by Chris Redlich
As the headline suggests this isn’t about an old clunker .303-calibre rifle. I own a fully wooden Short Magazine Lee-Enfield (SMLE) No.1 MkIII rifle but this is an overview of a rifle I specifically bought for the purpose of deer hunting more than a decade ago. I’d just started my pursuit of deer and the property I organised to hunt on was home to a healthy population of fallow deer. This was an estate that charged to hunt and one of the conditions was the hunter must have a rifle of no less than .270 calibre. Fair enough, but as I only had a .243 worthy of using on deer I’d better find myself something a little heavier to add to the safe.
In the beginning
Browsing through a gunshop one Saturday morning, a secondhand rifle immediately caught my eye. At a glance it looked like all the other timber-stocked hunting rifles beside it. What stood out was the 10-shot magazine consistent with an SMLE, affectionately pronounced ‘Smelly’ .303 calibre rifle. On inspection it had a nice timber sporting stock of typical two-piece design with a Monte Carlo rear and raised cheekpiece, including recoil pad, black fore-end tip with white line spacers, pistol grip cap and hand-cut chequering. I was impressed.
This was a genuine .303 sporting rifle not one of the usual cut-down full wood versions and felt much nicer to shoulder than its military brother. If somebody asked what kind of timber the furniture was made of I wouldn’t know, at a guess beechwood or possibly English walnut as these were common on English-made stocks at the time. It came with Hilver scope rings and bridge mount drilled and tapped to the top of the receiver. Apparently these mounts were a standard fit for this rifle. In the rings sat an old battered Tasco scope which I’m sure was added to make the rifle more complete but it wasn’t fit for use. A deposit was paid, I applied for a permit then returned to pick up my new hunting rifle.
A little history
My SMLE is built on the No.4 MkI action, the No.4 receiver slightly beefed up compared to my old No.1 MkIII action. This is evident by the distinct square-shaped left-hand side of the receiver, instead of the smaller No.1 cylindrical style. These actions were regarded as stronger and later successfully chambered for the higher pressure 7.62x51 NATO cartridge. No.4 sniping rifles in 7.62mm were used by the British Army for decades after World War II.
From the limited information available I discovered the Whitworth Rifle Company were under the corporate umbrella of Parker-Hale. A surplus of No.4 rifles at the end of WWII meant a market for cheaper hunting rifles was possible by converting these military barrelled actions into sporters. Parker-Hale made fine sporting rifles based on a Mauser M98 design. So as not to confuse Parker-Hale rifles with SMLE sporters, Whitworth hunting rifles came into being. Although the receiver is stamped with the year 1943 as manufacture, the complete rifle package was probably made in the 1960s or ’70s.
My No.4 sporter is compact and well balanced with the shorter 510mm barrel. Stamped along the top of the barrel is ‘Whitworth Rifle Company Manchester England’ and because it’s a cut-down version of the military barrel there’s no change to the standard left-hand twist of one in 10^. I removed the stock and was surprised to find the previous owner had the receiver epoxy-bedded to the stock and the barrel floated, probably a contributing factor to the superb accuracy of this old .303. The sales assistant did mention the rifle was used for target shooting and the modifications reflected that.
I ditched the awful scope and mounted a Pecar 6x with single fine cross-hairs to the Hilver mounts. I wasn’t happy with the high mounting position due to the thickness of the bridge mount and height of the rings so had the receiver drilled and tapped, with a Millet base fastened to it and I sat the Pecar in a pair of ultra-low Leupold rings. German Pecar riflescopes were nice in their day but unspectacular when compared to modern scopes. But with a steel tube it’s a great match for the steel on the No.4 and has never let me down.
In the early days I put up with the original heavy two-stage trigger and became used to it. After acquiring other hunting rifles with lighter adjustable triggers I grew frustrated with the pull weight and creep of the trigger, and after some research and advice have succeeded in making it a lighter let-off by filing and polishing the trigger sears and cocking piece on the bolt. It’s recommended a gunsmith do this as two-stage triggers for some may take getting used to.
Loads for the rifle have been easy and I’ve stuck with 150gr projectiles. The 150gr Sierra Pro-Hunters were the mainstay of my hunting rounds for years and responsible for the humane despatch of many feral animals. More recently I loaded 150gr Hornady InterBonds behind the same powder supply as the Sierras, 45 grains of ADI AR2208, and used these effectively on wild dogs.
On paper the Sierras and Hornadys achieved the same accuracy but with different points of impact which puzzled me as I thought same weight projectiles would perform similarly on paper. A few years ago my wife bought me a Shooting Chrony chronograph which I use on trial handloads. To my surprise the Hornadys were travelling a lot faster than the Sierras, about 150fps difference between them.
I found the Sierras measured .311^ and the Hornadys .312^ and can only assume the marginal difference was responsible for creating higher pressure thus higher velocity and higher point of impact on paper targets. The brass behind the slower Sierras also lasted a lot longer than the Hornadys which turned out to be a headspacing issue, not unfamiliar with a SMLE, the visible signs of case head stretching on the brass base ultimately leading to case head separation. This can also be attributed to the rear locking action but headspacing can be fixed easily on a SMLE by fitting a new bolt head of marginally larger size (ten-thousands of an inch).
After researching load data from a reputable source I changed powder from ADI AR2208 to AR2206H, loads of 44 grains of AR2206H making a huge difference to velocity at 2660fps and giving an extra 300fps advantage with no detriment to accuracy.
This load was settled on after working up from the minimum and actually exceeds listed maximums but with no visible signs of high pressure. I concluded that as this rifle has a shorter barrel of 510mm, pressures are down compared with the longer 620mm barrel the printed loads were tested on.
Hunting with the SMLE
I’d been offered the property to hunt fallow deer previously and now had an acceptable rifle - it was time to open the No.4’s hunting account. The property manager insisted on a sighting-in process at 100m and treated the old .303 with some scepticism which vanished when I produced a sub-MOA three-shot group straight out of the bag. Next morning I took to the hills for my first-ever deer hunting trip which became a steep learning curve as I discovered free-range deer just don’t want to be found, unlike the feral pigs and goats I was use to. My time spent was unproductive deer-wise but I was learning lots about them.
My fortune changed on day two though. Making my way through a gully and over a rise into some thick native cypress I saw deer at the edge of the tree line and coming my way. I crouched and placed the cross-hairs on the lead doe, the gap down to 30m as I squeezed the trigger and in front of me lay my first deer, a large-bodied mature fallow doe. I radioed the property manager who he helped with photos and dressing the deer and I had my first portable fridge full of venison.
The remaining days were used to make a dent in the local pig population, including one that walked up on me and two taken in twilight with a shot each at 150m. They all dropped on the spot and I was very happy with my sporter SMLE.
Over the next few years the .303 traded places on hunting trips with my then 7mm-08 Remington. I have full confidence in this rifle and its accuracy and continue to use it regularly for pig hunting. Realistically, the old No.4 sporter with a shorter barrel and 10-shot magazine is the closest thing to what some manufacturers now call a ‘scout’ gun - it’s not just another SMLE, it’s a great sporting rifle with plenty of history. And it never disappoints.