The English Lee-Enfield series of rifles is really a castoff design the Americans didn’t want. Back in the 1880s, American inventor James Paris Lee took a design that had failed to catch much attention in the U.S. over to Great Britain.
The British adopted the design and shortly were cranking out thousands of the rifles using Lee’s action modified to fire the .303 British cartridge and a 10-round magazine. The final design work was done at the Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield, so the rifle has forever been linked with the name where it was engineered.
The history of the design and use of each model of the Enfield series would take up much more room than I have in this column. In this month’s Collector’s Corner I shall discuss one of the final variations of the Enfield series, the rifle No. 5 Mk. 1.
The Lee-Enfield Rifle No. 5 Mk. 1 is usually known as the “Jungle Carbine.” Although that was always a nickname for the model, it was never called a Jungle Carbine in official terminology. In late 1942 the British Infantry Weapons Development committee began research on a shorter and lighter version of the standard-issue rifle, the No. 4 Mk.1. It was intended for use mainly in the Far East where jungle fighting in difficult terrain had shown the full-sized SMLE and No.4 Mk.1 rifles to be too large and heavy.
Through much of 1943 various design features were submitted and the final result was the carbine we know today. During its design stage the rifle was referred to as a “No. 4 lightened rifle”.
On March 21, 1944 the finalized design of the new rifle was approved. On Sept 12, 1944 the name of this model was officially changed to Rifle, No. 5 Mk. 1. The features unique to the No. 5 Mk. 1 rifle are:
- The action is the same as the No.4 but has been lightened by removing steel in some areas.
- The 20.5 inch barrel includes a pinned-on flash eliminator.
- The rear sight is graduated to 800 yards, instead of the 1300-yard sight found on No.4 rifles.
- The butt stock has a rubber recoil pad
Production of the new rifle began at the Royal Ordnance Factories at Fazakerly and BSA Shirley. Although several thousand No. 5 rifles were made before WWII ended in August 1945, the design did not see a lot of combat use during the war.
Production of the No. 5 rifle continued after the war. The rifle was popular with troops because it was shorter and lighter than other models. There were however continuing complaints that the rifle could not shoot with consistent accuracy. The ordnance officials called this problem “wandering zero.” It seems rifles calibrated at the arsenal or in the field would shoot acceptably for a while then become increasingly inaccurate.
There were several attempts to determine if there was a design defect that caused this problem but they never settled on a single cause. A significant factor in the lack of accuracy is apparently the flash hider. In tests of rifles without it they held the accuracy for more shots. But that was one contributing factor, not the cause. Other things that might factor in are the length of the fore stock, lightning cuts on the receiver and barrel, and methods of holding the barreled action in the wood.
In the end they decided not to do anything to fix the problem, they declared the No. 5 rifle obsolete in July 1947. Production died down by late 1947 with the final rifles being assembled at Fazakerly in December. According to “The Lee-Enfield Story” there were approximately 250,000 No. 5 Mk. 1 Rifles produced. This figure is not certain as there are some overlap and discrepancies in factory serial number records.
As they were removed from British service some No. 5 rifles were given or sold to other nations. Throughout the 1950s many were sold on the surplus arms market and ended up here in the U.S. Most in the U.S. came in before 1968. Some were imported in un-issued condition. The 1947-dated No. 5 I used for this column shows no signs of use. The going price for one of these minty Jungle Carbines usually runs $400 to $700 if the rifle has matching numbers.
No. 5 rifles with WWII dates of 1944 or 45 will bring more than the 1946- or 1947-dated guns. There have been a few small lots of No. 5 Mk.1 rifles imported in the last decade. Many of these come out of Malaysia. They show signs of being used in a wet climate. Many will have rust and pitting on steel edges where the steel touches wood as well as water stains in the wood. Most will have rotted rubber recoil pad. These sell in the $200- $350 range.
In the 1980s and 90s many thousand SMLE No. 1 Mk. III and No. 4 Mk.1 rifles were imported to the U.S. Because there is a limited market for the old battle rifles, the importers were left with more guns than they wanted. Navy Arms and other companies began converting their rifles into reproduction Jungle Carbines or similar models. The most common example is a Jungle Carbine made from a SMLE No. 1 Mk III. The seller shortened the barrel and installed a reproduction flash hider/front sight. Some have the recoil pad added. Others retain the original metal butt plate. These are available in .303 British or .308.
The easiest way to identify one of these modified rifles is to note the position of the rear sight. The SMLE rear sight is on top of the barrel. The rear sight on a No.5 Mk.1 is a peep sight on the top of the receiver, above the bolt handle. There were close copies of No. 5 made from No. 4 rifles that are hard to tell from original.
I can’t label these guns as “fake Jungle Carbines” as the firms that offer these rifles make no attempt to cover the nature of these guns. They are simply taking a slow-selling model and changing it to another variation to add to their product line. These non original carbines sell for $250-$350. I guess it shows the popularity and fame of the original Jungle Carbine that they can crank out copies that sell as well as the originals.
This article appeared in the June 20, 2011 issue of Gun Digest the Magazine. Click here to learn more or load up on a subscription.
Resources for Military Gun Collectors