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What's the Best 303?

copyright 2002 - Stephen Redgwell


WarMuseum.ca picture

Ross Rifle

9th Baronet of Balnagown, Sir Charles Ross


I don't know how many times I've been asked that question. How would you respond? To be fair, I think there are two ways of coming to an answer. The first is what I call 'decision by original design'. The second, and one which most of today's users probably use as a yardstick, is 'aesthetics'.


There were four bolt action rifles designed over a period of fifty odd years. Ignoring the variants and early black powder firearms, the No 1, the Ross, the P-14 Enfield and the No 4 are the most familiar to us. Of these, the No 1 and No 4 are in the majority of gun cabinets today. This is no surprise. Both the Ross and P-14 rifles weren't made for too long or in any great numbers. In truth, the military replaced them with better ones.

What? How could anyone consider either the No 1 or No 4 a superior rifle? This statement is the hook to start the discussion and one which must be examined without regard to personal favouritism.

When any military looks for a new small arm, they start with a list of conditions. It must be easy to manufacture and use, function reliably and be as maintenance free as possible. When in need of repair, armourers must be able to perform a quick and solid fix.

Accuracy, while important, is never a big concern. A minimum performance condition is decided upon, which boils down to what can be best described as "minute of man" capable. These are not sporting or sniper rifles.

So what about our 303? Let's start with the No 1. It was the first of the line for our purposes, and well known to most.

Can you imagine being a soldier the day they rolled out the first rack of No 1s? I think that it would have been exciting and scary. New recruits would never have seen or used a repeating rifle. They wouldn't have known what a bolt was, the purpose of the metal box just forward of the trigger, or the rush of (for its day) unrelenting fire power.

Troops with some "time in" may have used a Lee Metford or a Martini, but this was different. A newly designed rifle and the new smokeless ammunition would make them of a force to be reckoned with. Musketry would never be the same again!

From the turn of the 20th century until the fifties, the No 1 rifle would be used through two world wars, Korea and numerous regional skirmishes. Its functionality and reliability were key to its longevity - until semi automatics came along and changed the rules again.


In Canada, around the turn of the 20th century, a new 303 appeared. The "colonials" were using the No 1 Mk 1 bought from England along with Sniders and assorted other rifles. Distance from the mother country and irregular supplies forced consideration of making their own. The government tried and failed to get Birmingham Small Arms to manufacture the rifle on Canadian soil, so in 1901, an alternative solution presented itself in the form of the 9th Baronet of Balnagown, Sir Charles Ross.

The Ross, based on the 1890 Mannlicher, was a straight pull, bolt action rifle that would be produced in Canada and sold to the military. It was lauded as superior to the Lee Enfield in that it was more accurate, lighter and could operate at higher pressures.

From the beginning, it was plagued with developmental and design problems. The biggest sticking point, if you'll pardon the pun, was its tendency to jam when firing British made ammunition. The Brits produced cartridges with sloppier tolerances, which caused extraction problems in the Ross' tighter chamber. Canadian made cartridges functioned just fine, but as the Canadian Expeditionary Force would find out a few years later during WWI, they could not be guaranteed a steady supply.

If used only as a target or sporting rifle, the Ross was well made and accurate. It won its share of competitions in the past, but needed a clean chamber. The military version made no provision for dirt or infrequent cleanings.

By 1916, because of its poor performance, the Ross faded into history and Canada got the Lee Enfield back in the form of the No 1 Mk III.


Around the same time as Canada was trying to develop their own rifle, the Brits were looking to replace the No 1. Twenty years was a long time in the life of a service rifle back then. Advancements in small arms technology and ammunition had come fast and furious from the latter part of the 1800s into the new century.

Borrowing on Paul Mauser's design and contracting the work to the US, Britain came up with the improved Pattern 13 rifle. Using forward locking lugs for added strength (as opposed to the Lee Enfield's rear locking type), a fixed 5 round box magazine and improved sights, what would become the P14 Enfield was indeed a step forward.

The new rifle needed a new cartridge, so the 276 Enfield was created. It operated at higher pressures than the 303 British, using a 165 grain, .282 inch diameter bullet with a muzzle velocity of 2800 fps. Amazing for its time.

The P-14 was dealt its death blow because of the outbreak of WWI. England had a war to fight and needed rifles. Tooling was in place for the No 1, so the P-14 went the way of the Dodo. It did spawn the Model 1917 in 30/06 however, so its importance cannot be ignored.

THE P-14 ENFIELD (later designated No 3 rifle)

Britain and the rest of the Commonwealth loped along with the No 1 rifle into the 1930s. Improvements were made to be sure, but the rifle needed an overhaul. In 1939, as the result of trials conducted throughout the '20s and '30s, the No 4 rifle was born. The improvements included a heavier barrel, a redesigned, receiver mounted aperture sight and interchangeable bolt heads. Production started in 1941 and by the end of its run, it's estimated that 5 million rifles were made.


All of these rifles were chosen because they satisfied (or tried to satisfy) the list of conditions laid out by the military. The Ross may have been a contender if they had reamed out the chambers to make them larger. Politics and infighting killed it.

The P-14's demise was due to the unfortunate circumstance of WWI. Neither of these rifles were produced in huge numbers and they were surplussed out to our fathers and grandfathers. Time has sent the lion's share of these firearms to the armourer's lock up in Valhalla.

In hindsight, it's safe to say that WWI changed the course of British small arms development.

The No 1 got the life it did because of WWI, and for no other reason.

The No 4 may never have been born because the P-14 would have become Britain's primary battle rifle.

It's fun to speculate that most of the British rifles may well have been P-14s and variants, but for the events of 1914.

Now, let's move on to aesthetics.


Time rolls on and the world's militaries give up their old, used equipment to us. One could argue that we are on the tail end of what could be called "the golden age of military firearms". Lee Enfields, Mausers, Martinis etc. were all products of a time that saw radical changes in firearms' technology, but their makers were from the old school of arms making.

Think for a moment. When you pick up an old black powder firearm, you can feel the pride taken by their makers. Even into the smokeless age, much of the old world is seen. Most rifles were made with full wooden stocks. They had shape and form. Parts were hand fitted. They all had a personality. It doesn't matter whether or not you like a particular rifle, all have a story. I wonder if our grandchildren feel anything at all about an M16?

Once upon a time, the military drove all advances in firearms' development. We got self contained cartridges, black powder, smokeless powder, bolt actions, semi and full auto rifles etc. because of their experimentation and research.

The old bolt action milsurp too is the result of their work. Why is is then that we often judge them so harshly? Why do some people complain if their No 1 or No 4 won't produce minute of angle groups? Why do a lot of shooters replace stocks, add scopes etc?

In a word - aesthetics. Something that pleases the eye. Old, beat up stocks aren't aesthetically pleasing. 3 or 4 inch groups aren't either. So, because humans always try to improve things, we take an old, tired rifle and try to change it. Plastic stocks and other add on accessories were created to alleviate the pain of a damaged finish, poor groups or "bad" triggers.

When it's all said and done - and Lord knows it's been said before - you can't make a silk purse from a sow's ear!

Acquiring a milsurp rifle is a lot like dating. The first thing that attracts or repels you is looks. You wander over and more closely examine the subject. If the appearance is pleasing, you pick it up. Upon further examination, if you like the feel and smell of it, you take it home. At this point, it's the same as getting married.

In the same way that marriages based on shallow ideas fail, so will you love of the your rifle end should you try to change it too much. You hold what was once on the cutting edge of technology. Learn to love it because of what it is, where it's been and who used it. Appreciate that it wasn't made to be accessorised. If something is damaged, replace it with the correct part. If it won't group to your liking, try handloading or buy a modern rifle. Then take both to the range. Shooting isn't just about tiny holes on paper.

Oh, and to answer the question, what's the best 303? It's simple, the ones you have!

P14 Enfield

No 1 Mk III*

No 4 MkI*