May 01, 2023
The British Lee-Enfield proved to be one of the best — if not the best — military bolt-action rifles. During its 100-plus-year service life, it went through many incarnations, culminating in the superb No. 4, Mk I.
Though primarily an arm used by British and Commonwealth forces, the No. 4 saw use in a number of foreign forces during World War II and after. A recent find in France of a decades-old hidden cache of these rifles — many in a virtually unissued state — has added another intriguing chapter to the 10-shot .303’s already distinguished and fascinating career.
No doubt, the Mk III Short, Magazine, Lee-Enfield (SMLE) was one of the great small arms of the Great War and would later live up to its reputation in World War II. Still, as good as it was, soon after the cessation of hostilities in 1918, authorities, began work to upgrade the warhorse, feeling the Lee-Enfield could use a bit of modernization.
By 1922, a new rifle, the “Short, Magazine, Lee-Enfield Mark V,” was conditionally adopted. Retaining the original blunt nosecap from the SMLE, at first glance it looked much like its predecessor. In fact, early versions of the rifle were constructed from Mk IIIs. The most obvious differences were the addition of a front barrel band, which was intended to buttress the nosecap for bayonet work. The band also incorporated a piling swivel. The receiver was modified to accommodate a ladder-style receiver sight and the sliding magazine cutoff — previously eliminated from the late versions of the Mk III for cost and time-saving reasons — was reinstated. Because of the positioning of the rear sight, the safety catch was also slightly modified with the addition of side-mounted grooves to enable a more positive purchase. Some 20,000 Mk Vs were produced up to 1924 and saw limited issue for a time.
Still, the powers that-be were not satisfied with the rifle that, in retrospect, had the appearance of nothing more than a stopgap piece. Work continued, and, in 1926, the No. 1 Mk VI appeared. This rifle had a heavier barrel, slightly different action configuration and receiver-mounted aperture rear sight. The Pattern 1907 knife bayonet was jettisoned in favor of a short spike-style, which locked on the exposed forward portion of the barrel.
Experiments continued apace and, in 1931, the trial model rifle was redesignated the “No. 4 Mk 1,” differing in minor details from the No. 1, Mk VI. Inter-war austerity, coupled with continued tweaking of the design, forestalled its official adoption until 1939; it could no longer be denied that a European conflict was imminent. Production began in earnest with guns being manufactured by Fazakerley, Maltby and BSA Shirley factories in Britain and later at Long Branch in Canada and Savage-Stevens in the U.S.
Though minor differences can be found between guns made in varying locales and at different times, the average No. 4 Mk 1 employs the standard Lee-Enfield-style action. Caliber is .303 and it has a 10-shot sheet-steel magazine that varies slightly from the style used on the Mk III SMLE. Overall length is 44½ inches and weight is 8 pounds, 11 ounces. The barrel runs 25.2 inches and, depending upon where the gun was built, had five-groove left-hand rifling (Brit makes) or two-groove left-hand rifling in rifles made at Long Branch or by Stevens-Savage. Some five- and six-groove styles are also seen in the New World No. 4 Mk 1* variant. By the bye, “No. 4 Mk1*” indicates a rifle that has a bolt-release slot at front of the rail in the action rather than the rear, as in British versions. However, there is a rather curious anomaly regarding this designation that I will save for later in this article.
Rear ladder-style aperture sights on the rifles also vary some depending where and when a particular rifle was manufactured. As space here is somewhat limited, without getting into too much detail, let it suffice to say they can be found stamped or machined with elevation slides being effected by a catch or adjustment screw graduated from 200 to 1,300 yards in 50-yard gradations, or a simple flip-over “L”-style with apertures at 300 and 600 yards.
Arming the French
Following Germany’s victory through France in June 1940, it was a short time before numerous partisan underground units began forming. In order to have any effectiveness at all, these clandestine organizations had to arm themselves — quickly.
Initially, limited stores of French military and civilian weaponry, augmented by captured German equipment, provided the bulk of the firearms amassed by the French Resistance, the “Maquis.” By 1942, organized efforts by the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE) became more prevalent and large quantiles of small arms, explosives and other material were airdropped to the waiting fighters.
Two basic types of metal or plastic cylinder-shaped delivery systems were employed: ”H” containers, which accommodated a variety of articles such as grenades, explosives, etcetera, and could be broken down into five elements for ease of transportation; and single-cavity “C” containers intended for larger items such as rifles and machine guns.
The OSS had an inventory of upwards of 400 items that could be packed in the cannisters, including everything from small peripheral items to articles such as folding Welbikes. Extant photographs and records indicate the most popular arms sent to the French were various types of handguns, M3 and Thompson submachine guns, M1 Carbines, Bren and Sten guns, and No. 1 Mk III and No. 4 Mk 1 Enfield rifles. As well, ancillary paraphernalia such as magazines, maintenance kits, slings, and more, were included in the shipments. Dropped by bombers and C-47s during daylight and night operations, massive amounts of gear were delivered into France, Denmark and Norway by war’s end in 1945.
While happy to get any types of arms with which to fight their German occupiers, evidenced by the huge numbers of weapons delivered, the No. 4 Mk 1 Enfield was a particular favorite of the Maquis.
In the months leading up to the Allied invasion of France in 1944, the OSS and SOE dropped at least 50,000 canisters into France, amounting to hundreds of tons of equipment. A considerable percentage of them contained No. 4 Mk 1 Enfields. Even after the cessation of hostilities, airborne deliveries continued for time, thus many of the arms sent never saw active service.
At war’s end, French authorities collected large quantities of Enfields and other hardware from the partisans, cleaned and lubricated them and then stored them in various locations — where some remained to this day, as evidenced by the recent cache of No. 4s uncovered in a cave tunnel complex by Navy Arms President Val Forgett III. Serendipitously, the discovery came as a by-product of a deal that was being worked out by Forgett and the French concerning Navy Arms’ acquisition of a quantity of French FRF2 sniper rifles.
Unlike most No. 4s in the collector market, the guns found by Forgett had never gone through the rebuild or refinish process, thus they were in as-issued configuration — some almost in new condition! The rifles were complete with their slings, however, somewhere during the storage process the guns’ magazines had been mislaid. Additionally, all the bolts had been removed from the rifles, resulting in a laborious process for Navy Arms to match serial numbers and return them to their hosts.
Forgett spent an additional week in France doing primary research trying to determine exactly where these guns may have come from. At the Pegasus Bridge Museum in Ranville, he spoke with the assistant director who confirmed that No. 4s were indeed dropped in steel cannisters along with other equipment.
The rifles, dated “1944”, represent all No. 4 makers — about 60 percent are from BSA Shirley, 30 percent from Maltby, and the remaining 10 percent a smattering of Fazakerley, Savage and Long Branch; all robustly maintain original markings. As well as dates, model designations and manufacturers’ codes, they include atypical “PP” stamps on receivers and sockets. Socket inscriptions were likely done at the factories and can include additional numbers and cryptic letters. It has been established the receiver PPs, along with four-digit numbers, were done by the French post-war and stand for Préfecture de Police. Intriguingly, a small percentage of the guns — those manufactured at Maltby — are designated “No. 4 Mk 1*”. The “*”, as noted earlier, indicates a modification to the bolt-release arrangement. This is curious in that the rifles so-marked are still in the Mk 1 configuration — no Mk1* No. 4s having been made in Britain. Whatever the reason for this, it unquestionably represents a very rare No. 4 variant.
As of this writing, Navy Arms still has a good supply of French No. 4s available. Conditions range from Very Good to Excellent. Guns are priced according to rarity and shape. Because the original magazines were lacking, each Navy Arms No. 4 is supplied with a proper-style reproduction 10-rounder.
The author had a chance to view a number of the imported arms and even fire a couple of them! Actions and bores were pristine. Accuracy, as one can expect from a No. 4 Mk 1 Enfield, was superb, even while using 1960s-vintage surplus British military Mark VII .303 ammunition. Accuracy was superb, too, with 50-yard groups ranging between 1 inch and 11/2 inches. That’s about as good as I can do with any rifle featuring open sights considering my 78-year-old eyesight.
It is tempting to think that the supply of surplus arms must be drying up. However, amazing finds such as Navy Arms’ latest ferreting of the remarkable French No. 4 trove permits us to hope that it will not be the last fugitive bit of military hardware to make its way into the eager hands of collectors and shooters. For more information about the French No. 4s, contact Navy Arms at navyarms.com or call 304-274-0004.
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