The Lee-Enfield No. 5 Mk 1 Jungle Carbine

The history behind this British rifle

Let us return now to the thrilling days of yesteryear (in this case, the late 1950s). A couple of miles from where I lived in New Jersey, there was a discount store—today, I guess you’d call it a job-lot store—that sold damn near everything at low, low prices. One of the things they sold was guns. Real ones. My brother and I, who both liked guns a lot, bought at one time or another, a near-mint Argentine Mauser (and loads of cheap military ammo), a DEWAT Sten gun*, and a Lee-Enfield No. 5 Mk 1 Jungle Carbine.

Neither of us was old enough to have a driver’s license, and it was all perfectly legal, or at least six decades have gone by and neither of us has been arrested. We’d go to a local rifle range and blow away our hearing, because no one wore headphones, and have a fine time. I have no idea what happened to these rifles. I seem to recall we had to get rid of the Sten gun because the neighbors were frightened and complained.

I believe we paid about $15 for each of these rifles, which is $130 in 2017 dollars, so it was with a sense of shock and awe that I beheld a Jungle Carbine in Cabela’s Gun Library for $750. It was somewhere in the NRA Fair/Good range, and that is not a high price; I see them on the Internet for $900.

It’s an interesting rifle. The term Jungle Carbine was strictly unofficial; the No. 5 Mk 1 was designed in 1943 for Britain’s airborne troops in Europe, who were burdened by the long, heavy Lee-Enfield No. 4 Mk 1, and the hideous Sten gun**. Rather than design an entirely new rifle (they would not have been able to produce it in any event), British armorers chipped and whittled at the No. 4. They shortened the barrel to 18.8 inches from 25 inches, lopped off part of the fore-end, hollowed out the bolt knob, and ground metal from the action.

The new rifle was considerably shorter and 2 pounds lighter than the original. But there were, as they say, problems, or as the late actor Victor Spinetti said, “Of course it doesn’t work; it’s British.” The shortened barrel produced a massive muzzle flash. This was solved, mostly, by the addition of a conical flash hider. Because of the lighter weight and the change in balance, the No. 5 kicked like a mule. To prevent excess suffering, the Brits added a small, rock-hard recoil pad to the butt. It didn’t help much. As I recall, the carbine my brother and I bought was extremely unpleasant to shoot.

Then there was the “wandering zero” problem. It was claimed that the No. 5 could not hold its zero. There’s some dispute over this. One side claims that the action torqued because of lightening cuts in the receiver. The other side claims that there’s nothing wrong with the rifle, that Great Britain just wanted it off the inventory because everyone else was going to semi-autos.

All told, 251,368 No. 5s were built between 1944 and 1947. In fairness, the Mk 5 had some admirable features. It was, like all Enfields, indestructible, very fast to operate for a bolt action, powerful for its size, and quick to reload. It saw service in World War II, Korea, and the Malayan Emergency.

It had a fan in the person of the late George MacDonald Fraser, who wrote the wonderful Flashman novels. Fraser was an NCO (later an officer) in the British Army and served in the Burma Campaign in World War II. He used the Jungle Carbine in combat, and said it was an excellent rifle, and that if you aimed, as you were supposed to, you had no need of a semi-auto or a full-auto weapon. I will take his word for it.

*DEWAT stands for Deactivated War Trophy, and you don’t hear the phrase much any more. Back in the late ’40s and ’50s, DEWATS were imported by the ton and used for God knows what, since the barrels were plugged with solder near the breech. It was fairly easy to remove. A friend of mine was expelled from Yale, he says, for re-activating a DEWAT Sten gun in the Yale machine shop. He was simply invited to get his education elsewhere. I can’t imagine the hoo-hah if someone did that today.

**The Sten gun was called “the plumber’s delight” because it could literally be assembled by a plumber. It was inaccurate except at very short range. Also, it was unreliable. In 1942, the British sent a pair of Czech assassins to kill SS general Reinhard Heydrich. They planned to hose him down with a Sten as his car slowed for a turn, but the gun jammed and refused to fire. One of the pair threw a grenade, which drove horsehair from the car’s upholstery into Heydrich’s side. This caused an infection, which killed Heydrich a week later. His last words were, allegedly, Natürlich hat es nicht funktioniert, es ist britisch. (Of course it didn’t work, it’s British.)