England's ‘Last-Ditch’ Rifle: The Enfield No. 4 Mk 1
As a fan … no, near devotee … of the M1 Garand, it’s almost hard to say this. But the SMLE is one of my favorite rifles of all time. Specifically, I am a fan of the “last-ditch” No. 4 Mk 1 rifles that Britain pumped out while staring down the German Army across the English Channel. I’m unapologetically proud of that British steel in my safe.
This rifle has always had more going for it than any other gun in my safe. It was a gift from my father. He hid it almost comically behind a curtain on Christmas morning. It was just obvious enough to perfectly fit the “A Christmas Story” reveal.
Call it what you will, but the “Short Magazine Lee-Enfield” is anything but short in the magazine. Actually, it’s only “short” in stature. The rifle was built to a length more appropriate to a carbine of the day, replacing the single-shot Martini-Henry and earlier Lee–Metford. But the capacity and forward-cocking action set it apart from other service rifles of the time.
The 10-round magazine is nothing to shake your head at, even today. After all, the standard bolt-action capacity was 5+1 in the 1930s. Britain was already setting a high-capacity trend from its hard-earned colonial experiences. The larger capacity of the SMLE allowed soldiers to top off their rifles on the fly and still always maintain a full combat load. Standard stripper clips were five rounds, which mirrored other continental powers. Still, this forward-looking rifle boasted one anachronistic feature – a rimmed casing.
The .303 British round was first developed as a black powder chambering. With the revolutionary advent of smokeless powder – truly one of the greatest developments in firearms history – the cartridge was updated to meet the higher pressures of the new powder. The .303 was a staple for over 50 years in the British military. It was only supplanted by the 7.62 NATO chambering adopted by the West during the Cold War.
Britain’s SMLE rifle was a standby for more than a generation, and it saw Britain through two world wars. After World War II, it was exported around the world as surplus to equip British allies and nearly anyone willing to raise a fist against the Soviet Bloc. Sticking around with the "Territorials" of the Falkland Islands Defence Force, they were on hand for the Argentine invasion of that colony in 1982. Until very recently, they were still on patrol in the Great North with Canada's Rangers. It’s not uncommon to find them among Afghan fighters even today. More than 17 million rifles were made in this pattern, including some attempts at semi-auto conversions.
But it is one of the final variations that we have here. This “last-ditch” SMLE was manufactured in 1943, and it has all the signs of a wartime firearm made in the throws of desperation. The tooling is rough, the bayonet is little more than a hardened spike, and nearly every corner has been cut to streamline the manufacturing process.
Regardless, the gun shoots well. On more than a few occasions, I’ve managed to cycle through the 10-round magazine in under a minute while maintaining reasonable groupings at 50 yards. I say this with a relative level of humility given that I know a reasonably well-trained British infantryman could easily shoot the pants off me on the range.
However, that does bring me to one of the quirks of this rifle. It lacks the common ladder sights of the period. The original sights were actually among some of the best you could find on a period rifle. But that proved to be a bit of a production issue.
Instead, it is equipped with only 300- and 600-yard peep sights. Ladder sights did exist and are not uncommon for these rifles. The simplified sights were a mere stopgap solution. The manufacture of sights was a bit tedious, and the British Royal Ordnance plugged the gap to simplify the firearms and spur mass production in the face of what seemed like an imminent invasion from the German Army. This led to the stream-lined combat peep sights.
Nearly every single part of this rifle advertises the wartime expediencies taken in the manufacturing process. The milling is rough, the sights are relatively crude, the front sight ears are bulky, and the bayonet is little more than a spike with a spring locking mechanism. Having fired a handful of pre-war Enfield’s, I can say the bolt is also a bit blocky. But it cycles fast, and it shoots straight.
The forward-cocking bolt lends itself to speedy reloads. To this day, it’s one of the fastest running bolt-action rifles I’ve ever owned. These guns were dumped on the U.S. surplus market, and many were modified into sporting rifles over the years. The dead giveaway is still the magazine. If you see one, I highly recommend you grab it. It’s still one of the best gifts I’ve ever gotten.