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The venerable Short Magazine Lee-Enfield Rifle

It has been called "the workhorse of the British Army." There are those who love them, and those who hate them but there are very few that have never heard of the Short Magazine Lee Enfield (SMLE) rifle.

Sometimes called a "smelly" (because of its acronym of SMLE), the Short Magazine Lee Enfield rifle has been a fixture in the British (and Commonwealth) Military since the late 1800s. Over the years, several versions of the SMLE have been used in military and para-military service. One of the earlier SMLEs was the No.1, *** (Number 1, triple star or asterisk). It was the pre-cursor to the No.1 Mark III (Number 1, Mark 3) SMLE that saw action in every corner of the British Empire. The sturdy No.1 Mark III battled through all theaters of operation in WWI, WWII and Korea as well as countless small wars in and around the big ones. The cousin of the No.1, Mark III hit the scene later in WWII. The No.4 SMLE did away with some of the features of the No.1 rifle but retained many of the characteristics that made it a favorite among many a Tommy Atkins. The No. 5 "Jungle Carbine" made its debut closer to the end of WWII and saw action in the Pacific Theater, Burma and China. The most recent version of the SMLE is the L-42, which is essentially a No. 4 SMLE in 7.62 NATO (.308). British and Commonwealth troops used the L-42 primarily as a sniping weapon.

Id began collecting SMLEs in college (yes, on a students budget!) and have found that all of the Lee-Enfields are tough, easy to maintain, quick handling, inexpensive to purchase and shoot, are hard hitting and quite versatile. Above all, they are just plain fun! Some detractors of the SMLE (and the .303 British caliber, in general) criticize the fact that the rifle is heavy, the round is slow and overall, the SMLE is outdated. "Not true," I say, and heres why!

SMLEs are Tough and K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple, Stupid).

Please note: the author is in no way, shape or form referring to you, the reader as Stupid.

The SMLEs early 1900s technology seems to particularly lend itself to typical battlefield conditions. Granted, you wont be able to crank out 500 - 900 rounds per minute with a SMLE. Consider this, though. The SMLE will easily handle a drop down a 40 foot cliff, after being left in the mud (with only a brief pass of a shirt tail to clean out the chamber and a visual inspection to make sure the barrel is not obstructed) after previously having been run over by a jeep on a gravel road andget this it will still function without error when you need it! Try that with an M16 and see what happens!

(For all of you M16/AR15 fans, please dont bombard me with emails that anecdotally refute my assertion or heap scorn upon me. I used to own an AR-15 -- the operative words there are used to-- and could offer you an equally anecdotal tale of a young Army trooper that had to present his M16/A2 for inspection by dumping it out of a bag on to a table after it had literally shattered when dropped in a rappelling exercise. For the price, I prefer the SMLE. That is only my opinion, and we all know what they say about opinions. Nuff said).

The SMLE was specifically designed for harsh use in tough conditions to require only minimal maintenance. For this reason, the SMLE is very easy to maintain. Parts (when or if ever needed) are plentiful, inexpensive (unless you have one of the rarer versions then it gets spendy) and are easy to install! In fact, sometimes a replacement rifle can be purchased for the price of some of the more expensive parts! Thats the beauty of old, plentiful (the numbers of SMLEs produced over years runs in the millions) military surplus.

George MacDonald Fraser in his book, "Quartered Safe Out Here," indicated that he preferred to No.1, Mk.III SMLE to the Thompson Sub-Machine Gun that he was issued upon becoming his squads NCO. In fact, he indicated that the Thompson ended up rusting at the bottom of some stream in Burma after hed pitched in favor of the SMLE! Im sure that Mr. Fraser would concur with what many a Tommy before and after him had discovered. That is that the SMLE is a good, solid, soldier friendly rifle.

I believe that strength and durability can never go out of style!

Quick on the Draw

For me, the No.1, Mk.III version of the SMLE is easy to get on target, fire, operate the bolt and fire again. I believe this has to do with the open sight (as opposed to peep sight) configuration of the rifle coupled with the ears that protect the front and rear sight assemblies. If youve ever looked at a non-sporterized No.1, Mk.III, youve likely noticed the metal sight protectors that protrude above the sight level of the rifle. Those ears not only help to protect the sights from being knocked about in combat, they also serve as a quick sight at short ranges, meaning that one is able to line up on target fairly accurately (at shorter ranges, say out to 75 100 yards) without having to actually use the front and rear sights. Instead, you can put the target between the front sight protectors, which should line up between the rear sight protectors and be able to hit a man-sized target without really having to sight in on it. If your target is pretty squarely between the two sets of site protectors, you should be about on target for rapid engagement (dont expect to shoot 10 of 10 in the black with this method, though).

You can demonstrate this to yourself at home by holding up a v with your index and middle fingers (like Winston Churchill) on one hand and holding that hand at arm length. Then, do the same with your other hand and hold those fingers about 8" 12" from your face. Then, without really thinking about it, turn around and quickly select a target and mentally note how quickly you are able to sight in your finger rifle. Just for comparison, try the same thing as a peep site by using the index finger on one hand and extending it at arm length. Then make a peep sight by making a circle with your thumb and index finger of the other hand and hold it about 3"-5" from your eye (like a peep site toward the rear of a rifle). Again, without really thinking about it, turn around and quickly select a target. Did it take you longer to line up with your peep sight? It does for me. If it doesnt for you and youre a peep sight person, you may want to check out the No.4, Mk.1 (or Mk.2) SMLE or the No.5 (Jungle Carbine) SMLE. They both come with peep sites and are fun to shoot! As a matter of fact, the No.4 and No. 5 are the only peep site rifles that I can shoot quickly and relatively accurately. I have yet to figure out why other peep sight type rifles just dont work for me. Maybe its because the No.5 and the No.4 are significantly similar in feel to the No.1 SMLE for me to be able to use well. For me, a peep sight seems to obstruct my view of the target, which also seems to increase my target acquisition time. For quick target acquisition, give me a No.1, Mk.III every time!

If you have access to a No.1, Mk.III, another rifle with a peep site type rifle and a range that has a target pit (where a person actually pulls and pastes targets), try stapling a man-sized target (a medium to large sized pizza box works well) to a piece of 1"x1"x 10 fir stripping and have your target pit person walk the target back and forth as a moving target. At about 200 yards with open sights, try hitting the moving target. Try 10 rounds from your peep sight rifle and then 10 from your No.1. I and some of my squaddies did exactly this and we found that the No.1 SMLE seemed to perform more accurately and offer quicker target acquisition than the CETME rifle and the AK-84S with iron sights (although the AK-84S does not have a peep sight as such, the hooded front sight seems to act as a peep sight in the way it tends to somewhat obstruct the target picture). Interesting, huh?!

More bang for the buck.

The average used SMLE retails for just about $120.00 (No.1, Mk. IIIs and No.4, Mk.1s)! No.5 Jungle Carbines are closer to about $200.00 but, I once found one for $80.00 and promptly bought it!! You will probably be able to find SMLEs in just about every gun shop and surplus firearms place that you walk in to. If you are a Curio and Relic License holder, you can even buy them directly from wholesalers for around $100.00! Sometimes, you may be able to find them at gun shows for a little as $50.00! Sure, they may be a bit rough and need some TLC, but they are usually well worth the money spent!

Some SMLEs are less affordable than others. For example, the SMLE trainers in .22 caliber are about $100.00 more than the average SMLE (owing to the fact that there were many fewer made, Im sure). No.4, Mk.1 (T) SMLEs (sniper configuration) are right around the $1,000.00 - $1,500.00 dollar range. As are No. 1 MLEs (Magazine Lee-Enfieldsnotice that the Short is missing). These varieties are far more rare than the more run of the mill SMLEs and their price tag shows it!

Enfield fodder (ammo) comes in many varieties from a multitude of manufacturers. Military surplus ball, hunting and even special purpose (like incendiary, blanks or tracer) rounds are available to most buyers. The success and longevity of the rifles have created a plethora of ammo in many different configurations. Everything from premium Safari and hunting grade ammo to match grade ammo is available. For everyday plinking, its tough to beat the price and availability of military surplus ball ammo. Most military surplus .303 British ammo can be bought for about .14 cents per round. Sure, the surplus rounds are likely Berdan primed and the primers are corrosive, but, if you clean your rifle after a day at the range with a solvent or with gun oil before you store it away until the next range day, youll have nothing to fear. Remember, the SMLE is used to a tough life unlike many, more expensive rifles that are available today. For price and availability of .303 British ammo, check out Century International Arms, SARCO, J&G Sales or other national distributors here in the US. Of course, you could also check your local Wal-mart, K-Mart or other sporting goods stores for hunting type ammo (which is usually more expensive that the military ball).

Ooh, thats gotta hurt!

Despite some claims of detractors of the .303 British caliber round, the .303 packs a decent wallop when it impacts on target! Dont believe me? Check this out.

The standard military .303 British round (Mark 7, Military Ball with a 174 Gr. FMJ projectile pushed by 37 grains of Cordite) generates 1960 ft./lb. of energy at 100 yds. on impact and travels at about 2250 ft./sec. at that same yardage. The .303 British rounds ballistics lie somewhere between the 30-40 Krag and the 30-06. It has often been used with great success on dangerous and non-dangerous game in Africa and India for years (including on some of Africas big 5)! It has been noted that it is also quite effective when used as an anti-personnel round (see Charlie Haleys article entitled "Classic African Cartridges Part VIII: The .303 British" at

for an excellent article regarding the .303 British caliber round, its history and use in African game hunting).

Take a look at these general specs for several different configurations of the .303 British round (taken from Cartridges of the World, 7th Edition by Frank C. Barnes):

Type: Bullet Wgt. Powder Wgt. Velocity (ft./sec.) Muzzle-100yds.-200yds Energy (ft./lb.)-Muzzle-100yds-200yds.

.303 British (Mk.6 ball) 215 FMJ 31 Cordite 2050 1855 1670 2010 1650 1330

.303 British (Mk.7 ball) 174 FMJ 37 Cordite 2450 2250 2055 2320 1960 1640

.303 British 150 CP 38 Cordite 2700 2465 2240 2440 2030 1680

.303 British 174 SP 41 Nitro-Cellulose 2450 2195 1955 2315 1870 1480

.303 British 215 SP 31 Cordite 2050 1790 1555 2010 1530 1160

The shot heard round the world.

The SMLE is so prevalent that it is estimated that there are more SMLEs in the hands of private owners and collectors than there are in any governments possession currently.

SMLE related web pages, chat groups and enthusiasts abound on the Internet and in print. There is even a group based in the UK who is dedicated exclusively to competitive Enfield shooting. The SMLE enjoys a ubiquitousness that few other rifles attain.

The SMLE has been used on countless hunting trips (for dangerous and non-dangerous animals) to great success. As a matter of fact, Col. Patterson bagged both of the Tsavo Man Eating lions with his trusty .303 SMLE! When loaded with the correct ammo, the SMLE makes an excellent hunting rifle for just about any game. Another of the benefits of the .303 British and SMLE combination is that it has been around for so long and used in so many corners of the world, that it has had the chance to be used on all sorts of game and can be loaded to handle about anything from lions and tigers an bears (oh my) to varmints (using sabot rounds). The variations are nearly endless!

Some SMLE enthusiasts just enjoy a day at the range plinking paper targets (much like I do)! For the budget minded, weekend target shooter, the SMLE is an inexpensive alternative to paying too much for a rifle that theyll only use once a month. And talk about available accessories! Everything from Nylon replacement stocks, to galvanized funnels to boil out your Enfield barrel are available today.

Collectors enjoy the SMLE for its history, aesthetics, vast variety and affordability.

The SMLE offers a versatile platform for gunsmiths (or aspiring gunsmiths) to create new works from. Although it is not recommended for high-pressure or magnum rounds, the SMLE has a sturdy and proven action that is quick to operate, easy to modify and fun to use.

For the British and Commonwealth Military re-enactors the SMLE is an essential piece of Brit Kit that wont break the bank to buy.

If you dont already have a SMLE, I urge you to get one and try it out. See if it doesnt become the rifle that you bring to the range with you most often and the one that is the most fun for you to shoot. For me, the SMLEs affordability, versatility, wide variety of configuration and ease to maintain make it fun to own. The fact that it gives you just enough of a kick to know that youve had a good day at the range but not to make you see stars by the end of the fifth full magazine, makes it fun to shoot! Before you know it, you too may become a fan of the Short Magazine Lee-Enfield! However, if for some reason, you dont like it, youve not spent so much on it that youll need a second mortgage to finish making payments on it and youll very likely be able to sell it quickly to those of us who have caught the SMLE bug!

Your squaddie,