(This is a reader gun review contest entry, click here for more details.)
By Broken Eight
I love the gun show. Ever since I’ve gotten into guns I’ve always enjoyed going. Sure, you can get better prices and more availability on the internets, but you don’t get the same experience of actually holding the gun in your hands, or the excitement of never knowing what you might find, what might jump out at you. At a particular gun show in August 2013, what jumped out at me (and followed me home) was none other than a Lee-Enfield SMLE MkIII* chambered in .303 British . . .
Now there are several different variants of Lee-Enfields in .303 British on the US market today, two of which were on a rack at the gun show that day. The first I looked at was a No. 4 Mk I, which many will probably argue is the better rifle to pick due to its apeture sights with a longer sight radius. But that particular rifle was completely outshined by the rifle you see above, which sat next to its younger brother priced fifty bucks cheaper. While I had been looking for a No. 4, the history of SMLE made up the difference in shootability, at least to me.
And man oh man, does it have some history. Introduced in 1907, the Mk III was used by the British as well as pretty much everybody in the Commonwealth during the First World War. It served through two world wars and numerous smaller conflicts. The British eventually upgraded to the No. 4 Mk I, but elsewhere, the Mk III remained around till the 1950s, and can still be found in limited service by a several countries (namely a few Indian police units). Just look at how pleased those doughboys are in the photo above with their country’s choice of rifle!
My particular rifle was made in England in 1918. That makes this still-functioning rifle nearly four and a half times my age. Durable goods FTW! The asterisk in the name indicates some changes they made in wartime to help speed up mass production. Despite some research on markings, I’ve been unable to determine which factory it was made at. There’s a brass button in the stock with some sort of Arabic-looking markings, but I’ve found that those buttons can be bought online, and it’s likely meaningless.
The MkIII has several features that make it stand out from other milsurp rifles. The first thing you’ll notice when you open the bolt is how buttery smooth it is. When you close it, you’ll push forward some, and then you’ll hit some resistance. It’s not a lot, but it may trip you up at first if you’ve used a lot of Mauser-based rifles. Once used to it, you won’t even notice it as the bolt continues smoothly forward and down. The smoothness and odd resistance can be attributed to its cock-on-closing action, where the bolt is cocked to fire when you push the bolt forward to close it. Nearly all modern bolt actions use a cock-on-opening type action. This alone may make the rifle at least of interest to you bolt-gunners out there, and was one of the features that drew me to it.
The next thing you’ll notice is a 10-round magazine. Most bolt guns of the era only have a 5- or 6-round magazine. It was indeed the tactical assault clipazine of its day. In service, the magazine was loaded either with loose rounds or with 5-round chargers, but this is 2014! Look down in the triggerguard and you’ll find a small lever (other than the trigger). Push that up and you can pull the mag free. This is my preferred way to load it. A surplus rifle with 10-round detachable mags. Hell yes! The impulse you’ll get next is to go buy a bunch of mags for it, and that impulse may be crushed at their ~$50 price tag.
Now there’s a reason why you don’t see many double stack mag designs for rimmed cartriges like the .303. That’s because they tend to amplify the possibility of rimlock. Rimlock is when the rim of the first round in the mag ends up behind the rim of the next round. Here’s a video of an experienced shooter doing it with a No 4 Mk 1. Look closely when he loads them and you can see the top round is further back in the mag than the one below it.
It’s pretty easy to do with the Lee-Enfield mag, and it makes chambering the next round a pain. When loading the mag with singles, put the round in a bit forward of the others, and then push it to the back of the mag. If you load using stripper clips, make sure your clips look like this, with the rim of the top round over the next. From my reading, this isn’t the sanctioned British method, but I’ve found it’s the best way to avoid a jam with clips.
The bolt’s smoothness and the magazine’s capacity add up to a much faster rate of fire than other bolt guns. Back in the day, the British Army actually had a drill called the Mad Minute, which required a soldier to make 15 hits on a 12-inch target at 300 yards in sixty seconds. This would include reloading with clips (not mags, you cheater). Many soldiers could beat this score. The world record was set in 1914 by a Sergeant Alfred Snoxall with 38 rounds. Personally, I’d pay money to see Jerry Miculek beat that score.
On the battlefield, this rate of fire had devastating effects on enemy combatants. In the trenches, you might think a bolt gun would leave you at a disadvantage compared to, say, a machinegunner. But run back to the barracks, grab 20 of your best friends, and ask them to do a mad minute with you, and there’ll be a good wall of lead and copper between you and anything downrange. At the Battle of Mons in August 1914, British riflemen put up such intense fire that the Germans advancing on them thought they were facing machine gun batteries.
These days, the term “Mad Minute” is generally used to describe putting as many rounds on a target with the Enfield as you can in a minute. It’s also a term used when talking about the technique used to accomplish such a feat. Said technique involves holding the rifle with your off hand and bracing it against the shoulder. Then you’ll take the index finger and thumb of the other hand and use that to work the bolt. You pull the trigger with your middle finger. This will likely elict a WTF response from most people, but I can assure you, it makes it FAST. At 25 yards standing, using this technique, I can fire, work the bolt, and be ready to fire again before I can get my sights back on target.
While we’re talking about sights, let me tell you something: they’re terrible. The front blade is thinner than an anorexic with bolemic tendencies. The rear is your standard open sight affair of the day, adjustable from 200 to a very hopeful 2000 yards. The opening is cut roughly in a V shape; I say roughly because it doesn’t look like it’s cut strait, and has a really small area to pick up your wafer-thin front blade. Also, be careful when adjusting them, as you can burn your fingers if you’ve been firing the rifle. I’d go so far as to say the sights on my M44 are better than these. Speaking of mosins…
Here’s a comparison of a 91/30, my SMLE, and an M44. I took this photo mainly to show you the difference in barrel length as compared to rifles you probably have seen or handled. The SMLE sports a 25 incher, putting it squarely between the mosin brothers. However, this pic also points out that the length of pull on the SMLE is as bad if not worse than a mosin’s. Being 6′ 3″, this is a problem for me. If I don’t adjust my grip, my (rather long) nose smacks strait into my thumb on firing. Recoil on the rifle is pretty substantial, and the brass plate on the butt doesn’t do anything to help with that. Both issues could be helped with a good recoil pad, but unfortunately for both my shoulder and my nose, I have yet to invest in such technology.
One advantage the SMLE has over the mosin, though, is actually useful safety. It’s a small lever at the rear of the action set off to the left. Forward is fire, back is safe. The saftey on mine is not very positive though, and I’d go so far as to call it loose. On my last range trip, issues I’d occasionally been having with the bolt locking up, which I had been chalking up to extraction issues when the rifle gets hot, I think I can now blame on the saftey sometimes partially engaging from the recoil when firing. I’ll have to see if I can tighten that up at some point.
However, on trigger pull I’d have to call it a draw for my mosin and enfield. The SMLE’s trigger feels a lot like a 2-stage, you’ll have some take up, then you’ll hit a wall, and then it breaks. It has serrations running the length of the trigger which help you keep your finger on it when the rifle kicks you in the shoulder. The trigger on my mosin is very good too though. How good the trigger is, though, is going to vary from rifle to rifle.
Disassembly of the rifle is pretty simple. To remove the bolt, simply pull it to the rear, and then flip that small forward piece off of the rail it rides on. The bolt will then slide back out. Clean up the bolt, remove the mag and clean it, clean the bore and you’re good to go. Before you put the bolt back in, make sure to tighten down that front piece, as it’ll want to unscrew itself. Make sure there is NO space between that front piece and the rest of the bolt, i.e. not like the picture below.
Before we talk about accuracy, we have to discuss probably the biggest shortcoming of the rifle, and that’s ammo availability. You usually won’t find .303 British at most gun shops, and if you do, it’s usually the more expensive stuff. Most of the ammo you’ll find is either soft point or 174gr fmj, which is the bullet weight the British used; there’s not a lot of variety as far as bullet types go. Prices online seem to be coming down though, and you can usually find a good variety there. I buy my ammo at the gun show, and while availability there is hit and miss, I’ve aquired quite the smorgasbord.
Let me warn you, though. You can still find corrosive ammo floating around the market. Last time I was at the gun show, I came accross some .303 in brown paper packs tied up with tape printed MkVII. That is the British designation for their 174gr loading that they issued to troops. There’s a very good chance that ammo is corrosive, but there’s no way to tell, short of shooting it and seeing if your gun rusts in a month. Here’s some advise: if you come accross some corrosive ammo, don’t bother with it. It’s usually not priced much lower than new manufacture stuff, so why even bother with the hassle of cleaning it special? There is some surplus ammo around that is not corrosive, namely some of Greek manufactue. Just be careful, if a website or dealer can’t tell you where the ammo comes from, move on. It’s not worth rusting your rifle.
If you want to mitigate ammo cost by reloading, you can certainly go that route. However, there are a few quirks about Lee-Enfields that you need to know before moving forward. The first is that the chambers on these guns are notorius for being oversized. This causes the brass to expand and deform more than other guns, which leads to a drastically shortened case life. Also, the bore diameter can vary rifle to rifle, so you’ll need to check that before selecting bullets. Finally, the Lee-Enfield doesn’t have as strong of a lockup as other guns, because locking lugs are located towards the rear of the bolt. Here’s the SMLE bolt:
And here’s the locking lugs of a mosin bolt:
You can see which is the stronger action. If you’re the kind of person who likes to load your .30-06 up to +p+p+p+ loadings, I warn you, don’t try that on this rifle.
Now we finally find ourselves on accuracy. The pic above will tell you everything you need to know, it was my best group of the day. I shot this at 50 yards, and those are 1-inch squares. While the rifle is certainly accurate enough, the poor sights and probably even poorer technique on my part doesn’t add up to much. And believe me, I really tried. I’ve been debating putting a scope on the rifle, but I’m torn between sporterizing it like that and keeping it in its historic condition.
You have to remember though, with milsurp rifles accuracy is going to vary with the rifle’s condition. Mine has a good bore, and that’s the most important thing as far as accuracy goes. But it has (and had) other things wrong with it. I’ve already mentioned the loose saftey. Also, when the rifle heats up, some sort of orange residue starts building up on the stock, especially around the front sight (pic below, if anyone can tell me what’s causing that I’d appreciate it). And that’s not even the worst thing on this rifle. My friends, let me take you on a short tale of the pitfalls of buying a used rifle.
Now, the first time I got this beautiful piece of wood and steel out on the range, I absolutely loved it. Put a good 60 rounds through it that weekend. No major issues. A month later, my dad gives me some advice: take the rifle apart and clean up the internals. The morning before I head out to the range, I decide to go ahead and do just that. I finally find a video detailing how to remove the stock, get it off, look at the exposed metal parts and think “I’ve got no business monkeying around in the internals of a damn-near 100 year old rifle,” and set about reassembling it. I notice something odd about the forend of the stock, but since I’m a noob, I figure it’s something that’s supposed to be there, and put it back on the rifle.
Out on the range, I load up the rifle with 10 rounds of .303, and work the bolt. *tic tic* *shuck shook* There’s something extremely satisfying about that sound, like the sound of biting down on a pringle. I line up the sights and start slinging lead downrange. I’m just about to let off my fourth round, when I notice something odd about my sight picture. Where before there were two metal ears sticking up next the sight, now there were none. “That’s weird,” I thought to myself, “They were there a second ago.” I take my eyes off the sight to find that part of the forend on my rifle is gone, along with any metal bits that were attached to it. WTAF? I find them laying in the grass a few feet in front of the shooting bench. Upon closer inspection…
So yeah. I take it out to my stepdad, who cleans it up and concludes that at some point in the life of the rifle, someone had drilled a hole in the stock and stuck a piece of dowel rod in there, epoxied it up, and then hammered two nails in diagonally. As you can see, this repair job didn’t hold up well over time. No other parts of the gun were damaged, thankfully, so I had a gunsmith take a look at it to see what he could do. He ended up epoxying it back together (my stepdad had already removed the nails and dowel rod). It’s not visible when the rifle is assembled, so alls well that ends well, right? Right. I told this story to my grandpa, and he gave me some better advise: don’t take your guns apart unless you really need to.
All stock issues aside, the Lee-Enfield SMLE MkIII is a good rifle with a lot of history. It has some quircks, but its detachable mag, capacity, and smooth action still give it relevance today. I’d put this rifle up against any other of it’s era any day of the week, and with a scope on it, it may yet prove to hold its own with modern-day guns. If you can find ammo for it.
Before letting you move on, I just wanted to take a moment to remind you of something truely magical that happened 100 years ago this year. On Christmas Eve and Day in 1914, what started as joint Christmas carols between Allied and German trenches in France, soon escalated to small exchanges of gifts between individual soldiers. Eventually, they all got up out of the trenches and met in no man’s land, for soccer games and gift exchanges. Joint services were held for the recent dead. What would be known as the Christmas Truce has long been looked back on as a shining example of brotherly love in war.
Within months of this, the German army started shelling Allied positions with chlorine gas, forever changing the face of war. This is the reality of world we live in. No matter what kind of good intentions a person might have, chances are good that some ass is going to come along and try to mess things up for us. But when that happens, we’ll put our faith into solid rifles like the Lee-Enfield SMLE.
Caliber: .303 British
Barrel Length: 25.2″
Overall Length: 44″
Action: Magazine-fed, cock-on-closing bolt action
Capacity: 10 round detachable box magazine
Price: $300, varies with condition, do not pay more than $400 for an SMLE
Ratings (out of five stars):
Style * * * *
The wood stock says old school, and the front bayonet lug gives this rifle a look that you won’t mistake for anything else.
Ergonomics * *
A very small length of pull and a good recoil-reducing (sarc) brass plate on the stock make this rifle a pain to fire. Get a recoil pad before taking it out to the range.
Reliability * * * *
In about 250 rounds, it’s never failed to chamber a round and fire for me. There’s not too much that can go wrong with a bolt gun, but YMMV in that regard. Minus one star for the very real possibility of rimlock.
ATI makes a stock and scope mount, but thats about it as far as aftermarket goes. Anything else you’ll have to DIY or get a good gunsmith.
Overall * * *
While it has a smooth bolt design, lots of history, and a good magazine capacity, the sights, ergos, ammo price and the lack of availability and variety of ammo really bring this rifle down. It’s also a milsurp, which means there a lot of things that could potentially be wrong with any given example.