The Lee–Metfordrifle (a.k.a. Magazine Lee–Metford, abbreviated MLM) was a bolt-actionBritish army service rifle, combining James Paris Lee‘s rear-locking bolt system and detachable magazine with an innovative seven groove rifled barrel designed by William Ellis Metford. It replaced the Martini–Henry rifle in 1888, following nine years of development and trials, but remained in service for only a short time until replaced by the similar Lee–Enfield.
Lee’s bolt action mechanism was a great improvement over other designs of the day:
– The rear-mounted lugs placed the operating handle much closer to the rifleman, over the trigger. This made it much quicker to operate than other, forward-mounted lug designs which forced the rifleman to move his hand forward to operate the bolt. It also enabled the rifleman to operate the trigger with his middle finger while still holding the bolt between thumb and index finger.
– The bolt’s distance of travel was identical with the length of the cartridge, whereas in forward mounted lug designs bolt travel was cartridge length plus lug length. This also meant the firer did not have to lift his face out of the way when drawing back the bolt.
– The bolt lift was 60 degrees compared to the 90 degree rotation of some French and Mauser-style actions, both speedier and also meaning the rifleman did not lose the sight picture when the bolt handle was in the open position.
In addition Lee introduced a superior detachable box magazine to replace the integral magazines in use with most repeaters, and this magazine offered greater capacity than the competing Mannlicher design. Metford’s polygonal rifling was adopted to reduce fouling from powder residue building up in the barrel, and to make cleaning easier.
In spite of its many advantageous features, the Lee–Metford was something of an anachronism, due to its use of a black powder–loaded cartridge. By the time of the rifle’s introduction, rifle design had moved on to using small-calibre smokeless powder cartridges, which allowed bullets to be propelled at much higher velocities without as much smoke or residue. The .303 ammunition designed for the rifle was in fact originally intended to be loaded with a smokeless propellant, but as a result of protracted development, selection of a smokeless propellant was delayed, forcing the British to rely on black powder in the interim. By the time Cordite cartridges were available, it was found that they were wholly unsuited for use with the shallow Metford rifling, which would wear out and render barrels unusable after approximately 6,000 rounds, compared to the 10,000 rounds that the deeper, square-cut Enfield rifling pattern rifles could deliver. The Lee rifles fitted with Enfield barrels became known as Lee Enfields. Regardless of the shortfalls brought about by the use of black powder, the Lee–Metford went through several revisions during its short service life, with the principal changes being to the magazine (from eight-round single stack to ten-round staggered), sights, and safety. Starting in 1895, the Lee–Metford started to be phased out in favor of the Lee–Enfield for the reasons outlined above, involving a change to Enfield barrels and sights adjusted for the flatter trajectory enabled by the smokeless propellant.
Replacement of the Lee–Metford rifles took several years to achieve, and they were still in service in some units during the Second Boer War in 1899. British troops with the Lee–Metford and even the Lee–Enfield had a disadvantage to the Mauser Model 1895-equipped Boer troops, since the latter were superior in terms of long-range accuracy. The German-made Mauser had a firing range exceeding 2,000 yards; experienced shooters could achieve excellent long-range accuracy.
Poor sighting-in and quality control at the factory level resulted in British rifles being woefully inaccurate at ranges greater than 400 yards (370 m). Nonetheless, captured Lee–Metford rifles became the primary weapon for the Boers too when their Mauser ammunition ran out.
The British considered an entirely new rifle, the Pattern 1913 Enfield, based upon a modified Mauser design, but its development was cut short by the First World War and the eminently adaptable Lee–Enfield served for another half century.
In British service the Lee–Metford was also upgraded to the standards of later rifle patterns (e.g. to charger loading and Short Rifle, the SMLE pattern), though the barrel was almost always switched to one with Enfield pattern rifling. The Lee–Metford was produced commercially and used by civilian target shooters until the outbreak of World War I, as it was considered to be inherently more accurate than the Enfield pattern of rifling. In this context, barrels and boltheads could be replaced as frequently as the owner wished, or could afford. It remained a reserve arm in many parts of the British Empire into WWII, even being issued to the New Zealand Home Guard and the Australian Volunteer Defence Corps until more modern rifles could be obtained. The Lee–Metford is still in ceremonial use with the Atholl Highlanders.