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Battlefield tack driver: the model 1903 Springfield in WWI.

The German troops were clear of the woods. On they came with closed ranks in four lines. One looked at them with almost a friendly interest. No particular hate or fear ... The fingers bit into the rifle. "Hold your fire!" ... The next I recall is firing. Firing. Firing. My fingers were tearing greedily at more ammunition, then the instinct of the hunter restrained me. I began to fire slower, looking for my mark, making sure they hit. The Huns now appeared to be almost on top of us and then, all of a sudden, there was nothing more to aim at. A few scattered groups with hands held up, racing for our lines and shouting, "Kamerad! Kamerad!" From At Bealleau Wood by Robert B. Asprey.

When the US 2nd Division went into combat before Belleau Wood on June 1, 1918, the reputations of both the United States Marine Corps and the 1903 Springfield were about to be immortalized in the annals of military history. It was on this occasion Marine Corps Captain Lloyd Williams uttered his famous line to retiring French soldiers, who warned him of the pending arrival of the German advance, "Retreat hell! We just got here!" Based on the Marine's performance in the ensuing battle, the Germans nicknamed them "Devil Dogs" a sobriquet based on Cerberus, the vicious 3-headed dog eternally guarding the entrance to the underworld, Hades, in Greek mythology.

That approximately half of the AEF units involved in the fight for Belleau Wood were composed of troops from the United States Army has to this day been a perpetual source of consternation to Army historians. A combination of luck, PR and excellent marksmanship thrust the Marines into the limelight forever associating the Corps and the Model 1903 Springfield with Belleau Wood. The day's newspapers, looking for any ray of sunshine in the otherwise gloomy situation existing since the German Spring Offensive cracked the Allied lines wide open and drove them within earshot of Paris, picked up the story and for the duration of the battle, the Marines made headlines worldwide.

The rifle fire by the Marines during a number of critical phases of the battle completely amazed the Germans. The accuracy, particularly at ranges beyond which most European troops were expected to engage an enemy with aimed fire was truly astounding.

Such a combat reputation can only be achieved on the battlefield if the rifle in question has the inherent accuracy to live up to the ability of the marksmen. The Model 1903 Springfield met the challenge through two World Wars, a series of "policing actions" from Mexico to Central America to the steaming jungles of the Philippines and in myriad match competitions at Camp Perry and abroad. The "Leathernecks" throughout their long history have consistently been man for man the finest trained riflemen of any major combat force in the world.

Learning the Hard Way

The United States Ordnance Department was looking for a replacement for the Model 1898 Krag-Jorgenson almost as soon as it was adopted. Proof positive the Krag was a mistake was provided at the brief encounter with Spanish forces at Las Guasimas, Cuba followed quickly by a succession of brutal lessons at San Juan Hill and El Caney. Spanish troops armed with the 7x57mm Model 1893 Mauser were faster loading, flatter shooting and inherently more accurate than the Krag.

The Spanish Mausers were rapidly reloaded due to the patented Mauser "charger" system, commonly known as "stripper clips." By comparison, the Krag-Jorgensen's magazine was loaded with individual rounds dropped in one at a time. The Krag could be reloaded with a round in the chamber and, while this is not a bad feature, it certainly can't offset the time required to fumble around in a cartridge box or Mill's belt for individual cartridges.

The Mauser "charger" held all of the soldier's ammunition in convenient 5-round packets within the cartridge pouch. To load, the action was opened, a charger placed in the charger guide and, with a rapid downward thrust of the thumb, all five rounds charged the magazine. Upon closing the bolt, the empty "charger" was popped out of the guides and the rifle was ready to fire. During the Spanish-American War, the Spaniards, in spite of being poorly led on the battlefield, laid down deadly barrages of rifle fire on US troops armed with a combination of M1898 Krags and antiquated M1873 "Trapdoor" Springfields. "Be ballistics of the Spanish 7x57mm Mauser cartridge outclassed the US .30-40 Krag. Spanish troops were able to engage US forces at distances beyond the effective range of the Krag.

After the Spanish-American War, the Army analyzed the shortcomings of the Krag, intent on developing an effective replacement. They didn't look very far for inspiration. Large numbers of 1893 Spanish Mausers had been captured and development of the Krag's replacement began in earnest. Several prototypes were tested, field trials held, all of which culminated in the adoption of the Model 1903 Springfield on June 19, 1903.

Lesson Learned

The new rifle "borrowed" a number of features from the superior Mauser design, the single most important of which was the "charger loading" system. The advantage in firepower afforded by this simple, but ingenious patented feature was soon to be placed in the hands of United States forces, however it was going to arrive on the wings of controversy and at the cost of millions of dollars.

The bolt's dual, forward locking-lug design, the flag-style, bolt-mounted safety and staggered internal box magazine were additional Mauser features incorporated into the new Springfield. The addition of a magazine cutoff while different than the contemporary Gew 98 Mauser, was still a feature Mauser had used on the Turkish Model 1893. The few features on the Springfield actually different are an attempt to skirt Mauser's patents and avoid paying royalties. There was no advantage to the '03's two-piece firing pin or ugly third locking lug.

That the Springfield was without question a Mauser clone was confirmed in a series of patent infringement lawsuits filed by Mauser. Mauser won and the court ordered the US Government to pay damages. This is where popular myth takes over. The myth says the US Government lost the case, appealed, lost again, but war intervened and only a small amount of the judgment, approximately $250,000, was actually paid to Mauser. The balance of the huge award was never paid and the Great War provided the US Government an easy out.

The truth is a much more fascinating story. It was thought most of the DWM and Mauser company records were lost forever during the Allied bombing of Germany during WWII. Not so the records of their attorney's--including the files of the US law firm handling the Mauser vs. the US suits here. Based on recent research by the firearms author, collector and historian, Jon Speed, this fascinating story is soon to be told. Jon's research of these long-lost records indicates the US paid huge sums of money in the form of both penalties and licensing fees, even up to and during the early years of WWI while the US remained neutral. The details of this fascinating story will be appear in Jon's upcoming two-volume work on the history of the Mauser firm.

A Great Cartridge

As important as the rifle was, the cartridge for which it was chambered proved to be the finest combat round of its era, perhaps any era, eventually seeing service through WWI, WWII, Korea and Vietnam and a host of small scale conflicts too numerous to mention. It is still perhaps the finest cartridge in its class. The original round was called the .30-03, the first number denoting the caliber and the second 1903, the year of its adoption. The original cartridge was little better ballistically than the .30 Krag and inferior to most European cartridges.

The loading consisted of a 220-grain cupro-nickel jacketed roundnose bullet doing little more than 2,300 fps. After additional development, the final version of the cartridge was the 1906 loading consisting of a 150-grain spitzer bullet--another German development--exiting the muzzle at 2,700 fps. To achieve this velocity, the case had been lengthened by .070". The new cartridge was officially referred to as the US caliber .30-06. The '06 has proven to be one of the best-designed and most flexible cartridges in history. It made its mark on the battlefield and in the hand of countless hunters and target shooters, including two of its greatest admirers, President Theodore Roosevelt and Ernest Hemingway.

Revolutionary Concept

It is important to remember it took several decades from its first introduction by the French in 1886 for ordnance boards and weapons designers to fully understand the properties of high velocity, small-caliber bullets driven by smokeless powder. In the early years of smokeless powder, most armies still issued long-barreled rifles for the infantry and short-barreled carbines for everyone else. The Model 1903 Springfield came along at the very beginning of a transitional period in weapons development. The original prototypes produced in 1900 had 30" barrels, however, ongoing testing by the British had proven optimum velocity with the new smokeless powder could be achieved with barrels in the 24" range.

With barrels as short as 22" to 24", an infantry rifle could generate velocities in the mid to high 2,000+ fps range in a package short enough for issue to mounted troops as well as to soldiers manning crew-served weapons, whose primary weapon in combat was not the rifle. The Ordnance people loved it. A "one-size-fits-all" short rifle interchangeably issued to troops of every type and description would simplify both production and supply. The Model 1903 Springfield fit the bill perfectly with its 24" barrel. Mounted troops who received the Springfield were issued with saddle scabbards and all were equipped with the Model 1907 leather sling.

Teddy To The Rescue

There has never been, nor will there likely ever be a United States President as knowledgeable when it comes to firearms as President Theodore Roosevelt. From hunting grizzlies in his favorite hunting grounds in the Western United States to his heroics at San Juan Hill, Cuba, Teddy had hands-on, first person experience with a broad cross-section of state-of-the-art small arms. He was what we call today a "gun enthusiast." President Roosevelt wanted both the Army and the Navy expanded and brought up to world-class standards and took a personal interest in the weapons systems adopted.

On January 4th, 1905, when the Model 1903 Springfield was first shown to him, Teddy exclaimed, "I must say I think the rod bayonet about as poor an invention as I ever saw!" What he was referring to of course was the retracting "rod" bayonet feature of the early Springfield. Teddy would have nothing to do with the unusual, "preposterous" design and immediately ordered the development of a proper sword bayonet. It was at this point in 1907 the Springfield neared the final configuration. Original rifles with the strange and unusual "rod" bayonet are prized rarities among avid Springfield collectors today.

The new Model 1905 bayonet has a press button locking system just behind the crossguard in front of the grip panels rather than on the pommel, as was the case with most bayonets of this period. The blade is 16" long while the overall length of the bayonet is 20.7". The lower edge of the blade was sharpened from a point just ahead of the ricasso to the tip of the blade. A false edge on the tip of the blade is sometimes found sharpened as well. Original unaltered Model 1905 bayonets were blued from the pommel to the first 1/8" of the ricasso, including the crossguard, with the rest of the business end of the blade brightly polished.

To War

The 1903 was issued to the Marine Corps beginning in 1908. Its first use in combat in the hands of the Marines was in Nicaragua in 1912 and shortly thereafter during the Vera Cruz Campaign of 1914, by which time the last of the Model 1898 Krag-Jorgenson rifles had been retired from Marine Corps service. Mexico, Haiti and the Dominican Republic rounded out the list of battle honors for '03-toting Marines before the United States entered the Great War in 1917.

The Model 1903 saw its first combat action in the hands of the Army in 1916 with General "Blackjack" Pershing's troops during the punitive expedition into Mexico. While the ungainly traditional formations of the United States Army chased Pancho Villa's light, fast moving mounted rebel forces all across northern Mexico, they never managed to force a decisive action. However on the rare occasions firefights took place, the Springfield acquitted itself quite well and quickly won the confidence of both the infantry and cavalry to whom it had been issued. The Springfield was along for the ride in the last mounted cavalry charge made in combat by the United States Army at Ojos Azules, Mexico, on May 5, 1916.

While President Wilson tried to keep America out of the war, US munitions factories and arms manufacturers churned out millions of small arms and hundreds of millions of rounds of ammunition, sending Mausers, Rolling Blocks, Berthiers, 1914 Enfields and Moisin-Nagants to the battlefronts. While this flurry of commercial activity took place, the Government arsenals made 1903s at a snail's pace. This lack of foresight resulted in a severe shortage of serviceable weapons when the US finally entered the war.

When war was finally declared on Germany, the total inventory of Model 1903 Springfields issued to troops and in US armories was a measly 600,000, scarcely enough to arm the tiny force of existing US Army and Marine Corps units, let alone the millions flocking to the colors. The net result was the Marine Corps received priority issues of the Springfield and the Army received what was left with the balance of American forces armed with the M1917 Enfield.

Popular myths aside, the M1917 was the primary battle rifle of the AEF. Wartime production of the Springfield totaled approximately 312,878 rifles while a combination of Remington, Winchester and the Eddystone Arsenal produced an estimated 2,193,429 Enfields. Unlike the Army, the Marines were exclusively issued the M1903 Springfield during the Great War.

Based on anecdotal evidence, the troops who had experience with both rifles favored the Springfield over the less elegant and heavier Enfield. Sgt. Alvin York, carried an '03 even though his unit was armed with 1917s (he could see the sights better). Without question, the work done with the '03 on the Western Front by the United States Marines was brilliant.

The Model 1903 was the frontline battle rifle of US forces in 1941, serving with distinction in the Philippines, Corregidor and at Guadalcanal until it was gradually replaced by the M1 Garand.

It served on as a sniper rifle and in the hands of some of the Old Bread who preferred the accuracy of the '03 to the firepower of the new semiauto. The Model 1903 Springfield in various guises continued to serve the US Military for another 50-odd years following the Great War, ending its illustrious career in the early years of the Vietnam War as a sniper rifle. The Model 1903 in each of its various forms is one of the most accurate and celebrated rifles in American history.
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Author:Sheehan, John
Publication:Guns Magazine
Date:Oct 1, 2006
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