The “SMELLY” Story
by Bert Walker
(National Sporting Shooters’ Journal September 1967)
The S.M.L.E. or "ordinary old .303 was the personal weapon of the majority of all military personnel of the British Commonwealth since the Short Magazine Lee‑Enfield was first introduced on the 23rd. October, 1902. This first version, or Mark I was little different in exterior appearance and performance to the Mark III* used by some of our Australian service personnel in battle as late as 1963.
Considering the great advancement in automotive, aeronautical, agricultural and general engineering during the same period, it speaks well for the design of the original Lee bolt action rifle approved by the British Small Arms Committee for manufacture on 23rd. December, 1888. This was the long Lee Metford magazine rifle Mk. I* of .303 calibre using 71.5 grains of black powder giving a velocity of 1850 feet per second to the 215 grain projectile. A different cartridge was used In India in 1898 known as the Dum‑dum Mk. II Special. It proved very effective in the long‑barrelled Lee Metford against the tribesmen who, in turn, used captured weapons and ammunition with great effect against the British. This Dum‑dum cartridge merely had the lead core exposed at the tip or a plain round nosed soft point projectile, not criss‑crossed or hollowed as many people suppose.
A hollow point service projectile was subsequently introduced in 1899. This was a cordite loaded cartridge and similarly loaded cartridges sounded the death knell of the Lee Metford barrels because the rounded lands and grooves were very prone to erosion and this led to the reintroduction of a type of rifling formerly used in British arms, i.e. "Enfield" rifling. This was employed in the Lee Enfield Magazine Rifle M. 1 (often referred to as the "Long Tom") and in rebarrelling Lee Metfords. This new rifle varied little from the Lee Metford except that it had a safety catch on the cocking piece. The Lee Metford Mk. I* had no safety catch unless the "half cook" position can be called such. Both these rifles used the 12” long double edged (sword) bayonet, had single pull triggers, were just over 5feet long with bayonet fitted and had 30” barrels. A carbine version for cavalry and artillery units was also issued, being only 3’ 3” long with 20” barrel, without provision for fitting a bayonet and featuring a six‑shot magazine Instead of the 8 or 10 of the long rifles.
Together these rifles and their companion carbines saw service in the Indian and Boer Wars. To illustrate the long range effectiveness of the rifles, I shall quote from a history book of the Boer War, where at Estcourt a Major‑General Hillyard is in charge of the Dublin Fusiliers and the Boers are marching on the camp from the north‑west.
"He went out a little way and placed his Dublins in a good defensive position. The Boers came on very cautiously (1500 to 2000 of them). None of your storming Kopjes (small hills) in daylight for them. They fired on our outposts and drove them into the main body and then rode warily up to within about 2000 yards of where the Dublins waited. The command rang out: 'Volleys at 2000! Ready! Present! Fire!' and with one single report, as though one gigantic rifle were being fired, the British poured in a volley. The Boers seemed not to like this, they now hover about in groups of from 40 to 150, apparently undecided as to their course. Another volley, a pause, then another volley, then yet another and that is as close as they get."
Many similar instances are reported throughout the Boer War and World War I.
The Lee Metford and Lee Enfield carbines were not designated as Short Magazine Rifles. The first rifle so designated was the S.M.L.E. Mk. I issued 1902 and had several interesting features, namely, two‑piece charger guide, part of which was attached to the bolt-head and the other part integral with the body. The rear sight had both fine and coarse adjustment for elevation and had windage adjustment as well. A separate set of extreme range sights was fitted on the left side of the rifle, the rear element of which was an aperture and the front element an arm and pointer which was adjustable to 2800 yards!
These extreme range sights were a legacy from the Lee Metford and Lee Enfield. This "new" rifle and Its "new" ammunition enabled a skilled soldier who knew his rifle and using the battle sight to hit an individual or designated enemy, soldier up to 400 yards without having to aim more than a few inches up or down at any intermediate range. The Mk. I S.M.L.E. progressed through several marks and reached its most efficient form in the Mk. III* on the 2nd January, 1916. With this short rifle the British infantry battalions scored heavily against the massed German forces at Le Cateau. My father, after being wounded In France, was posted to the Tidsworth School of Musketry in ‑England as an instructor and the following is an extract from his notes taken at that time.
"The Germans consider it unnecessary to teach their men to fire at distances beyond 400 yards. Their plan of infantry attack is devised to get within this range without opening fire. Accordingly, judging distances is practised by officers only. To concentrate the fire of a platoon or company on one spot at 1000 yards is considered by them to be a waste of ammunition. Only some of their troops are practised in rapid fire which averages only nine shots a minute, as against fifteen when‑aimed a minute which all British troops must be trained to deliver. In one particular incident on the Aisne River, a captured German officer reported that his machine gun battery came under the concentrated rifle fire of British Infantry at 1000 yards and suffered most severely. They were unable to reply to the British fire as they were unable to see them."
It was mainly the effectiveness of the S.M.L.E. that staved off, for so many years, the introduction of a self‑loading rifle for British forces.
Between World War I and World War II, the British further developed the SMLE and In 1926 adopted a different method of designation for their rifles. The S.M.L.E. Mk. III became Rifle No. 1 Mk. III, and the Mk VI which was then undergoing trials, became Rifle No. 4 Mk. 1. Approval was granted for manufacture in November, 1939, of the No. 4 Mk I and it was then produced and used by the British in great quantities during World War II. The Americans also produced large quantities of the No. 4 Mk. II to supplement British production. The Australians, however, stuck to the manufacture and use of the SMLE. Mk. III or, as it was correctly termed, Rifle No. 1 Mk. III, and used it with great efficiency against overwhelming odds in the Middle East and the Pacific theatre of war.
It was here, among the dry sand, mud and slush, that the "Smelly" really came to glory as It had done in the sands of Middle East, the mud of Flanders and Gallipoli. 50 years 'ago! Is it then, no wonder, our men of these campaigns remember their “best friend” with more than a little affection!