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The U.S. model 1903 springfield rifle: it's been almost 110 years since its introduction, out this classic bolt gun still defines what a rifle should be.

July 1, 1898 dawned a hot, humid day for the U.S. Army troops massing outside of Santiago, Cuba. American plans called for the taking of two hills overlooking the city and its harbor: San Juan and Kettle hills. By capturing the heights and bringing the city, harbor and Spanish fleet under the threat of bombardment, they hoped to force the surrender of Spanish forces on the island of Cuba and bring a quick end to the Spanish-American War.

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San Juan and Kettle hills were fortified with block-houses, trenches and barbed wire and defended by fewer than 800 Spanish soldiers. The attacking American forces numbered about 6,600 men, supported by both light artillery and Gatling gun fire.

When the heroic, if disorganized, attack was over, the victorious Americans were shocked to discover that they had suffered more than 1,400 casualties! As with most military embarrassments, it was necessary for the blame to be placed somewhere, if professional prestige was to be salvaged. Those who investigated the affair placed the blame on the superior firepower of the Spanish troops, as provided by their Model 1893 Mauser rifles.

In 1898, only the regular U.S. Army had been armed with smokeless powder M1892 and M1896 Krag-Jorgensen rifles. The various National Guard and volunteer units, who made up the bulk of U.S. forces, were equipped with the single-shot "Trapdoor" Springfield rifle firing blackpowder ammunition, while Spanish troops were almost completely armed with Mausers.

While well-made and very accurate, the Krag-Jorgensen had several shortcomings aside from not being available in sufficient numbers. The .30 Army cartridge (a.k.a. .30-40 Krag) was outclassed by Spain's flat-shooting 7x57 Mauser, but more important was the Krag's slow method of charging the magazine--one round at a time. The Mo. 1893 Mauser had a five-round charger (stripper clip) loaded magazine, which enabled the individual soldier to maintain an impressive rate of fire.

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The conservative U.S. military establishment had long feared the "... excessive expenditure of ammunition" and the loss of individual accuracy if the firepower of troops was not tightly regulated, and it was thought the Krag's magazine cutoff and manual loading would prevent this. The rifle was to be used as a single-shot unless the tactical situation called for a high rate of massed fire. That the five-round magazine, held in reserve, could provide.

The battle outside of Santiago showed the U.S. military it was wrong. The Ordnance Dept. realized a more modern replacement must be found and they saw what they wanted in the charger-loaded rifle Mauser rifle.

In 1900, a commission was established to develop a new rifle. The first model, known as the Experimental Rifle of 1900 was a hybrid of both Krag and Mauser features. It used a Mauser-inspired bolt with dual front locking lugs, but had the Krag-style cocking piece--intended to allow a soldier to recock the bolt for a second try at a recalcitrant primer--and removable firing pin.

As did the new 98 Mauser, it had a third locking lug on the rear of the bolt that bore against the receiver bridge, while a non-rotary extractor not only permitted easier bolt manipulation but prevented double feeding of cartridges. It retained the appearance of the Krag rifle with a 30-inch barrel, similar stock, sights, and fittings.

Its .30 caliber cartridge was a rimmed design similar to the .30 Army. A single column, charger-loaded magazine similar to the M1891 Mauser's extended under the receiver and a magazine cutoff was included to quiet the fears of those members of the military establishment who still feared "... excessive expenditure of ammunition." Trials showed feeding problems with the rimmed cartridge, and it was feared that the exposed magazine body might be damaged.

A new rifle appeared in 1901 with a Mauser-style flush-mounted magazine loaded using five-round chargers. A new style magazine cutoff was operated by a thumbpiece on the left rear of the receiver and a partial thumb cutout in the left receiver wall made it easier to strip rounds into the magazine.

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As with the Krag and M 1900 rifle, the receiver and bolt were casehardened carbon steel forgings. Lastly, it featured a ramrod-style bayonet--an impractical idea the U.S. Army had been toying for over a decade.

A new .30 cal. cartridge was designed with a rimless, bottlenecked case 2.564 inches in length loaded with a 44.5-grain charge of Laflin & Rand "WA" nitrocellulose, smokeless powder which propelled the 220-grain round-nosed, FMJ bullet with lead/tin core enclosed in a cupro-nickel jacket, to a velocity of 2300 fps.

This rifle and cartridge combination performed well enough that the Secretary of War approved it for experimental issue as the U.S. Rifle, .30 Caliber, Model 1901 and Caliber .30 Ball Cartridge Model 1903.

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After two years of field trials, the Board of Officers for Rifle Testing recommended that the barrel length be reduced to 24 inches to allow one rifle to be used by both infantry and cavalry and repositioning the rear sight. Both changes were approved and the shortened rifle was adopted as the U.S. Magazine Rifle, Caliber .30, Model 1903.

The finalized cartridge design, the Caliber .30 Ball Cartridge Model 1903 (a.k.a. ".30-03"), used a case identical to the 1901 cartridge, but the rim thickness was reduced from .060" to .045". The same 220-grain round-nosed, FMJ bullet traveling at 2300 fps was utilized.

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The first M1903 rifles were issued in early 1905, with the cadets at West Point being the first unit to receive them. Almost immediately, objections were raised about the ramrod bayonet, as it proved far too fragile to be a serious fighting weapon. Even firearms-savvy President Theodore Roosevelt got into the act and heartily condemned the bayonet as "... about as poor an invention as I ever saw." Later that year--no doubt with TR's urging--a knife bayonet with a 15.5-inch blade was adopted and a new muzzle band with bayonet lug was fitted. (1)

By January 1906, approximately 200,000 rifles had been built by Springfield Armory and Rock Island Arsenal when it was decided to modify the .30 caliber cartridge to use a pointed "spitzer" bullet. (2)

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Adopted as the .30 Caliber Ball Cartridge, Model 1906 (a.k.a. .30-'06), as with earlier service cartridges, its 150-grain point-ed bullet consisted of a lead/tin core inside a cupro-nickel jacket, and was driven to a velocity of 2700 fps by 47-50 grains (depending on lot) of pyrocellulose powder. The shorter bullet required the neck be shortened, reducing case length to 2.494 inches (63mm). Those rifles already in service had their barrels shortened and re-chambered for the M1906 cartridge.

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To take advantage of the new cartridge's potential, a complex rear sight was adopted. It was adjustable for windage and had a U-notch "battle sight" fixed for 545 yards and a fold-up leaf with two U-notches and an aperture that were finely adjustable from 200 to 2800 yards.

The handguard had a very prominent hump to protect the rear sight when it was thrust into a cavalry trooper's saddle scabbard. After 1909, a clearance groove was cut in the handguard to make sighting easier.

These modifications were made to all existing rifles by February 1907, and production began again at the two government arsenals. The M 1903 saw its first combat service during the suppression of the Moro Rebellion in the Philippines and by 1912, most Army and Marine Corps units had received the new rifles.

When the United States entered the Great War in 1917, there were 843,239 M1903 rifles on hand. But with the massive expansion of the armed forces, the demand for rifles outstripped the facilities at both government arsenals, and the Army was forced to turn to commercial firms for additional arms. Winchester, Remington had been producing the British-designed P14 "Enfield" rifle to fulfill British contracts and the design was easily modified to accept the .30-'06 cartridge and full scale production, of what was now called the U.S. Magazine Rifle, Caliber .30, M1917 began.

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Actually, the M 1917 was easier to manufacture by modern mass production methods and by 1918, almost 2,200,000 had been produced. During this same period, Springfield and Rock Island's combined production was only 312,800 M 1903 rifles. It is a little known fact that the majority of Doughboys were equipped with "substitute standard" M1917 rifles!

To provide a sniper rifle for American troops, the army equipped a number of M1903s with the Warner & Swasey MI908 and M1913 "Telescopic Musket Sights." Complicated and heavy, these prismatic sights provided 5.2X and 6X magnification, but proved fragile and were not overly popular with the troops to whom they were issued. The Marine Corps fielded a M1903 sniper rifle mounting a Winchester A5 telescopic sight, which proved superior to the W&S device.

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During the war, some 65,000 M1903 rifles were modified to use the Pedersen device. This was a blowback operated unit that temporarily replaced the bolt, turning the M 1903 into a semiautomatic rifle firing a .30 cal. pistol-type cartridge. A small oval ejection port was milled into the left receiver wall and the cutoff was modified to hold the device in place, while the sear contained an extra lever to function as the disconnector and a side-mounted 40-round box magazine was fitted.

To deceive the enemy, the Ordnance Department decided to call it the U.S. Automatic Pistol, Caliber .30, Model of 1918.

Modified rifles were referred to as the M1903, Mark I. The war ended before any of these devices were used in combat and in the postwar period they did not seem as good an idea as they had earlier. Almost all the devices were destroyed and Mark I rifles were fitted with regular cutoffs and sears.

One serious defect arose with the M1903 during the war--receivers on some rifles began blowing up. Until late 1917, all M1903 receivers and bolts were casehardened, which proved insufficiently strong, especially with some of the haphazardly produced ammunition supplied by wartime contractors.

In early 1918, Springfield began using a double heat treating process that produced an extremely strong receiver. As an alternative, Rock Island began using nickel steel in receivers in August 1918, something not done with Springfield-manufactured rifles until 1927.

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These early M1903s, or "low numbered" rifles as they are known (#800,000 or lower for Springfield-made rifles, and below #285,507 for Rock Island) were not withdrawn from the hands of troops already using them, but those in storage were declared war reserve material and put aside.

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To speed up wartime production, arsenals stopped bluing or browning metal parts and began using a Parkerized finish, which proved faster to apply and more durable. In addition, a recoil bolt was installed in the stock to make it stronger.

Postwar production M1903s have the bolt handle swept slightly to the rear to make manipulation easier and have two recoil bolts in the stock. The Marine Corps was not satisfied with the M1905 sight and adopted a new type: the front sight with a thicker undercut blade and the rear sight changed so it only had the open battle sight and then a single large aperture on the slider.

Production of M1903s ended permanently at Rock Island in June of 1919, while small numbers were produced at Springfield until 1927. With 1.4 million M1903s and over 2 million M1917s in storage, the small peacetime army did not need any more rifles. Peacetime production was devoted to the manufacture of receivers, barrels, spare parts, M1903 National Match rifles, .22 cal. training/target rifles and small number of Springfield "sporting" rifles made for sale to civilians.

Influenced, once again, by developments in Germany, in 1926 the U.S. Army adopted the .30 Caliber Ball Cartridge M1 loaded with a 174-grain boattail spitzer bullet moving at 2600 fps. The improved aerodynamic shape of the projectile increased the effective range, when fired from heavy machine guns, by almost 2000 yards.

In 1929 a pistol grip stock, known as the "C" stock, was adopted to replace the straight-grip style used since 1903, and those rifles equipped with the new stock were referred to as the M1903A1. Apparently few were ever assembled and issued, as it was decided to use up the large quantities of the older style stocks and blanks first as an economy measure and the "C" stocks were primarily used on National Match rifles.

On January 9, 1936 the U.S. Army adopted the semiautomatic M1 Garand rifle, although teething problems caused its general issue to be postponed several times. The late 1930s saw adoption of the .30 Caliber Ball Cartridge M2, loaded with a 152-grain flat-based spitzer bullet moving at 2700 fps. This would remain the standard load for the remaining service life of all U.S. .30 cal. weapons.

When the USA became involved in the Second World War, the M1903 rifle was still standard issue with some army and all USMC units, and would remain so, for some time to come. Production of receivers at Springfield continued until late 1940, and M 1903 rifles were assembled from parts on hand until 1942, while barrels, stocks and other parts supplied by subcontractors were used to repair and overhaul rifles until 1944.

In 1940, Remington Arms Company leased the unused tooling at Rock Island Arsenal and began production of M1903 rifles for Great Britain. The English, standing alone against Nazi Germany, were desperate for rifles and placed orders for the M1903 even though it did not fire the standard .303 cartridge.

Over the course of production, efforts were made to reduce the time and cost of manufacture, which resulted in parts being manufactured from stampings instead of the usual forgings: floorplate, trigger guard, bands, etc.

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While these rifles are often referred to as the Ml903 (Modified) this nomenclature appears to have been applied by collectors and was not an official US Army designation.

In June 1941 the U.S. Army took over the English contracts, but as the British had already paid for most of the "start up" costs, they were provided with 64,000 Ml903 Springfield rifles. They sent approximately 30,000 rifles to New Zealand, where they were used to equip security units of the RNZAF and the NZ Home Guard to resist an expected invasion by the Japanese. Some were also carried by Kiwi forces during joint operations with U.S. forces in the Pacific.

Because they used a non-standard cartridge, those M 1903s that remained in England had a red stripe painted around the forearm--as did the thousands of M1917 rifles also provided to the British Home Guard by the USA. Small numbers of these "Red Stripe" Ml903s were issued to the Home Guard, although many of them remained in their packing crates throughout the war. (3)

In 1942, an aperture rear sight was approved for use on the Ml903, and rifles with this sight were given the designation U.S. Rifle, Caliber .30, Model 1903A3. While structural quality of Ml903A3 rifles remained excellent, they could not compare with the early Ml903s as regards to fit, detail work and finish.

Machine marks were obvious on the receivers and barrels, which were usually finished with a rough gray or gray/green Parkerized finish. But they proved just as reliable and as accurate as the M1903 and, with the aperture rear sight, the Ml903A3 was probably one of the more practical bolt-action combat rifles ever issued to U.S. forces.

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Remington began delivery of M1903A3s in December 1942, and continued to produce both models until March 1942, when sufficient aperture rear sights became available, leading to Ml903 production ceasing.

Production of the M1903A3 was also contracted to the L.C. Smith & Corona Typewriter Co. in March 1942, and its first rifles were delivered in October of that year. It was necessary to issue several M1903-type rifles to each U.S. Army unit for launching rifle grenades, as a suitable rifle grenade launcher was not available for the Ml rifle until late in 1943. The U.S. supplied large numbers of Ml903 rifles to allied forces, especially the Free French and Chinese.

Production of the Ml Garand finally reached levels where bolt-action rifles were no longer needed and the contracts with Remington and Smith-Corona were canceled in February 1944. By that time, Remington had manufactured 348,085 M1903, 707,629 M1903A3 rifles and Smith-Corona had produced 234,580.

During World War II, M1903 and Ml903A3 rifles were assembled with either the original straight grip stock, the pistol grip "C" stock or a hybrid design "scant" stock which featured a semipistol grip. The latter was an attempt to produce a pistol grip-type stock from the many straight-grip stock blanks on hand.

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M1903A3 rifles were produced with barrels having both four and two rifling grooves. The two-groove barrel was a cost and timesaving measure whose accuracy compared very favorably with the four-groove tube. Another cost saving measure was the replacement of the stock recoil bolts with simple pins.

The final production Springfield rifle was the U.S. Rifle, Sniper, Caliber .30, Model 1903A4. This was a MI 903A3 fitted with barrels picked for their superior performance and a pistol grip "C" stock (some late production M1903A4s were fitted with the "scant" semi pistol grip stock).

The receiver was drilled and tapped to accept a one-piece Redfield Junior mount for the Weaver 330C tele-scopic sight (military designation M73B1), no front or rear sights were fitted, the bolt handle was bent to clear the scope and the magazine had to be loaded with individual rounds, as the scope mount did not allow the use of chargers. It was the standard U.S. Army sniper rifle in World War II, and some remained in use until the end of the Korean War.

During World War II, the Marines issued M1903A1 match rifles fitted with Unertl 8X scopes to snipers. These remained in service with the USMC through the end of the Korean War.

After World War II, Springfield rifles were distributed as military aid to many nations: Greece, South Korea, South Vietnam, Taiwan (Nationalist China), Thailand, Turkey, and a number of Latin American armies and continued to see service in conflicts for several more decades. Thousands were sold on the American surplus arms market and they became very popular, as they had been before 1941, for building custom sporting rifles.

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Test Firing the M1903:

For this article I test fired a M1903 from my personal collection. It was assembled late in the war with a barrel made High Standard dated 12-44. It must have had an "interesting" career after that, as it was in a batch of rifles that had supposedly been reimported from Greece some time ago. The stock had been repaired so much that it was about 10% wood putty so it was replaced with an unissued stock and handguard purchased from a fellow collector. But the action was nice and tight, and the bore was bright and shiny.

Test firing was conducted from a Caldwell Lead Sled shooting rest on my club's 100-yard range with Hornady's .30-'06 M1 Garand ammunition loaded with 168-grain A-Max bullets. This M 1903 has a very nice two-stage trigger with a bit of take up and then a crisp letoff. With the rear sight folded up and the aperture set on 200 yards, the rifle shot to point of aim and it proved almost boringly easy to produce sub-two inch groups. Not too bad for an old girl approaching her 70th birthday, eh?

The "Aught Three" remains one of the most popular surplus rifles in the USA and in spite of Springfield Armory having manufactured everything from flintlock muskets to selective fire assault rifles to American shooters the M1903 rifle is the Springfield!

I would like to thank the following for providing assistance and materials in preparing this report: Bruce Canfield, Stuart Mowbray, Lou Behling, Rick "The Librarian" Slater, John Beard, Terry Mullins, William R. Hansen, Peter Maxwell, John Osborne, Noel Taylor, Springfield Armory Museum, Springfield Armory National Historical Site, Remington Collectors Association and www.icollector.com.

SPECIFICATIONS: U.S. MAGAZINE RIFLE, CALIBER .30, MODEL 1903

Caliber: .30 Caliber Model of 1906

Length: 43A inche

Barrel Length: 24 inches

Weight: 8.7 pounds

Magazine: Five-round, charger-loaded box

Sights: Front--blade

Rear--LI-notch bathe sight set for 545 yards. Fold-up leaf with notch and aperture adjustable from 200 to 2809 yards.

Bayonet: M1905 sword type with 15.5-inch single-edged blade

SPECIFICATIONS: U.S. RIFLE, CALIBER .30, MODEL 1903A3

Caliber: .30 Caliber Ball Cartridge M2

Length: 43.4 inches

Barrel Length: 24 inches

Weight: 8 pounds

Magazine: Five-round, charger-loaded box

Sights: Front--blade

Rear--aperture adjustable by ramp from 200 to 800 yards

Bayonet: M1905 sword bayonet or M1 knife bayonet with 10-ineh blade

SPECIFICATIONS: U.S. RIFLE, SNIPER, CALIBER .30, MODEL 1903A4

Caliber: .30 Caliber Ball Cartridge M2

Length: 43.4 inches

Barrel Length: 24 inches

Weight: 9.1 pounds

Magazine: Five-round, charger-loaded box

Sights: Weaver M73B1 2.5X scope

Bayonet: M1 knife bayonet with 10-inch single-edged blade

RELATED ARTICLE: PATENT DISPUTE WITH DWM

The Army Ordnance Department realized early on that there might be patent infringement problems with the 1903 rifle, and contacted Waffenfabrik Mauser in 1904. Mauser's U.S. patent attorneys discussed the situation with the Department, reportedly in a most amicable manner, and suggested that a royalty of $1 per rifle and $1 per thousand charger clips be paid for the use of Mauser patents.

In 1905, the final agreement was signed, which provided for a royalty of 750 per rifle and 500 per 1,000 clips be made to Mauser, up to a total of $200,000. The final installment was paid in mid-1909. "... [This] ended an agreement that from the start, had been marked by its spirit of mutual trust and fair play." (Campbell, Clark. The '03 Spring-field Rifles' Era, p. 56).

In late 1909, Deutches Waffen and Munition Fabriken (DWM--the actual corporate owners of Mauser) claimed the .30 M1906 cartridge's spitzer bullet was a violation of a U.S. patent one of their employees had received in 1907. The Ordnance Department claimed that very similar work had been done by Lt. Col. I. P. Farley in 1894 and on advice of counsel, the Ordnance Department refused to negotiate with DWM.

The outbreak of World War I meant the case never came to trial, and when the USA became involved in the conflict, the patent was seized by the Alien Property Custodian and the Attorney General dismissed the suit.

In 1921, a tribunal formed to settle prewar German and Austrian claims found for DWM, based not upon the patent infringement but on the issue that the patent seizure was unconstitutional. With interest accumulated during various appeals, the $300,000 award had become $412,520, and DWM received that amount in 1928.

(1.) The Army also issued limited numbers of M1909 and M1915 "Bolo" bayonets.

(2.) Actually the French army had adopted a pointed bullet years before the Germans but they had managed to keep it a "military secret" so well that the German name for the projectile became the common term!

(3.) "The 'Red Star' Remington Model 1903 Rifles" by John Beard and Terrell Mullins. Man at Arms. August 2009, vol. 31 issue #4.

Photos by James Walters & a Nathan Reynolds (unless otherwise indicated)
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Author:Scarlata, Paul
Publication:Shotgun News
Date:Jul 20, 2012
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