|Cartridge||.303 British||Overall Length||44.5″|
|Action||Rotation Bolt||Barrel Length||25.2″|
|Magazine||10rnds Charger Fed||Weight||8.8lbs|
Long before the No.4 Mk I, Britain had experimented with mounting an aperture sight on the Lee-Enfield No.1 Mk III pattern rifle. These unusual rifles have something of a mysterious service history but represent a missing link in SMLE development.
The primary distinguishing feature of the Lee-Enfield Mk.V rifle is its rear aperture sight. If we look back to is obvious that Britain had settled on the rear aperture sight long before WWI. As a matter of fact modifications to the Short, Magazine Lee-Enfield were being tested as early as 1911. Experiments with the P13, the adoption of the P14, along with Canada’s experience with the failed Ross rifles ultimately reinforced the British love of their Short, Magazine Lee-Enfields. The rear locking rifle was strong enough and very robust, its .303 ammunition was seen as more adaptable to special needs such as incendiary or tracer rounds and had performed well on the battlefield. But the P14 and the Ross rifles had at least one feature that was glaringly superior: the sights.
The Ross Mk.III and Pattern 14 rifles both shared two traits that improved their sighting. First, their front and rear sights were as far from each other as possible. The foresight was mounted at the front of the barrel and the rear sat on the back of the receiver, right in front of the shooters face. The SMLE rifles had their rear sights mounted in front of the receiver, on the barrel. This means the SMLE had a shorter sight radius (the distance between the front and rear sights). A longer sight radius makes errors in alignment easier to see and fix, allowing for finer control of the sight picture and better aim. Second, the Ross and P14 used a “peep hole” for their rear sights. This aperture sight requires the shooter to simply center the tip of the front sight within the circle of the rear sight. As it happens, this is an incredibly natural process for the human mind and can be done rapidly and with remarkable precision. This means both improved accuracy and faster target acquisition. In a contest between a barrel mounted leaf and a receiver mounted aperture, the latter was clearly superior.
The British military sought to merge the proven SMLE rifle with the improved sights. By 1921 this had evolved into several designs, all roughly the same but with minor variations in the actual rear sight. The common feature was that these rifles were, in essence, Lee-Enfield No.1 Mk.III patterns with the rear leaf sight removed from the barrel and an adjustable rear aperture mounted on the receiver. These were sent to the parade grounds and cavalry for trials. The best pattern was sent on for limited production in 1922.
The Lee-Enfield Mk.V was manufactured by R.S.A.F. Enfield alone in 1922, 1923, and 1924 with a total production of roughly 20,000 rifles. Like the No.1 Mk.III* it lacked a volley sight and had the wire loop in place of the sling swivel at the front of magazine well. It featured the simplified cocking piece as well. Like the No.1 Mk.III it retained a magazine cut-off, although the Mk.V’s has no spotting hole. The piling swivel was kept, attached to the forward barrel band (our pictured example no longer retains this piece). A forward barrel band was wrapped over and attached to the rear of the nosecap to reinforce the rifle for use with the standard pattern 1907 bayonet. The nosecap screw was slotted for the width of a coin for easy removal. The safety lever on the left side of the receiver was slightly modified with a unique angular groove pattern. There are all marked “V” for the Mk.V. The two piece handguard was extended from the nosecap to the receiver, omitting the barrel mounted leaf sight.
Mk.V rear sights feature two apertures, set at a 90 degree angle to one another on a tilting framework. Laid forward, the fixed rear sight is appropriate for ranges under 200 yards. Flipped up, the adjustable aperture can be set between 200 and 1,400 yards. Early sights have been observed up to 1,500 yards. These early sights also featured shallower notches and weaker springs and were prone to “jumping” off their settings when fired.
Operation of the Mk.V is essentially the same as the older Mk.III. Ten rounds are fed into the staggered detachable box magazine from two 5-round chargers. There is a magazine release catch inside the trigger guard, but this was provided for cleaning and not reloading. The rear locking bolt cocks on close. The safety is only cosmetically different and can be thumbed rearward to lock the cocking piece and prevent discharge. The only true difference is that sighting is now taken through an aperture, centering the tip of the front sight in the circle.
Having handled and fired the Lee-Enfield Mk.V I can say that I find it slightly superior to its precursors. While I’m sure the British military agreed with my assessment the rifle was never adopted. There were some concerns (later seen again in the No.5 Mk.I) about the rifle holding zero after repeated use but the primary failure was a matter of cost. The military wanted a means to convert their existing stock of No.1 Mk.III rifles into reliable aperture sight configurations for less than the cost of new guns. It was found that the process could either be weak or expensive, but could not manage both strong and cheap. Nearly twenty years later, during WWII, the Lee-Enfield finally found its aperture sight as the No.4 Mk.I rifle with its manufacturing improvements was put into service.
Service life for the Mk.V is rife with speculation. Since the pattern was ultimately never adopted roughly 20,000 units were filed away in reserves or given out for training. But the guns were certainly dusted off for World War Two. Various sources cite trips to India or the Middle East, but we were unable to confirm any of these. In most inventory lists the rifles seem to have been noted under the same heading as the Mk.III pattern, making them harder still to track. What little evidence we did find were some photos of Polish Free Forces sailors with some donated Mk.V rifles. A Vietcong propaganda photo also shows a young soldier with a Mk.V rifles, so some did manage the trip to Asia. Most known instances of the Mk.V in use are with the British Home Guard. They can be seen in several Pathe films from the era.
It appears a fair many were lost to war, wherever they were ultimately issued, as they are quite uncommon in the collectors market. Most that are encountered seem to suggest they were popular with hunters as a great many known have been cut down or otherwise modified. Restoring one to its original condition can be a rewarding challenge. If you have the chance to pick one up for a reasonable price they are an incredibly find for a British collector.