Copyright 2010 – Stephen Redgwell
Updated 2021 – I figured I should update the article. A few things have happened since 2010. It’s hard to believe almost 25 years have gone b y since I put up the page. Back then, I was with a small Ontario Internet service provider. The first ten years, that small ISP got bought out, and the company that bought it, got bought out too.
In early 2021, my entire site was deleted by my (former) ISP. They said it was a mistake. Well, a lot of information disappeared. Mistake or not, it was time to move on. I had to start fresh and recover what I could.
Steve – May, 2021
A lot has happened with 303s over the past 24 years. Many Internet boards have sprung up with assembly/disassembly help, reloading information, history and general information. Most are visited by good people. New owners of 303s and other military surplus arms discover these places and sign up. The World Wide Web has been a big help in that regard.
When I started 303british.com in 1997, there was precious little 303 information available. The original purpose was to provide basic cartridge reloading tips and assembly/disassembly help for new owners of Lee Enfields. Having been a military armourer for over twenty years who actually worked on them, it seemed like a natural fit. I am happy to report that my page is still being visited by old hands and newbies alike. That’s great.
I’ve taken down some information because it is being provided by other sites. My page has changed, with the introduction of more books, reloading material for other calibres like the 6x45mm and 7.62x51mm, but the core remains unchanged. I wanted to pass along a suggestion today. Do with it what you please; it’s free. If you’re new to Lee Enfields or the Internet, be careful where you get your information!
On several of the older surplus boards – the late Mark Bitting’s Gun and Knife Board comes to mind – there were people that didn’t know much about Lee Enfields when they joined, but were dispensing expert advice within six months. Anyone that “typed” with an Australian accent was declared an expert on Lithgow made No 1s. Canadians had to be smart too, because as we all know, every moose killed before 1980 was shot with a 303. And of course, we had Ellwood Epps.
It’s hard to accept, but there are some subjects that should be left to more knowledgeable folks. What I don’t like is that some numpties regurgitate what they read, but don’t have any first hand knowledge of the subject. Very briefly, here are few of my least favourite things.
1. Lee Enfield actions are weak and springy – not true!
The Lee Enfield was designed around the cartridge that it would fire – the 303 British. The action has no problem handling 45,000 CUP/49,000 PSI, the rated maximum pressure for this round. Secondly, and likely the most misunderstood thing about 303s, no Commonwealth government ever planned to reload for them. And you know what? They never forecasted that civilians would buy these rifles as surplus and reload for them either!
You are using this rifle now as a civilian. Whether it’s for casual plinking, hunting or a local military surplus service rifle competition, your needs differ from what the rifle was designed to do. You, not the rifle, must compromise!
2. Headspace – Should I hire an engineer?
Headspace discussions always generate a lot of angry words. Most of the arguments are silly. I remind people who get too wound up in these debates that the requirement was to chamber and fire cartridges to repel or kill enemy soldiers. Cases wouldn’t be reused. Headspace was a non-event.
With in-service military rifles, headspace only became a problem if the area where the rim sat (when chambered) was too long. This would have been discovered during shop inspections. There was a risk, albeit a small one, that the excess headspace would allow the case to stretch and then burst. This might injure or kill the operator should his chamber rupture or bolt break. To reduce the risk, a gas vent was built into the design, but no one knew for sure what might happen on the battlefield.
Well, that was fine for the military and it worked well for many years. When the rifles were sold as surplus, armchair armourers and ballisticians came out of the woodwork. The once simple statement of, “check your rifle’s headspace to see if it is within tolerance” has changed. I don’t know why. There was no need to read anything into this. The advice was straightforward. Make sure that the rifle was operating according to its design specifications. If it was not, take it to someone who could put things right.
What went wrong? People did not bother reading (or perhaps did not understand) what was written in the manuals. These days we have headspace gurus that suggest, amongst other things, putting rubber O rings around the rim to fill the excess space in the rim recess or using tin foil to gauge headspace. These strange and unusual ideas are supplemented by misusing maintenance manuals. The manuals to which I refer – Australian, Canadian and British – were produced by different countries, for different models of Lee Enfield and over a long time period. Modifications to technical instructions were (and still are) commonplace. What may have been the standard practice in 1920 may have changed by 1930.
There also seems to be a lot of confusion between headspace and long chambers. If anything, 303 British chambered Lee Enfields suffer most from long chambers. What exactly do I mean? The area forward of the recess where the rim sits when the action is closed is often longer than what the original specifications called for. A rifle could have absolutely perfect headspace, yet have a long chamber. When this happens, brass stretches. In fact, long chambers are the number one reason for brass failing. Rarely is case stretching caused by excessive headspace. Nor does rim thickness ruin headspace. Thinner rims may have a small affect, but it’s not nearly as bad as some of the “Internet experts” would have you believe.
Next time, when you are at your favourite website and someone goes on about headspace being at fault for case failure, you may want to step back and think about the area forward of the rim recess. If you really want to get to the bottom of the problem, take your rifle to a gunsmith and he can make a chamber cast. He will measure the chamber cast and tell you the exact dimensions of your rifle.
If your rifle has a long chamber, it is possible to have a couple of threads removed from where it attaches to the action and have the chamber re-done. A finishing reamer will eliminate the long chamber and clean up the shoulder area.
What about 7.62 NATO Lee Enfields? Some people comment about the excessive headspace on Ishapore made 7.62x51mm rifles. In fact, headspace is usually fine with these rifles as well, but the extra few thou that are integral to the 7.62x51mm chamber design are usually discovered by gunsmiths using 308 Winchester gauges. He will automatically declare the rifle’s headspace excessive and tell you that it’s not safe to fire. But 2A and 2A1 rifles were designed to fire 7.62x51mm, not 308 Winchester, so his diagnosis was incorrect. He did not use the correct gauges.
If you wish to shoot 308 Winchester in one of these rifles, you can have the headspace tightened up. This will eliminate most of the stretch, which is important if you reload. Have the gunsmith trim a couple of threads off the barrel and use a finishing reamer to properly reset the headspace for 308 Winchester. That alters the rifle, but does nothing to harm its functionality. It simply means that you can fire 7.62x51mm or 308Winchester without the stretching associated with the longer 7.62 NATO chamber.
3. Misused or misquoted information and poor practices. (There are lots more!)
– quoting technical facts using Australian manuals written for the No 1, but applied to a Canadian made No 4 is usually a bad idea.
– rechambering the Lee Enfield rifle to a cartridge that operates at higher pressures – example, any cartridge that typically operates in excess of 50,000PSI.
– using any stopgap or temporary method to adjust long headspace, rather than having the rifle properly repaired.
I have read endless posts from sad sacks with no practical Lee Enfield experience dispense advice about what they saw in a manual, technical bulletin or book somewhere. One particularly pathetic individual uses any thread about milsurp rifles or cartridges to post over and over about Lee Enfield headspace. Often, it has little or nothing to do with the original question. He seems like a nice enough fellow at first, but should anyone question his “knowledge” or methods, he becomes rude and obnoxious. In short, he’s a jackass and has been banned from several sites.
Frankly, I feel sorry for him. He likely doesn’t have many friends and depends on the Internet to socialize. He’s a retired government employee that fits the classic definition of an Internet troll. Sadly, for those that have not witnessed his oafish behaviour, they innocently thank him. As a result, he hangs around, turns into a jerk and someone swings the banhammer. It rarely takes long for that to happen.
It’s difficult, but try to get your information from a competent, knowledgeable source! Because of reading these Internet soap operas, I stopped visiting Lee Enfield forums. It’s unfortunate, but many of the “Web Experts” are still out there, flapping their gums at anyone who will listen. Beware!
While it’s fun to talk with others that share your hobby or love of a specific firearm, please resist the siren call of the World Wide Web and its instant know-it-alls. People that go out of their way to dispense advice do so, in large measure, because of the Internet’s inherent anonymity.
Here’s a novel idea: If you don’t know something, do not respond at all. If you feel that you must post a response, try something like, “Get ahold of someone who knows. Someone who works with them in his shop.”
I’m quite sure that after reading this short piece someone will take a poke at me. Frankly, if it gives them pleasure, then have at it. They probably recognized themselves in one of the previous paragraphs and have been stirred to belch out a response. Lucky for me, the ones that will take a cheap shot are known by others in the milsurp community as baloney benders.
With original barrels so scarce, it’s time to look at rebarreling. Keep the original barrel, but twist on a 308 diameter tube and use 150 or 180 grain .308 bullets instead. You’ll be surprised how well these rifles shoot with new parts! I rebarreled my No 4 with a 308 diameter Shilen barrel. It shoots great! Check the 30-303 book on the main page.
You might also consider buying a Thompson Center Pro Hunter single shot. I got a 308 diameter barrel for it, and asked them to chamber it in 303 British. I now have a second 30-303!
Thanks for being here while I vented. I wish you the best, and in particular, the ones who drop me a line from time to time. The Lee Enfield and other military surplus firearms are so much fun to reload for and fuss over.
I hope that you enjoy yours for years to come!