This bolt-action rifle gave Lewis Potter a lifelong fascination for the technical aspect of firearms
Many of those who did military service will be acquainted with the skeleton Lee Enfield No. 4 bolt-action rifle action used as a training and demonstration aid. I first saw one as a teenager in the early 1960s when I joined the Army Cadets which, I admit, was much more for the technical interest in firearms and the opportunity to use them than any thoughts of ever being a soldier. During training periods the object that always interested me most was the skeleton (SKN) Lee Enfield No. 4 action. The idea of removing metal to expose the hidden workings and highlighting the missing sections with paint was, I thought, quite fascinating.
The original No.4 Mk 1 and No.4 Mk 1*SKNs were approved for use in late 1950, though it seems likely some had already been issued. Later versions were approved in 1955 and the SKN continued for general instructional use until the bolt-action No. 4 rifle was phased out from 1957 to 1963. However, use of the Lee Enfield-based sniper rifle that continued with the 7.62 NATO variant, known as the L42, meant some of those training aids would have continued in use until around 1985, when an all-new sniper rifle was introduced.
SKNs were constructed from substandard second-hand or damaged components, mainly by the Royal Small Arms Factory (RSAF) at Enfield, the Government factory that developed the No. 4 rifle. Some, it seems, and probably a very modest number, were made up in the gun trade. Examples can also be found with cutaway forearm wood fitted, which is usually an armourer’s modification.
An example with a difference
This particular SKN is a good example of what to look for when considering purchasing an original. For example, we know this one was not built by RSAF as it is lacking the SKN serial number and broad arrow that would have been applied at the Royal Small Arms Factory, and there are other features that deviate from standard but which are still of interest.
First, it has a short five-round detachable magazine rather than the distinctively shaped 10-round detachable military magazine, with a hole cut in the side to see the spring. This short magazine was intended for a sporting rifle version but is, in itself, nowadays a fairly rare item. Second, the butt is fitted with a small Parker Hale screw top container to hold tunnel foresight elements, indicating it was once used on a target rifle. The barrel has also been smooth-bored where it should be rifled, quite often utilising the two- groove rifled barrel.
In addition, the cocking piece is polished where it should be black, part of the safety mechanism is missing, and brighter paintwork has been applied to the cutaway areas than the original. In fact, it is a bit like the workshop broom – three new heads and two new stales but still the same broom!
While this example is not all original, it still takes me back to my youth when that skeleton No. 4 helped nourish my interest in the technical aspect of firearms. Cutaway firearms of any type are, I think, wonderfully interesting pieces of work and usually very rare. Some 2,500 SKNs were built so they qualify as the more available skeleton actions.
Is this gun a classic? Of that there can be no doubt. The Lee Enfield rifle is world famous and probably qualifies as the most successful and long-serving military bolt-action rifle ever produced; a few years ago many were even converted to .410 shotguns.
What to look for when buying a second-hand Lee Enfield No. 4 skeleton
Barrel: This should be cut away but not pegged or blocked
Action: Including the bolt there will be eight cutaway sections
Maker: RSAF Enfield, also a modest number in the gun trade
Value: Circa £300 and rising for a completely original example