The Lee-Metford rifle was the second breechloader
issued for service use by the British Army
. In 1869, the first breechloader the Martini-Henry
was approved for production, but it was a single-shot rifle. Although loading a solid cartridge was much quicker than loading a muzzle-loader
such as the Enfield
rifled musket (the standard weapon up until the Martini-Henry) it was still not optimal. The use of rifle magazine
s was quickly becoming standard. The magazine, combined with smokeless powder
which had a much higher energy than black powder
, meant that it was more efficient to have a smaller bore to the shoulder arm than had been previously standard (the Enfield Rifled Musket
of 1853 had a .577 caliber
bullet). The smaller bore was possible and, indeed, necessary due to the higher energy of the new powder, and it also meant that more cartridges could be stored in a single magazine reload. So, in 1887, a new weapon was introduced for study and eventual approval by the British Army. It had a rifled
barrel based on the 'Metford Principle' and a magazine-fed bolt system designed by Lee.
William E. Metford had worked in the 1860s with rifled barrels. He made a couple of notable discoveries which were important for the new weapon. First of all, although spiraled lands and grooves had been used to impart spin to bullets before, the pitch (number of turns per fixed interval) of the spirals had either been constant down the barrel or had varied according to the whim of the maker. Metford was one of the first to actually experiment with and compare results from different rifling systems, and discovered that an increasing pitch worked most effectively. He determined that the pitch should be adjusted so as to provide a constant spin of the bullet per time period - as the bullet accelerated down the barrel due to the action of the combusting propellant, the rate of spin would remain the same, and the bullet would be most stable.
This wasn't his most important discovery. He also determined that shallow grooves and a hardened bullet performed better than deeper groves and soft lead bullets. The tendency up until that point had been to design the bullet and rifling so that the initial burn of the powder 'expanded' the bullet to fit the barrel, forcing soft lead into the grooves to grip them and impart spin. Metford discovered that a hardened surface on the bullet would gain spin properly from even extremely shallow (0.004 inches) depth grooves. This had the happy effect of reducing the fouling of the grooves by propellant or (in his original tests) wadding - he was using a black powder muzzle-loader.
In any case, the Lee-Metford contained a shallow rifling and was meant to be used with a hardened bullet. At the back, it was breeched with a bolt-action mechanism which cocked on locking and was secured by rear lugs. This bolt feed and extraction was fed from a box magazine, and was designed by James P. Lee. It would later make an appearance in perhaps the most famous British shoulder arm, the Lee-Enfield rifle.
The Lee-Metford was a very accurate weapon, but it had a problem which was devastating for a military shoulder arm. It had poor stopping power at medium range. This was discovered the hard way in Chitral, when an expedition of the British Colonial Forces was engaged by local combatants and found that despite numerous hits from Lee-Metfords at medium range, their opponents were able to continue to fight or run away. Many anecdotes tell of wounded Pathans and other fighters entering British camps to receive medical attention with multiple gunshot wounds from Lee-Metfords which, nevertheless, did not prevent them from walking or using their limbs.
A survey showed that hits from the Lee-Metford at close range (under 100 feet) tended to cause very damaging wounds, capable of 'pulverizing' bone if it was hit. From 200 to perhaps 800 yards, however, the Lee-Metford bullet tended to drill very neat holes through flesh or bone, causing a minimum of inflammation, shock and damage. If the bullet hit at longer ranges, it once more would produce ugly wounds. This was determined to be due to the ballistics of the bullet. At close range, the relatively low mass bullet retained enough energy to cause severe hydrostatic shock. At medium range, however, the still-accurate bullet had lost enough energy to penetrate without the shock effect; at longer ranges, the bullet had begun to tumble, and would typically transfer much more of its energy to the target even if that energy total was lower.
As a result, the Dum-Dum Bullet was invented in India and rushed into use by local troops. Similar designs were adopted back in England, but it was almost too late, for around 1902 the Lee-Enfield rifle would take over. This rifle and bullet, built to take full advantage of the new smokeless powder, was so effective that it would serve Britain through not one but both World Wars. It owed its design to the Lee-Metford; the primary difference was a change in the rifling design to one which did not suffer erosion as badly from the cordite propellant. When the Lee-Metford was introduced, it used a black powder cartridge; the switch to cordite-loaded ones resulted in higher barrel pressures and erosion problems. W. Broadfoot, writing in Edinburgh magazine in 1898, stated that
[I]t is fair to say that, as a nation, we have a trustworthy arm in the .303 Lee-Metford. Its ammunition, however, requires improvement; the cordite is ruinous to the interior of the barrel unless the rifle is carefully cleaned after use, and that is generally impossible in war; the bullet as at present turned out in England is untrustworthy, shock having been somewhat sacrificed for penetration, though by filing the point this may in a degree be remedied; but thereby another danger is incurred, for when the point is flattened the bullets often jam, and do not truly enter the barrel from the magazine.
The Lee-Metford served as the interim service weapon between the muzzle-loading single-shot rifle and the 'modern' bolt action
weapons of the early 20th century. With an 8 or 10-round magazine and a bolt action, it was almost identical to its successors; it wanted only for final tweaking of its combat performance to make of it a sturdy weapon. It can be identified by its shape - very similar to its successor the SMLE
, a 'classic' bolt action with round knobbed bolt and angled magazine. Most importantly, Lee-Metfords were engraved on the metal where stock met action with Queen Victoria
's coat of arms and "V.R." (Victoria Regina
) as well as their year of manufacture and (I believe) the location of such. Mark II versions would have a 'II' stamped there as well. Mark I and Mark I* versions might or might not have their versions inscribed.
Memoir of William Metford - http://www.lrml.org/historical/metford/memoir06.htm
"The Lee-Metford Rifle", Edinburgh Magazine, June 1898, p. 831.