Mike Morton goes over the top with the Lee-Enfield SMLE to see if this particular ‘Smelly’ has a whiff of the trenches, or the roses of Picardy.
British and Commonwealth forces were armed with one of the best bolt-action battle rifles of the first half of the 20th century – the Lee-Enfield.
Although the rifle is still in use in some parts of the world today, it’s more closely associated with the First and Second World Wars, with the most iconic of the WWI variants being the SMLE, affectionately known as the ‘Smelly’.
SMLE stands for Short Magazine Lee-Enfield, ‘Short’ referring to the length of the rifle compared with earlier Lee-Enfields, and ‘Magazine’ to denote it had a magazine that was detachable and could either be single-loaded or speed-loaded with two five-round stripper clips.
Gun supplied by: The Shooting Party (www.shootingparty.uk)
Manufacturer: Lee-Enfield (Guns) Ltd
Model: Lee-Enfield SMLE
Powerplant: CO2 (1 x 12g capsule)
Calibre: .177 (4.5mm) BB
Shots per capsule: Approximately 30
Action: Bolt (removable)
Magazine: 15-shot removable
Length: 44 5/8” (1,134mm)
Weight: 8lb 1oz (3.65kg)
Sights: Notch and post; height-adjustable rear
Safety: Manual safety catch, removable bolt
Country of origin: China
Features: Accepts original slings and bayonets
With a high level of engineering and a high rate of fire, the SMLE really was a great rifle for the Great War, and thanks to Lee-Enfield (Guns) Ltd and The Shooting Party, this rifle has been reincarnated in BB-firing CO2 format.
The one seen here is a pre-production sample, and a couple of minor errors, which I’ll point out as I go along, will be ironed out on retail versions, so I won’t be scoring this rifle here, just offering my observations.
Anyone who’s been following the development cycle of Lee Enfield (Guns) Ltd’s SMLE will know it’s been quite a long time coming. But if you were to design a CO2 rifle from the ground up, you’d face quite a technical challenge, and that challenge becomes even greater when trying to make a replica airgun that looks and functions like the original.
But what we have here is a BB-firing rifle of all-metal construction, with a wooden fore stock, butt stock and upper hand guard that can accept an original sling or bayonet, or be fitted with a reproduction sling.
Lee-Enfield fun facts!
- The rifle gets the ‘Lee’ part of its name from the man who designed the bolt system – James Paris Lee. ‘Enfield’ comes from the factory in which it was designed – the Royal Small Arms Factory in the north London borough of Enfield.
- The SMLE III* was a simplified version of the Mk III, which was both expensive and complicated to manufacture. Each SMLE Mk III cost the Government £3 15s – the rough equivalent of £382 in today’s money.
Any replica will stand or fall on how well it mimics the original. This CO2 gun is modelled after the SMLE Mk III*, dating back to late 1915, which had no windage adjustment on the rear sight, and also saw the cocking piece on the bolt changed from a round knob to a serrated slab. Both these features are correctly reproduced on the CO2 Smelly.
I had the good fortune to be able to directly compare the CO2 gun with a 1916-dated Mk III* .303, and the owner and I both agreed that, while a few minor compromises had been made, the CO2 rifle did a pretty good job of replicating the original.
The charger bridge for the stripper clip was brazed in place on the original, for example, while it’s screwed in place on the replica. But the ear-shaped rear sight protectors are correctly depicted, with the left-hand one being offset to provide clearance for the elevation adjustment screw.
The metalwork has been given a black finish with a slight eggshell sheen. While SMLEs no doubt looked this way when they left their various factories, I would have preferred to have seen a more ‘distressed’ gunmetal patina.
The butt plate on the pre-production rifle is missing the correct brass slotted screws, and the flip-out flap, which was covering the recess in the butt that houses the oil bottle and pull-through on the original, has been located upside-down on the BB version – but both these issues will be corrected on the production rifles.
As previously mentioned, the SMLE has a real wood stock. While it’s not made of oiled walnut like the original, the wood on the test rifle is dark brown, and I’m told it will be an even darker shade on the retail versions.
The woodwork on First World War SMLEs was noticeably darker than that of the Second World War-vintage Lee-Enfield No. 4, by which time the walnut had been replaced with beech.
The rifle is fitted with a rear sling swivel and what appear to be two front swivels. The correct swivel to use when fitting a webbing sling (The Shooting Party’s 1913-stamped replica is very good and costs £19.99) is the one that’s located immediately under the barrel band.
In contrast, the swivel just behind the bayonet lug was used to stack the rifle in the ‘piled arms’ fashion. Although I didn’t put it to the test, the rifle will accept a Pattern 1913 bayonet, which attaches to the previously mentioned lug and the bayonet boss that sticks out at the front of the rifle immediately below the muzzle.
A combined magazine and valve unit is used to power the Smelly and hold up to 15 BBs. The magazine is removed from the rifle by applying upward pressure to the magazine release catch that’s located – just like the original – in front of the trigger and within the trigger guard.
Although the mag can be taken out and replaced with the bolt closed, I found it easier to carry out both actions with the bolt open and the handle pointing upright, where it clicks more positively in place.
 To load the CO2 capsule, the right-hand plate must be removed by sliding it off the magazine, while also pressing down on the chisel-shaped catch
 You then need to use a 6mm hex key to slacken off the screw that is holding the capsule in place inside of the magazine
 With the capsule correctly seated, the Allen key can then be tightened, just enough to pierce the seal and release the gas
 The cover can now be slid back in place – it fits a very specific way, sliding from bottom left to top right at 45 degrees – but you’ll soon get used to it
 To load the magazine with BBs, first pull down the spring-loaded follower, which locks in place inside a stepped gate
 Up to 15 BBs can now be inserted from the top – they naturally form a double stack as you drop them in
A single 12 gram CO2 capsule is all that’s needed to gas up the SMLE for around 30 shots.
This sits inside a well in the magazine, behind a sliding faceplate on the right-hand side. The capsule is held in place and the gas released by a piercing screw, which takes a 6mm Allen key.
I initially ran into problems with this arrangement, as the CO2 was escaping from around the seal. After trying four different brands of capsule, I discovered a solution – Umarex capsules.
On examining the various types of capsule I had tried, I found the necks of the Umarex ones were much narrower, which must have allowed the capsule to sit deeper inside the well and make a better seal.
With the gun gassed up, the magazine could be loaded with 15 BBs by pulling down on the spring-loaded follower, which can be held open using a slotted gate, and inserting them in one at a time from the top of the mag.
Sling up your smelly
I ran into more problems with my choice of ammo, and again the answer to this problem came from Umarex. While the two other brands of BB I tried could be successfully loaded into the mag, only Umarex BBs would cycle properly. But having found the winning CO2/BB combo, the SMLE worked reliably well.
Additional combined magazine/valve units are available as an optional extra for £59.99, so you can extend the action without needing to re-gas if you grab a spare.
SHOOTING THE SMELLY
Unlike many of its contemporaries, the .303 Lee-Enfield SMLE cocks on closing the bolt, which means it’s easy to open the bolt, after which you can feel the cocking spring compress as you throw the bolt forward.
This feature has been replicated on the CO2 gun, which will not cock merely by turning the bolt handle, unlike a Mauser or Mosin-Nagant. The rocker-style safety catch can be applied both when the rifle is uncocked, which will lock the bolt, or after it’s been cocked, in which case it will block the trigger.
I found the bolt slightly harder to throw forward than I had been expecting, while trigger-pull measured at 5lb 1oz – light for a battle rifle.
The sights mimic the more basic SMLE Mk III*, which was a more cost-effective variant of the Mk III, by having a fixed foresight and a rear sight that can be adjusted only for elevation, not windage.
I left the rear sight on the minimum elevation setting, which put it pretty much bang on for shooting at 15 yards. The rifle was quite quiet on firing, probably because the expanding gas is being contained within the rifle for such a long time, making it relatively garden-friendly.
In terms of accuracy, I was managing to get all shots on a 6” Birchwood Casey Shoot-N-C target, so achieved good results rather than stellar, but I think the pleasure to be had with this rifle is more to do with the way it looks and feels rather than pure performance.
So if you want to escape from the modern world for just a little while, grab an enamelled tin mug full of tea, pack up your troubles and unpack the SMLE.
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