The Lee-Enfield Bolt-action, magazine fed rifle was the main firearm used by the British Empire and later commonwealth during the first half of the 20th century. In particular it was the British army’s main rifle between 1895 and 1960.
The Lee-Enfield or.303 was the standard weapon issued to rifle companies of Great Britain’s armed forces during both World Wars. Although replaced with the L1A1 SLR in the late fifties, the rifle remained in British service up until the mid-sixties. As a standard infantry rifle, it is still found in service with military and police forces throughout the world, which incidentally makes it the longest serving bolt-action rifle in use.
The Lee-Enfield takes its name from two sources. Firstly, James Paris Lee who was the designer of the Bolt incorporated into the rifle; and secondly the Royal Small Arms Factory in Enfield where the rifle was produced.
The Iconic Lee-Enfield of the First World War was first introduced in 1907 as SMLE MK III (which stood for Short, Magazine, Lee, Enfield) with a Pattern 1907 Bayonet and included a simple rear sight and a fixed charger guide.
During the Great War, the standard MK III was too complex to quickly manufacture as demand was outstripping supply, thus in 1915 the MK III* was introduced. The slight redesign incorporated a number of changes which included the deletion of a magazine cut-off and the cocking piece was changed from a round knob to a serrated slab. The inability to meet demand led the production of the rifle to be peddled out to several munitions companies.
The term “Mad Minute” was a pre-World War One term used by the British Army during training to describe firing fifteen aimed bullets into a target at three hundred yards within one minute, generally using a Lee-Enfield. In particular it was not uncommon during the First World War for British Empire servicemen to beat this record! On average a rifleman could fire twenty-five shots, and some could even make it to forty shots.
In total, over sixteen million Lee-Enfield’s had been produced on several continents by the time production ceased in 1956. During the First World War 3.8 million SMLE rifles were produced and saw service from France too Mesopotamia.
In today’s world, this world renowned rifle is still in use. Although out-dated by technology, the rifle is still us by reserve forces and police including Canada and India. Since the Mumbai train bombings of 2006, Indian police forces have carried Lee-Enfield’s and Isaphore 2A1 rifles (a derivative of the Lee-Enfield) throughout railway stations. In particular footage from the Soviet war in Afghanistan during the eighties show Afghan fighters armed with Lee-Enfield’s. Lee-Enfield rifles are still produced in the tribal bad lands of Afghanistan and Pakistan to this date. The main reason being bolt-action rifles remain effective weapons in desert and mountain environments where accuracy outweighs rate of fire.