With the threat of invasion in the summer of 1940, there was a general demand for a rifle to be issued to every male of military age. Churchill had promoted the idea of a “Home Guard” of 500,000 men as early as October 1939; he was “assured there are plenty of rifles” for such a force. The failure to adequately arm the LDV in the early days resulted in resentment amongst the LDV and mocking by some “who called the Home Guard useless in their early unarmed days” and saw no reason to change this view as things improved. In reality, the service rifle the Home Guard was eventually armed with, the P.17, was actually as good as or even superior to the service rifles issued to the Field Force.
At the outbreak of war, the standard British infantry rifle was the Mk III SMLE (Short Magazine Lee Enfield). A substantial number of P14 (Pattern 1914) rifles were also held in reserve. The so called “Rifle Crisis” was the result of a number of factors. Firstly, by August 1940, over 1.6 million men had registered for the LDV, substantially more than the 500,000 envisaged by Churchill; they all expected to be armed. Secondly there was the need to replace the rifles lost in the campaigns to date (Norway and France) with estimates ranging from 90,000 to 300,000. Thirdly, after the end of the First War, mass production of the Mk III SMLE had naturally ceased; production was only continued at one factory (BSA, Small Heath near Birmingham). Barrels and receivers were also manufactured at the Royal Small Arms factory to enable old rifles to be refurbished. In 1939 the decision had been taken to replace the Mk III with a new rifle (which was referred to as the No 4 Mk I) and a number of sites were purchased to establish factories for production of the new rifle. It would however take two years before production would reach a sufficient volume to begin to replace the Mk III in the Field Army. Hence, at the start of 1940, rifle production was dependant on the output of one factory and the refurbishment of old rifles.
The SMLE was introduced in 1903 as a universal rifle to replace the long Magazine Lee Enfield (MLE) and the short carbine used by the cavalry. The Mk III version came into service in 1907. It received some criticism as being too short for accurate shooting and too long to be carried by the cavalry. As a result work had begun on developing a new rifle using a .276 inch rimless cartridge with a Mauser action. It was issued for trials as the Pattern 13 (P13) but with the outbreak of war it was deemed not appropriate to introduce a new rifle with a new calibre. However there were fears that SMLE production would not meet the demand, so a contract was placed with three American firms (Winchester, Eddystone and Remington) to produce rifles; it was decided not to produce the elderly SMLE but a .303 inch version of the P13, which became the Pattern 14 (P14). The rifle was accepted in service in 1916 but it was not until 1917 that substantial numbers were shipped to the UK. In the event, SMLE production was sufficient to equip troops, so the vast majority of P14’s were used for Home Defence, training or put straight into reserve. The P14 was longer and heavier than the SMLE and hence not as easy to use in the field, but it was a more accurate rifle (favoured by snipers during the Great War) and easier to mass produce.
America also had fears that production of their .30-06 inch Springfield rifles would not meet the demand during the Great War. As there were factories already tooled up to produce P14’s (production of the P14 ceased in 1917), it was decided to adapt the design to fire American .30-06 inch ammunition. This version was referred to the Model 1917 (M1917) by the Americans and Pattern 17 (P17) by the British; it was for all practical purposes identical to the P14 (the only difference was the omitting of the long range volley sights and some other minor changes to machining, which speeded up production). The American .30-06 ammunition was superior to the British .303 ammunition (having a virtually flat trajectory) and it was also found that it was possible to load six rounds. The M1917’s went into reserve in the United States after the War; it had been considered to adopt it as the official infantry rifle but it was not as popular amongst the troops as the Springfield, so the Springfield remained the standard US infantry rifle. The Springfield was replaced by the M1 Garand rifle in 1936, so by 1940 a number of Springfield’s had been added to the reserve. Some Springfield’s were included in the large consignment of rifles (outlined below) purchased from the United States in 1940, but the vast majority were Model 1917’s.
In June 1940 the LDV were armed with what was then available, i.e. Mk III SMLE and P14 rifles although at first these were in very short supply, preference naturally being given to the Field Force. The big event of July 1940 was the first arrival of a consignment of 500,000 .30-06 inch rifles (referred to as .300” by the British) from the United States. (These rifles were part of a shipment that also included 80,000 machine guns and Tommy-guns and 900 75mm anti-tank guns plus enough ammunition for several weeks fighting. They were released from the U.S.A. First World War reserves under pressure from the White House. Many of President Roosevelt’s Chiefs of Staff disagreed with the release, fearing it was a waste as Britain was doomed anyway). Special trains were waiting at the ports to ensure the rifles were distributed as quickly as possible. In order to avoid the issue of two calibres of ammunition being issued to the Field Force, the .30-06 rifles were only issued to the Home Guard or men on fixed defence points.
Above Left: SMLE (top) and P14 (bottom), both with 'sword' bayonets. Note the longer length of the P14. The P17 was virtually identical in look to the P14.
Above Right: Loading the internal magazine of the P14.
Britain also placed an order in 1940 with Canada for 75,000 Ross rifles. The Ross was a .303 inch rifle, and was the infantry rifle that Canada entered the First War with. It was characterised by a straight-pull back bolt action and was longer and heavier than the SMLE but more accurate. It did not perform well in the trenches during the Great War, the muddy conditions causing frequent jams of the straight-pull bolt action. It was eventually withdrawn from service and replaced by the SMLE, and relegated to a training rifle. Another unpopular feature of the Ross was that it was possible to assemble the bolt incorrectly resulting in injury as explained in the Home Guard Training Manual:
“Warning regarding the Ross rifle bolt. It is possible to assemble the Ross bolt wrongly, and to insert it into the rifle in this state. If the rifle is then fired, the bolt will be blown to the rear and the firer will be seriously injured”.
The Ross rifle was also only ever issued to the Home Guard (but in very small numbers compared to the P.17), Auxiliary Coast Guard and other fixed defence troops.
To get as many British .303” weapons into service with the Field Force as possible, there was a gradual exchange of the P14’s and SMLE’s issued to the Home Guard for P17’s. The withdrawal of the Mk III SMLE commenced as early as September 1940 as illustrated in 7th Battalion Suffolk Home Guard Battalion Order No 1:
“All short-Lee Enfield rifles, bayonets and scabbards at present in possession of companies will be returned to these Headquarters forthwith and will be exchanged for Ross rifles.”
The 1942 edition of The Home Guard Training Manual further illustrates the point::
“You, as one of the Home Guard, may be armed with any one of the following rifles:
(a) The .303” British Service rifle (S.M.L.E.).
(b) The .303” pattern Dec. 14 rifle (p.14).
(c) The .303” Canadian rifle (Ross).
(d) The .300” U.S.A. 1917 model which looks almost exactly like the British P.14, having been copied from it (Model 17).
(e) The .300” U.S.A. Springfield rifle (Springfield).
When you first joined up you probably had a British rifle given you. If you have not already had it changed for one of the U.S.A. types, it is probable that this will happen shortly. The reason is that at first you had to be armed at once with what was immediately ready; now that large stocks of U.S.A. weapons are arriving, it is obviously better for all the Home Guard to have American weapons while the field army, which has to move about, keeps to the British types."
By the end of 1942, very few .303” rifles remained in service with the Home Guard. Some Home Guard did resent losing their SMLE’s for “foreign” and “Great War” era rifles, but the fact was the P.17 was a more modern rifle than the Mk III SMLE. It was also more accurate and more powerful. That especially Home Guard who were veterans of the Great War favoured the SMLE is not surprising though, as it had proved itself as an excellent service rifle, reliable and easy to use in the field; its very long service history testifies to the robustness of the rifle.
Although the Field Force avoided the issue of having two types of service ammunition, as can be seen from above, the Home Guard did not during its first three years. To avoid loading a rifle with the wrong ammunition it was imperative to distinguish between those that fired .303” and those that fired .30-06” (especially between the P.14 and P.17 which looked almost identical). All U.S.A. rifles were marked with a red band two inches wide to distinguish them; if it became worn, the Home Guardsman was advised to repaint it himself.
By September 1943, the War Office had decided to reequip the Home Guard with .303” rifles (the No 4 Lee Enfield). The programme was to be carried out on a phased basis (in Eastern Command the exchange was anticipated to take place in 2 Corps District and Norfolk and Cambridge District in December 1943 but not until August 1944 in Eastern Central District). Although this may have pleased the Home Guard in at last achieving parity with the regular Army in terms of the rifles issued, the No 4 was likely to be inferior in performance to their exchanged P17’s; by this stage of the war, the need for mass production of No 4’s had resulted in manufacturing shortcuts and easing of quality standards. All .300 ammunition was to be retained for use with the Browning medium machine gun and the Browning light automatic rifle, which were to be kept in Home Guard use.