The Lee Enfield .303 and British marksmanship

Thanks to x for pointing out this video.

You’ll often read in Great War history books about how the regular troops of the British Expeditionary Force at Mons in 1914 managed to put out such a rate of fire that the German’s thought that they were being faced with Battalions of Machine Guns. Watch this video and its easy to see how well trained troops could put out some serious lead with an SMLE! Multiply this rate of fire by 1,000 – the strength 0f a Battalion – and you really wouldn’t want to be in the way.

Historically, British marksmanship has always been pretty good compared to other armies. I can remember reading about how even during the Napoleonic War the British Army was the only one that practised with live rounds, and reading the Sharpe novels you get a real sense of how important massed ranks of volley fire were. When you add in the early interest that the British Army took in the Baker rifle, then you also have a heritage of accuracy too.

All this possibly goes some way to explaining why the establishment feared the Machine Gun – the Generals preferred their soldiers to fire deliberate, well aimed shots, making each one count. But, as any good guitar player will tell you, speed is a by product of accuracy – get it right first, and then get it fast. Read Dan Mill’s ‘Sniper One’ about the insurgency in Iraq in 2004, and you’ll see how apparently the insurgents found it seriously uncool to aim their AK47’s, and simply to blaze away from the hip. No wonder during World War Two the Army feared the sub-machine gun – calling them’gangster guns’ – apprehensive that soldiers would begin blasting away like Al Capone!

This culture might also explain why post-WW2 Britain adopted a rifle like the SLR, rather than something like the M16.



Filed under Army, videos, World War One

28 responses to “The Lee Enfield .303 and British marksmanship

  1. Pingback: The Lee Enfield .303 and British marksmanship « John's Navy News

  2. Pingback: The Lee Enfield .303 and British marksmanship » John's Navy News

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  4. x

    The LE’s strength is that it is both good for suppression and aimed fires. I remember the late Prof Richard Holmes saying in his War Walks programme on Mons how some of the British soldiers seemed to relish the shooting. The LE has only ever been a drill rifle for me. But it is a surprisingly chuckable tool, it feels good in the hand, and it isn’t too much of a leap to imagine how effective a mount it would be for the British soldier’s other favourite weapon the bayonet.

    The SA80 is an accurate rifle mostly due it is barrel length which is a full 6in longer than an M4 (20in over 14in approx). Saying that it is still very much a product of its time in that suppression is it main use. The odd ball LSW has an even longer barrel at 25in and accuracy wise is what our American cousins would call a tac driver. But as soon as we entered a prolonged campaign guess what we needed a proper rifle and the Army goes off to buy rifles chambered for 7.62×51. Saying that we mustn’t fall for British Legion club night bravado in thinking that Tom armed with a proper rifle would soon have the Taliban on the back foot. All the 5.56 can’t hit a man at 1000yards rhubarb. In open country, even in Afghanistan, if you stand to look about you there very often isn’t a complete absence of cover for hundreds of metres around. By extension a riffle that shoots well to 500m would do in most circumstances. The only “average” riflemen I know who hit targets out at 500m take their shots on firing points at ranges without the fear of the target firing back.

    My favourite LE is the 2A1 Ishapore in 7.62x51m,

    I nice video from Greg Hickok shooting his .303 at his home in the hills of Middle Tennessee.

    And a .303 being used on a range out to 1000yards,

  5. I’ve both target shot my No. 1 Mark 3 and speed-shot it. I did a “mad minute” style shoot of 10 rounds as a demo, and managed it just under 15 seconds. I was a little bit proud, until my fellow re-enactor (our group’s RSM) tried to blaze through his clip-load in his FNFAL. The dang thing kept jamming, and it took him over 2 minutes to get the same 10 rounds downrange! Yeah, I know it wasn’t even CLOSE to being a realistic competition, but to burn the RSM? TOTALLY worth it! 😀

    • x

      It would be too much bother for me to actually own a shooting example. And as I said my preference is for 2A1 Ishapore.

      • Well, despite living in Chicago with gun laws that make yours look lax, I kinda had to have a working example. Otherwise, I would have been some weird little man in 60-year-old wool running around yelling “BANG” all the time. It was easier on my morale to just buy the dang rifle! 😉

        • x

          Illinois’ gun laws seem to be pursuing me across the interweb this week.

          On a forum far, far away somebody said more civilians get shot in Chicago than soldiers in Afghanistan. I quipped that couldn’t be because of all the guns laws. Que a massive deluge of “criminals don’t mind breaking laws” comments etc. etc.

          If I lived your way I would be after a Mosin-Naganat; that 7.62x54mm round makes a lovely sound. If somebody shot at you with one of those it would only be good manners to lie down and die.

          I am also partial to those M1’s being sold through Civilian Marksmanship Program. Of course they are at the opposite end of scale price wise. Still good value for money.

  6. I’ll put it this way – it was less expensive for our Brit re-enacting unit’s major to have the receiver of a Bren gun hand-crafted, IN SOLID BRASS, than it was for him to get a semi-automatic version. (And he was a licensed firearms dealer!) I REALLY want an M-14, I love those beasts, or a nice Bren or BAR. Unfortunately, I have champagne tastes and water money right now, so my No.1 Mark III, No.4 Mark 1, and .30-cal converted VZ-24 (Czech copy of a K98) will have to serve right now.
    Besides, the last time I actually felt threatened enough to need a weapon, I grabbed my trusty spring-steel sword. Didn’t need it, though – my wife scared the guy off! 😀

    • x

      I was surprised to discover the other month that there was somebody in the US manufacturing Sterling replicas. My initial reaction was, why? Of all the firearms in the world why choose that plumbing tools. My second reaction was, why? Of all the firearms…….

  7. FN

    Hi Guys, greetings from NZ. I have a few LE’s on the wall and try to warm them up as often as I can. My favourite shooter is a No4mk1, pretty straight and hasn’t been mucked around with too much. I duplicate the mkVII load using Hornady’s excellent 174FMJ over ADI2209. I buy up old No.1’s as and when I see them as they make nice sporters, beutiful lines with the dustcover and no stripper clip guide. My all time long arm of choice is the FN FAL and have nice examples of a Lithgow L1A1 and a G1 with the original optical sight (my pride and joy). My handgun vice is the Browning Hi-Power, but thats another story! We had a chap turn up at our range once, all ‘Tacticool’, you know the type dressed in black, elbow/knee pads, goggles and swat cap on backwards! He proceeded to talk up his shooting ability and then finally pulled out his rifle which was the sadest looking FN FAL you ever saw. He started to shoot and the thing wouldn’t cycle and the dust cover fell off with every shot. After he’d struggled through the whole 20 round mag, I suggested he slide the dust cover into the grooves properly and turn the gas plug from ‘Grenade’ to ‘repeat’ & set the gas port to ‘5’ and it might work a bit better! But he replied ‘nah mate, they all do that’ and then proceeded on with his next round of verbal diarea. It takes all sorts! Really enjoying read the blog by the way.

    • FN

      I should have added this youtube link that was taken at one of our service rifle shoots last year. 10 rounds in 1 minute, at fig12 targets, range 200m. Shooter starts at front of mound with rifle at feet and loaded mag at back of mound. When the clock starts, run back grab mag, run forward, drop, load rifle and start shooting. I finished at about 28 seconds with the L1A1 and all shots were scorers and respectable. A minutes a long time when you think about it. Everybody finished under 45 seconds, even the guy who had the hernia op the week before!

      • x

        The first time I held an FN, or as we call them the L1A1 SLR, I was 5; nearly dropped the blessed thing! And though they have been a feature of my life it is never something I could see myself owning or wanting to own. Here in the UK we can only buy them as straight pull weapons anyway; a company down south has started selling re-manufactured ones for a cool £2000 a copy. In the US with our current exchange rates that would buy an awful lot of AR. Not really me; shooting for me is an academic pursuit! I can see the appeal if you are an ex-soldier or want to shoot practical rifle but it isn’t me. The only thing that has some appeal, but not much, is the Colt Match Target MT6700.

    • James Daly

      Thanks for the kind words FN. I must confess I have never fired so much as a pea shooter. I suppose I should get around to it one day. The Royal Armouries at Fort Nelson had SMLE and Bren simulators last time I went there, and the Rifles Museum in Winchester has a Baker Rifle simulator. Would love to have a go with some ‘live’ some day.

      • x

        If you intend to continue writing about WW1 and WW2 I would consider learning to shoot. I know you are struggling author but I think it would bring something to your writing. Gunfire is noisy, smelly, and smoky. I think having the others senses triggered would help you bring texture to your writing. I know having spent a lot of time around RN ships my reading and understanding of naval secondary (and sometimes primary) sources is enhanced. Similarly having been dragged out into the field on two occasions for weekends with the TA, ACF, and SCC Marine Cadets changes your perceptions of how war is conducted. If for no other reason of being very damp, the amount of noise, and having an SA80 for a constant companion for 48 hours. .22lr ammunition and rifles are cheap. And you can always apply for a .303 as well which are not that expensive. Ammunition for .303 comes in at about 50p to 60p a shot. Ammunition is bought in batches of 100 normally. But for you it would be more about shooting occasionally not competing so that cost shouldn’t matter. On your occasional .303 shooting forays I bet some club member will help and coach you as infrequent shooter. Lastly you appear to have 3 very good clubs on your doorstep, (Has a full bore range)

        • Do you have WW1 and WW2 re-enacting groups in England? (I’ve heard of one or two back in the 1990s when I was re-enacting.)If so, that would be a great opportunity for young James to get a good “hands-on” feel for the soldier’s viewpoint. Most of my early studies were technical – I could quote tank armour thicknesses from memory – but never of the soldiers themselves. If you can get a feel for the uniform, the weight of weapons and gear, the rugged conditions that were home, that will DEFINITELY make an impact on any writings about the soldiers. One of the most amazing memories I have is when our German group was training some new recruits, and I played the role of sniper. I managed to pin 6 guys for over 20 minutes, with nothing more for cover than a tree and its’ raised roots. That REALLY gave me an appreciation for how the ground (and its’ use by the soldier) affects the battle.
          Just a thought, from a cranky old fart who wishes he could go hide in the woods and sleep in a freezing foxhole! (Yeah, I really AM that weird! 😉 )

          • x

            Yes there are re-enactors in the UK. I just think he is missing out to have never fired the British long arm of the era he writes about. Of course now he is a famous author and radio personality I suppose he could contact one of those clubs and see if anybody could demo a .303 for him. There is bound to be somebody with one.

            • James Daly

              Actually I have thought about the possibility of doing an article or series of articles on ‘young military historian/grandson of Arnhem veteran meets re-enactors and finds out about life on the front line in WW1/WW2’

              • Well, James, I just so happen to know of a person and place where you could fire both WW1 and WW2 SMLEs, chat with an experienced re-enactor (and son of a WW2 & Korea vet), and even get to carry back some pieces of British kit with you. And it’s just a short plane hop from London to Columbus, Ohio……. 😉

            • FN

              From experience I would say most rifle club members would be more than happy to host a visitor for a couple of hours of introductory shooting. We tend to like any form of positive interaction with non-shooters, as it tends to show them we are just ‘normal people’ too and helps to dispel some of the myths/misinformation about firearms. Perhaps you could offer to write an article about your experiences on your first shoot at the club, it would be a win-win for both parties then. I am not sure of the legalities of non-lisenced shooters in the UK anymore, I’ve been away too long, but I am sure there would be provision for it under correct supervision.

  8. x

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