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Business News/ Opinion / Online-views/  The Indian Army’s .303 story

The most interesting of all the mercenary soldiers of India in the 1700s were the Naga sadhus. They were ferocious, utterly reckless and totally naked.

Their leader in the war of the Awadh Shias against the Mughals was Rajendragiri Gosain. During the siege of Delhi in 1753 the monk had the back of his head blown away by an idiot who fired from his own side. A historian said, “I ascribe it to the bad marksmanship and reckless firing for which Indian troops were notorious." In the hands of Indians, guns were dangerous.

Exactly 100 years after Gosain’s death, the British introduced the rifle that would cause India to mutiny against them: the Enfield Pattern 1853 with its waxed cartridge. In the hands of Indians, even ammunition was now dangerous. Naturally, the Pattern 53 did not last long, and soon went through an evolution, the Snider-Enfield of 1860.

Policemen in Mumbai with their .303 guns after the attack on The Taj Mahal Palace hotel. Photo: Indranil Mukherjee/AFP

A Snider squibbed in the jungle,

Somebody laughed and fled,

And the men of the First Shikaris

Picked up their Subaltern dead,

With a big blue mark in his forehead

And the back blown out of

his head.

The poem is about how Subadar Prag Tewarri avenges a fallen English officer in Burma. By now, the Indian jawan had improved his aim and had been drilled and disciplined into one of the world’s great infantrymen.

The next version of the Enfield rifle was a weapon fit for his qualities, the Lee-Enfield .303 SMLE. With this gun and British drilling and training, the Indian infantryman was no longer dangerous but deadly.

The .303 was manufactured in Enfield, north London. Discovery Channel’s experts named it the third best rifle of all time (behind the AK-47 and the American M16). But actually it is No. 1. It has probably killed more men than any weapon in history.

With his .303, the British infantryman pacified the Boers and defeated the Germans to win two world wars. It is the rifle that the Anzac troops fired as they were slaughtered by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk at Gallipoli. The rifle with which Lawrence of Arabia captured Aqaba. It is the rifle that cut down the Sikhs at Jallianwala Bagh in 1919 and the Dalits at Ghatkopar’s Ramabai Ambedkar Nagar in 1997.

Gun power: The Lee-Enfield .303 SMLE. Photo: Armémuseum (The Swedish Army Museum)/Wikimedia Commons

The Indian Army’s standard issue Insas is possibly the ugliest gun in existence. Gurkhas interviewed after they went over the top at Kargil said they picked up the Kalashnikovs of the fallen Pakistanis because they were better and more accurate than their own guns.

The greater beauty of the .303, however, came from its being reliable and brutally effective.

In The Rifle Story, John Walter writes that an experiment in 1900 showed that the .303’s range was effectively 1.8km. This is why, for a century, Afghans have held on to this gun of their fathers.

The gun they’ve sniped Britishers with, Russians with, and now Americans with.

The quick-firing AK-47 is useful when overrunning trenches (which is why it’s an “assault" rifle). But it is not accurate at distance. When Afghans got the Kalashnikov in the 1980s, many warriors kept their old rifles. The New York Times carried a feature on arms captured in Afghanistan including one WW-II .303 that was patched up but still working.

The .303 had some great innovations. The first came from its mechanism, invented by James Paris Lee. It could reload quickly and trained infantrymen could let off 20 rounds in 1 minute with great accuracy.

The rifle’s full name is the SMLE. The LE obviously stands for Lee-Enfield. S is for short but the .303 is short only by 19th century rifle standards. Modern police forces around the world carry assault rifles (like the AK series) or still smaller submachine guns (such as the Uzi).

These are compact and easier to fire in restricted urban spaces and indoors. The .303 is a rifle from the era of trench warfare, and infantry arrayed in battle lines. It is not an urban weapon.

The M stands for magazine, and this was the second great innovation.

The .303 carries 10 rounds and was the most capacious rifle of its time. Germans facing British and Indian troops armed with the new .303 often reported that they had faced machine-gun fire. This training and disciplining under British officers, I repeat myself, is what produced the modern Indian army.

The massacre of Mumbai happened with the Pakistanis firing their AKs from the hip and the Mumbai constables firing back with their .303s.

It was the chosen weapon of the British Commonwealth military forces. Photo:

If I remember the videos from Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus correctly, one constable fired with the rifle’s stock loosely under his armpit instead of on the shoulder. This guaranteed that the .303’s kick would send the bullet over the Pakistani’s head. The generations of training in firing the .303 Indians have received has totally worn off.

We’ve also stopped making the gun. It used to be made at the Rifle Factory Ishapore in West Bengal. But it doesn’t make them any more and doesn’t need to.

Rifles become inaccurate and unusable with time when their rifling (the spiral groove in the barrel from which the weapons get their name) is worn out from shooting.

There’s no chance of that happening in India, which has no budget to spare for target practice.

And so the .303 will be around for another century, even if not in the hands of our constabulary.

Aakar Patel is a writer and a columnist.

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Also Read |Aakar’s previous columns

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Updated: 10 Aug 2012, 09:54 PM IST
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