Lee Metford Rifle
Today’s object is a Lee Metford Rifle, carried by the Black Watch from 1888 until it was eventually withdrawn from service, starting in 1895. The Lee Metford replaced the Martini Henry Rifle, and was the first bolt action weapon to be generally adopted the British Army. Combining the bolt action of James Paris Lee, with the seven grooved barrel designed by William Ellis Metford, there were high hopes for this weapon after nearly nine years of development. Unfortunately, as it was to prove, there was a significant flaw in this gun, which was to drastically shorten its military lifespan.
When first introduced the Lee- Metford had significant advantages over its rivals, not least a quicker operating bolt action, a detachable magazine which carried a greater capacity, and a barrel that was easy to clean, and by its design greatly reduced fouling. However despite these innovative features, and its heart the rifle remained somewhat anachronistic in that its cartridge relied on black powder, instead of the smokeless powder cartridges used in other rifles. By using black powder the bullet from this weapon travelled at a much slower velocity and produced a large amount of vision obscuring smoke.
The .303 cartridge designed for this gun was originally intended to be powered by smokeless cordite, however delays in the production of the gun, the supply of cordite was not sufficient when the weapon became available, and as a result the British Army was forced to fall back on black powder. By the time large quantities of cordite cartridges became available it was found that the rather shallow grooves on the Lee-Metford barrel soon wore out, and had to be changed after roughly 5,000 firings.
Almost as soon as this weakness became apparent plans were afoot to upgrade the weapon. The barrel was replaced by the Enfield barrel, with deeper rifling, the sights were adapted and the magazine slightly altered. These changes led to the introduction of the Lee Enfield Rifle though because this took so long to achieve some soldiers were still equipped with the Lee-Metford during the Boer War, 1899-1902.
The Lee-Metford continued to be commercially produced until the beginning of the First World War, and was used primarily by civilian marksmen in competitions, as it was felt it was more accurate than the new Lee Enfield.
In 1941 New Zealand, threatened by the Japanese Pacific expansion, and with their main land force employed in North Africa, found themselves chronically short of light machine guns, for home defence. Looking around for a suitable weapon to convert they came upon stocks of Lee-Metford Rifles. With some changes this base weapon turned out to be quite suitable for New Zealand’s wants and the Charlton Automatic Rifle, came into production. This was used to equip New Zealand’s Home Guard from 1942 onwards. Nearly 2,000 of these weapons were made, but most of them were destroyed in a warehouse fire at the end of the war, as a result only a few examples are known, held in museums and private collections.