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The .303 Rifle - Charlie Haley

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.

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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.

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You might be a big game hunter if you go after game that can kill you, you shoot a gun that is too big for you, you tell tales that are taller than you, you drink more than you should, and, after all this, you still respect the game, the country, and your fellow hunters. ~ Kris Goschen
African Hunter Vol.5 No.5 October 1999
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