The Lee Enfield No.1 Mark VI
(or, How The Most Interesting Things Happen If You Hang Around The Range)
Originally Published 2/2002
I’d like to share something about a neat rifle that just fell into my lap, a Lee Enfield No.1 Mark VI. Lee Enfields are “interesting”. In British service from 1888 through 1992, a most tumultuous period in human history, the Lee Enfield’s career can be compared to the equally historic “Brown Bess”. Only by constant “tweaking” could the Brits get so much useful life out of the basic action. The particular rifle under discussion represents design evolution into the No.4of World War II fame. First, some background.
In the aftermath of WWI, the British began to upgrade their small arms. The basic rifle, No.1 Mark III, had served well enough, but the rifle was expensive to manufacture, had a light weight barrel which gave nasty groups when heated, did not fire rifle grenades all that well, and could use better sights. But the trenches had proven the soundness of the the basic design. Obviously, a semi-automatic rifle would have been even better, and while some steps were taken along that path, further development of the bolt action rifle was more successful.
During 1922-1924, approximately 20,000 Mark Vs. were made at Il.S.A.F. Enfield. (The Mark IV was a .22 rimfire trainer.) The Mark V was not approved for production. But from this came another prototype, the Mark VI.
Still an evolutionary design, many items on the Mark VI are similar to the SMLE. According to Ian Skennerton’s “The Lee Enfield Story”, exactly 1,025 Mark VI’s were manufactured by RASF Enfield between 1929 and 1931. Trial rifles were allocated for troop trials at the Small Arms School at Hythe, the 3rd Carbineers and the 2nd Battalion, West Yorkshire Regiment. After mid-1931, the Mark VI was no more and all further test/trial rifles were designated as the No.4.
(For Springfield MI903 aficionados. trial rifles were made in 1901 and 1902 and evaluated at 10 installations. For something as significant as a battle rifle, it ‘s traditionally been prudent to do extensive field evaluation and troop tests. The M16’s history shows the wisdom of this practice.)
So now,the rifle in question: From a distance, this rifle looks exactly like a No.4 with blued finish and better wood. Closeup: the stock is all walnut and lacks the brass disc. The butt plate is bronze (a test rifle feature),not brass. The receiver is set up for a magazine cut-off (unfortunately missing). The left side of the receiver looks almost exactly like a SMLE. There is a machined recess of the safety. The rear sight is very similar to the No.4, BUT the battle sight’ aperture is much smaller and its front portion has a machined “shadowbox”, making it very effective. The precision ladder sight has a max elevation of 1,300 yards. The bolster is unique. (Refer to illustration.) This identifying information is NOT to be found on war production or post-war No. 4’5. Information for those rifles is on the left side of the receiver. The “GR” refers to King George V, who died in 1936. Note the 1930 date and that the original nomenclature is crossed out, which per Skennerton, was standard practice when the rifle was re-issued in WWII. The serial number has also been altered per Ministry of Defense (MOD) practice, but the original serial number was simply reversed. This is a two-digit rifle! Did I mention that the metal work is blued, and that the “G R” stamping is all over the receiver, barrel bands and front sight? The trigger is GROOVED, not smooth as is normal practice for No .4s. The front sight blade’s base has hand-stamped numbers (for a standard WWII height) on its right side and a crown on the left. The blade is thicker than the No. 4’s u well, making it much more visible for older eyes. The stock bas the dings expected from an issue rifle, and the serial number is stamped just above the stacking swivel. The upper band appears to be a brass sheet, but more importantly, is SOLID. Not at all like the NO.4.
One last nice thing: just behind the trigger guard on the small of the stock is stamped: “NO.1 MK VI”. The stock seems to be original to the rifle. Not so nice things: The front sight wings (foresight protector), while blued, is not “waisted” (ala P14) as it should be. Also, the bolt cocking piece is straight. Per Skennerton and MAl Reynolds (author of “The Lee Enfield”), the trial cocking piece was button shaped (ala SMLE). The bolt may be replacement as it tends to overdrive when operated. Overall, the rifle appears to be hand finished and the trigger shows signs of being hand fitted.
Research indicates that the trial rifles were really one of a kind. Example: Skennerton provides photos of the trial rifles and my particular rifle does not have the stock checkering shown. However, the NRA’s “British Enfield Rifles”,authored by Reynolds, shows my rifle, EXCEPT that it has a unit disc on the butt stock. I go with Reynolds since he actually was involved with the development of the No.4 from 1941 on. However, if my rifle was issued to the Small Anns School there would have been no need for unit marking. And so it goes.
Since this is the HHAA, what it’s like to shoot?! My limited tests repeat the 1931 test results. The sights and trigger make this a sweet shooting rifle. The action is not timed: WWII stripper clips work but don’t consistently eject on chambering the first round. Groups open up after more than 5 rounds are fired and tend towards 2 O’clock. The second trial run in 1931 (the FIRST No. 4s by designation) had strengthened and higher left receiver walls to correct this problem. Perhaps further load development will cure the wandering zero. Incidentally, this “receiver wall” may account for the rifle’s survival. Skennerton reports that the first official (1931) No. 4’s were converted to snipers after the debacle in France. Their receiver walls are noticeably higher and flatter and amenable to scope mounting. They were not built for accuracy but being handmade, were certainly better than what was coming off the production line. Skennerton also states that while the ex trial rifles were all taken into service during WWII, the MOD ordered them withdrawn and scrapped in the mid-1950’s as they contained components which were not generally interchangeable.
How this particular bit of history escaped and arrived here is another story. Hard to see how a brand new rifle could more interesting than this old piece. Dick Keogh got it right!