I cannot look at a .303 SMLE (Short, Magazine, Lee-Enfield) without having the stereotypical image of an Indian constable pop to mind — overweight, disillusioned, possibly a trifle dishonest, but often brave when it counts the most. If he’s armed, there’s a good chance that he carries a .303 SMLE. You may have seen him on the street, at the airport, railway station, so many places. In my mind’s eye, he treats his rifle as though it is unloaded; I also suspect that it wouldn’t pass a thorough arms inspection.
The constable’s SMLE was one of the 20th century’s outstanding military rifles and surely the one with the longest service record. Adopted by the British Army at the turn of the century, the .303 Lee-Enfield saw service in both world wars and countless conflicts around the world. During World War I alone, more than 2,000,000 SMLEs were made at the Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield Lock, Middlesex (Reynolds 1960: 180). These rifles would eventually be manufactured at factories in England, India, Australia, and even a few in the United States. Production changed to the 7.62 cartridge in the 1960s, and the last Enfields were made in the early 1970s.
My favorite is the .303 SMLE No. 1 Mk III; to me it is the quintessential smallarm of the world wars. With an overall length of 44.5 inches and weighing a little under 10 lbs, its Mk VII ball cartridge delivered 2,450 fps at the muzzle (Stratton 2009: 5, 140).
The British Army adopted the .303 SMLE No. 1 Mk III in 1904 and the Indian Army soon followed. The Ishapore Rifle Factory, north of Calcutta, began manufacturing this weapon in 1909 using British machines and the same specifications as that followed by the Royal Small Arms Factory. At what must have been its production peak, Ishapore made 600,000 SMLE No. 1 rifles during World War II (Stratton 2009: 4).
The .303 Enfield was continually improved throughout its long service life. This striving for perfection is undoubtedly why, even today, one can occasionally find .303 Enfields on the world’s battlefields. They were good, dependable, and effective rifles. For example, during the Soviet-Afghan War of the 1980s, mujahideed found through practical experience that the .303 Enfield had twice the effective range of the AK assault rifle and could punch through Soviet flak jackets (Jalali and Grau 1995: 244, 400). While it was obviously an obsolete antique, Soviet soldiers learned to respect the .303 Enfield.
More recently, several Indian constables armed with .303 Enfields were among the first responders during the November 2008 terrorist attacks in Bombay. Sadly, most of these weapons jammed after firing a few rounds and did not contribute significantly to the running fire-fight that raged across South Bombay. The main cause of weapon malfunction appears to have simply been poor maintenance (Badri-Maharaj 2009: 151). The November 2008 terrorist attacks taught several hard lessons. Among them, it is clear, and has been clear for a long time, that the Indian constable deserves a more effective weapon and better training for combating increasingly well-armed criminals and urban terrorists. The .303 SMLE was a great rifle in its day, but its day is well past.
Badri-Maharaj, S. (2009) The Mumbai Attacks–Lessons to be Learnt from the Police Response. Journal of Defence Studies, 3(2): 145–156.
Jalali, A.A. & L.W. Grau (1995) The Other Side of the Mountain: Mujahideen Tactics in the Soviet-Afghan War. Quantico, VA: United States Marine Corps, Studies and Analysis Division.
Reynolds, E.G.B. (1960) The Lee-Enfield Rifle: Its History and Development from First Designs to the Present Day. London: Herbert Jenkins.
Skennerton, I.D. (2007) The Lee-Enfield: A Century of Lee-Metford and Lee-Enfield Rifles and Carbines. Labrador, Australia: Ian D. Skennerton.
Stratton, C.R. (2009) British Enfield Rifles, Vol. 1, SMLE (No.1) Mk I and Mk III. 3rd edition. Tustin, CA: North Cape Pubs.
- Top Ten Combat Rifles: Lee Enfield SMLE – The SMLE takes the #3 position behind the AK-47 and the M16; (Military Channel video)
- The Short Magazine Lee-Enfield Rifle (S.M.L.E. – A good overview of the SMLE from the UK N.R.A. Historic Arms Resource Centre
- Rifle Factory Ishapore – The Factory’s website, which includes photos and a short history
- The Indian Army’s .303 Story – Reminisce about the .303 Enfield with Aakar Patel