The Lee-Enfield Sporter
By Cal Bablitz
A long time ago I made the interesting connection that the further you go into moose country, the less powerful a moose rifle needs to be. When I lived in central Alberta, where moose hunting opportunities were limited, according to many a .270 Winchester was not powerful enough. Now that I live in Northern Alberta, where nearly everyone hunts moose regularly, the general opinion is that a 25-06 or a 30-30 will work.
However, no matter where you go you will alway meet that special type of gun nut who would debate ballistics tables against dead animals and here is where I have found another interesting irony. While you will meet plenty of Canadians that will criticize many of the popular rounds for various reasons, you will almost never hear it said that the .303 British is not up to a particular task. Apparently, even those who would rather believe in numbers on charts than real world results have trouble ignoring the the exceptionally long success record of the Lee-Enfield rifle.
An historic recap and identification tutorial seems to be pretty much mandatory whenever the Short Magazine Lee-Enfield (or SMLE) is discussed at any length, but since this information exists in spades elsewhere I will elect to skip this vital step.The various Lee-Enfield rifles have an exceptionally long standing record, in both military and sporting use.
Among countries that were part of the British Commonwealth, they are probably still one of the most common rifles in circulation. One does not see them in the field these days as often as they once were, but a quick look through any Canadian classifieds will almost always reveal more Lee-Enfield rifles for sale than any other type of rifle.
Much of the current interest in Lee Enfield rifles revolves around their military history. As unmolested Lee Enfields in their original configuration become scarcer, the value of original rifles has steadily climbed. Even restored rifles can command a high price. If one owns a Lee Enfield in its original condition it is highly recommended that it be left that way. However, SMLE rifles that have already been sporterized still remain one of the best bargains on a rugged hunting rifle to be had, and these are the subject of this article.
It is just about impossible to talk about the Lee-Enfield at any length without discussing the .303 British cartridge. There are a few rifles that were re-chambered to other cartridges, as well as some .22 rimfire trainer rifles produced, but for the most part when talking about the SMLE the .303 chambering is a given.
The .303 British cartridge will launch a 180 grain bullet at around 2450 fps FPS, and a 150 grain bullet at a claimed 2690, though it seems fairly common for a SMLE to show a distinct preference for 180 grain bullets. These numbers put it on a par with the .300 Savage in terms of speed and energy and it has proven to be plenty powerful enough to take anything in North America.
It is commonly said in Canada that the .303 British has probably killed more moose than all other cartridges combined. The current Yukon record moose, a behemoth sporting a 75-1/4 inch spread of antlers, was felled with two shots from a .303.
Not enough power for the great bears, you might think? Until 2014 the .303 Lee-Enfield was standard issue for the Canadian Rangers and one of its main purposes was for protection against polar bears. Recently, while skimming through a magazine I read that the first second-generation grizzly/polar bear hybrid had been killed in the North West Territories, and it was killed with a .303. This bear was not killed incidentally or in self defense by the man that shot it, but hunted, using a Lee-Enfield, as per usual.
Since Polar bears are now mainly harvested by First Nations peoples, and given the continued popularity of the SMLE among subsistence hunters in the far north, I would hazard a calculated guess the the .303 British probably still takes more head of polar bear, as well as wood buffalo and muskox, than any of the more powerful magnums.
While the SMLE's 100 year military history is quite interesting, my own interest in the Lee-Enfield is more because of the considerable non-military use it has seen. Plenty of regions in the Canadian north were homesteaded as late as the 1950s and even now much of our vast remaining wilderness is still inhabited by people who depend heavily on hunting for food.
Due to the wide availability of cheap rifles and ammunition, the SMLE was the most common rifle carried by people who carved their homes and livelihoods out of the wilderness during much the 1900s. The SMLE is to the Canadian north what the Winchester repeater was to the American west.
This is a particular shred of history to which I have close ties. While I have enjoyed playing around with traditional black powder rifles and lever guns over the years, my ancestors were neither cowboys nor mountain men. They were the among the throngs of German, Scottish, and Eastern European settlers who migrated to Canada in search of cheap farmland.
My Great Grandfather homesteaded about two hours south of where I now live and a SMLE put wild game on the table, defended his livestock from predators and dispatched pigs and cattle for the larder. I have an uncle that still lives on that farm, and he still owns that Lee-Enfield. While he does not hunt, that old gun still puts down livestock and chases off predators.
The term "sporter" covers a broad spectrum of rifles, ranging from the beautifully re-stocked, re-blued and sometimes re-barreled offerings from companies like Parker Hale and Golden State to rifles that have simply had some of their wood crudely hacked off. Compared to other military surplus rifles, the Lee-Enfield has a few things going for it.
The sights on the No. 1 are among the best I have used and the peep sight on the No. 4 is even better. Not keen on hunting with iron sights? Unlike many military surplus rifles, neither the safety nor the bolt on a Lee-Enfield require modification for use with a riflescope and there are scope mounting systems available that can be installed without any drilling and tapping.
In sporter form the SMLE, while no lightweight, is not terribly heavy and balances well, generally weighing between 7.5 and 8.0 pounds. Five shot magazines can be had, but the ten shot detachable magazine is surprisingly compact and handy. It has always amazed me that the magazine on my Lee-Enfield is somehow far less obtrusive than the one on my .22 and I appreciate not having to carry extra rounds in my pockets.
Last but not least, Enfield sporters are cheap. While not as cheap as they once were, decent sporters still commonly sell for less than $200 Canadian. Very nice examples can be had for under $400. My brother and his friend recently got into hunting and they split on a package deal, two scoped No 4's for $100! As he put it, "It is not a Sako, but I like it better than any of the budget rifles I handled."
While the Lee-Enfield rifles offer some definite advantages, there are also some common gripes about them. When, as a young man shopping around for my first rifle, I was nearly seduced by a particularly nice Parker Hale sporter, my elderly hunting mentor opined that Lee-Enfield's gave him hives.
One of the most common complaints is about the ergonomics of the original stocks. The length of pull is too short for most people, especially compared to most modern rifles. While the original butt stock needs the addition of a cheek rest for use with a scope, I have come to think that the ergonomics are simply different. With a little getting used to they work just fine.
I am a fairly lanky six feet tall and even with the short pull I have never taken a thumb in the nose, unlike many other rifles with a short pull, so evidently they got something right. On rifles sporting aftermarket stocks this complaint is not applicable.
Another gripe is that they are ugly. I feel that in military form they are no uglier than most other period infantry rifles, and that well executed sporters can be handsome. Nevertheless, I suppose a Lee-Enfield sporter never does look quite as clean as, say, a custom Mauser.
The last common complaint is their accuracy. Much has been said about their tendency to keyhole bullets. I have never actually seen one that did this and I think much of this reputation came from the military surplus ammo, some of which was designed to yaw in flight and tumble on impact.
Also hurting their reputation for accuracy is that the action requires a tight fit with the fore-stock, which can loosen over time as the wood drys out. In truth, it is a rare Enfield that will shoot MOA, but most can be made to shoot plenty good enough for hunting within their maximum point blank range of around 250 yards. That is more than enough for about 99% of the animals I have killed over the years.
My particular Lee-Enfield, a No. 1 Mk. 3, was given to me by my father-in-law and was in his extended family for several generations. A lovely sporter it is not. This hack job probably spent its life keeping some farmer or trapper in meat, or at some point was owned by a frugal sportsman with more ambition than woodworking skill.
The standard military stock appears to have been unceremoniously cut down and then whittled with a knife. It also appears to have seen a generation or so of neglect at some point. There are rust spots on the exterior metal and some pitting in the barrel, while the butt stock has several large gouges in it.
Among its better features are a clean trigger and a tight chamber. In spite of its rough shape, it is still plenty useful as hunting rifle. I can put three Remington 180 grain Core-Lokt bullets into a 2.5 inch group at 100 yards with the open sights. It shoots smaller groups often enough that I suspect some tinkering and/or modern optics would tighten the groups a bit more.
Despite its standard length 25 inch barrel and ten shot magazine, it carries well and it accompanies me into the field every Remembrance Day weekend, as well as on days when precipitation or snow falling from the trees make a scoped rifle more trouble than its worth. Due to its rugged construction, it is often my companion on canoe and snowshoeing trips, where it comes along to take advantage of any opportunity I might get at a wolf, or in the unlikely event a predator gets into my food and I need to fend for myself. In this role there is a certain peace of mind that comes from knowing that whatever might happen during the trip, this rifle has already survived far worse.
In a marketplace where overkill sells rifles, the .303 remains an almost rebellious testament to how well good enough worked. The .303 British shoots flat enough, hits hard, and the Lee-Enfield rifle is sufficiently accurate for most hunting situations. While this type of performance no longer sells many rifles, it will still get the job done.