Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Smile, Smile, SMLE...

The most important piece of equipment for a British Tommy in the First World War was his rifle. For most, this was the SMLE or Small Magazine Lee Enfield rifle (the 'small' refers to the barrel length, not the magazine). It was a British Army standard issue bolt action rifle that fired .303 calibre high velocity ammunition. It had a deadly accuracy over several hundred yards and an effective range of over two thousand yards.

The magazine held ten rounds and could be loaded from the top with individual rounds or five round clips (ammunition pouches on a soldier's webbing could hold up to one hundred and fifty rounds). Soldiers could fire fifteen rounds a minute ‘rapid fire’ as a matter of course and up to twenty eight in ideal conditions. Sustained volley fire  could have such a devastating effect it was often attributed to machine guns.

However, it was an offence to fire the rifle without specific orders from an NCO or officer. To prevent  soldiers firing off entire clips, the magazine could be locked off with the cut off plate, leaving one bullet  ‘in the spout’, but preventing further rounds from being cycled up into the chamber until ordered. The magazine cut off was left open when directly engaging the enemy.

Magazine cut off

Just as lethal as the rifle, though, was the bayonet. The barrel of the Lee Enfield was much shorter than the German standard issue Mauser rifle, which put the British Tommy at a disadvantage during close combat. The answer?

A longer bayonet. Seventeen inches long, in fact.

In the right hands, the Enfield was an effective and precise weapon. It would serve the Pennine Fusiliers well in their fight for survival - for as long as the ammunition lasted.

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