The Evolution of the British Army’s Lee-Enfield rifle
The Lee-Enfield was the standard issue rifle for the British and Empire/Commonwealth forces during both World Wars, the Korean War and countless other conflicts. First adopted in 1895, replacing the older Lee-Metford (see #1). Chambered in .303 and holding an unmatched 10 rounds in a detachable magazine. The Lee action had one of the smoothest bolts of any infantry rifle of the 20th century.
The Magazine Lee-Metford using James Paris Lee’s bolt and magazine system and William Ellis Metford’s rifling was adopted in 1885 and was the last black powder rifle used by the British Army. It was replaced in 1895 by the smokeless powder firing Lee-Enfield (see #3) a re-working Lee-Metford - built at the Royal Small Arms Factory, Enfield. The Lee bolt was designed to cock on closing of the bolt rather than on opening, this made for a much smoother and faster action. In 1896 the new Lee-Enfield Carbine was introduced for the cavalry and mounted troops (see #2).
The first pattern Lee-Enfield was refined in 1904 when the shorted barrelled Short Magazine Lee-Enfield (see #4) was introduced. The SMLE had an optimal barrel length (removing the need for a long pattern rifle & carbine) of 25 inches. Further improvement were made in the MkIII (see #5). The SMLE was the weapon carried by most troops during the First World War, but with limited stocks many troops were also issued the older MkI. In 1915 it was found that an adequate number of rifles could not be made while maintaining the high standards of peacetime Edwardian craftsmanship and Enfield readied a simplified SMLE with more rudimentary stocks, without the useless magazine cutoff and long range volley sights - the SMLE MkIII* (see #6). These rifles were manufactured throughout the rest of the war and following the end of the war was redesignated the Rifle No.1 Mk III* in 1926. During the Inter-war Period the British Army once again sought to improve the Lee-Enfield, hoping to simplify construction and address issues found with the MkIII* during the First World War the SMLE MkV was designed and a limited run of 20,000 was made between 1923-5. These rifles replaced the earlier rear leaf sight with a new and improved flip up aperture sight just behind the charger bridge. While this improvement was favoured the rifle was even more complicated to produce than its predecessor and was not adopted. The MkV was followed by the MkVI which introduced a floating barrel to address zeroing issues, while the MkVI was not adopted either it would influence the design of the Rifle, No.4.
The late 1930s saw a need for new rifles and by 1939 the Rifle, No. 4 Mk I was becoming the standard issue rifle of the British Army. The No.4 (see #7) had the same action but was easier to manufacture in bulk, it abandoned the blunt nose of the SMLE and while heavier than the MkIII* it was stronger. Like it’s predecessor the No.4 was also simplified for manufacturing purposes, this model was designated the No.4 MkI*. Following the end of the Second World War the No. 4 Mk2 became the standard pattern rifle, seeing action in Malaya and Korea during the 1950s. It remained the British Army’s standard rifle until it was replaced by the L1A1 SLR (the FN-FAL) in 1954.
Toward the end of the Second World War a new carbine model was designed, the No.5 (see #8), it had a significantly shorter barrel intended for use by paratroops, in dense jungle or urban areas. It was 2lbs lighter than the No.4 making it popular with troops, however it was never fully adopted and was dropped by the late 1940s. Interestingly the Australian Army, influenced by the British No.5, designed a carbine based upon the SMLE MkIII* (which the Australian Army had continued to use instead of the No.4) called the No.6 MkI (see #8), this rifle was designed at the Small Arms Factory at Lithgow, in New South Wales but like the British No.5 it was never adopted.
Following the adoption of the Self Loading Rifle - the L1A1 in 1954 the British Army finally ceased to use the bolt action .303 Lee-Enfields which had served them so well for almost 60 years. However, an attempt to rebarrel some No.4s for storage as a reserve rifle were made these were designated as the L8, the attempt however proved unsuccessful and was abandoned as not being cost effective.
However, the Lee-Enfield lived on. With the lessons learned from the L8 project the RSAF at Enfield began to rechamber older No.4s in 1970 with the the new 7.62x51 NATO round. This continued the old wartime practice of taking accurate No.4 MkI service rifles and converting them into sniper rifles by lightening the stock, adding a raised cheek rest & scope and redesigning the magazine for the new round. These sniper rifles were designated the L42A1 (see #11) and saw action during the Rebellion in Oman, in Northern Ireland and finally during the Falklands War. The L42A1, the last Lee-Enfield in British service was retired in the late 1980s when it was replaced by the Accuracy International L96A1.
The Lee-Enfield remains a popular target and surplus rifle, renowned for its excellent accuracy and smooth bolt. They are still used by some countries, including India who designed the Rifle 7.62mm 2A during the 1960s and is still in limited use.
The rifles pictured above:
1) Magazine Lee-Metford MkII
2) Lee-Enfield Carbine
3) Magazine Lee-Enfield Rifle MkI
4) SMLE No1 MkI**
5) SMLE MkIII
6) SMLE MkIII*
7) Rifle, No. 4 Mk I
8) No.5 ‘Jungle Carbine’
9) Lithgow No.6 Trial ‘Jungle Carbine’ (not a term used by the British Army)
10) SMLE MkV (Rifle No.1 MkV) should be placed chronologically just after the SMLE MkIII* (rifle number 6.)
11) L42A1 Sniper Rifle
Image One Source
Image Two Source
Image Three Source
Image Four Source
Image Five Source