The .303 Lee-Enfield Was a British Tommy’s Best Mate
Church bells rang on Sunday morning, Aug. 23, 1914 in the Belgian city of Mons — an industrial town that stood in the way of the advancing German army’s plan to crush the British Expeditionary Force.
The Tommies — 70,000 strong — were dug in along the Mons-Conde canal and had occupied the town. Bearing down on them was a German force of 160,000 soldiers and hundreds of artillery pieces. As the faithful made their way to mass, the German 1st Army launched an attack, concentrating on the northernmost point of a salient formed by a loop in the canal.
At first, the British held their ground. The Tommies at Mons were professional soldiers, trained in the “the mad minute” — an exercise that required riflemen to fire 15 bolt-action rifle rounds at a four-foot-square target from 300 yards away, all in under 60 seconds.
Any hit on the target counted, and even in the heat of battle many soldiers could fire faster than the requirements of the mad minute.
Armed with Short Magazine Lee-Enfield .303-caliber Mk. 1 rifles — better known as the SMLE — the British soldiers poured fire into the advancing German lines.
“Our rapid fire was appalling, even to us, and the worst marksman could not miss, as he had only to fire into the ‘brown’ of the masses of the unfortunate enemy, who on the fronts of two of our companies were continually and uselessly reinforced at the short range of three hundred yards,” Cpl. John Lucy, Royal Irish Rifles, said in historian Matthew Richardson’s book 1914: Voices from the Battlefields.
“Such tactics amazed us, and after the first shock of watching men slowly and helplessly fall down as they were hit, gave a great sense of power and pleasure.”
“It was all so easy,” Lucy said.
Legend has it that the British rifle fire was so intense the Germans thought they were under massed machine gun attack. Recent historians have questioned the veracity of that piece of Great War folklore — but the reputation of the soldiers and the rifle they carried still garners respect.
At top and above — British war reenactors with Lee-Enfield rifles. Mark Kent / Flickr photos
The SMLE wasn’t the perfect rifle — a popular nickname for the weapon was “the Smellie” — but its strengths were attractive enough. It had a fast bolt action, a reasonable length of about 45 inches, robust construction that made it nearly impervious to the mud and filth of trench warfare and a 10-round box magazine.
Perhaps most importantly, the SMLE featured a powerful cartridge that allowed a trained soldier to kill a person up to 400 yards away — an ideal range to fire across no-man’s land along the Western Front.
The longevity of the rifle is enough to garner the attention of military historians. Consider this — the .303 Lee-Enfield came into service about the time of Boer Wars in the late 19th century, and a version of the rifle was still the British Army’s standard infantry weapon well into the 1950s.
Even today, Afghan tribesmen often own century-old Lee-Enfields, which they hand down from generation to generation. More recently constructed copies made in Pakistan have found their way into Taliban arsenals.
The .303 Lee-Enfield rifle is really a series of rifles. There are 13 incarnations of the weapon that span the 20th century and saw service in two world wars and throughout the British Empire, including dozens of variants in carbine length, different calibers and even a suppressed model for special operations.
But the Great War — more commonly called World War I in the United States — is where the SMLE gained its reputation. And the Lee-Enfield armed more than the king’s soldiers. Three divisions of U.S. doughboys carried British weapons at the beginning of their deployment to Europe, including the SMLE.
T.E. Lawrence’s Lee-Enfield at the Australian War Memorial. Mal Booth / Australian War Memorial photo
T.E. Lawrence — better known as Lawrence of Arabia, one of the godfathers of irregular warfare — carried one as his preferred rifle. Presented to him by Emir Feisal, the SMLE was a gift to the emir from the Ottoman Turks and had been captured at Gallipoli.
Thrilled to have a British weapon captured as war booty returned to the hands of a British soldier, Lawrence carved his initials and the presentation date in the weapon’s stock just above the magazine. Then he made sure that he was proficient by taking the rifle to the range as frequently as he could.
Lawrence used it throughout the Arab Revolt and notched its stock five times as a record of the enemies he killed. He later presented the SMLE as a gift to King George V.
Soldiers could also fit the rifle with a 17-inch sword bayonet. In the Middle Eastern campaign, bayonet charges were rare but cavalrymen issued the rifle often wielded the blade like a saber.
In fact, during the Battle of Beersheba — an engagement often deemed the last successful cavalry charge in military history — the Australian 4th Light Horse Brigade used their SMLE bayonets instead of cavalry sabers.
On Oct. 31, 1917, the horsemen thundered down on Turkish defensive positions outside of the town, hacking and slashing their opponents to pieces. At the end of the fighting, the Aussies captured Beersheba, took 738 Turkish prisoners, and spiked four field guns — all at bayonet point.
The SMLE saw service during World War II, but another version of the Lee-Enfield — the Rifle No. 4 Mk. 1 — that was simpler to manufacture became the main infantry weapon for most British soldiers. But supply shortages kept the newer rifle from quickly getting into the hands of Australian units, who often carried the SMLE all the way through war’s end in 1945.
Firearms developments after World War II rendered the SMLE militarily obsolete as far as the major armies of the world were concerned. Yet, its ubiquity is undeniable.
Whether in the hands of soldiers in World War I, or insurgents in the developing world, it is one of the most recognizable weapons on the planet — and in the hands of skilled marksmen, one of the deadliest and best rifles ever made.