In the German Army the First Ypres became known as the “Massacre of the Innocents” due to the 25,000 student volunteers who fell to British musketry during the fighting. The amount of fire British units could produce was so heavy German General Alexander von Kluck reportedly believed his opponents were armed completely with machine guns. In fact, British battalions had only two apiece and were often short even that paltry number. Casualties were made worse by the close order troops often used when advancing early in the war.
By 1915 the days of mobile columns were over and the armies settled into trench systems that extended hundreds of miles. British casualties were heavy, which diluted the army’s overall skill level as quickly trained replacements took over for the now lost regulars. Still, a few skilled marksmen remained, appearing from their trenches to take snap-shots at the enemy before ducking back down. A Canadian, Private Henry Norwest, was famed for his quick-shooting skills. He was a Metis Indian who was noted for his ability to rise, aim, fire, and reload before aiming and firing again in less than two seconds. Over time he is known to have killed at least 115 enemy troops before a sniper felled him in August 1918. Such shooting became harder as more German snipers were equipped with telescopic sights for their weapons. The SMLE saw its own sniper version as well, known as the No. 1 W (T).
Conditions in the trenches were hard on rifles and the SMLE was no exception. Mud could clog the action or the barrel. As a countermeasure, soldiers would plug the barrel with a cork or place a sock over the muzzle. A canvas breech cover was produced that could be clipped over the bolt and receiver to protect it from dirt and the elements. Keeping a weapon clean was a true challenge in the filthy conditions of trench warfare; soldiers could be charged with an offense for having a rusty or dirty rifle so maintenance took an even larger part of an infantryman’s time. The Lee-Enfield was a quality weapon with close tolerances in manufacturing, so extra care had to be taken, but if care was given the rifle stayed in action. Rifles with worn-out barrels were used to launch rifle grenades.
The disadvantage of having such a well-made weapon came on the production end. Only 108,000 rifles were made annually before the war began, not enough to equip the British Empire’s forces once the war was underway. Great increases were made once the conflict started; for example, from August to December 1914 approximately 120,000 SMLEs left the production line. This still was not enough so older Lee-Metfords were used for training and other designs were adopted as substitute standard weapons, in particular the P-14 Enfield made in the United States and called the No.3 Mark I in British service. Rifles were even ordered from as far away as Japan. SMLE production continued to increase. In 1917 more than 1.2 million rifles left the factory and more than 1 million in 1918.
After the war the SMLE again became the standard for the army with the substitute designs being placed in storage. While development between the wars did occur in semi-automatic weapons and new cartridges, scarcity of funds and abundance of rifles and leftover ammunition meant the Lee-Enfield served on in the hands of Imperial troops around the world. The biggest advancement was in redesigning the rifle to simplify production in the event of another war. The barrel was made slightly heavier to improve accuracy, and the sights were reconfigured and the muzzle was changed so that the barrel protruded slightly and was fitted with a new spike bayonet instead of the long blade-type from the previous conflict.
The improved SMLE was designated the No. 4 Mark I. It was approved for service just as World War II began. Initially, many soldiers did not take to the new rifle, preferring their old No.1 Mark IIIs. Despite this, more than 4.2 million No.4s were made by the end of World War II. Only about 10 percent of them were made at Enfield while the rest were made at the various factories set up around the Empire to increase production. The Australians continued to make the older Mark at their Lithgow Arsenal, having never adopted the No. 4. The Ishapore Rifle Factory in India also turned out the No. 1. The newer Mark was made in Canada at the Long Branch Factory near Toronto and in the United States by the Savage Arms Company. The American-produced rifles were stamped “U.S. Property” to help justify their distribution through the Lend-Lease program. The SMLE had truly become a worldwide rifle.
Most of the combatants started World War II using rifles very similar to those they used to fight the previous conflict, and often they were the same designs. A few semiautomatic rifles made their appearance early in the fighting, such as the American M1 and Soviet SVT-40. As the war continued, other nations, such as Germany, put forth their own new designs, including the first true assault rifle, the STG- 44. Nevertheless, most of the war’s riflemen still carried bolt-action weapons and the SMLE still outshone them all. The days of volley fire and rows of men in trenches were gone, but the Lee- Enfield’s smooth action and 10-round magazine still allowed Commonwealth soldiers to put out effective fire.
The SMLE No. 4 was also used to create variants, including a sniper model, the No.4 (T). It was a respectable long-range shooter, with good accuracy well past 600 yards. More than 24,000 were made and the design survived in British service into the 1970s and beyond. Two soldiers of the Cambridge Regiment, named Arthur and Packham, used their sniper SMLEs while hunting for a German sniper who had shot a British officer. For three days they stalked their opponent with no luck. But near the end of the third day Arthur spotted a wisp of smoke rising from some cover. The enemy marksman was having a cigarette. While Arthur spotted, Packham slowly slipped his rifle through their camouflage net. He took careful aim but could not get a good shot at the German. Now they knew the sniper’s hiding place, so they returned before dawn the next day and got ready. Shortly after 6 AM a German appeared. Just his head and shoulders were silhouetted in an opening in the vegetation. It was enough. Packham fired and was rewarded with a view of the enemy sniper’s rifle flying into the air as he collapsed.
The other major variant was the No. 5 Mk. 1, popularly known as the Jungle Carbine. It had a shorter barrel with a flash hider and cut down stock. It was lighter and handier but its recoil was harsh, which made it unpopular with the troops. Most were issued to troops in the Far East though the British 6th Airborne used them in Europe at the war’s end.
After the war ended the British Army retired the remaining No. 1s and retained the No.4 as its primary rifle. While the service experimented with a replacement, its soldiers took the SMLE into action again in Korea. In April 1951 the Gloucestershire Regiment’s 1st Battalion had to defend Hill 235 against several days of determined attacks by Chinese troops. Their Vickers machine guns ripped apart the enemy formations while the riflemen fired their SMLEs until the rifles were too hot to hold any longer. When that happened they picked up cool weapons from the dead and wounded. Sometimes a single bullet would fell two of three Chinese, so tightly packed together were the attacking regiments. The British eventually had to withdraw but they left behind some 10,000 enemy casualties.
Outside of England, at least 46 nations adopted the SMLE in its various guises, according to one estimate. India and Pakistan continue to use thousands of SMLEs, though they are no longer frontline weapons. Some Afghan fighters prefer the Lee-Enfield for its superior range compared to the AK-47. They still show up across the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. Even the Canadians still give them to rural northern militiamen known as the Canadian Rangers.
The British Empire created a rifle that has endured for more than a century. It is said the sun never set on the British Empire. Unlike the days of empire, the sun still has not set on the life of the SMLE for soldiers still carry it into combat in Asia and Africa. It shows no sign of disappearing anytime soon.
This article by Lee Miskimon originally appeared on Warfare History Network.