Brit GUN NUT builds WORKING SNIPER RIFLE at home out of scrap metal!
Bizarrely, no 3D printing was involved
Downrange We here on the El Reg gun sensation desk considered getting Gaz to make an unimportant part or accessory for his Lee Enfield out of 3D printed plastic, or in some other fashion involve a computer, which would probably have led to excited writeups in the world's media about Brit GUN NUT 3D PRINTS working SNIPER RIFLE in SHED, defying nation's gun laws etc etc. But then we decided to go to the pub instead. -Ed
It all started when I went round to a friend's dad's gunshop and saw a box of what looked like water-damaged rusty old junk tucked away in a corner. Except one of those rusty lumps of steel was the receiver of a Second World War Lee Enfield No. 4 service rifle.
Rusty old lump: If you know what you're looking at it's salvageable
So I did what any sensible man would and asked him, “Can I have this?” Happily for me he said yes, and so I became the proud owner of a rusty old receiver, bolt, trigger mechanism and trigger guard. Happily for me the bolt number matched the receiver, meaning - in theory, at least - this rifle would be capable of shooting straight once assembled.
At this stage I should point out that I knew – and indeed, still know – very little about “building” rifles in the way that gunsmiths do. Strictly speaking, the project I took on was more about “assembling” a rifle using off-the-shelf parts rather than building one truly from scratch.
But you don't quibble about linguistic technicalities when the result is your very own .303” No.4 Mk.I, which was the main small arm issued to the British Army during the latter half of World War Two, gradually replacing the famous .303” SMLE rifle of WWI fame.
Orange: That rust around the front of the receiver was a cause for concern at first - but it hadn't gone too deep
The No.4 stayed in production until 1955, being superseded by the L1A1 Self Loading Rifle in frontline British military service. Nevertheless, the venerable No.4 continued with various second- and third-line units, and later the cadet forces, until the 1980s. Its smaller brother, the .22” No.8 (*), is still in cadet service – having been introduced in 1947 – to this day, although the Ministry of Defence is actively looking for a replacement as stocks of No.8s to cannibalise for spares wear thin.
Cleaning off the rust
First of all, I needed to assess exactly what I'd got on my hands.
Removing the rust was a simple matter of time and elbow grease. Take a length of 4x2 flannellette, add your light oil of choice (I used 3-in-1, though it makes no real difference at this stage) and rub away. The receiver had been greased at some stage, which went a long way towards protecting its rear and also the bolt body. Unfortunately water had damaged the outside of the front receiver ring, which carries the barrel. I was quite nervous about how deep that damage went.
Pause for thought: The rust sits heavily on the surface of the receiver as viewed from above (L) but thankfully hadn't gone too deep in critical areas (R). Note the striker protruding from the bolt face in the left-hand picture.
Inspecting the important areas - the bearing faces for the locking lugs and the trigger mechanism - showed that, thankfully, the rust hadn't got into those areas. Clearly the oil and grease had done their job over countless years.
Battered but serviceable: The rust hadn't penetrated the key working parts of the trigger mech
From the markings on the wrist we can see that this receiver and bolt were made in 1943 at the Royal Ordnance Factory in Maltby, Yorkshire. “M” was Maltby's marking; other common No.4 manufacturer's codes include “M47C” (BSA Shirley) and “F” (Fazackerley, Liverpool). 1943 is clearly the year of manufacture, while the serial number is the last marking here.
After cleaning off the worst of the rust, this is what I was faced with:
Scrubbed up: Ah, doesn't that look better? The finish is still the factory blueing but under a different light
Having cleaned it and tested the trigger mechanism a few times, we had a serviceable receiver. After cleaning the worst of the clag off a few flecks of brown paint were visible on the receiver and on the trigger guard, suggesting that this rifle was issued to a unit somewhere hot and wet (steady, now) where rifles were painted to reduce the risk of rusting. As the paint was underneath the areas covered by the wooden furniture, it seems a fair guess that this was only applied to areas that weren't easily accessible for normal daily cleaning.
Having done what we could with the bolt, receiver and trigger mech, the next stage was to start the build proper.
Finding a barrel and getting it proofed
This was the tricky part. Yours truly, being a student at the time, wasn't exactly blessed with cash. Early on I decided the cost of a new Lothar Walther barrel would simply be more than the complete rifle was worth, bearing in mind the cosmetic water damage. That meant the only option was a secondhand take-off barrel scavenged from someone else.
So I walked into the gunsmiths Fultons of Bisley and asked what spare secondhand No.4 barrels they had available. Luckily, at the time they had half a dozen in stock and I soon picked out the one with the best (relatively!) throat and crown. Off my receiver** went to have the barrel fitted by a professional gunsmith - no way would I trust myself doing that, given that I have no practical experience of barrelling rifles at all - and proofed by the London Proof House.
Proof is the process by which a firearm is independently tested to show it is safe to use and won't blow up in the owner's face. The process is laid down by laws dating back to the 19th century, before the advent of modern non-destructive testing. A firearm must pass proof before it may be sold or otherwise transferred from one person to another.
Your rifle (or shotgun) is placed by the Proof House into a room with very thick walls. A string is tied to the trigger. The proof house staff load it with a round designed to develop 25 per cent more pressure than a normal cartridge, retreat around the corner and pull the string. For a .303" rifle developing a nominal 49,000 pounds per square inch (psi), the proof round thus generates a pressure inside the breech of 61,250 psi.
If your rifle, or, say, your £100,000 handmade custom Purdey shotgun, survives this treatment without exploding or cracking, it's passed as fit to use. A number of rifles and shotguns fail proof - that is to say, they are destroyed during the process.
After a month I got my rifle back from the Proof House. Happily for me, they hadn't blown it up. The next stage was to fit the woodwork to it.
Going furniture shopping
"Furniture", in the shooting world, refers to the wooden bits of a rifle that you hold onto. The No.4 rifle was fully stocked, meaning the woodwork stretches all the way to the foresight at the front of the rifle. This helped stop soldiers burning themselves on the hot barrel after sustained rapid fire.
Now, the real question here was, where would I get a decent set of woodwork from? Here I cocked up. Instead of doing the sensible thing and going to a gunshop with a knowledgeable dealer who would sell me something fit for use, I went on eBay and bought a "new, unissued" set of No.4 woodwork, which included a butt, a forend (the long piece), and rear and forward handguards.
Woodwork: And here's the first set of furniture I bought. It was unissued - for a good reason
All of the wood was unfitted, meaning I'd have to rapidly refresh my school woodwork skills (limited at the time to using a hacksaw and a file) to assemble the rifle. As all wood from the wartime factories was issued slightly oversize to allow hand fitting by unit armourers, yours truly would have to learn how to do it all on the job.
It took me about a week of gentle fettling with a fine file, sandpaper, linseed oil and wet'n'dry paper to get the butt socket fitted for that photo above. Evidently the boss of the butt was slightly too long to achieve a flush fit into the receiver socket. A few quick strokes with the file fixed a problem that was driving me to despair!
It got worse when I tried to fit the forend, using Peter Laider's excellent article on fitting the forend (acccessible via the milsurps.com forum, here) as a guide. I simply couldn't get this as-new, unissued, forend to bed properly - no matter what I did with sandpaper and feeler gauges, the barrel was always hard over to one side of the forend rather than resting centrally in the barrel channel.
Starting over - and finishing off
Eventually I took the forend off the rifle and showed it to my girlfriend. "It's warped," she said. "Bugger," I said. No wonder the damn thing had never been fitted in 70 years!
Happily, we figured this out just before the Trafalgar Meeting at Bisley Camp in Surrey. The Trafalgar is a large shooting event for historic rifles which includes an arms fair by dealers specialising in historic firearms. So yours truly toddled along, clutching a fistful of cash and a hopeful disposition.
There I was very lucky to meet Enfield specialist Terry Abrams, who sold me a new forend and handguards - significantly cheaper than the eBay seller as well! I also invested in a full set of foresight blades for properly zeroing the rifle.
Fitting the new forend was comparatively easy once I had one that fitted. The key measure of getting it right, as per the service bedding instructions, is that the barrel should bear down centrally onto the forend and take about 3lbs - 5lbs of force to lift it up. Mine managed this without too much fettling, although it still had a tendency to sit off to one side.
Unfortunately things went a bit wrong on the first range test. To wit, fired cartridge cases were displaying a very strange imprint around the shoulder, almost as if the case itself was touching the rifling in the barrel.
Happily for me, Fultons agreed to replace the barrel for the cost of having it reproofed. That went without a hitch and the replacement - another takeoff barrel, this time from a Fazakerley No.4 Mk.2 - works perfectly.
The finished article
Here it is: the Lee Enfield No.4 wot I built for myself:
Ta daa! One complete and functional No.4 Mk.I, as put together by your correspondent
Receiver area: The original blueing survived very well and is nicely offset by the beech furniture
My completed rifle is capable of grouping 6" at 200yds, or three minutes of angle for the technically-minded. Not too bad for something fettled together by a technology journalist, eh? I've since shot it competitively - particularly at the NRA Falling Plates match held in summer - and it hasn't let me down.
Sadly there isn't space to go into the full detail of the build - getting the magazine to feed was a long process of sitting around with drill rounds and a pair of pliers - or fitting the rearsight, when your correspondent took two hours to realise that the end of the axis pin was very slightly peened and so wouldn't slide home far enough to get the retaining pin in the far end. But it was fun - and gave me a solid insight into what armourers had to do without the luxury of indoor climate-controlled facilities during the long march across Europe in the 1940s. ®
* Your correspondent knows that the “CR324” number stamped into the butt socket of the No.8 is quite often mistaken for the serial number by owners (and apparently military quartermasters too, according to walking Enfield encyclopaedia Captain Peter Laidler, a British army armourer who serviced Lee Enfields - and the rest! - in Malaya, who is now a technical consultant to the Small Arms School Corps museum at Warminster) who are not well versed in the mysterious ways of Enfields and the British military stores system.
Your correspondent also wonders how many entries there are for “.22 bolt action rifle” with the serial number CR324 on the National Firearms Licensing Management System. Without naming names, we can confidently state that more than one such entry exists. Perhaps a police firearms enquiry officer would like to look it up and let us know?
** Knowledgeable readers will be wondering how someone who isn't an RFD had possession of the receiver. I didn't - but it helps to have an RFD as a personal friend!
A note on the headline: Lee Enfield .303 rifles, being bolt action and using full-fat rifle ammo, are certainly describable as sniper weapons in modern terms. Lee Enfield .303 variants were issued to snipers, fitted with telescopic sights and other enhancements, and the Lee Enfield continued in the sniper role for many years after being replaced as a standard battle rifle by the SLR/FAL.