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The British .303

by Hap Rocketto

Each one of the major allied powers of the 20th century has its iconic bolt action rifle. The United States fielded the Springfield 1903 and the Germans had the Mauser 98 family of rifles. The Mosin–Nagant armed both Czarist and Soviet troops and, as a little known fact, did limited service with the United States Army as the U.S. Rifle, 7.62mm, Model of 1916. The British carried the iconic Lee-Enfield into the far flung corners of the Empire.

The Lee-Enfield’s compound name, a common British fetish for both members of the aristocracy and various firearms, is derived from the name of the rifle’s bolt system designer and the factory in which he did the design work, James Paris Lee and the Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield. The Sten Gun, named for Major Reginald V. Shepherd and Harold Turpin, and EN for Enfield, and the Bren Gun, a a modified version of Czechoslovak design developed in Brno and built at Enfield, are but a few more examples.

The Lee Enfield made its official debut as a replacement for the Lee-Metford, upon which it is based, in 1895. The turn bolt rifle is unique among bolt action military rifles in that it cocks upon closing and features a ten round detachable box magazine. The cartridges can be loaded into the magazine either individually or by use of a five round charger clips.

Around 17 million Lee-Enfields were produced between 1895 and 1957 in factories that circled the globe; Great Britain, Australia, Canada, British and Independent India, Pakistan, and the United States. The most fascinating manufacturing sites are still in existence today in the many small forges and workshops that ply their trade along the Pakistani/Afghan border’s Khyber Pass. Known as “Khyber Pass Copies” these hand built rifles are easily distinguished from the genuine article as the markings are rife with spelling errors, reversed letters, and often carry incorrect royal ciphers. They work, but their shoddy and sub standard level of workmanship and materials often make them equally dangerous to the predator as the prey.

The Lee-Enfield, in any one of its many Marks, was the standard issue infantry rifle of the British Army, and many Commonwealth nations, from the Second Boer War through Korea and onto the Malayan Emergency, the Suez Canal Crisis, and the Mau Mau Uprising.

Although replaced by the Fabrique Nationale d’Herstal L1A1 Self Loading Rifle in the mid 1950s it could be found in the Royal Army supply system for another decade. It can still be found as an issued rifle on the sub-continent of India with both the Indian and Bangladesh Police, making it the longest-serving military bolt-action rifle in history.

The most common variation, the Short Magazine Lee-Enfield, is known affectionately to generations of Tommies, Diggers, Kiwis and Canucks as the “Smelly,” based on its initials SMLE, or simply after its cartridge, the .303.

The .303 British cartridge was first developed as a Boxer primed black powder round and adopted in December of 1889 as “Cartridge, Powder, Mark I.” Two years later it was improved when the black powder was replaced by a new smokeless powder. The new propellant consisted of nitroglycerine, guncotton, and petroleum jelly mixed into a paste. It was then extruded into spaghetti-like rods which were cut off to appropriate length for various types of ammunition. The diameter of the rods could also be adjusted, making it readily adaptable to both small arms and artillery ammunition. The new gunpowder was a refinement of Alfred Noble’s unstable propellant “Ballistite” and was initially called “cord powder” for its appearance. It soon became a victim of the earlier mentioned British penchant for double barreled names and quickly was known as “Cordite.”

The first two marks of .303 featured a round nose 215-grain, copper-nickel full metal jacketed bullet over a lead core. By the time the cartridge was retired from active service with the British it had been produced in ball, tracer, incendiary, blank, bulleted blank, rifle grenade, short range practice, armor piercing, explosive, high explosive, dummy, drill, observing, and line throwing varieties.
Very few commercial rifles were ever chambered for the .303 and so most rifles and/or actions in civilian hands are military in origin. This requires the owner to use either hard to find military surplus ammunition or reload. Reloading offers the best source of ammunition but requires the handloader to work around the notoriously loose chamber required on such a rifle. It is a popular hunting and competition cartridge in many of the Commonwealth nations.

Perhaps the most famous popular culture reference to the .303 was made in the movie Breaker Morant. Harry “Breaker” Morant served in the British Army’s Bushveldt Carbineers during the Second Boer War and was court marshaled for the murder of a civilian and several Boer prisoners of war.

When asked by the court what rule of war authorized his actions he replied “Rule 303,” referring to the Lee Enfield .303 rifle, meaning that was all the authority he needed. Morant was found guilty and about 6AM on February 27, 1902, was executed by a firing squad from the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders wielding Lee Enfield .303 rifles.

And, on that note, ends Hap’s Corner number 303.

Category: Hap's Corner

About the Author: Hap Rocketto is a Distinguished Rifleman with service and smallbore rifle, member of The Presidents Hundred, and the National Guard’s Chief’s 50. He is a National Smallbore Record holder, a member of the 1600 Club and the Connecticut Shooters’ Hall Of Fame. He was the 2002 Intermediate Senior Three Position National Smallbore Rifle Champion, the 2012 Senior Three Position National Smallbore Rifle Champion a member of the 2007 and 2012 National Four Position Indoor Championship team, coach and captain of the US Drew Cup Team, and adjutant of the United States 2009 Roberts and 2013 Pershing Teams. Rocketto is very active in coaching juniors. He is, along with his brother Steve, a cofounder of the Corporal Digby Hand Schützenverein. A historian of the shooting sports, his work appears in Shooting Sports USA, the late Precision Shooting Magazine, The Outdoor Message, the American Rifleman, the Civilian Marksmanship Program’s website, and most recently, the apogee of his literary career, pronematch.com.

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