Ballistics by the inch

Two Classic Battle Rifles.

You can probably guess which ones I mean. Yeah, that’s how big of an impact they had on history.

The M1903 Springfield and the Lee-Enfield (specifically, the SMLE No.1 Mk III). Both bolt-action guns (actually, both derived from the G98 Mauser design). Both shooting powerful .30 caliber cartridges with an effective aimed range in excess of 500 yards. And both having played an important role in World War I and World War II.

Of course, there are some real differences between these cousins. Let’s talk about that after a brief look at each one:


M1903 Springfield

The M1903 Springfield was the successor to the Krag-Jørgensen rifle, bringing greater power and rate of fire into the hands of US soldiers than the earlier rifle offered. The .30-06 cartridge was “high power”: a 150gr bullet at almost 3,000fps, for about 2,800ft/lbs of energy. Which was about 50% more power and a better ballistic coefficient than the Krag had, and that translated into a greater effective fighting range.

1903 Springfield

M1903 Springfield

The M1903 held 5 rounds, inserted via stripper clips for speed. The Mauser style bolt handle was lower on the gun, again for speed. It was slick, solid, and accurate. Here it is in operation last weekend:

One particular thing I want to note: the difficulty that he has with the sight is common, and it’s something that hickock45 comments on at about 1:30 in his video review of it.

The M1903 Springfield entered service in 1903 (hence the designation), was the primary battle rifle in WWI, played a major role in WWII, and continued to be used as a sniper rifle (and in some other applications) through into even the Vietnam War.



The Lee-Enfield was the successor to the Martini-Henry (and variants) in the British army, coming into use in the mid 1890s. The new smokeless version of  .303 British cartridge had ballistics very similar to the US .30-06, but was slightly shorter overall. This, combined with a short throw on the bolt-action, allowed for a very rapid rate of aimed fire by a trained rifleman of up to 35 rounds per minute. The magazine of the SMLE held 10 rounds, fed by 5-round ‘chargers’ similar to the stripper-clips used in the M1903. Like the Krag, the Lee-Enfield had a magazine cut-off which would allow it to function purely as a single-shot.


Lee-Enfield SMLE No. 1 Mk III

We didn’t try to manipulate the bolt-action for rapid fire, but this was a common tactic in the British forces, and they could routinely fire up to 35 rounds per minute while keeping the rifle shouldered for aimed fire. This kind of sustained rate of fire made the Lee-Enfield a formidable weapon which remained in use in subsequent variants through the Korean War.


So, what were the differences between these two classic battle rifles?

Well, range and rate of fire, for the most part. The M1903 Springfield had a greater range with excellent accuracy, enough to be used as a sniper rifle through WWII and Korea. The .30-06 cartridge is so good for this sort of use that it is still a common long range hunting cartridge for medium sized game and target shooting to this day.

But the M1903 couldn’t compete with the Lee-Enfield for rate of fire, particularly while still shouldered. The Australians, using the Lee-Enfield, even developed a technique which allowed up to 55 rounds per minute:

The tactic was to fire in conventional rapid-fire mode until the enemy was approximately 100 to 150 yds. away. Then the right hand would leave the small of the butt, and the thumb and first finger would grasp the bolt handle. The little or lower finger was then used to fire the rifle, and the bolt cycled using those two fingers, which stayed on the bolt handle until the rifle was empty. As soon as the bolt handle was down, the trigger was then pulled and the cycle recommenced. As the targets appeared, a quick snap shot was made. The bolt was already working and the recoil was utilized with the disturbance in moving the bolt to align on the next target which was again snap shot. Attention was given to the target only until the shot was made.

Wild. I’d love to see someone actually able to do that, with some degree of accuracy.

Anyway, both the M1903 Springfield and the Lee-Enfield rifles are fairly common today. But as it happens, I don’t think that I had ever gotten around to shooting a SMLE until this outing. And I’ve been shooting for 50+ years. Don’t make the same mistake if you can avoid it.

Jim Downey





August 31, 2020 Posted by | Discussion., historic rifles | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment