Shooting a Lee-Metford at 400 Yards

2015-06-11 17_41_24-The Mk I Lee-Metford_ Shooting at 400yds - YouTube

In the twilight of the blackpowder era, the British tested many designs in one of the biggest firearms competitions of the era, in an effort to replace their increasingly obsolete Martini-Henry rifle. The winning design was the brainchild of Scottish-American designer James Paris Lee, one of the great geniuses of late 19th Century firearms design. Lee had invented the detachable box magazine – which my readers will recognize as the foundation upon which the collective fire modern rapid-fire individual firearms have been built –  which he patented in 1875, and then combined with a sturdy and simple action, creating a rifle that was ahead of its time in a way that few weapons with a comparable legacy can claim.

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Lee’s patent drawing for his magazine-fed firearm of 1879. At this stage, the famous Lee double-stack magazine was only single stack, and held five rounds of .45-70 ammunition. Image source: google.com/patents

 

To manufacture his new rifle, Lee partnered with the venerable Sharps Rifle Co. of Bridgeport, Connecticut. Lee’s own company marketed the rifles, which were made by Sharps, as the Model 1879. A piece of trivia concerns Sharps’ production superintendent at the time, one Hugo Borchardt, who would go on to be another one of the great firearms designers, producing the first selfloading pistol of any real success, a design that laid the foundation for the Luger pistol, itself the first great runaway success in semiautomatic handguns. Lee had his eye on a Navy contract, that service having expressed interest in repeating designs to replace the outmoded 1873 Trapdoor rifles. Lee’s design was lightweight even with a 29″ barrel, and was shockingly modern by the standards of the day, with an easily disassembled bolt that was very strong and resistant to fouling. The Navy did end up ordering 1,000 Model 1879 rifles, 300 of which were produced by Sharps and the remainder by Remington after Sharps’ bankruptcy. Later models of this type would be produced for the Navy and ordered for US Army trials, but here the tale diverts away from the Americas, to an island across the Atlantic.

Competing against other repeating rifles to become the standard weapon of the British Empire, the Lee won the competition, and combined with the British-designed small-caliber .303 cartridge (then still a blackpowder round) feeding from an 8-round staggered column magazine, and polygonal rifling designed by William Ellis Metford, Lee’s action was adopted with substantial modification, as the Magazine Lee-Metford in 1888, two years after the French had secretly fielded the smokeless powder Lebel that would help obsolesce it. The Lee-Metford’s descendants would replace it, and the ultimate No. 4 rifle utilizing a simplified and improved action would serve Commonwealth troops into the 1960s.

But this post concerns the Lee-Metford. Though a primitive black-powder weapon by today’s standards, the Lee-Metford is still arguably the most elegant member of the Lee-Enfield family, and shooting blackpowder gives the Lee-Metford shooter a thoroughly different experience than others shooting the smokeless-powder Enfields. Though he uses a low charge of smokeless powder, we can get a taste of this experience through the excellent britishmuzzleloaders channel:

Since Rob is never willing to leave us out of any part of the 19th Century shooting experience, he has also published a very thorough video on reloading the smokeless powder .303 ammunition he uses in the Mk. I Lee-Metford:

The National Firearms Museum has high resolution photos of one of the rifles in their collection, a Magazine Lee-Metford Mk. II, which features the now famous double-stack 10-round magazine that would be retained in all subsequent .303 caliber models of the Lee bolt-action rifle family:

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Nathaniel F

Nathaniel is a history enthusiast and firearms hobbyist whose primary interest lies in military small arms technological developments beginning with the smokeless powder era. In addition to contributing to The Firearm Blog, he runs 196,800 Revolutions Per Minute, a blog devoted to modern small arms design and theory. He can be reached via email at nathaniel.f@staff.thefirearmblog.com.


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  • Anton Gray Basson

    Lee Metfords were a prized weapon by the Boers, especially towards the end of the war when they began savaging supplies from the British.

  • Tassiebush

    What wonderful attention to detail this gentleman has! I’m glad he mentioned how the original black powder load had it’s neck turned down on a load to aid compressing it (loading video). Black powder tech really was being refined to it’s very last moments!
    It’d be cool to see a Metford rifled muzzle loader designed to take the equivalent load in uncompressed form. Even if it used an arcane ignition system like a matchlock.

  • Commit Sudoku

    Did the Lee Metford not have a stripper clip guide? I don’t see one, and I’d always wondered why the stripper clip guide on the No 1 Mk 3 looked like a tacked-on afterthought.

    • It did not. Stripper clips either hadn’t yet been invented or were very, very new.

      • Tassiebush

        From what I’ve read they were added following experiences in the Boer war. The Boers had Mausers that did load with stripper clips. Gee it’s hard to imagine a militia these days fighting a superpower with the militia fielding a significantly more advanced loading system!

        • Anton Gray Basson

          Boers didnt really use stripper clips, the commandos tended to have a mix of rifles and it wasnt uncommon for Martini Henry, Mannlicher and Guedes rifles seen in action. Mausers were issued to the armies of the Boer republics and sold to commando members. If you look at photos at the time you will see that the majority carried rounds in large square pouches or in loops.

          • Tassiebush

            I must agree the pictures tend to show a variety of guns. My perception is based on stuff i’ve read and on the war trophy guns I’ve seen locally from that war. They’ve all been mausers but it’d still make sense even if they were not the most common since the older guns wouldn’t have been subject to such interest. I’m sure I’ve read articles describing how Boers were able to outrange Commonwealth soldiers with them too. But in a lot of ways the idea that these farmers had the money to outfit themselves with some of the cutting edge guns of their time doesn’t quite add up. It’s probably like the myth that every American frontiersman had a rifle.

          • Anton Gray Basson

            The myth is that they were farmers. They mostly came from towns. Gold made the Transvaal (ZAR) very wealthy and the Free State wasnt exactly poor either. But they maintained small professional armies that werent a match for the British and the Commandos were like regional militia. Shortly before the war they began equipping themselves with the Mausers and Krupp Long Toms.
            The Boers couldnt face the British on equal terms which is why you see the beginning of the guerrilla war. And that phase is where you see the Boers adopting British Lee rifles and many liked them more than the Mauser rifle.

          • Tassiebush

            That’s very interesting about them being town dwellers because Australia is very much the same. A very sizeable portion of population being urban but the image being of farmers and pioneers enlisting as soldiers when overwhelmingly most weren’t. Interesting too that gold was clearly a major economic driver. I think I need to read up more on my South African History! I honestly know very little about those wars apart from the commandos, blockhouses and Kitchener’s concentration camps. I know very little about the actual causes (I presume it was British annexations of Afrikaner territory) or the way of life of the people. I really appreciate your information and challenging the perceptions.

          • Anton Gray Basson

            Well the Boer war is where allot of us in South Africa learnt to dislike the Australians.

            Its a very interesting time in South African history. If you want a good read on the war there is a book called Commando by Deneys Reitz.

          • Tassiebush

            Thanks I’ll look for it! You guys must be polite because I was oblivious to the animosity. It makes sense though. Did Australians stand out in this regard as worse than other Commonwealth minio

          • Anton Gray Basson

            You still see it when it comes to sport. Older people like my Grandfather still got taught not to like Australians, apperently the Austrilian troops were famous for looting and summary executions but theres no real evidence for this. The legcy of the boer war followed us through both world wars making it hard to recruit troops to fight what were seen as British wars.

          • Tassiebush

            True the sporting rivalry is certainly noticeable!
            I don’t think being a former convict colony probably helped the image.

          • Anton Gray Basson

            To be fair most colonies were aimed to get rid of the “scum”

          • Tassiebush

            Transportation was pretty much a pressure release valve for social unrest. As an interesting aside Tasmania has the highest proportion of convict descended population in Australia but lowest crime levels.

          • Anton Gray Basson

            Well they may be too busy fighting the odd yet deadly creatures on that rock. 🙂 I dont believe criminals breed criminals, decent economic and social conditions go along way to keeping people inline. Which is why small towns in unproductive areas often have higher crime rates than some big cities.

      • Ken

        Stripper clips were already invented and used on at least one production rifle. The 1889 Mauser adopted by the Belgians used a stripper clip in a box magazine. The same rifle (with modifications) was also adopted by the Argentinians and Ottomans as the 1891 and 1890 respectively. The en bloc clip had been put into production even earlier with the Mannlicher 1886 by the Austo-Hungarians. In addition, the German Empire adopted the 1888 Commission Rifle which had a Mannlicher clip.

        But yeah, magazine fed repeaters were a relatively new thing as it was. Clip reloaded magazines were even more novel. There were plenty of officers around the world who were convinced that magazine fed rifles were overly complicated and encouraged wasting ammo. it was probably not an easy task to convince them that those fast firing rifles needed to be reloaded quickly with clips.

    • Anton Gray Basson

      Oh it doesn’t have stripper clip feed because of the fixed dust cover.

  • marathag

    And since I don’t think it was mentioned, the ‘Metford’ part of then name referred to the Rifling, which was polygonal.

    While the mkI Cordite proved too hot, standard Enfield rifling was used on the following models.

    The Japanese, however, did not have that erosion problem with their Arisaka that also used polygonal rifling

    • Ken

      The Type 99 has a chrome lined bore, which would have helped reduce erosion greatly. The steel and heat treatment probably improved in the decades between the Lee-Metford and Type 99 as well.

      • marathag

        Type 38s (1905?)were Polygonal, and not chromed as far as the examples I’ve seen till WWII era guns

        I don’t think PreWWI IJA steel would be any better than what the British were using.

        • jcitizen

          Arisakas were popular in my area as a rifle that could be converted to any hot load you liked, because the action had a reputation for being stronger than the 1903 Springfield, at least. I’ve seen several war relics that US soldiers fired “blue piil” ammo the Japanese had seeded into their captured assets as a sabotage tactic. The chambers are completely wallowed out, but the action is still good.