The Lee–Metford rifle (a.k.a. Magazine Lee–Metford, abbreviated MLM) was a bolt action British army service rifle, combining James Paris Lee's rear-locking bolt system and detachable magazine with an innovative seven groove rifled barrel designed by William Ellis Metford. It replaced the Martini–Henry rifle in 1888, following nine years of development and trials, but remained in service for only a short time until replaced by the similar Lee–Enfield.
Lee's bolt action mechanism was a great improvement over other designs of the day. The rear-mounted lugs placed the operating handle much closer to the rifleman, over the trigger. This made it much quicker to operate than other, forward-mounted lug designs which forced the rifleman to move his hand forward to operate the bolt; also, the bolt's distance of travel was identical with the length of the cartridge, and its rotation was only 60 degrees compared to the 90 degree rotation of some French and Mauser-style actions. In addition Lee introduced a superior detachable box magazine to replace the integral magazines in use with most repeaters, and this magazine offered greater capacity than the competing Mannlicher design. Metford's polygonal rifling was adopted to reduce fouling from powder residue building up in the barrel, and also made it easier to clean.
In spite of its many advantageous features, the Lee–Metford was something of an anachronism, due to its use of a black powder–loaded cartridge. By the time of the rifle's introduction, rifle design had moved on to using small-calibre smokeless powder cartridges, which allowed bullets to be propelled at much higher velocities without as much smoke or residue. The .303 ammunition designed for the rifle was in fact originally intended to be loaded with a new propellant (cordite). However, as a result of protracted development, production of cordite was delayed, forcing the British to use black powder instead. By the time cordite cartridges were available, it was found that they were wholly unsuited for use with the shallow Metford rifling, which would wear out and render barrels unusable after approximately 6,000 rounds.
Regardless of the shortfalls brought about by the use of black powder, the Lee–Metford went through several revisions during its short service life, with the principal changes being to the magazine (from eight-round single stack to ten-round staggered), sights, and safety. Starting in 1895, the Lee–Metford started to be phased out in favor of the Lee–Enfield, a virtually identical design adapted for use with smokeless powder. Changes included deeper square-cut rifling (designated Enfield pattern), and sights adjusted for the flatter trajectory enabled by the smokeless propellant.
Replacement of the Lee–Metford rifles took several years to achieve, and they were still in service in some units during the Second Boer War in 1899. Troops with the Lee–Metford and even the Lee–Enfield had a disadvantage to the Mauser Model 1895-equipped Boer troops, when long range accuracy was a concern. Poor sighting-in and quality control at the factory level resulted in British rifles being woefully inaccurate at ranges greater than 400 yards (370 m); upon correction they were essentially equal to the Mauser action in terms of accuracy, and superior in most other attributes. Even so, the British considered a whole new rifle, the Pattern 1913 Enfield, based upon a modified Mauser design, but its development was cut short by the First World War and the eminently adaptable Lee–Enfield served for another half century.
In British service the Lee–Metford was also upgraded to the standards of later rifle patterns (e.g. to charger loading and Short Rifle, the SMLE pattern), though the barrel was almost always switched to one with Enfield pattern rifling. The Lee–Metford was produced commercially and used by civilian target shooters until the outbreak of World War I, as it was considered to be inherently more accurate than the Enfield pattern of rifling. In this context, barrels and boltheads could be replaced as frequently as the owner wished, or could afford. It remained a reserve arm in many parts of the British Empire into WWII, even being issued to the New Zealand Home Guard and the Australian Volunteer Defence Corps until more modern rifles could be obtained. The Lee–Metford is still in ceremonial use with the Atholl Highlanders.
Small numbers of Lee–Metford rifles were built as, or converted to, experimental semi-automatic loading systems, such as the British Howell and South African Reider and the best-known of which was the Charlton Automatic Rifle, designed by a New Zealander, Philip Charlton in 1941 to act as a substitute for the Bren and Lewis gun light machine guns which were in chronically short supply at the time. During the Second World War, the majority of New Zealand's land forces were deployed in North Africa. When Japan entered the war in 1941, New Zealand found itself lacking the light machine guns that would be required for local defence should Japan choose to invade, and so the New Zealand Government funded the development of self-loading conversions for the Lee–Metford rifle. The end result was the Charlton Automatic Rifle (based on the obsolete MLE), which was issued to Home Guard units in NZ from 1942. Over 1,500 conversions were made, including a handful by the Australian firm Electrolux using Lithgow SMLE Mk III* rifles.
The two Charlton designs differed markedly in external appearance (amongst other things, the New Zealand Charlton had a forward pistol grip and bipod, whilst the Australian one did not), but shared the same operating mechanism. Most of the Charlton Automatic Rifles were destroyed in a fire after the Second World War, but a few examples survive in museums and private collections.
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