The Short, Magazine Lee-Enfield, (SMLE)
The Boer war of 1899-1902 was going to be a steep learning curve for the British forces. This conflict would see in the era of smokeless powder and a skilled, modern, proficient, and equally armed adversary. Furthermore the methodology and mechanisms of war were changing, becoming more efficient. Months prior to hostilities, Boer General Joubert purchased 30,000 Mauser magazine rifles, a number of modern artillery field guns and automatic weapons from the German armaments manufacturer Krupp and the French firm Creusot.
The British forces would have to adapt quickly to the corresponding new tactics of the Boer forces would employ. The Boers use alone of modern smokeless powders and magazine feed weapons would be telling, but when coupled with outdated British tactics and questionable leadership, the results were disastrous.
In fact one could very well argue that had it not been for the Boer War that future european conflicts would have seen the British empire in even graver peril of defeat. The Director-General of the Ordnance, Sir Henry Brackenbury said of that time that Britain was “attempting to maintain the largest Empire the world has ever seen with armament and reserves that would be insufficient for a third class military power”. An example of the of this was that in July 1899, 66 million rounds of MkIV ammunition were fouling barrels so badly that it could not be used, that was 40% of the reserves. Brackenbury was to prove correct on many levels.
The Boer war needs to be mentioned so that to understand the sudden and urgent requirement to upgrade to the current battle rifle of the day. The need to rethink many aspects of the rifle, be it the rifling, the ramifications of smokeless powder, to tactics and formations of troops. It shows the urgent need for a rapid departure from the Lee Metfords and Carbines to the something new and improved.
Introducing The SMLE.
The SMLE itself was approved in 1902, this also saw the conversion of the older out dated Lee Metfords and Lee Enfield’s to the new pattern. Further updates gave the ability to use more modern ammunition, better sighting systems and the introduction of charger loading.
Introduce in LOC 13853 dated 26 January 1907 the Mk III SMLE included a number of changes designed to improve its effectiveness and also simplify manufacture. This included the addition of a charger bridge to replace the charger guide on the bolt , a blade foresight with more open protector wings, a stronger rear sight assembly with U notch and finer graduations and repositioned protector. The inner barrel band was also repositioned.
As a result of the introduction of the Mk VII ammunition in 1910 changes were made to the sights of the rifle to accommodate the lighter pointed bullet and flatter trajectory. These were introduced in LOC 15638 dated 1 October 1911 to govern alterations to existing rifles and new manufacture. This included altering the profile of the rear sight bed, re graduating the dial sight and altering the magazine plate and cases. However it did not result in a change of the rifle mark designation, but altered rifles were marked HV on the barrel immediately behind the back sight.
The SMLE Mk III* was introduced by LOC 17622 on 2 January 1916 and was brought about primarily to speed up war-time production. These changes included omission of the cut off, long-range sights, windage adjustment on the rear sight, swivel lugs in front of the magazine replaced by wire loop, and later omission of the brass butt disc. However some Mk III* rifles were fitted with a cut off.
It should be noted that the changes to the design of the rifle were not always implemented immediately following the LOC and many examples will be found unmodified and made at a later date or upgraded during FTR (Factory Thorough Repair). For example Lithgow SAF did not introduce the changes for Mk VII ammunition until November 1917.
In 1926 the nomenclature was changed from SMLE Mk III* to Rifle No 1 Mk III*
Production of the SMLE No 1 Mk III* continued at BSA until 1942 and at Lithgow and Ishapore until after WW II
New Zealand Service
The Defence Report of 1910 states “A further supply of MLE short rifles Mk III is on order from England” implying that some are already in the country. Rifles have been observed marked N^Z xxxx/09 indicating their first appearance in New Zealand in 1909. 7,000 of the new rifles were ordered in 1911 and by 1912 8,000 were reported to have arrived that year. This allowed for the arming of the RNZA, Territorial Field Artillery, Garrison Artillery, Engineers and Mounted Rifles with the Mk III, while the Infantry was armed with the MLE.
It is understood that SMLEs supplied to New Zealand prior to WW I were not upgraded to the Mk VII ammunition, since that ammunition was not manufactured here and the manufacture of most of the rifles pre date the change. Another factor was a matter of logistics: the large number of MLEs on issue that were sighted for the Mk VI cartridge.
A further 2,000 Mk III were imported in 1913 and stocks of this rifle then stood at 11,895.
The New Zealand Infantry went off to fight in WW I armed with the Magazine Lee Enfield Mk I and Mk I* (Long Tom), however, on landing in Gallipoli many Kiwis picked up SMLEs from fallen Australians (3). In March 1916 the New Zealand Division in Egypt were armed with SMLE Mk III and MK III* from British 11
th Division (4). These British issued rifles may well have come back to New Zealand with returning troops after the war, in fact it has been reported that they exchanged their battle worn rifles for new ones from stores before returning and a number of NZ marked rifles with manufacture dates of 1918 have been noted.
In 1917 the Colonial Ammunition Company in Auckland began manufacturing MK VII ammunition for the New Zealand Government as required for the MK III and III* rifles and a further supply of these rifles was received in the country upgraded for the new ammunition and thus marked HV.
In 1919 SMLE Mk III were issued to Camps and Districts within New Zealand. MLE Mk I and I* held in store were converted to charger loading and sighted for Mk VII ammunition.(2)
A programme of stripping, cleaning and preserving stocks of SMLE Mk III* was undertaken in 1937/38.(2)
In 1939 a supply of SMLE Mk III with heavy Lithgow barrels was received from the Australian Government for sale to members of the Defence Rifle Clubs.(2)
The SMLE Mk III and III* remained the service arm of the New Zealand forces until they were replaced by the No 4 rifle at the end of WW II.
MKIII* SMLEs were still in use by the RNZA in the late 1950s, by the RNZAF till late 1960s and the NZ Police for several years after that.
The rifles below are No1MkIII and MKIII* and are a combination of various years and makers. They also include two NZ marked SMLE’s. Note the variations in the woods. Whilst it is common to get wood sets (furniture) of the same colour, such as the bottom two. It is equally common to get sets that have some variations. Remembering of course that these rifles went through two world wars and countless other Policing actions, damage to the woodwork did occur. When such damage occurred the local armourer had two options, repair or replace. Replaced items merely had to function, looking pretty was a bonus!
Yet to be restored – always a project……..
These include Peddled schemed rifles, an all matching Navy marked, a NZ marked CLLE and a particularly nice marked early Lithgow. All again in varying states of repair!
However these all represent an aspects of No 1 production that are worthy in their own right of being restored. A good example of this is the Peddled scheme rifles.
Specifications of the SMLE MKIII
Rifling and Twist 5 Groove left hand
Barrel length 25.2 inch or 640mm
Total Length 44.5 inch or 1130mm
Weight 8lb 10oz or 3.9kg
Magazine 10 round
SMLE Manufacturing and Production numbers
Enfield BSA LSASparkbrook Lithgow Ishapore
SMLE MkI 130450 130000 60000 14640
SMLE MkI Cond9
SMLE MkII Cond2653016760
SMLE MkII* Cond22190
SMLE MkIII &III*2,235000* 2,000000 4300001,400000
*incl SSA and NRF peddled scheme