Lee-Enfield rifle phased out by Canadian military after 100 years of service
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The foe now has four legs.
But a century on, the rugged reliability and brute firepower that made the Lee-Enfield rifle the standard-issue weapon for entrenched Canadian troops during the latter half of the First World War makes it an ideal choice still for a modern group of this country’s soldiers.
The Canadian Rangers — a component of the armed forces reserves — conduct sovereignty patrols and assist search and rescue missions in the Far North and in remote coastal regions across the country.
And the red-shirted Rangers — made up largely of aboriginal volunteers — have been using Lee-Enfield rifles little changed from the First World War version since the group was first established in 1947.
“The Rangers were not issued this weapon to fight an enemy, they were given the rifle because they are operating in one of the harshest environments in the world,” says Capt. Mark Rittwage, officer commander of the 3rd Canadian Patrol Group, Northern Ontario.
“And . . . the predators that are there, polar bears, wolves, even bull moose during rutting season, can cause a danger to our Rangers,” Rittwage says.
The Lee-Enfield is still being used by many military and police forces around the globe.
But its Ranger tenure may be coming to an end with National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces having issued a request for proposal to gun maker Colt Canada for a replacement.
Lee-Enfields are issued to Rangers primarily for self-defence, he stresses. The Rangers are trained to kill only if clearly threatened.
But if one of these primal, snorting predators happens to attack or target you, Rittwage says, a reliable rifle is requisite.
“This weapon was given to them . . . because it’s indestructible,” Rittwage says.
“In any condition regardless, this weapon will fire. As long as that round gets chambered, it will fire.”
“It will also bring down anything it hits at up to 550 metres.
“Because it is a .303, it has the stopping power,” Rittwage says.
“Polar bears will stalk the Rangers. And although polar bears are a protected animal, if you’re faced with life and limb, if that polar bear is out to kill you, you’re going to have to take its life. And that .303 has the stopping power to do that.”
The rifle employed by the Rangers — the No. 4 Mk 1 — is a later version of the gun used during the First World War. But only slightly.
“It was so reliable that from that World War I model that in 1943 they started producing the (rifle) that is currently in use with the Canadian Rangers,” Rittwage says.
“That bolt action rifle (in the trenches) was invincible, very little cleaning was necessary and it would always fire. It is one of the most rugged rifles that has ever been produced,” he says.
Indeed, those are the qualities that made the simple wood and metal gun indispensible to Canadian troops in the First World War, and a welcomed replacement for the notoriously dicey, Canadian-made Ross rifle with which they entered the 1914 conflict.
“The reason we go (to the Lee-Enfield rifle in 1916) is we had trouble with our own,” says Eric Fernberg, a collections manager and arms expert at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.
In particular, Fernberg says, key parts of the rotating bolt that opened the bullet chamber on the Ross gun — chosen by Canada’s military for both nationalistic and supply reasons — were apt to seize up in dirty, wet conditions.
“You know when you try to put a garden hose together and there’s grit and dirt in the garden hose?” he says.
“Picture that type of difficulty. When you locked the rifle and fired then you’re having difficulty trying to open it again.”
The five-round magazine gun, originally designed by Sir Charles Ross for target shooting, shot well with Canadian ammunition, Fernberg says. But often, that was not the ordnance issued in the trenches.
“And when you put the British ammunition in a Canadian rifle and it fired and the brass (bullet casings) expanded, it would jam up,” Fernberg says.
“So there could be extraction problems which would jam the rifle. Jamming was the main problem.”
Canadian Ranger Leo McKay firing with a Lee-Enfield rifle at Canadian Forces Base Borden in 2012. (Torstar News Service)
The Lee-Enfield — which originally came into British and commonwealth service during the Boer Wars in South Africa at the end of the 19th century — was rushed to the Canadian trenches in 1916.
Prior to the war, Britain was manufacturing too few of the guns to supply Canada.
But production on that 10-round, Mk. III version had been ramped up enormously, Fernberg says.
In the Canadian trenches, the Lee-Enfields were enjoying something of a homecoming, Fernberg says.
The gun’s bolt system, used to load and eject bullets from the magazine below, was originally designed by Scotsman James Paris Lee, who grew up in Galt Ont., now part of Cambridge.
“And his father was involved in the locksmith and watch trade,” Fernberg says.
“So from a young age apprenticing with his father he learned about mechanisms and had an interest in firearms.”
Moving to the U.S. prior to the Civil War, Lee continued tinkering with rifle design and in the 1870s came out with the bolt action system — known as the Lee speed loading system — that would anchor all Lee-Enfield guns to come.
“But the story goes that he actually perfected (the system) in Wallaceburg, Ont., when visiting his brother who ran a foundry,” Fernberg says.
“Apparently he was testing it out in front of the factory and fired many rounds from the system into trees as he perfected it.”
The Lee system was adopted by the British military, who coupled it with a multi-round magazine in the 1880s.
But that gun, known as the Lee-Metford, still employed black powder bullets that created a telltale white smoke when fired that could give shooter positions away to enemy troops.
Smokeless, cordite-based bullets were adopted by the British around 1895.
And the Royal Small Arms Factory in Enfield Lock, England, was contracted to produce a specially rifled barrel that could best handle the new bullets.
“They adopted the Enfield type of rifling and that’s where you get the name Lee-Enfield,” Ferberg says.
Rittwage says the Lee-Enfield is still being used by many military and police forces around the globe, even though, he notes, “they stopped producing the weapon in 1955.”
The huge surplus of weapons remaining from the Second World War has meant that Canada’s
5,000 Rangers could continue using it, says Rittwage. But finally “the supply chain no longer has the parts to sustain this weapon long term.”
In the meantime, Rangers like Master Corporal Elliot Fiddler will continue to use the gun on patrols, searches, training exercises and for hunting around his Sandy Lake home.
A pound of bacon in Fiddler’s Oji-Cree community can run to $16, so hunting for meat is an economic imperative.
“I’ve used it a lot when I go out moose hunting, I could probably say I’ve been hunting with that rifle since 2002,” he says.
“It would be cold, it would be wet and it just never gave me any trouble.”