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. 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.
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.
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.
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.