Lee Enfield the .303 years
There have been somewhere around a dozen different types and sub types of Lee Enfield made over the years, from the old Long rifles to the last No.5s and 6s. Australia has only made the No.1 Mk. III, the No.1 Mk. III* and the No.5 Mk. 1, 2 & 3 in any quantity.
At the start of WWII, the weapon in production at the Australian Government Small Arms Factory (GSAF) Lithgow was the .303 Rifle No.1 Mk. III*, or in the pre 1926 designation system as the Rifle Short Magazine Lee Enfield (shortened to SMLE) Mk. III* known to some as the Smelly, but to most everybody in Australia as simply a Three-Oh-Three. The production line (made by Pratt & Whitney) at Lithgow started churning out the Mk. III in February 1912, shifted to the Mk. III* pattern in 1915 and by 1918 had made over 100,000 examples by the time the Lee Enfield line closed in 1961, the total was closer to three quarters of a million weapons most of them Mk. III*.
The basic rifle was obsolete long before we ever adopted it and 60 years before the last Australian example was made. In the Boer War at the turn of the centaury, the Boers charger loaded 7mm Mausers had proven their superiority over the dated Lee Enfield; from then on every LE made was a stopgap waiting on the arrival of replacement that was continually delayed by financial crisis or war. The Rifle Scandal that came out of Australia and Indias involvement in Burma during the early 60s was just a fitting end to what had largely been the story of the Lee Enfields existence.
The Mk. III developed, as an interim after the Boer War was the basis for all other LE models until officially replaced by the No.4 Mk.1 on the eve of WWII. Since neither Australia nor India ever made the No.4, we kept producing the Mk. III* until after the end of hostilities, indeed almost to the end of production. The Mk. III* was just a Mk. III with a couple of features deleted to ease production. The No.4 was a detail redesign of the Mk. III*, with a heavier barrel and concentrating on increasing strength and easing production. The No.4 was a fraction shorter and a little heavier but much easier to make.
In 1950 the Australian Army adopted (with much fanfare) a new rifle the No.5. This was prompted by three main factors, a) the production line at Lithgow was well worn and in need of major refurbishment b) The Savage Arms Company of Chicopee Falls had a set of No.4 tooling it didnt need and was going to throw out* and c) as we were stuck with the Lee Enfield for the foreseeable future we might as well combine a) and b) to our best advantage.
(* Savage had made the No.4 under contract for the British Government before the Coup, and had continued to supply rifles to Canada and other Commonwealth users in the early war years, but converted to American weapons (M1 Carbines IIRC) around 1943. The old LE No.4 tooling was held in store as part of the US Governments Defence Industrial Reserve Program until the end of the war.)
The No.5 Mk.1 wasnt a No.4 that would have been too easy. Lithgow had to modify our line and Savages tooling to work together, and in the process made a few tweaks to better suit what the Army thought it needed.
The most obvious difference between the two was in the furniture, the No.5s fore end being cut back much further than the No.4s had been and the fore sight was set further back too, so as to accommodate the handle of standard 1907 Pattern 17 sword bayonet of the old Mk. III* which now mounted around the muzzle and connected to a lug on the underside of the fore sight protector.
The No.5 did have the new rear sight lifted from the UK No.4. This was a modern peep sight that was mounted back over the receiver rather than out on the fore end like the old Mk. III*s tangent affair. To my mind this sight was mixed blessing, the sight radius was longer, it was easier to draw a proper bead under all conditions of light and at a stationary target it was a major improvement, but the old open Vee was a better instrument for snap shoots at fleeting targets to my eyes, especially those moving across the line of fire.
The sight had two apertures, when folded down (forwards) there was a large, fixed night battle sight set to 200 yards without bayonet or 100 yards with. Folded up, the slider that contained the smaller daylight aperture was click adjustable in 50-yard increments out to 1200 yards, with a thumb wheel (copied from the old Mk. III) for fine adjustment.
But the real difference between the No.4 and No.5 was in the receiver. For most of its military career, the one aspect of the LE rifles that had attracted the most criticism was their lack of accuracy on the target range. This had never been much of a problem through two world wars and host of minor skirmishes in between but it annoyed the target aficionados both civilian and military no end.
Civilian target shooting had always been a very important part of Australias defence, contrary to myth our population has always been mainly urban and if you want an army to be good shots, then the best way to achieve it is to have them learn to shoot and enjoy shooting long before they join the colours. Since federation in 1900 the Commonwealth Government had subsidised rifle clubs and school shooting programs, provided locally made rifles and ammunition at cost to club members, established dual use military/civilian rifle ranges around the country and generally bent over backwards to get the population behind the butt of a rifle. The rifle clubs being a reserve of skills, semi-trained manpower and weapons. <@ fact until the post Vietnam period>
Thus Lithgow had always produced civilian semi-target model Mk. III*s in peace time, in particular using a heavier profile barrel that was actually that of the old Long Lee Enfield cut down to the Short SMLE length (30.2 cut to 25.2). The Lithgow Rifle Club obviously having all the facilities of the factory at their memberships disposal had been refining the SMLE as a target rifle for nearly 40 years, and in this time they picked up a pretty good idea of what made the LE tick. Their theory was that the LEs weakness wasnt in the locking action where common opinion had the bolt compressing and throwing everything off; rather the key was the rigidity (or lack of it) in the receiver and its bedding (how the action/barrel mates with the wood of the furniture), bedding a SMLE for accuracy being one of the higher art forms. According to Lithgow, only time bolt compression made any real difference was if the ammo got wet, then the point of aim would shift but not the repeatability.
They were certainly right on the last bit, any unnoticed drops of water on the ammo is fatal to match grade accuracy, and the rest of their argument is convincing, especially as they proved it in open competition shooting.
What does this have to do with a battle rifle? Well nothing - in theory. But when they were re-working the No.4 tooling, the drawing office at Lithgow incorporated 4 lightening slots, two in the bottom of the receiver and another two on the inside face of the butt socket. When clamped in a jig, it was now possible to weld two gussets to the No.5 receiver forging. These gussets ran from the socket all the way to the front of the action, one on either side of the magazine. Turning the floppy LE receiver that seen from the side looked like an L, into something more like a right-angled triangle that was much stiffer. You could even mount a new trigger assembly between the plates and hang the fore end off them, in effect free floating the whole action. The real accuracy buffs have been known to completely remove all the wood forward of the butt when the rules allow it.
The result of all this was a rifle that could shoot rings around the old SMLE on the range, but even with most of the gussets hogged out by lightening holes a trick No.5 with a heavy barrel will still weight better than a pound more (~10.2lb) than an externally identical issue No.5.
The Army didnt give a hoot about any of this though, their gun didnt get the special treatment but it was cheaper to make than the old Mk. III* and it was something new to give the troops (and public opinion) that even then were starting to wonder if the old girl was the best thing to take to war.
From a service standpoint the No. 5 Mk.1 was no different to the Mk. III* in anything but the sights and that the bolt head was now retained by a spring catch rather just a spring. Since it wasnt any different in practice and Lithgow was hardly running at a wartime pitch, the No.5 drifted into service fairly slowly. I know I never saw one on issue until we reequipped to go to Burma, and even then they took them back almost immediately to return our old Mk. III*s to us. I dont know the final production numbers of the No.5 but I doubt there were 25,000 made over 10 years in total, and they certainly command a premium today.
The next time I was to see a No.5 it was a rather different gun, the No.5 Mk.2 was the Armys knee-jerk reaction to Burma and I for one wasnt too impressed. The best Lithgow could do was trim 5 inches off the barrel, fit a multi-slot flash hider cribbed of the American M-14 (which stole back 3) and cut the forearm off at the middle band. The result might be called a Carbine but only with the most generous interpretation of the term. It still weighted the better part of 7.5lb, was a little over 39 long and muzzle break be damned, it barked like a bastard at both ends. The No.5 Mk.2* introduced a rubber butt pad that was rather useful, it certainly made it a quieter gun to use on rocky terrain, but hardly solved the recoil problem.
The last of the line in Australia at any rate was the No.5 Mk.3 and talk about a change of fate The Australian Army has always emphasised the value of aimed rifle fire, this ethos runs from the rifle clubs all the way through to the rifle sections in the field, and Ill talk a little more about this later. But for all that weve been well behind the general trend in sniping. That isnt to say we havent done our share, weve as many Aces in our history as any comparable army and several would be in the world rankings if they werent quite so obscure. Billy Sing in WWI was supposedly over the ton before he left Gallipoli for example and there are plenty of others. But theyve all used either the standard service rifle or some other gun theyve picked up from non-Australian (usually British) sources.
Before Burma Australia had never issued a specialist sniper rifle (although we did develop one in WWII it never reached service) until the first No.5 Mk.3s came on line in mid 1961, ironically just as the LE line at Lithgow was shutting down.
Mechanically the Mk.3 was an exercise in parts bin engineering. It took the No.5 receiver, the Lithgow made Heavy-Barrel and the No.5 Mk.2s carbine fore end and muzzle fittings all from then current Lithgow production. The receiver was fitted at the factory with the target gussets, a commercial (made by Central) match trigger and carefully assembled from picked components. A third sling swivel was fitted to the front action screw and the telescopic sight and mounting system lifted straight off the WWII era Rifle No.1 Mk. III* HT (Aust), the HT stood for Heavy barrel Telescope.
Before 1970 there were two variants to the Mk.3. The standard Mk.3/1 used the 25.2 heavy profile barrel fitted with the flash hider and foresight from the Mk.2 Carbine and the total length was 47.5. The Mk.3/2 did away with the flash hider and reverted back to 1900 by using the full 30.2 Long Lee Enfield barrel, this was yet another 2 longer at 49.5 but accuracy sort-of improved (some found it better, some worse) and either way the muzzle retort was much milder than the 25 tube even with the flash hider.
On quick note in passing: One of the quirks of the all the Lee Enfields, is they are remarkably accurate at 1000 yards, not too 1000 yards but at that figure. Above or below a grand, each individual rifle has a mind of its own, some good, some bad, high-low, left-right. For Service Match, which was the most common rifle competition in Australia at the time, a serious competitor might have a P-14 or any other .303 service rifle, but every one shot the 1000 with SMLE. Some think it is barrel vibration, others have their own theory, all I know is that 1000 yards was the sweet spot with .303 Lee Enfields.
Both Mk.3 variants were a bit long for moving around in tight spaces, but they both came out tipping the scales at around the 10lb mark so nobody was complaining. The Mk.3/3 was just the Mk.3/1 minus the flash hider, and there was the Mk.3/4 that had the long barrel AND a flash hider (by now they were using the FN pattern from the SLR) but at over 52 it didnt get very far.
Terminology note: the Mk.3 uses slash numbers instead of *s as they are all conversions from Mk.1 and 2 No.5 rifles. Mk.3 as a type covers all service rifles fitted with the gusset plates, this was never done one the line even for brand new factory made examples, they were all tool room specials. Every Mk.3 marked receiver should be an over stamped Mk. 1 or 2.
The original No.32 (Aust) three power telescopic sight didnt last too long in service, it was rugged but thats about all that could be said for it, Oca produced a special x6 scope to fit the old (odd sized) claw mounts, and later a x10 version. These scopes might best be described as bullet proof, the whole thing being almost solid brass and steel. The graticule was etched glass and adjusted by screwdriver for zero, all corrections for windage and elevation being done by eye with the help of mil stadia. Optically like most Oca (Optical Company of Australasia) stuff its good where it counts, even if it hasnt got all the bells and whistles. One little bonus of the old claw mounts was you could pull them of in a flash and clip load (with the usual 5rnd chargers) if things got a bit desperate, but they dropped them in the late 60s for a more solid side mount.
Over the years since the Mk.3 Australia has issued a variety of different sniper rifles, mostly in 7x55mm (the Aussie one that is, based on a stretched 7mm British case) after 1970; weve bought Parker Hales from Britain, CZ (Mausers) from Czechoslovakia, Russian PVTs and American Remingtons and Winchesters, not to mention our domestic Omarks. The latest bit of kit on issue is the Accuracy International Rifle 7mm A3M1 and A4M1 in .338 Lapaua. However somewhere in the background there has always been the old No.5 Mk.3s refurbished and rebuilt again and again, I suspect today theyre kept on strength mostly for old times sake; but none the less in 1988 they saw out the centenary of Lee Enfields (well it was a Lee Metford back in 188 in Australian Service. Not a bad effort from a substitute standard from the Boer War.
Musketry and Military Training in Australia circa 1950-59
As I mentioned above, competitive rifle shooting is an important part of our defence culture, I rather think our early leaders had Switzerland firmly in mind when setting up our country, they certainly took a good look at the Swiss constitution or so Im told.
In the 50s when ammo was cheap and fuel expensive, the army probably spent as much time on the range as we did doing almost anything else except PT. Looking back I cant help wondering if our officers spent so much time on musketry training in an effort to compensate for our lack of modern arms, or if shooting was just the one pursuit the system allowed them. Either way we did a lot of range time, and for the most part it was the one aspect of military life we all greeted with enthusiasm. The Boss can tell you to spend X hours on the range, fire Y rounds a week, attend Z lectures and so on, but the hours we put in of our own time call it heard instinct, peer pressure or young men taking pride in their work I dont know, but dry firing practice and isometric exercises in the billets of an evening or attending civilian matches at our own expense on the week ends was just part and parcel of barracks life at the time.
Now I dont claim all this shooting made us better soldiers, in fact I dare say we could have spent a damn sight more time out doing field exercises. But then wed probably have been practicing the wrong sort of tactics anyway; at least as far as jungle warfare is concerned.
At the time we had two Bibles, the 1907 Hythe Musketry Manuel and the Field Service Manual Battalion Tactics that was a 1949 gloss based on the 1904 Field Service Manual, re-worked to tie armour into the picture. If these seem a bit antiquated, it pays to look at things in perspective. WWI was a watershed event for the British Army, in 1914 they had been all fired up to fight a mobile war by; 1918 Trench Warfare ruled.
The Textbooks we took into WWII had all been written (or re-written) to treat WWI as the revolutionary new way of war, being more observers than direct participants of the latter stages of WWII, the Commonwealth countries and particularly the Indian Army Staff Collage at Quetta evolved a more considered viewpoint on the realities of modern combat. Neither WWI nor WWII represented a new wave instead they were just the same pendulum at different point of its arc. WWII was seen to mix the mobile with the static, victory going to those who could combine the two elements best for a given situation.
So rather than re-hash the already rehashed 1930s texts, or strike out with a completely new work, going back to the old manoeuvre-ist manuals from before the Great War allowed the flawed assumptions drawn from WWI to be ignored while the lessons of that conflict and those drawn from WWII could be combined into a single revision set on a solid foundation.
All of which aside, if you wanted to learn how best to shoot an SMLE, Hythe wrote the book and it was the same gun in 1950 as it had been in 1907. The later versions had just dumbed it all down for wartime accelerated training.
The Hythe method as we practiced it used three basic fire programs after the introductory course of instruction:
- Aimed Fire was done at any distance out to 1000 yards at any of the three positions, and for the most part it was just normal range practice. Slow fire was just that, but Rapid Fire or The Mad Minute as we called it, became a little more interesting. RF was done from 100-500 yards either kneeling or prone. Inside 200 yards we used the Pimple target, which was supposed to represent a man exposed above a parapet, over 200 we used the standard 1000 yard Long Range target which was 2 wide by 4 high with a 20 white circle and a 10 bull (from memory). RF was always done against time and the minimum standard was 15 rounds in the white in 60 seconds at 250 yards, First Class qualification was 20 rounds in the white with at least 10 in the black; the ultimate aim (so rarely achieved) was 25. 20 aimed rounds a minute is the same rate of fire specified today
-Snap Fire, was done at three ranges (50-100 and 150 yards) against the standard Crouching Hun targets that were either drop down, pop up or running. 50 yards was always off hand, 100 yards was usually kneeling or prone and 150 was always prone, all set against a stopwatch.
-The infamous Battle Practice combined all the elements together with basic platoon fire and movement drills. In theory this was fixed in the book as a 300 round (the usual load for a rifleman was 150-200 so this was an extra drill) course of fire for a rifleman, expending 20 rounds of 2 smoke per platoon and 750 rounds per Bren. I dont think we ever did a full course, if for nothing else the ammo expenditure would have been enormous. As a general rule we thought wed done well if we had more than half the ammo to fire and the 2 each had 20 re-usable practice bombs.
The actual evolution was a real nut crusher; it would start with a de-bussing drill at the 1000-yard berm, wed fire a 10 round string, then run at the double to the next 50-yard line for 5 rounds, then on to the next 100-yard berm for another 10 round string and so on down the range; Brens only using auto from the berms and the old 2 mortars puffing out a bomb at each increment. Believe me, a 1000 yards worth of 50-yard sprints and firing 150 rounds in between was a hell of a way to spend a morning. Then came the scoring, oh yes they kept score, a fresh target every bound and did I mention the final assault up the butts was flat out at the rush with fixed bayonet if your bayonet wasnt in the bull you had to run the whole course again with out firing. Picture if you will some one whos just done the twenty 50 yard dashes, doubled back to the start line, run the course again then trying to pin a bayonet through a 10 bull. Camels may freely pass through the eyes of many needles
All this running around and looking at a weapons specifications only tells half the story though. Its in the hours of sitting around a billet in the evenings dry firing and picking up the lore by word of mouth that made the difference between theory and the horrible reality of professional musketry. The Army issued every man with 5 rounds .303 Dummy, Drill Practice. I dont know anybody who didnt have an extra 10 or 15 rounds theyd either bought or picked up from Cadets. The Army didnt pay us to go down to the civilian matches on the week ends either, and they didnt teach riding the bolt or devote yet more hours to overcoming the natural habit of lifting the head clear of the bolt as it comes back, and it was this thats the key to rapid aimed fire, if you dont move your head back or bring the rifle down from the shoulder to work the bolt who cares. Those days are long gone, but the point is we, the poor dumb conscripts and would be regulars, encouraged by our NCOs and officers, but more by each other, we did these things. And by and large we could put 10 rounds through a 20 circle at 500 yards in less than a minute and 15 if the scorers squinted.
If as I surmise most of this was as an effort on the part of our superiors to over come our material deficiencies. Then their inspiration had to have been the BEF of 1914 and frankly as a largely conscript force I think we did rather well by that standard, perhaps not up to the same pitch as the Old Contemptibles but bloody close all the same.
How all this effort it would have panned out for real is one of those questions, the Snap Fire certainly proved its worth but there just wasnt much call for most of the rest of it in the Green, though the trench lines at Mick were a different story.
Much has been made of the Diggers habit of picking up the odd stray weapon in Burma and our passing lack of respect for proper War Establishment tables of equipment. However the diverse mass of kit we handed in for exchange when we got home didn't accrete over night. The first year or two of the Burmese war was fought for the most part with the old Rule .303 and I have a sneaking suspicion that all those hundreds of thousands of rounds we pumped into the butts back in Australia paid off in the end.
Some of the lessons we learned back then had a limited application; like when using bolt action rifles in jungle never give the point man a fancy weapon you cant replace - but make damn sure the next man in line has all the firepower you can muster, or always keep your right palm over the bolt handle to avoid snagging it and your trigger finger over the guard to prevent an ND. But others came in handy later on; slings are more a hindrance than a help for riflemen in close country, if the length of your weapon is a problem then youre moving too fast for a patrol, pick machine gunners for skill not shoulder width, that even 17 bayonets make terrible machetes and most importantly of all only bullets that hit things do any damage. Its all right to blaze away if you have too, but if you dont care where your rounds go, neither will the enemy. If youve got to spray then dont pray, direct it where it will do some good.
You see this last lesson was doubly important because we learned it from both sides. The Insurgents fired off an awful lot of ammunition in our general direction over the years, but other than the first few moments of an ambush or contact most their fire seemed to go high, wide or just disappear into the greenery unless we happened into a properly laid out ambush or had bumped into a defensive line; and even then it was the crew served weapons, machineguns and the like that seemed to do most of the damage. We put it down to the fact they just couldn't shoot.
Now our fire was of course all perfectly directed and deadly with never a wasted shot, well not quite. But we simply couldnt lay out that sort of fire even if we'd wanted too, so we'd plonk away with our rifles and let the Brens do all the real work. We might put in a mad minute or three in the early stages of a contact, or in the face of enemy movement, but a bolt action makes a random suppressive even more of a furphy than it really is. At half a mile you can fool yourself about bullets wising past someones head, but shooting into a forest at 10 feet you see exactly how small the area a bullet covers is, compared to a man.
When we started to collect a more up to date inventory, the first thing we did was give the enemy back what we'd been receiving up to then with interest. Ammo consumption went through the roof almost overnight, but the numbers of bodies stood on hardly changed at all, even though morale improved.
Then as was bound to happen we had a few blue-on-blues as they call them these days; and when a situation had cleared up and the survivors started yelling at each other, amid all the swearing and between the punches there was usually a conversation something like this:
You bloody stupid bastards and anyway you couldnt hit the side of a @#%$ house!
Whatda mean by that you @#%$ drongo. Youre the ones shooting like @#%$ Chimps! Christ, if it wasnt for that @#%$ of a Bren gunner of yours wed have been all over you like a poxy rash!
Oh so you CAN recognise a @#%$ Bren when you hear one and whatda mean shooting like Chimps! You bastards must have fired off half of bloody
It didnt take a genius or a court of enquiry (and there were a few of those) to put two and two together and work out what was happening. Where fire selectors had once been at either Safe or A as a matter of course, our new toys spent more and more time set to R or what ever marking indicated single shots. It wasnt a lesson without cost, but it was a valuable one to learn.
Burma taught us we could hold our own in thick country with bolt action rifles, not easily and certainly not without cost. But if such a disadvantage wasnt insurmountable, then neither was the environment, the enemy and anything else fate threw our way.
Civilian Club Shooting
Ive mentioned the civilian matches for military rifles a couple of times here, so a quick note on them might not go astray. As the government has always supported the Rifle Clubs down here, there have always been matches for the standard service rifle of the day, usually with a few permissible mods like target sights and historical loopholes like the heavy barrels of Lee Enfields. But these service rifle matches come in more different shapes and sizes than you can poke a stick at. Traditionally to qualify a rifle had to fire a round that was or had been in service, this meant in effect .303, but if you wanted to try your luck with a .450 Martini, or Brown Bess for that matter, the club would take your fee and count its silverware safe (though if you had a .303 Martini theyd be locking the cabinet).
After 1960 or so as the Army moved into automatics, a breach grew between the dedicated target fans and military musketry. Any course of fire that put a primum on long-range accuracy was a shoo-in for the old rifles and they just couldnt compete on any new course if a sustained rate fire (more than 10rpm) was needed. In 1965 if there were 100,000 rifles in the country that might be eligible to compete in the traditional events, there were less than 1000 automatics (in civilian hands) that could say the same and I doubt if there would have been that many. Lithgow was up to its neck in orders so civilian deliveries were glacial even for those who could afford to pay the (subsidised but still high) price the Government Rifle Club Scheme was asking for the new weapon. A split did occur to some extent, and several new target disciplines developed alongside the older .303 codes. But Canberra hadnt sunk so much into the Rifle Clubs to see them drift away from their core reason for existence, so they opened the import floodgates in 67.
Up until that point, importing a rifle into Australia wasnt illegal, it just wasnt easy. We had some of the toughest proof laws (that didnt actually require a proof test!) in the world; Remington even designed the bolt of their standard sporting rifle with our laws in mind (the striker had to take a blow from a regulation mallet). And after the war things only got tougher, with currency restrictions and tariffs on arms and ammunition to encourage local manufacture and export over imports. If you wanted to buy some fancy rifle from overseas, there was nothing stopping you, except red tape and about double the price on the gun and every round of ammo imported. This is largely why at that time almost every rifle in the country bigger than a .22 rimfire was a .303 or a modified .303; and also explains why our target shooting culture was so cohesive around a single calibre and why this mono-culture was so shaken by the Armys change in rifle.
I suppose its odd that we changed our laws to permit the importation of military arms, rather than excluding them in favour of sporting rifles, but thats they way the cookie crumbled. And in order to retain their membership and participation the Clubs opened their competitions to anything that had once been a service rifle and was still in the original calibre. Of course the idea was to bring in automatic rifles (the police still look you over with great care if you want to register a machinegun and youd better be a real collector before you try to get one), but along with the semi-automatics came many more surplus bolt actions.
This open slather rule has resulted in all sorts of things turning up on Saturday mornings, even if they might not make it to the finals on Sunday afternoon. Theres always a crop of the latest wonder-weapon from somewhere, and quantities of whatever surplus the importers have found recently (Chilean Mausers one month, Mosin-Nagants the next). Oddly enough the current King of the Hill for Practical Service Rifle which is the old Battle Practice tamed down a bit (they use metallic targets from 50-100m), is the Swedish Ag42B whose direct descendants in the form of the Ag55 and Madsen we rejected in 1960!
Anyhow while attendance has waxed and waned over the years, and automatics still arent as adaptable to civilian competition; the point is we might not be Switzerland, but there are enough rifles tucked away and more importantly enough folk who know how to use them, too give any unwelcome international visitor a warm reception and thats the important thing.
The Slurred Story
The first year after Australian forces were committed to Burma hardly went according to plan, and while there were ample reasons for this unhappy circumstance, starting with our initial cavalier attitude and moving through mismanagement, poor tactics and penny pinching. The blame got shifted in the public arena onto our equipment and the Lee Enfield in particular, just as it had 60 years before during the Boer War. But alas for Smelly, she was an old lady now, without the broad shoulders of youth to absorb criticism, and it really was time for her to retire.
I think the biggest problem with the Lee Enfield as an infantry weapon, lay in the fact that it was just too good at what it did. Where a lesser rifle would have been retired years before the LE soldiered on, flawed but not so drastically as to demand replacement until it had been left well beyond its years.
My old man once pointed out a trend hed noticed; he reckoned people became more superstitious after the Second World War; his idea was that nuclear bombs and the destruction of Germany bought people back in touch with their own mortality. Since I was the one he was making the observation about, and I dont feel very superstitious at all, I suppose I shouldnt really comment. But as Ive gotten older I think he might have been right. Anyway superstition or not, Ive never met a Lee-Enfield (and Ive come across my share) that didnt feel willing. Willing to do what, was another matter that needed a trip down to the range to find out, but every one felt like a puppy wagging its tail and wanting to please.
And thats the point, there wasnt anything you could reasonably ask a military rifle to do (and great deal that was way past reasonable) she wouldnt at least have a decent crack at, or do as well as you could expect come to that. Need a precision rifle, well she might not have been the best but good enough got the job done, you want a little rapid suppressive fire, well if ten rounds will do the business so will a Lee Enfield.
The biggest failing of the old girl wasnt really her fault either, apart from being a bolt action rifle in a world of automatics; the Lee Enfield chained any army using it to .303.
Three oh three doesnt get much respect today, its rimmed cartridge case is mechanically obsolete, making automatic weapons much more difficult to design, ballisticly it offers little other more common modern calibres can not deliver and in this age of American and Russian dominance in small arms as in no other area, it has no commercial market share to be protected by advertising dollars. And yet, when push came to shove, the Canadians, offered their choice, kept it.
But if the .303 Mk. VII Ball (to give the devil its due) was 60 years out of date, finding a replacement was hardly a matter of picking the newest cab off the rank; and when both a gun and a cartridge have to be replaced, they are each as important as the other.
How much bang is enough for a buck?
In the world of firearms, both military and commercial, fashion has as much influence on selling a weapon/cartridge/gizmo as it does on ladies frocks. I mention this by way of background and warning. Things are not always what they seem, and the reasons behind historical trends like the steady reduction in calibre of military small arms, or the similar reduction in calibre of sporting weapons are not as obvious as they might appear, especially when it comes to advertising or buying a new military firearm.
-In 1800 soldiers used muzzle loading flintlock muskets of between .60 and .75 bore.
-In 1860 the calibre range had shrunk to between .50 and .70 and these weapons were now mostly rifled.
-In 1900 they were all rifled, and somewhere between 6.5 and 8mm with about .30 as the popular mean. In 1960 the new wave looked to be a continuation of this trend, with calibres of between 4.5 and 7mm suggested by arms makers, inventors and experts in the field. History seemed to be on their side.
However there is one piece of this puzzle that was missing. People in 1800 might have been tougher than those of today, but unless the specific density of flesh and bone had changed in 150 years, something didnt add up. The actual damage any of these weapons could do to a person within their effective range had decreased steadily since 1800. Modern small bore cartridges might boast more energy in single shot than a flintlock of 1800; but when considered with the projectiles used at their intended or anticipated combat range, the old .70 calibre soft lead ball made much more of a mess than a modern rifle.
This point wasnt lost of course, ballistics is a science and every possible factor is the subject of calculation. So this aspect of the equation had been amply addressed, the common explanation used if any awkward sod raised the matter, might be expressed in attitude if not in so many words as: The old fools were inefficient, and today we know better.
Leaving the actual levels of intelligence present in the world's militaries of 1800 aside, this explanation totally ignores another little historical trend. Before 1800 there had been a similar reduction in calibre over about 300 years, the first military muskets had been closer to 1 than .75 and this trend too could be explained as due to the same process of continual refinement as the modern example, and it took so long because folk in 1500 didnt know as much as we do.
But this argument too has a gaping flaw that the innovators who pedal very small bore weapons conveniently overlook. Military calibres in 1800 had been relatively constant for more than a century. The military flintlock of 1800 was the result of evolution between ~1600 and ~1700, it didnt change much after than, not because people stopped trying new things but because it was about as close to perfect for its purpose as the technology of the day could get.
This argument too gets dismissed by boffins with clipboards who point out that flintlock of .50 or smaller would have possessed enough power to kill a man effectively at the ranges of the day; and by this stage any would be debater usually gives up; colour me stubborn.
This entire argument from 1500 to 1914 is totally irrelevant to modern military small arms, because the standard used to gauge the effectiveness of a musket in 1800, an 8mm Lebel in 1890 or a .30-06 Springfield in 1914 wasnt a man, it was a horse; and horses haven't been a military target of any significance since the end of WWII that I'm aware of.
A .36 musket in 1800 could kill a man, but it wouldnt hope to stop a cavalry horse in mid charge. Every standard military long arm calibre from the first Arquebuses to the last generation of full bore military rounds was overkill for any thin boned ~200lb animal. .30-06 the standard US rifle cartridge for the first 50 odd years of the 20th century when loaded to its military ballistics with a sporting bullet, is thought adequate for a humane kill on a 400lb elk; its also the accepted standard of power for comparing military cartridges.
My point in all this is that ballistics is a science, terminal ballistics (the study of the effect of bullets on flesh) might be called a science and Im not trying to dismiss it as quackery, as a discipline it has its place; but at best it is model based hypothesis set on a foundation of empirical, largely subjective and non-repeatable field data.
When it then tries to reconcile apples with oranges to justify the adoption of bananas to me it looks like lies, damned lies and statistics have a new competitor.
Im not arguing the value of reduced power military cartridges, far from it. Having lugged my fair share of full bore ammunition under desert sun and jungle gloom; not to mention run uncomfortably short at times because automatic fire can eat through more of such ammo in an hour or three than a man can carry (if hes to carry anything else), let alone having to use a 20lb weapon to do what a modern one can at half the weight. If anyone appreciates the advantages of less weight per round, softer recoil and controllable automatic fire from a rifle, its this little black duck.
But for all that if a smaller round wont do the job, well a soldiers life isnt an easy one and a little (or a lot) of weight is a small price to pay for a long life and a dead adversary. Adequate Lethality as pedalled by the small bore crowd is largely a myth and a dangerous one. Over the last 300 odd years, war has evolved in the era of fire arms to take ballistic overkill (on a human at normal ranges ~600 yards) for granted in our infantry weapons, be they muskets or magazine fed centre fire rifles. Take that away and it might take us almost as long to readjust. And Ive come across a few people in my day who were obviously tougher than a 400lb elk
I can only thank the lord above that when Australia came to replace our trusty old .303s, we didnt fall for the lure of high fashion and the shiny advertising.
A calibre, a calibre, my kingdom
The British way of developing a new rifle has always been to find the right round, then match a weapon to it, and Australia has since weve had the choice ourselves done the same when ever possible. In the early 60s though this just wasnt on the cards, we needed a modern weapon now (actually yesterday would have been closer to the truth) and there just wasnt time for the careful experimentation. This meant we had to buy off the peg, and there was no lack of choice on the market.
The modern military cartridge is contrary to popular opinion a product of the First World War as much as any later conflict. In the trenches of France and Flanders, the old idea of what a military rifle needed to do was turned on its newly helmeted head. Shooting a horse at a mile or a man at half that was no longer the raison de guerre. When battles lasted weeks not hours and fighting was at arms length as often as not, the old full bore cartridges were needless big, far too powerful and the weapons they fitted were equally obsolete. Everyone walked away in 1918 thinking new thoughts, and very modern by our standards they were too.
The fly in the ointment was economic, post war lack of interest in military spending and the Great Depression put the mockers on anything as expensive as replacing a standard infantry weapon, or worse the huge stockpiles of ammunition held over from the war to end all wars.
The US and Russia came the closest, America with their two self loading rifles and the .276 Pederson cartridge was well in the lead but the Russians had come as far as self loading with a couple of working designs and would have moved towards a smaller round too if they hadnt had even greater reasons to count every penny twice than the western democracies.
WWII started as a largely Come as you are affair, if something wasnt in production or very close in 1939, then it generally had to wait a year or two; there was just too much pressure on production to equip the mass armies as they were raised.
In rifles America had thrown away half her lead by 1939, choosing to stick with the full power .30-06 on economic grounds, but that still left her at the head of the race and while at peace, with the opportunity to get the Garand properly sorted out and into service. The Russians had a little more time too, but their self loading rifles not only had to work through a much less sophisticated industrial base but cope with rimmed ammunition to boot; and in the end these two factors were enough to cripple their widespread introduction of the new rifles (they only made about a million before 45). Everyone else stuck with their tried and true bolt actions.
Popular history attributes the Assault Rifle to Germany, and as far as the name goes thats correct, I seem to recall Hitler himself came up with the phrase. But the idea of a standard infantry rifle that could fire full auto pre-dated WWI, and in practice old John Browning (such a fertile brain) laid the real foundations with his BAR in 1918. The Germans were however the first to make one a practical proposition, in the Stg.44 and even if they pinched a raft of ideas from different places, it was still a very impressive effort all things considered.
The Russians were unsurprisingly the first to respond to this, America might have had the means and an equal motive, but then they had so many other irons in the fire and demands on their resources. The good enough Garand was the enemy of anything better although though the M1 Carbine gave an indication of the future. The Germans backed up the Stg.44 with another model in 45, by which time the Russians were starting to get their reply into some sort of order even if it took them until 45 to get the first Simonovs (SKS) off the line and into the field.
From there the rest is history, as a band wagon the whole business developed a lot of momentum from 1944 onwards and hasnt slowed down much since.
On the selection Dad and Dave get to work
So we had to take our pick of a new cartridge and a new rifle, every man and his dog who had a gun to sell must have beaten a path to Lithgow in 1960, we had weapons offered to us from France, Belgium, the UK, America, Russia, Italy, Denmark, Switzerland, Sweden and Spain. There were almost as many people pedalling their pet cartridges in calibres ranging from .22 up to 8mm with all the usual suspects between.
For the ammunition salesman this wasn't to be their lucky day, with such a pressing demand neither the Army nor Government were too keen on the idea of mixing and matching. While most of the rifle makers were only too happy to rechamber their offering in what ever calibre we wanted, the decision was made early that we'd be buying a matched set.
The first winnowing of the field was based on price; this quickly separated out those manufactures that could look beyond the unit price per weapon to the size of the order and getting a foot in the door of our market. Most of the smaller firms dropped out along with a few governments who were more interested in finding a partner to share development costs than sell a product. Those disappointed included the Scandinavians, the Spanish and the Swiss; it was a bad year for countries stating with S.
The second cut was made on the basis of cartridge, this would have eliminated the Swiss and the Scandinavians anyway, but it also knocked out the French. All these offerings were chambered for rounds either too long or to large and powerful. Theres a lot of myth associated with rifle calibres, just as theres no shortage of ignorance either, even among those who should know better. If you followed my little rant before, you may have come to the understanding that a bullet is a package of energy, and what is wanted is a packet that has the right amount of power in the right form.
Some people equate diameter with power bigger being better and all that, but the truth is by playing with the component parts, you can get almost any amount of energy into what ever diameter you whish within reason. It all boils down to three things, the velocity, mass and diameter of the bullet, and of the three diameter is the least important.
Cartridge length on the other hand is not only an indication of the potential energy a cartridge can deliver (as a rule a longer case can hold more propellant), but it has important mechanical consequences for any weapon that has to use it; and all things being equal a longer cartridge is heavier. The French 7.5mm round and the 6.5mm Swedish cartridge were products of another age even though the French only adopted theirs in the late 30s it was still a full power military cartridge of the type we wanted to avoid rather than adopt. 6.5mm Swedish on the other hand was a moderate round that could well have done the job, if it hadnt been the product of the 1900s and so a bit longer than we were willing to accept. Ammunition technology had come along way in the years since 6.5x55mm had been developed and while its performance wasnt obsolete; its design was.
This left us with five rounds to choose from in six rifles. The oldest of these calibres was the .276 Pederson developed in America before WWII specifically to be the next US Military rifle cartridge. America had waited until the late fifties to put it into service as the 28-59 and made a few changes to it as well, but it was and is a very fine military round with a large following among nations who dont make their own military hardware. The second oldest was 7.92x33mm, this was round used by the original Assault Rifle. It is essentially the old German rifle round known commercially as 8mm Mauser trimmed down to a more manageable length and moderate power, often known as 7.92mmK (for Kurz the German for short).
Of the youngest three, 7.62x39mm was the Russian equivalent of the German 7.92k, it wasn't a direct copy, but for similar reasons the Russians had followed roughly the same design process on their old full bore service rifle round and had come to a similar result. 7x43mm (also known as 7mm T43 and .280 T43) was the result of 60s years worth of messing about trying to replace the .303 by the British Army, The British had been in love with 7mm ever since the Boer War and had tried several different designs in the years since, the most successful of these was the .276 British which would have replaced the .303 if WWI hadnt come along and spoiled its chances. .276 Pederson was on the cards to replace .303 before WWII, but again a world war killed of another .303 replacement. .280 T43 was the result of WWII, this time they were going to get things done, and the T43 was very like a modernised .276 Pederson trimmed down to a case length of 51mm to take advantage of modern propellants while retaining about the same performance.
The last candidate was .223 Remington, this was based on a sporting cartridge called the .222 intended for shooting small game at long distances when it wasnt on the target range; in these roles it is an excellent little round and very popular to this day at least in Australia. The reason for .223 being offered as a military cartridge was a function of its modest size and very mild recoil, in a rifle of typical military weight it was remarkably easy to shoot, but more importantly was extremely easy to control at full automatic. The two military virtues of the .223 were that you could carry a lot of ammunition and fire it all off very quickly if need be. The problem with it was likewise a consequence of its mild nature; it wasnt that impressive out the muzzle either, oh it had plenty of energy in the form of high velocity but a small and relatively light bullet. The calculations said it had enough power to do the job and the bullet was advertised as have the remarkable property of tumbling in addition to hydrostatic shock and fragmentation. Or in laymans terms the little bullet was alright until it hit something; then it went mad, spinning around and blowing up.
Unfortunately the makers had come to the wrong shop for their brand of Goanna oil; if they'd done any homework they might have noticed that the old .303 Mk. VII Ball had what were probably the nastiest wounding characteristics of its generation. It was deliberately designed to be unstable, tumbling as a matter of course thanks to the aluminium filler in the very tip of the bullet; so tumbling wasnt much of a revolutionary headline to hang a sales pitch on. Fragmentation on the other hand was something we specifically didnt want; the Army might have been getting a rude shock in Burma, but we were still orientated towards fighting conventional wars and we wanted a bullet with some ability to penetrate barriers like sandbags let alone trees etc. Telling the Australian Army that .223 depended on breaking apart for much of its target effect was probably the worst thing the salesmen could have done.
The rifles submitted broke down into 2 families where ever they might have come from. There were those that followed on from the Garand and Russian Tokarev SVT-38/40, these followed the more traditional pattern of military rifles, usually with full length stocks as the foundation of the weapon, machined rather than stamped components and so on. The second type followed the modern path pioneered by the Stg.44 and FG42 in using only the minimum of woodwork with metal forming the majority of the weapon, and stamped as often as not.
The majority of the first group were rejected before the serious competition started, the only one to make it to the trials stage was the American M-14. By and large they tended to be more transitional designs trying to update the military rifle from bolt action into a more modern self loading form. The problem here was they were caught between too stools or rather schools; the majority of them had started life with limited capacity magazines usually around 10 rounds, and were intended to be used tactically much like rifles they replaced. This wasnt unworkable by any means, as the Garand had shown in WWII such a weapon could make a substantial impact on the battlefield. But when the Assault Rifle introduced fully automatic fire into the equation, the limited magazine capacity of the original designs was insufficient and they had to be replaced by larger ones of 20 or so rounds. What had been a reasonably handy weapon by full bore bolt action standards with a 10 round magazine; became much clunkier with the weight of an extra 10 cartridges added to it.
From Australias point of view, these rifles represented second best technology. We operated across a wide range of climatic conditions at home and now overseas, which wasnt very kind to woodwork; they also tended to be heavier but more importantly more expensive to make. With a couple of exceptions they were all adoptions built around elements of existing bolt action or early semi-automatic designs to economise on tooling; this was fine for those countries who already had that tooling, but it was a wasted economy for anyone wanting to set up a new line.
Ill only mention one of the second group here, as it didnt quite make it to the next stage. The third hoop prospective rifles had to jump through was a period of technical examination at various government facilities. This was to weed out any that were just not up to an acceptable standard of reliability, accuracy and general serviceability. The Armalite Corporation from California (I think a division of Fairchild at the time?) had submitted two rifles, well really one rifle scaled to two calibres AR-10 (.276 Ped) and the AR-11 chambered for the .223 we mentioned earlier, and they were both the absolute latest thing in every respect. Most of the metalwork was aluminium including the outer jacket of the barrel, all the furniture was plastic, they were light functional and futuristic. That was the good side; on the other hand, there were also new, innovative and suspect in terms of strength. The AR-11 was only included in the process as a matter of technical interest, but there were originally great hopes for the AR-10, it seemed to offer everything we were looking for and a leap ahead at the same time. Then the AR-10 had a little accident, the barrel was a rifled steel tube wrapped in an aluminium jacket, and while it was very light, it was also the most doubtful feature of the whole thing in the view of the examiners. When at a demonstration the AR-10 cost an observer his eye when a bullet decided to come out the side of the barrel, it was quite a faux par. Armalite were offered a chance to resubmit a weapon with a steel barrel, but the available window of opportunity before the trials started was too small and they couldnt get sufficient rifles converted in time.
And then there were five
Five weapons made it through the pre trials:
- The BM-49 from Italy was a direct copy of the Stg.44 in all but the details, the Italians picked up a licence and tooling in late 45 as the Germans transitioned to the Stg.45, and used it with a few mods well into the post war period. The only real difference between the -49 and the earlier German production was in the peace-time finish and the sights, oh and being Italians they fixed up the rather utilitarian look of the Stg.44. The main difference being the sights, and all they did there was move them aft a few inches to increase the sight radius and refine the rear aperture.
- The Enfield EM-3 was a Russo-British fusion; Enfield taking the working parts of a Kalashnikov and adapting them to bull pup configuration. There was a home grown EM-2 that used a different style of action, but the EM-3 beat it hands down on reliability. This was not only the worlds first bull-pup to see service, but the first to use an optical sight as standard, all about 40 years ahead of everyone else. Our people were a bit sceptical about the new layout; but the thing that killed the EM-3 off for us was the sights, the back-up irons were just that, suitable for emergencies but not really up to scratch for regular use. The optical unit was fine while it lasted, it was very expensive and very fragile; too many EM-3s ended the trails on iron sights. Mechanically it was a improvement on the original AK in using sheet steel rather than a receiver milled from the solid, it was a little less tough, but a lot lighter and cheaper; a point the Russians appreciated themselves in due course.
- The SAFN-58 was FNs move into the Assault Rifle business and their second attempt at a self loading battle rifle. The action owed a lot to Tokarev and the Swede Eklands Ag42 rifle, although the tilting block as such was a Browning patent from the turn of the century. FNs head designer, Dieudonne Saive had surveyed the available calibres and come to the same conclusion Australia later reached that the British round was the best option, and it was hoped the SAFN-58 would compete against the EM-3 for the British Army. This might not have happened, but they picked up a lot of the rest of the world with the resulting FN-FAL being the most common alternative to the Russian AKs across most of the world.
- What do I need to say about the AK-47? A byword for reliability if not accuracy, its the bullet proof basic arm of the Russian Army. While the design has been updated since, the fundamentals still havent changed and you cant find a better rifle to put in the hands of conscript soldiers. Professionals and those with sufficient time and money tend to be a bit fussier about their weapons, wanting more accuracy and refinement, but the AK remains the default choice for much of the world.
- The M-14A1 was the final competitor in the trials, and it represents a curious compromise on the earlier type of self loading military rifle. Being a direct descendant of the Garand, the M-14 used the same action and essentially the same furniture, but combined these 1930s features with a space age use of materials, primarily in the plastic stock.
All five were put up against each other in a field trial using the Arisaka and Lee Enfield as controls, and I'll spare everyone the details as the summery of the original report is in the second post.
Winners, grinners and sore losers of bullets and bollocks
There is still a bit of controversy about Australias adoption of the FN, not that much of its worth listening too. A rather vocal minority of gun enthusiasts maintain that the FN lost the trials and AK would have been picked if it wasnt for political interference. Well if there were any political fingers in the pie, the pressure was coming from Russia and the US not little Belgium, and I dont think anyone would argue that the AK would have made a perfectly serviceable rifle for Australia, especially if wed made a few small mods to it. But the reason I dug the original report out in the first place (and post it again here) was to point out the FN did not lose the trials and the FN was the choice of the testing staff what ever the political pressures might have been.
And I dont notice too many people quibbling over the fine weapons that never even made it to the trials. The only real dud in the whole lot was the French MAS-54 and even it wasnt all that bad; or for that matter the Spanish CETME, reverse engineered from the Stg.45, developed in 7x43mm would have been a superb choice, the AG55 from Sweden would have been another great pick and thats without the Americans.
If time hadnt been so pressing a concern, theres every chance we might have adopted either the EM-3 or the Kalashnikov then spent a few years playing around with them to fit our concept of what was needed, but we simply didnt have the time to spare. No Australia made a GOOD choice in 61, and if it wasnt the best or another route could have been more advantageous, well thats a what might have been and the proper place for that sort of speculation is alternative fiction, not a reasoned discussion on historical fact.
The SLR Early days
One of the reasons the FN proposal was accepted for our new rifle, was that it could be produced largely with the machinery on hand in Lithgow. Some new tooling was required of course, but the majority of the machines were already in place and had better yet been recently refurbished. But this was looking at the factory as a whole, many of the machines were part of other production lines and getting the SLR onto the factory floor meant largely gutting Lithgows ability to make anything else for over a year and things didnt get back to normal there until about 65. In all this a certain rationalisation of products had to be made and several other projects were either seriously delayed or cancelled altogether, Ill cover all these elsewhere; but the biggest issue became machinegun production. This piece is about rifles so Ill not go into any great depth here, only to say that the last spares made for the Vickers MG were dated 1960 and the conversion of the Bren LMG to the new 7mm round were put back a long way. The original idea had been to make entirely new Brens in this calibre, but we ended up having to use the old type either conversions or in the original .303 for many years.
The first SLRs were the No.1 Mk.1, or in full 7mm Self Loading Rifle No.1 Mk.1. The Mk.1 had a few little niggles, radiant heat from the barrel tended to char the wooden fore end after a while, the flash hider threw up dust marking a firers position in dry conditions and a few other little things needed doing; but the most intractable problem was the dreaded Bam-Bam-Jam. This had been noted in the original trials and it was the one item FN never managed to rectify, almost 90% of Mk.1s as issued new would jam on the third round of an automatic burst.
I dont know how they kept it out of the papers at the time, but when our new wonder rifle was restricted to single shots it was a serious blow to all concerned. Neither FN or Lithgow could fix it and everyone else was running around like headless chooks at home; the stories were rampant in Burma, mostly furphies about how the SLR would blow up if you looked at it cross wise, or if you pulled the trigger too hard (who the hell pulls a trigger anyway) you could empty the whole magazine at once and the gun would fall apart in your hands, in other words the usual horror stories
I dont know how much this slowed down production directly but between all these concerns they was enough to prevent the SLR from reaching Burma in any numbers before the show was all but over. On the other hand those that did appear on our side of the pond went straight to the combat wombats in the various Private Armies. This was all rather annoying for the rest of us mere mortals, but at least it meant the SLR got wrung out thoroughly and the feedback to the factory was straight from the horses mouth.
The bam-bams turned out to be due to spring resonance and both the problem and fix were sorted out by a WO armourer up at Longland in Queensland. It took Lithgow almost a year to admit a humble rifle mechanic had the good oil, but when they did the fix was almost instant and kits of replacement parts were issued as quickly as they could be made. Not that it amounted to much, a new recoil spring, a few buffer washers and a new extractor and spring; an hours work for any armourer if you counted the paperwork.
By this time it was 1964 and with the feedback from Burma and all the little fixes theyd made to date, Lithgow decided to formalise the first revision to the Mk.1.
7mm Self Loading Rifle No.1 Mk.1* Slurpy goes to war
Oh the revisions let me count thy ways starting from the muzzle:
Bayonet With the Mk.1* we lost almost the last trace of the old Lee Enfield apart from the 1 web sling. I think wed stuck with the old 07 Pattern bayonet as much to save a few pence as for any practical reason; however some one didnt do their sums. Adding a 17 blade to the front of an SLR not only ruined the balance, the added leverage it provided was enough to bend the barrel or at least distort the flash hider if used too vigorously, and bayonets are supposed to be used with a little enthusiasm. The new bayonet was a bit of a mixture between the short blade from American M1 carbine and the trimmed down hilt of the old 07. The result was a simple 8 spear pointed blade, sharpened about half way along the back edge, the tang continued at full width all the way to the brazed on butt/catch. The only thing they did to the cross guard and handle was reshape the grip to save a little weight and make the scales out of some sort of cloth in bakelite stuff. I dont know why we didnt go for a wire cutter type bayonet like the Russians did, probably too expensive.
Flash hider - The original pattern had eight radial slots cut along its length, the new pattern used six slightly larger ones, the top and bottom slots were deleted and the lowest one on each side was no longer radial, being cut horizontally to push the muzzle blast sideways not down.
Barrel No real difference here, the barrel was still the same Bren barrel steel, the bore was still chromed and the profile didnt change, but they increase the pitch of the rifling a bit. This meant the bullet spun faster and Ill get to this in due course.
Fore End - The original solid wooden parts were ditched in place of riveted plywood and sheet steel. These didnt look anywhere as nice as the originals, but they were tougher, didnt char and were a lot cheaper.
Carrying Handle - Good Bye I never saw any real use for this bent wire appendage and Lithgow must have agreed with me. It disappeared with the Mk.1* never to show its face again.
Charging Handle The Trails and Mk.1 models all had a fixed charging handle, in a burst of generosity Lithgow decided we should have the folding version instead. This was a little more complicated to make, but a lot more convenient. As the handle was on the left side of the receiver, when carried by a right handed soldier the fixed handle tended to dig into your chest and get hooked up in your shirt and webbing.
Rear Sight This had been the biggest departure from the original SAFN-58, on that rifle the dust cover that protected the action had been detachable and the rear sight mounted on the lower half of the receiver just ahead of the butt. This meant there was a hinge between the foresight and the rear sight which didnt look pretty for maintaining accuracy, and the sight had been poor anyway. So for the SLR, the dust cover was redesigned, welded to the upper receiver and a new sight nicked directly from the old Rifle No.5 was stuck on the back of it.
The new set up was pleasantly ridged and the sight was a vast improvement. The only problem with the Mk.1 had been that the Battle aperture was too small for dim light conditions (the target shooters had stuck their oar in and reduced it) and there was no real windage adjustment without resorting to tools. Now the windage adjustment was neither here nor there in the field, we hadnt had this feature on a rifle since before the First World War and nothing in our training or doctrine called for it. But the Target bunnies had their way and the sight base incorporated a pretty little thumb screw and a vernier scale to let you crank the windage around. Utter waste of money in my opinion but they werent asking me. The Mk.1* dropped the windage screw and changed the battle sight aperture yet again. Where as before the fixed aperture had been a hole drilled through a ~3/8 square, now it was more like a tube and much larger in diameter. Ive heard this called a Ghost Ring sight as the rear aperture tend to vanish if your sight picture is correct, anyway it was a vast improvement, and much easier to use in low light. Oh yes and they also recalibrated it to suite the new 7mm Ball Mk.2z
Inside all the latest revisions in springs etc.
On the whole the Mk.1* was much better than the Mk.1, not only was automatic fire useable, but to my mind it fixed just about everything with the exception of the sling swivels, that had to wait another ten years.
Slouch hat, SLR and Greens An icon of an era
It was the Mk.1* that served us out the 60s and since the later revisions were only minor mods that could be retrofitted, the Mk.1* can still be found in armouries all around the country and in more than a few other countries.
In service it took us a while to appreciate our new toys, little things wed been happy to live with in other peoples weapons wed picked up, just werent thought acceptable in our own gun and the we bitched and moaned about some very petty niggles. After dealing with Arisakas and AKs that were hard pressed to hit the side of a woolly mammoth at 500 yards, we expected the SLR to out shoot the Lee Enfield, after oiling everything in sight we were surprised when the SLR jammed in the desert, it was too heavy, it wasnt strong enough, the magazines rattled in the pouches wah-wah-wah.
Well we learned not to oil them excessively, new pouches came along with webbing dividers stitched into keep the mags separated (but a couple of rags did as well), we developed the right hold to use on the range and you wouldn't credit it, but the moaning decreased first to dull roar, then a whisper and finally disappeared off the radar.
Seeing a Battalion parading down the main street at lunchtime with SLRs sloped on green clad shoulders became an all too regular occurrence during the 60s. We might have been destined for an airport rather than a troopship of old, but having two or three Bushfire or Aid To Friendly Powers deployments on the boil at any one time kept the men in slouch hats passing through the civic centres across Australia. I suppose where we struck it lucky was that just as many of these parades were marching back up the other way as battalions rotated home again, a lot browner and a little thinner to be sure.
Those of us who were Regulars (and unmarried), got to do the White Line Patrol on a fairly frequent basis in those years, two years overseas and one at home before being eligible for another tour was the official recipe. Not that it was always so neat of course, as men and units shuffled around a Battalions year of rest might only be a couple of months, I know we started working up for Mindanao almost as soon as we came home from Burma.
Wed originally gone to Burma for the duration but once the scope of that campaign had revealed itself, a more rational scheme had to be worked out. Two years was supposed to be the optimum compromise between gaining experience in the current Area of Operations and a unit getting tired. People obviously didnt always last two years but over 24 months you could still expect a majority of the original deployment to still be with the colours. However it was still a long hard slog, the first 3-6 months was getting acquainted time, the middle year was the most productive but that last 6 months was always done on the bootstraps; lets just say people tended to get a bit jumpy as the calendar wound down. It was also a bit long for those with a life outside the military; even with a long leave in the middle two years was a big ask for married men. In the end it broke down to Gongs and Paperclips (Ill explain the names in a minute) with two lengths of tour as the various Bushfire deployments wound out.
As we came to grips with this style of warfare the Army found out they all broke down into three stages that were very similar to how you fight a fire: 1) Isolate and Contain, 2) Beat it to extinction 3) Watch the ashes in case it breaks out again. And like a bushfire, the quicker you get to grips with them the easier they are to deal with; Bushfire became the general term for all deployments in Aid of a Friendly Power and it was a whole lot more appropriate than most military code names.
In military terms the first two stages of any Bushfire operation could be called High Intensity and were where the long tours really paid off in terms of a Battalions experience and increasing proficiency. But for the Low Intensity watching brief, such a long tour was a waste of time and a needless strain on a soldiers commitment. So we got a short 1 year tour to suit these situations.
Every nation has their own method of awarding medals and decorations, and for Australia the distinction between a 1 or 2 year tour overseas came down to the award of the Campaign Medal (a Gong) for a full two years or a Bar (Paperclip) for the General Service Medal on completion of a tour of 1 year or less (depending on why it was less of course).
Oh dear I've done it again, none of this has anything to do with the SLR No.1 Mk.1* in service. What was it like? is the usual question, and in regards to the SLR unremarkable (in the best sense of the word) seems the best answer. After all the gripes and crocodile tears, Slurpy did everything we asked of it; it was tough enough to keep going long after the human component of the system was shagged out, it might have been a little fussier than the AK but if you cleaned it every morning it would chew its way through anything it might see in a day except bad ammo and that will stop any gun. Compared to a .303 it might not have hit quite so hard but it wasnt anywhere near as fussy about shot placement as an Arisaka for example, and that extra pound or two made it much more controllable.
For a nation of tinkerers Ive seen remarkably few successful field modifications done to SLRs, our rule was if you want it you can have it, so long as you can produce a pukka weapon for parade. So after a bit of action (when a weapon might be legitimately lost if the brass was feeling generous), Ive seen the hacksaws and files come out on a few rifles, almost all of which later on ended up at the armours to get put back square. The most common idea was to reduce the length, some people trimmed the butt down to better suit themselves and that was alright; but those who thought it would be a great idea to cut the barrel down to the gas regulator, slap in a 30rnd Bren mag and go blasting were never happy with the result. When it comes to length in close country there is only one rule; if when on patrol your weapon feels too long, slow down.
The old armourers joke was the only spares an SLR needed on active service was a full set of sling swivels; and like most jokes it wasnt entirely true, some people taped their swivels up rather than clipped them off with a pair of bolt cutters. But adhesive tape and the tropics dont really go together, and the two little wire swivels might weight all of ounce between them so clip-clip off they came. A few other parts would wear out over time, the recoil springs could take a set but the twisted wire springs that came out in 67 fixed that once and for all, the ejector could burr and Ive been told snapped extractors were a problem though I cant remember ever having come across that myself.
Another point that gets raised from time to time; is why did the Army keep issuing 20rnd magazines long after the 30rnd Bren mags came along. Therere two answers to that, one is weight and the other is hight. Not surprisingly a 30rnd mag is about 1/3rd longer than a 20, this isnt much of a problem if youre standing up but try taking a low prone position with a 30 now imaging some bastard is shooting at you how low can you go? Well about 2 lower with a 20. No really it is easier to take a prone position with a 20rnd magazine, the early mag catches tended to wear a bit with the extra weight of the 30s too. The weight issue as it effects the weapon is marginal, certainly there are a few ounces difference (about 1/3rd more then a 20), but its hardly the end of the world. Its a different story when you look at it in conjunction with a soldiers total ammo load.
When I discuss webbing and the like later all will become clear, but as a general rule both 20 and 30 round mags have their place, if for no other reason than Bren gunners saw any 30 as their own; theyd have your 20s too in a pinch, but they took the 30s first, so having a few 20s was good insurance J
Id better add a bit on the 7x43mm here, the original loading was a 139gr FMJ bullet at 2,530fps. This was standardised as 7mm Ball Mk.1z (z indicating nitrocellulose rather the Cordite) in 1962. Ive no personal experience of Mk.1z, as it was replaced by 7mm Ball Mk.2z in 1964 and I dont think they made all that much Mk.1z or not enough to build up a stockpile, we never saw any in 65.
As Ive mentioned before the Australian Army had a real bee in its bonnet about armoured warfare and culturally accuracy was very important. The 139gr Mk.1z bullet had been designed for economy as much as anything else, it was just a simple gilding metal jacket swaged over a lead core, and it did not impress as a target projectile or as a puncher of holes in general. We didnt have anything as fancy as a Wound Ballistics Laboratory back then (still dont AFAIK), but the boffins at Maribyrnong shot a lot of pig and sheep carcases with all the rounds tested in the trials, and they felt the Mk.1z could do with a bit of work. Looking back I dont think there was much to complain about, but at the time every one was concerned about the sacrifice in power and range compared to .303.
The Mk.2z bullet didnt take long to develop, and it wasnt very original either; all they did was borrow some features from the .303 Mk.VII and Mk.8z bullets and combine them into the 7mm envelope. To improve long range performance they wanted to improve the bullet's ballistic coefficient, reduce its drag in other words; and the best way to do this was make it longer, which is why they increased the pitch of the rifling (longer bullets need more spin). To avoid increasing the weight above 139grs they added the idea of a filler inserted into the tip from the Mk.VII, and swaged the rear end into a boat tail just like the Mk.8z, they also used a slightly thicker jacket; the point being that any metal that was not lead reduced the density so allowing them to increase the volume (length in this case) for the same mass.
The boat tail decrease subsonic drag and the longer nose over the filler tip decreased drag in both sub and supersonic flight, both aiding velocity retention especially at long range. This was good for keeping the power up at extreme ranges, but by keeping the velocity higher accuracy improved too.
The only real trick here was in the filler tip, the old .303 used an aluminium cone and like with the new 7mm round it let the nose be a little longer for the same weight, but the main purpose was to shift the centre of gravity backwards. Ill spare us all my mangled physics, but the filler in the old .303 moved the CoG far enough back in relation to the centre of resistance, that the bullet was fine in air, but if it hit anything more substantial, the bullet would yaw around making quite a mess.
The new 7mm bullet did this too but added a twist; we didnt use aluminium, the filler in the 7mm Mk.2z was steel. A steel filler has to be much larger than an aluminium one for the same effect, and if terminal yaw was the only aim, aluminium would have still been the best choice. But by extending the filler tip back up the ogive into almost a second jacket, the new bullet gained the ability to really punch though hard stuff without distorting. Mk.2z is not AP, its a Ball round and you cant expect to go punching holes in tanks with it, but it will go through more of any solid than a plain Jane FMJ of the same weight and velocity.
The nasty side to this was I think unintentional, but when the bullets are made, the gilding metal jacket gets squished over the steel filler cap and the sharp end of the cap leaves a natural weak point in the jacket. There is another weak point at the cannelure grove back on the cylindrical body of the bullet, this groove is there so the mouth of the cartridge case can be crimped into the bullet and lock the whole thing together and is a regular feature of many bullet types, but Maribyrnong made the bottom of the groove a very sharp radius that really weakens the jacket. The net result is when a bullet goes into terminal yaw there is a very good chance it will break up into three big pieces and that does not leave a nice clean hole. Before anyone starts throwing the Hague Conventions around; the Mk.2z is legal just.