Object Title

Short, Magazine Lee-Enfield (SMLE) rifle - trench adapted

Short, Magazine Lee-Enfield (SMLE) rifle - trench adapted


The SMLE rifle had been well suited to war in the trenches. In 1916, it was further refined as the Mark III* by eliminating redundant features, by which time fabric action covers and metal muzzle covers had been issued to limit ingress of mud and water. Work began too on dedicated sniper variants. However, a number of other adaptations were made specifically for trench warfare in the form of attachments or accessories. These could, in theory, be fitted to any service rifle. 'Overhead fire' devices were developed to permit a soldier to not only see above ground level by means of a periscope attachment, but also to continue firing from safety. The metal frame was collapsible and contained an auxiliary trigger linked to the rifle's trigger. Thrown hand grenades were limited in range by the strength of the soldier's arm. It was realised in 1915 that the power of a rifle could be used to project 'bombs' to greater ranges, and potentially also improve accuracy. The rod was slightly smaller than the bore of the SMLE rifle, and could be slid into it. A blank cartridge fired behind the rod would propel this new 'rod grenade' out of the barrel. At first, a series of dedicated designs were produced that could only be fired from a rifle. Later, the standard No.5 Mills 'bomb' was converted by means of a different screw-on baseplate to attach a copper rod, changing its designation to 'No.23' and permitting either hand throwing or rifle discharge. Under this system, a sheet metal bracket had to be fitted, held in place by a standard bayonet (the pictured example has the blade cut back for instructional use). However, all of these rod systems tended to wear the SMLE's rifling, and so the 'cup' system was introduced in 1917. This used a detachable metal cup, actually a concept used with muzzleloading arms in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Again, a blank cartridge was inserted into the chamber prior to firing, and the new No.36 hand grenade prepared for rifle discharge by screwing a circular plate onto its base.

Use and effect

The overhead fire device successfully allowed soldiers to use several feet of earth as cover against enemy fire. However, not enough were available to give any great volume of fire, relegating the device to short range sniping at enemy soldiers who strayed into 'no man's land' or raised their heads above the parapet of their own trench. The British version was not as fully developed as the German equivalent, and lacked an auxiliary bolt handle. As such, it had to be brought down from the parapet for reloading. It also took time to fit and detach these devices, which meant that a spare rifle would typically be found for use with the frame. It became, in effect, a specialist trench weapon in its own right. The same applied to grenade launching devices. Whilst capable of projecting a grenade many times further than the human hand, launching such heavy projectiles generating immense recoil.  Both rod and cup type systems had to be fired with the butt jammed into the ground. With practice, rough aim could be established simply by leaning the rifle at the correct angle, though support frames with clamps were also created. However, this harsh recoil tended to crack the wooden stock of the rifle. Rifle grenades were too useful to be abandoned, and development of a satisfactory standalone launcher would take too long (though it was attempted with the little-known Blanch-Chevallier launcher). Instead, rifles deemed to be in too poor a state for general issue were wrapped with reinforcing copper wire and designated as full-time grenade launchers. These rifles were already marked 'EY' for 'Emergency use only'. Detachable wirecutters were more successful as truly interchangeable accessories, and were often fitted prior to an attack. If time was short to remove them prior to actual combat, they could be left on the rifle and would not greatly interfere with its operation at trench fighting ranges. They would throw off a shooter's aim at ranges beyond 100 m (109 yd) however, as they added weight to the muzzle, changing the balance of the rifle.


Action / Operating system Bolt-action
Barrel length 64 cm (25.2 in)
Calibre / Bore 7.7x56mmR (.303 in)
Capacity (rounds) 10
Country of manufacture Britain
Date entered service 1916
Effective range 503 m (550 yd)
Feed Box magazine
Manufacturer Birmingham Small Arms Company
Manufacturer London Small Arms Company
Manufacturer National Rifle Factory
Manufacturer Royal Small Arms Factory Enfield
Manufacturer Royal Small Arms Factory Sparkbrook
Manufacturer Standard Small Arms
Muzzle velocity 744 m/s (2441 fps)
Other operators Australia
Other operators Canada
Other operators India
Other operators New Zealand
Overall length 1.118 m (44 in)
Primary operator Britain
Rate of fire (rounds per minute) 25
Weight 3.96 kg (8 lb 11 oz)


Jonathan Ferguson