October 07, 2022
Forty years ago, Argentina’s Junta decided to take back something they never possessed—the Falkland Islands. Populated with more than 2,000 British and Scottish descendants along with about a half million sheep, the islands were content as a British territory. That changed in April 1982 when Argentina took the islands by force. Not hard, since there were only a handful of Royal Marines to protest, and the populace was mostly unarmed. The vast penguin population was indifferent.
The 10-week Falkland Islands War took place between Britain and Argentina and was one where both sides had to fight with what they brought. Home country resupply for both was impossible. Oddly enough, this might be the first war where each side used almost identical small arms. Both used variants of the FN/FAL in 7.62x51 and Browning Hi Power 9mm pistols.
As the atomic age ushered in, British doctrine changed, and the concept of precision rifle fire on the battlefield eschewed along with the dedicated intelligence provided by scout/sniper teams as honed and perfected in World War II. Adoption of the 7.62x51mm L1A1 Self Loading Rifle (a licensed FN/FAL) was meant to supplant other specialty arms, but of course it didn’t. The solution was dusting off the World War II No. 4 Mk I (T) sniper rifles, the majority of which were built by Holland & Holland. However, they were all in the long obsolete .303.
Fortunately, there had been plans to convert the standard No. 4 rifles to 7.62 as the L8. Although the effort was curtailed when enough SLRs were on hand (they didn’t shoot well anyway) the groundwork for the conversions including the necessary floorplate/receiver/magazine dimensions was accomplished. While sniper conversions were attempted, they also didn’t shoot well.
Military match shooters came to the rescue. They wanted to compete with the service cartridge and figured out the expedience of grafting a free-floating, long, hammer-forged barrel in 7.62x51 to the No. 4 and truncating the fore-end at the barrel band. The L39A1 single-shot target rifle was a success. When a sniper rifle became an imperative, Enfield married the L8’s conversion process with the L39’s barrel magic and created the L42A1 sniper rifle that amazingly (and serendipitously) shot rings around the old .303. The conversion process was done to between 900 to 1,200 (sources vary) No. 4 (T) sniper rifles as a stop gap until a new sniper rifle could be chosen.
All L42s used No. 32 Mk III 3X scopes with a new elevation turret for the 7.62 cartridge, made waterproof and placed back into their old cast iron mounts. Into a wooden transit chest went the 10-pound rifle, the detached telescopic rifle sight in its old original metal box, a vintage 20X three-draw telescope (equally relevant on Lord Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson’s quarterdeck in 1805), a cleaning kit, night vision/scope bracket, slings for the rifle and scope box, a couple of artist’s brushes for dusting a cleaning kit and chamber tool. Weight of the transit chest was 45 pounds.
The original iron back sight was retained with its original scale as graduated for the .303 Mk VII ball. When read in meters instead of yards, the back sight calibrated perfectly to the trajectory of the 7.62x51mm NATO round. The best sniper rifle of World War II seamlessly moved into its new role up-calibered to the 7.62. Oddly, the L42A1 only came with a single 10-shot magazine, although the utility of interchangeable magazines was well established.
Our L42A1 served in the Falklands Islands with the 7th Gurkha Rifles. Though the Gurkhas never fired a shot in anger, they twice received plenty of artillery fire, wounding several. Other L42A1 rifles saw action with the Royal Marines, Paras and Commandoes.
Falklands War Use
One such action occurred as a prelude to the war. Ice Patrol vessel HMS Endurance landed 22 Royal Marines on March 21st to defend a British Scientific Station on South Georgias Island, 800 miles west of the Falklands when Argentina landed 50 soldiers who raised Argentina’s flag. Things escalated. After Royal Marines shot down one Argentine helicopter and damaged another, the Argentine ground forces called in Corvette ARA Guerrico. The Royal Marines held their fire until the ship was 400 or 500 meters away, then opened up with two GPMGs and two Bren guns. The Guerrico’s 100mm main gun jammed after one round. The Marines fired an 84mm Carl Gustav anti-tank HEAT round that skipped on the water’s surface and impacted just above the waterline blowing a hole in the ship.
Sgt. Peter Leach, armed with the L42A1 went to the upper floor of a house and opened fire on the bridge of Guerrico, causing the bridge crew to scramble for cover from flying glass and ricochetting bullets. Guerrico limped away listing with Sgt. Leach firing into her port holes.
The L42A1 has a few detractions. The main one is a fitted single 10-shot magazine that had to be loaded singly from the top rather than an interchangeable one. All the detractions are based on using as much of the WW II gear as possible. Later on, when fitted with the M85’s 6X Schmidt & Bender scope, good shots could make productive hits with the L42 out to 1,000 yards.
The No. 4 Enfield action was amply strong enough for conversion to the 7.62 NATO round, although much better actions had surpassed the old design. The good news was the rifle itself was very suitable working in extreme conditions found across the British Empire. Replaced by the Parker-Hale M85, a Mauser-style bolt action, the L42A1 was retired, and many were sold as surplus. Some were destroyed, and others placed in reserve. When the M85 Parker-Hale sniper fell short in the first Iraq War, the L42A1 was called from retirement to serve again. When the L96 began having similar troubles in the Afghan War in the mid-2000s, the L42A1 was called up again, serving with Royal Marines and Commandoes once more. The Lee-Enfield designed by John Paris Lee in 1888 served long and well. That’s not a bad legacy for any rifle.