August 22, 2018
It may be the ugly duckling of military firearms, but the Lee-Enfield series of bolt action rifles served the British Empire from the closing years of the 19th century, almost to the 21st. And while troops might have referred to the rifle as "Smelly," a spin on its SMLE designation, it was always said with affection.
The Lee-Enfield dates back to an earlier rifle designed by American inventor, James Paris Lee for black powder. But when smokeless cordite died replaced black powder, the higher-pressure cartridges quickly wore off the shallow rifling of the black powder guns. The replacement barrels featured new rifling designed by the Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield, hence the Lee-Enfield was born.
The Lee-Enfield's baptism of fire came in the Boer War in Africa starting in 1899, and it didn't go well. The Lee-Enfield's inferior sites and slower loading system put the English at a huge disadvantage to the Boers' deadly long-range accuracy and high rate of fire from their Mausers. It was a problem that British engineers quickly remedied.
By the beginning of the Great War, British Tommies were trained to fire as many as 30 rounds a minute from their SMLE Mk IIIs, both individually, and in volleys. The rate of fire was so intense, that some German troops thought they were charging into machine gun fire.
The Lee-Enfield was the issue rifle for the British Army throughout World War II. One interesting variation that captured American collectors' imagination is the No.5 MK1 "Jungle Carbine," designed for jungle warfare in the Pacific. It was shorter, lighter and kicked like a mule. The Lee-Enfield remained the issue rifle for British troops until the mid-1950s, and special versions, including superbly accurate sniper rifles like this .308, continued into the 1980s. All in all, the SMLE remains one of the best bolt action battle rifles- fast firing, powerful, and accurate- not Smelly at all.