The New Zealand Carbine
by John Milligan, NZAHAA Auckland Branch
We Don’t Know how Lucky We Are, Mate!
There are probably many gun enthusiasts in New Zealand who do not know that New Zealand can lay claim to one of the rarest Lee Enfield Models in the world. The ‘Magazine Lee Enfield Carbine – New Zealand Pattern’ is uniquely ours. It was designed for, and issued solely to our ‘Rough Riders’ in the Boer War. It is an under-appreciated and under-valued artefact from our military history. In fact overseas collectors of historic arms value them far more highly than we do!
How The New Zealand Carbine Came About
When the first contingents of NZ Mounted Rifles arrived in South Africa in November 1899 they carried single shot .303 Martini-Enfield Carbines.
These soon proved to be inadequate against the fire power of the Boers armed with clip loading Mausers.
So in April 1900, while camped at Springfield, Bloemfontein our troops were (optionally) issued with Lee Enfield and Lee Metford Cavalry Carbines borrowed or bought from the British. These solved the fire power problem but they did not have bayonet bosses. Tactically our ‘Rough Riders’ were not deployed as cavalry who fought on horseback but as mounted infantry. It was expected that they would engage the enemy on the ground where a bayonet would come in handy. In actual fact the wily Boers did everything they could to keep a rifle-shot’s distance away from their enemy so hand to hand bayonet attacks would have been a very rare occurrence!
But cavalry carbines were in short supply. Many of the Mounted Rifles had to accept a full length Lee Enfield rifle if they wanted a repeater that would accept a bayonet. These were too long to fit the existing scabbards that had been used for the Martini-Enfield Carbines so an awkward leather bucket or ‘gumboot’ arrangement was hung off the rear of the saddle to hold the butt of the rifle. The trooper had to hold on to the barrel as he rode, so many fashioned a leather wrist sling that attached to the piling hook. This allowed them to have both hands free as they rode. It was clear that the New Zealand Mounted Rifles needed their own carbine. So in May 1900 the NZ Government placed an order for 1500 of what would become known as the Magazine Lee Enfield Carbine ‘New Zealand Pattern’.
Making The New Zealand Carbine
By using the same barrel (with modified extractor slot) and bayonet boss as the Martini-Enfield Artillery carbine it could take a Pattern 1888 Bayonet. Like other Lee Enfield carbines it used a shortened 6 shot magazine and a flattened and turned-down bolt handle. This allowed it to slide easily in and out of the scabbard without snagging. The foresight had sturdy, rounded sight protector wings that also reduced the likelihood of snagging.
The top wood and bottom fore wood were unique to the NZ Carbine – the latter having no middle band. Nor does it have a provision for a clearing rod. Production began at Enfield in 1901. The first batch cost £2/4/11 ½d each.
In common with other carbines (and distinct from the rifles) the butt stock socket is stamped on the left hand side with the crown, royal cypher, date and model designation. I suspect that this is because carbines have a turned down bolt handle which makes the stamping less easily visible if it is on the right hand side.
Doug Munro of Baltimore, Maryland USA has compiled details for a large number of NZ Carbines over the last 3 years and the data is suggesting some trends. He has identified 3 distinct types.
‘Type 1‘ seems to have used new (Lee Metford and/or Lee Enfield) carbine action bodies to make the first batch of 1000. These are stamped Enfield 1901 ‘LEC’ (Lee Enfield Carbine) and have no Mark number. ‘Type 2‘ makes up the bulk of the next batch of 500. They are stamped ‘Enfield 1902 or 1903’ They may be designated ‘LEC I’ or ‘LEC I*’. ‘Type 3‘ occurs at the end of the production run of the later batch of 500 carbines. It seems to have included many recycled parts. There is even a handful of action bodies that were formerly 1894 Lee Metford Carbines and have had the date 1903 added.
Since Queen Victoria died in 1901, early carbines have ‘V.R.’ and a Queen’s Crown (with two ‘humps’). Those made in the reign of King Edward VII have ‘E.R.’ and a King’s Crown (more like a bishop’s mitre).
On the right hand side of the butt stock socket is ‘N ^ Z’ with the ‘Rack Number’ over the year-of-acceptance number. This is always fairly crudely (some might say amateurishly) stamped, suggesting it was done in the field by unit armourers. The rack number has nothing to do with the ‘governing’ serial number which is the one on the receiver. It’s as if they had all of the carbines in a heap and pulled them out randomly for rack numbering. So a low ‘serial number’ might have a high rack number and vice versa.
The ‘governing’ serial number on the receiver is the most important. It is the best signifier of the order of manufacture and it should match the number on the barrel unless your gun has been rebarrelled. If you’re really lucky it will also match the bolt number because only 1 in 3 of the guns in Doug’s survey has matching receiver, barrel and bolt numbers. This suggests that many bolts were replaced during service. In some cases new bolts seem to have been fitted and stamped with a matching number that might be in a different type face. In other cases, used bolts have been over-stamped with a number that matches the receiver and barrel. In other cases a recycled bolt has been used without renumbering.
In October 1902 a change was made to the rear sight. It was fitted with a narrower slide and a lower sight cap. This was done to newly made arms and it seems that many that were in service were also changed. Carbines so changed have ‘EC/88’ stamped on the back sight.
This leads him to believe that the first batch of 1000 was numbered from 40 to 1040. This is backed up by the fact that all guns within this range seem to be new-made and have ‘LEC’ only on their butt stock sockets. It’s interesting to ponder what became of the very first 40. Were they trial’s rifles? Are they still out there? What might one be worth?
When it comes to dates and numbers it is a bit hard to make any hard and fast rules about the NZ Carbine. Although it is generally believed that only 1500 were made, some have been found with numbers as high as the 1600s and 1700s.
You may even find one with ‘1903’ as the year of manufacture (on the left hand side) but 1901 as the year of NZ acceptance (on the right hand side). How could that happen?
The NZ Carbine in Later Life
New Zealand records show that 1484 NZ Carbines made it back from South Africa. With the introduction of charger loading on the later Lee Enfield Rifles and early SMLEs in the pre-WWI years, the NZ Carbine became obsolete for front line military purposes. For a while they languished in the army stores.
In 1912 some of the NZ Carbines were issued to the NZ Police. Photographs of the police raid on Rua Kenana’s hideaway in the Ureweras in 1916 show constables holding NZ Carbines.
After that, it seems the majority were stamped ‘DP’ (Drill purposes) and sent out to schools for cadets to use for parade ground stomping. During WW II some were issued to the Home Guard. But again after the war they found their way back to the school yards and cadet training halls and were there well into the 1960s.
Some are known to have been used by a government department for pest control. Many were cannibalised, sporterised or rebarrelled and fitted with Long Tom parts. A very small number were fortunate enough to have been preserved by lovers of antique arms and are still used in shooting matches today.
Restoring the NZ Carbine
Perhaps the most difficult parts to find are the wooden components. The top wood and bottom fore-woods are unique. Recently Ross Hewett of NZAHAA arranged for Ian Coates of Thames to make 8 new bottom fore woods. The results were excellent and they were snapped up quickly at $80.00 each. Another order is likely.
The top woods are far more difficult to make. Ian has attempted to make some but says “it’s like trying to turn an egg shell on a lathe”. It’s possible to make a look-alike by using SMLE top wood but the retaining clips need to be modified.
The bayonet boss is common to the more numerous Martini-Enfield Carbines of which the NZ government owned about 10,000. But these too are becoming hard to find. They fetch about $60.00 if you can find one. Often the five shot magazine has been done away with and replaced by the 10-shot magazine from a Long Tom. I hesitate to say what you would pay if you found one!
Shooting The NZ Carbine
Just because your NZ Carbine is marked ‘DP’ that doesn’t mean it has been condemned as unsafe to shoot. Often they simply had the end of the firing pin ground off so that snotty little schoolboys couldn’t bring one of their dad’s live rounds to school and shoot their mates. My carbine has ‘DP’ on it and all it required was a replacement firing pin. Before firing I inspected for any cracks or deactivation holes.
I also checked the head space. The first time I fired it was with a long string attached to the trigger and I lived to tell the tale. Although it is safe to fire 174 grain .303 MK VII factory loads in the NZ Carbine it is not optimum. The original ammo was the MK V and VI cordite round which was designed to fire a 215 grain at 2060 fps – not the 2400 fps of the MK VII round.
I’ve found that 38 grains of AR 2208 (with a wool wad to take up the air space) produces the right speed and seems to be very gentle on the old girl. I’ve had good groups with Hornady .312 150 grain Spitzer bullets and it also shoots the bulk cheap Remington .310 projectiles surprisingly well so the bore must be pretty close to the original specifications. I went down the path of getting some 215 grain jacketed bullets from Woodleighs but they worked out to be $1.50 a shot!
Investing In The New Zealand Carbine
I bought my New Zealand Carbine No 130 (all matching numbers!) about 5 years ago. I had to go to $800.00 to buy it at auction and I can still recall the feelings of ‘Buyer Remorse’ the next day. I thought I’d paid way too much because friends in the Antique Arms Association had paid less than half that for theirs.
Recently on Trademe a sporterised NZ Carbine went for $704 and one with a replacement fore-wood and top wood went for $1600.
So the old adage is true. You can never pay too much for a classic gun – you can only buy it too soon. They say that real estate values double every 10 years. But my NZ Carbine has more than doubled in value in just 5 years. My wife has yet to be convinced that we should sell the house and put all the money into old guns. Then wait 5 years, sell the guns, buy back the house (mortgage free!) and live off leftover cash.
For a long time the NZ Carbine has been under valued in New Zealand. On overseas web sites, dealers are asking anything from $US1450 to $US2000. We don’t know how lucky we are, mate.
At the end of last year, a group of us at NZAHAA Auckland Branch were discussing the merits of the NZ Carbine – how rare and undervalued it is.
It occurred to me that, like the Register of S.A.T. (South African Tour) trophy rifles brought to New Zealand by Lord Kitchener after the Boer War, there should be a register of New Zealand Carbines. Since there were only about 1500 of them, it might be possible to locate and log details of all of the survivors.
The aim is to share information so as to crate as accurate a picture as possible about the evolution of the various types. It will also help owners to source parts for restoration and perhaps even reunite some mismatched bolts with their original receivers.
We will also keep track of values both overseas and in NZ. I ran a notice in the NZAHAA Auckland Branch Newsletter and had a great response. The most significant was from Doug Munro of Baltimore – with whom we will be sharing our information.
I would be grateful if any NZ Carbine owners reading this would contact me on e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’ll send you back a registration form so that your gun can be included in the survey.
NZAHAA – Auckland Branch
Doug Munro – NZ Carbine Register – Baltimore, MD, USA
Ian Skennerton – The Lee Enfield
John Osborne – Carbines and Police in New Zealand 1840-1990
Richard Stowers – Kiwi Versus Boer.