June 20, 2019
By Joseph von Benedikt
Right up front, the rifle pictured here is a replica of the legendary M1903A4. However, it is built on an original M1903A3 action, giving it at least some legitimacy as a vintage rifle. Its action markings and serialization differ from the originals.
World War II was the first conflict that saw widespread use of dedicated sniper rifles. Early versions were M1903 National Match rifles that were pressed into service. Later, large quantities of M1903A3s were built specifically for precision work and given the A4 designation. Iron sights were left off, although the muzzle was milled for the standard front sight base. One-piece Redfield optic bases attached to the rear peep sight mount and were screwed to the front receiver ring.
Original M1903A4 sniper actions were—confusingly—still stamped M1903A3 but differed from the standard A3 version in the markings on the forward receiver ring, which were separated so as to be visible on each side of the optic base. Also, they were typically select receivers, meaning they adhered very closely to spec. Barrels were also tested for consistency, and only the best were chosen for use on A4 sniper variants.
Records show the rifle was officially standardized on January 14, 1943, so America had already been in the conflict for over a year. A government directive channeled 20,000 M1903A3 actions into production of the sniper variant. A second lot of 8,365 were ordered five months later. Before production was ceased not quite a year later, almost 30,000 rifles had been produced. The M1903A4 served with distinction during World War II, the Korean War, and into the Vietnam War.
According to some sources, M1903A4 sniper rifles performed well inside 600 yards but past that were crippled by the limited adjustment in both the standard-issue Weaver scopes and the approved optional variants. Although there was one approved optional 8X scope by Unertl, the standard-issue scopes featured low magnification, typically 2.75X or 2.2X. Combined with the small field of view provided by the slim, 0.75-inch main tubes, the low magnification curtailed a shooter’s ability to find and hit very small targets at extended distances.
Some years ago Gibbs Rifle Co. began building M1903A4 rifles, using all new parts except for the actions. These were original Remington-made M1903A3s, which the company obtained in large quantity when it purchased the rifle division of Parker-Hale in the 1990s. These are deactivated drill rifle actions that have been reactivated, including thorough testing for Rockwell hardness levels. Original, unissued World War II-era bolts are paired with the actions.
Correct, new-made four-groove barrels were installed, the receivers were properly drilled and tapped, and appropriate replicas of original-type mounts and rings were complemented with a Hi-Lux/Leatherwood exact reproduction of the M73B1 scope—with the exception of being waterproof.
I obtained my Gibbs rifle about six years ago.
U.S. Model 1903 rifles feature turnbolt design with dual, opposing locking lugs; a massive Mauser-type controlled-feed claw extractor; three-position bolt-mounted safety selector; and a five-round box magazine that may be single-loaded or speed loaded via a stripper clip.
Stripper clips can still be found and purchased online, but because the 1903A4 stripper clip guide is blocked by the scope mount, you can’t use them. A tab-like lever at the left rear of the action serves as a bolt release and as a magazine block, which enables the rifle to be loaded and fired as a single shot while retaining a full magazine.
Presumably, this action was decommissioned at some point and became an inactive drill rifle. Eventually, Gibbs resurrected it, rebuilt it, and sent it to me for testing several years ago. I shot it, loved it, used it to get started in shooting vintage sniper rifle matches. And that, unfortunately, is all I know about the rifle.
True to traditional build techniques of the 1940s, this rifle is not glass bedded, and it’s important to note that bedding it would disqualify it from vintage sniper rifle competitions. Considering the fact that it sports a full-length stock complete with two barrel bands and a steel nose cap, which undoubtedly all affect barrel vibrations and thus accuracy, it shoots splendidly.
When initially testing the rifle prior to competing with it, I fired three consecutive five-shot groups without allowing the barrel to cool. Aggressive, yes, but I needed to know whether accuracy would deteriorate and whether point of impact would shift as the barrel heated because vintage sniper competitions are often fired in 15-shot relays.
To my relief, point of impact holds even when the barrel is very hot. Hornady .30-06 cartridges loaded with 168-grain A-Max bullets generated 2,750 fps and produced an impressive average of 1.26 inches at 100 yards.
Shooting tiny groups with the Gibbs M1903A4 Springfield can be challenging. It’s not ergonomic, the two-stage trigger is stout, and a cheek weld is impossible to achieve due to massive amounts of drop in the stock. Recoil is zesty, and the steel buttplate doesn’t help. With a bit of practice I became adept enough that I took second place in my first match.