Number 4 Lee-Enfield Rifle

The last, best bolt-action Battle Rifle

A squad of Canada’s 48th Highlanders in 1943 was armed with the No. 4 Mk 1, the
most commonly issued British empire rifle in WWII. Also note the “Tommy-gun”!

I’ve never regretted money spent on a military surplus gun. However, the 1945 Canadian No. 4 Mk 1 Lee-Enfield in this story was one of the best deals of my life when I bought it for $125 in the late 1980s. It was made in June of 1945, probably less than two months before the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima to end both the war and the production contract it was made under.

It lay next to at least a dozen others across the gun show table and it was a tough choice. They were all pretty nice, with superb bores, very nice wood and just a little bluing wear on the edges. While not the most beautifully made military gun, it was without a doubt the best bolt-action battle rifle to see widespread use in World War II.

The No. 4 Mk 1 Lee-Enfield rifle was the British empire’s last bolt-action battle rifle and considered one of the best.

Number One For The Brits

Over 3,000,000 were made. In the hands of British, Commonwealth and colonial soldiers, the No. 4 played a major role in defeating the Axis powers and remained their service rifle until fully replaced by the FAL in the 1960s. It continued to serve many second-rate nations well into the 1970s and insurrectionist guerillas long afterward. In fact, in the 1980s, Soviet troops fighting in Afghanistan faced Mujahideen fighters armed with the No. 4 Lee-Enfield.

The crux of the No. 4 Lee-Enfield story is it was Great Britain’s supremely practical evolution of the most promising of the world’s first-generation, small-bore, smokeless powder, bolt-action repeating-rifles (their own Lee-Metford) and the best battle rifle of World War I, the Short Magazine Lee-Enfield (SMLE) No. 1 Mk 3. From the start in 1888 with the Lee-Metford, the American-designed, rear-locking-bolt, turn-bolt action was the race car of the small arms world with its fast working speed and 8-shot, box-magazine. It was faster than front-lug bolt actions because it needed 30 percent less bolt rotation to open and close it, and less travel for loading and ejection. The speed of operation was further enhanced by placement of a turned-down bolt handle just behind the trigger (most bolt handles were straight and in front of the trigger) and the decision to have the bolt cock on the long, forward-chambering-stroke instead of the short, upward opening-stroke used in all other turn-bolt designs.

The rear bolt-locking lugs were not as strong or precise as front-mounted
Mauser-style lugs but they were good enough.

Across The Pond

Production wasn’t just limited to England. In America, Savage Arms Company was awarded a contract for the rifle and built over a million at their Stevens Arms Company subsidiary in Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts from 1941 to 1944. These guns were sent to England and most were marked “U.S. Property” indicating they were Lend Lease equipment. In Canada, Small Arms Ltd., made over 905,000 rifles from 1941 to 1945 in their Long Branch, Ontario, factory. At peak production, they were making over 28,500 a month. These rifles went to war in the hands of Canadian soldiers and mine happens to be one of them.

The bolt handle on the No. 4 is located behind the trigger guard for fast operation.

The Better Mousetrap

The No. 4’s improvements included: a stiffer, heavier, barrel and redesigned handguard allowing it to free-float for most of its length; exposure of the last 2" of muzzle to which a new spike-style bayonet was directly attached; an increased sight radius and more effective aperture-type rear sight mounted on the rear of the receiver; plus an overall simplification of the manufacturing process to increase production efficiency and lower unit cost by reducing the number of machining operations and replacing some expensive forgings with stamped sheet metal parts.

The No. 4 Mk 1 was made only in America and Canada and featured an additional simplification omitting two parts and some machining operations that allowed the bolt to be removed from the receiver by aligning the bolt head perfectly with a gap in its guide slot along the side of the receiver. None of these changes made the rifle more graceful or better looking but they did improve function and most importantly, saved time and resources. Such thinking wins big wars.

A simplified sheet metal rear sight and square (instead of rounded) metal surfaces made
the No. 4 easier to manufacture. Note the Long Branch markings on the side.

Buy Now!

You may be surprised to learn Hunter’s Lodge ( still has World War II surplus Enfield No. 4 Mk 1 rifles for $419. This amazes me since World War II ended 75 years ago and it’s rare to see any military surplus guns of the era these days. Most of what pops up now is old inventory imported years ago, and such is likely the case with those at Hunter’s Lodge. The law of supply and demand dictates the prices are a lot higher now than 25 years ago, but the lesson there is, “buy your military surplus when it’s still surplus!”

After the last one is sold, a surplus $120 gun becomes a $420 collectible. A look at online auction site showed a number of decent No. 4 Lee-Enfields from $485 up. These guns aren’t the screaming bargains they once were, but they are still affordable shootable, WWII collectibles.

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