THE ULTIMATE LEE-ENFIELD


The Lee-Enfield rifle certainly needs no introduction to NRVO readers, as it’s one of the most successful bolt actions ever produced. James P. Lee’s basic design dates to the 1870’s, and Lee-Enfields soldier on still, in the hands of Canadian Rangers in the Arctic, village militiamen in Egypt, and the police forces of India and other ex-Commonwealth nations.  Nobody really knows how many were manufactured in all, but the two most common types and their variants (“Rifle No. 1, Mark III” and the “Rifle No. 4, Mark I”) account for a minimum of 7 to 8 million individual weapons.  So highly regarded is it as a fighting man’s tool that faithful copies are still made with hand tools by tribal gunsmiths in remote areas of Afghanistan!

Despite its success as a military weapon the Lee-Enfield never enjoyed the following the Mauser had as a basis for sporting rifles.  Certainly sporter versions exist, especially in former British colonies, and they’re encountered fairly regularly; but the Model 1898 Mauser and its clones were and are far more common as the action of choice for custom and even mass-production sporters.  Part of the reason is the Mauser’s superior strength. The Lee-Enfield action is rated for operational pressures below those of the Mauser, limiting what calibers can be chambered. Nevertheless, the robust Lee-Enfield is quite popular and widely used for hunting, frequently in its original form and sometimes “sporterized” with greater or lesser degrees of success, depending on who did the work.  Now the Gibbs Rifle Company of West Virginia, USA, has capitalized on the Lee-Enfield’s popularity and availability in their approach to the low-priced sporting rifle market. 

Gibbs is a subsidiary of the Navy Arms Company, one of the USA’s largest importers of military surplus rifles. At least 4 million No. 4 rifles were made (mostly in North America) and at times it seems that all of them are still in existence: periodically somebody brings in another shipload.

Navy Arms send the more beaten-up specimens to the Gibbs Rifle Company, where they emerge as “Historical Re-Makes,” refurbished to more  or less to their original condition.  The result is about what would come out of a “Factory Thorough Repair” (though sometimes Gibbs exercises its creativity, dreaming up versions that never actually attained official existence, such as the “Tanker No. 4” and a “Jungle Carbine” version of the No. 1).  Gibbs also modifies Lee-Enfields for their Sports Specialty line, minimally-altered versions of No. 1 and No. 4 rifles, with cut-down military stocks (or replacement synthetics) and a survival kit in the butt trap.  Sports Specialty rifles are rugged and inexpensive (all of them under $300) and have great appeal to anyone who needs a powerful rifle but hasn’t much to spend. Their web site is www.gibbsrifle.com and all of their current products are on display there. A couple of years ago Gibbs outdid itself, and in the process created variants with considerable sporting utility and not a little historical significance.  The “Summit” carbine, built on the No. 4 Mark I action, and the “Frontier,” based on the No. 1, Mark III  are sporter conversions re-barreled in .45-70 Springfield caliber!

The decision to offer Enfields as sporters in .45-70 is nothing short of inspired.  The rim diameter of the .45-70 and the .303 are close enough (.608” and .540”) that the flat-faced Lee-Enfield bolt (designed for rimmed rounds) will work with the larger case without major modification.  All that’s needed is a new barrel and a magazine that will feed the tubby .45-70 cartridge reliably. The .45-70 is the longest-lived and oldest centerfire rifle round in the world—it has never been out of production since it was introduced in 1873.  It has lasted 130+ years by virtue of being an exceptionally good cartridge for North American big game species.  But from the point of view of the Lee-Enfield enthusiast, the choice of the .45-70 is historically fitting. The first rifles made by James P. Lee, his Models of 1879, 1882, and 1885, were chambered in .45-70 for US military trials.

The Lee-Enfield action is quite strong enough to allow the .45-70 to be loaded to its full potential, well beyond what would be safe in the weak Trapdoor Springfield rifle. The SAAMI pressure standard for the .303 is 45,000 PSI, that for the .45-70 (as used in the Trapdoor) is 28,000 PSI.  The extra strength of the Enfield means that bullets of 300-350 grains can safely be pushed a bit beyond 2000 FPS, at which point the .45-70 easily matches the .450 Marlin. Thus loaded the .45-70 is suitable for animals such as grizzly bears and bison.

Right up front, let it be said that the Summit is not by any means up to “best gun” standards with regards to fit and finish. Not even close.  Though the workmanship is acceptable, “pretty” isn’t a word that you’d apply to this brute of a rifle.  It looks like...well, it looks like what you’d get if you grabbed a brawny infantry Corporal out of the ranks, cleaned him up, bought him a suit off the rack at a discount clothier and ordered him to escort the Sergeant-Major's dumpy teenage daughter to the Regimental Christmas party.  Very plain, very workmanlike, and very deadly. 

Like Dr. Frankenstein’s monster, the Summit is made from leftover parts. Mine was assembled on an action built at Fazakerley in July of 1948.  It may well have seen action in Korea, Malaysia, or some other post-war dispute, and it was probably pretty ratty when Gibbs acquired it: the body has been bead-blasted and matte blued, but there are hints of old rust pitting here and there. Nothing serious enough to cause structural weakness, but signs that it might have been stored in damp conditions and acquired a coat of surface rust.  The bead blasting has been so thorough that most of the original marks are illegible, but the original military proofs and serial number can be made out.  The bolt assembly, trigger, and magazine catch are all chrome plated, a nice cosmetic touch.  The original serial number on the bolt handle has been completely removed and the new one stamped in its place.  The flat, grooved striker knob bears the mark “DP,” indicating that it came from a “Drill Purpose” rifle. 

The replacement barrel is a new commercial product, stepped at the breech and 24" long, with a competent job of bluing. To one accustomed to .30 caliber rifles, that .45 caliber hole in the end is simply HUGE.  It looks big enough for a healthy mouse to run down it.  The barrel is marked "NAVY ARMS COMPANY" and “.45-70 Caliber.” 

The magazine is new-made, with the same external contours as the military one, and spacers and guides for the fat, straight .45-70 cases.  While it will hold four rounds, Gibbs warns not to load more than three to ensure reliable feeding.  I found this advice to be on the mark: putting one round in the chamber and three more in the magazine was a sure route to a jam.  Another thing I discovered is that it’s almost impossible to insert cartridges into it correctly while it’s in the rifle.  I take it out, fill it up, and re-insert it.

The chromed bolt is not nearly so slick in operation as a No. 4 bolt usually is, but this is, in essence, a new gun and it can be expected to wear in with time and use. The trigger is the typical two-stage type. It’s a little long and spongy but it breaks cleanly. A little polishing would improve it, but a No. 4 trigger is a No. 4 trigger and only so much can be done with it. 

The stock is a pistol-gripped two-piece sporter style made by Parker-Hale of what is usually called “walnut finished hardwood,” most likely beech.  It’s more comfortable than the issue stock, and the sights lined up very naturally for me, thanks to the integral cheekpiece.  It has a thick rubber butt plate and sling swivel bases. It isn’t too ugly, and it's very sturdy and serviceable.  Gibbs told me these stocks came from Parker-Hale, who did very similar conversions of No. 4’s at one time, though in .303.

It comes from the factory with fully adjustable Williams open rear and ramp front sights. These are of excellent quality, but my late-middle-aged eyes found them more or less unusable because I simply couldn’t see the small front bead.  I replaced the rear sight slider and the front sight blade with a set of Williams’ Fire Sight day-glow ones, which helped, but not enough.  Eventually I installed a no-gunsmithing mount by B-Square in the rear sight well, and a BSA illuminated-reticle variable scope.

Why Gibbs didn’t just leave the post-war micrometer-type sight in place is beyond me; perhaps this rifle never had one, but they aren’t hard to find and they don’t cost any more than the Williams sights.  The original issue peep sight is better than any open sight and it extends the sight radius by at least 10 inches.  For use at close range the battle aperture on the Mark I flip-up rear sight used on post-war No. 4’s, coupled with the Fire Sight front bead would be lightning fast and accurate, even in dim light.  With the micrometer peep raised into position it would be suitable for longer ranges.

I wanted to hunt with the Summit in the whitetail deer season the first year I had it, so I didn’t have time to do extensive load development.  I intend someday to hunt larger animals with it, so for the first season I settled on a “moose load” consisting of Hornady’s 350-grain JRN with 47 grains of IMR4198. This has a muzzle velocity of 1950 FPS.  Fired off the bench with this load, the Summit gave me a gentle tap on the nose with the scope eyepiece.  It wasn’t hard enough to do any damage, just a little love-pat to say that it was thinking of me. With its all-up weight of 10 pounds and the thick recoil pad, however, shooting offhand or from a sitting position I didn’t get tapped, and in the field I wasn’t aware of the recoil at all.  It’s not the least bit unpleasant to fire. My initial load has far more power than our local deer require, but it would be fine for moose and elk. In Africa it could be used on impala, zebra, bushbuck or the larger antelopes. The Summit would reliably take blue wildebeest and eland, and it would do a number on big cats, too.

My rifle shoots under 2 MOA, more than adequate for my purposes and quite a bit better than the 4-MOA standard of the typical No. 4 rifle.  No doubt further load development could better this figure significantly.  One of the .45-70’s strengths is its ability to shoot well with cast bullets, which would significantly reduce the cost of practice, and are perfectly suitable for use on thin-skinned animals. 

That first year my Summit made two one-shot kills on whitetails, both of which died so fast that they still don’t know it happened.  The first was a doe about 50 yards off. The bullet hit an inch below her top line, making a nice .45 caliber entry hole and shattering her spine just aft of the shoulder blades. On the way out it made an exit wound that took 6 inches of spine with it, but did almost no meat damage.  Kill #2 (pictured) was a yearling weighing about 120 pounds, 100 yards away. I set the crosshairs high on her shoulder, and she dropped in her tracks, stone dead before she hit the ground.  The bullet had neatly clipped her spine and her aorta in two for about an inch and plowed a track through her lungs. The entry wound was small but visible, the exit wound not much bigger.  Again, there was minimal meat damage.

As a collector of Lee-Enfields, on the whole I strongly disapprove of “sporterizing” military rifles, or altering them from their original condition in any way.  Nevertheless, the Summit represents something a little different from the usual basement “sporterization” job. Hardly any really original No. 4’s exist today, virtually all of them having been overhauled at some point in their existence. In the Summit Gibbs has produced a powerful, accurate, inexpensive (list price is $385) and thoroughly utilitarian sporting rifle that has sold out faster than they can make them. In the process, they have—there is no other word—resurrected many worn and shot-out beaters that would otherwise have been sent to a smelter.  Making useful and inexpensive hunting rifles from scrap metal is a real service to the shooting and hunting fraternity.

Gibbs told me that about 500 original Summit carbines based on the No. 4 were produced, but in late 2003 they started having problems finding more usable No. 4 actions. As a replacement product they began production of the very similar "Frontier Carbine," using the No. 1 Mark III rifle as a base.  The Frontier also differs in having a modified military stock and butt plate (the supply of Parker-Hale wood used on the Summit has also been exhausted) but it’s fitted with the same barrel, magazine, and open sights. It should be as satisfactory. Recent changes in gun laws in ex-Commonwealth countries (especially South Africa) may temporarily rectify the shortage of actions: South Africa is awash with Lee-Enfield rifles and their new limit of two rifles per license holder likely will cause many of them to be sold for export. Hundreds of thousands of No. 4's are still in existence in India*, and as these are replaced they'll become available as well. The supply of Lee-Enfields is finite, though, and sooner or later there will be no more....but...like the Old Soldier and the Trapdoor Springfield, the Lee-Enfield action never seems to die, and maybe someone will start making them again as new-production sporters. There is always hope.

After 55 years my Summit is retired from military service. In its new suit of civvies, it’s gone on to a second career in the hunting field which probably will take it past the century mark.  There are worse fates that can befall an old soldier.


*I spent several months in India in 1998, and every policeman I saw there carried a No. 4 in .303 with hard-ball Mark VII ammunition. I was in the airport in Bombay and watched these guys walking around, wondering if they had a round chambered, and what would happen if they fired a shot. The Bombay airport (like all Indian airports and train stations) is a seething, heaving sea of people packed shoulder to shoulder, and like all Third World structures of any significance, it's built of poured concrete. I didn't like to think how many people would have been killed or injured by over-penetration and/or ricochets in that very crowded space, but it would certainly have been dozens for every shot fired. Of course, in the interval between shots, more would have been born to replace them.