August 11, 2021
When repeating military arms began taking hold with the militaries of the world, unsurprisingly many of the earlier conventions were maintained. One of the most common was the adoption of a particular system in both infantry long-rifle form and in cavalry carbine length. Additionally, often there were other specialized arms for such entities as artillery and engineers.
It gradually dawned on the authorities that, particularly with smokeless powder arms, some sort of compromise could be achieved wherein a rifle could be devised that would suit practically all purposes. Early incarnations of such a rifle were the U.S. Model 1903 Springfield and a shortened version of the German Gewehr 98, the Karabiner a, which is still basically a cavalry arm. The “a” first appeared circa 1902 evolving into the “assault” Karabiner 1898 AZ which, in turn, transmogrified into the Karabiner b, and thence to the famed K98k of World War II. It must be admitted that the flow of K98 development was not quite as tidy as presented here, but the gist of the timeline is correct.
The Second Boer War (1899-1902) was a rude awakening for the British Army. Though possessed of one of the finest fighting forces in the world, commanders found themselves constantly confounded by what they mistakenly thought of as an amateur Boer fighting force.
One of the first things that was noticed was, while the Lee-Enfield was a superb arm, it had one major deficiency when compared to the fine Model 1893/95 7mm Mausers employed by the Boers: It had no capacity for being rapidly loaded by means of a “charger,” aka “stripper clip.” The Enfield, while possessed of a capacious 10-round magazine, still required cartridges to be loaded into the magazine one-at-a-time. Both carbines and long rifles were being carried by the Brits in South Africa. In something of a mixture of roles, rifles, rather than carbines, were employed by so-called “mounted infantryman.” Special-order in-between-length Lees were also carried by some yeomanry units.
Circumstances in the Boer War prompted ordnance types to step up work already begun on an arm that would provide a happy medium between long rifle and carbine. In 1901, some “Shortened Enfield Modified Rifles” were produced at the Enfield Royal Small Arms Factory. These developmental arms, as well as employing a new safety, long handguard, new-style rear sight and hooded front sight protector (among other mods), most notably had a barrel some 5 inches shorter than that of the long rifle, and 4½ inches longer than the carbine. This new piece weighed around a pound less than the rifle and 8 ounces more than the carbine — a happy medium.
Experimentation and trials continued. Further changes were tested, jettisoned or retained. After a relatively short gestation period, just before Christmas in 1902, the approval of the “Mark I Short, Magazine Lee-Enfield” (abbreviated “Sht LE” or “SMLE”) was sealed. The legend had begun.
At the time of its adoption, the common round used by the British military was the “Cartridge, S.A. Ball .303-inch, Cordite (Mark II)” featuring a round-nosed, 215-grain, lead cupro-nickel-jacketed bullet backed with 31 grains (60 strands) of cordite. Muzzle velocity from the SMLE was approximately 2,000 feet-per-second (fps). This round was soon replaced by the Mark VI in 1904, which had basically the same specs as the Mark II, though the jacket material was somewhat thinner, ostensibly to provide expansion without the necessity of an exposed lead tip (the use of which had caused Britain some international difficulties a few years previous).
While the new Mark I rifle retained a few bits and pieces from the earlier Long Lees, for the most part it was a whole new concept. With an overall length of some 44½ inches with a 25-inch-long barrel featuring Enfield rifling, perhaps the rifle’s most dramatic departure was its bull-nosed muzzle which employed a multi-purpose nosecap. Not only did this component protect the muzzle and forestock, it incorporated a drift-adjustable barleycorn blade front sight guarded by a pair of flanking “protectors.” The sight blades would be marked “H”, “N” and “L”, for High, Normal and Low, the fitting of one or the other to correct for a rifle’s shooting variations before it was issued. The cap also provided the attachments for the new Pattern 1903 bayonet, the ring of which now fit over a button on the muzzle cap rather than the barrel. The bottom of the cap had a locking stud.
The rear sight was also a considerable departure from earlier 19th-century ladder styles. Graduated between 200 and 2,000 yards, the updated sight consisted of a horizontal leaf that could be adjusted for elevation in 50-yard increments using a slide that was locked and released by a pair of checkered, bone-faced metal buttons. A knurled knob on the notch cap at the rear of the leaf allowed for windage adjustments. Additionally, a small vertical screw beneath the cap permitted the shooter to set the sight at intermediate ranges between the 50-yard elevations afforded by the leaf slide. The sight itself was protected by two metal ears attached to the rear handguard.
The 1,700 to 2,800-yard “dial sight” mounted on the left side of the stock/action was held over from the Long Lee, as was a sliding magazine cutoff. The safety, however, was considerably different from that mounted on the rear of the earlier Lees’ bolts, being a rocking style sited on the left rear of the action where it could be easily manipulated by the shooter’s thumb.
Other differences included the replacement of the earlier Lee’s brass buttplate with buttrap for cleaning implements (oil bottle and pull-through) by a sheet steel plate, sans trap.
Unquestionably, one of the most important — if not the most important — innovations in the new rifle was the addition of guides which allowed the rifle to be charged with 10 rounds of ammunition from two five-round sheet-metal stripper clips. These involved a fixed slot on the left side of the receiver and a moveable guide affixed to the bolt head. When the bolt was retracted to its extreme rearmost position, the sliding guide on the bolt head aligned with the fixed guide on the receiver in order to allow the full ammo clip to be positioned properly atop the magazine.
The new rifles were made at the government Enfield, Sparkbrook facilities and under contract by Birmingham Small Arms Co. and London Small Arms Co. As well, considerable numbers of Mark Is were created at Enfield by converting Lee Metford Mark I*, Mark II* and Mark III* rifles, and Long Lee-Enfields resulting in the “Short, Magazine Lee-Enfield Mk I Cond.” As bullet velocity with existing ammunition would drop somewhat in the SMLE’s shorter barrel, this was corrected, to a degree, by adopting progressive-depth rifling.
Though a robust, hearty arm, experience with the Mark I turned up a few deficiencies. These were addressed in a follow-on version, the “Mark I*.” A brass, or “gunmetal,” buttplate with trap seen on earlier Lees was reinstated. The slot of the firing-pin-keeper screw, located at the rear of the cocking piece, was widened so it could be removed with a coin, if necessary. Experimenting with period-British coins, the author learned that a farthing, ha’penny, penny, thruppenny bit (actually too small to give much of a purchase), sixpenny bit, or shilling all fit the slot, as does a gold sovereign, though it’s unlikely the average Tommy would have one of the latter at hand to remove his Mk I*’s firing pin. (Gold is probably a bit soft to be of much use anyway.) Another minor change involved the replacement of the old-style, vertical single-screw rear sling swivel, with one held on by a horizonal base secured by two screws. The magazine itself was altered by making the case a bit deeper at is forward portion. It was identified by a “2” stamped on the front.
As the muzzle of the new SMLE was totally different from that of the Long Lee, it was necessary to provide the new rifle with an updated bayonet. The blade of the “Sword-bayonet, Pattern 1903” was similar to that of the earlier Pattern 1888, though the pommel was altered to allow it to be fitted to the bar and stud on the Mark I’s nosecap. The leather scabbard with steel mouthpiece and chape used on the P88 was retained for the ’03 — black for land troops and brown for naval.
The Mk I*’s 10-round sheet-steel magazine was slightly deeper at its rear to provide more room for the 10 rounds and allowing the second five cartridges to be loaded more easily from the charger. A small, hinged stop clip on the right-front of the magazine helped keep the right-hand cartridge in position and permitted the follower and follower spring to be more easily removed for servicing or cleaning.
An inner barrel band was fitted at the barrel’s midpoint inside the forend. Fixed in position by a coil spring and screw, its .002 inch of play supported the barrel without constricting it and allowed for expansion.
Mark Is were built until 1908 and Mark I*s until 1909, by which date the new, improved Mark III SMLE — the classic SMLE familiar in both World Wars, as well as any number of colonial affrays — were adopted and produced.
Still, Mark Is continued in service into the Great War. Numbers of them were altered to a Mark I*** pattern by having the rear sights altered to accommodate the new ballistics seen with the Mark VII .303 round with 174-grain spitzer-style bullet, which came into service in 1910 (originally with an inefficient 160-grain bullet that was replaced early-on).
Shooting Evaluation Mark Is in any configuration are quite scarce nowadays and do bring something of a premium on the collector market. I was lucky to secure a shootable Mk I* that had been manufactured by BSA in 1907. The bore was quite good, as were the rifle’s mechanics.
In keeping with the spirit of our evaluations, ammunition chosen was military surplus Mark VII manufactured in 1966. In the past, having fired this same batch of ammo in other Enfields, I was comfortable with its reliability and accuracy.
Groups fired were rested at 50 yards, though we did try some rapid-fire offhand strings just to see if the Mark I* could be manipulated as rapidly as the Mark III. (It could.)
I was more accustomed to loading ammo with from stripper clips using the more familiar charger bar seen on the Mk III, but I must admit the Mark I*’s arrangement, while more complicated than that of later models, worked just fine. Unable to find period Mk I or Mk II stripper clips (hard items to come by), it was necessary to make do with the Mk IV style more commonly seen in the latter part of World War I and in World War II. No anomalies were encountered in the switch.
Basically, the rifle handled pretty much like a Mk III. The rear sight setup is a bit different, but in use any dissimilarities are negligible. The rifle’s trigger fired at a crisp 4½ pounds, following a short bit of take-up. Accuracy was good with groups averaging 3¼ inches. My best spreads were 2¾ inches, slightly high, and to the right of center. This is just about as good as I can shoot with most open-sighted military arms given the limitation of my 77-year-old myopic goggles.
I have found few military arms historians who would argue that the SMLE is one of the finest military arms in history. It was reliable, accurate, rugged and user-friendly. Though the Mk III (and later No. 4 variant) are the ones that most often come to mind, it was the Mark I that paved the way and proved the manifest advantages of an arm that would become nothing short of legendary.
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