The Short Magazine Lee Enfield (SMLE) affectionately known as the "SMELLIE" Starting life as the No 1 Mk 1 and finishing as the No 1 Mk VI, it used all over the world in two World Wars. Most probably the finest bolt action battle rifle ever produced, it was easily capable of 15 rounds a minute of accurate fire in the hands of a trained soldier. However, a Small Arms School Corps QMSI managed a rate of 37 rds a minute in the 1930's.
Pictured is a Rare No 1 Mk VI trials rifle complete with trials pattern bayonet.
The Hard Won Reputation of The SMLE
Britain declared war on the 4th Aug 1914. By mid August the Belgians were no more than an irritating hitch to the German advance. Only one intact force stood in the way of the Germans - the BEF. The first shots that the British fired were at Malpaquet, the Germans were pulled up short near Mons as the withering rifle fire of the British caused them heavy casualties
2 days later on the 25 August 1914 at Le Cateau the storey of Mons was repeated only on a bloodier scale. Once again the Germans attacked in tightly bunched waves and again they were met with rifle fire so intense that they thought the British were equipped with machine guns. At the end of the day 3 British Divisions fell back with the loss 7,812 men and 38 field guns. Some 2000 of which became POW's
By September 1st 1914 the forward elements of the German Army were a mere 30 miles from Paris. The BEF had earned the title 'Contemptible Little Army' from the Kaiser, and the reputation of the SMLE rifle was born.
An account from Lt R A Macleod 80th Bty XV Bde RFA stated:
"Our Infantry were splendid they had only scratchings in the ground made with their entrenching tools, which didn't give much cover, but they stuck it out and returned a good rate of fire. The German Infantry fired from the hip as they advanced but their fire was very inaccurate."
What was conclusively proved in 1914 was the awful power of the SMLE in skilled hands. From the Boar War the Army had worked unceasingly to achieve a standard of speed and accuracy of rifle fire never before considered possible in any Army. The battles of Mons, The Marne and First Ypres showed how successful the training had been.
In a sense the first few months of the Great War represented the high¬water mark for the SMLE as an infantry weapon, since time and skilled instructors necessary to achieve such standards were just not available thereafter.
Trench warfare saw the return of many weapons thought to be obsolete; mortars, grenades being amongst them but above all was the rise in importance of the machine gun which was soon to rule the battlefield.
This said, what is not stated is that the main reason for the Army placing such an emphasis on rapid rifle fire between the Boer War and the start of the First World War was that the Treasury would not unduly fund machine guns so the army had to place ever more stress on rapid musketry as a substitute for machine gun fire. Also a lot of the armies hierarchy still believed that cavalry and bayonet charges were still the way wars should be fought.
Whilst it has been often accepted that the Short Magazine Lee Enfield is inferior to the Mauser System, particularly as regards the strength of the action and accuracy, it is most likely one of the most "soldier proof" rifles ever designed. It was also preferred for it's reliability under the most adverse conditions, as well as it's speed of operation. In 1912, trials conducted at Hythe against the German Service rifle, it was found that about 14 - 15 rounds a minute could be fired from the Mauser, compared with 28 for the SMLE.
Lee-Enfield Rifle History
The first Lee-Enfield rifle was produced in mid 1890s, yet the history of the rifle is bound to its predecessor: Lee-Metford. It was a bolt-action magazine rifle charged with .303 calibre rounds (10 round cartrige in the latest versions). Designed for black powder cartriges, it combined James Paris Lee's bolt action "cock on close" mechanism with William Ellis Metford's shallow, round-shaped rifling design. In entered military service from 1888, replacing Martini-Henry (Peabody-Martini-Henry) rifle, and was a British Army infantry rifle to the begining of 1900s - being systematicaly withdrawn from 1895 on. It was produced in RSAF Enfield as Lee-Metford aka Magazine Lee-Metford aka MLM aka Magazine Rifle MkI.
The birth of Lee-Enfield
The Lee-Enfield rifle was a MLM modification, combining Lee's bolt action with RSAF Enfield new barrer rifling system.
It was a response to innovation of cordite powder (smokeless ammunition). Lee-Metford turned out to be prone to rifling pattern wear-out while using cordite rounds, which led to quick accuracy drop. Enfield-type rifling with its deeper and square-profiled pattern handled cordite cartriges without problems. Thus, the new rifle inherited MLM's design, having the rifling upgraded and sighting changes developped to reflect a new ballistic characteristics of the smokeless ammunition.
It was labeled ".303 calibre, Rifle, Magazine, Lee-Enfield", aka Lee-Enfield Magazine Rifle Mark I, aka Magazine Lee-Enfield (MLE) and mass production began in 1895.
Beginning of the service
In 1896 a carbine version of "Emily" was introduced for Royal Calvalry, making Lee-Enfield Cavalry Carbine Mk I (LEC).
The MLE rifle was renamed Lee-Enfield Magazine Rifle Mk I* in 1899 after slight improvements.
The first major military operation Lee-Enfield served was Second Boer War (1899-1902). The performance was not superior and doubts were raised whether the Lee bolt action patent should not be replaced with Mauser - "cock on opening" - design. It led to initiation of Mauser-pattern research, an creation of Pattern 1913 Enfield (P13) and Pattern 1914 (P-14) rifles later on.
In the begining of 1900s, in 1904 there were further changes introduced. It was decided a new Lee-Enfield rifle would replace all types of long range firearms through the Army. Thus a new, universal rifle was designed: ".303 caliber, Rifle, Short, Magazine, Lee-Enfield, Mark 1" - widely known as SMLE Mk I or just "smelly". It was shorter than its predecessor and had a charger system upgraded.
The Great War
In 1907 further upgrades where introduced, with a SMLE Mk III label. It is SMLE Mk III that accompanied British troops in the Great War, though some slight modifications had to be made in 1915 due to necessity of coping with limited resources during wartime. The new SMLE Mk III* did not have magazine cut-off and long range rearsight, yet the actual product depended on the supplies at the moment of assembly in a given plant.
After the war small changes (eg. restoring magazine cut-off) followed. Simultaneously, new variations of "the smelly" were sought.
No. 2 Rifle was introduced as a .22 caliber SMLE No.1 convertion for training purposes, on the grounds of ammunition cost cutting.
In 1922 a SMLE Mk V production started. Its idea was to reduce manufacturing costs by simplifying the rifle construction. It did not meet the expectations and was withdrawn in 1924. It was renamed to Rifle No. 1 Mk V in 1926, when the British Army undergone a notation change. The old SMLE Mark III became No.1 Mk III Rifle, and MkIII* versions got No.1 MkIII* label.
In 1930 and attempt was made to introduce innovative floating barrel solution. A prototype named No. 1 Mk VI did not make a standard-issue rifle and was discontinued in 1933.
It is worth noticing that a SMLE alternative, a No. 3 Rifle - a Mauser-pattern P-14 - was issued from 1916 onwards, yet the production was not significant and confined rather to sniper purposes leaving No. 1 a standard infantry weapon still.
World War II
The forthfoming WWII forced further improvements of SMLE in the late 1930s. In 1941 "Rifle No. 4, Mark I" (aka SMLE No.4 Mk 1) issue began with upgrades made in bolt action mechanism and the barrel and muzzle changed. Again, in war-stricken years of 1942-45, production shortcuts were necessary and SMLE No.4 Mk I* was produced with less complicated bolt release and rearsight aparatus.
During that time a series of interesting modifications were introduced for specialised operations or particular theaters.
From 1940s the highest quality items were used as sniper rifles after applying telescopic sight. The versions were called SMLE No1 Mk III* (HT) and SMLE No.4 Mk I (T), depending on the SMLE model used as the basis for upgrades.
A limited series of special forces version of SMLE Mk III* known as De Lisle Commando Carbine was designed in 1942 to meet the needs of operations behind the enemy lines.
In 1944 a No.5 Mk I, informally known as a "Jungle carbine" - a carbine version of SMLE No.4 Mk 1 - was introduced in response to the needs of a shorter a lighter weapon, suited for Burma and East Pacific jungles campaigns. It was phased out soon after the war in the late 1947.
There was also a SMLE No.1 MkIII* based carbine developed in Australia, named No. 6, Mk I, but was never released to mass production.
A semi automatic Charlton Automatic Rifle was developped in 1940s as a MLE rifle conversion. The solution was also applied to a number of No.1 Mk III* rifles. The concept did not spread outside New Zealand and Australia and was soon discontinued.
Cold War period
Shortly after the war, in 1949, a new version was issued. SMLE No.4 Mk.2 replaced the star versions of No.4. Mk1 taking advantage of supplies availability.
In 1957 the a British Army service phase out process begun, as L1 SLR rifle was introduced (standard NATO 7.62mm rounds). L1 supply was not enough though, so a part of SMLE No.4 stock were rechambered for 7.62mm NATO rounds and designated L8 rifle.
There was also another NATO rounds application attempt in India in 1962 - a 2A rifle was developped on the basis of SMLE No.1 Mk III*. Slight modifications were made a few years later, with the new label of 2A1. It was abandoned in 1975, making 2A1 the last Lee-Enfield infantry rifle produced officially worldwide.
Even though, SMLE stopped being the standard rifle, it was retained as a special purposes weapon, mostly as a training rifle since the numerous items were available in stock. Also, it continuted career as a sniper rifle after rechambering to the NATO bullet standard, labeled L42A1 rifle. Sniper Enfields were gradually replaced in the middle 1980s with a British L96 rifle introduction.
SMLE variations are still used in some the Commonwealth countries. Most notably in Canada and India. It still serves as a secondary training weapon for UK cadets.
SMLE versions were often offered at civilian market after WWII and has been a popular hunting weapon in all the countries it was produced in (the Commonwealth and USA).