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The .303 Rifle
Charlie 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.
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.

Article continues below.

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.
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.

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You might be a big game hunter if you know when to shoot, with what to shoot, at what to shoot, and most of all, when NOT to shoot. ~ Sergio Dantas
African Hunter Vol.5 No.5 October 1999
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