The Short, Magazine Lee Enfield (SMLE) was already being produced by the time World War I began. This faster-shooting bolt action rifle is one of the tools that helped the allies win that war with its reliability, fast action and precision. They were up on the front lines often, as they worked their way through both world wars, and plenty of other battles.
The SMLE No.1 Mk III was first introduced in 1907, and was actually a variant of an earlier Lee Enfield rifle. The manufacturers made periodic changes to them in an effort to produce them as fast as possible during the peak of WWI. The goal was to make the design simpler and have less parts so they could be built faster.
Also helping to keep up with the demand of war efforts, was the use of different factories – to include those in Britain, India and the Lithgow Small Arms Factory in Australia (which is where the pictured rifle was manufactured after the Great War ended, back in 1919).
It is a common misconception that the word “short” in its name refers to the size of the magazine itself. However, it was actually referring to the overall length of the rifle, which measured right around 44.5 inches long. The Lee Enfields of previous years were longer and insufficient for battle. Thus, they were shortened to be made more effective.
Overall, the SMLE was a better rifle than what the Germans had. The SMLE’s detachable 10 round box magazine held twice as many cartridges and even weighed almost a half pound less, both of which aided in how rapidly a British soldier could fire. What’s more, the 25.2 inch barrel with a five groove, 1:10 left handed twist, was more than enough to get the .303 caliber projectile up to 2440 fps.
After the Great War was over in 1918, there wasn’t as much of a need for many new SMLE rifles to be produced. However, the Lithgow plant had a surplus of parts left over from other years, so the factory stayed operational in a smaller capacity until the need for these rifles picked back up. To this day, this rifle is still being used in some parts of the world, making it one of the oldest service rifles still in use.
For the three decades leading up to World War I, firearms technology had improved significantly. We moved away from muzzle loaded weapons, and toward bolt action weapons. The result – which would ultimately help win WWI – was a bolt action, magazine fed rifle that shot a devastating .303 caliber projectile.
Over the course of the few decades leading up to the production of the Mk III, there were several different bullets that were tested before they settled on the 174 grain projectile that was used for the rest of the rifle’s career. Prior to that, bullet weight made it all the way up to 215 grains. However, an extremely corrosive powder that tarnished accuracy after a short period of time as it destroyed the barrel’s rifling, forced this cartridge into limited production.
Therefore, they stuck with the 174 grain projectile, which was called the MK VII. It was propelled to a very respectable velocity of 2440 feet per second. These ballistics are comparable to many modern day cartridges in use by today’s military. This deadly projectile, coupled with the fast action of the Lee Enfield SMLE, had the Germans thinking that they were under heavy machine gun fire on several occasions.
This heavy hitting rifle stayed in production until the mid 1950s, when its production would eventually cease. Along with it went the rifle cartridge, the .303 British. It was replaced by the 7.62 Nato as it became the standard military round from that point on.
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A few ammo manufacturers still make the .303 British, and a box of 20 rounds can be found for right around the $20 mark. That box of ammo, coupled with an inexpensive piece of war history, makes for a fine day at the range. A decent Mk III can be found for less than $500.
The Lee Enfield SMLE helped play a vital role in bringing the Great War to a close, as countless British troops depended upon its accurate reliability during a firefight. It was an all around better weapon than what the opposition had, and could even be accurately rapid fired, which helped win battle after battle. Finally, this iconic weapon is still in use today, albeit in a smaller capacity.
Sound off Gun Carriers! Do you own a Lee Enfield Rifle? Have you ever shot one before? I just shot one this past week, and had a great time doing it. If you have the chance, make sure you do because shooting history is always fun. Make sure you like our Facebook page, too.
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