September 01, 2020
When it comes to used guns, I have a poor track record in separating trash from treasures. And yet I am the proud owner of a Lee-Enfield No. 4 Mk. 2 chambered in the original .303 British. Thousands of Americans just like me bought them new in the box. How did that happen? Ever hear of the “Irish Contract” Lee-Enfields? Let me tell you a story.
It was the early 1990s. The American market was being flooded with Chinese SKS rifles—new, unfired SKS rifles—by the tens of thousands. Every dealer at every gun show had at least 20 of them, and if I remember correctly, they were originally priced at about $150. After everyone and their brother had bought two, you could find them for as low as $99 in my neighborhood.
Sometime between 1993 and 1995, I walked into a gun show and on one of the dealers’ tables were two wooden crates of rifles. From a distance I spied wood stocks and walked over, thinking they were yet more of the Chinese bang sticks.
But there, in the crates before me, were Lee-Enfield No. 4 Mk. 2 rifles. Brand-new, never-fired rifles. One crate had been readied for immediate sale, and the rifles in the other crate were still wrapped in wax paper and thickly coated with Cosmoline. Each of the Cosmoline-coated rifles was priced at an impressively affordable $175.
“Are the Chinese making these now?” I asked in confusion.
“No,” the dealer told me. “They found them in a warehouse in Ireland. Thousands of them.” Closer examination of a rifle showed matching serial numbers on the receiver, magazine, and bolt handle etched by electro-pencil. And a date of manufacture: 1955.
For $175? Sold! My regret is that I didn’t buy two.<
The Lee-Enfield No. 4 Mk. I was the rifle fielded by Great Britain during World War II, and it’s considered by many to be the best bolt-action battle rifle fielded during that war.
The No. 4 Mk. 2 went into production circa 1949 and is virtually identical to the Mk. I. The Mk. 2 rifles featured beechwood stocks with a slight redesign of the fore-stock, brass buttplates instead of zinc and a trigger mounted to the receiver instead of the trigger guard. Many Mk. I rifles were upgraded to Mk. 2. And, no, the previous sentence isn’t in error. The Mk. I rifles used Roman numerals, but they switched to Arabic numerals in 1944 for the Mk. 2.
Let’s first look at the specifics of the design. The first Lee-Enfield rifle was introduced in 1895 as the “.303 calibre, Rifle, Magazine, Lee-Enfield.” The subject of this article is technically the SMLE No. 4 Mk. 2—Short Magazine Lee-Enfield, as it comes from the 1904 line of Enfields designed shorter and lighter than the original.
The Lee-Enfield No. 4 Mk. I is chambered in the rimmed .303 British cartridge, which is roughly equivalent in power to the .308 Win. The .303 Brit actually features a wider, 0.312-inch bullet than the .308 Win., so if you’re in the mood to handload, be aware that the common American .308 bullet is too small. The most common .303 British surplus round is the Mark VII, which features a 174-grain bullet traveling roughly 2,500 fps.
Equipped with a 25.2-inch barrel for a 44.45-inch overall length and a full-length wood stock and weighing in at a whopping 9.06 pounds, this rifle is sturdy enough to be used as a club if you run out of ammo.
There are lugs on the exposed end of the barrel for attaching a bayonet. This rifle sports a detachable 10-round, double-column magazine that is meant to be loaded through the top with five-round stripper clips.
The rifle has a short, fixed front sight post that is protected by two beefy ears. It sits in a dovetail and is drift-adjustable for windage.
For a rear sight, you have two options: a large “battle sight” aperture calibrated for 300-yard shooting and a flip-up ladder sight marked from 200 to 1,300 meters.
At 5mm (roughly 0.2 inch), the Enfield’s battle sight aperture is large enough that many people would consider it a ghost ring rear sight. The peep sight in the flip-up ladder is half the diameter at 2.5mm. The sight radius on the rifle is 29 inches, allowing for some decent precision.
The safety is a lever on the left side of the receiver. It rotates about 120 degrees, forward to fire. When engaged, the safety prevents the bolt from being operated.
Unlike most bolt-action rifles Americans are familiar with, the Enfield doesn’t cock the action when you open the bolt, but instead uses the cock-on-close bolt. A cock-on-close bolt is actually easier to work, and this is one of the reasons why the Enfield is considered the superior battle rifle of World War II. The Enfield’s bolt is surprisingly smooth, due in part to the cock-on-close operation.
So what is an “Irish Contract” Lee-Enfield? The world was moving to semiauto rifles in the early to mid 1950s, and the world was awash in surplus No. 4 Mk. I rifles. The ordnance factories in England needed to stay busy, so they continued to produce Lee-Enfield No. 4 Mk. 2 rifles in what may have been a “make work” project for export to Commonwealth countries. Some were also sold commercially or given to the Royal Air Force and put directly into storage.
These rifles were produced at ROF Fazakerley—the Royal Ordnance Factory in Fazakerley, England. The list of countries for which the No. 4 Mk. 2 Enfields were produced under contract is more than 20 countries long, from Burma to Zanzibar, and included Ireland and Britain’s own War Office.
However, it appears that while the rifles were churned out, many of them were never delivered. They were just put into storage, hence the suspicion they were just made to keep the arms factory busy.
Exactly which rifles were shipped where is a matter of debate, and I’ve seen lists detailing which serial numbers of guns went where—or, rather, which guns were supposed to go where.
Prior to 1954, the prefixes of the ROF Fazakerley guns started with PF, and the Irish Contract guns were supposedly in the PF309308 to PF359347 range and manufactured in 1951-52. In 1954 the Fazakerley serial numbering system switched to a UF prefix, the prefix on my sample, which was manufactured in 1955.
There’s also a bit of debate regarding exactly what an Irish Contract rifle is. Some people argue that only those rifles with serial numbers in the range I mentioned are Irish Contract rifles.
Considering no one knows for sure which rifles were actually delivered to Ireland, many other people consider any SMLE Lee-Enfield No. 4 Mk. 2 rifles delivered to Ireland to be Irish Contract rifles. After all, they were rifles provided to Ireland under contract. My rifle falls under this definition. Many of those rifles began to be sold off after the FCA—the An Fórsa Cosanta Áitiúil (Local Defense Force Brigade of the Irish Regular Army)—switched from the Lee-Enfield to the FN FAL in the 1980s.
It appears my rifle was one of the guns sold to Interarms by the Irish Department of Defense, which sold off roughly 50,000 Enfield rifles between 1991 and 1997. Considering my rifle was brand new in crate and coated with Cosmoline, it seems it was shipped straight from ROF Fazakerley to Ireland, where it sat in a warehouse for more than 30 years before being sold off. If you lived anywhere for more than 30 years you’d be considered a resident, so I consider my Enfield Irish.
Now, about that Cosmoline and my Enfield rifle purchase. If I would have known then what I know now, I would have paid the extra money for a rifle with the Cosmoline already cleaned away. What a tremendous pain in the butt. Anyway, because I wasn’t sure what I needed to clean off the Cosmoline, I did a little research.
I tried everything that was recommended and then some—including kerosene—but nothing worked. Or at least worked well. If you’ve never had the joy of cleaning Cosmoline off a gun, it has the texture of thick Vaseline with an attitude problem. Finally, the rifle was clean of the viscous stuff, and I could head out to the range.
Trigger pull on my rifle is wartime military. It is a two-stage trigger. The first stage is just take-up, with 3.5 pounds resistance. The somewhat crisp break adds another four pounds to that for a total trigger pull of 7.5 pounds.
With the big battle sight I could do three to four m.o.a. with surplus ammo, but it wasn’t quite zeroed and hit a few inches high right at 100 yards. Not too bad for knocking down running Nazis at Arnhem, but it’s not what you’d want for target shooting. The battle sight aperture is large enough that with the front sight centered in it I can see the wood on the top of the rifle all the way back to the receiver ring.
With the flip-up ladder aperture, which was easily click-adjusted via a thumbwheel, I could do 1.5 m.o.a. It was hitting exactly to point of aim with the aperture six clicks up from the bottom-most position (in the large unmarked area below the 200-meter mark on the ladder). One-and-a-half m.o.a. with surplus ammo and a 7.5-pound trigger? Not too shabby at all.
The only common complaint with this rifle actually isn’t with the rifle but rather the practically antique rimmed cartridge it fires. Occasionally, rimmed cartridges stuffed into magazines suffer “rim lock,” where the rim of the top cartridge gets stuck behind the rim of the cartridge below it, affecting feeding. As this is a robust military rifle, when in doubt, use more muscle when working the bolt.
The .303 British isn’t the most common rifle round in America, but it is far from unknown. In addition to military surplus ammo still being available, you can find domestic producers of it as well, including Federal and Hornady.
That 1.5 m.o.a. came when my eyes were much better, and I’ve barely shot the Enfield since then. I was curious how well I could shoot these iron sights today and headed out to the range with a sampling of ammo.
It’s said that the M1 Garand is too heavy, until you shoot it. The No. 4 Mk. 2 rifle is a contemporary of the Garand, and it is heavy enough that you could shoot it all day without requiring medical attention. You’ll definitely notice it going off. It gives you a definite shove, and the brass buttplate does nothing to absorb recoil, but the weight of the rifle soaks up enough recoil that you won’t find yourself flinching.
While I have to fight to get the front sight of a handgun in focus, the front sight of the Enfield is so far out there it is crisp and clear for me. And I discovered that while some things change, others do not. With surplus ammo I was able to do 3.5 m.o.a. with the battle sight and 1.5 m.o.a. with the smaller aperture of the ladder sight. With Hornady’s 174-grain Vintage Match ammo I was able to do nearly one m.o.a. with this rifle. My main handicap was the less-than-stellar trigger pull.
I distinctly remember walking up to the crate of Cosmoline-coated Enfields at the gun show—and sweating and swearing in the basement of my first house as I attempted to clean the Cosmo off my new rifle. I remember the first time I ever took it to the range at the Detroit Sportsman Congress, the first club I had ever joined.
This is one of those guns that I’ve had forever, rarely shoot and yet would never sell. It represents a piece of history. Not just history of the world, but the history of my life.