The Lee Enfield .303 Review
Britain’s historic all rounder.
There are many people out there who have an opinion on the Lee Enfield .303 rifle. People with modern black polycarbonate sniper rifles, or the tight leather jacketed “belly flopper” mob with their spaceship looking 7.62 target rifles. Everyone has something to say, and its often negative. Having been acquainted with the 303 for a few years, I thought I would write an honest users review of the venerable 303. The information in this review took some years to collate, and draws from the experiences of experts, amateurs, target shooters, hunters, hand loaders and retired servicemen from a selection of allied armed forces.
A brief history of the Lee Enfield 303
The history of the Lee Enfield .303 is the subject of many books. On top of this, there is an awful lot of information in the public domain about the 303; written by excellent military scholars and historians. Therefore I will be brief, and give only the salient unarguable facts.
The Lee Enfield 303 was born at the end of the 19th century. It evolved from a rifle called the the Magazine Lee Metford (named for James Paris Lee’s receiver design and William Metford’s barrel design) which had came about following the Empire’s need for a magazine fed repeating rifle to replace the outdated falling block Martini rifles.
After developments in propellant made Metford’s rifling susceptible to excessive wear. The engineers at Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield (RSAF) designed a rifling pattern that would stand up to the hotter powders, and the service rifle became the Lee Enfield, known to the army as the Rifle, Magazine Lee Enfield. It was approved for service late in 1894.
Lessons learned from the Boer War showed the rifle needed improvement. The W^D (War Department) saw the need for a charger loading system and standardising of the service rifle’s length. The 30.2″ barrel of the MLE was deemed to be too long for many applications and the Carbine versions (Cavalry and Artillery) with 20″ barrels thought to be too short. A decision to go for a 25.2″ barrel saw the development of the Rifle, Short, Magazine Lee Enfiled Mk1 in 1903 which also had an attachment on the bolt head matching a machined slot on the receiver to allow loading with a 5 round charger.
This design was further enhanced, mainly with the introduction of the charger bridge replacing the bolthead charger guide, and in 1907 the Rifle, Short, Magazine Lee Enfield MkIII became the standard service arm and was to continue in service in this form in many places around the globe for near eighty years.
In 1926 changes in W^D nomenclature saw the MkIII and MkIII* rifles renamed Rifle No1 MkIII/ MkIII*
In England it was recognised that many of the machining operations and hand fitting required to make the No1 MkIII receiver could be simplified. RSAF Engineers set about designing a receiver that was better suited to modern production methods and the Rifle No4 was the outcome. Note, the No4 no longer carries Lee’s name as his receiver was totally redesigned, rather than just improved as it had been over the previous 40 years.
The No4 rifle began rolling into troops hands on the front line in 1942, eventually replacing the SMLE for many English, Canadian and New Zealand troops.
The Rifle, Short Magazine Lee Enfield No1 MkIII (SMLE) was produced in several factories in England as well as in Australia and in India. The Enfield Rifle No4 was produced in several factories in England and one in the US and one in Canada. There was also some production later in India.
Australia and India continued manufacture and issue of the No1 rifle, Australia until the mid 1950’s, India making an improved model in 7.62NATO, the 2A, from 1965.
In 1952, the British army started phasing out the 303 in favour of the 7.62 NATO self loading rifle or SLR. (A British made semi automatic FN FAL). The rifle stayed in service however into the 1960’s with the Royal Navy, Royal Marines and other non frontline arms.
The first time I fired a 303 was on a night exercise with my school CCF. It would have been around 1985 and I was 14 years old. We schoolboys were issued with a couple of dozen blank rounds and sent off to patrol the dark, damp woods of Camberley. It was extremely foggy and I could barely see “the man” in front of me.
We trod softly with a view to finding the enemy company and “eradicating” them. The only flaw in this plan was that they had exactly the same idea. I am guessing, for to this day I have no idea, that one of their patrols chose to lay in wait by the side of the wide earth track. We found a creek, and the section commander had us down on one knee while he consulted his map under his combat jacket. I held my Enfield half into the shoulder, a round up the breech and breathed as slowly as possible watching into the moist air. My oppo had his rifle pointing in the opposite direction. The section commander motioned us up and to him. He whispered that he knew were we were, and we had to advance up the track. Bearing in mind that we were between the ages of 14 and 18, I remember us being rather professional. We had been trained every week for a year, by a mammoth corporal of the Parachute regiment, who brooked no incompetence. We were very quiet and stepped slowly over wet twigs and obstacles. All around us we were surrounded by dense woodland.
The blast of a dozen. Enfield’s being discharged shattered the night silence. Muzzles flashed as flame shot into the night sky. We had been ambushed, but all was not lost- The enemy had heard us but not seen us, and as such had fired blind into the fog. Remembering the words of the para corporal we dived into the ambush charging towards the flashes, firing back from the hip. We disintegrated and passed through their line. A fleeting shape appeared, I aimed at it and fired. The muzzle flash did not even illuminate him, but he went to ground, I cycled the action and fired again at perilously close range. All around me I could hear crashing, banging and the roar of Enfield’s being discharged in the melee.
The no4 rifle was a formidable weapon at close quarters, and we cadets were not averse to swinging the butt into someone’s body. All completely against regulations, but this was the 1980’s and life and adventure were put before personal safety.
Within seconds were through the ambushers and running deep into the trees. I was not alone, I could hear someone near me, but I ran on. I remembered to thumb the safety catch on and kept huffing and puffing until I found a clearing which led into a tall grass field, now I tried to remember the last RV point- that our section commander had indicated. I arrived and lay down trying to keep my rifle out of the mud. One by one the section appeared, jumping down next to me, flushed with excitement at the first contact of the night. In contrast our section i/c was furious, he had been caught out and we were probably all “dead”. But this was an exercise. He called the signaler over and made a report back to our CO. We cadets passed around boiled sweets while he spoke and collated our ammunition. Some had fired more than others and sharing was the order if the day. We made safe and rested until the section I/c snarled to us to get up and get on with it. We spread out into a long single file and crept back up the track to try and find the elusive enemy and bring them to justice.
My time in the CCF allowed us to go on exercises, but it was hard to fire the 303 live. Our range at school was only good for .22 rimfire, and the school shooting team used 7.62 NATO rifles at Bisley.
One sunny day a year later, my time was to come. We had been sent on camp to the RAF station at Binbrook. During the week I put my name down for live firing. I paraded with a bunch of cadets from Liverpool at the firing range. We were issued 40 live rounds and told to climb up onto the firing points. We fired 10 round sets at paper targets. I did reasonably well, but the recoil was so powerful that my shoulder started to hurt. My last 5 shots went rather wide as I pulled the trigger -just to get it over with. I missed out on my marksmanship badge by a small margin.
A year later the British army converted to the SA80 and we cadets were issued the L96A1 cadet version of this 5.56mm calibre rifle. We all thought this was total rubbish. We could not use the butt to smack people on the head, the magazine fell off as you ran, and the rifle jammed at the slightest excuse. In addition to this, when on exercise, the blank cartridges made a popping sound when fired, rather than the cannon blast of the 303. We christened them, “the plastic fantastic”. The only 303’s I saw after that moment were in the hands of Indian policeman. I left university and went to work in India, my shooting was confined to .22 rimfire and shotguns. After four years in India I moved to Africa where I bought a .375 and kept my eye in with this.
Simon on the SMLE
Early Practice on an POF .303 No 4.
Twenty five years after having last fired a 303, friends in Australia invited me to take part in their annual 303 competition. Having agreed; I started looking around for somewhere to practice. So when another friend asked me if I would like to join his local rifle club I jumped at the chance.
As a probationer I had to use club rifles and luckily this club had a .303 made in Pakistan. The membership secretary was happy to buy some ammunition and Let me have a go. I was awful. I had to make adjustments to the way I stood, lay or sat. The rifle kicked like a mule, and I wondered why I was doing it. I kept thinking I was on the range at Binbrook with the pain in my shoulder. But I soldiered on, firing 60 rounds a session- trying to remember everything I knew about shooting.
Eventually reasonable groups followed; but I had to admit, that the rifle was better than I was. The club POF 303 was an excellent rifle. I spent 14 months as a probationer, always firing the 303 at the club. One day the membership secretary took me aside and said that he was happy to bring up my name before the committee and soon I was granted full membership. My Firearms certificate was issued close on its heels and I went off to buy a .303. It was literally as simple as that.
After much consultation with riflemen in Australian the USA and UK, I opted to buy a .303 no 4 rifle. Mine had some issues, but eventually I had them sorted by the most excellent Fultons of Bisley. IF you want to buy a .303 you could do alot worse than ask the most excellent Mr Sarony of Armalon at Harrowby stret in London or Fultons at Bisley Camp.
Handling and Ergonomics
When you pick up a Lee Enfield .303, no 4 rifle, the first thing you notice is how ergonomic it is. It is well balanced and holds easily in the hand. Held in the high port, the low port, firing standing or firing it prone, the 303 holds is designed to be handled with ease. Part of this is the construction of the furniture and part of this is down to the balance. The forguard is fat enough to really grip properly at any stage from the magazine forward. It seems that 100 years ago, some care was taken to make a rifle that the average infantryman could carry for a long time with ease.
It weighs in around 4 kilograms and this offsets the recoil which is medium strong. But again I keep coming back to the issue of balance. Its balances easily ; and is so much lighter than modern sniper rifles; or target rifles.
In this modern day and age we are encouraged to place our rifles in their bags at every possible opportunity, but when hunting Kangaroos in Australia, I found that the No4 that had been lent to me was as comfortable in my hand as it had been during the patrols of the my youth on the Aldershot and Blackdown training areas.
To compare and one must compare, there are two main contemporary rivals to the .303. The German K98, and the M1 Garand. As a Turk and someone familiar with Mausers, I was surprised between the difference in the two rifles. The K98 has a stiff bolt that cocks on opening. But the bolt is long and the amount of travel required to expel and rechamber a round is considerable. Added to this the safety catch is a knob on the bolt and not easily changed. The Mauser is hampered by its five round internal magazine, but most of all- the Mauser does not handle as easily as the .303. The furniture on the Mauser is smaller and the rifle is in my opinion less well balanced. So while the Mauser may be a brilliant long range sniper rifle, it comes in at a very confirmed second place as battle rifle.
Compared to the M1 Garand, the M1 wins on rate of fire. It’s gas blowback system is faster than the 303’s bolt action; and this is a huge advantage. But the 303 wins on ergonomics stripping and reloading. I used an M1 Garand in the Turkish Army and learned to hate trying to strip and re assemble the rifle. The 303 in comparison has a bolt and a magazine only.
The Garand has an 8 round magazine, which holds open when empty and has to be recharged using a special clip. The 303 stripper clip is fast and easy to use; and failing this the experienced rifleman should be able to press down five rounds very quickly and keep firing. In addition to this, when shooting I tend to fire off five rounds or so and then during a lull in the firing press down a couple more rounds and keep firing. This way it is rare that I need to put a full stripper clip down into the magazine.
While the Garand is semi automatic, it has one flaw. When it has a stoppage due to a pressure differential in ammunition, the clearing process can be a pain. The 303 in comparison merely requires a cycle of the bolt and the “bad” round is ejected- the new one engaged, and the rifleman continues to fire.
The 303 will work in extreme heat and extreme cold. I have used 303’s in +40’c and -10’c. This is not an extreme range, but I have used it consistently- in the bush, dust, dirt, cold wet, rain and in mud. In the bush, the key is to keep any grit out of the chamber and working parts; but if you do get grit in there, you can usually remove it with a damp cloth. In extreme cases, when I have been covered in mud while on exercise, I have had to remove the bolt, wipe it down, wipe the chamber clean. This process takes a minute. In the UK the most important thing is to keep your ammunition dry. The chamber must never have moisture in it, or the exploding cartridge will damage the chamber. I speak from experience on this issue. The rifle is easily operable in the wet, the rifleman merely needs to keep his ammunition in a pouch.
I have had very rare minor feed issues when doing rapid firing in serials. This is easily solved, as you open the bolt to recycle a round and it does not feed, you jab your fingers down on the top round twice and slam the bolt forward. This always re-aligns the rounds and the next one goes up the spout.
In this day and age, I use my 303’s in CSR competitions. I find them a joy to use. It is much more ergonomic (if heavier) than my AR15 type rifle. Which are used by seemingly everyone else. The comparatively long barrel makes for easy accurate shooting in the prone position, and for extremely accurate short range battle shooting.
The two things that make all 303s stand out from all of it’s peers are the 10 round magazine and the cock on closing bolt. There are very few rifles that were produced with an external magazine that could be fed by a stripper clip system with such speed.
Sights and Accuracy.
When it comes to firing at something, the Lee Enfield shows its true colours as battle rifle. However, the Enfield is unforgiving. In the words of a former British Sniper, “You do need to adhere fully to the marksmanshipprinciples. The Enfield as it is a very unforgiving beast. Adapted fire positions like the Hawkins and lay back coupled with the sling help greatly. ”
The battle sights are a single ring with a notch in the front of the barrel. Target acquisition through the battle sights is easy enough, but the aperture is so wide, that it pays to shoot your rifle often so that you know exactly what sight picture suits you. The sights were set to 300 yards, so you need to know exactly where the foresight sits for various distances lower than this. If you add a bayonet, the sights then drop to 200 yards. Again- the key to accuracy here, is to keep shooting, in different positions, until you find a comfortable way of putting rounds down range and on target.
If you want precision accuracy from 200 yards and beyond, you can flip up the leaf sights, twiddle the knob on top and dial in your distances to 1600yards plus. The leaf sights are extremely easy to use. You simply line the foresight guard up so that it sits on top of the circle that you are looking through and place the foresight blade over or just under your target. Most people say, “Lollipop the target” which works fine in practice, but with my .303 I tend to put the sight over the target. This works fine out to 1000 yards.
The no 4 has a free floating barrel which makes it accurate. However when you fit a new Or unissued barrel you end up with an extremely accurate long distance rifle.
The SMLE differs slightly in that the band in the middle of the barrel holds it down onto the bedding. The SMLE does not have battle or leaf sights, but has the “blade and V” system. This is personal, but I and many shooters find this a much more intuitive sight for snap shooting. When moving forward in a Service Rifle competition or when hunting animals in dense bush, it is easy to raise the rifle to the shoulder, look down the barrel and pull the trigger. There is no need to look within an aperture, merely down the barrel. The sight leads the shooter to the target through instinct.
This has the perceived disadvantage that it is less exact when shooting prone target. I find this to not be an impediment. My SMLE is set up so that I place the blade over the target, slightly popping out from the V notch and I am on target. My SMLE has an unissued British Barrel and is shockingly accurate. At 600 yards with open sights, it will put round after round into the bull, and in the right hands the V bull.
I had generally consistent but what I considered unimpressive results with my no4 rifle and iron sights at 100 yards. At 300 yards my firing improved and at 600 yards I was really quite good. At 1000 yards, I was a respectable shot. I could never understand why I was a mediocre shot at closer distances. I could quite happily put a few holes into the head of a no 11 target but if you asked me to get better than a 5 inch group I was useless.
One day, I was frustrated with my results, I had Fulton’s of Bisley add a picatinny rail and my Nikon 4-12x hunting telescopic sight. Then went back to my club 100 yard range and fired the 303 under very controlled conditions. (using a rifle stand and bean bags various) I was determined to see how accurate the no4 actually was. No matter what I did, I could not get less than a 3 inch group. So I took it down to Bisley Camp and at 300 yards, the rifle was much better. At 600 yards the rifle was a positive tack driver. When competing face to face with a Remington 700 308 with 26 inch barrel and bipod and 24x scope, my .303 (with no bipod) shot exactly on par at 300 and 600 yards.
In order to test it at longer ranges I took it to Orion firearms training – who have a range in West Wales. Here I tested the scoped up no4 200 out to 800 yards. The rifle performed in an excellent manner. Then we moved out to 1000 yards and 1200yards. At this point the .303 achieved a 3 inch group, on target, at 1200 yards. There are many people who say that a 303’s maximum effective range is 800 yards or maximum 1000. But the 303 consistently punched out to 1200 yards with ease, and knocked down steel plates.
words by Raf