303 Lee-Enfield in the desert

The Lee-Enfield 303 British SMLE Rifle. An Honest Review.

Recently, I had a chance to take a Short Magazine Lee-Enfield (SMLE) to the desert and shoot it.  The rifle was a No. 4 MK 1 and retained its original chambering in .303 British.   I’ve been privileged to shoot Lee-Enfield rifles before and have always found them to be worthy of their reputation as well built, accurate rifles.  This one was no different.

The Lee-Enfield rifle was first adopted by the British as a military arm in 1895 and later modified with a shorter barrel in 1904.  The shorter barreled version was dubbed the Short Magazine Lee-Enfield or SMLE.  In one form or another, the Lee-Enfield rifle served as the standard issue rifle for British and British Commonwealth forces during both World Wars, the Korea War and in countless other conflicts around the world.   Over that time the Lee-Enfield earned a well-deserved reputation for ruggedness, dependability and accuracy.  It also sported a 10 round magazine, which was far superior to other bolt action military arms in use at the time.   I should also mention that the Lee-Enfield’s 10 round magazine held two more rounds than the famed M1 Garand carried by American troops during World War II.


In addition to its larger magazine capacity, the Lee-Enfield rifle was admired for the smoothness of its bolt action and its ability to be rapidly reloaded with stripper clips.  While the Lee-Enfield was designed with a detachable magazine, soldiers were instructed to remove the magazine only for cleaning.  Reloading the rifle was accomplished through the use of five round stripper clips, rather than the modern practice of exchanging a spent magazine for a new one.

The British army of that time was considered the best trained military force in the world.  British soldiers drilled with their rifles regularly.  In fact, it was said that a trained British rifleman could hit a target at 300 yards distant more than 30 times in one minute using his Lee-Enfield rifle.   The British called this training exercise “The Mad Minute.”   While “The Mad Minute” might be simple to achieve using modern semi-automatic firearms with optical sights and large magazine capacities, it was no simple project using an iron sighted bolt action rifle with a magazine limited to ten rounds.  This is particularly true when you consider that the magazine could only be reloaded using five round stripper clips.  If you don’t believe me, get your hands on a Lee-Enfield and give it try.  I think you will develop a healthy respect for the British soldiers of bygone days.

The Lee-Enfield Rifle may have been taken out of military service as a main battle rifle by the British decades ago, but it could be found in the hands of the Canadian Rangers until as recently as 2014. For a military service rifle to serve in some official government capacity for 119 years is an amazing accomplishment.  Unofficially, the rifle is still being used in battles around the world and is occasionally seen in the hands of fighters in the Middle East.

As with any other surplus military rifle that I have reviewed, the inevitable question arises regarding its suitability as a survival weapon for doomsday preppers.  Since I know the question will come up, I thought it prudent to answer it here, although the answer should be obvious.   If you are considering a 30 caliber rifle as an addition to your survival firearms battery, you might examine the following criteria:

  • Cost.  Everybody has a budget.
  • Reliability.
  • Durability.
  • Accuracy.
  • Suitability for hunting.
  • Suitability for defense.
  • Availability of ammunition.
  • Availability of parts.
  • Ease of repair.

Let’s look at these requirements one at a time:

  • Cost: if you look around, you can find a Lee-Enfield rifle in pretty good shape for a fairly low price.  If you buy one at a gun shop, you’ll probably pay more than you should.  I would check gun shows and look for private sellers.  However, Lee-Enfields are not the bargain they once were and you may be able to find another surplus rifle at a lower cost.
  • Reliability: A rifle is not used for over 119 years unless it is reliable.
  • Durability: See Reliability above.
  • Accuracy: Lee-Enfield rifles are known to be accurate.
  • Suitability for hunting: The 303 British cartridge enjoys ballistic performance that is similar to the 308 Winchester/7.62x51mm NATO round.  As such, it is well capable of killing anything that walks in North America.  I wouldn’t hunt cottontails with it, but medium and large game can be taken without a problem.
  • Suitability for defense: First, let me clear up a myth for you.  If you are trying to survive when law and order have gone away, stealth is your friend and firefights are to be avoided at all cost.  The Rambo fantasies you read about on the web or see in movies and TV shows are just that, fantasies.  You will need a rugged, reliable rifle that you can use to fight for your life during a very short engagement and only as a last resort.  Hiding and running away are better choices than staying and fighting. You will have limited ammunition, so a high rate of fire is less important than accuracy, reliability, lethality and stealth.  When looked at from this point of view, a tried and true bolt action fighting rifle such as the Lee-Enfield can and probably would serve you admirably.
  • Availability of ammunition: 303 ammunition is not as readily available as other calibers in the United States.  Therefore, if you are going to select a Lee-Enfield in 303 British as your survival rifle in the United States, you will need to stock up on ammunition in advance.  This is something you should be doing regardless of what rifle you choose.  Many folks on the web talk about scrounging for ammunition during a collapse of society.  The problem with that idea is that everybody will be scrounging for ammunition.  You will be far better off to have purchased what you need ahead of time.
  • Availability of parts: Like ammunition, parts for surplus rifles can be difficult to find.  You should stock up on the parts which are most likely to fail in advance.  If you do a little research, you’ll discover which parts may need to be replaced in your rifle over time.  Buy those.
  • Ease of repair: This is generally an issue of having the correct tools, stocking the right parts and taking a gunsmith class focused on your rifle.  With a quick search on Google, I found a class on DVD for $39.95.

The bottom line is that you simply need a reliable, accurate, durable rifle along with some extra parts, ammunition and the knowledge of how to use the rifle effectively and how to repair it when needed.  Someone who spends a fortune on a high-end AR15 and never takes care of the other items on that list would have been far better off with an inexpensive Lee-Enfield combined with the other items and training I mentioned.  So there you have it.

Getting away from the survival topic, the fact is that Lee-Enfield rifles are a boat load of fun to shoot and useful for a variety of purposes.  The first bolt action rifle I ever owned was a No. 4 Mk 1.  I loved that rifle and enjoyed shooting it often.  I was broke at the time, so that 303 rifle was all I could afford.  I bought it for $60.  It was my hunting rifle, my fun rifle, my personal defense rifle and my “anything else I needed a rifle for” rifle.  It never let me down. The rifle I used in the embedded video is quite similar to the one I had once upon a time.  It was built in 1945 and still runs flawlessly, as you can see in the video.  It may not be pretty and it may not have much collector value, but who cares?  It’s a great rifle just the same.

2 comments

  1. Here it Canada it is commonly claimed that the .303 has killed more North American moose than all other rifle calibers combined. Its been the single most common centerfire rifle, by a wide margin, in a country that covers probably 99% of the moose’s range for about a century so statistically this is probably true. Even now, if you search any Canadian based gun classified you will see more Lee Enfields in circulation than anything else, and decent sporters can commonly be purchased for under $200… they might not be in the same league as some of my favored hunting rifle, but I’d take one over any budget rifle on the market.

  2. Many people still hunt with as-issued Lee–Enfield rifles, with commercial .303 British ammunition proving especially effective on medium-sized game.

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