Among the longest-serving firearms of all time is the British Lee-Enfield .303 rifle. The original model was named the Magazine Lee-Enfield (MLE)—nicknamed the “Emily”—which came into widespread service in the mid-1890s.
Its successor, the Short Magazine Lee-Enfield (SMLE)—affectionately referred to by British troops as the less pleasant “Smelly”—used during World War I and World War II, entered service in 1903 and was improved as the SMLE MK III/III* in 1907. This rifle and the later No. 4 served the British Army well into the 1960s.
(Note: Unless you are a die-hard Lee-Enfield aficionado, the British naming convention can be extremely confusing, even using asterisks [*] to differentiate between models. For the sake of not getting bogged down in a bunch of numbers, the name, Lee-Enfield, is going to be used as a catch-all for this article.)
To this day, the Lee-Enfield is still the issue weapon of various entities around the world. In the form of the Ishapore 2A/2A1, the Lee-Enfield remains an important part of the Indian Home Guard. The SMLE is in use by friend and foe, alike, in the mountains of Afghanistan. The impediment to its continued use in that region seems to be a shortage of .303 British ammunition.
One of the most unsung of paramilitary organizations is the Canadian Rangers. The Rangers have served in times of peril and emergencies such as floods and conducted search-and rescue missions in arctic conditions, in addition to conducting demanding long-range patrols. Their standard rifle has been the Lee-Enfield since the Rangers were formed, although it will soon be replaced by a modern 10-shot bolt-action .308 rifle.
“As one soldier noted in Korea, ‘When you hit them with the Lee-Enfield, it is all over’.”
The impending retirement of the thousands of Lee-Enfield rifles in use by the Canadian Rangers will take some time; even so, it is the end of an era and unprecedented service. To replace the Lee Enfield, our Canadian allies are adopting what is basically a modified Scout rifle in .308 Winchester with a 10-round magazine in the form of a Sako rifle. While much is made of tactical rifles these days, and the .303 might seem outdated, I have kept a Lee-Enfield variant on hand for many years as a go-anywhere, do-anything emergency rifle … and I have seen no need to replace it.
No. 5 Mk I “Jungle Carbine”
A legendary and often misunderstood rifle is the No. 5 Mk I, which is incorrectly called the “Jungle Carbine” (a name British troops probably never called it). The No. 5 Mk I carbine was developed during World War II as an answer to the need for a fast-handling compact rifle for use in the Pacific Campaign and by paratroopers.
Rather than adopting a self-loading rifle similar to the U.S. M1 Carbine, the British adopted a rifle similar in concept to the Russian Mosin Nagant M44 carbine. A short-barrelled, lightened rifle firing a full-power cartridge seemed to fill the needs at that time. More than 250,000 No. 5 Mk I rifles were produced, and many served during the war.
The rifle served until at least 1960. It was used in Europe, the Pacific and later, Korea, along with the Malaysian conflict, in particular. The No. 5 Mk I was not without its faults, including increased recoil. Prior to 1900, the British Army issued a load much hotter than the later-service .303 British, and it battered both recruits and experienced riflemen. A more-moderate service load was adopted. However, even then, the 174-grain 2,500 fps service load kicked hard in the No. 5—despite a muzzle brake and rubber recoil pad. The No. 5 was 2 pounds lighter than the No. 4 Lee-Enfield rifle.
Despite its light weight, the 18.7-inch, free-floating barrel delivered respectable accuracy to 200 yards. A rifle with a two-piece stock and military two-stage trigger isn’t capable of match-grade accuracy, but the rifle was clearly combat accurate. Rapidity of fire with the cock-on-closing action (most bolt actions cock when the action is opened) is excellent, and malfunctions are practically unheard of.
The naming convention used for the SMLE by the British military can be confusing. U.S. Army Service firearms are named by model (M), the number designation, alteration (A)—sometimes referred to as “variant”— and what it is.
Here are two examples. The M16A4 rifle designation “translates” as “Rifle, Model 16, Alteration 4.” The M4A1 carbine has an official military designation of “Carbine, Model 4, Alteration 1.”
In the day of the SMLE, the British used number (No.) to note major weapons systems and mark (Mk) as the alteration/variant. The official military designation was Rifle, Short, Magazine, Lee-Enfield, Number 1, Mark III (“short” referred to rifle length). The U.S. M16A4, in comparable terms, would be Rifle, Magazine, Stoner-Hartford, Number 1, Mark IIII; and the M4A1 would be Rifle, Magazine, Stoner-Hartford, Number 2, Mark I. The following are the models/marks of the Lee-Enfield rifle. In 1926, “SMLE” was changed to “Rifle,” so the SMLE Mk III* was renamed Rifle No. 1 Mk III* in 1926, and all subsequent models that went into production were named Rifle.
The * denotes a change in sights and the removal of magazine cut-off.
- Magazine Lee-Enfield 1895–1926
- Charger Loading Lee-Enfield 1906–1926
- Short Magazine Lee-Enfield Mk I 1904–1926
- Short Magazine Lee-Enfield Mk II 1906–1927
- Short Magazine Lee-Enfield Mk III/III* 1907–present
- Short Magazine Lee-Enfield Mk V 1922–1924 (experimental only)
- Rifle No. 1 Mk VI 1930–1933 (experimental only)
- Rifle No. 4 Mk I 1931–present
- Rifle No. 4 Mk I* 1942–present
- Rifle No 5 Mk I 1944–present
- Rifle No. 4 Mk 2 1949–present
- Rifle 7.62mm 2A 1964–present
- Rifle 7.62mm 2A1 1965–present
The various Gibbs Rifle Company versions are shortened SMLE rifles that are often fitted with a sporting-type stock. They may be found modified from any of the Lee-Enfield rifles, but many variants were based on the Ishapore rifles. The rifl es were produced in England, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, as well as India and the United States. Savage-produced rifles are marked “U.S. Property.” Be certain not to use commercial .308 Winchester loads in the 7.62mm rifles—it is too hot for the action.
Several myths surround the No. 5 Mk I carbine. The first one is the “wandering zero” complaint reported by many troops. Supposedly, the rifle could not hold its zero in extended firing. The complaint was investigated by the British military, which reached the same conclusion I have: I fired several boxes of .303 British as quickly as possible until the rifle heated. Despite the bruises inflicted upon my shoulder, the rifle kept its zero. The accuracy problem is not a shifting zero; rather, it is recoil. The rifle inflicts a hearty blow on the shooter, who develops a flinch—which affects marksmanship. Even a trained marksman begins to jerk the trigger after a few magazines of full-power ammunition. In full-sized form, the Lee-Enfield kicks less than the Mosin Nagant, Mauser 98K, Springfield 1903 or the 1917 Enfield. In the No 5 carbine version, recoil is rugged and can be brutal in extended firing. Fire it until you think it has lost its zero, hand it to another accomplished rifleman, and you will understand my point. He will drive the rounds home. A second myth concerning the Enfield is most likely true.
A correspondent told me it was usual for Commonwealth soldiers to use a firing technique that allowed the Lee-Enfield to virtually equal the M1 Garand or any other semiautomatic rifle for accurate aimed fire. To begin with, the Lee-Enfield is easily the fastest bolt-action rifle to operate, and its 10-round magazine offers a good reserve of ammunition. I also put this legend to the test. The technique is to work the bolt rapidly in the proper manner—not closing the fingers on the bolt handle, but using the open hand to lift the bolt, bring it to the rear and close the bolt. The key part to this technique for close-range skirmishing is to quickly jerk the trigger finger with the small finger of the hand.
I was skeptical at first. However, after emptying two magazines from the No. 5 into a man-sized target at 25 yards, I found that the rifle was, indeed, capable of the accurate rapid fire of legend and that this technique could have been very effective. It is faster than moving the trigger finger to the trigger. I have also tested another rifle that has its share of myths: The Ishapore 2A is the last bolt-action rifle purpose designed for military use. Coming into service in 1962, this rifle is chambered for the 7.62 NATO cartridge. It isn’t suited for the dimensionally similar, but hotter, .308 Winchester cartridge, so take care with loadings.
These rifles were not rechambered to the NATO cartridge, but they are purposely-designed new-production rifles. I have fired several. On average, they perform well. A special version modified in the United States by Navy Arms/Gibbs is a short version of the 7.62 A2 rifle. It features original battle rifle sights, rather than the No. 5 aperture sights. (India never adopted the No. 4 or No. 5 for production.) It has the versatility of the 7.62 cartridge (when pressure limits are respected) and is as accurate as the .303 British carbine—sometimes, more so.
It handles well and is a newer rifle than the British guns. I enjoy firing these rifles. They are fast-handling, accurate enough for most chores and are a link to an important part of history.
How accurate are the Lee-Enfield carbines? The No. 5 Mk I “Jungle Carbine,” with the Hornady .303 British 174-grain Vintage Match offering, will group three shots into 4 inches at 100 yards. The A2 7.62 NATO rifle is usually fired with handloads using the Hornady 168-grain A Max at 2,500 fps—a reasonable load for this action. This rifle is more accurate, at 3.0 inches on average. Both rifles are as accurate as the average good, tight AK 47 rifle and more accurate than most.
“The No. 5 MK I comes close enough to a”Do-Everything Carbine” as we are likely to see. And with a healthy portion of history added, the Lee-Enfield carbines are well worth their price.”
The compact, 39-inch, 7-pound “Jungle Carbine” handles well and is comparable in size and weight to the popular AR. It does offer a distinct advantage over the 5.56mm AR: penetration of light cover, vehicles and barriers. The penetration, sectional density of the bullet and the effectiveness of these .30-caliber battle rounds are superior. (As one soldier noted in Korea, “When you hit them with the Lee-Enfield, it is all over.”)
As far as wound potential goes, the rifles would be effective to at least 400 yards. The SMLE No. 5 Mk I has a lot going for it as a go-anywhere, do-anything light rifle, scout rifle or truck rifle. Not the least of its attributes is reliability.
There are far more-expensive, short bolt-action “scout” rifles available. Most are more accurate than the Lee-Enfield from the bench, but I doubt that the practical off-hand accuracy is superior. No other rifle could be more reliable. For use inside 100 yards, the Lee-Enfield rifle is a viable alternative. As for hunting use, the Lee-Enfield is as accurate as most lever-action rifles and hits harder. Consider your tolerance for recoil and ability to use iron sights well. If you hand load, the situation isn’t hopeless, but cartridge case life is shortened by the Lee-Enfield action. Cartridge cases seem to stretch more than with most rifle actions. This is due to the generous tolerances that make the Lee-Enfield such a reliable rifle.
“Among the longest-serving firearms of all time is the British Lee-Enfield .303 rifle.”
The No. 5 Mk I comes close enough to a “do-everything carbine” as we are likely to see. And with a healthy portion of history added, the Lee-Enfield carbines are well worth their price. Five thousand Canadian Rangers currently trust the rifle, and more than 120 years of use cannot be wrong.
The Canadian Rangers are reservists similar to the National Guard and are officially an arm of the Canadian Armed Forces Reserve (CAF). The Canadian Rangers are the eyes and ears of the North. They have been most famously active in rescue operations. They also collect data and perform both surveillance and sovereignty patrols.
International law demands that a nation must patrol territory it claims; and Canada claims a huge, but largely unoccupied, land mass. There are 5,000 Rangers in several patrol groups. Each group includes 30-member patrols. The Rangers speak more than 25 dialects, and many are First Nation members. British, French and Scottish heritage are also represented.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the October 2017 print issue of Gun World Magazine.