Object Title

Magazine Lee-Enfield rifle, Mark I and Pattern 1888 bayonet

Magazine Lee-Enfield rifle, Mark I and Pattern 1888 bayonet


Britain was the only nation to adopt the bolt-action mechanism developed by Scots-Canadian James Paris Lee, when it replaced the lever-operated Martini-Henry with the Lee-Metford rifle in 1888. 'Metford' referred to British engineer William Ellis Metford, who designed the original pattern of rifling for the weapon, which was fitted with an eight-round magazine. Like all British infantry arms before it, the Metford was designed to fire black powder, in this case inside the new .303 cartridge. However, by 1895 it had been discovered that the fast-burning smokeless propellants coming in to use would rapidly wear out Metford's shallow, rounded grooves. This polygonal rifling system was actually ahead of its time, and thanks to advances in metallurgy, is back in use today, for example in the Glock pistol adopted by the Austrian and British armies. Nonetheless, at the time a replacement type of rifling was needed. The pattern devised at the Royal Firearms Factory at Enfield reverted to conventional square grooves, and gave the weapon the Lee-Enfield name. Magazine capacity was also increased by widening the magazine to accommodate two columns of cartridges, and, later, a metal bridge over the action to allow five rounds at a time to be stripped from chargers (clips) carried in pouches on the soldier's web equipment.

Use and effect

Velocity was key to the power and accuracy of infantry rifles. Improvements to the Lee-Metford pushed muzzle velocity from 622 metres per second (2040 feet per second) up to 751 m/s (2460 fps). Nonetheless, this was still lower than the 878 m/s (2,881 fps) of the Mauser 98. The Metford's original black powder cartridge was loaded with a round-nosed bullet that did not 'tumble' (yaw) in human tissue. This resulted in less severe wounds than those caused by previous weapons. This was soon replaced by more lethal designs including the infamous 'Dum-Dum' and ultimately, the modern pointed bullet.

The Lee action was also not as strong nor as accurate as the Mauser, and whilst almost legendary today, was not well thought of by many officers and men when it was introduced. However, it did have the advantage of twice the magazine capacity of most of its rivals. It was also easier to use in combat. In the Mauser, the operator must overcome the pressure of the firing pin spring, as well as any resistance from the fired cartridge case, as the bolt handle is pulled upwards. In the Lee, the firing pin is cocked as the bolt is pushed forwards, allowing the user to apply more muscles to the task, and speeding up reloading.

'The Lee-Enfield appears to be about the worst rifle in the hands of the troops of the great powers.'
Major William Anstruther-Thompson, Royal Horse Guards, 1900


Action / Operating system Bolt-action
Barrel length 76.7 cm (30.2 in)
Calibre / Bore 7.7x56mmR (.303 in)
Capacity (rounds) 8
Country of manufacture Britain
Date entered service 1895
Effective range 550 m (600 yd)
Feed Box magazine
Manufacturer Birmingham Small Arms Company
Manufacturer Royal Small Arms Enfield
Manufacturer Royal Small Arms Factory Sparkbrook
Maximum range 3200 m (3500 yd)
Muzzle velocity 625 m/s (2050 fps)
Other operators Australia
Other operators Canada
Other operators New Zealand
Other operators Portugal
Overall length 1.257 m (49.5 in)
Primary operator Britain
Weight 4.3 kg (9 lb 8 oz)


Jonathan Ferguson