The First SMLE Trials Rifles: Lessons From the Boer War

In the aftermath of the Boer War, the British military needed to address critical issues of practical marksmanship with its troops. The Long Lee rifles it had deployed to South Africa suffered significant problems in making real-world hits on the battlefield. In addition to investing in better musketry training, the military chose to radically change its rifles.

In place of the Lee rifles and carbines, a single short rifle pattern would be issued for all branches of service (cavalry, artillery, and infantry). A stripper clip loading system was introduced to speed reloading and a full-length handguard for improving bayonet handling and reducing sight mirage. A windage adjustable rear sight was mandated, and a stout full protective hood added around the front sight. A new nosecap design was implemented to put the weight of the bayonet onto the stock, and not on the barrel where it would impact the rifle’s zero.

Two different patterns of rear sight were considered. The A pattern design was a tangent type sight like a Mauser, pinned at the front. The B pattern used a ladder sight, pinned at the rear. Five hundred of each were made, and put through a rigorous set of remarkably practical field trials. The testing involved not just static shooting for accuracy, but also shooting against timed disappearing targets, camouflaged targets, and snap shooting. The trial winner was the A pattern design, and it went into mass production in 1904 as the Short, Magazine, Lee Enfield Mark I – the first SMLE.

As adopted a few minor changes were made from the trials rifles, most notably a change from a full front sight hood to a pair of stout protective Ewings, to allow more light onto the sight. In addition, the design was almost immediately updated to a MkI* pattern, with a stronger rear sling swivel, rounded corners on the receiver, and a storage trap added to the buttplate.


  1. It is interesting to see how the lessons of a war 120-odd years ago still influence precision shooting disciplines today. Use the prone position, rifles have iron sights with precision adjustments, fire single aimed shots, observe the fall of shot, adjust sights, record the detailed corrections, and go on score.

  2. I own a SMLE made in 1904 and converted to .22 rim fire in 1911 and issued to
    the New Zealand army. All of the numbers match and it still has the long range
    volley sight on the side. It is an amazing accurate full size (single shot)
    training rifle. The sights which are adjustable just like when “new” and the
    rifle was a .303 are wonderful. What an intelligently made training rifle.

  3. No 1 SMLE’s are great, they just seem so sturdy (end cap on the nose helps) and solid. I have two (one made in Australia, Lithgow Arsenal and the other made in GB).

    Clearly, a lot of effort and thought, based on solid testing and experience, went into their design.

  4. “The Americans fight with a target rifle, the Germans with a hunting rifle, and the British with a fighting rifle.”

    A slightly defensive-sounding British slogan from who knows which war? But true enough for government work.

    • America overemphasized perfect marksmanship, Germany emphasized punching power, and England got its hands dirty. However, England might have gotten dirty hands the wrong way half the time.

  5. There’s an interesting PhD thesis, looking at the sociology of some of the British rifle choices.

    I’ll see if I can find the ref.

    It covers the SMLE, and the unusual conjunction of people who had relevant recent combat experience, who were involved in the design brief, trials and adoption processes.

    One of the key movers and shakers, seems to have been the head of the school of musketry, at Hythe (it’s still there).

    The experience wasn’t only with the second British South African war.

    It was also with India and Afghanistan.

    The Tribesmen of the north west frontier, then as now, didn’t like having intruders around

    They too, were good at taking a quick shot and ducking back down behind a rock.

    The old ideas of the opposing forces of (usually conscripted or crimped) foot soldiers, lining up in big blocks and firing volleys at each other on the orders of an officer, didn’t work anymore.

    The Afrikaans, found that if you shot the ruperts, the ordinary squaddies just wandered around in confusion, waiting to be shot. Easy targets in red tunics and with little pork pie hats on top of sun blistered heads.

    Military discipline, of waiting for an officer to give the order to load a rifle and take aim, didn’t work when the targets were camouflaged and only visible for a moment.

    The ideas of ordinary squaddies taking initiative, and engaging targets of opportunity, were both revolutionary and terrifying to the older military establishment.

    Also in that mix was a cavalry, desperate to survive, even as mounted infantry, after showing itself to be virtually useless (or worse than useless) in South Africa and Sudan. Omburdan in Sudan, was the last British cavalry charge.

    Having the same rifle as the infantry, meant that the cavalry could appear to be useful for a little while longer.

    So even a group as conservative as the cavalry, could side with young radicals as a way to survive, when its existence was threatened.

    • @Kieth, it’s a common story that Omdurman saw the last cavalry charge of the British army, but it’s not true. There were successful charges in the 2nd Boer War, the Great War (during the mobile stages of 1914 and 1918) and after. I believe the last was in Iraq around 1920. I don’t believe that these charges were full regimental attacks though, but small hit and run affairs; the issue of the 1908 sword suggests a deliberate change to fast hit and run tactics, as it’s almost a short glance compared to traditional cut/thrust swords and sabres.

      • One could add Beersheba when Australian Light Horse (mounted infantry) charged as a Brigade in 1917. They used their sword bayonets – no swords issued. Then dismounted on the objective and cleared the town with SMLE No4. Point of discussion is – was it the last ‘British’ cavalry charge or the first Mounted (now Mechanised) infantry charge?

  6. C&Rsenals ‘primer’ episodes force one to recognize just how agonizingly slow the development of military arms can be. The SMLE and the various Mausers display that kind of progress. The French and Russians, stuck for decades with 8mm Lebel and 7.62/54 rimmed show the process derailed by early decisions.

  7. I guess I’m probably trolling with this…

    If someone was eccentric enough to “improve” an 8mm lebel case by fire forming it to have less body taper, and a 30° – 35° shoulder angle as well…

    What they’d end up with, would be something like a remington or Winchester short magnum, with a rim.

    There’s very little difference between the diameter of the lebel case ahead of the rim, and the. 404 Jeffery, that is the parent of the short fat mags and the longer Dakota, “Canadian” and Remington “ultra” mags.

    Our crowd here will probably smile at the coincidence

    Imagine the cognitive dissonance on some of the forums and in gunzines

    That it took Winchester and Remington, more than 100 years to catch up with and emulate, what was supposed to be a bad mistake by the French military.

    • There really wasn’t anything wrong with the 8mm Lebel cartridge except the
      required, due to the Lebel’s tube magazine, round nose bullet, which most
      other nations had replaced with a “spritzer” bullet. The problem was the
      rifles that the French adapted. The tube magazine held eight rounds, loaded
      individually, in the rifle but the carbine held less. Remember these are “loose” rounds, not clip feed and as mentioned, required a round nose
      projectile/ bullet. The M1892 Berthier only held three cartridges. But at least
      they were clip loaded. The later M1907/15 and M1916 Berthier somewhat of an
      improvement and the M1916 version had a five round, clip fed magazine. There
      was also a M1917 RSC semi auto rifle which also had a five round capacity. But
      due to the rimmed on the Lebel (8x51R) cartridge, its function/ feeding was a
      reliability problem. And let us not forget the wonderful Chauchat machine gun.
      Besides being a mechanical nightmare, it suffered even more due to the Lebel
      8x51R, cartridge. There again, there have been rifles and even machine guns
      that will shoot rimmed cartridges with as perfect as possible reliability.
      A British Enfield or a Lewis gun are good examples. So I really don’t think that the Lebel 8x51R cartridge was a bad one. The weapons that the French used
      to fire them was the problem.
      As far as a modern caliber using a modified Lebel case, sure. But let us not forget the U.S. 45-70 (an 1873 black powder cartridge) in a modern lever action or double rife the ballistics can be increased tremendously compared to black powder pressures and ballistics. Perhaps 25 years ago or so there were a number of surplus Siamese Mauser rifles redone in .47-70 (the Siamese Mausers originally fired a rimmed cartridge) and could be loaded to nearly .458 Winchester magnum velocities. So much for the excellent .404 Jeffery.
      So the French indeed had an good cartridge but chose poor weapons to fire them.

      • The French were actually the first to adopt a spritzer

        “Balle D”

        At around 198grains, it was swaged from solid “commercial bronze” (90% copper 10% zinc), and included a radiused (rather than straight taper) boat tail.

        It had a Lower muzzle velocity than. 30-06, but had more retained everything than .30-06 from about 80 metres onwards.

        The convex shape of the primer cover and the case head, ensured that the points of the Balle D bullets stayed well away from the primers in the tube magazine of a Lebel.

        The point about chargers is correct. Even the en bloc clip of the Berthier was initially designed for only 3 rounds, where the German Gew 88 clip contained 5 rounds (as did the stripper for the various box mag mausers), and the lovely little M91 Carcano, had an en bloc clip holding 6 rounds.

      • On the subject of the .45-70 and the .458 Winchester Magnum…

        The case bodies of the two are approximately the same diameter.

        There’s almost half an inch difference in case length.

        Its been clear since the early days of the “nitro express” that to reliably achieve satisfactory velocities with a bullet that has sufficient sectional density for dangerous game use, straight cases need to be at least 2.75 inches long, and preferably 3 inches or more.

        Winchester used compressed charges, and those only achieved the advertised velocities in 24 inch barrels and at magnum operating pressures. In 22 inch barrels, many new 500 grain loads only achieved 1900 fps – too slow!

        The powder winchester used was also subject to rapid deterioration. In a compressed load, that resulted in too limited penetration of the flame from the primer – and a squib.

        There are reliable reports of the bullets from. 458 squibs, failing to even penetrate the hides of African buffalo.

        I don’t know whether anyone has sued Winchester over its BS marketing hype that the .458 was somehow a “dangerous game round”. It never was, and Winchester’s ballistician from the time has gone on record saying that he made that clear when the Winchester line of 2.5″ mag cases was being developed.

        The .458 Lott with a 2.75″ case and the .458 Watts with a 3″ case, were developed to address the lack of powder capacity (and insufficient performance) of the .458 Winchester.

        Jack Lott was inspired to develop his round after he was actually thrown around and injured by a Cape buffalo that he’d shot twice with a. 458 Winchester.

        That illustrates that the claimed ballistics of .458 Winchester are right at the limit of what can be achieved with magnum pressures and compressed powder charges.

        Incidentally, the same is true of other 2.5″ straight sided cases, for example. 375x 2.5 inch and .405 Winchester.

        .45-70 has a very similar diameter case to .458 Winchester, but is only 2.1 inches long

        If the .458 is at its limit to achieve the advertised velocity (with compressed loads and magnum pressures)

        There is no way that it is possible to approach that performance with an otherwise similar case that’s 0.4″ shorter.

        • According to loading data from Barnes Bullets, in a Ruger #1 single shot or a Siamese Mauser, a 350 gr bullet can be driven at 2150 fps and a 400 gr. bullet at 2200 fps. Factory loads for the .450 Win Mage are 2470 for a 350 gr. bullet and 2380 for a 400 gr. bullet. I would think that is fairly close (300 and 200 fps, approximate differences). Considering we
          are comparing a 1873 cartridge case to a belted 1956 magnum cartridge, I
          doubt in an equal weight rifle that one’s shoulder or the object it
          strikes, a game animal or otherwise, could tell the difference. Having
          fired both myself, only a chronograph would know the difference.
          And don’t forget the British gentleman, named W. Bell, who killed
          many, many elephants with a FMJ 7mm Mauser (7×57) with a single, well
          placed shot. He was an excellent marksman and knew where to place the
          bullet. The 7×57 certainly would not be the first choice for an elephant,
          etc., but it worked for Bell and I’m sure his shoulder didn’t hurt afterwards and his vision wasn’t blurred either. It’s all in bullet placement.
          So how close does the 45-70, in a strong rifle need to get to approach
          a .458 Winchester Magnum?

          • The appropriate bullet weight for dangerous game in .45″ caliber is 500 grains or heavier.

            400 grains or heavier would be appropriate for .40″ calibre, around 286 to 300 grains for 9.3mm and .375″/9.5mm.

            Those are the weights that will give sufficient penetration with an appropriate “solid” bullet, to deal with a heavy dangerous animal that is charging, or that is wounded and escaping.

            With those longer bullets, loaded to the normal overall length, you are going to have a reduction in useable case capacity, as well as the reduction in velocity due to the weight of the bullet, compared to the loads that you quoted.

            Just on case length alone, .458 Winchester has around 25% greater case capacity compared to .45-70

            25% more powder will (everything else equal) give approximately 25% greater muzzle energy

            Those are big differences, especially when the .458 Winchester is already loaded with compressed charges and operates at magnum pressure levels to achieve marginal to dangerously sub marginal performance for the job that it was advertised to be suitable for.

      • “(…)wonderful Chauchat machine gun(…)So I really don’t think that the Lebel 8x51R cartridge was a bad one. The weapons that the French used
        to fire them was the problem.(…)”
        I would say Chauchat performance in French service was negatively affected by cartridge or at least magazine, which needs to be designed this way due to peculiar shape of cartridge.
        used Chauchat chambered for 7.65×53mm cartridge (7,65 mm ARGENTINE MAUSER in U.S. parlance) with much less curved magazine and were using them until mid-1930s.

      • “So I really don’t think that the Lebel 8x51R cartridge was a bad one. The weapons that the French used
        to fire them was the problem.”
        But French themselves did. Rimless cartridge was developed together with self-loading rifle, namely Meunier
        but outbreak of war prevented replacement taking effect and only limited number was made and used in combat.
        Then soon after Great War they decided new cartridge is required which resulted in 7,5 mm cartridge.

  8. The flange cartridge is good for everyone.
    Excluding the presence of the flange itself. 😉

    For bolt rifles and machine guns with “double-deck” feed (Maxim, PK, etc.), everything is fine.
    Even better. The flanged cartridge is better suited for backward pulling out of the belt and less precision than flangeless ones.
    This is good for low-tech production.
    But this also plays “against” when there is a need for a light automatic weapon.
    The flange nullifies all attempts to create a reliable high-capacity box magazine.
    I do not know of reliable mags with a capacity of more than 20 cartridges for .303 and 10 for 8mm Lebel or 7.62 Mosin.
    In addition, the plus of such cartridges in the form of case and camera free tolerances becomes a minus in automatic weapons.

    By the way, the breaks of the muzzle of the case in the Japanese machine gun, just, may be the result of the combination of a too spacious chamber with too thin walls of the case with too tight pressing of the bullet.
    When, due to the large gaps between the walls of the case and the chamber, the breaks of cases begin.

    • One more thing about the rifle itself.
      The bayonet tip had another additional feature. He protected the muzzle from soil. As the barrel became shorter, it made it easier to use the rifle in confined spaces such as trenches. At the same time, it became possible to bury the muzzle in the wall of the trench and stupidly scoop up the soil. (it seems that before the Boer War, trenches were not widely used)

    • It seems to me that you are forgetting the Bren: 30 round box magazine for the .303, perfectly reliable. The Soviets, as far as I know, never even seriously tried to make a large capacity box magazine for the 7.62x54R, perhaps because they knew that it would be difficult. That does not mean impossible, however.

      • The Soviets went w/ a flat pan magazine for 7.62x54R, and the Russians are still using the cartridge today in their GPMG.

        The Brits (Empire) had at least one cavalry charge in the Levatine campaign, albeit it was by Oceanians.

      • When I say “reliable”, I mean technical reliability, not loyalty to the emperor. 😉
        30-seater, BREN magazine was only theoretically.
        In reality, it was loaded with 25-27 rounds. And with worn out magazines, this could be reduced to 22-23.

        And Madsen’s magazine is not even funny. From the same series as the Hotchkiss cassette.

        PS BREN is still a good machine gun.
        Especially for the Mauser 8mm cartridge.

    • “(…)reliable mags with a capacity of more than(…)10 for(…)7.62 Mosin.”
      Madsen light machine gun in 7,62×54 R used 25-round magazine.
      Soviets run tests of 7,62 mm captured hand-held machine gun Madsen for Finnish cartridge
      in 1941. It was already well-worn when inspected. Captured Finnish cartridges were used, both light bullet and heavy bullet. It worked reliable in following conditions:
      – dust
      – dry details (no grease)
      – extra grease (too much grease)
      – cartridge heat up to 70°C
      Some problems appeared in cold testing (-50°C), but after 5 single shot normal fire commenced. Malfunctions rate: 4,8% with heavy bullets and 1,6% with light bullet. It might be higher than real as part of them might be caused by ammunition. In total 4100 cartridges were fired which exhausted whole stock of ammo.

  9. So long as cartridges are arranged in a mag to prevent rim lock, a rimmed cartridge can have some advantages for feeding from a box magazine.

    Compared to a rimless and especially compared to a rebated case head,

    The rim provides more for the bolt to pick up. It’s less likely to over ride the case head as the front end of the case starts to ride up the feed ramp, which is a possibility with poorly designed or maintained mag lips and rimless and rebated cases.

    You Also have the possibility that is used in most. 22rf box mags, of using two ears on the front of the mag to lift the rim, so that you can keep the cartridge almost parallel with the bore axis as it feeds.

  10. Folks, what does comparing or speculating on 19th C French early cartridge designs with modern dangerous game cartridges, and magazine types, have to do with the video at hand? Ian found a survivor from the two earliest trials that became the familiar No.1 rifle. That that rifle still exists is a reason to celebrate, and to follow as he notes, the back and forths of features. I find the tension over cut-offs and front sight ears more instructive of British rifle design schools, than wondering about which non-British cartridge could or could not do. Stay on topic, or please find another place to muse.

    • You are correct and I personally apologize to all.
      One must consider how long the SMLE served the British. The Mosin-Nagant served just as long. Both using rimmed cartridges that functioned with
      total reliability in all of the weapons that it was chambered it. One feature of the SMLE was the availability of several (can’t recall how may) butt stock
      lengths to suit the physical attributes of the soldiers from the various
      “colonies” in the British Empire; truly well thought out. And I agree about
      the end cap strength of the SMLE. The hard kicking “jungle carbine” excepted.
      Did the French have different butt stock lengths for the Lebel?
      I have owned/ fired most all or the worlds cartridge military rifles or carbines as at one time, early to late 1960’s, most all of them were available very inexpensively, in the U.S.. Most all of them I still have.

      • In Canada No.4 and No.7 butts were “B” for Bantam, “S” for Short, unmarked Normal, and “L” for Long in 1/2″ increments up and down from Normal. A Bantam butt is really quite abusive for a normal shooter. I don’t collect No.1s so I can’t comment on the choice of butts. Circling back to Ian’s piece, we know the long range shooters of the UK’s NRA were influential in the army’s marksmanship training; it stands to reason they would be consulted for features on how to improve rifle fit for soldiers ranging in size from runty Welsh coal miner to towering Guardsman.

  11. Many decisions in English rifles seem, at first glance, if a little strange. BUT, upon closer acquaintance, everything is quite logical and rational.
    For example the forend and butt. Manufacturing from several pieces does not so much allow “adjusting” the rifle for shooters with different physiques. Although I doubt that this was the task. Rather, the short butts were intended for cuirassiers or something.
    Furniture made from pieces makes production and repairs much faster and easier. It also prevents warping of wooden parts in conditions of unstable humidity.
    Likewise, the rest of the rifle assemblies are well suited for repair. For example a bolt. This is not the only bolt with a removable combat head for that time, but probably the most technologically advanced and simpler to manufacture and repair.

    The English rifle is generally damn well thought out and rational.
    Possibly the best overall service bolt rifle of all time.

    • PS And also durability.
      In many former colonies and dominions, these wontons are still in use. For example, in Uganda, it is still a police weapon. And they are in much better technical condition than half the age of AKM.
      I do not know of any other weapon that would withstand the use of Africans for so long, with their barbaric attitude to technology.

    • @Stiven, the British army did not employ regiments of cuirassiers. Only the Life Guards and Horse Guards reg’ts wore a cuirass, and then only for ceremonial duties by the time of the SMLE. I think cuirasses had been left in England before the Egyptian campaigns in the 1880s. I have never read of any imperative to issue a special firearm just for these two regiments, even though they were the senior of the army.

    • I recall in the terrorist attack in Mumbai in 2008 seeing Indian police armed with some version of the Enfield (possibly locally produced, possibly in 7.62 NATO?).

      It’s a design that has stood the test of time.

      • Yes, the Ishapore 2A1 rifle in 7.62 NATO. Even today they are still used by some Indian police organizations, although I believe many are now phasing them out. India is a big country, though, so I wouldn’t be surprised if they continued to serve at least a few years longer.

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