One of our European correspondents, Bart, sent over a couple photos of a rifle excavated recently at the Ypres battlefield, looking to confirm an identification. Since we know some of the history behind it by virtue of where it was found, this one turns out to be a relatively simple process of elimination to identify, despite its horrendous condition.
First off, we know that it must be a WWI military weapon of some type. That narrows the field down substantially.
Next, we can look to the most distinctive feature present: the protrusion angled down at the left end. That is undoubtedly the bolt that attaches the butt end of a two-piece stock to the receiver. The French Lebel and British Lee series of rifles both used two-piece stocks, but only the Lee used a long bolt like that to attach the butt (the Lebel used a bolt running crosswise instead).
The first thought is that this makes the gun an typical No1 Mk III (or MkIII*) SMLE – but the muzzle end doesn’t really match that conclusion. The SMLE had a large nosecap with the front sight, mounted right at the end of the barrel. This rifle appears to have the front sight set back a bit, and there is no evidence of a nosecap assembly. So what Lee rifle does that fit with? The MkI Lee-Metford, also known as the Long Lee. Those rifles had a set back and unadorned front sight, which fits with what we see here. Lee-Metford rifles were rebarreled in large numbers and issued in WWI to supplement the production of new SMLE rifles, and there are several sources specifically mentioning Metfords at Ypres.
One issue that Bart raised was how the bolt handle appeared to be horizonal and retracted, suggesting a straight-pull action, or possibly a bolt handle dramatically bent out of shape. That would be true with a Mauser or Lebel rifle, but the Lee actually fits this detail. The bolt handle of the Lee-Metford (and later Lee-Enfield rifles) was turned down, and in addition its throw to operate was about 60 degrees instead of the Mauser’s 90 degrees. These two facts together mean that when a Metford bolt is open, the handle sits horizontal – just like we see in the photos here. Here is a good picture of an intact Lee-Metford showing this well.