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?
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