How To Build a 1903A4 Sniper Rifle
December 23, 2013
In one sense, it took me 51 years or so to complete this project. My friends gently — sometimes not so gently — rag me about taking so long with my work, but even they might be a bit shocked by that. I certainly didn't plan it that way. It all started when I was 16 years old. I'd been reading gun magazines like Shooting Times and American Rifleman. The Rifleman ran a notice of the sale by the Director of Civilian Marksmanship (DCM) of unserviceable 1903A3 rifles for the princely sum of about $7.50 plus $10 shipping. It didn't take me long to convince my dad that we needed one, and since I was gainfully employed at the local grocery, I would pay for it. Dad concurred, and the order was placed. Months later an unissued, mint 1903A3 rifle arrived at my home.
I loved that rifle. It was the first "new" gun I'd ever owned. I learned to shoot with it, and to make that possible, I also learned to handload and cast bullets. The more I used the rifle and was exposed to other gun people, the more I became aware of the importance of having spare parts. Fortunately, DCM also offered parts at very reasonable prices. Consequently, I sent off an order for about $15, which included five or six extra barrels since they were being sold for only 75 cents each! Milled trigger guards were about 35 cents each, and I ordered several of them as well.
Over the years I've used many of those parts. At least four of those barrels have been used on my original '03A3, which I still have. By the way, even with all that shooting, my '03A3 would still be considered as virtually mint. You definitely can do a lot of shooting with a gun without damaging it.
Not too long ago, I picked up an '03A3 drill rifle. The barrel had been welded up, the boltstop welded to the receiver, and the face of the bolt welded to close the firing pin hole. In addition, the rifle was severely rusted and in terrible condition. I initially thought I might just break it up for parts or perhaps convert it to .22 rimfire. But as I examined this rifle, I realized the receiver had not been damaged. In fact, with just finger pressure alone I was able to break the weld on the boltstop!
For years I'd wanted an '03A4 sniper rifle to go with my original '03A3, but I'd waited too long. The prices of originals are now far too much for my budget. With this drill rifle, however, I could finally afford to have at least a replica of that unique rifle. I would just build it.
The 1903A4 was the first mass-produced sniper rifle fielded by the United States military. It was introduced during World War II and saw use in Korea and even in the early days of the Vietnam War. Admittedly, it was not the best sniper rifle of World War II, but it was what we had, and it was available in large numbers. There's a lot of history associated with it, and since the release of the film Saving Private Ryan, where the '03A4 was used extensively, it's become very popular.
My first task was to remove the barrel, which had been spot welded to the bottom of the front of the receiver. I cut the weld down to the surface of the receiver and then applied just a bit of pressure to turn the receiver off the barrel. Again, the weld easily broke as there was virtually no penetration or depth to the weld. If there had been any significant weld penetration, the safety of the receiver would have been questionable. The receivers on my earlier '03 Springfield .22 rimfire projects had been heavily welded and were unsafe for anything other than the low-pressure .22 rimfire. From what I've seen, every one of these drill rifles is unique. Some are safe for conversion, some are not. If you have one and you're not 100 percent sure it's safe, have a knowledgeable, competent gunsmith check it out.
With the original barrel removed and the welds cleaned up, I fitted and headspaced my 75-cent barrel to the receiver. Over the years I'd picked up an '03A3 bolt altered for scope clearance, as were the original '03A4 bolts. I also replaced the ruined magazine cut-off as well as many other small parts. Most of those replacements came from that original DCM parts purchase I made years ago.
The author discovered that the original drill rifle's welds had not compromised the safety of the rifle and was able to rebarrel it with an old but not used '03A3 barrel. Looking closely, you can see the cracks in the welds on the drill barrel's bolt stop.
The author used a new semifinished walnut military pistol-grip stock from Boyds', which he finished with Birchwood Casey water-based walnut stain and several coats of hand-rubbed tung oil.
The '03A4 used a very simple and inexpensive Weaver 330C 2.75X scope. When adopted by the Army, it became the M73 scope. The author used this Hi-Lux copy, which is a faithful replica of that original scope, and he installed it using a one-piece Redfield base and 7/8-inch split rings.
The drill rifle had an ugly plastic stock. I discarded it and ordered a semifinished walnut military pistol-grip stock from Boyds' Gun Stocks. Like the original stocks, it is made of good, solid American walnut. It doesn't have fancy grain or figure, but when finished it looks very appropriate for the rifle. By the way, my stock had enough extra wood to allow for the proper fitting of the parts.
After shaping and sanding, I applied Birchwood Casey water-based walnut stain. With water-based stains you can easily make a stock darker by repeated applications of the stain, or if you get it too dark, you can lighten it by simply wiping the wood with a damp cloth to remove some of the stain. I then applied several hand-rubbed coats of tung oil. That matched the original linseed oil finish used during World War II.
I opted to use a Hi-Lux replica of the original M73 scope. The original M73 was actually a Weaver Model 330C 2.75X scope pressed into service during the war. I obtained the scope and the unique 7/8-inch rings from Mark Hartman at James River Armory. Hartman produces a variety of World War II military sniper rifle replicas, including the '03A4. If you don't want to build your own, I encourage you to check out James River Armory. The firm's products are absolutely first class.
The scope base I used was a Redfield '03A3 mount. It's still in production and available from Brownells. All I had to do was bead blast it and Parkerize it like I did the other metal components.
Admittedly, there's controversy relating to replica arms such as this one. Some folks think of them as fakes and condemn the practice of building 'em. I disagree. As long as the rifle is plainly marked or otherwise clearly noted to be other than original, I think it's a great idea. It allows folks an opportunity to own and experience shooting a rifle they might never have been able to afford or acquire. Besides, who would want to risk using an original valuable antique? If you want a shooter, you're better off with a replica.
By the way, the original '03A4s were made within three serial number blocks: 3407088 to 3427087, 4992001 to 4997045, and Z4000000 to Z4002920. If the rifle is outside those serial number blocks, it's very unlikely to be an original government-made '03A4. That's one of several reasons I'm not too worried about my replica being mistaken for an original.
I've used my rifle quite a bit since I completed it. Most of my shooting has been at the local range where I can go out to 200 yards. I've had one chance to shoot it at 500 yards and had no great difficulty in keeping my shots on a silhouette target. Even though it was made with standard GI components, it's a very accurate rifle and a lot of fun to shoot. If you're looking for something different and want a taste of history, you might find a replica rifle to be just the ticket. Hopefully, you won't take as long as I did to get one.
Until next time, good luck and good gunsmithing!