There are many people out there who have an opinion on the Lee Enfield .303 rifle. People with modern black polycarbonate sniper rifles, or the tight leather jacketed “belly flopper” mob with their spaceship looking 7.62 target rifles. Everyone has something to say, and its often negative. Having been acquainted with the 303 for a few years, I thought I would write an honest users review of the venerable 303. The information in this review took some years to collate, and draws from the experiences of experts, amateurs, target shooters, hunters, hand loaders and retired servicemen from a selection of allied armed forces.
A brief history of the Lee Enfield 303
The history of the Lee Enfield .303 is the subject of many books. On top of this, there is an awful lot of information in the public domain about the 303 written by excellent military scholars and historians.Therefore I will be brief, and give only the salient unarguable facts. The Lee Enfield 303 was born at the end of the 19th century in 1895 from the Lee Metford black powder rifle. It was called the “Rifle Magazine Lee Enfield”. Or just the MLE. It had a 30 inch barrel and was quite accurate. The 303 cartridge was rather over researched and much modified, and as such, it is actually a .318. It did not perform as well as hoped against the Boers in the Boer war, and so various design changes took place after this time to both the rifle and the ammunition.
The rifle served the British army reasonably well until 1905. At this stage the army realised that they would need a shorter rifle for modern warfare and so they produced the SMLE or short magazine Lee Enfield. This was achieved by producing the same rifle with a 23 inch barrel. The First World War, brought with it, trench warfare and the realisation that many more SMLE’s were badly needed. As the war progressed production could not keep up, and so the existing MLE’s were cut down to make more SMLE’s. Production of the SMLE ceased in the UK in 1939 and gave way to the no.4 rifle. In Australia and Canada
production continued. The Indians manufactured the Ishapore SMLE in 7.62 NATO after 1962. In summary, the Lee Enfield 303 was made in Australia Canada, the USA, India and Pakistan and South Africa.
There are many marks of SMLE which can be identified by their magazine cut off or volley sights etc; but the trick is to find a good one; one with good headspace and a good barrel. It is generally correct that an SMLE made in Canada or Australia during the 1940’s will probably be in better condition than one made in 1916 at the height of the war. Having said that- most of the WW1 SMLE’s have had their barrels shotout and changed by the Imperial British Army’s armourers.
In 1952, the British army started phasing out the 303 in favour of the 7.62 NATO self loading rifle or SLR. (A British made semi automatic FN FAL). The rifle stayed in service however into the 1960’s with the Royal Navy, Royal Marines and other non front line arms.
The first time I fired a 303 was on a night exercise with my school CCF. It would have been around 1985 and I was 14 years old. We schoolboys were issued with a couple of dozen blank rounds and sent off to patrol the dark, damp woods of Camberley. It was extremely foggy and I could barely see “the man” in front of me.
We trod softly with a view to finding the enemy company and “eradicating” them. The only flaw in this plan was that they had exactly the same idea. I am guessing, for to this day I have no idea, that one of their patrols chose to lay in wait by the side of the wide earth track. We found a creek, and the section commander had us down on one knee while he consulted his map under his combat jacket. I held my Enfield half into the shoulder, a round up the breech and breathed as slowly as possible watching into the moist air. My oppo had his rifle pointing in the opposite direction. The section commander motioned us up and to him. He whispered that he knew were we were, and we had to advance up the track. Bearing in mind that we were between the ages of 14 and 18, I remember us being rather professional. We had been trained every week for a year, by a mammoth corporal of the Parachute regiment, who brooked no incompetence. We were very quiet and stepped slowly over wet twigs and obstacles. All around us we were surrounded by dense woodland.
The blast of a dozen. Enfield’s being discharged shattered the night silence. Muzzles flashed as flame shot into the night sky. We had been ambushed, but all was not lost – The enemy had heard us but not seen us, and as such had fired blind into the fog. Remembering the words of the para corporal we dived into the ambush charging towards the flashes, firing back from the hip. We disintegrated and passed through
their line. A fleeting shape appeared, I aimed at it and fired. The muzzle flash did not even illuminate him, but he went to ground, I cycled the action and fired again at perilously close range. All around me I could hear crashing, banging and the roar of Enfield’s being discharged in the melee.
The no4 rifle was a formidable weapon at close quarters, and we cadets were not averse to swinging the butt into someone’s body. All completely against regulations, but this was the 1980’s and life and adventure were put before personal safety!
Within seconds we were through the ambushers and running deep into the trees. I was not alone, I could hear someone near me, but I ran on. I remembered to thumb the safety catch on and kept huffing and puffing until I found a clearing which led into a tall grass field, now I tried to remember the last RV point that our section commander had indicated. I arrived and lay down trying to keep my rifle out of the mud. One by one the section appeared, jumping down next to me, flushed with excitement at the first contact of the night. In contrast our section i/c was furious, he had been caught out and we were probably all “dead”. But this was an exercise. He called the signaler over and made a report back to our CO. We cadets passed around boiled sweets while he spoke and collated our ammunition. Some had fired more than others and sharing was the order if the day. We made safe and rested until the section I/c snarled to us to get up and get on with it. We spread out into a long single file and crept back up the track to try and find the elusive enemy and bring them to justice.
My time in the CCF allowed us to go on exercises, but it was hard to fire the 303 live. Our range at school was only good for .22 rimfire, and the school shooting team used 7.62 NATO rifles at Bisley.
One sunny day a year later, my time was to come. We had been sent on camp to the RAF station at Binbrook. During the week I put my name down for live firing. I paraded with a bunch of cadets from Liverpool at the firing range. We were issued 40 live rounds and told to climb up onto the firing points. We fired 10 round sets at paper targets. I did reasonably well, but the recoil was so powerful that my shoulder started to hurt. My last 5 shots went rather wide as I pulled the trigger -just to get it over with. I missed out on my marksmanship badge by a small margin.
A year later the British army converted to the SA80 and we cadets were issued the L96A1 cadet version of this 5.56mm calibre rifle. We all thought this was total rubbish. We could not use the butt to smack people on the head, the magazine fell off as you ran, and the rifle jammed at the slightest excuse. In addition to this, when on exercise, the blank cartridges made a popping sound when fired, rather than the cannon blast of the 303. We christened them, “the plastic fantastic”. The only 303’s I saw after that moment were in the hands of Indian policeman. I left university and went to work in India, my shooting was confined to .22 rimfire and shotguns. After four years in India I moved to Africa where I bought a .375 and kept my eye in with this.
Early Practice on an POF .303 No 4.
Twenty five years after having last fired a 303, friends in Australia invited me to take part in their annual 303 competition. Having agreed; I started looking around for somewhere to practice. So whenanother friend asked me if I would like to join his local rifle club I jumped at the chance.
As a probationer I had to use club rifles and luckily this club had a .303 made in Pakistan. The membership secretary was happy to buy some ammunition and Let me have a go. I was awful. I had to make adjustments to the way I stood, lay or sat. The rifle kicked like a mule, and I wondered why I was doing it. I kept thinking I was on the range at Binbrook with the pain in my shoulder. But I soldiered on, firing 60 rounds a session- trying to remember everything I knew about shooting.
Eventually reasonable groups followed; but I had to admit, that the rifle was better than I was. The club POF 303 was an excellent rifle. I spent 14 months as a probationer, always firing the 303 at the club. One day the membership secretary took me aside and said that he was happy to bring up my name before the committee and soon I was granted full membership. My Firearms certificate was issued close on its heels and I went off to buy a .303. It was literally as simple as that.
After much consultation with riflemen in Australian the USA and UK, I opted to buy a .303 no 4 rifle. A Longbranch made in Canada in 1944. This rifle had been retrofitted with a Walther Lothar Barrel and unissued woodwork. As such it was almost a New Rifle. The Rifle had been made by Chris at C&G firearms in Herts.www.cgfirearms.co.uk
Handling and Ergonomics
When you pick up a Lee Enfield .303, no 4 rifle, the first thing you notice is how ergonomic it is. It is well balanced and holds easily in the hand. Held in the high port, the low port, firing standing or firing it prone, the 303 holds is designed to be handled with ease. Part of this is the construction of the furniture and part of this is down to the balance. The forguard is fat enough to really grip properly at any stage from the magazine forward. It seems that 100 years ago, some care was taken to make a rifle that the average infantryman could carry for a long time with ease.
It weighs in around 4 kilograms and this offsets the recoil which is medium strong. But again I keep coming back to the issue of balance. Its balances easily ; and is so much lighter than modern sniper rifles; or target rifles.
In this modern day and age we are encouraged to place our rifles in their bags at every possible opportunity, but when hunting Kangaroos in Australia, I found that the No4 that had been lent to me was as comfortable in my hand as it had been during the patrols of the my youth on the Aldershot and Blackdown training areas.
To compare and one must compare, there are two main contemporary rivals to the .303. The German K98, and the M1 Garand. As a Turk and someone familiar with Mausers, I was surprised between the difference in the two rifles. The K98 has a stiff bolt that cocks on opening. But the bolt is long and the amount of travel required to expel and rechamber a round is considerable. Added to this the safety catch is a knob on the bolt and not easily changed. The Mauser is hampered by its five round internal magazine, but most of all- the Mauser does not handle as easily as the .303. The furniture on the Mauser is smaller and the rifle is in my opinion less well balanced. So while the Mauser may be a brilliant long range sniper rifle, it comes in at a very confirmed second place as battle rifle.
Compared to the M1 Garand, the M1 wins on rate of fire. It’s gas blowback system is faster than the 303’s bolt action; and this is a huge advantage. But the 303 wins on ergonomics stripping and reloading. I used an M1 Garand in the Turkish Army and learned to hate trying to strip and re assemble the rifle. The 303 in comparison has a bolt and a magazine only.
The Garand has an 8 round magazine, which holds open when empty and has to be recharged using a special clip. The 303 stripper clip is fast and easy to use; and failing this the experienced rifleman should
be able to press down five rounds very quickly and keep firing. In addition to this, when shooting I tend to fire off five rounds or so and then during a lull in the firing press down a couple more rounds and keep firing. This way it is rare that I need to put a full stripper clip down into the magazine.
SMLE Mk1 1903
While the Garand is semi automatic, it has one flaw. When it has a stoppage due to a pressure differential in ammunition, the clearing process can be a pain. The 303 in comparison merely requires a cycle of the bolt and the “bad” round is ejected- the new one engaged, and the rifleman continues to fire.
The 303 will work in extreme heat and extreme cold. I have used 303’s in +40’c and -10’c. This is not an extreme range, but I have used it consistently- in the bush, dust, dirt, cold wet, rain and in mud. In the bush, the key is to keep any grit out of the chamber and working parts; but if you do get grit in there, you can usually remove it with a damp cloth. In extreme cases, when I have been covered in mud while on exercise, I have had to remove the bolt, wipe it down, wipe the chamber clean. This process takes a minute. In the UK the most important thing is to keep your ammunition dry. The chamber must never have moisture in it, or the exploding cartridge will damage the chamber. I speak from experience on this issue. The rifle is easily operable in the wet, the rifleman merely needs to keep his ammunition in a pouch.
I have had very rare minor feed issues when doing rapid firing in serials. This is easily solved, as you open the bolt to recycle a round and it does not feed, you jab your fingers down on the top round twice and slam the bolt forward. This always re-aligns the rounds and the next one goes up the spout.
In this day and age, I use my 303’s in CSR competitions. I find them a joy to use. It is much more ergonomic (if heavier) than my AR15 type rifle. Which are used by seemingly everyone else. The comparatively long barrel makes for easy accurate shooting in the prone position, and for extremely accurate short range battle shooting.
The two things that make all 303s stand out from all of it’s peers are the 10 round magazine and the cock on closing bolt. There are very few rifles that were produced with an external magazine that could be fed by a stripper clip system with such speed.
Sights and Accuracy.
When it comes to firing at something, the Lee Enfield shows its true colours as battle rifle. However, the Enfield is unforgiving. In the words of a former British Sniper, “You do need to adhere fully to the marksmanship principles. The Enfield as it is a very unforgiving beast. Adapted fire positions like the Hawkins and lay back coupled with the sling help greatly. ”
The battle sights are a single ring with a notch in the front of the barrel. Target acquisition through the battle sights is easy enough, but the aperture is so wide, that it pays to shoot your rifle often so that you know exactly what sight picture suits you. The sights were set to 300 yards, so you need to know exactly where the foresight sits for various distances lower than this. If you add a bayonet, the sights then drop to 200 yards. Again- the key to accuracy here, is to keep shooting, in different positions, until you find a comfortable way of putting rounds down range and on target.
If you want precision accuracy from 200 yards and beyond, you can flip up the leaf sights, twiddle the knob on top and dial in your distances to 1600yards plus. The leaf sights are extremely easy to use. You simply line the foresight guard up so that it sits on top of the circle that you are looking through and place the foresight blade over or just under your target. Most people say, “Lollipop the target” which works fine in practice, but with my .303 I tend to put the sight over the target. This works fine out to 1000 yards.
The no 4 has a free floating barrel which makes it accurate. However when you fit a new Or unissued barrel you end up with an extremely accurate long distance rifle.
The SMLE differs slightly in that the band in the middle of the barrel holds it down onto the bedding. The SMLE does not have battle or leaf sights, but has the “blade and V” system. This is personal, but I and many shooters find this a much more intuitive sight for snap shooting. When moving forward in a Service Rifle competition or when hunting animals in dense bush, it is easy to raise the rifle to the shoulder, look down the barrel and pull the trigger. There is no need to look within an aperture, merely down the barrel. The sight leads the shooter to the target through instinct.
This has the perceived disadvantage that it is less exact when shooting prone target. I find this to not be an impediment. My SMLE is set up so that I place the blade over the target, slightly popping out from the V notch and I am on target. My SMLE has an unissued British Barrel and is shockingly accurate. At 600 yards with open sights, it will put round after round into the bull, and in the right hands the V bull.
I had generally consistent but what I considered unimpressive results with my no4 rifle and iron sights at 100 yards. At 300 yards my firing improved and at 600 yards I was really quite good. At 1000 yards, I was a respectable shot. I could never understand why I was a mediocre shot at closer distances. I could quite happily put a few holes into the head of a no 11 target but if you asked me to get better than a 5 inch group I was useless.
One day, I was frustrated with my results, I had Fulton’s of Bisley add a picatinny rail and my Nikon 4-12x hunting telescopic sight. Then went back to my club 100 yard range and fired the 303 under very controlled conditions. (using a rifle stand and bean bags various) I was determined to see how accurate the no4 actually was. No matter what I did, I could not get less than a 3 inch group. So I took it down to Bisley Camp and at 300 yards, the rifle was much better. At 600 yards the rifle was a positive tack driver. When competing face to face with a Remington 700 308 with 26 inch barrel and bipod and 24x scope, my .303 (with no bipod) shot exactly on par at 300 and 600 yards. (editor coughs and splutters)
In order to test it at longer ranges I took it to Orion firearms training – who have a range in West Wales. http://www.orionfirearmstraining.co.uk/ Here I tested the scoped up no4 200 out to 800 yards. The rifle performed in an excellent manner.Then we moved out to 1000 yards and 1200yards. At this point the .303 achieved a 3 inch group, on target, at 1200 yards. There are many people who say that a 303’s maximum effective range is 800 yards or maximum 1000. But the 303 consistently punched out to 1200 yards with ease, and knocked down steel plates.
Ammunition – The .303 MkVII ball cartridge
I don’t reload ammunition. I have no need to do so. I have fired Reloaded Australian/ Serbian Privi Partizan / Sellier and Bellot and 1957 MkVII Australian Ball. For the standard of shooting I am able to achieve, this ammunition is more than adequate for accuracy. Strangely in long distance tests, 180 grain S&B does not have vastly different ballistic characteristics than the 174 grain Privi Partizan.
Upon conducting various surveys amongst civilian “riflemen of good standing” I am of the firm opinion that the 174 grain MkVII ball .303 bullet is reasonably accurate out to 400 yards and then starts to stabilise and becomes deadly accurate.
For this reason, its possible to shoot accurately with the battle sights out to 300 yards. At the end of the day, if you can hit the heart area of a kangaroo or large oryx at 300 yards, then that’s reasonable. (although in Australia I hear that a headshot is now required by certain state governments).
The other benefit of the 303 bullet head and 180grain charge is that at 100-300 yards, in all but the nastiest of gusty weather, the bullet travels true. At longer ranges, in most mild winds, there is little need to aim off. A slight deviation of a No 11 target width or more is required at longer ranges when the wind is stronger. It is only at 1000 yards with full value wind from the left that it is necessary to aim dramatically off. off. An Australian Rifleman, with decades of experience with the .303 and 5.56mm adds “the 303 is certainly more stable in wind than 5.56 mm or a boat tail 7.62 NATO round. Though the boat tail .303 ammo like the 1955 Bren Gun ammo (made by FN) is deadly accurate but seems more affected by the wind than the Mk 7 174gr flatbase. I am however splitting hairs here, but to me it seems boat tails fly better though are more affected by wind”
The Lee Enfield 303 is between 120 and 50 years old. This section is based upon firing, owning and using a series of different Lee Enfield .303 rifles. It also draws from the experiences and conclusions of other, trusted, experienced, riflemen who have been kind enough to contribute.
While it is not a dedicated target rifle, a good 303 will be phenomenally accurate. During a target competition in Australia, the riflemen who used battle class 303’s out shot the entire target rifle mob, If however you want to become a member of the belly flopping community, then you can Fit Parker Hale or Rawon or Central target sights, and convert a £450 rifle into a rival for £3000 space age looking target rifles.
It is not a hunting rifle, but when fitted with a good hunting scope, it can bring down any north american beast except the largest bear. (so I am told). And if you have nothing else a a 10 round magazine of good expanding ammunition and the bear was coming for you- I think you’d have a fighting chance. It is certainly good enough for the largest Kangaroo, and most African Buck. I would not try to shoot a Buffalo or Elephant with it- although no doubt some wag has done so.
It is not a sniper rifle, and yet the British Army used it as such. The .303 no4 rifle was converted to 7.62 NATO and used as the sniper rifle of the army until the 1990’s when the accuracy international came out. The Afghan Mujahideen also took out many Russian Soldiers with this in the 1980’s. Regrettably it is probably still doing people harm around the world.
The Lee Enfield is a battle rifle, it is a historic battle rifle; and seeing as very few of us (hopefully none) will go off to battle, the closest we are going to get are civilian service rifle competitions round our respective countries. I have to confess that I am mediocre (at best)at CSR. The stress and pressure placed upon the shooter make using a Lee Enfield quite hard. But I sincerely enjoy it. I do not use my m16 type rifle. I continue to use my SMLE.
So I suppose in essence if you can only own one rifle, you could do worse than have a Lee Enfield 303. It occurs to me, that if the North American Prepper (survivalist) community were aware of how reliable the .303 was, and how effective it was for home defence/sniping/hunting; they would probably snap them all up and stash them in their basements!
If you can get your hands on a Lee Enfield no4 rifle or SMLE in good condition or with a new or barely used barrel you have something that is dangerously close to being THE all round rifle.
Article written by Raf
photos by Raf