The Lee-Enfield No. 1 Mk III SMLE Rifle
By Roger Marsh
Note: these are the personal impressions of somebody who is far from expert in the field of firearms, but who is learning all the time!
There is perhaps no other rifle that occupies such a deep place in the consciousness of an Australian shooter as the No. 1 Mk III, often affectionately referred to as the 'smelly', a corruption of the abbreviation SMLE. Often it is simply known as a three-oh-three, after the .303 British round fired by the rifle.
The SMLE abbreviation stands for 'Short, magazine, Lee-Enfield', which was a series of rifles that developed in response to criticisms leveled at the Lee-Metfords that had been used in the Boer war. The upshot of it all was a reduction in barrel length to 25.5 inches (from about 30", hence the term 'short'), and the capacity to reload the magazine by use of a stripper clip, which feeds five rounds at a time into a ten shot detachable magazine.
The No. 1 Mk III was Australia's standard battle rifle through the two World Wars and also the Korean conflict, and distinguished itself by its ruggedness, rate of fire, stopping power, and the devastating effect of the 17 inch long bayonet employed with the rifle. It was use in the battles that cause those who know this country's history to both shudder and be filled with pride: Gallipoli, Fromelles, Pozieres, Tobruk, El Alamein, Kokoda, and Kap-Yong to name but a few.
When in the battle of Hamel in 1918, Australians and Americans first fought side by side, it was this rifle that was carried into battle by the soldiers of the young Australian nation. So when I pick up this rifle, it is not just a rifle, but also a tangible link with those who gave of themselves for what I enjoy today. Added to this is the fact my father instructed drill on these towards the end of his service in the Royal Australian Navy. For me, a very special piece indeed.
Having acquired one of these rifles in excellent condition, I set about learning how it was used and maintained. With characteristic enthusiasm and lack of aforethought, I entered in the first Military Rifle shoot I could find, without having yet fired a shot from the rifle. Not the wisest decision, but yet a very quick, if humiliating, way to learn.
The shoot took place at a range of 300 meters, which is also a hard way to start for somebody with little experience of these arms. I had only shot light sporters and target rifles before this point, so I was in for a shock. Having settled down on the mound, I knew that the recoil of the rifle would be stout from the prone firing position. That said, it was not nearly as bad as I thought.
Where I was struggling the most was with the weight of the trigger pull. Having been used to far lighter triggers, I was not prepared for the much heavier let off of the SMLE. The rifle has a two-stage trigger, with the final let off being a bit on the heavy side. Whilst there was not much creep, I found myself yanking the trigger rather than squeezing it, with the consequence that my shots went high and showered the people in the butts with dirt, for which I was duly and justly heckled at lunch time.
To my rescue came a Vietnam veteran who had much more experience with these particular rifles (not through the army mind you, they had been replaced by the SLR by the time he was in the service), and he let me into a few secrets of the trigger pull, and talked me through the second bracket of shots. His look of incredulity when I confessed I had never actually fired the rifle before is forever engraved on my memory. However, his patient, if linguistically vivid, tutelage is treasured.
To help control the desire to yank a heavy trigger, place the flesh between the first and second knuckles on the trigger, and then slowly count to four as you squeeze past the second pressure. This little drill helped tame the trigger.
At the end of the shoot I was a much wiser shooter, and I was very happy with the encouragement I had received from the other riflemen. They didn't care much about my obvious incompetence, they were just happy that a new guy was in the sport. Well, from this point the only direction was up.
The second outing was much more successful, and I managed to put all my shots into a 20cm diameter circle at 100 meters. Further, I was using modern factory loaded ammunition, which was more consistent than the surplus, 1958 vintage military ammunition I had used in the first shoot. I am still learning about this rifle, but I hope it is going to give years of enjoyment as a competition and sentimental piece.
I would like to offer some advice and impressions regarding the use of this rifle, whether it be for target shooting or hunting. I will first deal with the matter of ammunition. The use of surplus military ammunition is to be discouraged. These rounds are usually corrosively primed, and so the barrel has to be cleaned very thoroughly if it is to be saved from rusting. Fortunately I already knew this, and I started the cleaning process by flushing out the barrel with boiling water, and then a number of other stages of cleaning.
As Chuck Hawks notes in his article "The Famous .303 British," many brands of factory ammunition are available in .303, all of which are non-corrosive. At the moment I use Sellier and Bellot 180 grain FMJ rounds for target shooting, but I hope to begin handloading to get the most consistent results possible. Remington, Winchester and others make soft-point hunting rounds. As with any rifle, take a number of different types of ammo to a suitable range, and see which the rifle likes best.
On shooting the rifle I made a number of observations. I found that in the off hand and kneeling positions that this was the steadiest rifle I had ever handled, period. Whilst it is heavy at around 9 pounds, the heft helps in the steadiness department. However carrying these for long periods in the field is hard work, and leaves one with a renewed respect for those who had to carry such arms into battle. Mine is a mainly a range rifle, so this is not such an issue for me.
When firing the rifle prone, I recommend placing your body at about a 45 degree angle to the line of fire, so as to lessen the felt recoil somewhat. This rifle has none of the recoil absorbing devices enjoyed by modern target rifles. It has a slightly curved metal butt-plate, so having the whole body in line with the rifle tends to transfer the recoil down each of the vertebrae in a most uncomfortable fashion. On the angle the body is also able to roll a little in response to the recoil. Fitting a slip-on recoil pad is a good idea if things start to get uncomfortable. Comfort aids accuracy, machismo does not!
One of the best features of shooting the rifle is its capacity for rapid fire. The bolt throw is 60 degrees, and the action cycles very smoothly. This feature is a real plus when fast follow up shots are needed. Also, the stripper clips enable very rapid reloading of the already generous ten round magazine. Stripper clips normally have to be purchased separately from the rifle.
The sights on the rifle are not aperture sights as with later Lee-Enfields, but are a blade foresight and semi-circular notch type rear sight. The range of the sights is adjustable from 200 to 2000 yards. My rifle is to be exact a No. 1 Mk III *, which means it lacks (amongst a couple of things) the windage adjustment found on the sights of the earlier No. 1 Mk III rifles. For hunting deer sized animals, these sights would be useful out to 150 meters or so, depending on the skill of the shooter. I would not recommend the No. 1 Mk III as a brush rifle, as at 114 cm in length, it is a bit long. The No. 5 jungle carbine, with its shorter length and aperture sights, is a far better proposition in that department. Mounting a telescopic sight is possible, but will require altering the rifle. I am keeping mine original, not because I'm an avid collector, but because of the history of the piece in my country.
If you have, or would like to get, one of these rifles, try to find out a little bit about its history, and pause to think on the days it has seen. History can teach us many vital lessons. If, by holding something in our hands that reminds us of the price of freedom, we can in our turn act with principle and defend that freedom, then I would suggest that the purchase price of the rifle has already been repaid to us in full.