Lee-Enfield No. 4 MK 2, the Last Rifle of the British Empire
By David Tong
This lowly scribe admits to a fond admiration for things British, including black tea with cream and sugar, ales and stouts, single-malt Scotch, Triumph and Norton motorbikes, E-Type Jaguar cars and old Land Rovers. Call me an Anglophile if you will, I am good with that.
As a not-so-closeted history buff, the time span between the dawn of the Industrial Revolution and the close of the Second World War holds a particular interest for me. One might cogently argue that this period saw the greatest leap in the application of technology and the mass-produced machine age. Yet the Brits, for a period of over seventy years, clung to one rifle whose basic design did not significantly change between the reign of Queen Victoria and the end of the Korean War.
This rifle is, of course, the Lee-Enfield. As a typical late nineteenth-century design, it was produced from machined forgings. The .303 caliber cartridge it fired used a rimmed case and was initially loaded with black powder.
James Paris Lee, ex-pat Canadian turned American, designed the piece in the late 1870's. The engineers at Royal Small Arms Factory, Enfield Lock, England made minor changes to it over time, from the earlier Lee-Metford design with its shallow rifling, to the Enfield, with its deeper rifling to handle the early hot-burning “Cordite” smokeless propellant that was soon adopted. Smaller changes in stock “furniture,” sighting equipment and barrel length reflected evolving thoughts about small arms tactics during the period up to the First World War, when the Rifle, No. 1 Mark III* Short Magazine Lee-Enfield (“Smelly”) was standard issue for Britain and her vast colonial empire.
This particular version was made in the largest quantities of any L-E and it provided sterling service in the trenches, not least because it was among the fastest operating bolt action rifles extant, as well as possessing the largest magazine capacity. The former was a result of its rear locking bolt, which shortened the bolt travel compared to front lug designs, as it simply has less bolt to withdraw before a new round can be stripped and fed, plus its very smooth internal machining.
There were a few drawbacks to the design. It is very labor and time intensive, making it difficult to build in quantity under wartime emergency conditions. Many of the smaller parts, such as stock bands and especially the nose cap/bayonet lug/front sight ears, were milled from forgings, as was the receiver. The latter must have started out as a three-pound chunk of steel before becoming a finished 10-ounce part. The two-piece stock design was outdated from its inception and rear-locking bolts quickly became obsolescent.
The trigger was pinned to the trigger guard, rather than being attached to the receiver itself. This made consistency of the pull weight and its quality problematic, especially when tropical temperatures and humidity swelled the wood stock causing the fit of the trigger/sear/cocking piece to vary.
The round it fired, the redoubtable .303 British Mark VII shooting a 174 grain bullet @ 2,450 fps, was a rimmed, gently tapered case with a minimal shoulder. While this meant easy feeding and extraction, especially in the tropical and sub-Saharan reaches of the Empire where its relatively low operating pressure was an advantage, the round was not quite the ballistic equal of competing rounds, such as the German 7.92x57JS (8mm Mauser), or the American .30-06. The difference, however, proved inconsequential.
The advent of WWII found the British in need of millions of rifles once again and the result was the No, 4 Mark 1, introduced in 1939, but not officially adopted until 1941. This was a simplified weapon and used metal pressings (stampings) for stock bands, birch (rather than walnut) stocks (thus ending a nearly 300 year history of the use of English walnut for military arms!) and somewhat fewer and straighter machine cuts for the receiver. The barrel is also heavier in contour and free-floating.
More importantly, the earlier production of the No. 4 incorporated a receiver-mounted, folding aperture sight of fine quality. This featured a 300-yard “battle” sight for coarse work and a micrometer, click-adjustable (for elevation only) small aperture sight mounted on an upright ladder with engraved range markings from 200 to 1,300 yards. This sight, with its finer aperture, has fine cross hatching on the blade face to cut glare and only the lack of windage adjustment precludes it being called a “target” sight. This rear sight, coupled with the standard fine front sight, means there is relatively little target obstruction at long range.
Further simplification of the No. 4 during the war included deletion of this fine sight in favor of a two position flip type aperture for 300 and 500 yards (very similar in concept and execution to that of the early U.S. M16 rifle), stamped sling loops and the use of an aluminum, rather than cast brass, buttplate. There was also a noticeable reduction in external metal polish and black baked-enamel paint over Parkerizing on all metal parts.
The No. 4 rifle served well in the second world conflict too, although by the end of the war the bolt action seemed nearly quaint compared it to the German selective fire Sturmgewehr 44, the U.S. M1 Garand, or the Soviet Tokarev semi-automatics. However, the Lee-Enfield remained competitive with the German Mauser 98, Italian Carcano, Japanese Arisaka and Russian Moisin-Nagant bolt action infantry rifles.
There is a much-bandied about truism about the British, that they tend to cling to older designs for far longer than sometimes prudent. Modern “firepower” tactics have created the notion that individual riflemen are not very important on the battlefield. However, I might point out that the marksmanship training the U.S. Marine Corps provides is effective to this day. I would also venture to say that most of the other combatants during WWII also did not advance their weapon technology for the foot soldier.
Such was the case when the No. 4 MK 2 was adopted in 1949. With the Second World War over and the need for the huge standing army gone, British government armories reverted to better finish work and reinstated the adjustable rear sight on the rifle, as well as the cast brass buttplate. However, the stamped bands and black paint remained. Worthy of note is that, for the first time in the Lee-Enfield rifle’s history, the trigger was pinned into the receiver, to eliminate the variable trigger quality issues of all previous models. Indeed, the smooth-faced trigger on my example has the usual two-stage pull, slack, then a crisp release of some 4.5 pounds. This is adequate, if not outstanding, for a combat rifle. My particular example of this rifle was built in the Royal Ordnance Factory, Fazakerley, Liverpool, England in November 1954, just a few years before .303 Enfield rifle production ended. It was replaced by the .308 caliber, semi-automatic Belgian FN-FAL design, manufactured in “inch-pattern” tooling and named the L1A1.
All parts that are serial numbered match, including the receiver, bolt and magazine. The bore is mint with no throat erosion visible. Many of these MK 2 rifles were exported to the U.S. civilian market as surplus in the 1980's and 1990's, often still wrapped in brown paper and drenched with Cosmoline. They are the Enfield to have if one wanted one to shoot, as their condition is far better than the average WWI or WWII relic.
Shooting it reminds me why I like these rifles so much. The comparatively low-pressure cartridge means you can shoot a lot and not get beat up, as most of its contemporaries will do to you. The fine sights and decent trigger makes accurate shooting possible and the rifle is extremely reliable.
Through the area that was once part of the British Empire, the .303 round is their “ought six” and all manner of big game has fallen to it. In Canada bears, elk and moose and in India hunters shot tigers, bovines and antlered game with it. In Africa it was, and still is, used on all manner of plains game. It remains a popular cartridge in North America, Australia, Africa and the UK.
By the time the MK 2 rifle was issued, the fortunes of the British had changed dramatically. Even though she was one of the victorious Allies, the ruinous debts amassed during the war and the costs of rebuilding her infrastructure and cities, plus the loss of so many gallant young men, meant that she could no longer maintain her Empire. The British Mandate in Palestine ended in 1947 and out of this was born the State of Israel in 1948. The Indian sub-continent gained its independence in that same year. Britain relinquished her colonies in Africa and Asia shortly after. The Crown Colony of Hong Kong remained until the late 1990s, when it was absorbed into the Chinese Communist colossus.
The Lee-Enfield influenced the ebb and flow of the geo-political landscape as did no other rifle of its time. It helped the Afghans defeat the Soviet Army and it can still be found serving as a police weapon in India and wielded by Afghan or Pakistani troops, a service life far in excess of any of its contemporaries.
She is a bit weighty at nine pounds and my aging eyes will not let me hunt with iron sights much longer. However, for now, I can take to the field for the elusive black tailed deer in the local forested mountains, or (with proper bullet selection) bust a Roosevelt elk here in my home state of Oregon. The rifle is also fun for target shooting and maybe it will pull a stint at some of the service rifle matches held at my local rifle club.
To me, there is nothing more alluring than practical history, the use of something that has proven itself for over a century. The sun has set over the British Empire, but the Lee-Enfield is still very much with us. Such a rifle and the places it has been will always warm my soul.
Copyright 2011 by David Tong and/or chuckhawks.com. All rights reserved.