Lee Metford MkI*: Britain’s First Repeating Rifle (Almost)

The first repeating rifle adopted by the British military was the Lee-Metford MkI, or as it was later redesigned, the Magazine Rifle MkI. This design combined the cock on closing action and detachable box magazine of James Paris Lee with the rounded-land Metford rifling pattern. Formally adopted in 1888, about 350,000 Lee-Metford rifles would be produced in total, among the LSA, BSA, Sparbrook, and Enfield factories.

It would not be long until the design began to be modified, however. The Lee-Metford we have here today was made in 1891 as a MkI pattern, but updated to the MkI* variant in 1892. This modification involved removing the manual safety, changing from Lewis pattern sights to traditional barleycorns, and modifying the upper hand guard for easier removal. Other changes would follow, with the MkII pattern adopted in 1893 with a 10-round magazine, Enfield pattern rifling adopted in 1895, and ultimately charger loading adopted in 1907.

Despite the fairly large number of Lee Metford rifles made, they are very scarce to find in original condition like this one. Typically the British military would update any older pattern rifle to meet new specifications, or convert them in to rimfire training rifles if such a conversion was not possible. Few left the military in the early configurations.


  1. I can understand why charger loading isn’t present here. Stupid traditional idea of making everyone a perfect shot. Most Mauser rifles after 1889 had charger guides in the receiver in contrast. And even if the magazine is detachable on this product, the magazines are not interchangeable between guns. Mass production of interchangeable detachable magazines wasn’t practical at the time. I could be wrong.

    • Charger loading isn’t present in this rifle because it wasn’t present in any other rifle either. The Lee Metford originates from a decade before the charger loading rifles you refer to.

      • OBJECTION!

        The Mannlicher M1886 rifle and the German Gewehr 88 used an en-bloc charger, which contradicts your statement that “no rifle of the Lee-Metford’s era used chargers.” Furthermore, the Lee-Metford was adopted in 1888, the year just before Belgium adopted the Mauser rifle. The Belgian Mauser (and the Argentine Mauser) clearly has a stripper-clip guide in the receiver. And before this, the Vetterli M70 received a charger-loaded magazine system in 1887 (thus creating the Vetterli-Vitali M70/87), which allowed it to load 4 rounds from a primitive wood-and-metal strip charger. Unless you are referencing the Remington-Lee rifles as a development path leading to the Lee-Metford’s origin I can’t see how the Lee-Metford should have been developed without charger loading capacity unless traditionalist meddling were thrown into the works (and usually traditionalists did force their way upon the armories).

        • Technically speaking, there’s a fundamental difference between the “charger-loading” and the “en-bloc clip” systems. That being, the en-bloc clip type will not feed from the magazine without the clip in same, while a charger-loading arm can generally be fed single rounds.

          The Lee system can be fed either by chargers (“stripper clips”) or singly, or by removing the magazine and reloading it separately as we do today with detachable box magazine rifles and pistols. (NB; Lee was apparently the first to come up with this idea.)

          An en-bloc clip type rarely if ever has a detachable box magazine (in fact, I believe the total number in history is none), and must be fed down through the action. The en-bloc clip stays in the arm until the last round is fed to the chamber, and then generally drops out of the bottom of the magazine. One exception is the semi-automatic Garand system, which ejects the clip with considerable velocity straight up out of the magazine when the last round is fired.

          Most en-bloc clip types can only be reloaded with another loaded clip. That is, you cannot “top up” a partly-emptied magazine with single rounds, it’s either a full clip or nothing. And if there are only two or three rounds in the clip instead of a full five or six, you can’t add more when it’s in the weapon, you have to do it before insertion.

          En-bloc clip and charger-loading systems are fundamentally different, and Lee should probably get the credit for inventing the latter.

          Incidentally, I hadn’t been aware of the Vetterli four-round linear charger. But it was predated by the Blakeslee tubular loading system for the Spencer repeating rifle and carbine circa 1864, that remained in U.S. Army service as long as the Spencer itself did;


          Similar tubular loaders are sold today as “speed loaders” for tubular-magazine repeating shotguns;


          Similar problems tend to result in similar solutions.



          • In 1870, the Italians adopted a single-shot version of the Vetterli rifle. The problem with this decision becomes obvious when dealing with friendly infantry getting overrun. In 1887, Captain Vitali invented a box magazine system that could be retrofitted to existing weapons. He also designed the four-round charger, which was stuck into the magazine and then yanked out by a string. The magazine would hold onto the cartridges as the clip was yanked.

          • There was also the tube-magazine version mentioned above, that remained in service with the Swiss frontier guards until just before WW2.

            As far as I know, the Vetterli is the only bolt-action that in its various models encompassed every major evolutionary step of the metallic-cartidge bolt-action in the 19th Century. It began as a single-shot rimfire, then became a single-shot centerfire, then a tube-magazine repeater, and finally a box-magazine repeater, and in the process transitioned from black powder to smokeless powder while it was at it.

            Not to mention changing from the original 10.4 x 38R to the 6.5 x 52, the latter in the Vetterli-Vitali issued in WW1 that was still used by Italian reserve units in WW2.

            It must have been a pretty decent piece of work to accomplish all that and stay in service for almost three-fourths of a century, 1871 to 1943 or so.



          • I’ve been waiting for a good chance to bring this up; I did a lot of patent research on this stuff some time ago for a certain educational YouTube channel, following up on the timeline of Mauser’s patents, and I have some evidence for James Paris Lee and his colleagues having invented the stripper clip.

            The earliest patent I was ever able to find for a recognizable stripper clip was filed by Louis P. Diss, a very close colleague of James Paris Lee who filed a number of patents both for himself and on behalf of James Paris Lee. It is US Patent #356,276 and was filed on July 22nd, 1886, one year after Ferdinand Mannlicher filed his patent for the en-bloc clip. It looks almost exactly like the Swiss-style clips used with rifles such as the K31, and the patent doesn’t make reference to any kind of previous design with any similarity in function.

            My personal theory is that it may have evolved from one of them trying to make a copy of an en-bloc clip, making the feed lips too soft, and having some sort of accident trying to insert it which caused the clip to jam and the rounds to force their way out through the bottom. This is purely speculation, though.

            Some additional notes: the Nagant brothers filed their patent for the Mosin-Nagant-style stripper clip on December 10th, 1888, with Belgian patent #84,225. (I am unsure if it makes any references to earlier designs, as Belgian patents of that period are handwritten and I haven’t been able to find someone to help me transliterate it accurately-enough for translation.) Mauser’s earliest patent for a stripper clip was not filed until December 31st, 1888. This was US Patent #402,605 (curiously, this is one of those occasions where Mauser filed his US patent before he filed his German patent). This clip isn’t too similar to modern ones; the modern notion of a Mauser-style stripper clip appears as refinements to the earlier design in April 1892 (German patent #65,644) and April 1894 (US patent #547,932).

            I was never able to find much info of any kind, or any patent, relating to the British development of stripper clips for the Lee-Enfield family of rifles, and would dearly love any information someone can point me to on the subject.

            If one would wish to inspect these patents, all of them except the Belgian patent can be easily found through Google Patents or DEPATISnet or a similar service.

          • There was another exception ejecting clips straight up out of the magazine: Mauser M1888 was fitted with clip ejector blocking hole in magazine during Great war. Just simple piece of sheet metal with coil spring attached it was added to protect rifle from debris. Unlike later designs user must press clip release button to eject clip.

  2. During the testing and selection process, there were conservative elements within the establishment who were opposed to magazine arms in general and bolt actions in particular.

    They felt that magazine arms would undermine discipline and the role of officers and non commissioned officers.

    The tradition was for volley fire, on command of an officer. It was feared that with a magazine available, it would lead to uncontrolled firing, not allowing time for the smoke to clear, and not allowing the officer’s commands to be heard.

    Ordinary soldiers were not trustedto nor considered capable of selecting militarily significant targets to engage, and supply lines were normally stretched, so conservation of ammunition was seen as a big issue.

    In most of the empire,Magazines were therefore to be held in reserve only, and the riflevel used as a single loader.

    In India and in naval use, snap shots at targets of opportunity were more likely than massed forces in formal battlefield arrays, and in those instances, troops were trained and expected to use their initiative.

    During the trials in which the Martini had been selected, there had been several slam fires with bolt actions that did not cam the striker back and hold it back. Most notably with the Bacon rifle. One slam fire had resulted in serious injuries to the firer.

    This lead to a prejudice that all bolt actions were intrinsically unsafe. It was only with difficulty that this prejudice was overcome.

    • In essence the problem was “oh no I just shot Alfred in the knee” mixed with horrible design flaws. Having the striker cam back manually is the first part of opening the bolts on earlier needle guns. Otherwise the bolt stays shut! No chance for slam fire on those.

      • The most obvious “design flaw” on the Lee-Metford MK I* was the deletion of the MK I’s manual safety. It’s worth noting that the MK II of 1893 restored said manual safety to its proper place. One can only wonder how many “Alfreds” took rounds in the knees before they decided to put things back the way they were to begin with.

        NB; No French magazine rifle, from the 1886 Lebel to the MAS 36, ever had a manual safety at all, unless you count the magazine cutoffs on the Level and the Kropatschek (and frankly I don’t).

        This might be understandable on rifles designed in the 1870s and 1880s; after all, American repeaters like the Spencer and Henry had no actual safeties other than the half-cock on their external hammers. But it was an unforgivable oversight on the MAS 36, a rifle designed when every other military rifle in the world had already one for the best part of half-a-century.

        One can carry the whole L’audace, l’audace, toujours l’audace thing a bit too far.



        • For French rifle, doctrine is the answer : “Always carry with an empty chamber” (and if possible, carry an unloaded rifle and don’t open ammo package until you receive the order to do so)

          • Sounds like the Great War, when officers did not trust their own guys not to shoot each other by accident. And let’s not forget that no gun is idiot-proof. Who loads a rifle before issuing it to a soldier? No sane quartermaster.

    • “This lead to a prejudice that all bolt actions were intrinsically unsafe. It was only with difficulty that this prejudice was overcome.”
      For the forerunners it is always more difficult.

      “supply lines were normally stretched, so conservation of ammunition was seen as a big issue.”
      Not to be overlook, is that in 1890s British Empire was just vast and ammunition delivered to far overseas lands traveled long way, which costs.

    • Nice explanation how psychology and even ideology played role in technical development of early rifles. I enjoy reading this discussion.

  3. For what reason did they (and many other armies in Europe) switch from the “parade-style” sling attachment with the rear mounted forward of the magazine, to the modern conventional method with the rear mounted to the buttstock? Was it to enable use of the sling as a shooting aid, or to make the rifle easier to carry under many conditions, or what?

    When the Lee-Metford/Lee-Enfield was changed from single-stack to double-stack, this obviously required changes to the stock and the trigger guard, but did it also require any changes to the receiver geometry?

    • It’s a long time since I had a good look at an early Lee.

      The later double stack magazine Lees have an understructure to the otherwise largely cylindrical receiver, that is shaped externally to match the shape of the wider magazine well.

      I’m not certain on this, but I don’t think that the receivers for single stack magazines were suitable for conversion to double stack.

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