­son had re­marked in 1900: “The Lee-en­field ap­pears to be about the worst ri­fle in the hands of the troops of the great pow­ers.” The SMLE was re­garded as a stop-gap and there was ev­ery in­tent to re­place it with a wholly new de­sign, the Pat­tern 1913. This En­field de­sign com­bined the best fea­tures of the SMLE and Mauser with a new, high-ve­loc­ity .276 car­tridge. It was only due to tech­ni­cal is­sues and the loom­ing of war that this did not hap­pen. This de­sign did be­come bat­tle-tested in the hands of the Amer­i­can Ex­pe­di­tionary Force as the Model of 1917, out­num­ber­ing their own Spring­field M1903. Recham­bered in the more pow­er­ful and more eas­ily fed rim­less .30-06 car­tridge, it is re­garded by many as the best ri­fle of the war.

It was in the decades fol­low­ing the Armistice that the myth of the “Smelly” and the En­field in gen­eral grew apace. Ex­pe­ri­ences were cher­ryp­icked and mi­nor ad­van­tages in de­sign over-em­pha­sised. It be­came re­ceived wis­dom that the Ger­mans, en masse, were con­vinced that Bri­tish in­fantry­men car­ried ma­chine guns, such was the ra­pid­ity of

In the decades fol­low­ing the Armistice the myth of the Smelly grew

their ri­fles and the qual­ity of their train­ing. This is based on two re­ports from en­emy of­fi­cers, who praised the fast and ef­fec­tive Bri­tish ri­fle fire that their units had re­ceived. One of these men, taken at the Bat­tle of Mons, is quoted as say­ing, “Our men have come to be­lieve that ev­ery one of you car­ries a por­ta­ble Maxim with him.” The other known re­port, made in di­vi­sional or­ders of 27 Jan­uary 1915, refers to “of­fi­cers”. This source makes clear that the con­text of the praise was that of cap­tured en­emy of­fi­cers metaphor­i­cally com­par­ing Bri­tish ri­fle fire to ma­chine-gun fire. They may or may not have been un­der the im­pres­sion that they faced ma­chine guns – and they may well also have been un­der ma­chine-gun fire at the time. The dates here are also key.

The su­perla­tively trained Bri­tish Ex­pe­di­tionary Force of 1914, fight­ing to erase the em­bar­rass­ment of the prior con­flict, may well have been the best drilled in­fantry­men in the world. Very sadly, this force was all but ex­pended in the brave act of halt­ing the Ger­man ad­vance. This was no small feat but it per­haps does a dis­ser­vice to the men in­volved to af­ford too much credit to their ri­fles, no mat­ter the edge they may have pro­vided. In the­ory, the weapon might also have been a boon to men fight­ing within trenches but it is note­wor­thy that trench raiders on both sides tended to favour pis­tols, bombs and hand-held melee weapons over a ri­fle, no mat­ter how short and light. The SMLE myth even seems to have cre­ated its own leg­endary char­ac­ter, that of Sergeant Snox­all, who sup­pos­edly broke all mus­ketry records with a fir­ing rate of 38 rounds per minute. As far as any­one can de­ter­mine, there never was a Sgt Snox­all, although a Sgt Ma­jor Walling­ford (dubbed “the hu­man ma­chine-gun” in the press) did achieve a score only one round per minute slower, which is no less im­pres­sive. How­ever, such feats of marks­man­ship on the range say lit­tle about the ri­fle’s ac­tual com­bat ef­fec­tive­ness.

There is no doubt that the ri­fle’s ac­tion lends it­self to rapid fire more so than the Ger­man Mauser and cer­tainly the French Lebel, with its short, stubby bolt han­dle and stiff ac­tion. Yet the ac­tual edge af­forded in bat­tle is dif­fi­cult to quan­tify and frankly du­bi­ous. In many re­spects, one in­fantry ri­fle is as ca­pa­ble as the next, and front­line op­pos­ing forces typ­i­cally main­tain tech­no­log­i­cal par­ity, with a few his­tor­i­cal ex­cep­tions. The com­bat per­for­mance of the SMLE in 1914 has much more to do with the train­ing of the BEF than any in­her­ent tech­ni­cal ad­van­tage.

Though re­mem­bered fondly by many Tom­mies, the SMLE was side­lined on the West­ern Front of the Sec­ond World War when the fur­ther im­proved Ri­fle, No 4 en­tered full-rate pro­duc­tion in 1941. All told, the No 4 was the bet­ter weapon, reengi­neered for mod­ern mass-pro­duc­tion tech­niques and with a stiffer, semi-freefloated bar­rel. This new ri­fle is to­day of­ten con­fused with the true SMLE, but may eas­ily be told apart due to its long sight base and pro­trud­ing muz­zle as op­posed to the SMLE’S dis­tinc­tive all-in-one nose­cap. De­spite this ob­so­les­cence and an ag­ing “fleet” of ri­fles in Bri­tish ar­se­nals, the SMLE (re­named Ri­fle, No 1 in 1926) sol­diered on in the Mid­dle Eastern and Far East the­atres. Pro­duc­tion ceased at the orig­i­nal En­field fac­tory and at the Lon­don Small Arms com­pany by 1919, there be­ing a sur­plus at that time. How­ever, it re­mained in sub­stan­tial pro­duc­tion at the Birm­ing­ham Small Arms com­pany fac­tory un­til 1944, and at the Aus­tralian Lith­gow and In­dian Isha­pore fac­to­ries un­til 1945. As many as 6.71 mil­lion ri­fles of SMLE pat­tern were pro­duced world­wide from 1902 on­wards. Post-war, the type re­mained in the hands of var­i­ous Colo­nial, Ter­ri­to­rial and Cadet forces around the world, and in 1963 was adopted as the lo­cally made Isha­pore 2A/2A1 by the In­dian Army. De­spite be­ing newly made and cham­bered in the mod­ern 7.62mm NATO car­tridge, this was an SMLE by any other name and was from the out­set a re­serve­class weapon (the pri­mary arm be­ing the 1A1 Self Load­ing Ri­fle, an FN FAL vari­ant). In the In­dian po­lice ser­vice, orig­i­nal Mk III and Mk III* .303 vari­ants (in pro­duc­tion un­til the mid-1980s) re­main in ser­vice with some units to this day. When Bri­tish forces en­tered Afghanistan in 2001, they were oc­ca­sion­ally met with SMLE fire. For a fun­da­men­tally Vic­to­rian de­sign, this longevity is remarkable. Whereas vari­ants of the ri­val Mauser 98 may be more nu­mer­ous, in­flu­en­tial and even, con­tro­ver­sially, just plain bet­ter, this track record speaks of the ca­pa­bil­ity, re­li­a­bil­ity and char­ac­ter of the weapon. Its sta­tus as dis­tinc­tively Bri­tish de­sign, on pa­per, the plucky un­der­dog to the more so­phis­ti­cated Mauser, may even re­in­force its mytho­log­i­cal sta­tus – if not the Spit­fire of ri­fles, then per­haps the Hur­ri­cane? Along­side other mil­i­tary sur­plus ri­fles, it is still to be found on civil­ian ranges to­day, used for both in­for­mal and com­pet­i­tive tar­get shoot­ing. It may not have “won” the First World War but it played a sig­nif­i­cant part. Like the Kalash­nikov that even­tu­ally re­placed it in Afghan hands, it is the ar­che­typal “good enough” de­sign, con­ceived for com­bat rather than sport. At this point, the Short, Mag­a­zine Lee-en­field is as much a cul­tural sym­bol as it is a weapon, quintessen­tially Bri­tish and redo­lent of vic­tory against the odds in two world wars and the last days of Em­pire.

Our men have come to be­lieve that ev­ery one of you car­ries a por­ta­ble Maxim

Orig­i­nal de­signs for Ri­fle No 1 Mk III; while seen as no more than ad­e­quate, it was a ma­jor im­prove­ment over the dis­ap­point­ing MLM and MLE models

Bri­tish troops stack­ing sal­vaged Lee-en­fields at Aveluy, France, in Septem­ber 1916 af­ter the Bat­tle of the Somme; they would be stripped, cleaned and reis­sued

The orig­i­nal Sealed Pat­tern ex­am­ple of the SMLE Mk III* ri­fle at the Royal Ar­mouries Mu­seum

The Pat­tern 1907 bay­o­net with its long, sword-like blade was de­signed specif­i­cally for the MK III SMLE

The Mk III ac­tion show­ing fixed charger bridge and mag­a­zine cut-off plate in its closed (sin­gle shot) po­si­tion

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