Rifle of the ANZAC: remembering the Lee Enfield

With the going down of the sun and the morning, we remember them; the countless men and women who laid down their life in service to Australia and New Zealand. Today we also look at one of the most common firearms used in battle by Australians in WWI – the Lee Enfield (sometimes known as the MLE or SMLE or simply a “303”).

The Lee Enfield rifle was standard issue among Aussie diggers in WW1. Image courtesy of Australian War Memorial

The Lee Enfield is a magazine-fed 303 calibre bolt action rifle, originally produced in 1895. It takes its name from James Paris Lee‘s rear-locking bolt system and the Royal Small Arms Factory in Enfield where it was originally produced.

So what does MLE or SMLE or mean?

Short Magazine Lee Enfield No 1 Mk III (SMLE No 1 Mk III). Image courtesy of Australian War Memorial

The “LE” stands for Lee Enfield” and the other letters refer to different model variations.

“MLE” was the first model and it means Magazine Lee Enfield (included in this category is the “LEC” Lee Enfield Cavalry Carbine which had a slightly shorter barrel).

1915 Australian Lithgow No.1 MkIII (H) SMLE (later used as the basis for No1 MkIII* HT sniper rifles).

Next came the “SMLE”  which means Short Magazine Lee Enfield (and the variations of how to pronounce it vary from “smiley” to “smelly” and “S.M.L.E.” . Take your pick). It was shorter and lighter again. This is the version that made its way into the hands of the Aussie diggers.

 

Diggers of the 5th Division 4172 Private (Pte) George James Giles, 29th Battalion (left) and 4015 Pte John Wallace Anderton, 32nd Battalion, just out of the trenches, in full kit (with mud), including webbing with ammunition pouches and trenching tool. Anderton has a canvas breech cover on his rifle. Pte Giles’ entire complete uniform and rifle are held by the Australian War Memorial

 

The Lee Enfield was appointed as the standard issue rifle among Commonwealth nations when WW1 was declared i 1914 (Australia was only 13 years old as a newly federated nation!).

Lithgow Arms in NSW began producing the SMLE 1 No 1. Mk III in 1912 with about 13,800 rifles reaching Australian forces in 1913 and 1914 (it took until 1915 for wartime quantities of 20,000 rifles per year to be produced). Each rifle was produced with a bayonet that had a matching serial number. In true Aussie fashion, some diggers ditched the traditional canvas webbing and strap designs for Kangaroo leather.

 

What is it like to use?

From a gunsmithing perspective, not much has changed in the design since the early models. Although the Lee Enfields remain cock-on-close system while most modern rifles have moved to cock-on-open system. Diggers were made of tougher stuff than some modern day shooters – the rifles have a solid buttplate so recoil can be a factor to consider.

Have you shot the Australian Lee Enfield? Or have some interesting info about the Australian Lee Enfield? Please let us know by emailing sales@iceng.com.au

We pay our respects and give thanks to those who served Australia and New Zealand during WW1, WW2 and beyond.