After discussing the fine Russian Mosin-Nagant rifle last column, let’s now look at the Lee-Enfield rifle family.
Any discussion of Lee-Enfields must begin with James Paris Lee. Lee was born in Scotland on August 9, 1831. His family immigrated to Ontario, Canada when he was a wee lad of 5. Early on, Lee had an intense interest in guns and their design. He even made a gun of his own design (it was a failure) by the age of 12. Lee and his wife Caroline came to the U.S in 1858, settling in Wisconsin. By the way, Caroline was part of what would become the Chrysler automotive family. In 1861, Lee’s first really successful design was adopted by the U.S. Army; it was a breech-loading conversion for the great Springfield rifled musket.
Perhaps Lee’s most important design was his magazine system that allowed rapid recharging of a rifle. It worked with just about any of the centerfire cartridges of the day and when combined with his bolt design and the rifling design of William Metford, a star was born. The Lee-Metford rifle was adopted by the Royal British Military in 1888. An improved design of the rifle, the Lee-Enfield replace the Lee-Metford in 1895. The Lee-Enfield in its various configuration was the main British battle rifle through both World Wars, and other British engagements around the globe until 1957. The very common Small Magazine Lee Enfield (SMLE) is one of the great battle rifles of all time. It was reliable, simple, very strong, and served the British with great distinction.
The Lee-Enfield design’s greatest difference from the Mauser and Mosin rifles are its rear locking lugs. Also, like the Mosin, it has a replaceable bolt head. While it is strong enough to handle the dangerous game magnums, even the extremely powerful .50 BMG, it does have some liabilities. The biggest is due to the location of the locking lugs on the rear of the bolt; the receivers tend to stretch after many repeated firings resulting in headspace problems with the guns. This is easily remedied with the installation of a new bolt head. The rifles are chambered in the very fine .303 British cartridge and are quite often referred to as a “303.”
Personally, I have had very little experience with the Lee-Enfield. I shot one about 30 years ago; I do remember that operating the bolt seemed quite different from what I was used to. I’m sure that the “cock on closing” action was what seemed so alien to me. I know a couple of hunters that have used LEs in .303 for years and they have provided more than adequate service. To us, the Lee-Enfield is just another rifle, to the Brits, it was a life saver.
Be safe and good shooting.