The rifles of the First World War were the products of technical innovations at the end of the nineteenth century and practical improvements inspired by experience in small or distant conflicts. While the major technical innovations were common to all of the Great Powers, the practical improvements drew more upon experiences peculiar to each country, and Britain had been involved in a number of colonial conflicts, from Africa to the Middle East and India.
In 1903, the British dispensed with the practice of manufacturing long rifles for infantry and carbines for cavalry; a single rifle, the Short Magazine Lee-Enfield, saw use by all arms.
Three major technical innovations transformed the military rifle between 1850 and 1900. The first was the firing mechanism, in which a retractable needle encased in a bolt could be made to strike a bullet casing and ignite the powder inside. The second was the ability to store multiple bullets in a magazine that fed a fresh round into the receiver when the spent casing of the previous round was expelled. The third was the development of smokeless powder, which not only reduced the haze generated by rifle fire, but also produced substantially greater force; bullets could be made smaller, but their impact was still stronger than that of larger bullets fired by black powder, and they could travel much further before being spent. All of the major belligerents used rifles in 1914 that included these features.
Britain took its first effective step in rifle modernization at the end of 1888, when the Lee Rifle (or Rifle, Magazine, Mark I) was selected. It was chambered for a .303 cartridge, and while the British version of smokeless powder, called cordite, was not perfected until several years later, the Lee Rifle proved robust enough to endure the higher stress caused by cordite ammunition. The abandonment of black powder allowed manufacturers to simplify the rifling in the barrel in 1895, following a pattern submitted by the Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield. The result was subsequently known as the Lee-Enfield.
The British rifle modernization drive, which had begun as early as 1879, had always emphasized the need for rapid fire. Ironically, it was the Royal Navy, rather than the Army, which was more insistent on this point. Earlier versions of the Lee Rifle featured an eight-round magazine, with all eight rounds stacked in a single column. The Lee-Enfield was expanded to contain ten rounds, but the magazine was actually shortened by stacking the bullets in two staggered rows.
Either version exceeded the capacity of most continental rifles, which carried five rounds in the magazine. The Lee magazines themselves were detachable, but this was not the normal mode of reloading. Instead, additional rounds were deposited into the magazine through the receiver when the bolt was left open, as on continental rifles, with five-round charger clips speeding the process.
All bolt-action rifles employed some form of locking mechanism to secure the bolt when the gun was fired, usually through one or more locking lugs. The Lee rifles used a relatively simple mechanism in which a single locking lug, placed at the rear of the receiver, prevented the bolt from being blown back into the face of the man firing the rifle. Most manufacturers preferred to keep the locking lugs at the front end of the bolt, and the Germans used as many as three locking lugs (two in front and one in the rear) in their Mauser rifles.
The British, however, considered the Lee locking mechanism adequate, and the principal benefit was a bolt action that moved smoothly and swiftly. The desire for rapid fire has already been noted, but the smoothness of the Lee bolt mechanism permitted a rifleman to chamber another round without needing to lower the rifle from its position against his shoulder; it allowed him to line up his next target even as he ejected the spent casing from the previous target.
While the British fought a number of colonial wars at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, it was the Boer War that was most influential. The Boers were armed most like a European army, and they posed a greater challenge than the British had anticipated.
One consequence was the decision to simplify logistics through the use of a single main arm for infantry and cavalry alike. The barrel of the Lee-Enfield was shortened by five inches, and a protective plate around the front end of the rifle served to protect the front sight. The provision of a cleaning rod was discarded, internal guides for the reloading clips were incorporated, and the trigger was altered slightly. The result was the Short Magazine Lee-Enfield, or SMLE.
The official designation (Rifle, Short, Magazine, Lee-Enfield Mark 1) makes it clear that it is the rifle itself that is short in comparison with its predecessors, rather than the magazine, which had not changed since 1894. The SMLE was adopted in 1903; seven years later, the Mark VII round was introduced, giving the SMLE the performance statistics that would characterize it for all of World War I and beyond.
The Mark VII was a pointed bullet, still with .303 caliber (or 7.7 mm), and its muzzle velocity was 2,425 feet/second. It was powerful enough to pass through up to 18 inches of oak at close range, which was defined as anything less than 600 yards away.
No one had planned for the grueling trench warfare that had come to dominate the First World War in the west, but the SMLE proved a fortuitous choice in that context. Because of its size, it was the lightest of the major rifles, and its shorter length proved handy in the trenches as well. In the hands of well-trained soldiers, the SMLE could offer devastating rates of fire.
While most armies would consider twelve rounds per minute as a high rate (and one that must include two instances of reloading because those rifles carried only five rounds in the magazine), British officers could expect their men to fire fifteen times or more per minute, and in extreme cases, possibly as many as thirty.
Test marksmen at Hythe registered rates as high as 28 per minute, while anecdotal reports of soldiers in the thick of fighting suggest that they may have fired as many as thirty in real conditions. When facing platoons of British soldiers in the midst of what they termed a “mad minute,” German soldiers sometimes concluded that a machine gun must be present, although none was there in fact.
European armies had a long history of bayonet use, and the British remained committed to the idea, even though bayonets saw very limited use during World War I. In this matter, the reduced length of the SMLE served as a disadvantage, affording the British soldier a shorter reach than his opponents. To compensate, the British outfitted the SMLE with a “sword” bayonet that boasted a blade sixteen and a half inches in length. This proved less useful in the trenches, of course.
As the war progressed, the needs of wartime conditions outweighed the simplicity of offering a single weapon for all troops. The British found themselves in need of more and more men to offset battlefield losses, especially before conscription guaranteed a flow of men, and each needed to be equipped for battle. Older rifles, like the original Lee-Enfield, were issued to troops.
Turnover in manpower also affected the use of the SMLE; the high rates of fire on which the British had prided themselves had depended on the well-trained troops of the peacetime army, and most of those marksmen were gone by 1916. Their successors could not perform comparably, but the ease of the Lee bolt-action demonstrated its worth differently, allowing the never-ending stream of fresh troops to catch on more quickly than in other armies.
The SMLE remained in service, with minor modifications, until 1941, when substantial simplifications were made, and the Lee-Enfield, Number 4, became the main rifle of the British Army. It, in turn, was replaced after the war by a variant of the FN FAL that was suitable for use in a NATO context, but the sniper version of the Lee-Enfield was retained through the middle of the 1980s.
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Forty, Simon. World War I: A Visual Encyclopedia. PRC Publishing, 2002
Haskew, Michael E. Small Arms 1914-45. Amber, 2012
Sheffield, Gary. War on the Western Front: In the Trenches of World War I. Osprey, 2008
Westwell, Ian. The Complete Illustrated History of World War I. Anness Publishing, Ltd., 2008
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