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The .303 Rifle - Charlie Haley

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.

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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.

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The bill from your taxidermist exceeds your annual income. ~ Perry Newman
African Hunter Vol.5 No.5 October 1999
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