The saga of my dodgy bitsa SMLE

This is the story of my .303″ No.1 Mk.III Short Magazine Lee Enfield – Trigger’s Broom, as I now call it – and how a simple internet sale landed me with a rifle that was dangerous to shoot and cost more than half its value to repair.

I shall not name the registered firearms dealer who admitted to assembling my rifle, which I did not buy directly from him, but who immediately offered to fix it at his cost. However, he was advertising ‘Christmas special’ Lee Enfield rifles, described as new builds, on a popular eBay-style gun website. Throughout I refer to him as “[a well known historic rifle dealer].”

A simple internet sale

In May this year, on a shooting forum I used to use, someone advertised his Short Magazine Lee Enfield for sale. The price was reasonable and the rifle looked good in the photos. Its key selling points were its as-new condition barrel and its windage adjustable backsight. Perhaps unwisely, I agreed to buy the rifle on the basis of the photos in the advert and the seller shipped it to my RFD.

I then test fired it. These are the cases, of factory loaded S&B .303″, from that test firing.

SMLE brass from my dodgy rifle

The five S&B .303″ cases from my SMLE. On the left is a once-fired PPU case from my No.4, a known good rifle, for comparison. Note the crack on the far-right-hand-side case above the web.

I took the SMLE straight back to my RFD, Fultons of Bisley. After convincing them that the rifle needed gauging (“S&B is well known for its short case life”), they did so – and discovered it would close with ease over the ‘no go’ headspace gauge. This rifle was on the brink of suffering a case head separation.

Fultons tried swapping the bolt head, several times. No joy: the rifle still wouldn’t gauge correctly. I had to lodge the SMLE with them while they figured out what was wrong with it. They said it would probably need a new bolt, which in turn would need the rifle to be reproofed.

In the meantime I contacted the seller, a private individual. I asked him what he was doing selling a rifle that was plainly not safe to fire. He, a collector, said he was “genuinely sorry” and had only used the rifle “a couple of times”, adding: “I never noticed anything wrong with the empties” – and giving the name of the gunsmith he bought the SMLE from.

The proof is in the pudding

Separately, I contacted the London Proof House to ask whether selling a rifle with grossly excessive headspace amounted to selling a rifle out of proof, which is a criminal offence. The Proof Master, rightly suspecting there was more to this question than met the eye, asked for the full story; I told him everything detailed above.

He replied: “The Proof marks [on the rifle] show that the barrel was submitted for Proof in 1999 but our computer records show that the action was last submitted in 2001 by Fultons. If the current barrel had been fitted at the time of submission in 2001 then a re-Proof mark and date stamp would have been applied.

“This,” the proof master continued, “would suggest that the rifle has therefore been assembled (at some point and by persons unknown) using previously tested components and not re-submitted subsequently.”

By now the seller had replied to my questions about the SMLE’s condition: “Rifle is as is when purchased from [a well known historic rifle dealer].”

Assembled, bought and sold

The seller had bought the SMLE from [a well known historic rifle dealer] back in 2008. “The E-mails include some spiel about it being covered in Cosmo when he got it,” the seller told me.

For a rifle whose receiver was proofed in 2001, and whose barrel was proofed separately in 1999, to be covered in Cosmoline preservative grease – used by the wartime small arms factories to preserve weapons in long term storage or transit – would be highly unusual.

My SMLE’s receiver was dated 1918 and had been made at the London Small Arms factory. In 1931 it had been through Factory Thorough Repair at Ishapore, in India. For the rifle to have been sat in Cosmoline since then, through a world war and 60 years of civilian ownership – the latter including a trip to the proof house, which involves a test firing and gauging – is simply not believable.

Speaking of proof, by now Fultons had fitted a new bolt and bolt head to the rifle – both components being the longest they had in stock – and sent it to proof. It failed the post-firing gauging check and so went back to Fultons.

Talking to the gunsmith

My seller called [a well known historic rifle dealer] and had a go at him for the state of the rifle, more or less on my behalf, though I hadn’t asked him to do this. In response [a well known historic rifle dealer] asked if I could phone him. So, on 19th June 2015, I did.

From my written notes of our conversation I see that [a well known historic rifle dealer] said he bought the rifle from Fultons in 2007. My seller said he bought it from [a well known historic rifle dealer] in 2008, so it spent about a year in [a well known historic rifle dealer]’s charge.

I asked him directly, “did you rebarrel the rifle?” He replied that he bought it from Fultons as a complete unit. I asked again: “Did it come with that South African barrel on it?”

To which he responded he couldn’t remember the details of every single rifle that came through.

At this point I told him the proof house had confirmed to me that the barrel and receiver were proofed at different times, though I didn’t pass on the proof master’s opinion on how that might have happened. This caused [a well known historic rifle dealer] to, as I summarised in my written notes, “prevaricate”, making a defamatory accusation against another dealer which I shall not repeat here – though he later contradicted that accusation.

[A well known historic rifle dealer] emphasised that my seller was not at fault and said he would call Fultons. Shortly later he rang back and said Fultons would send him the bolt for welding work to be carried out on the bolt locking lugs, to extend them and close the rifle’s headspace up.

Proof. Counter-proof. Disproof

Sure enough, the next time I saw my SMLE the bolt had had significant work done to it. The rear of the locking lugs had been built up with weld.

An SMLE bolt, file picture. The welding work on mine took place at the two circled areas, which are the bearing faces of the locking lugs.

An SMLE bolt, file picture. The welding work on mine took place at the two circled areas, which are the bearing faces of the locking lugs.

In addition, a thin washer had been very skilfully welded on the front of the bolt face and then made good. Unless you knew where to look and what you were looking for, it was almost unnoticeable. This added another few thou onto the bolt’s overall length along with the lug welding work, helping to close up the excess headspace.

An experienced craftsman, after inspecting the bolt, said to me that the work on the lugs looked to him like MIG weld, though I had been assured by [a well known historic rifles dealer] that he would use a laser-based process. MIG welding heats the workpiece, which made me worried. If the heating had been enough to destroy the thin surface hardening on the locking lugs then the bolt – and by extension, the rest of the rifle – would be left useless. if the surface hardening had gone then every shot fired would compress the locking lugs more and more – similar to shaping a piece of metal by hammering it – and opening up the headspace dramatically with each round. Within a few shots I’d be back to square 1.

Nevertheless, the rifle was back in my hands and had managed to pass proof. Had it worked?

Re-gauged – and the inevitable happens

After firing about 100rds or so I took the rifle back to Fultons, as they had advised when I picked it up.

fig 11 smle

This was the last group I fired before taking it to them. 5 rounds fired at 300yds, prone unsupported. Target is the UK standard Figure 11.

Fultons gauged the rifle again. It closed with ease over the 0.074″ headspace gauge: another failure. At this stage my options were to have the rifle deactivated or to replace the bolt and receiver. I opted for the latter.

Epilogue

I now have a complete, functional SMLE, which is what I set out to buy 8 months ago. However, I ended up paying half the rifle’s market value again for the new receiver and yet another proof firing of the barrel.

The original receiver was always a bit sticky when the bolt was moved, compared to the usual butter-smooth Enfield action, which suggests to me that it might have been twisted at some point in the past – perhaps during a barrel change. I am a loss to understand how it could have been assembled into a working rifle, much less sold on a clean conscience.

What damns the original receiver for me is that it was never proofed as a complete unit – something that Fultons was adamant on doing every time my SMLE had work done to the critical components, to their credit.

While proof is a very crude process, it is the only cost-effective fault detection process for complete firearms that is currently available to the ordinary shooter. While other industries make extensive use of non-destructive testing techniques, particularly the aerospace industry, as far as UKSN’s author knows there is no commercial provider who will analyse a complete firearm for potentially lethal flaws or faults at a reasonable price.

I have not named the dealer who assembled the rifle, though I have my notes of our phone conversations about the rifle. It sticks out to me that although I did not buy the SMLE from him, he was quite ready to carry out remedial work to solve the dangerous condition it was in at his cost. I question whether his use of pre-proofed components, not previously proofed together, is a safe thing to do – particularly as the rifle was well outside its safe headspace limits.

Caveat emptor.

The SMLE at the top of this post is a file photo from Wikipedia, not my own rifle.

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3 thoughts on “The saga of my dodgy bitsa SMLE

  1. terry

    I feel I must point out however that headspac alone is NOT a test of safety. In most cases it will only affect case life. Having said that in this case it was an indicator of worse to come.

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    1. Gaz Corfield Post author

      After all the welding work it went back to proof before it was returned to me. I think it failed again and had to have more welding done but frankly I lost count of how many times it went through London in that six week period.

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