The British-designed, bolt-action, magazine-fed, repeating Lee-Enfield .303 rifle was the primary rifle of Canadian soldiers for more than half a century. It went through several modifications and saw action in the South African War (also known as the Boer War), First World War, Second World War and Korean War. The Lee-Enfield series is one of the most successful bolt-action rifles in history. With as many as 17 million manufactured, it was also one of the most-produced rifles of all time.
In 1895, the British army adopted the Lee-Enfield to replace the Lee-Metford, which had been in service since 1889. The Lee-Metford was a similar magazine-fed repeating rifle but had been designed to use less potent and dirtier black-powder cartridges. Black powder also produces excess smoke, which could give away the firer’s position to the enemy.
In 1889, British chemists invented cordite, a powerful smokeless propellant. Because of its high nitroglycerin content, however, cordite burns at a high temperature. This heat wore out the shallow grooves of the Lee-Metford’s barrel, which adversely affected the rifle’s accuracy. To solve this problem, the Royal Arms Factory at Enfield developed a new rifling system consisting of deeper grooves able to tolerate high heat. The result was the Magazine Lee-Enfield Mark I. Due to its length, it is also known as the Long Lee-Enfield.
Did you know?
James Paris Lee (1831–1904) was a leading 19th-century small arms designer. Born in Scotland, he immigrated to Canada with his family in 1836 and settled in Galt, Upper Canada (now part of Cambridge, Ontario). He was trained to be a watchmaker like his father but began a new career as a small arms inventor and moved to Wisconsin in 1858. Among his many contributions to small arms, the perfection of the vertical box magazine was the most revolutionary. The Lee-Enfield, which uses his detachable-box magazine and rifle action designs, is partially named after him.
Lee-Enfield in Canadian Service
The Canadian government rearmed its permanent and non-permanent (i.e., regular and reserve) forces with new rifles in 1896, prompted by a border dispute between Britain and Venezuela. Accordingly, Canada purchased 40,000 Lee-Enfield rifles and 2,300 carbines (for use by mounted troops). After 1898, .303 cartridges were supplied by the Government Arsenal in Quebec City.
The Mark I equipped the soldiers of the Canadian contingents sent to fight during the South African War (1899–1902), as well as the battalion raised for garrison duty in Halifax. The British government paid to equip the troops sent overseas. The rifle was over 1.25 m long and weighed 4.3 kg. Magazine capacity was 10 rounds, which had to be loaded with single rounds. Later on, Lee-Enfield rifles were fitted to accept five-round clips, improving reload speed. The Lee-Enfield’s increased magazine size and bolt action allowed soldiers to fire at least 15 aimed rounds a minute, a definite advantage in combat.
In 1900, the Canadian government wanted to buy additional Lee-Enfields from the British and wanted permission to manufacture the rifle under licence in Canada. Both requests were refused. The British gave priority to equipping their own troops, while the Birmingham Small Arms factory would not let its rifle be produced in Canada.
This double rebuff — coupled with a growing sense of Canadian nationalism — convinced Canadian authorities that a homegrown rifle should be obtained. Meanwhile, wealthy Scotsman Sir Charles Ross offered to build a rifle factory in Canada if the country adopted the rifle he had invented. The government accepted his offer and in 1902 signed a contract for 12,000 Ross rifles. Multiple revised Ross rifle models were later adopted.
The first Canadian soldiers sent overseas in 1914 for the First World War were equipped with the Ross. Although extremely accurate, it was not up to the rigours of trench warfare. Several production defects were also noted. After two years of complaints, in 1916 its many shortcomings as an infantry weapon finally forced the government to return to the Lee-Enfield.
By now, the British had replaced the Long Lee-Enfield with a shorter version known as the Short Magazine Lee-Enfield (SMLE) Mark III, which was issued to Canadian soldiers. It was 1.1 m long and weighed 3.96 kg. The rifle also used the iconic Pattern 1907 sword bayonet. The SMLE remained in service with Canadian soldiers after the war ended in 1918.
When the Second World War began in 1939, Canadian soldiers were still using the Mark III (renamed Rifle No.1 Mk III). Starting in 1943, the simpler-to-produce Lee-Enfield No. 4 Mark I replaced the Mark III in combat with Canadian troops. The No. 4 Mark I was 1.1 m long and weighed 4.1 kg. It featured a simplified spike bayonet and aperture sights to improve aiming.
Production in Canada
Between 1941 and 1945, more than 1,500,000 Lee-Enfield rifles were manufactured in Canada. This was done at a new crown corporation, Small Arms Limited (SAL), in a purpose-built facility at Long Branch, west of Toronto. Women workers played a critical part in assembling Lee-Enfield rifles. In 1943, about 3,500 of SAL’s 5,500 employees were women.
When the Second World War ended in 1945, Canada retained the No. 4 Mark I. Canadian soldiers used it during the Korean War.
In 1955, Canada adopted a new semi-automatic rifle, the FN C1. The Lee-Enfield, however, remained in service with some military organizations. Beginning in 1947, the Canadian Rangers, a part-time force of local citizens who operate in northern and remote areas of Canada, were equipped with the Lee-Enfield. Due to its durability, simplicity and reliability, Rangers retained this rifle until 2018, when it was replaced by the 7.62 mm Colt Canada C-19 designed by SAKO. The Canadian Rangers were the last military unit in the West to use the Lee-Enfield.
Army, Air and Sea Cadets used Lee-Enfields that are stripped of their firing mechanisms for drill. Lee-Enfields converted to .22 calibre for target practice were also used. Additionally, surplus Lee-Enfields have been a trusted civilian hunting rifle for many years.