The year 1982 was one of many that comprised the drawn-out twilight of the crumbling British Empire.
Since its entrance into WWII, the United Kingdom had not enjoyed a single year without war in one corner or another of its territories. The Troubles in Northern Ireland was in its 14th year. Since the mid-'70s, the British people had seen a lot of change. Inflation was at 10 percent, 1.5 million were unemployed and conflict was brewing eight thousand miles away off the Patagonian coast of South America.
The ensuing Falklands War lasted for only 10 weeks but was described by many who served in the conflict and fast, fierce and dirty. Numerous weapon systems saw their first notable combat use in the Falklands War, including the Blowpipe MANPAD and the AM39 and MM38 Exocet missiles. But there was one weapon that was seeing its last official deployment.
The L42A1 Enfield sniper rifle was born in 1970 as an arsenal conversion of the venerable .303 caliber Lee-Enfield No. 4 Mk1*(T) sniper rifle. During World War Two, the British military sent approximately 12,000 of their most accurate No. 4 Mk1 SMLE rifles to legendary arms maker Holland & Holland for accurizing and modification into the new mission specific No. 4 Mk1*(T) sniper rifle.
Even after the adoption of standard NATO calibers in the 1960s, the Brits continued to use the .303 round for their sniper rifles, as it was got the job done putting out political fires around the empire. By 1970, the need to use a common caliber in both the standard L1A1 infantry rifle and the standard sniper rifle outweighed the cost of replacement.
The '50s and '60s had proven to be a golden age for gunsmithing, leading to many new techniques and schools of thought. Sporterizing WWII-era military small arms into high-end hunting and national match-grade competition rifles had become the norm. Heavy contour free-floating barrels had fallen into favor with long-range shooters. The days of a long, skinny barrel using three points of contact in the bedding process were all but over.
The new L42A1 Enfield was built from existing No. 4 Mk1*(T) platforms. The forend was cut down to the length of many modern hunting rifles and the remaining wood inletted to accommodate the new hammer forged free floating heavy barrel chambered in 7.62 NATO. The new barrel featured a right hand twist rate of 1:12, using four lands and grooves. The new 4x scope featured a bullet drop-compensating elevation adjustment that was calibrated for the NATO round.
The bolt and extractor were also updated to the new caliber, with the new bolt head being proofed at 19 tons per square inch to accommodate the higher pressure cartridge. The magazine well was modified to accommodate new 10-round magazine. The rear portion of the stock was left intact and featured the classic Enfield straight grip and a raised wooden cheek piece for proper scope alignment.
Shortly thereafter, a target rifle version, branded the L39A1, was also produced in limited numbers. Like its sniper cousin, the L39A1 Enfield target rifle featured the same 7.62 NATO chambering, free-floated hammer-forged barrel and shortened forearm. Instead of a scope mount, it was fitted with a set of Parker-Hale target tunnel front and micrometer adjustable rear sights.
There were two variations of the magazine.The more common variant used a standard .303 magazine with a follower that permitted single loading only of 7.62 rounds. The lesser-seen variant was a full repeater using the same magazine well and body of the L42A1. The rear stock portion had a standard-height cheek piece for use with the target sights, as well as a semi-pistol grip stock as found on other British competition rifles.
While there is a very small quantity of L42A1 sniper rifles on the American market, they are few and far between. I was lucky enough, however, to acquire a low serial number L39A1 for my collection a few years back. Despite a few differences, the L39A1 is essentially the same rifle as the L42A1, so we can get an insight into the capabilities of the warrior through its civilian brother.
Accuracy is surprisingly good for a rifle made 40 years ago using 1970s technology and techniques. Shooting 168-grain Hornady Match loads, this old rifle easily shoots sub-MOA, with my smallest groups being about .650 MOA.
I have found that the Parker-Hale rear sight can actually work to your advantage at longer ranges over most non-benchrest scopes because of its finer increments of adjustment. 1/2 or 1/4 MOA adjustment on many scopes can leave one stranded an inch or two high or low at ranges of 400-600 yards with an inability to properly zero at an intermediate range. This is, of course, why most benchrest scopes use 1/8 MOA increments. I have not experienced this problem with the micrometer-style rear sight of my L39A1 Enfield target rifle and have successfully zeroed the gun in 3 1/2-inch groups at 600 yards.
The L42A1 Enfield served the British military from 1970 until 1985, when it was replaced by the Accuracy International L96 sniper rifle. During its 15-year tenure, the L42A1 saw combat in Oman during the Dhofar Rebellion, in Northern Ireland during The Troubles and, of course, in The Falklands War.
While the 10-week war in the South Atlantic was the last official overseas deployment of the aging rifle, reports began to circulate in 1991 that some British SAS commandos were using the L42A1 again, this time fitted with a Schmidt and Bender 6x scope as they fought alongside the US-led coalition in Operation Desert Storm.
For us former colonials raised on this side of the Atlantic, two sets of events have really given a close look at British military hardware: The Troubles and The Falklands. As an American, these were the times that the Brits got the front and center story in our newspapers. Not as part of an allied coalition, but as the main player of an armed conflict.
While both the US and UK militaries operate with the same types of equipment, it has always been interesting to see the Brits in action and see how their kit compares to ours. Our M-14 vs their L1A1, our M16/M4 vs their SA80 and our M40 sniper rifle vs their L42A1. Both countries have a long history of trying to keep their military contracts within the borders of their own nations.
While a comparison of the 1970s USMC M40 and the British L42A1 Enfield may immediately point out some obvious differences, there are actually many similarities. They are essentially the same rifle built by two different think tanks: one team drinking coffee and the other tea. In the end, it was the same outcome with a different way of getting there.
The only real difference is that, eventually, the Brits completely switched platforms to the Accuracy International L96, while the US continued to improve and re-fit the M40. In 1972, the North Vietnamese officer corps or Irish Republican paramilitary couldn't tell the difference between the two rifles from 600 yards out. The results were the same.
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