Over the years, many have pointed to Britain’s “unarmed” police forces as an example of what can be done to maintain the peace with a minimum of force. The problem with this line of thought is that it was (and is) not necessarily true. The famed Royal Irish Constabulary is a good case in point.
There have been many armed police forces in the United Kingdom, even including, at times, London’s vaunted Metropolitan Police. Few, however, have had the firearm connections enjoyed by the RIC.
The Royal Irish Constabulary had its beginnings in Ireland as a peacekeeping force as early as the 1820s. Involved with normal policing duties, as well as being drawn into the strife of the Irish separatism movement, the force evolved into a quasi-military-style organization, wearing dark-green uniforms modeled after those of Britains Rifle Brigade. There were mounted and foot units, which over the years employed a wide variety of arms.
By the mid- to late 1800s, the group had achieved a considerable amount of attention–from friends and foes alike. The Canadian North West Mounted Police was modeled, to a degree, on the organization of the RIC, and gunmaker P. Webley even named a style of revolver after the group. In fact, it is very likely that Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer carried a Webley RIC with him at the Battle of the Little Big Horn.
By the turn of the 20th century, the size of the force had risen to 11,000 constables scattered throughout Ireland, and its varied and oftentimes, rural duties indicated that some sort of rifle or carbine would be needed to arm the policemen for certain tasks.
Prior to the introduction of the universal Short Magazine Lee-Enfield, there were two basic types of .303 repeaters in the British inventory–rifles and carbines–meant for infantry, cavalry and some artillery service.
Both were built on James Paris Lee’s now-classic bolt-action system and, depending upon when they were produced, featured either Metford or Enfield rifling. Because of the nature of an RIC constable’s duties, it was decided a carbine would probably be the more practical weapon, though it was also mandated that the gun should be able to mount a bayonet.
At the time, the switchover by the Brits to the SMLE was in full swing, and the formative rifles and carbines were becoming obsolete. As early as 1901 a number of carbines that could be fitted with the rifle’s Model 1888 rifle sword bayonet were turned out at Enfield for New Zealand. A similar arm would be totally appropriate for the RIC.
Rather than build a gun from scratch, the Royal Irish Constabulary carbine was fabricated from withdrawn Lee-Enfield and Lee-Metford carbines. These handy little repeaters were stocked almost to the muzzles of their 20¾-inch barrels, featured six-round box magazines and had flattened, turned-down bolts to make them more manageable for mounted carry.
Like many of the early Lees, the Royal Irish Constabulary carbine had safeties mounted on the bolt cocking piece and sliding cutoffs to allow the carbine to be fired single-shot–a common appliance on most other military long arms of the period.
As indicated by their names, the Metfords had Metford rifling and the Enfields featured Enfield rifling, which replaced the Metford after bore-erosion problems cropped up when using the new Cordite .303 loads.
Metfords had a side-mounted sling bar on the right side of their butts, as well as a D-ring for a carbine sling attached to the left of the butt socket (this was later removed).
Weighing 7.7 pounds, these handy little guns were thought to be an excellent platform on which to base the Royal Irish Constabulary carbine. Their main problem was the lack of a provision for a bayonet, so the nose cap of the original carbine was jettisoned, the stock trimmed back from the muzzle by about 4¾ inches and a piece of walnut spliced onto the fore-end, which had a bulbous forward portion to accommodate a rifle-style nose cap with a bayonet lug.
The rear barrelband was also eliminated, and the leather rear-sight cover screw holes were filled. A one-inch-deep collar was added to the muzzle to accommodate the barrel ring on the 1888 bayonet. Finally, swivels were positioned fore and aft, though those guns converted from Metfords also still retained their inset side-mounted sling bars. The guns kept their original markings on the butt socket, but brass butt identification discs were specially stamped with an “R.I.C.” property designation and issue number.
By 1904, about 10,000 Royal Irish Constabulary carbines had been produced, and by as late as 1914, another 1,000 or so had been converted. The guns were widely issued, though they turn up in good-enough condition to indicate their use was somewhat circumspect–not surprising in the somewhat delicate Irish political climate of the time.
I’m a big fan of the British Lee and will make any excuse to take one out to the range. When I came across a very nice RIC carbine, of course, a shooting session was in order–very short order. The gun has a pristine bore and is mechanically perfect.
Interestingly enough, it was one of the ones made from a Metford, though an Enfield “E” on the barrel knox form and “L.E.C. 1898” socket stamping indicate the carbine was something of a hybrid, which is not unusual in these conversions.
We took the RIC to the range with a batch of Hornady 150-gr. .303 SP Interlock and 174-grain military hardball ammo.
As the carbine does not have a charger slot, ammunition is loaded into the sheet-steel box magazine through the top of the receiver. Like other early Lees, the magazine is attached to the receiver with a small chain link so that it would not be easily lost, proving that Lee magazines were never really intended to be routinely switched out.
Initial offhand 100-yard gong shots showed that the rifle hit slightly to the left but still close enough to center to ring the 14-inch steel plate resoundingly–if I did my part. Rested 50-yard groups came in at an average of 1½ inches with the Hornady ammunition and 2¾ inches with the military ball. Despite the difference in bullet weights, point of impact was just about the same.
Manipulating the flattened bolt handle proved to be no problem, although I must admit I can operate the full-figured knob of the Lee rifles a little easier. Recoil was not prohibitive, despite the fact the carbine weighs about a pound less than a Mark III SMLE and is almost two pounds lighter than a Lee-Enfield rifle.
Overall, the performance of this little peacekeeper was as close to flawless as one can expect from a gun of the period, and it is easy to see how its convenient size and superior handling characteristics would make it an excellent choice for constabulary use.
Interestingly enough, the RIC’s Canadian counterpart, the NWMP/RNWMP, also used unconverted Metford and Enfield carbines for more than 20 years. And they were not alone.
In my own collection, for instance, I have a Mark I Lee-Enfield Carbine, marked “KP” and “RMP” (for some as-of-yet-unidentified police unit or units) that has had sling swivels added to the rear barrelband and toe of the butt.
Obviously, the Royal Irish Constabuary had thought things out quite well with its carbine.