|Home | Guns | Product Reviews | Commentary | About | Contact | Donate|
At a time when many recruits were from small towns or rural farms and ranches, and when military and sporting rifles were not far removed, many of the soldiers who carried the 1903 into battle appreciated what it was capable of. When they had a chance obtain one later on, they jumped at it. Ever since that time, 1903 Springfield rifles, both sporterized and in their original military configurations, have made a notable showing each and every hunting season.
A Brief History
The great irony of the much beloved American model 1903 service rifle is that in large part it isn't an American rifle at all. In many ways, it can really be thought of as simply a refined Mauser 98. Some of the key features of the 1903 were, in fact, patterned after the German made Mauser model of 1893 and later model of 1898. These features were so close that the U.S. government actually negotiated with Mauser for patent rights and agreed to pay $200,000 in royalties. It should be noted that the Army was already familiar with the '93 since it was a key competitor against the Krag-Jorgensen prior to its adoption by the U.S. in 1894. It is also the rifle that American soldiers fought against in the Spanish-American war which, because of the obvious advantage it provided over the Krag during that conflict, is a principle reason that the M1903 was designed in the first place.
In the prior century, all but a few rifles were generally considered to be effective only out to perhaps 200-300 yards. This began to change in the years just prior to the development of the '03 with the adoption of smokeless powder and the equally important jacketed bullet. These two developments allowed bullets to be pushed to higher and higher velocities, culminating in the 1905 with the German army's adoption of the 7.92x57mm IS (Infantrie Spitz) cartridge, better known to us as 8mm Mauser, which as the nomenclature "Spitz" indicates, is designed around a bullet with a pointed, aerodynamic tip. This design greatly improves the ballistic trajectory of the round making it shoot flatter and giving it greater effective range. Combine this with progressive developments in powders that had been occurring since the development of smokeless powder and overnight everything else became obsolete.
Immediately, the Army ordnance department redesigned the .30-03 cartridge to take advantage of these developments. (The U.S. Army had, in fact, been looking at spitzer designed cartridges as early as 1894 but didn't have a rifle capable of using this round to good effect.) The M1903 with the '03 cartridge had already had problems with barrels wearing out faster than they should as a result of the powders in use and the pressure of the round against the rifling. To remedy this, the rifling was changed from 1:8 to 1:10 and muzzle velocity was reduced by 100fps, doubling barrel life without significantly affecting the power of the rifle. Then, in '06, add in the spitzer point, reduce the weight of the round, and you have the cartridge we know and love today.
Thus the army's Cartridge, Ball, Caliber .30, Model of 1906, or "30 aught 6" as it is more commonly known, came to be. With this change, it was also necessary to rechamber the rifles that had already been produced and to change the graduations on the leaf sight since with the flatter shooting cartridge, the same sight leaf, instead of spanning a distance of a "mere" 2,400 yards now allowed for a whopping 2,800 yards. That's over a mile and a half! Pretty optimistic even by the standards of a modern sniper rifle. Nevertheless, this cartridge was designed to allow a soldier to reach out and touch someone from a great distance away and this rifle could do it. The United States Marine Corps which long emphasized marksmanship superbly demonstrated this against the German infantry shortly after their deployment to Europe in WWI by routinely hitting enemy soldiers at distances significantly farther than most other soldiers were capable of.
The precision with which parts were fitted together is often thought of as something out of the past, something that we do not see in today's products except in high end custom jobs. True or not, one can't deny that the 1903 is an excellent shooter if well cared for. It most definitely made an impression during pre-WWI competition and earned it's stripes during the minor conflicts that occurred during the early days of it's use by the U.S. military.
In the run up to WWII, especially as a result of treaties such as the Lend-Lease Act, the brass very quickly realized that they were going to need all the guns they could get their hands on. So even though the M1903 had formally been supplanted by John C. Garand's M1 rifle, the depots were opened up and the M1903 stock piles dusted off. In fact, full scale production resumed with Remington and Smith-Carona joining the party and ultimately taking over production from government arsenals as they were converted to production of the M1 Garand.
However, Remington, being a commercial firm and under strain to meet the ever increasing production requirements of the government contracts would be insisting on a few changes in order to speed production and decrease cost. Among these were changing from four groove rifling to two grooves, a simplified (and arguably more effective) rear sight, using stamped parts in place of milled parts, relaxing certain manufacturing tolerances, changing from reinforcing screws in the stocks to pins, and less polishing and finishing of the exterior of the rifle. These changes were all made in areas that would not affect operation or accuracy of the rifle and resulted first in the M1903 variant that is often termed the M1903 modified rifle and finally the M1903-A3.
During early production of the M1903, there were some receiver failures noted that caused a great deal of concern. While the total failures was less than 100 resulting in only a handful of serious injuries and with production figures in the hundreds of thousands, it was also clear that there was no way to predict which rifles would fail. Whether or not a receiver would fail depended on the extent of use a given rifle saw as well. The problem was ultimately considered to be either excessive heating during manufacture or improper heat treating afterwards (or both) although most of the failures were probably also a product of a case failure, something not uncommon to the brass cartridges of that era. Equipment was eventually installed to more carefully regulate these processes along with changing to what was termed a double heat treatment and, ultimately, the alloy used was changed to nickel steel to further strengthen the barrels and receivers.
In order to try to keep troops safe, the U.S. army ordered rifles with receivers manufactured before a specified date to be placed in storage or issued only for non-combat roles at home. The Marine corps, ever under-funded to that time, had a somewhat more relaxed attitude to this problem and accepted the statistical risk. In fact, some of these early rifles remained in service throughout WWII.
Many consider these early receivers and bolts to be inherently unsafe to fire even once while others consider that the likelihood of a failure is so low with the risk of actual serious injury still lower that it should not be considered. The pragmatic approach to this is that virtually any early M1903 is probably safe for limited use if otherwise undamaged (and indeed it should be remembered that any older rifle carries a risk of failure) but since there are enough later production rifles around that if one can later obtain one of these stronger rifles that the early rifle should probably be left in storage or on display while the later, safer rifle be used when the urge to head to the range arises. It is this approach that I'll be most apt to follow.
A more detailed analysis of these issues was published by Dr. Joseph L. Lyon a few years ago titled, Some Observations On The Failure Of U.S. Model 1903 Rifle Receivers. Those concerned about the risks associated with these early rifles are referred to that paper which can readily be found online.
After WWI, the need for Springfield and Rock Island to continue to produce new rifles diminished but with the demobilization of troops, the arsenals were soon to be quite busy refurbishing all the rifles returning from combat in Europe. During this process, all low numbered receivers were ordered destroyed. But naturally, due to budgetary constraints, the time and effort involved, and the fact that not every rifle was submitted for refurbishing (including those that magically appeared in grampa's garage when he got home from the war) meant that some slipped through. Those that did go through, the overhaul were often found to be in pretty sad shape. According to an article published by the Army Ordnance department and quoted in Canfield's An Illustrated Guide to the '03 Springfield Service Rifle, 91% of barrels, 85% of receivers, 53% of handguards, 22% of bolts, and 19% of stocks were deemed unserviceable and subsequently replaced. Since these rifles underwent refurbishment again after WWII prior to being transferred to the public or to allied countries, finding a pre-1918 rifle in factory condition is going to be rare indeed.
My M1903 Rifle
My rifle was apparently one of those that escaped the first overhaul since it is a 1912 receiver (based on the serial number) mated to a 1911 barrel. Both are stamped RIA so it is probable that these were mated during original production and never separated. The rest of the rifle is another matter. If I assume that the rifle has remained a unit since it was transferred to civilian hands, a few conclusions can be drawn about the history of this rifle (and isn't that the fun part of collecting, tracing the history of an arm and trying to figure out what happened to it when?)
It is possible that the handguard is original since the configuration did not change significantly between about 1910 and the cessation of production by Rock Island but it is unlikely, given the frequency with which such parts were replaced.
The bolt is quite obviously not original since it is bears a bright finish and a Remington stamp in three places. One thing I find puzzling is the bright finish since what I have been able to find suggests that all Remington bolts were to have been blued. It is probable that these parts were mated during the post WWII rebuild.
Since the trigger, trigger guard, and the various internal components do not seem to show a history of replacement with any frequency, it is therefore probable that these parts are also original to the rifle although someone who has better knowledge of these parts might be able to tell with more certainty. I can say, however, that the magazine cut-off lever most likely has been replaced since in contrast with other parts of this rifle, it bears a black finish – probably an oil finish – but shows signs of the finish flaking off. It does, however, bear lettering with serifs. The serifs were dropped in 1914-1915 due to the fact that these sorts of embellishments proved to be a fragile part of the stamping dies. So if it was replaced, it was replaced with one appropriate to the era.
The rear sight, while a correct later-era 1905 sight, is probably not original since original sights would have had a bright finish on the leaf to make the markings more visible. This one has been parkerized. However, it is either an early WWII production or a refinished sight from an earlier era since while it does not have the center groove on the adjustment knobs, it does have the dished design. The size of the knobs along with the shape indicates that the sight is indeed of a production appropriate to the era the receiver was made but the lack of a groove in the knurling as well as the finish suggests that this was a later replacement.
Of the more interesting features of this particular specimen is the stock. While this is a pre-WWI era rifle, the stock lacks grasping grooves so has clearly been replaced. It is intriguing, though, to notice that the stock bears not one but two inspector's stamps, both for a rebuild rather than original manufacture along with two proof stamps. The first, from RIA, bears the initials of Frank Krack and thus places this stamp from between 1941 and 1946. The second, from San Antonio, contains the letters "SAA" in a box by itself with no additional letters but the letter "E" appears in line (mostly) and immediately after it in a separate box. My guess is that one of these represents a replacement stock during WWII (probably the RIA stamp, though it is possible it was attached to a different rifle and later matched to this one) and the other a post-war overhaul prior to disposal.
All in all, I'm pleased with this purchase and think I ended up with a pretty interesting rifle. Naturally, since this is a military rifle, the picture is incomplete without a few accessories. I've been looking around for an authentic M1907 sling to hook onto this rifle but since leather doesn't tend to be something you can expect to survive 100 years with ease, these can be somewhat hard to come by and tend to go for over $100 when they surface, sometimes well over. Until I do manage to find one, in the interim, I've purchased a reproduction to serve as a shooting aid and to at least give a sense of the original equipment.
Apart from a sling, the most noticeable accessory is the bayonet. This rifle could be found with at least four distinct varieties. The first was termed a rod bayonet and was little more than that. In the front of the rifle, below the barrel, was a recess for a rod that could be extended and retracted as needed. Motivated by simplicity, the design ultimately proved unsatisfactory so in 1905, a new bayonet was adopted similar in design to that used on the earlier Krag-Jorgensen rifle. However, one notable change was the fact that this bayonet was a full 16 inches in length to compensate for the reduced length of the '03 rifle as compared to the Krag-Jorgensen. At this time, the infantry charge was still considered an essential part of warfare so it was believed that the extra distance afforded by this bayonet would be key to giving soldiers an advantage over their opponents.
This design remained standard issue until the U.S. entry into WWII. Being the first truly mechanised war, what soldiers had already begun to realize earlier became glaringly apparent now: a 16 inch bayonet, when strapped to your belt, didn't get along well with a car seat, nor was a bayonet charge the most likely of occurances when troops were moving 50 miles in a day. The shear demand for raw materials like steel also became a factor. So early on in the war, the decision was made to take the stocks of bayonets on hand and shorten them from 16 to 10 inches. Originally, these were given the same spear point they had before but since the metal of the fuller was relatively thin, this made for a weak tip. Subsequently, modified bayonets were given a clipped point. Moving the point to the edge of the blade resulted in a much stronger tip. These modifications account for the relative scarcity of intact M1905 bayonets and the correspondingly high price.
But the M1905E1, as it was designated, was only a stop gap. With the ongoing production of new rifles and the production of the M1 rifle, more bayonets were needed. New bayonets were manufactured to the shorter 10 inch standard with the preferred spear point and designated as the M1 bayonet. Very little other than the length and the fact that the handles were now plastic (bakelite) instead of walnut differed between the M1905 and the M1 bayonets. Since the M1903 rifle was used for over 40 years, it would be appropriate to find any of these three bladed bayonets attached to this rifle, depending on the period one is trying to illustrate.
Contrasting this relative stability was the scabbard itself. Originally, scabbards had a leather cover. In 1910, this was modified to a canvas cover with a leather tip. In 1917, a substitute standard was adopted that saw limited use. With new bayonets being produced early into WWII, new scabbards were needed. The design was changed again to take advantage of the lower costs of plastics and was adopted as the M3 scabbard. Once the change to the 10 inch standard blade was made, that necessitated still another scabbard, which, like the M1 bayonet, was merely a shortened version of the M3 scabbard and was designated the M7 scabbard. An interesting variation on the markings is found on the Navy issued scabbards of which mine is one. Rather than being marked with the ordnance stamp, these were simply labeled "USN MK 1" since this was the nomenclature the navy used to describe what the army called the M3 scabbard.
Naturally, any rifle needs ammunition. One of the principle features that the ordnance department liked about the Mauser rifles was the fact that they could be loaded from a stripper clip. This let soldiers carry ammunition without a cumbersome box and yet not loose in a pouch or indivudally secured on a belt. Instead, it could be carried ready to load into the rifle. The design of the stripper clips remained virtually unchanged during the entire period during which the M1903 was used. Variances will be noticed only based on manufacturer. Markings here are either limited to the name of the manufacturer, sometimes in script or logo form, or are non-existent.
Once you have ammunition, you need something to carry it in. Previously, belts for use with the Krag rifles had rounds secured in individual loops, much in the way one would expect on a cowboy's gun belt. The cartridge belts adopted for use with the M1903 contained, initially, nine pouches that allowed soldiers to carry two five round clips in each. That means that soldiers armed with the M1903 were able to carry 90 rounds. The belts were redesigned in 1910 so that the pouches were moved forward with the size adjustment done in the middle of the belt. Doing so allowed the soldier easier access to the pouches without having to reach completely behind him. At this time, a tenth pouch was also added, allowing the soldier to carry a full 100 rounds of ammunition. Further changes occurred such as changing the shape of the bottom of the pouches to prevent the pointed rounds from poking through, changing from button clasps to the more familiar "lift-the-dot" clasps, changing fabrics, and methods of assembly. These and similar belts remained in service with the M1 rifle since they could just as easily each hold one en-bloc clip. My cartridge belt is made by Mills and dates to 1918. Note the grommets between each pouch for attaching other items such as canteens and scabbards.
There is one last item on my list of accessories and that's the front sight cover. These rifles were not manufactured with a protective globe or flared ears as on other rifles of the period. Instead, a protective cover was made for these rifles that was to be removed before use. On the earliest rifles, this also acted as a muzzle protector. No points for guessing why that bit was removed. These are not uncommon today but also seemingly not often sold. Finding one of the right vintage I have discovered can be hard.
No general design changes occurred to these covers after 1905 but there were variations in the specific dimensions. Identification is made somewhat harder by the fact that most of these were unmarked. When the A3 rifle was introduced, it was necessary to install a taller front sight to match the elevated rear sight and therefore a taller sight cover. I have one earlier cover and one for an A3. When looking for this item, one must be aware of seemingly genuine reproductions as well as re-imports with foreign markings on them. There are also a few rare types such as those marked as belong with USMC rifles that can be somewhat costly as well (I saw one offered in excess of $60.)
At The Range
With all the various items assembled, the only question left was whether this rifle would meet performance expectations. After collecting a suitable supply of ammo, it was time to head down to the range to spend a some quality time with my latest acquisition. Due to time constraints and other projects, this was actually split into two sessions, the first just to get used to the rifle, and the second for performance. My first order of business was to see if I could manage to get the sights aligned correctly. I don't particularly have a problem with those open sights but for some reason, they don't like me. With the battle sight (the notch you see when the leaf is down), aiming a bit low, I was able to hit the 300 yard gong without too much difficulty. At 100 yards, I couldn't hit anything. Remember, this notch is zeroed at about 530 yards. That means a correction of better than 50 inches on near targets. For some reason, I just wasn't able to manage this on the first trip out...
Okay, I admit it, most of that first day was just my cousin and I having fun (hard to do outside on a summer day in Phoenix in mid-July if there isn't water involved) so there wasn't a lot of serious work going on. Still, one of the first things I noticed was that this was about the smoothest bolt I have ever felt. With just a quick flick of the wrist, I was able to toss out spent casings and feed another another round to the chamber. There is much talk about the quality of the M1903 rifles and especially the earlier productions. My experience in this first session was that the fit and function of this rifle definitely seemed to support that talk.
It wasn't until the second session though that I really got a good sense for what this rifle could do. For this session, I took four boxes of Remington cartridges with me: UMC 150 gr MC, 125 gr PSP, 165 gr Core-Lokt PSP, and 180 gr Core-Lokt PSP and fired a ten round group with each load. Part of the mystical aura that the M1903 seems to possess for some collectors is the reputation for accuracy these earlier rifles have. Truth be told, the modified and A3 variants probably shoot just as well as the earlier ones (there is a reason Remington was chosen as the principle maker of these rifles during WWII) but the interest is around the earlier rifles. I was curious how the various weights would perform, especially given the different standard rounds that were issued over the course of it's service life.
Once I was all settled in and warmed up, I set up some targets at the 100 yard line and started punching holes. The first surprise I got was the consistency of the heavier weight bullets. It didn't seem to matter what I fed into the chamber. Off the bag, groupings were consistently about five inches. Well, almost... there was one flyer in the 165 gr load (which was almost certainly my fault) that took it out to seven inches but the other nine rounds are in a good five inch pattern. Out of the 40 rounds I fired, I can count those that were outside the black on one hand. That means that with open sights, everything from all four loadings was within four inches of my point of aim. To me, that is absolutely outstanding performance but that's not the best of it.
The last group I fired was the 125 gr PSP. I really expected this rifle to prefer the 165 gr rounds but when I went out to retrieve my targets, I was startled to discover that all ten rounds on the 125 gr target were in a cluster of just over four inches. Nine of these were actually in a group of a mere 2.75 inches. That's under three MOA with a leaf sight! I almost could not believe my eyes. Don't forget, this is a five shot rifle. To fire ten rounds means taking the rifle off my shoulder to reload, yet even with that the pattern did not open up.
Obligatory performance numbers were as follows: the 125 gr rounds averaged 3061 fps with standard deviation at 28.1, the 165 gr clocked 2795 fps with an SD of 17.2, and the 180 gr gave 2577 fps with a 18.0 SD. The 165 grain Core-Lokt PSP rounds hit the hardest with 2862 ft-lbs of force and, yes, the M1903 kicks pretty hard with those in the chamber (would you expect otherwise?) but it is quite manageable as long as you have a good shoulder and a proper hold.
I've got a good number of guns and rifles in my collection now. Some of them have disappointed me, some of them have impressed me. This one puts them all to shame. Yes, I've got modern rifles that shoot one MOA (or would if I were a better shooter) because that's what they were designed to do. But I've never had one perform so much better than any reasonable expectation I could have set. Now I understand the mystique surrounding these rifles. Their reputation is well earned indeed.
Myth and Legend
Virtually everyone in this country knows of the "Springfield" rifle and knows what it is capable of even if they have never fired a gun or rifle in their lives. The M1903 is one of only a few military rifles that are almost immediately recognizable even by the uninitiated. There is no mistaking it for a modern hunting rifle and no confusing it with rifles used by other nations. For me, the M1903 represents the pinnacle of bolt action military rifles. It served in two world wars and even saw limited use in the Korean conflict. In many ways, it is a symbol of the rise of America as a global power.
Ever since the first M1903 rifles were sold to the public by the DCM all the way back in 1910, there has been an ongoing interest in this rifle by collectors. At times, the public's treatment of these legendary rifles was not so favorable with many being diminished through ill conceived attempts to "sporterize" them. Nevertheless, do not forget that these modifications would not have been made at all if the public did not have a healthy appreciation for the quality and performance the M1903 afforded them. When the ready supply of rifles began to dwindle, the public took a second look at these and realized that their real value was not as a base for custom projects but as a true piece of history.
Today, the M1903 remains as popular as ever, gaining an almost mythical status among collectors and shooters alike. With the increase in the number of collectors and the subsequent decrease in the number of rifles on the market, prices have continued to rise, especially for the particularly desirable or otherwise hard-to-find specimens. But these rifles are not simply being put on display or locked in a safe somewhere to rot, unseen for years, even decades. No, the M1903 rifles make a strong showing in competitions and at public shooting ranges all across the country and all signs suggest that this will remain the case for many years to come.
After having experienced the power and performance of this rifle, I can easily understand why collectors are so attracted to it. As my own collection grows, it is entirely likely that more than one additional specimen will find its way into my safe at some point in the future and I can also say without a doubt that I will be doing my part to ensure that the M1903 can still be prominently found at my local public shooting range.
Aug 16, 2009