Within a decade of the 1888 introduction of the bolt-action Lee-Metford service rifle—designed by Scottish-born gunsmith James Paris Lee and British engineer William Metford to fire black powder cartridges from a 10-round box magazine—the British army began development of a rifle that would fire the Mk I .303-inch ball cartridge using cordite smokeless powder. The result—matching Lee’s bolt-action design with rifling developed by the Royal Small Arms Factory, Enfield—was the Magazine Lee-Enfield Mk I, introduced in 1895. The new weapon fell short in combat against the Mauser Model 1895s the British faced during the Boer War, however, prompting production of the much-improved Short Magazine Lee-Enfield Mk I, accepted for service in 1902. Fitted with a 25.2-inch barrel (midway between the original model rifle and carbine) and a sliding charger guide for faster reloading, the SMLE, or “Smelly,” saw further improvements and served as the principal long arm of the British soldier until the mid-1950s, when superseded by the semiautomatic L1A1 self-loading rifle.
The SMLE Mk III proved its superiority to the Mauser at the Aug. 23, 1914, Battle of Mons, during which trained British soldiers averaged 25 aimed rounds a minute, leading German officers to believe they were using machine guns. This unprecedented rate of fire was due to the short travel and smoothness of the Lee-Enfield’s bolt action. British factories and the U.S.-based Savage Arms Co. rolled out millions of SMLEs. Although most troops of the American Expeditionary Force used Springfield M1903 rifles in 1918, units attached to the British were issued SMLEs. Many—including those of Corporal Alvin York’s 82nd Division (see “Alvin York: Hero of the Argonne,” by Douglas V. Mastriano, September 2014 Military History)—used U.S.-made M1917 Enfields.
The SMLE remained a British mainstay through World War II and the Korean War. During the Soviet War in Afghanistan, insurgents used Lee-Enfields by the thousands—some captured from the British and passed down as heirlooms, others copied with surprising skill by village gunsmiths. In either form they gave Soviet Dragunov SVD sniper rifles a run for their rubles.