Mention Enfield rifles to a fellow shooter or military historian and chances are the first thing they’ll mention is either the familiar Lee-Enfield family of service rifles or the classic Pattern 1853 Enfield Rifle-Musket, if their interests run that far back.
These are, of course, the most famous rifles produced by the now-defunct Royal Small Arms Factory (RSAF) once located at Enfield Lock in the UK, but the factory was responsible for a number of other military rifle designs, including the widely used but often overlooked Pattern 1914 rifle.
The Pattern 1914 (P’14) had its beginnings in the Boer War of 1899-1902. British soldiers, coming under long-range sniper fire from Boer guerrillas armed with Mauser rifles firing 7x57mm cartridges with high-velocity projectiles, found that their .303 calibre Lee-Enfield rifles didn’t have the same ranged accuracy to counter the Boer snipers.
The reasons behind this were partly due to the Lee’s rear-locking cock-on-closing action, which was capable of high rates of fire but not quite as accurate at longer ranges, and also to do with the .303 Mk II cartridge then in use, which had a 215gr lead projectile with a rounded nose. While it was not as accurate at long range as the Boer ammunition, it was very effective at ranges shorter than the ones employed by Boer snipers.
Building on this experience, the .303 cartridge was redesigned to incorporate the spitzer-style projectile familiar to military rifle shooters today, resulting in the .303 Mk VII cartridge of 1910. The Lee-Enfield was redesigned into something a bit more convenient and suitable for 20th Century warfare — the Short Magazine Lee-Enfield rifle, introduced in 1907.
Someone in the War Department (as it was in those days) also thought it was time to develop a completely new rifle and cartridge. The Mauser designs being used by most other ‘civilised’ countries at the time had a cartridge that was a smaller calibre, higher velocity and, theoretically, more inherently accurate. The rifles were generally easier to produce than the well-made but somewhat complicated SMLE — ask any service rifle shooter how many small, fiddly screws, springs and assorted bits and pieces are actually in a Lee-Enfield!
The idea was kicked around for nearly a decade after the Boer War (most people were perfectly happy with the Lee-Enfield rifle, after all) until 1912 when RSAF Enfield were tasked with producing a rifle incorporating some of the suggested improvements to the existing service rifle; namely a Mauser-style locking bolt-action, a one-piece wooden stock, a heavier barrel, a longer sighting radius, flip-up rear aperture sights and, finally, chambered for a new .276 calibre high-velocity, flat-trajectory cartridge.
The new rifle (which also had an internal five-round magazine, as opposed to the SMLE’s 10-round detachable box magazine) was designated the Pattern 1913 and just over 1250 were produced by RSAF Enfield for infantry trials between 1912 and 1913.
The rifles also featured a new bayonet, the Pattern 1913, which looked identical to the Pattern 07 used by the SMLE but had a different size mounting ring to go over the new rifle’s barrel and would not interchange as a result. They have two grooves cut into the handguards to differentiate them from SMLE bayonets.
Inconveniently, WWI broke out the following year, and plans to adopt the .276 Enfield cartridge were hastily shelved. The Pattern 1913 rifle was converted to use the standard .303 Mk VII cartridge and re-designated the Rifle, Magazine, Pattern 1914, Mk I.
Vickers Ltd was contracted in 1915 to produce 100,000 Pattern 1914 rifles with bayonets, at a cost of £5 17s 8d (about $905 today) per combined rifle and bayonet unit, producing around 1500 rifles per week.
Unfortunately, Vickers was somewhat preoccupied with cranking out Vickers machine-guns as fast as they could and were only able to make a handful of P’14 rifles. Similarly, the other British military small arms manufacturers — RSAF, BSA and London Small Arms — were too busy making SMLEs.
At the time, there was a chronic shortage of rifles in the UK and neither the Lithgow Small Arms Factory in Australia or the Ishapore Rifle Factory in India were in a position to mass-produce and then ship the P’14 back to England with any sort of expediency, so the British looked across the Atlantic to the USA, a friendly country which had a modern, well-established arms-making industry, and could ship the finished product to the UK fairly quickly (subject to German U-boat attacks, of course).
Remington and Winchester were eventually contracted to produce the P’14 rifles and bayonet combinations at a cost of approximately $US30 ($A1100 today) each, and the first American-produced P’14 rifles arrived in the UK in early 1916.
Remington operated a second manufacturing plant at Eddystone in Pennsylvania, and as such the US-produced rifles were designated Mark I E, Mark I W or Mark I R, depending on whether the rifle was manufactured by Eddystone, Winchester or Remington respectively.
The reason for differentiating between the manufacturers was that the parts from one manufacturer did not generally interchange with those from another (parts from rifles made by the same manufacturer were not reliably interchangeable, either); thus parts from a Winchester-made P’14 could not necessarily interchange with those from a Remington-made rifle, for example.
As it was, Britain needed all the rifles it could get, and improvements were made to the design (notably lengthening the bolt’s front locking lug) and production was upgraded to the new Mark I* standard.
By the time all the production issues had been sorted out, SMLE production had caught up to demand and the P’14 rifle was relegated to use as a ‘second-line’ rifle. However, it was very accurate and suited use as a sniper rifle so approximately 2000 Winchester-made P’14 rifles were subsequently fitted with telescopic sights and designated Pattern 1914 Mk I* W (T).
When the US entered WWI in late 1917, they faced a shortage of Springfield M1903 rifles to arm their troops with so they redesigned the P’14 for the .30-06 cartridge and called it the United States Rifle, Caliber. 30, Model of 1917.
Generally known as the M1917 Enfield, it issued them alongside the M1903 Springfield.
It looked almost identical to the P’14 rifle – it even used the same bayonet – but the production design changes for US service had the advantage of making it easier and cheaper to produce. Additionally, all parts were interchangeable. The cost dropped to $US25 ($A695 today) per rifle.
Approximately 1,236,000 P’14 rifles were made between 1915 and 1917 by Vickers, Remington and Winchester, while approx 2,344,000 M1917 Enfield rifles were made by the US from 1917-19.
After WWI, most of the P’14 rifles in British service were sold off, put in storage or, more commonly, shipped off to various parts of the Empire, including Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India, and Malaya.
In the 1920s the rifles retained in British service were redesignated Rifle No. 3 Mk 1 and Rifle No. 3 Mk 1 (T) for the sniper rifle. This was part of the nomenclature change in British service arms, which has been confusing collectors and shooters ever since; the SMLE Mk III was designated Rifle No. 1 Mk 3 and the two rifles are often mixed up.
When WWII started in 1939 Britain, again in dire need of rifles, opened the stores and refurbished their stocks of P’14 rifles, removing the long-range dial sights. The configuration is referred to as Weedon Repair Standard after the Weedon Royal Ordnance Depot where much of the refurbishment work was done.
The P’14 was primarily issued to reserve units and the Home Guard, giving the rifle a common association with Dad’s Army, but the sniper variants were issued to both British and Commonwealth front-line units and gave excellent service in that role.
Just to make things confusing, the British acquired M1917 Enfield rifles from the USA, rifles that were externally identical to the British firearm but chambered in .30-06. To solve this problem, the M1917 Enfield rifles were used almost exclusively for Home Guard-based duties in the UK and had a red band painted on the stock to warn the user that the rifle was chambered for a non-standard cartridge.
The Model 1917 was used as a reserve arm by the US during WWII, notably being issued to Philippine Commonwealth Army and Philippine Constabulary in the lead-up to WWII as well.
The P’14 was declared obsolete in 1947 and many of the P’14 and M1917 rifles ended up on the surplus market. Many were sporterised when new sporting rifles were an unattainable luxury for most shooters. A lot of M1917 actions have been rebarrelled into other cartridges over the years, and they were an immensely popular action as project rifles and affordable hunting rifles.
As a result, P’14 and M1917 Enfield rifles that have survived in as-issued configuration are now highly sought after by service rifle shooters and collectors alike.
The P’14 is a very accurate rifle with a solid action, firing a familiar and popular cartridge, and the fact that nearly all existing examples date from WWI and are still highly sought after for competition shooting gives some idea how good they are.
M1917 rifles are somewhat less common in Australia; the easiest way to distinguish them from the P’14 is that the M1917 is stamped “US Model 1917” on the receiver ring and is, of course, chambered for a different cartridge.
One of the appealing elements of the P’14/M1917 rifles for hunters who also appreciate history is they are easy to fit with a scope mount without gunsmithing, by removing the rear flip-up sights and replacing them with an aftermarket mount secured to the same screw holes.
The downside to this is the charger clip can no longer be used to load the rifle, but the upside is a telescopic sight can be mounted without damaging the rifle or its historical value, which makes it a lot more useful for many hunters, since so few people hunt with iron sights anymore.
It should be noted that the Pattern 1914 rifle is not, strictly speaking, a Lee-Enfield. Despite being designed by RSAF Enfield and chambered for the same cartridge, the two rifles are otherwise unrelated— the P’14 uses a variant of the stronger Mauser bolt-action, whereas the Lee-Enfield rifles use a faster-operating and somewhat simpler Lee bolt-action. Parts (with the exception of minor things like swivel screws), including the bayonets, are not interchangeable between the two designs.
For a gun that was basically pulled into service at the last minute as a back-up option more than a century ago, the Pattern 1914 and M1917 Enfield rifles proved themselves to be accurate, reliable, rugged, capable and enduring guns which are still taking game and winning medals today. In fact, the M1917 Enfield is still in service with the Danish Sirius Dog Sled Patrol, who operate in remote parts of Greenland in extreme conditions for months at a time and need a reliable, proven rifle which will function in Arctic conditions.
Anyone interested in finding out more about the Pattern 1914 and M1917 Enfield rifles is well advised to obtain a copy of Ian Skennerton’s Small Arms Identification Series No. 10: .303 Pattern 1914 Rifle & Sniping Variants, which was also an invaluable source of information for this article.
The Remington Historical Society also has an informative article on Pattern 1914 and M1917 Enfield production in America, which goes into detail of rifles produced at each manufacturer along with the costs of each gun: https://www.remingtonsociety.org/the-story-of-eddystone/