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Britain’s Black-Powder .303, the Lee-Metford

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Though Britain's line of Lee Magazine rifles reminded in service until after the Second World War, the basic system, as seen in this black-powder Lee-Metford, originated in Victorian times.
Though Britain's line of Lee Magazine rifles reminded in service until after the Second World War, the basic system, as seen in this black-powder Lee-Metford, originated in Victorian times. Photo Jill Marlow

One of the most famous smokeless powder military cartridges in history actually started out as a black-powder round. Here’s a look at the load and the revolutionary new repeating rifle that chambered it – the Lee-Metford.

By the mid-1880s, it was becoming manifestly evident that the smallbore, bolt-action repeater was the top choice for general service military longarms. A number of different systems were devised whole cloth or adopted from earlier ones, resulting in groundbreakers such as the French Model 1886 Lebel, German Model 1888 Commission Rifle, Italian Model 1891 Terni, Japanese Type 22, Russian Model 1891 Mosin-Nagant, American Model 1892 Krag-Jorgensen and one of the best – Britain’s 1888 Mark I Lee-Metford.

Curiously, while a number of its contemporaries were introduced with smokeless powder loads, the Metford’s designers decided that a black-powder load was suitable for Her Majesty’s forces – at least as a stopgap.

The Lee-Metford, like its two single-shot predecessors the Snider and Martini-Henry, had its origin in the United States. James Paris Lee was a naturalized American citizen whose parents emigrated from Scotland to Canada in 1836. Though initially following his father’s occupation of watchmaking, firearms were his real passion and by the time he moved to Wisconsin in 1858 he had taken up gun making and design full time.

While Lee didn’t invent the box magazine, there is no question he perfected it. His circa 1879 Remington-Lee bolt-action rifle was tested by the U.S. Navy, and though not used by the American military in any great numbers, this revolutionary rifle caught the eye of British authorities. In 1880, versions of the rifle chambered for the .577-450 Gatling variation of the British service round and fitted with Martini-Henry barrels, bested a number of foreign and domestic rifles in early trials. Further testing continued throughout the 1880s with altered Remington-Lees, as well as with production .45-70 and .43 Spanish models.

Early on, sentiment leaned towards the adoption of a .402 service round, but the success of a .303-caliber cartridge by Swiss designer Col. Eduard Rubin caused some rethinking. Plans for the larger caliber were dropped and further testing ordered for the .303.

The Lee-Metford’s rounded rifling (bottom) was found to be unsuitable for use with smokeless powder cartridges and was replaced by the more angular Enfield style (top).

Finally in 1888, prototype Lees fitted with barrels featuring the seven-groove rifling of William E. Metford were tested using the .303 Rubin round, and in December of that year the first Lee magazine rifle was officially adopted into British service.

This .303 round had a drawn brass case and round-nosed, 215-grain cupro-nickel-jacketed bullet. The cartridge was Boxer primed and incorporated a compressed black-powder charge of 71½ grains. Though ordnance officials planned on using smokeless powder pending the acceptance of a suitable propellant, it was decided to be prudent and stay with black powder for the moment.

Britain’s first general-issue repeating rifle, the “Magazine Lee-Metford Rifle Mark I” was a unique arm. Featuring rifling devised by William Ellis Metford, it had an eight-shot, sheet-steel metal box magazine, which protruded from the stock in front of the triggerguard. The magazine was detachable, though it was linked to the rifle and not intended to be routinely removed.

The bolt, while not as strong as many later Mauser designs, was fine for the pressures developed by the .303 round. Locking was effected by means of a lug that engaged a recess in the receiver and a solid rib that was secured against a shoulder. The bolt head was a separate piece that threaded onto the bolt body, and by snapping it out of a rail on the receiver, the bolt could be freed and removed rearwards out of the receiver. The gun locked on closing and proved to be one of the smoothest military bolt actions ever – one that could be manipulated with considerable rapidity. A rear-mounted cocking piece allowed the Metford to be armed or disarmed with the bolt closed. Though the gun was a repeater, it was fitted with a sliding cutoff that permitted single-shot firing. The rounds in the magazine were then held in reserve.

The Mk I’s barrel-mounted rear sight was graduated to 1,900 yards, though it was also equipped with a long-range dial sight on the left side of the stock. This was marked to an optimistic 3,500 yards.

Overall length of the rifle was 49½ inches and the barrel measured just over 30 inches. Like the Lee-Metfords and Enfield that would follow it, the Mark I Metford had a two-piece walnut stock. The butt was secured to the receiver by means of a long bolt that passed through it. The grooved fore-end was secured by a combination of screws and barrel bands. A cleaning rod was housed under the barrel. To use it, two sections had to be screwed together.

A Pattern 1888 bayonet featuring a nine-inch sword blade and grip with walnut panels was introduced with the Metford, and in a couple of different versions that would be used with all the Metfords and Long Lees.

Military arms were marked on the left side of the socket with a Queen’s Crown over “VR,” for Victoria Regina, the place of manufacture (Enfield B.S.A. – Birmingham Small Arms Co., Sparkbrook or L.S.A. – London Small Arms Co.) Beneath this was the date of manufacture and the “Mark.”

In early 1892, a number of small changes were made to the Lee-Metford. Modifications on this Mark I* (a “Mark” signified a major change, while a “*” indicated only a minor one) involved the elimination of a rear-mounted safety lever in favor of a half-cock notch on the cocking piece which was also found to be problematic, and the arrangement was changed to a cocking-piece-mounted lever in some later Lees; along with the substitution of a brass stock identification for a steel one and re-graduation of the rear sight to 1,800 yards and the dial sight to 2,900 yards.

A year later a Mark II Metford was authorized. Its most important feature was a 10-round magazine, upping the Lee’s capacity by two rounds. Other mods included a brass buttplate, improved bolt, sturdier nose cap, simplified cutoff and the elimination of finger grooves. In addition, the ID disc was jettisoned, the elongated tang on the new buttplate serving as a marking place for unit designations. Two years later a Mark II* rifle was released that included a safety catch on the cocking piece. As the Mark II had a compartment in the butt for a cleaning pull-through and oil bottle, the rod beneath the barrel was now solely intended for stuck cartridge case removal. Eventually, it was removed altogether.

A stalwart group of soldiers of the 1st Bn. King’s Royal Rifles pose for the photographer with their Mark I Metfords during the Chitral Relief Expedition of 1895.

In late 1891, Britain’s first smokeless powder rifle load was officially adopted—and its acceptance would ultimately sound the death knell for the Lee-Metford. The “Cartridge, S.A., Ball .303 inch Cordite (Mark I)” featured the black-powder round’s drawn brass case and 215-grain bullet, but was charged with 31 grains (60 strands) of Cordite, an extruded propellant fashioned from nitroglycerine, guncotton and mineral jelly. The composition of the Boxer primer was also changed.

While the relatively smoke-free Cordite was a real advantage on the battlefield – it boosted the muzzle velocity of the .303 from 1850 fps to 1970 fps – it unfortunately burned much hotter than the black powder, and soon it was found that Metford rifles and carbines were experiencing distressing bore erosion.

Ordnance technicians set to work to modify the Lee’s rifling to take better advantage of the new round. What emerged was a more angular, deeper five-groove rifling that would not be damaged by the new propellant. Termed “Enfield” after the site where it was developed, this rifling heralded the beginning of a firearms legend, but it also marks the end of our developmental history of the Lee-Metford.

Despite the fact the Mark I Lee-Enfield was approved in 1895, stocks of Metfords were manufactured until 1896 and kept in service while production and issue of the new arm could be brought up to speed (as well as kept as a supplementary arm well into the 20th century). Accordingly, many Metfords saw service in India and other places in the Empire for a good number of years; most notably in the Sudan in 1898 at the Battle of Omdurman, where in the hands of British regulars it helped achieve a lopsided defeat over the Khalifa’s forces, with the British killing 11,000 and wounding 16,000 of the enemy. Their own casualties were a mere of 48 killed and 328 wounded.

I’ve always been fascinated by the fact the modern .303 started out relying on a then-800-year-old propellant, so I was curious to see just how it would perform. Accordingly, I rounded up a nice condition Mark II Lee-Metford (no mean task, as Metfords are quite tough to come by nowadays) and had some ammunition rustled up by Bob Shell of Shell Reloading, using Privi Partizan .303 cases, Winchester large rifle primers, Hawk Precision Bullets’ 215-grain, 311 RT bullets and a compressed charge of 55-grains of Hodgdon FFg black powder.

Our original evaluation Lee-Metford handled beautifully and was a joy to shoot. Recoil was relatively light with the black-powder loads, though they did throw out a good volume of smoke and flame. Photo Jill Marlow

Why only 55 grains you may ask? Try as he may, that was all Bob could squeeze into the cases, but as the original Brit brass probably had a bit more internal area and the factory had a special method of forming the 71½-grain load into a pellet, this is understandable.

Our 1895-dated Sparkbrook-built Mark II was fired at 50 and 100 yards from a rest. Bullets chronographed at an average of 1480 fps, some 370 fps less than the period round, so it didn’t surprise me when the strikes were about 10 inches low at 50 yards and 12 inches low at 100. With the rear sight set to 450 yards the bullets hit at point of aim and gave good results (in a clean bore), with groups at 50 yards running in the 2½-inch range and those at 100 yards, 2¾ inches. It was interesting, but not surprising, to find out that accuracy dropped off considerably after about 20 rounds due to the black-powder fouling, some spreads widening out to five or six inches. Smoke was considerable, but recoil, quite manageable.

For a control I also tried some British-issue 174-grain c. 1967 Mark VII Cordite .303s and 150-grain Hornady STs in the Metford. Amazingly, they hit in exactly the same spots as the black-powder loads, and groups with both types of ammo were just about the same, giving the edge to Hornady. I talked this over with Bob and neither of us had an adequate explanation other than the fact that sometimes these older guns can present Quixotic results. The gun had an excellent bore and functioned perfectly.

I’m still not quite what all this proves, other than the fact the Metford, in the black-powder mode, was a formidable arm – at least for the first three or four magazine’s-full, after which time the groups, while not match-grade, would have probably been OK for combat. I do have a Long-Lee Enfield in my collection and it is a tack driver, even after extended firing, so there is no question it was an improvement over the Metford.

Still, Britain was well served by its first magazine rifle. As well as being a formidable arm in its own right, it paved the way for a family of bolt-action repeaters that would continue in use as a service rifle with the parent nation past the midpoint of the 20th century, and considerably longer with other nations. You can’t ask for a much better legacy than that.

This article originally appeared in Gun Digest 2015.

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