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The classic Lee-Enfield 303

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The Australian soldier of World War II was armed with a classic rifle which had been developed before WWI. The Lee-Enfield 303 was such a superb weapon that it served well in the second great conflict of the 20th century. 

The Lee-Enfield 303’s history can be traced back to the time of the Zulu wars, in which British infantrymen were firing a single shot Martini-Henry rifle. It was loaded at the breech with a combined primer, charge and bullet cartridge and ejected the spent case via a lever mechanism. A well-disciplined soldier could give an easy 12 shots a minute with quick reloading.

A few decades later the Martini-Henry rifle was replaced by the magazine-fed Lee-Enfield 303. So swift and deadly were the 20 shots a minute from the Lee-Enfield that Germans fighting the British in France in 2014 thought they were facing machine-gun fire. A magazine of 10 rounds could be easily drop-ejected and a new one inserted in seconds, or a charger clip of five rounds inserted into the top of the weapon.

Sturdy and dependable, the 303 served on into the start of WWII in 1939 and beyond. It had a number of variants including a short-barrel carbine version and a sniper rifle fitted with a telescopic sight, and came with various attachments such as flash suppressors. It was only surpassed by semi-automatic weapons as these new inventions became reliable enough for regular use up to the present day.

​Canadian rifleman with a 303 during Battle of Ortona, December 1943. (Public domain)