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The .303 Rifle - Charlie Haley

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.

Article continues below.

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.

No.4 Mk.1.
No.4 Mk.1.   

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.

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You might be a big game hunter if surviving an airplane crash is boring.~ Garrel Kinzler
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African Hunter Vol.5 No.5 October 1999
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