Reviving an Old Warhorse

I began my foray into the world of military-surplus firearms with that workhorse of the British infantry during the Second World War, the Lee-Enfield rifle, or more specifically in this case, the № 4 Mk. I rifle. Quite possibly the best bolt-action military rifle ever made, the Lee-Enfield paired fast cock-on-close loading with 10 rounds of the potent .303 British (7.7×56mm) cartridge. My rifle (or at least its receiver) was manufactured by the Birmingham Small Arms Company in A.D. 1943 and arrived slathered in preservative cosmoline.







№ 4 Mk. I Disassembled
Rear Sight Folded
Receiver Rear
Receiver Front

Copyright © A.D. 2007–08
by M. D. Van Norman.

Here is the rifle as I received it. Note the worn finish and rotted sling.
The first step in the refurbishment process was to remove all that cosmoline. I was more interested in functionality than collectibility, so I was fairly aggressive at this, employing a combination of heat, soap and water, heat, oven cleaner, and more heat to get the stuff off of the metal and out of the wood. When finished, my rifle and all its flaws were laid bare.

The disassembled rifle shows the worn finish on the metal parts. Note the lingering oil stains in the wood.
Though the cosmoline had done its job fairly well, protecting the rifle through several decades of storage, there was still a bit of rust for me to deal with. I dispatched some stable, black rust on the barrel with a supermarket pot scrubber, a type of coarse steel wool.1 I removed the patches of dangerous, red rust that were present in a few areas with Birchwood Casey Blue & Rust Remover.

I also discovered a number of wartime or field expediencies on this rifle. The rear band had been replaced with a bent strip of steel crudely bolted into place.2 The two-position rear sight was a wartime substitute for an adjustable micrometer aperture. The safety mechanism was also a short-lived variant that, ironically, had eventually been deemed unsafe.3 I ordered proper replacements for all these parts and for several worn screws from Springfield Sporters.

While waiting for my replacement parts to arrive, I began to refinish the metal. In several spots, the original oil-blackened finish had worn off or been removed along with that incipient rust I had tackled earlier. A few applications of Birchwood Casey Super Blue did an acceptable job of it, though I learned the importance of following the instructions, particularly the part about allowing the treated parts to cure in a coat of oil.

The exposed muzzle had very noticeable rust. I cleaned it and the associated parts and re-blued them.
When the stock finally stopped oozing cosmoline, I went to work on the wood. After my aggressive degreasing and a little fine sanding, the pieces of walnut were looking pale and dry. I began with an application of Olympic walnut stain, but I think that was a mistake in retrospect. I then rubbed in about four coats of boiled linseed oil, which I now suspect would have left the stock looking just fine all on its own.

Staining the stock was probably a mistake. The color looks a bit unnatural.
I had refinished the wood and metal acceptably, and my replacement parts were in hand, so it was finally time to reassemble my refurbished Lee-Enfield rifle. I was fairly proud of myself until I tested the action on a magazine loaded with dummy cartridges and found that the rifle wouldn’t reliably extract or eject the rounds. Another order to Springfield Sporters brought me replacements for the ejector screw and extractor group.

The rifle’s action would not cycle reliably until I replaced the extractor group and the ejector screw.
Once the new parts were in place, the action cycled properly. At last, my № 4 Mk. I rifle was ready for service once again, over 60 years since it had been hastily built to fight the Axis Powers. I topped off this achievement by knocking out the wartime two-position rear sight and installing the adjustable micrometer version that the designers at the Royal Small Arms Factory, Enfield, had originally intended for it.

Here is my completed № 4 Mk. I rifle. I refinished the wood and metal and replaced worn or inferior wartime parts.
I learned a lot during this project. I didn’t do everything as well as I could have, and I made a few mistakes along the way, but the end results were still satisfactory. I will apply the confidence and experience that I gained from this project to future refurbishment efforts.

In late A.D. 2008, I finally got my Lee-Enfield up to the range at Burro Canyon in the San Gabriel Mountains. It functioned flawlessly … for a few rounds at least. I was working on two-inch groups4 when a range officer discovered that my Sellier & Bellot ammunition had steel-core bullets. Due to the high fire danger, I had to stop shooting before I had even emptied my first magazine.
Fine steel wool is often recommended for this purpose but will leave behind a fuzz of steel shavings that is difficult to remove. I discovered that stainless-steel pot scrubbers work just as well for removing rust (without damaging any underlying bluing) and avoid this messy side effect.
I didn’t realize this at first, so I actually cleaned the rust off this jury-rigged replacement and blued it before catching my mistake and ordering a proper replacement. It now serves as a makeshift rust gauge on my workbench.
Charles R. Stratton, British Enfield Rifles, Volume 2, 2nd Edition, Revised, Lee-Enfield No. 4 and No. 5 Rifles (Tustin: North Cape Publications, 2003), p. 45.
The range was only 50 yards, so my groups weren’t terribly impressive for a rifle, but this was also my first time shooting a center-fire rifle.

Dancing Giant
“The rifle is the weapon of democracy.”