Lead Photo: The bolt-action, magazine-fed Lee Enfield was introduced in 1895. It was derived from the similar Lee Metford.
By: Peter Suciu
The late 19th century saw a rapid evolution in small arms development, and some of the features added seem almost absurd in hindsight. One long forgotten feature was to allow "volley fire," which was meant to disrupt an enemy at extreme ranges. While a few nations experimented with the concept, it was the British military that put it into practice.
It came about as the British Army adopted its first bolt action rifle, the Lee Metford, which entered service in 1888, after nine years of development. Due to that rapid evolution, the rifle was essentially antiquated upon its introduction due to its use of a black powder-load cartridge. In fact, by the time of the Lee Metford's arrival in the ranks of the British Army, rifle design had largely moved on to using a small caliber, smokeless powder, which allowed bullets to be propelled at a much higher velocity and without as much smoke or residue.
As a result, the Lee Metford's use was short lived as British designers improved upon that weapon and developed the Lee Enfield. So similar were the two that even today the Lee Metford and early Lee Enfield rifles can be difficult to tell apart. One reason is that both had what must have seemed to be a revolutionary feature – a volley sight.
While the Lee Medford and the Long Lee Enfields, as well as early Short Magazine Lee Enfields (SMLEs) were fitted with traditional ladder sights, which were graduated to 1900 yards, a second set of sights was also included for volley fire. It was to take advantage of the rifle's ability to fire rounds up to an unprecedented 3,500 yards.
In addition to the ladder sights, the rifles were fitted with a folding/flip up aperture or "peep" sight to the left of the bolt and a dial sight on the front left forend. The dial allowed the user to set the distance, which was for distances greater that 1,600 to 2,800 yards with the button lined up with the aperture.
At such extreme ranges, accuracy was marginal at best, and it was generally understood that it was unlikely individual soldiers could hope to hit a target. Instead, the goal was for volleys of rounds to land in a group of enemy combatants even if the enemy troops couldn't be distinguished from one another. Volley fire was only to be carried out by units with more than 100 or more conducing concentrated fire on a small area, and that could potentially harass an enemy in a way similar to how a general purpose machine gun might operate today.
In addition to the actual sights, the rifles included a magazine cutoff – which was originally designed to allow the option of maintaining the controlled volley fire. The cutoff, when in position, covered the magazine well and prevented a fresh round from moving into position once the previous casing was ejected. Instead, the soldiers would be directed to load a fresh round manually for each volley fire, which would keep the magazine full for close defense direct fire as the situation required.
The volley sights were first introduced with the Lee Metford and remained in use with the Lee Enfield and even the early SMLE Mk III, which was introduced in 1907. That model rifle reduced the length of the rifle, but also featured a simplified rear sight arrangement. The pre-war models of the SMLE, however, still included the long range volley sight, and it wasn't until the outbreak of the war when production was ramped up that the added sights were finally phased out.
What is also unique about the dial sights is that there were several variations in design, and notably distance. Those employed with the Lee Metford, which varied in ranges, including 1,800-3,500 yards, 1,600-2,900 yards, and even 1,600-2,800 yards. The Long Enfields had ranges of 1,600-2,800 and 1,700-2,700, while the SMLE had 1,700-2,800, 1,600-2,800, and some with an extra long "pointer" for 1,500 to 2,600 ranges.
How often the British Army actually employed volley fire isn't actually known, but in addition to some use of it in the Boer War (1899-1902), there are reports that some units did take advantage of the opportunity to fire at the extreme ranges in the opening stages of the First World War. Volley fire may have played a role in the Battle of Mons – which essentially succeeded in disrupting the German advance and ruined Kaiser Wilhelm II's plans to capture Paris and quickly knock France out of the war. The fire was so intense and concentrated from the British lines that some German units believed their positions had been sighted by British machine guns.
An important factor to consider is that the British Army, despite being small in numbers, was also among the best trained and most experienced of the European Army of 1914. British training emphasized rapid-fire marksmanship; that worked well in the early days of the war, and volley fire would have been part of the rifle drills.
While volley fire may have had helped break the German advance, as the armies dug the concept was determined to be far less effective in the trenches.
Despite that fact, many of the British rifles issued still were produced with a range dial, and it wasn't well into 1915 that the feature was deemed unnecessary. Lee Enfields, however, produced in Australia by Lithgow, continued to include the volley sight and magazine cutoff at least until 1917 and perhaps even later.
Additionally, the British weren't the only military to employ long range or volley sights, and rifles used by the Belgian, Danish, and Austrian armies had similar features – yet it was the Lee Metford and early Lee Enfields where the volley fire feature was most widely utilized in training and in the field.
Today's more powerful rifles allow snipers to hit targets at extreme distances, but 130+ years ago, the thinking was to fire volleys of rounds at an extreme range and hope it would deter or disrupt the enemy.
Peter Suciu is a freelance writer based in Michigan. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.