Why This Rifle You Never Heard of Might Have Changed History Forever
A small party of about 40 German soldiers had infiltrated the Australian lines around the besieged town of Tobruk, Libya, during the night of April 13, 1941. They began setting up a half dozen machine guns, several mortars, and even a pair of small infantry guns laboriously dragged through the desert sands. It was a foothold the Germans could use to expand into the perimeter and capture the town. They began firing at the nearest Australian unit, B Company of the 2-17 Infantry Battalion. The Aussies replied with rifles and machine guns, but it was tough going. A party consisting of Lieutenant Austin Mackell and five privates, along with Corporal John Hurst Edmondson, decided to mount a counterattack to drive the Germans back.
The men clutched their bayoneted Lee-Enfield Rifles tightly and moved into the darkness, attacking the enemy fiercely despite the machinegun fire thrown at them. Edmondson was hit twice but continued on, killing one enemy with his bayonet. Nearby, Mackell fought as well, but soon he was in dire need of help. His bayonet broke and the stock of his Lee-Enfield was shattered while fighting the Germans, at least three of whom were now attacking the young officer. Edmondson waded into the fray without hesitation, shooting or bayoneting all of them with his rifle. During the action he was mortally wounded. His comrades, saved by his actions, carried him back to their own lines, where he died four hours later. The Germans were defeated and the line was restored. Edmondson’s feat of bravery was the talk of Tobruk afterward and he would be the first Australian to be awarded the Victoria Cross in World War II.
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The Lee-Enfield rifle is one of the most widely used bolt-action military rifles in the world, surpassed only by the Model 1898 Mauser and its derivatives in sheer numbers. Entering service at the dawn of the 20th century, it is still seeing active use well into the present century. It is the iconic rifle of the British Empire and it is still seen everywhere the Empire went, from Europe to remote regions in Africa and Asia. Soldiers in Afghanistan today are still being fired upon with the same Lee- Enfields British troops carried over the top in World War I.
The Lee-Enfield had its origins in the late 19th century, when repeating rifles firing full-powered cartridges were coming to the fore. Its direct predecessor was the Lee-Metford, a similar bolt-action design that brought the British military a state-of-the-art weapon comparable to the latest Mausers. The rifle used a magazine and bolt system developed by American inventor James Lee. Approximately 13,000 were built in 1889 and distributed to the army for field testing. A gradual series of product improvements led to an upgraded model being standardized in 1892, but the rifle still suffered from a few weaknesses such as barrel wear and
poor sights. After testing, further refinements were made to the weapon, resulting in the Lee-Enfield Mark I in 1895. The name combined James Lee’s design with the Royal Small Arms Factory’s location at Enfield Lock, Middlesex. Thus the name of the famous rifle was established, even though further refinement continued over the following decade.
The standardization of the Lee-Enfield into its most long-serving form took a number of years and is a reflection of the state of rifle development in the early 20th century. At the time there was considerable discussion about the use of rifles versus carbines, the rifle being a full-length weapon with a barrel length of 30 inches or more for use by infantry. Carbines were intended for cavalry use and had shorter barrels for more convenient use on horseback, with lengths of 16 inches to 22 inches being common. Full-length rifles had the advantage of greater accuracy at long ranges. Most designs of the period had sights graduated for distances of 2,000 yards or more, but some critics felt that was too far for any sort of accurate fire and recommended a shorter rifle, which would save production material and lighten the soldier’s burden. Opponents of this view felt the rifle could be effective at long distances using volley fire and loathed any decrease in accuracy.
Eventually the argument for a shorter rifle prevailed, particularly as even a shorter rifle’s barrel was still capable of greater accuracy than the average conscript could achieve. In this era many armies were slowly transitioning to large forces of conscripts who would transition into the reserves for long periods after a few years of active service. Although Great Britain’s army was still a relatively small professional force optimized for securing a far-flung empire, it still took the new lessons to heart and set about perfecting its rifle design.