Made: 1895 – c. 1976
Variants: Numerous, mostly .303, also .22, .410 muskets/shotguns,
7.62 x 51 NATO, .303 Epps, .30-06
Production: More than 17 million
Original price: Less than $20 as army surplus
Current value: $400 to $1,000 (original), $150 to $250 (sporterized)
My father-in-law gave me my first moose gun — a bolt-action .303 Lee-Enfield — in 1980. He had purchased it two decades earlier as a surplus First World War relic for $20. He then “sporterized” it under the guidance of renowned gunsmith Ellwood Epps at his Clinton shop. Rugged, reliable, fast, and accurate, my gun epitomizes one of the longest-serving military rifles and a Canadian hunting tradition.
I can’t verify my gun’s history, but, I am confident that it is an early version of the SMLE Mk III*. It has the refined cocking piece and fore-end stock cutouts for the missing charging bridge and magazine cutoff. Regardless of its origins , my father-in-law transformed this Lee-Enfield into a cherished family heirloom.
The Lee-Enfield’s success stems from its ability to evolve to meet military needs and mass-production refinements. Over 17 million rifles were made over nine decades.
James Paris Lee
The Lee-Enfield was designed by James Paris Lee and initially produced in Enfield, England. The Magazine Lee-Enfield (MLE) was introduced in 1895, followed by a Cavalry Carbine in 1896. Both saw action in the Boer War in South Africa, but concerns were raised about poor ballistics.
A shorter, lighter version, the Short Magazine Lee-Enfield (SMLE) was introduced in 1904. Three years later, the SMLE Mk (Mark) III, chambered for the new Mk VII high-velocity Spitzer .303 round was adopted. It featured a 10-shot magazine and a fixed charger guide riveted over the receiver to hold five-round charger clips. It also had a magazine cut-off to fire single rounds.
In 1915, during the First World War, the SMLE Mk III* appeared without the magazine cut-off, without the rear sight windage adjustment, and with a rectangular cocking piece. Both “Smellies” could be fired in the “mad minute” to place 30 rounds into a 12-inch target at 300 yards. In 1926, the SMLE was renamed the No.1 Mk III.
Two iconic models were introduced during the Second World War. The No.4, Mk I (1941) featured an angular charging bridge, receiver-mounted aperture, long-distance ladder sights, and a bolt rail on the inside of the receiver. The Mk I* was only produced at the Long Branch Arsenal in Ontario and by Savage in the United States.
Rifle No.5, Mk I, or “Jungle Carbine,” appeared in 1944 for use by paratroopers and in the Pacific theatre. It had a cut down stock, shorter barrel, and prominent flash hider. Both, plus earlier versions, were also used by Commonwealth troops during the Korean conflict.
The No.4 was also adopted by the Canadian Rangers for patrolling the Arctic from 1947 to 2018. While they used their Lee-Enfields for polar bear protection, many Canadian hunters associate them with moose hunting, especially in Newfoundland. Returning veterans were already familiar with them. Surplus guns and ammunition were cheap and readily available across the country. The .303 Lee-Enfield never really caught on with Americans. Their bolt-action hunting tradition evolved from their .30-06 Springfield Model 1903.
* An asterisk in the rifle name indicates that modifications were made to the rifle to help speed up wartime production.
Ken Doherty is a retired teacher, curator, writer, and a long-time resident of Peterborough. He enjoys collecting, target shooting, and hunting with vintage firearms. Contact Ken at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally published in the April 2020 edition of Ontario OUT of DOORS magazine.