A new lease of life!By Keith Deed
- 21st Jul, 2020 Jul 21, 2020, 12:16 PM
- 9 Comments
In 2019 my wife’s uncle offered me his old Lee Enfield .303. Due to the changes in the Arms Act and the government buy-back scheme, Uncle just wanted it gone. I was happy to help.
After doing some homework on the web (and talking to its owner), I managed to determine the most likely history of my “new” rifle. He purchased the rifle in 1957 at the age of 17 with the plan to do some deer stalking in the Ruahines with his mates. On that day in the sport shop in Dannevirke he had nine similar rifles to choose from, all ex-military sporterised .303 Lee Enfields.
I inspected the rifle for any of the standard markings used during the First and Second World Wars but was surprised to find not a single one. It was as if the rifle had come straight from the BSA production line.
I determined this rifle most likely came from the stored military surplus after the war - one of the many sold off in batches to gunsmiths. The gunsmiths sporterised these rifles (i.e. cut them down) to make them lighter and more suitable for hunting in New Zealand conditions.
This is supported by the fact that in 1957 the sport shop had more than a few identical rifles to choose from. Regardless of the rifle’s origins the rifling in the barrel was in the best condition I’ve ever seen on an Enfield. Plus, the serial numbers across all the parts: barrel, breach, and bolt, were all matching - a great start!
“I determined this rifle most likely came from the stored military surplus after the war - one of the many sold off in batches to gunsmiths. The gunsmiths sporterised these rifles (i.e. cut them down) to make them lighter and more suitable for hunting in New Zealand conditions.”
I have spent a lifetime shooting and hunting everything from ducks, rabbits, to feral goats. I spent several years in the Army where I learnt the basics of shooting with open sights. In early 2000 my son wanted to experience the same outdoor sports I did at his age, so once again I returned to hunting.
In this new age we now have sub-MOA factory rifles with high ballistic coefficient calibres. These hi-tech weapons are supported by big magnification scopes with dial-up turrets. Once we add a laser rangefinder, a Harris bipod, and a suppressor, it’s safe to say today’s hunter has a huge advantage compared to what was available when I started out 40 years ago.
I quickly decided to restore my SMLE (Short Magazine Lee Enfield) to its original state. The rifle would be for my son and me to use as a nostalgic rifle on our hunting trips. I wanted to remove the technology and try to rediscover the skill required to hunt with a classic.
After several weeks of research, I decided that waiting for original parts could take several years so I made the decision that reproductions would suit my needs.
These are made from the same timbers used during the war - they need some fine-tuning to make them fit but nothing that my basic woodworking skills couldn’t handle.
I continued the search for the other items I needed; apart from the front stock parts, I wanted the nose cap and screws, the barrel clamp and the internal nose cap spring assembly. As I collected my bits, I started the clean-up.
The timber consisted of four pieces, the stock, the bottom fore-wood, the top rear wood and the top front wood. The stock and the top rear were original components made from English walnut.
These were stripped of 70 years of oil and gunge. I used polystripper which did a great job, although I still I had to work each section several times, washing the timber between each strip.
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I tried to avoid using sandpaper wherever I could as I didn’t want to alter the components too much. However, I did use sandpaper during the final stages, choosing a grit size no larger than #220, a fine grade that produced a very smooth finish.
The two reproductions required some alterations to give them better overall strength and improve their longevity. These modifications can be found on the original components, so it was up to me to make the changes. Research revealed that there were weaknesses in a couple of key stock areas.
These were subsequently modified using a 3/16 threaded bolt screwed and glued through the key locations. My woodworking skills were up for this task and I set about adding this feature to all the reproduction wood.
In addition, the front bottom fore-wood required the inlet for the recoil plate. This tested my skills, but once the inlet was complete it was just a matter of gluing in the plate. This modification proved to be very functional and well worth the effort.
Now I started disassembling the metal components, and here doing your homework before you start is important. The order of disassembly is important to avoid breaking your fore-wood.
I worked carefully, as due to the age of these weapons and their grade of steel they tend to be prone to rusting. I used a lot of WD40. I stripped all the metal parts, degreased, removed all the old blueing, and polished everything.
The original metal finishing (completed in 1942) was done with the intention of making the rifles shoot straight, not making them pretty. I wanted the best-looking rifle I could make; thus, all steel parts were buffed and polished to a high standard.
Once the metalwork was polished, I began the re-blueing. I started with mixed results but soon found a method that suited my needs. I employed the standard blueing products available over the counter at most sport stores. I used a hot water bath to heat all the components prior to blueing.
It’s important to apply the blue solution in an even amount/layers and work as fast as you can while the metal is still hot. Once I was happy with the colour and finish, the job was completed with a coat of medium grade oil.
I struggled with the woodwork’s final finish. Tradition dictated that I use linseed oil, however I always preferred a high gloss that would have the durability required to handle the New Zealand hunting environment. I opted for marine grade high gloss varnish.
Remembering this project was not about creating a museum piece; it’s about rebuilding a functional, classic rifle for hunting. The problem was that I had four wooden sections made from three different timbers.
The originals were English walnut that was close to 80 years old, the bottom front wood was an Australian Coachwood reproduction, and the top front was a New Zealand walnut reproduction.
The walnut sections were close in colour, but the NZ piece was lighter overall. The Coachwood piece was blonde and was going to require some colouration if I wanted the furniture to look similar.
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I trialled several different brands and types of stain trying to find the best match. I finally ended up using Briwax Colourfast Wood Dye. This product is methanol based and colour-fast. Once applied it gave a very even colour across all timber types. The colour I chose was Antique Mahogany.
Now I started the varnishing. I thinned this product 50:50 and completed the 35 coats with a very soft cloth. Yes – this process was time consuming, a true ‘labour of love’. This was completed with a light sand after every second coat with a #400 grit wet/dry paper. I was very happy with the finished woodwork.
The assembly stage was an exciting process. I started by reading “The 2012 Complete Book on Lee Enfield Accurizing” which has everything you need to know. I used Brownell glass bedding epoxy in a couple of key locations especially around the bottom front wood and the toe of the butt.
As this area receives the highest level of recoil it’s important to ensure the entire surface area is even and tight once assembled.
To improve accuracy, I opted for the original target sights designed for these rifles. Made in 1926, these gave the Canadian Rangers competition superiority for many years. I managed to secure a rough set that required some rebuilding but came up well.
They are not cheap, and good ones are hard to find. I complemented this sight with the original iris eyepiece, a very cool item. These sights have a click adjustment the same as any telescopic sight; 1 click = ¼ MOA @ 100 yards, amazing nothing has changed in the last 100 years.
After a lot of refitting over a couple of weeks, testing soon showed that my efforts were not in vain. Before leaving the workshop, I completed a quick bore sight to 50 yards, then at the range produced two four-round 75mm groups at 100 yards. By the end of the following week I had achieved a 120mm group at 200 yards.
“I had the best time rebuilding this old classic. This project wasn’t cheap - when you’re buying the parts there is no option other than to shop around. If you’re lucky enough to find what you need, you’ll have to pay the price. I have no regrets. It is a lot of fun to shoot.”
This was accurate enough for my purposes and I decided not to pursue any further improvements. Generally, these rifles were known for a 50mm group @ 100yards.
I had the best time rebuilding this old classic. This project wasn’t cheap - when you’re buying the parts there is no option other than to shop around. If you’re lucky enough to find what you need, you’ll have to pay the price. I have no regrets. It is a lot of fun to shoot.
Now this rifle is good for another 100 years.
Warning - rebuilding these old rifles is addictive; I have since completed a sporterised version for my son and have purchased a Lithgow (Australian version) for another rebuild to add to my collection.
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