Key point: The British created a rifle that has endured for over a century and looks likely to continue to do so.
A small party of about 40 German soldiers had infiltrated the Australian lines around the besieged town of Tobruk, Libya, during the night of April 13, 1941. They began setting up a half dozen machine guns, several mortars, and even a pair of small infantry guns laboriously dragged through the desert sands. It was a foothold the Germans could use to expand into the perimeter and capture the town. They began firing at the nearest Australian unit, B Company of the 2-17 Infantry Battalion. The Aussies replied with rifles and machine guns, but it was tough going. A party consisting of Lieutenant Austin Mackell and five privates, along with Corporal John Hurst Edmondson, decided to mount a counterattack to drive the Germans back.
The men clutched their bayoneted Lee-Enfield Rifles tightly and moved into the darkness, attacking the enemy fiercely despite the machinegun fire thrown at them. Edmondson was hit twice but continued on, killing one enemy with his bayonet. Nearby, Mackell fought as well, but soon he was in dire need of help. His bayonet broke and the stock of his Lee-Enfield was shattered while fighting the Germans, at least three of whom were now attacking the young officer. Edmondson waded into the fray without hesitation, shooting or bayoneting all of them with his rifle. During the action he was mortally wounded. His comrades, saved by his actions, carried him back to their own lines, where he died four hours later. The Germans were defeated and the line was restored. Edmondson’s feat of bravery was the talk of Tobruk afterward and he would be the first Australian to be awarded the Victoria Cross in World War II.
The Lee-Enfield rifle is one of the most widely used bolt-action military rifles in the world, surpassed only by the Model 1898 Mauser and its derivatives in sheer numbers. Entering service at the dawn of the 20th century, it is still seeing active use well into the present century. It is the iconic rifle of the British Empire and it is still seen everywhere the Empire went, from Europe to remote regions in Africa and Asia. Soldiers in Afghanistan today are still being fired upon with the same Lee- Enfields British troops carried over the top in World War I.
The Lee-Enfield had its origins in the late 19th century, when repeating rifles firing full-powered cartridges were coming to the fore. Its direct predecessor was the Lee-Metford, a similar bolt-action design that brought the British military a state-of-the-art weapon comparable to the latest Mausers. The rifle used a magazine and bolt system developed by American inventor James Lee. Approximately 13,000 were built in 1889 and distributed to the army for field testing. A gradual series of product improvements led to an upgraded model being standardized in 1892, but the rifle still suffered from a few weaknesses such as barrel wear and
poor sights. After testing, further refinements were made to the weapon, resulting in the Lee-Enfield Mark I in 1895. The name combined James Lee’s design with the Royal Small Arms Factory’s location at Enfield Lock, Middlesex. Thus the name of the famous rifle was established, even though further refinement continued over the following decade.
The standardization of the Lee-Enfield into its most long-serving form took a number of years and is a reflection of the state of rifle development in the early 20th century. At the time there was considerable discussion about the use of rifles versus carbines, the rifle being a full-length weapon with a barrel length of 30 inches or more for use by infantry. Carbines were intended for cavalry use and had shorter barrels for more convenient use on horseback, with lengths of 16 inches to 22 inches being common. Full-length rifles had the advantage of greater accuracy at long ranges. Most designs of the period had sights graduated for distances of 2,000 yards or more, but some critics felt that was too far for any sort of accurate fire and recommended a shorter rifle, which would save production material and lighten the soldier’s burden. Opponents of this view felt the rifle could be effective at long distances using volley fire and loathed any decrease in accuracy.
Eventually the argument for a shorter rifle prevailed, particularly as even a shorter rifle’s barrel was still capable of greater accuracy than the average conscript could achieve. In this era many armies were slowly transitioning to large forces of conscripts who would transition into the reserves for long periods after a few years of active service. Although Great Britain’s army was still a relatively small professional force optimized for securing a far-flung empire, it still took the new lessons to heart and set about perfecting its rifle design.
The result was the Short Magazine Lee- Enfield No. 1 Mk. III, standardized in 1907 and often abbreviated as the SMLE. The soldiers who carried it soon modified this acronym into the nickname “Smelly,” which bore no relation to their opinion of the weapon. As adopted, the rifle weighed just under 8 3⁄4 pounds with a barrel length of 25.2 inches. It had a detachable magazine that held 10 cartridges of .303-caliber ammunition, though in practice the magazine was most often reloaded using stripper clips rather than swapped out for a new one. A magazine cut-off device could be used to block the firer from loading fresh rounds from the magazine. This was thought to allow a more controlled rate of fire by making the shooter load a single cartridge at a time. The contents of the magazine could then be saved for heavy combat requiring a higher rate of fire or when ordered by a superior.
The Lee-Enfield’s sights were graduated to more than 1,000 yards. Originally, an unusual long-range sight was also added to the left side of the rifle’s stock for use in extended-distance volley firing. During World War I this volley sight, along with the magazine cut-off, would be deleted to simplify production. The bolt action was simple; in practice the user would chamber a fresh round by rotating the bolt handle upward and then drawing the bolt backward. This would eject a fired cartridge case. Pushing the bolt forward strips a new cartridge out of the magazine and pushes it into the chamber. Pushing the bolt handle down locks the bolt into place so the rifle can be fired. Critics state that the bolt design of the Lee-Enfield is weaker than the German Mauser’s. Although there is some truth in the assertion, it only comes into play with extremely high-powered cartridges such as those used to hunt large game. In practice, using standard military ammunition, the SMLE’s bolt is strong enough to handle the load.
Upon entering service, the Lee-Enfield went through a round of criticism, not unusual for a new weapon in any age. Shooting was a serious sport in England at the time and pundits criticized the Lee-Enfield for problems with accuracy, recoil, and weight. As expected, some took issue with the shorter barrel, claiming it was responsible for the accuracy issues. Most of the complaints came from expert riflemen, armorers, and similar experts. The average soldier seemed to have few such qualms, however, and the weapon soon gained an increasingly good reputation among them. For service use, it was robust, reliable, and effective. Its bolt action was quick and smooth, allowing a soldier to make fast followup shots. Its 10-shot magazine had twice the capacity of its contemporaries, enabling small units to lay down an impressive rate of fire and keep it up longer.
The first major test for the design came with World War I in August 1914. The British Army was small at the time, about 247,000 strong and fully half that number went to France as part of the British Expeditionary Force. Shooting skills had been emphasized after marksmanship problems were noted during the Boer War over a decade earlier, so the average English soldier was highly skilled with a rifle. It was not unusual for a soldier to achieve 25 aimed shots or more per minute. This came in handy during the first months of the war, when armies on the Western Front still maneuvered into battle, before the stalemate of the trenches trapped men below ground for four long years.
Private Frank Richards of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers used the Lee-Enfield in the First Battle of Ypres in the autumn of 1914. His unit was advancing by platoons across open fields when they took rifle fire from a wooded area 600 yards ahead. The platoon went into a prone firing position and opened fire with their Lee- Enfields. Soon a group of Germans began advancing toward the British, who poured fire into them. Richards recalled “We had our rifles resting on the bank … and it was impossible to miss at that distance. We had downed half a dozen men before they realized what was happening; then they commenced to jump back into the trench … but we bowled them over like rabbits…. We had expended our magazines, which held ten rounds—there wasn’t a live enemy to be seen and the whole affair had lasted half a minute.”