NOT MUCH FOR FIGHTING: THE M1903 SPRINGFIELD IN WWI

NOT MUCH FOR FIGHTING: THE M1903 SPRINGFIELD

                                            OR

            HAS LOOSEROUNDS GONE TOO FAR?!

 

 

There are some US  military  fire arms that enjoy the love  and adoration  of millions of people. These guns earned a reputation from major battles and wars.   Guns that entire generations used to fight off the enemies of America large and small.  The M1 Garand, the M1911,  the M1 Carbine.  The M14…  ahem..        One of those seems to have a lure and romance about it equal to or maybe  beyond even the M1 Garand.  That being the United States Rifle, Caliber .30-06, Model 1903.  Also known as the “’03”  or  “Springfield”.

The  story of the M1903 being adopted as the US service rifle is  pretty well known to anyone who knows anything about it.  The US was not happy with the  very finely made and smooth action-ed  side loading Krag rifle and its .30-40 service round after being shot to pieces by Spanish Mausers  in the Spanish American War.  Something about being under effective long range rifle fire from the other guy while you can not return same really drives a demand for change.

The Army got together all the experts, took a look at the captured Spanish Mausers and decided  the US Army needed to be using comparable.   In fact it was so comparable that a law suit was brought about over just how comparable the 03 was to the Mauser.

After a  being adopted the M1903 had its share of problems.   A number of  Pre WW1  rifles had brittle metal and and the receivers would come apart in various uncomfortable ways while shooting. The problem was figured out and fixed eventually but it is not advised to risk shooting any “low number” M1903.

 

After getting this squared away the rifle  then went on to glory and ever lasting fame in the hands of Doughboys like  Sgt York ( maybe.. maybe not reports vary) and the USMC and its marksmanship skill.  Official accounts of Marines mowing down Germans from long range with their rifles  tell of great marksmanship with great rifles and images are every where os snipers using the  03 for the dawn of modern sniping.       Though it was  the standard service rifle it was not the most widely issued and used rifle by the troops. That was actually the M1917.  But even though the 03  was still the rifle most coveted by the US troops.  As  said by Cpl. Mike Shelton: “What we really wanted were Springfields.  They were the best rifles in the war”.

But were they?

 

The 1903 is a fine, fine rifle  with beautiful lines.  It handles like a dream compared to most of its peers and was accurate enough to be used to the US team int he Olympics.   This makes for a beautiful military bolt action rifle.

 

It has a very finely adjustable precision rear sight  and blade front sight.  When folded down the rear sight is the open V notch and very small.  When extended the rear sight has a tiny peep sight that is adjustable for windage and elevation.  The adjustment was so fine it was capable of very precise adjustments.  When using a sling  while prone on a nice sunny day  at Camp Perry a rifleman could  show what the 1903 could achieve.    The story of the Farr cup trophy and why it has that name is a great example of just what can be done with the sights of the standard M1903.

Those things  are all that great  , but not for the combat of WW1.

The  rear sight in on the front of the receiver. Too far away for best most efficient use.  Trying to look through the tiny  rear aperture was useless in low light.  And the light  didn’t have to be all that low to make it impossible to use.    The rain and mud of the trenches and battlefield could find its way into that peep.     The front sight blade was  too small and easily  damaged.  Low light also renders it difficult to see.  The front sight was so easily damaged that a thicker blade was used by the USMC and a protective hood  was used.   This did protect the front sight but it also allows a little less light  in.  It also capture mud into the hood and front sight assembly.   That being a common thing with all hooded front sights.

The rear sight’s  fine precision adjustments are just that.  Finely  made with micrometer like precision.  And slow. Very slow to use.  The marksmanship of some units like the USMC was at  a high enough standard that the rifleman could adjust their rear sight for outstanding long range precision fire on enemy infantry and machine gun positions.  But this was not  as often done as many make it seem.    Adjusting the rear sight for precise long range fire on moving targets at undetermined distance  while under rain and with  mud covered hands as artillery fell around them  made using  the long range sights a daydream for most.     The rear sight does have an open notch for faster firing and and closer range  but it is small and not easy for anyone with less than perfect vision. This sight was set for 547 yd (500 m), and was not adjustable.  Not very useful for ranges most likely encountered when  time is critical .    It also had the problem of not being well protected.   Something the sights on a battle rifle need to be in such an unforgiving environment.   Later  on the M1903A3 rifle had  a  more simple peep sight on the rear of the action closer to the eye.  The peep sight was better for most infantry engagements and was an improvement over the original.

The M1903 had a typical for it’s day safety lever.  It would be easy to complain about how slow it is to use if you need  to fire quickly  it was common.  Other Bolt action combat rifles of the day had similar systems and a few had a fast  and some what more natural  feeling system .

One  thing the military thought it needed was a magazine cut off.   This little bit of  brilliance was a lever that when activated would not allow the action to feed from the magazine. This would require you to load a single round by hand or flip it to allow magazine feed.  The idea was you would fire and load one round at a time while keeping the internal magazine in reserve for when you really needed it and had no time to single feed by hand.   This supposedly  would save ammo.    Either way it is always a dumb idea.  It was dumb when it was on the Krag and it was dumb on the 1903.  Especially since it could be unknowingly engaged.

None of  of the things certainly deal killers or mentioned are deal killers or make the rifle useless by any means.   The M1903 is a beautifully made gun and wonderfully accurate.

There is a reason for that old chestnut about service rifles from WW1. “The Germans brought a hunting rifle, the British brought a combat rifle and the US brought a target rifle.”

Now looking at the other option carried by US rifleman in WW1.  The rifle at the time not as well admire but more widely issued and used.  The M1917.

The M1917 was a rifle being made in the US for British troops in  .303.   When the US entered the war it did not have enough 1903s and there was no way to make enough in time.  The decision was made to tweak the  .303 rifle into using the .30.06 service round.   This went off easily and the gun became the M1917 and was issued.

While it is heavier, it is built like a tank.

The magazine held one more round than the M1903.   The safety was a lever on the right hand side.   Much easier to quickly disengage.

The rear sight  is positioned much closer to the eye  and has a nice peep  with a fold up sight for more precise longer range shooting.  A great feature is the huge “ears” on each side that protects the rear sights from damage,

Another  part of the M1917 that aids in fast action for combat is the action.  Unlike the M1903 the M1917 cocks on closing.  This may not seem like much  of a difference but it is.  In rapid fire  it is much easier to work the bolt and cock it while rotating the bolt down with the speed and momentum of forcing the bolt forward then turning down opposed to cocking while lifting the bolt handle.  The dog legged angled bolt handle is also very usable despite it’s oddball look.  This allows for a very fast operation.   It is also a feature of other British bolt action designs like the Lee Enfields. The MK 3 and MK 4s are very fast and smooth.   British troops famously practiced rapid long range volley fire using their rifles  and a technique of working the bolt and depressing the trigger with their bottom two fingers of the firing hand as soon as the bolt closed.   A company of British troops firing in this manner could  wreak a larger unit a long range  and was an effective way to compensate for lack of machine gun support.

The M1917 has recently started to  get the respect it deserves, it still does not have the   admiration or mythical status of the M1903.

Luckily most of the things  that make the M1903 less than idea for comabat were addressed in later models.   AS I mentioned the M1903A3  corrected the rear sight issues with a peep sight that was simple to use and  more suited for ranges most firefights  really  occur.      It wasn’t made with the same aesthetic care and old world craftsmanship as the M1903 but it worked is  really the better gun if you had to take one to war.

The M1903 served several roles in its career and is much respected.   In some of those roles it was everything you could ask and more In others not so much.     As a sniper rifle its  target rifle accuracy , handling and trim lines really made it shine.

 

 

It served as a sniper rifle  into WW2, Korea and even some in Vietnam.  The Army opted for using a  4x weaver with the M1903A4 while the USMC  adopted and used the Unertl 8x optic.  A deadly combination that  produced many  Japanese widows. As seen below a team of USMC sniper on Okinawa.

Today the Springfield still  enjoys a status as  a real classic.  A real icon of US military Arms.  It’s accuracy being the stuff of legend and its full powered 30 caliber round  will always be unquestioned in it’s ability.       But, its original classic M1903  incarnation  never saw  nearly the  amount of combat as many believe and it was certainly not the best bolt action of the war.   It wasn’t even the best Mauser action combat rifle of the war.

Just like the M14, the original issued M1903 was. not much for fighting.

 

 

 

 

32 thoughts on “NOT MUCH FOR FIGHTING: THE M1903 SPRINGFIELD IN WWI”

  1. Little quibble, the m1903A4 scope was only 2.75x and cock on open would aid in primary extraction.
    The sights are pretty terrible but in its dedense so are most of its contemporaries. And if you think that mag cut off is bad you should see what the SMLE had. The m1917 really is an outlier in just how outstanding it was. If they had shortened and lightened it up it would be the hands down (as opposed to ‘arguably’) best bolt gun of WW1. Personally I agree that it was the best.

    TL:DR, best bolt gun ever? No. Top 5 or so of WWI? Yeah.

    1. you know, you are right. I have no idea why I typed out the A4 scope was a 4x.
      I have owned a very SMLE’s over the years and I think they certainly do have some pains, but to me, that 10 round magazine gains it some mercy from me
      I do think the M1917 is the best bolt gun used in th WW1. I will say without hesitation that in my opinion the best battle rifle bolt action used in both wars is the MK 4 Lee Enfieled, the sniper MK4 of WW2 was arguably the best sniper service rifle used in WW2

  2. Hey Shawn

    Thanks for the fine article…very informative and much appreciated. One thing I’ve never understood though…what was the actual problem with the Krag? It believe it had a pretty slick action and the 30-40 round threw a 150gn projectile at around 2500 fps. Not so shabby really. I can’t understand how the Spanish 7mm mauser rounds (admittedly one of the greatest calibres of all time) dominated the American weapons so much that the US gummint decided they needed to replace a rifle they had only recently adopted.

    What am I missing here? I’m a rifleman and this been been along time puzzle for me , so if anybody has any thoughts on this, I’d appreciate it if you could help me understand this.

    Cheersnfrom Australia

    1. I know a big part was the funky loading method. And I want to say it only had one locking lug but I could be wrong. The few I’ve come across gave me the impression of more sporting arm than martial arm. I’m not sure if they cover it but C&rsenal have done some really nice videos on all 3 of these.

      1. BAP45, I can understand people thinking of it more as a sporting arm. the round as it was in its day for one thing is about equal to a 3030WCF. The best way to think of it is the Krag is 19th century , the mauser was absolutely 20th century if know what Im saying

        1. I feel ya.
          By sporting arm i just meant less durable feeling. High quality but something my clumsy ass would probably break.

          1. oh no man, I know what you meant by sporting arm. I tihnk the way to think of them is they are durable, but they are a product of their time and plety durable if you dont try to get cute hand loading with it

    2. LSWCHP that is a great questions. because I happen to love the 30-40 Krag and had one for years.
      There was a few reason that at the time.
      The 7×57 the Spanish used a higher velocity with a spitzer bullet. where the Krag round used a VERY heavy r 220 grain round nose blunt ball round . It out classes the then 30 gov round in velocity and trajectory . after the war the Army attempted a new loading for it but it was too much for the Krag, Thus the 30.06 came about, The Krag is as smooth as glass that is true It feels like you are rubbing glass over grease and that is no exaggeration. But the loading is not as fast as a 5 round stripper clip. You have to put them in more or less one at at time by hand. I think there also was the age old thing that seems to come up in war time among soldiers , which is the other guys stuff seems to always be thought of as better

  3. I’ve heard that the -1903 was the best target rifle of WWI. And the Mauser was the best hunting rifle of WWI. But the British Enfield was the only battle rifle of WWI. Kind of trite, but kind of true.

    However, P-17 for the win.

    1. It may be trite but I also believe it is true if you are comparing those three. but yeah the 1917 is actually the best one if its thrown in the mix

    2. In the custom rifle market, the Mauser 98 is used for custom rifles most often, followed by the 1903 and then Win M70. For dangerous game rifles the 1917 is a great starting point.

      The MkIII or MkIV is sporterized, but not as much here in the US. You see some nice sporterized examples in Oz and Canada.

      The 1903/03A3 was more accurate than most other service rifles of the day. Most service rifles are 2MOA rifles with ball ammo. The 03/03A3 is about a 1.5″ rifle with ball ammo.

  4. By the way I don’t want you guys to think I’m poopooing on your article. This is a great one to get people talking. Get us lurkers involved haha.

    1. the thought would never cross my mine BAP45. I’m glad you comment and you can say anything you want here. We are very grateful you guys come and get a some discussion going.

      1. Love it when we can get everyone talking on here. Always fun.
        And you guys have been on fire with the content lately.

        1. I have made the decision to do my best to give you guys something ever day of the work week or as close to it as I can manage. Since the 1 year since Kevin died mark, I been thinking about how much I missed going to weaponsman a few times a day every day and how fun it was. I will attempt to at least some what pick up that slack as much as I Can. The thing is I may have to write about a topics that are not strictly firearms technical and I don’t have his ability to put insight into written words like he did. I know its hard to believe from reading the website , but I am much better speaking my thoughts than writing them out. I can only wish I was as good at writing as Kevin.

          1. Good writing takes time. Many people have been on my case to write for a blog or start my own. I have high standards for writing, and higher yet for stuff I’d want to publish, so I appreciate the work done by those who actually do it.

          2. I got the impression, and perhaps even recall reading on his site, that Hognose used one of those voice to text programs for his blog.

            His writing definitely flowed more conversational than written.

        2. Because of our conversation about these bolt guns I am thinking I am going to do a little review of the MK4 Lee Enfield since my brother has one that would make any limey green tea with envy. I may try to pound that out today and have it up tonight or at least sometime this weekend if I decide to shoot it for groups.

          1. That bastard. It belongs in a good home. Mine! Haha
            I was actually thinking that same thing. It’s been reminding me of the WM days lately. And being off topic is fine. He got off topic plenty and it was all the better for it.

          2. I spent all this evening shooting my brother’s MK4 for group and taking pictures of it, I may start the article tonight. If I do and finish it tonight there won’t be a new post from me on Saturday. since that is what I had planned for tomorrow, but as I am typing now a huge thunderstom is hitting and may knock out the power so maybe it will be up tonight and maybe not.

  5. Some comments:

    1. The metallurgy issues with sub-800K s/n 1903 receivers is explained and explored in great depth in Hatcher’s Notebook. Basically, it comes down to this: Don’t heat treat metal by eye unless you have uniform light from day to day. Use a pyrometer instead. The “burned” receivers could not have their metallurgy recovered; they tried. Again, look in Hatcher’s Notebook.

    2. The 1903 was being produced in smaller numbers/month than the 1917, and that was the issue. The 1903 was being produced inside the US arsenal system, whereas the 1917 was being produced by commercial arms companies. This production issue persisted until the prospect of WWII could no longer be ignored, and the War Dep’t had to admit that a) we needed a LOT more 1903’s but b) we weren’t going to get them from the US armory system. So they gave the job to Remington, who did some manufacturing expediencies (the two groove barrel, the stamped sheet metal magazine/trigger bow) and tripled monthly production of rifles from what the US armory system was cranking out.

    3. The two-groove barrels of the 03A3 were actually slightly more accurate than the four-groove barrels – ie, the 03A3’s were more accurate than the original 1903’s, based on the barrel alone. This flew in the face of all “conventional gun wisdom,” both then and now. When I pull out my papers on the two groove barrel testing, you should see people’s faces.

    4. The 1903 design was more accurate and better shooting for target work than the Enfield or the Mauser. The Mauser’s sight is actually mounted rather far forward as well, if you look at it. The 1903A3’s rear peep was superior to most other bolt action battle rifles of the day.

    5. We should remember this: what made the 1903[A3] great was the .30-06 round, which was a very well balanced round in terms of power, penetration, long range ballistics, killing efficacy, sustainable recoil forces, etc.

    We got the ’06 round by sheer luck; the Army Ordnance boys were going to saddle us with Yet Another Heavy Round-Nosed Lead round in the .30 caliber of 1903 round, with a 220gr RNL bullet being shoved downrange at 2300 fps or so. Go look it up – it’s a mind-boggling bit of stupidity, a .30-40 Krag round on steroids – which needed so much pressure behind it, it had throat erosion issues from the get-go. The “old guard” in the Army could not believe that anyone was talking of a round with less than 200 grains mass, and they were furious about this idea of “light” bullets. By God, when they were troopers, they were hurling 405 grain bullets downrange from .45-70’s, and that’s when men were men, dammit. Even the 405 grain bullet was for the new, fey men called “cavalry” – real soldiers were used to the heavier 450gr .50-70 round in their Springfield Trapdoors…

    It was fortuitous that more modern heads prevailed and gave us the 150gr ball round we know so well.

    To my knowledge, the only remains left of the .30-03 round today is the .270 Winchester, which started as a necked-down ’03 case. Most people think the .270 Win is a necked down .30-06 case. Check the case dimensions – it isn’t. The .270 is too long to come from a ’06 parent.

    1. Nice to see you drop by. I started to put most of the same things you typed up in the article but decided to leave it for another time since it would have had be go off my original point too much I was afraid. I think most of that is pretty well know now a days or at least by our readers. So I thought I would take an honest look at the 03 from an end user’s nit pick.

      1. It’s been some time since I’ve had time to drop by. You’re putting up some great content.

        I forgot to throw some quick gunsmithing love at the 1917:

        For making a dangerous game rifle, the 1917 action is a great starting point. It takes a bunch of work to make a 1917 “pretty,” but it can be done. The ears are cut off the rear sight (and many times, the rear sight is removed entirely), the dogleg in the bolt handle is forged out, and most times now, the discerning gunsmith will obtain new bottom metal from a custom maker of such things. The reason why the 1917 finds such favor for dangerous game rifles? It’s built like a concrete block outhouse. It’s hell for stout – and then some. .375 H&H’s are some of the smaller rounds I’ve seen shoved into a 1917.

        I’ve seen (in no particular order):
        – .375 H&H
        – .416 Rigby
        – .404 Jeffery
        – .505 Gibbs

        Sometimes, metal has to be removed from the bottom of the front ring area to make these beasts feed. But the 1917 has so much more steel (absurd amounts of steel for a ’06 cartridge) that it has strength to spare. They can be made sleek and pretty, but it takes hours and hours of work to make it happen.

        1. MY Dad recently bought a very nicely sporter-ized 1917. The rear sight ground or machined off and drilled for scope bases. It is such a good job that at first glance I thought it was the Remington model 30. By chance do you know what type or part number scope base will fit the receiver of a 17 cleaned up for optics?

          1. This is too crazy. I literally just had one like that drop into my lap from some family who aren’t gun people. I had the same question about mounts too. (Although the holes seem off : /)
            Small world

          2. yeah the thing is there are a lot converted for scope use but gunsmiths and then there is the remington Model30 which was a remington factory made sporter version with consistent hole spaces and machining on top of the receiver. Dad bought one of the early remingtons I think, which is the ones remiongton ground off the receivers for scope use and sporterized them. And it is a real pain trying to figure out what will work with it cause it’s not just hole spacing but the contour

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.