The Lee Enfield 303

When it comes to military weaponry, one of the most resourceful rifles ever used in combat is the Lee-Enfield .303.

Still used today, the Lee-Enfield was adapted by the British Army in order to fire .303 British cartridges. With its square-shaped rifling system, the Lee-Enfield became the British Army ‘s standard bolt-action, magazine-fed, repeating rifle for a number of generations. Since 1895, this remarkable weapon has stood the test of time, making it the longest serving military bolt-action rifle still in official service.

The Popularity of the Lee-Enfield

What made the Lee-Enfield so popular among British field soldiers was its large magazine capacity, providing them with a more than an adequate volume of fire with which to fight enemy forces. The detachable, 10-round, double column magazine meant that soldiers could concentrate more on shooting than reloading. In fact, the Lee-Enfield .303 was the fastest military bolt-action rifle of its time, allowing trained marksmen to fire off anywhere between 20 and 30 rounds per minute.

While British troops enjoyed firing efficiency, the British government’s motivation for using the .303 was economically driven. The rifle ‘s rimmed cartridge design ensured that the Lee-Enfield would continue using existing ammunition stocks of .303 cartridges. The bullet for the Lee-Enfield .303 was the Standard Mk I, which derived from the Lee-Metford cartridge, Mark I.

The Standard Mk 1 had sharper edges and was cut deeper than its predecessor. It also had lands and grooves of equal width, all of which were necessary to prevent the erosive effects of burning Cordite in Lee-Metford cartridges.

British soldiers were not the only fortunate ones to use the Lee-Enfield. The rifle has been used by a vast array of armies, including forces in:

  • Australia
  • Canada
  • Ireland
  • New Zealand
  • South Africa.

In fact, today the Lee-Enfield .303 is being used by police forces in India. This makes the Lee-Enfield .303 one of the most numerous military bolt-action rifles ever produced, with a total production of all rifles at roughly 17 million units. This is a staggering number, which is second to only the Russian Mosin-Nagant M91/30.

For civilian use, the Lee-Enfield .303 is also now a popular hunting rifle, effectively used to bring down medium-sized animals.

The Many Faces of the Lee-Enfield

Since it first came into official use in 1895, the Lee-Enfield has undergone many changes, including new manufacturers. The Royal Small Arms Factory Enfield first manufactured the Lee-Enfield .303 when it designed a new barrel with altered sights and fitted to the Lee firing action.

From there, the rifle has been manufactured by:

  • Birmingham Small Arms Co.
  • Ishapore Rifle Factory (India)
  • London Small Arms Co.
  • RSAF Sparkbrook
  • Small Arms Factory Lithgow (AUS).

These manufacturers adapted to either small upgrades or conversions that had to meet new laws. For example, in New South Wales, Australia, .303 British caliber rifles became outlawed, which forced then-manufacturer SAF Lithgow to convert the rifle to “wildcat ” rifles.

In the 1970s, restrictions against .303 British caliber rifles were lifted. This meant that a large number of Lee-Enfield .303 rifle owners who had made the conversion to “wildcat ” calibers quickly switched back to the .303.

While the Lee-Enfield .303 has undergone conversion and re-conversion over the last century, this is one of the more popular and consistent rifles of its time. While a Lee-Enfield .303 dated as early as 1901 can be purchased for almost $1,800, even replica rifles can cost up to $500.