Book Review: “The Lee Enfield Rifle,” by Martin Pegler
Published by Osprey Publishing, 80 pp. $19.95
Review by 12570 Mike Kennedy
In his excellent memoir “The Way it Was: 1952 – 56” published a couple of years ago in e-Veritas, 3251 Charlie Simonds recalls the hectic few weeks of life as a new recruit at RMC in 1952. As was the case with every generation of recruits both before and since that time, one of the milestones marking Simonds’ entry into the military way of life was the issue of his rifle, in his case the “SMLE, the standard Army weapon.”
The weapon he refers to is the redoubtable Lee Enfield, and Simonds’ rifle was one of an estimated seventeen million that were manufactured between the latter years of the 19th century and the time it eventually went out of service nearly 70 years later. In his aptly-titled book “The Lee Enfield Rifle” historian and curator Martin Pegler provides a fascinating account of the history of this remarkable weapon, which was carried into action by well over a million Canadian soldiers in the two World Wars and later Korea.
When the Old 18 first arrived in Kingston to begin their training in 1876, the rifle they drilled with was the .450 caliber Martini-Henry, which had first been adopted by the British Army in 1871, and purchased in limited quantities by Canada a few years later. Named for its designers, the Swiss Frederich Von Martini and the Scotsman Alexander Henry, the Marini-Henry saw extensive use in the colonial wars of the 1870’s. By the standards of the day, it had much to commend it. It was robust and reliable, and relatively simple for the average soldier to maintain in the field. It also packed a fearsome wallop with its 480 grain bullet, one of the largest projectiles fired by any military rifle of the era.
At the same time, however, the Martini-Henry also had some noteworthy shortcomings. As a single-shot weapon, it had to be manually reloaded every time it was fired, and it had a tendency to be prone to cartridge extraction problems. At longer ranges it was only moderately accurate, a limitation which often required commanders to order troops to hold their fire until opposing forces had advanced to within 400 years. Another problem was that the clouds of smoke produced by the rifle’s black powder cartridges left the shooter’s position much easier to identify and detect by the enemy.
The weaknesses of the Martini-Henry were brought into sharp relief at the Battle of Isandlwana in January 1879, when a British force armed with the rifle were overwhelmed and massacred by Zulu warriors equipped mainly with spears and shields. The battle was an unmitigated disaster for the British, and by the time the day was done, over 1,300 over of their soldiers lay dead on the battlefield. The massive defeat at the hands of the Zulu tribesmen made it clear that the British Army was in need of a more effective service rifle.
In search of a better solution, in the spring of 1880 the Small Arms Committee of the British War Office launched a process of evaluation that initially encompassed nine different competitors, including not only British-designed rifles, but also entries from Winchester in the United States and Mauser in Germany The field was eventually narrowed down to three finalists, and in December 1889 the British Army finally adopted the Lee Metford, the first bolt-action, magazine-fed repeating rifle ever approved for its use.
The weapon would continue to undergo further testing and refinement over much of the next 20 years, culminating in the advent of the “Short, Magazine Lee Enfield Mark III” in 1907, which would later serve as the standard service rifle for the duration of the Great War. The new weapon’s capabilities were impressive: it was durable, accurate, and in the hands of a skilled rifleman, capable of as many as 30 aimed shots in a single minute. It featured a detachable, ten-round magazine that could be quickly reloaded in combat by inserting replacement ammo clips in the breach. The SMLE also boasted formidable stopping power with a .303 bullet that was capable of penetrating 18 inches of packed sandbags.
With the onset of the Great War in 1914 the SMLE would come to be widely adopted throughout the forces of the British Commonwealth. Over the course of the war production of the rifle soared, peaking at 1.2 million units in 1917 alone. Perhaps inevitably, this was marred by inconsistent quality control, with the result that some of the SMLE’s manufactured during the war provided to be far less reliable than the original design.
Following the end of the Great War further modifications continued to be made, resulting in the two final variants of the weapon to see military service, the No. 4 Mark I rifle, and its more diminutive cousin the No. 5 Mark I “Jungle Carbine”. Adopted in 1941, the No.4 Mark I was very similar to its predecessors, but featured a heavier barrel that made the rifle stronger. Its design was also modified to make it easier and less expensive to manufacture, something that no doubt eventually contributed in a significant way to the Allied victory.
The Lee Enfield continued to be used as the standard service rifle by Commonwealth forces in Korea, but by the early 1950’s indications were becoming clear that its days as a mainstream infantry weapon were numbered. This was due partially to the widespread adoption of automatic weapons such as the now ubiquitous AK 47 by Warsaw Pact forces, and also to the decision by NATO countries to adopt new small arms that would fire a standardized cartridge. In 1955, Canada made the decision to replace the Lee Enfield with the newly-developed 7.62 mm FN FAL, which remained the standard service rifle for most of the next 35 years. Nonetheless, the Lee Enfield continued see widespread use among both military forces and irregulars in the developing world, and in this country, more limited service with the Canadian Rangers well into the second decade of the new millennium.
Even though it has now disappeared from use by the Canadian Forces, the Lee Enfield will always remain a critically important part our military heritage. It is a weapon that many thousands of Canadian soldiers have carried with pride on parade, and with determination into battle. It is a rifle that was present at some our greatest military triumphs, such as the crossing of the Canal du Nord and the storming of Juno Beach; and also at some of our most agonizing debacles, such as the valiant but ill-fated defence of Hong Kong in 1941, and the Dieppe fiasco the following year. Perhaps more than anything else, the Lee Enfield is and always will be an iconic symbol of the qualities that define the Canadian soldier: resilient, adaptable, capable of withstanding almost any amount of punishment, and always ready to get the job done, no matter how difficult or dangerous the mission may seem.
No matter whether it was Harry Burstall’s men advancing up Vimy Ridge, Sir Charles and his boys pushing the Germans out of the Scheldt, or Dan Loomis leading night patrols as a newly-commissioned RCR officer in Korea, for decades the Lee Enfield was the go-to weapon successive generations of Canadian soldiers have trusted and depended upon. Martin Pegler does a commendable job of not only describing the evolution and technical characteristics of this remarkable weapon, but also of recounting the history of its operational use in an astonishing range of different settings. This is a book that is highly recommended for any Ex-Cadet with an interest in the field of small arms, or who desires to learn more about a rifle that played a pivotal role in modern Canadian military history.