RMR SWITCHES TO THE LEE-ENFIELD IN 1915

RMR SWITCHES TO THE LEE-ENFIELD IN 1915

Sunday, June 13, 1915

Rest Billets, Bethune

The Battalion War Diarist wrote for day: “Gen. Turner and C.O.’s of 3rd Bde. made early morning reconnaissance of front opposite sector just vacated by 14th Bn. for attack towards La Bassée through Canteleux, but this operation was afterwards carried out by 1st Canadian Bde.”[1]


THIS DAY IN RMR HISTORY: “On June 13th it was announced that the Lee-Enfield rifle would replace the Ross as the authorized weapon of the Canadian forces.  Most of the men had foreseen this change and quietly equipped themselves from Imperial casualties.  The minority now turned in their Rosses and formally received Lee-Enfields from stores.”  [2]

A private diary states that “not a tear was shed at the above parade.”  [3]

“The replacement of the Ross rifle angered Canadian nationalists such as Sir Sam Hughes, the Minister of Militia and Defence, who blamed faulty British ammunition for its difficulties. The Ross scandal was a blow to the government and allowed its critics to accuse Hughes specifically, and the entire Borden government more generally, of failing to support the troops overseas.”

Lee-Enfield Rifle No. 1 MK 3
Lee-Enfield Rifle No. 1 MK 3*

“The Lee-Enfield rifle was derived from the earlier Lee-Metford, a mechanically similar black-powder rifle, which combined James Paris Lee’s rear-locking bolt system with a barrel featuring rifling designed by William Ellis Metford. The Lee action cocked the striker on the closing stroke of the bolt, making the initial opening much faster and easier compared to the “cock on opening” (i.e., the firing pin cocks upon opening the bolt) of the Mauser Gewehr 98 design. The rear-mounted lugs place the bolt operating handle much closer to the operator, over the trigger, making it quicker to operate than traditional designs like the Mauser. The rifle was also equipped with a detachable sheet-steel, 10-round, double-column magazine, a very modern development in its day. Originally, the concept of a detachable magazine was opposed in some British Army circles, as some feared that the private soldier might be likely to lose the magazine during field campaigns. Early models of the Lee-Metford and Lee-Enfield even used a short length of chain to secure the magazine to the rifle.

The fast-operating Lee bolt-action and 10-round magazine capacity enabled a well-trained rifleman to perform the “mad minute” firing 20 to 30 aimed rounds in 60 seconds, making the Lee-Enfield the fastest military bolt-action rifle of the day. The current world record for aimed bolt-action fire was set in 1914 by a musketry instructor in the British Army—Sergeant Instructor Snoxall—who placed 38 rounds into a 12-inch-wide (300 mm) target at 300 yards (270 m) in one minute. Some straight-pull bolt-action rifles were thought faster, but lacked the simplicity, reliability, and generous magazine capacity of the Lee-Enfield. Several First World War accounts tell of British troops repelling German attackers who subsequently reported that they had encountered machine guns, when in fact it was simply a group of well-trained riflemen armed with SMLE Mk III rifles.

Standard Mk VII .303 inch cartridge for Lee-Enfield rifle
Standard Mk VII .303 inch cartridge for Lee-Enfield rifle

The Lee-Enfield was adapted to fire the .303 British service cartridge, a rimmed, high-powered rifle round. Experiments with smokeless powder in the existing Lee-Metford cartridge seemed at first to be a simple upgrade, but the greater heat and pressure generated by the new smokeless powder wore away the shallow, rounded, Metford rifling after approximately 6000 rounds. Replacing this with a new square-shaped rifling system designed at the Royal Small Arms Factory (RSAF) Enfield solved the problem, and the Lee-Enfield was born.
Short Magazine Lee-Enfield Mk III

Lee Enfield rifle
Short Magazine Lee-Enfield No. 1 Mk. III

The iconic Lee-Enfield rifle, the SMLE Mk III, was introduced on 26 January 1907, along with a Pattern 1907 (P’07) Sword bayonet and featured a simplified rear sight arrangement and a fixed, rather than a bolt-head-mounted sliding, charger guide. The design of the handguards and the magazine were also improved, and the chamber was adapted to fire the new Mk VII High Velocity spitzer .303 ammunition. Many early model rifles, of Magazine Lee Enfield (MLE), Magazine Lee Metford (MLM), and SMLE type, were upgraded to the Mk III standard. These are designated Mk IV Cond., with various asterisks denoting subtypes.

During the First World War, the SMLE Mk III was found to be too complicated to manufacture (an SMLE Mk III rifle cost the British Government £3/15/-) and demand was outstripping supply, so in late 1915 the Mk III* was introduced, which incorporated several changes, the most prominent of which were the deletion of the magazine cut-off and the long-range volley sights. The windage adjustment of the rear sight was also dispensed with, and the cocking piece was changed from a round knob to a serrated slab. Rifles with some or all of these features present are found, as the changes were implemented at different times in different factories and as stocks of existing parts were used. The magazine cut-off was reinstated after the First World War ended and not entirely dispensed with until 1942.

The inability of the principal manufacturers (RSAF Enfield, The Birmingham Small Arms Company Limited and London Small Arms Co. Ltd) to meet military production demands, led to the development of the “peddled scheme”, which contracted out the production of whole rifles and rifle components to several shell companies.

The SMLE Mk III* (renamed Rifle No.1 Mk III* in 1926) saw extensive service throughout the Second World War as well, especially in the North African, Italian, Pacific and Burmese theatres in the hands of British and Commonwealth forces. Australia and India retained and manufactured the SMLE Mk III* as their standard-issue rifle during the conflict and the rifle remained in Australian military service through the Korean War, until it was replaced by the L1A1 SLR in the late 1950s. The Lithgow Small Arms Factory finally ceased production of the SMLE Mk III* in 1953.

The Rifle Factory at Ishapore, West Bengal, India produced the MkIII* in .303 British and then upgraded the manufactured strength by heat treatment of the receiver and bolt to fire 7.62×51 NATO ammunition, the model 2A, which retained the 2000 yard rear sight as the metric conversion of distance was very close to the flatter trajectory of the new ammunition nature, then changed the rear sight to 800m with a re-designation to model 2A1. Manufactured until at least the 1980s and continues to produce a sporting rifle based on the MkIII* action.” [6]

[1]  War Diary, 14th Canadian Battalion, The Royal Montreal Regiment, June 13, 1915.  Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa http://data2.collectionscanada.ca/e/e044/e001089758.jpg
[2]  R.C. Featherstonhaugh, The Royal Montreal Regiment 14th Battalion C.E.F. 1914-1925, Montreal, The Gazette Printing Co., Ltd., 1927, pg. 62.
[3]  Col. Frank Stephen Meighen, “A brief outline of the story of the Canadian Grenadier Guards and the first months of the Royal Montreal Regiment in the Great War - told in an anthology of verse and prose,” Montreal, Printed for private circulation, 1926.
[4]  http://www.warmuseum.ca/firstworldwar/history/battles-and-fighting/weapons-on-land/rifles/
[5] http://www.warmuseum.ca/firstworldwar/objects-and-photos/weapons-and-ammunition/firearms/lee-enfield-rifle-no-1-mk-3/
[6] Wikipedia contributors, "Lee-Enfield," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Lee-Enfield&oldid=652623419 (accessed March 28, 2015).

 

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