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Lee Enfield Guns S.M.L.E

The original rifle and history

The Lee–Enfield takes its name from the designer of the rifle’s bolt system – James Paris Lee, and the factory in which it was designed – the Royal Small Arms Factory in Enfield. It is a bolt-action, magazine-fed repeating rifle that served as the main firearm of the military forces of the British Empire and Commonwealth during the first half of the 20th century, and was the British Army’s standard rifle from its official adoption in 1895 until 1957. The WWI versions are often referred to as the “SMLE”, which is short for the common “Short, Magazine, Lee–Enfield” variant.

The best-known Lee–Enfield rifle, the SMLE Mk III, was introduced on 26 January 1907, along with a Pattern 1907 bayonet and featured a simplified rear sight arrangement and a fixed, rather than a bolt-head-mounted sliding, charger guide. The design of the hand-guards and the magazine were also improved and the chamber was adapted to fire the new Mk VII High Velocity Spitzer .303 ammunition. Many early models, Magazine Lee–Enfield (MLE), Magazine Lee–Metford (MLM) and SMLE, were rebuilt to the Mk III standard. These are called Mk IV Cond., with various asterisks denoting subtypes.

During the First World War, the SMLE Mk III was found to be too complicated to manufacture (an SMLE Mk III rifle cost the British Government £3/15/– = £3.75), and demand outstripped supply; in late 1915 the Mk III* was introduced incorporating several changes, the most prominent of which were the deletion of the magazine cut-off mechanism, which when engaged permits the feeding and extraction of single cartridges only while keeping the cartridges in the magazine in reserve, and the long-range volley sights. The windage adjustment of the rear sight was also dispensed with, and the cocking piece was changed from a round knob to a serrated slab. Rifles with some or all of these features present are found, as the changes were implemented at different times in different factories and as stocks of parts were depleted. The magazine cut-off was reinstated after the First World War ended, and not entirely dispensed with in manufacturing until 1933; some rifles with cut-offs remained into the 1960s.

The Lee Enfield No1 Mk3 SMLE rifle

The inability of the principal manufacturers (RSAF Enfield, The Birmingham Small Arms Company Limited and London Small Arms Co. Ltd) to meet military production demands led to the development of the “peddled scheme”, which contracted out the production of whole rifles and rifle components to several shell companies.

The SMLE Mk III* (renamed Rifle No.1 Mk III* in 1926) saw extensive service throughout the Second World War, especially in the North African, Italian, Pacific and Burmese theatres in the hands of British and Commonwealth forces. Australia and India retained and manufactured the SMLE Mk III* as their standard rifle during the conflict, and the rifle remained in Australian military service through the Korean War, until it was replaced by the L1A1 SLR in the late 1950s. The Lithgow Small Arms Factory finally ceased production of the SMLE Mk III* in 1953.

TV and Film

The SMLE is a mega film star as far as firearms go, with hundreds of appearances. Some of my favourites include Carry On Sergeant, Dunkirk, Goldfinger, Tobruk and Wonder Woman with TV appearances in Monty Python, Blackadder, Foyle’s War, Dr Who, Midsomer Murders and Downton Abbey plus many more.

Specification

  • Calibre: .303 British
  • Capacity: 10 rounds
  • Weight: 4kg
  • Length: 1.1m

The CO2 Replica

Lee Enfield (Guns) Ltd did a great job with the SMLE. The woodwork feels and looks wonderful and at first glance it is hard to tell this is not a real firearm (see “Deviations..” below). I’m fairly certain we have all see one of these icons of weaponry in a film or TV programme, but its not until you pick up the replica that you realise just how big and heavy the SMLE really was.

It fits the shoulder well, the grip places the hand and trigger finger in just the right place and the bolt action is reproduced fairly well – the bolt travel distance is shorter in the replica. I found the mechanism was much smoother after removing the bolt and applying some grease. There are some issues with this replica and I will detail them where needed, they do not detract from owning one of these rifles though.

The SMLE rifle right side

The trigger action is smooth and light, reloading is fast and easy with the bolt handle being in just the right place. Sadly it does not come with a sling, it would have been a nice touch and for the money I can’t see why not, but they are easily available and pretty cheap. The safety catch is positive and easy to engage with the thumb.

The SMLE left side

The 12g CO2 cartridge lives in the magazine, this magazine opens by pressing a button and sliding the two halves apart at a 45 degree angle, its a bit like a Chinese puzzle the first few times. The cartridge is a tight fit and the bottom end of it must be firmly pressed down while tightening the clamp with the key – failure to do this will result in the cartridge lifting up a little and the magazine will not slide back together.

The magazine, opened

The BB’s are loaded easily, the plunger is a good size and easy to grip and retract (below). The magazine fit in the magazine well is another issue – on arrival, I found my one would fall out of the rifle when the bolt was retracted for reloading! The catch on the locking lever is too small and the fit is bad in this area. A new magazine improved things a bit but it’s still far from correct here. Once the bolt is home, the magazine is locked firmly, it’s only when the bolt is retracted that the issue arises.

The BB loading slot

The SMLE is a wonderful replica, the power is higher than many CO2 rifles – this does mean a lower shot count but who cares 🙂 It is accurate and suitable for use at 8-15yds where it will repel any tin-can army.

Deviations from original

As this is such an important entry in my collection, I did some more in-depth study on it. It turned out that my local range had a real SMLE for their “live-fire” experiences and they were happy for me to have a look and get some photos of it.

Starting at the muzzle, the major change is the square, machine-cut edges to the woodwork – the real rifle has smooth, curved edges. The bayonet clip is fully compatible with a real bayonet though and they did include the “piling ring” which was used to stand three rifles up in a pyramid fashion.

The muzzle area

Moving down to the mid-section, the sight-guard has been fitted the wrong way round, the barrel-band is sitting on top of the wood and not recessed like the real one and the joins in the upper and lower stock woodwork are far too accurate and machine-cut.

Mid-section

The action is pretty good really, it suffers from the same machine-cut precision as the rest of the rifle, the edges are too sharp again but at least they recessed the trigger-band into the wood. The bolt itself has a few changes but none are blindingly bad, the lack of the rear round thumb disc being one.

The bridge for reloading with charger-clips is there but not machined with the slots for the clips – a minor omission and not too noticeable, again, the edges are too ‘square’.

The action

The butt area is pretty good all round – the profile is very close and there is even the cavity inside for the cleaning kit (not provided) – this is accessed through a flip-open door in the brass butt plate. The Brass is a rough finish, presumably cast. Surprisingly they did include a brass butt-stock disk and a screw with the rifle but the butt will need work to fit it properly, not all rifles had a disc fitted anyway.

The butt

As you can see below, side-by-side they actually look pretty close. There are some owners that have done an extremely good job of rework on the SMLE and the finished item is almost a mirror image, I’m not sure I have the nerve to strip and rework it though! I might be tempted to do it and just refinish the woodwork – sand the edges, stain it a little and wax it up. I think that will give a major boost without risking damage to the metalwork. Real barrel bands are available but will need the wood cutting to fit it.

Side-by-side

Hopefully that lot will not put off a prospective owner, it is still a fantastic replica, it could have been so much more though with a little more effort at the factory.

Specification

  • Calibre: 4.5mm BB
  • Capacity: 15 rounds
  • Weight: 4kg
  • Length: 1.1m
  • CO2 Usage: 30 to 40 shots