The .303 RifleCharlie Haley
~In a previous issue (V5.No.4: The .303 British) we looked at the fascinating history behind the development of the .303 cartridge, and now it is time to take a look at the equally fascinating array of rifles which were made to fire it.~
These rifles were the mainstay of the British Army during some of the most turbulent times in history, and were not found wanting. Some rifles were stronger, or technically more advanced, but only the Mauser came anywhere near achieving the sterling service that the 303 rifle in its various guises delivered.
First on the scene was the Lee-Metford. Developed during 1887 and officially adopted in 1888, it was so called because it utilised the turnbolt action and magazine developed by one James Paris Lee, and had Metford style rifling in the barrel.
This rifling was of shallow, segmental form, and was made like this to cope with the black powder fouling of early ammunition. It had a long, 30 inch barrel, weighed 9 1/2 pounds, and was fed by means of an 8-round single column magazine. The action was characterised by its split bridge receiver, single rear locking lug with additional locking provided by the bolt bearing on the receiver wall, a separate non-rotating bolt head and cock-on-closing bolt throw. The Mark 2 Lee-Metford changed the eight round, single stack magazine to the more familiar ten round staggered magazine in 1892, and a dinky little saddle carbine appeared in 1894. The magazine of the Lee-Enfield is detachable, but this is purely to facilitate cleaning or replacement if damaged. The magazines are supposed to remain permanently affixed during use, being reloaded or topped up from the top when necessary. At about this time a large number of .577/.450 Martini-Henry rifles were converted to .303 calibre to extend their useful service life, and served side by side with the bolt actioned Lee - particularly in the more remote corners of the globe.
When the propellant charge of the .303 was changed from black powder to cordite, all was suddenly not well with the Lee-Metford. Cordite is a very hot burning propellant and is quite erosive to barrel steel, and the shallow Metford rifling was being washed out and eroded after comparatively few rounds had been fired. To get around this, the rifling form was changed to the Enfield style, having five conventional lands and grooves with a left hand twist. The rifle was subsequently re-named the Lee-Enfield, one of the most famous names in firearms history. The outward appearance of the Lee-Enfield was identical to that of the Metford though, and many Lee-Metfords were converted to Enfields by the simple expedient of re-barrelling them. An “E” stamped on the knox-form of the barrel denotes Enfield rifling.
Long Lee-Enfield No.1 Mk.1.
This was the rifle of the British infantryman at the time of the Boer War, when the hapless Tommy Atkins was receiving a sound drubbing at the hands of the Mauser-armed Boers. This was the first time that British infantry had faced well-aimed, withering fire from repeating clip fed rifles, and they didn’t like it a bit. They actually developed a fairly profound inferiority complex, for although faulty tactics and strategy were largely to blame for the reverses suffered by the British, it became evident that the Boers could shoot better than they could. Although the British Army had indeed given scanty attention to individual marksmanship, it didn’t help that a lot of the new Lee-Enfields were found to shoot considerably off the mark at moderate to long range. As there was no way of correcting the zero in the field, large quantities of the new rifle had to be shipped back to England to be fitted with appropriately corrected sights. Another drawback was that the Boer Mausers were clip fed and could be reloaded far faster than the Lee, which had to be loaded one at a time.
As the war concluded, lessons learned from it were already being incorporated into a hopefully improved rifle, which was unveiled in 1903 as the “Rifle, Short, Magazine, Lee-Enfield Mark 1”, the famous S.M.L.E. It took me quite some time to realise that, with the somewhat awkward, back-to-front nomenclature of British ordnance, the word “short” designation referred to the rifle, not the magazine! Whereas the magazine had the same dimensions as before, the rifle was indeed shorter than its predecessor. The idea was that the S.M.L.E. would be in between rifle and carbine length, and thus serve both functions. Barrel length was now 25 inches, and the robust, bulldoggy nose cap/sight protector was introduced. Finally refined as the S.M.L.E. No.1 Mark 3 in 1907, it was lighter and handier than the long Lee-Enfield, was sighted for the new Mark 7 .303 ammunition, had the desired clip feed facility (or “charger loading”, as the British termed it) and possessed an excellent set of open sights, which could now be readily zeroed. Everyone should now be happy, right?
S.M.L.E. No.1 Mk.3.
Wrong. The new S.M.L.E. was roundly condemned, especially by those long on theory but short on practical experience. It was too short for the infantry. It was too long for the cavalry. It was an abomination, and should be replaced forthwith if not fifthwith, preferably by a Mauser type rifle. Such was the opinion of the time. The Mauser was the darling of the rifle world at the time, and a considerable faction within the British Army wanted it adopted. This now leads us to the strange saga of the Rifle-Which-Nearly-Was-But-Wasn’t and Nearly-Wasn’t-But-Was, generally known as the P-14.
The reasoning behind my somewhat excruciating hyphenated conundrum will become clear once we examine the history behind that odd rifle, the P-14. No sooner was the hapless No.1 Mark 3 adopted than there were plans afoot to replace it. Experimentation led to the adoption on a trial basis of the P-13 in 1913, and this was a different rifle indeed (although, confusingly, it is generally referred to as the “Enfield” rifle). It was far more Mauser like, having double front locking lugs on the bolt and the Mauser non-rotating claw extractor. It also had the Mauser integral five round staggered magazine. A very good peep sight was fitted, which was ahead of its time, but protected by rather cumbersome “ears” machined into the receiver bridge. The calibre was also different, being a .276" (7mm) rimless round similar to the .280 Ross. Although it had its points, the whole rifle strikes me as being a Bisley target shooter’s idea of what an infantry rifle should be. Nonetheless, British Ordnance were impressed with it (who cares what a bunch of dumb old troops think, anyhow??), and testing proceeded with a view to adopting it.
Unfortunately, these tests were beset with problems. Great difficulty was experienced, not so much with the rifle but with the ammunition. The new 7mm round produced excessive blast and flash, overheated the barrel and quickly eroded and fouled the bore. Much head scratching was done, but before any solutions could be obtained World War 1 intervened. It was wisely decided to shelve all development work on this troublesome new ammunition and to stick with the .303 round, for the time being at least. As such, a few minor modifications were made to change the new rifle to .303 calibre, and it now became the Pattern 1914 (or P-14) rifle.
Much to everyone’s surprise, the S.M.L.E. turned out to be an excellent combat rifle. The British troops, now superbly trained in musketry (particularly accurate rapid fire), were handing out a thorough drubbing to the German infantry. On occasion, the Germans believed themselves to be under machine gun fire, such was the accuracy and rapidity of the rifle fire directed at them. The British rifleman of 1914 was capable of thirty aimed shots a minute -INCLUDING reloading - which most of us would be hard pressed to duplicate today, even with a self loader. The lessons of the Boer war had been well learned, and the rapid firing, handier, charger loading and supremely reliable Lee was undoubtedly the best infantry rifle of the war.
The trouble was, there weren’t enough of them. It soon became evident that the First World War would not be “over by Christmas”, that a long conflict seemed likely and great expansion of the armed forces would be necessary. The Lee, good as it was, had one major drawback - it was time consuming to produce. The P-14, however, was designed with rapid mass production in mind. No manufacturer in the United Kingdom had the spare machinery and necessary facilities to take up mass production of it - all being fully occupied with other war work - so a decision was made to have the P-14 manufactured in the United States for the British Army as a substitute rifle to augment the inadequate supplies of the Lee. The Americans certainly had the necessary experience and technical capabilities, and manufacture of the P-14 commenced in the U.S.A. in the year 1915. They were made by the two rifle making giants, Winchester and Remington.
As it turned out, there was never any question of the P-14 replacing the Lee-Enfield. Far from it. The superiority of the Lee was now firmly entrenched, and the Bisley-like refinements of the P-14 left the British soldiery profoundly under-whelmed. They were primarily used for training and general rear echelon work, although some P-14’s saw considerable front line work as sniper rifles. Here their enhanced accuracy potential could be effectively utilised, and the P-14 was highly regarded in this role.
Ironically enough, when the Americans entered the war in 1917 they, too, faced a critical shortage of U.S. Army Springfield rifles. The Springfield was similarly difficult to mass produce, but guess what? There was all this machinery and tooling already set up to produce P-14’s for the British, the contracts for which were now fulfilled. It was but the work of a moment to do the few design changes necessary for it to be changed from the British .303 to the American .30-06 calibre, and hey presto - the Americans now adopted the self same rifle in .30-06 calibre as the P-17 to offset the shortage of Springfields. Again, the P-17 was never intended to replace the Springfield, but it turned out that there were more P-17’s used by front line American troops than there were Springfields. Thus it was that a rifle which looked set to replace the Lee, which was then abandoned in the light of combat experience, came to at least partially equip two of the major armies of the conflict.
A brief notation has to be made of yet another rifle in .303 calibre which was used during the First World War, and that was the Canadian Ross. Designed by a gentleman of the same name, the Ross rifle was one of the most controversial rifles of the war. Of straight pull design, the Ross shone in target rifle competition but was an unqualified disaster as a military rifle. Far from being rapid to operate, the straight pull Ross (in which the bolt is operated by pulling it directly back and forth instead if the conventional bolt’s up-back-forwards-down) was found to be more fatiguing and slower to operate. Furthermore it lacked the primary extraction camming power of the conventional bolt, and stuck cases were thus hard to dislodge. It was also quite unsuited to the mud and filth of trench warfare, let alone the stresses and heat of rapid fire. Harrowing contemporary accounts spoke of Canadian infantrymen (who were stuck with the thing) desperately hammering at jammed bolts with muddy boots, entrenching tools or whatever came to hand in the face of relentless German advances - and dying because of it.
The Canadian troops abandoned the Ross en masse and aquired Lee-Enfields instead wherever possible. The Ross provoked somewhat of a crisis back in Canada, and was eventually officially discarded. The excellent and well proven Lee-Enfield was adopted in its stead. I have handled both, and can attest to the deficiencies of the Ross. Not only is it long, heavy, ill-balanced and awkward to handle, but the straight pull bolt is nowhere near as rapid to operate as the Lee’s. Furthermore, it is possible to incorrectly assemble the bolt of the Ross so that it does not lock when pushed forwards. If fired in such a state, the bolt will fly out of the receiver, and indeed there are accounts of deaths and horrific injuries sustained when the bolt of a Ross blew out when fired. It may have been a superlative target rifle and a sporter ahead of its time (along with the .280 Ross cartridge, which was a 7mm magnum of advanced design), but a military rifle it was not.
At the end of the First World War, everyone was thus extremely pleased with the S.M.L.E., which had evolved into the No.1 Mark 3*. The star merely denoted a number of simplifications to the rifle to allow for greater ease and rapidity of manufacture. These simplifications primarily included the omission of volley sights, magazine cut-off and windage wheel on the rear sight, none of which materially affected the rifle, and indeed this type is the most commonly encountered version of the S.M.L.E. The volley sights in particular I find to be a source of great puzzlement and confusion, so they are worth going into in greater detail.
Early Lee rifles are frequently found with a peculiar rotating arm halfway down the left hand side of the fore-end, and a flip-up peep sight affair on the left rear portion of the receiver. These are the so-called “volley” sights, and are designed for mass firing at extremely long range. One rotates the front arm until the pointer indicates the desired range (which can be set from a low of 2000 yards up to an incredible 3500 yards). One then flips up the rear peep sight, lines this up with the stud on the front arm (at which stage the rifle is being held not unlike a mortar) and lets fly at the extremely distant target. One was not, of course, expected to actually hit any individual with such a system, but it was supposed to be used by large concentrations of troops firing in volleys against other far distant enemy troop concentrations. This system may have been of benefit before mobile artillery and machine guns, but even then the benefits were, I suspect, more perceived than real. The volley sights were not missed when they were quietly dropped as an accessory to the rifle.
We move now to the period between the wars. While the S.M.L.E. was indeed highly regarded, there were one or two deficiencies which the powers-that-be desired to rectify. High on the agenda was a re-design to allow the Lee to be better suited to rapid mass production, as this had proved to be a major headache during the previous global unpleasantness. Furthermore, one of the features of the
P-14 which was highly regarded was the peep sights. What was needed, therefore, was a peep-sighted Lee-Enfield which could be mass produced more easily and cheaply than the existing S.M.L.E. A rifle termed the No.1 Mark 5 was briefly flirted with, which was simply a standard S.M.L.E. but with peep sights, but not many were made and it was never anything more than an evolutionary step. Development continued until the adoption of the Rifle No.4 Mark 1 in 1941. This embodied all the design requirements in a slightly heavier (9lb. 1oz) rifle with peep sights and a vastly different nose cap assembly. It was much easier to produce, though, and as an added bonus (although I don’t think this was originally required or even intended) the action was somewhat stronger. It was this rifle which eventually became the standard British Army infantry rifle during the Second World War. Another deja vu occurred in mid-1941 when (again) it was realised that accelerated rifle production was needed, and that (again) the Americans were the ones to achieve it. This time, though, a slightly simplified Lee-Enfield No.4 was produced, much the same as the British rifle. Savage Arms was the chosen company, and the American manufactured No.4’s were dubbed the Rifle, No.4 Mark 1*. Strangely enough, they were marked “U.S. PROPERTY”, although there was never any question of the U.S. Army using them. The Savage No. 4’s had a simplified bolt release, a simpler two-positional flip peep sight instead of the elaborate click adjustable British version and two-groove rifling instead of the standard five groove Enfield barrels.
A further version appeared in May, 1945. The No.4 rifle had been giving its anticipated sterling service throughout the war, but it was somewhat long and heavy. A lighter and shorter rifle was needed for the Eastern theatre, for fighting the Japanese in terrain which largely consisted of thick jungle. From these requirements came the Rifle No.5 Mark 1, the “Jungle Carbine”. It was shorter and lighter, having a belled flash hider and rubber recoil pad, and was an extremely appealing little rifle altogether. Unfortunately the recoil exceeded the tolerance levels of the average trooper, and the rifle itself suffered from a “wandering zero” problem. It would shoot reasonable groups always, but not always in the same place from one day to the next. Some rifles were found to have consistent zeroing, while other individual specimens wandered all over the show. Various expedients were tried to overcome this problem, but by now self-loading rifles were obviously the way to go and further development was halted.
The No. 4 Mark 2 appeared in the remarkably late year of 1949. Most nations (including the British) were actively seeking a self-loading infantry rifle, but in the meanwhile more .303 No.4 rifles were needed, so more were duly manufactured. The only difference between the earlier Mark 1 and the newer Mark 2 was that the latter had the trigger pinned to the receiver instead of the trigger guard. This eliminated differences which could occur in trigger pull due to stock swelling and warping. These No.4 Mark 2 rifles are actually some of the finest No.4’s to be found, as they were manufactured to a high degree of fit and finish which was denied the wartime versions. I have encountered No.4 Mark 2 rifles dating from the mid - 1950’s, remarkable when you consider the American semi-auto Garand pre-dated this by twenty years. The No.4 .303 was finally ousted by the 7.62mm Nato S.L.R. rifle in British service, and an era stretching from 1888 seemed to have ended.
Not quite, though. Experiments were made to convert the Lee to the new 7.62mm round, and while it was found that the S.M.L.E. generally would not pass proof firing with the higher pressure 7.62mm, the No.4 action was amply strong. Initial conversions were identical in appearance to the standard No.4 except for the squarer magazine, but for some unfathomable reason they were not particularly accurate. I owned one of these rifles for a while, and although headspace was fine and bore was good, accuracy was hopeless - certainly nowhere near as good as identical .303 specimens. I bedded the barrel. I free floated the barrel. I tried different ammunition and bullet weights. Nothing helped. British Ordnance obviously came to the same conclusion, for it was a short lived conversion. However, it was discovered that when equipped with a heavy contour 7.62mm barrel and cut-down stock, the No.4 was capable of truly remarkable accuracy out to and even beyond 1000 yards. Called the Enfield Envoy, it was THE Bisley long range rifle for many years, and is still to be found even now on the firing points. Scope sighted Envoys served the British Army as sniper rifles until very recently as the L42A1 rifle.
Being built to last, there are still a lot of .303 rifles around. Vast quantities of surplus Lees have been sold to the ever-eager buying public world wide, and here in Zimbabwe too. Lee-Enfields must in fact be one of the most commonly owned firearms in this part of the world. My very first fullbore rifle was a Police surplus S.M.L.E. Its aquisition was an auspicious moment indeed, as I have always had a great fondness for the S.M.L.E., even as a nipper when I didn’t even know what they were called. I could recognise pictures of them, though, and I yearned for my own one ever since my earliest recallable memories. It cost me $20, and I still have it. I will not be disposing of it in a hurry either, as it is one of my most treasured rifles - more so than a lot of rarer and more desirable firearms which have come and gone.
Unfortunately .303 rifles in good original condition are becoming more and more scarce. I know that a Lee makes one of the word’s best knock-about general purpose rifles, and that cutting down the wooden fore-end makes the rifle lighter and handier, but I must admit to a preference for such rifles to be in original condition. This brings me to another very important issue, and that relates to the fact that most .303 bores are found to be in abysmal condition when one peers down them. A rough, dark bore in a .303 is definitely the rule rather than the exception, and this is due to corrosive ammunition.
The British clung to corrosive primers for an extraordinarily long time, and so did the South Africans. Those large, copper coloured primers contain potassium chlorate as their primary active ingredient, which leaves a residue of potassium chloride (which is a salt) upon firing. Salt, of course, causes steel to rust like billy-ho, and normal gun cleaning nitro-solvents will not dissolve it. I have seen this myself, cleaning the bore of a rifle until it looked like a new pin only to find it furred by rust after a few days. Boiling water is the only thing which will reliably remove this salt residue, so after firing a .303 you must brush and clean the bore as normal, then pour plus or minus half a litre of boiling water down the barrel. Push a patch through to dry it, then follow with a light coat of preservative. The bore will now remain immaculate for an indefinite period, and there will be no nasty surprises next time you inspect your rifles' bore. If this procedure is not done - or if it was not done even ONCE after firing during the rifle’s entire history - a rusted and pitted bore will result. No .303’s have chromed bores, and bear in mind that MOST military surplus .303 ammunition is corrosively primed. If you are not sure, assume your ammo has chlorate primers and boil out accordingly. I boil out .303 barrels even when I know the primers are non-corrosive, as I find it gets rid of a lot of crud that normal cleaning methods will not remove.
To possess one’s own .303 rifle is to own a small part of world history. To find one is not too difficult, but as mentioned good specimens in original condition are becoming scarce. Should you find such a rifle, and find that the bore is also in good condition....grab it!!! If you must (or if it has already been done) the Lee-Enfield can be made into a nifty sporter by trimming and slicking up the woodwork and abandoning some superfluous ironmongery. Slim, trim sporter sights make a racy replacement for the more than adequate but cumbersome military ones, and scope mounts are available for most variants too. When doing up a Lee or P-14, I would definitely recommend raising the comb of the butt, especially if scoping it is in order. The comb of the .303 rifle butt is too low anyhow, but adding a scope greatly magnifies this deficiency. If you wish to rapidly reload, don’t bother your head about trying to find spare magazines - the Lee was not meant to work this way, and spare mags have a habit of shedding their rounds anyhow. Rustle up a couple of clips, and all will be well. You will probably be surprised how fast a Lee can be reloaded with a clip. So were the German infantry in 1914. I have frequently wished that firearms could talk - the next time you handle an old, common-or- garden Lee-Enfield, I will be surprised if you do not find yourself wishing this as well, as you try and imagine where this venerable old artifact has been, who has held it and what it has done. Deep respect, because of age or usage or as worthy of deep respect because of age or association.