Firearm of the Week, The Lee-Enfield Rifle No. 1 Mk III / III* SMLE (Smelly)

By CTD Allen published on in Firearms, Military Surplus

Old soldiers never die; they just fade away, so said General Douglas MacArthur at his final grand public appearance. However, some old soldiers refuse to fade away. This is true with the Lee-Enfield SMLE Mk III. Simply put—I love this rifle.

Lee-Enfield SMLE Mk III

While I do not run with the whole, “I like the way the gun looks crowd,” I have to say, I like the way the gun looks. It looks and feels both strong and steady. I have often held mine, a 1916 Mk III, and wondered about a distant soldier hunkered down in a trench during the battle of the Somme with nothing to hope for or to lean on but this rifle.

1916 SMLE MkIII

One cannot help gazing at the stock that extends to the rifles end, which creates the pig or pug nose. The nose used to hold a bayonet on the end long after the bayonet charge was obsolete. It is a true weapon of steel and wood. There was no fragile plastic on firearms during these times.

With its barrel completely shrouded, and the bolt open to the sky, it is almost the opposite of today’s rifles. You get to see the entire loading process from the top. This open bolt makes for very distinctive sounds as the action cycles or a magazine locks into place. A soldier could tell in the dark or a panic, what was happening with his rifle.

Born in January of 1907, this rifle became the backbone of the Canadian, Australian, New Zealand, and of course the British Empire during World War I and continued into the next world war. Chambered in the .303 British, a cartridge when first used thought to be too deadly for war. The Hague convention sought to outlaw this bullet especially when it had a soft or hollow point. The gun was in production through 1953.

“Smelly” on the Job WW I

On August 23, 1914 at the battle of the Mons, the only thing that stood between Paris and the German army was the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) armed with the Lee-Enfield Mk III. The Germans, cut down with such withering fire, retreated. Two days later, they attacked again and suffered even more casualties. Fearing that they were up against machinegun fire, the attack ended. Were there machine guns present at the battle of the Mons? Perhaps, but what the Germans ran into were some well-trained British soldiers brandishing the Lee-Enfield. The Lee-Enfield definitely etched its name in the pages of history on that day.

Throughout all of the First World War, this rifle slugged through the trenches. You can see it as a supporting cast member in such movies as The Lost Battalion, Passchendaele, and of course Gallipoli. While Gallipoli is the most famous, I highly recommend Passchendaele as the best movie for some SMLE action.

.303 British in Stripper Clip

The SMLE rifle would continue on battlefields throughout every major engagement since the First World War. It is impressive that it is still in use nearly 60 years after production concluded on these rifles.

If you were thinking about starting a military surplus collection, I would recommend this rifle to get started. Try to get one with a production date of 1918 or earlier so you can get the full historical prevalence of this warhorse. If you have a collection and do not yet have a Lee-Enfield Rifle No. 1 Mk III / III*(1916 upgrade) SMLE, then you don’t have a complete collection. Of all my guns, this one hangs over my fireplace. Get your hands on one and you will know why.

Look for Firearm of the Week every Friday and my Cartridge of the Week on Mondays. Share your thoughts in the comments below.

.303 British Stripper Clip and Magazine

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Comments (15)

  • Neil_UK

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    I fired my first Lee Enfield at the tender age of 14 at an RAF rifle range back in the mid 1980’s. The kick nearly blew me backwards off the mattress we had to lay on! 35 years later I am the proud owner of a Fazakerly No4 Mk2 made in 1949. I reload my own ammunition, shoot it as often as I can and I LOVE it. In my opinion the L.E is the best bolt action rifle ever made. The Canadian Arctic Patrol recently tried a modern 7.62 rifle, and after many troubles with them, they demanded their Lee Enfield Mk4’s be returned to them ASAP! So, they are still in active service, what does THAT tell you?

    Reply

  • Bret

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    Very good complimentary article on the SMLE. I have owned three Enfields over the last forty years. My first was a WW2 No. 4 Mk I* traded it off). My second was a No. 1Mk III* 1917 Australian Lithgow 2 M.D.
    It had an imprint of a kangaroo in off white stamped into the stock, I nicknamed it “my ‘roo shooter”. This one, along with an Orange ’07 bayonet a friend talked me out of, but not before I purchased my third, a 1916 BSA No. 1 Mk III* with ’07 Wilkinson bayonet.
    Although it is marked III* the only thing that seems different than the III version is the absence of the long range volley sights. As the magazine cut-off, round knob cocking piece, and windage adjustable rear sights are still in place.
    According to other articles on research of the N0.1 Mk III these changes were made as parts supplies ran out in various stages.
    I completely agree with the evaluation of the rifle in this article, they are a great rifle, a true reliable war horse. The rifle has a long legacy around the world as a most effective tool of war. And given the relative inexpensive cost of these rifles and numbers available, any serious collector of military arms would be remiss not to own one. This was the strong arm of the British Empire and Commonwealth.
    I think a country like India would do well to open a munitions factory to produce modern non-corrosive .303 for large order world consumption (500rd tins, 1000rd case etc.)

    Reply

  • Phil Connor

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    I have been around Lee Enfields all of my life. My first introduction was as a sea scout in 1965, at the time when the bayonet was fixed it was almost as tall as I was! My favorite rifle is now a 1955 No.4 MKII (ROF Fazakerley A10551) When I bought it,it was still in the cosmoline. The rifle is in pristine condition and looks as if it came from the factory yesterday. Truly an excellent rifle.

    Reply

  • barry

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    read that enfields had the fastest action ever; imagine a platoon w/ 20 (30?) rd mags (instead of the 10) w/ some kind of bipod (or trench sandbags), low-power scope against ‘gerry'; would out-shoot the garand easily, if trained somewhat; def out-shoot the M16 at range

    Reply

  • CJ

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    I own several Enfields.. These include a 1917 No.1 Mk.III* Lithgow (Australian manufactured). A good WWI/WWII collection will include an SMLE and a No.4 Mk.1 as well. I also have a Savage made Lend Lease No.4 Mk.I that is in very good condition. A great shooter.

    Reply

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