U.S. Model 1903 Springfield

U.S. Model 1903 Springfield

This World War I-production M1903 Springfield is identifiable by the finger-groove stock and the humpback handguard that was designed to protect the rear sight when the rifle was thrust into a cavalryman's rifle scabbard.
Photos By James Walters & Butch Simpson

When the U.S. went to war against Spain in 1898, only the regular U.S. Army had been armed with smokeless-powder Krag-Jorgensen rifles. The Krag, a well-made and accurate rifle, had several shortcomings. For instance, the .30 Army (.30-40 Krag) cartridge was outclassed by the Spaniards' flat-shooting 7x57 Mauser. And the Krag had a very slow method of charging the magazine: manually, one round at a time. The Spanish Model 1893 Mauser was loaded via a stripper-clip charger, and that enabled the individual soldier to maintain an impressive rate of fire.

In 1900, the Army established a commission to develop a new rifle. The first model, known as the Experimental Rifle of 1900, used a bolt with dual front locking lugs and--as on the then-new 98 Mauser--a third locking lug on the rear of the bolt that bore against the receiver bridge. A nonrotary extractor permitted easier bolt manipulation and prevented double feeding of cartridges. It retained the Krag's 30-inch barrel and used a similar stock, sights, and fittings. A single-column, charger-loaded magazine held five .30-caliber, rimmed cartridges, and a cutoff was included to quiet the fears of those members of the military establishment who feared "excessive expenditure of ammunition."

In 1901, a new rifle with a flush-mounted magazine and a ramrod-style bayonet was developed. It used a rimless .30-caliber cartridge consisting of a bottlenecked case 2.564 inches in length, loaded with 44.5 grains of Laflin & Rand W.A nitrocellulose smokeless powder. The cartridge propelled a 220-grain roundnose FMJ bullet to 2300 fps. This rifle and cartridge performed well enough to be approved for experimental issue as the U.S. Rifle, .30 Caliber, Model 1901 and the Caliber .30 Ball Cartridge Model 1903.

After two years of field trials, the commission recommended that the barrel length be shortened to 24 inches to allow one rifle for both infantry and cavalry use. It also recommended that a different rear sight be used. Both changes were approved, and the rifle was adopted as the U.S. Magazine Rifle, Caliber .30, Model 1903. The rifle's overall length was 43.25 inches, and its weight was 8.8 pounds. The finalized cartridge, the Caliber .30 Ball Cartridge Model 1903 (.30-03), used the same bullet at the same velocity as its predecessor, but it had a thinner rim.

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Model 1903 Springfield Accuracy

Factory LoadVelocity (fps.)100 Yard Accuracy (in.)
Winchester USA 147-gr. FMJ28112.50
Remington UMC 150 gr. FMJ27832.25
Notes: Accuracy is the average of four, five-shot groups fired from a Caldwell Steady Rest at 100 yards. Velocity is the average of five rounds measured 15 feet from the gun's muzzle.

Realizing that the new U.S. service rifle likely infringed on several of Mauser's patents, the Ordnance Department reached an out-of-court settlement with the German company whereby they agreed to the payment of royalties totaling $200,000 for certain aspects of the M1903's bolt and charger-loaded magazine.

The first M1903s were issued in 1905 to the cadets at West Point, and almost immediately, objections were raised about the fragile ramrod bayonet. Firearms-savvy President Theodore Roosevelt got into the act, condemning the bayonet as about as poor an invention as he ever saw. Later that year, a sword bayonet with a 15.5-inch blade was adopted, and a new muzzle band with a bayonet lug was fitted.

In January 1906, there was a decision to modify the service cartridge to use the then-new German-designed pointed spitzer bullet. Adopted as the .30 Caliber Ball Cartridge, Model 1906 (.30-06 Springfield), its 150-grain FMJ bullet was driven to 2700 fps by 47 to 50 grains of pyrocellulose powder. The shorter bullet required a shorter case neck, so length was reduced to 2.494 inches. All those rifles already in service had their barrels shortened and rechambered

The M1903's bolt combined features of the 98 Mauser--dual front locking lugs; rear safety lug; wing-type safety; and full-length, nonrotating extractor--with the knurled cocking piece and two-part striker of the Krag-Jorgensen.

The new cartridge's potential was realized thanks in great part to the complex M1905 rear sight. It had a U-notch battle sight that was fixed for 545 yards and a fold-up leaf with a U-notch and two different apertures that were finely adjustable from 200 to 2,800 yards and for windage. By February 1907, all existing rifles had been upgraded

, and new production began again. By 1912, all Army and Marine Corps units had received the M1903.

When the United States entered World War I, there were 843,239 M1903 rifles on hand. With the expansion of the armed forces, demand for rifles exceeded the facilities at both government arsenals. The decision was made to modify the P14 Enfield rifle, then being produced by Remington and Winchester, to accept the .30-06 cartridge, and production of the U.S. Magazine Rifle, Caliber .30, M1917 began. The M1917 proved easier to manufacture, and 2,200,000 were produced by 1918. During this same period, Springfield and Rock Island arsenals produced just 312,800 M1903 rifles.

During the war, some 65,000 M1903 rifles were modified to use the Pedersen Device. This unit temporarily replaced the bolt and turned the M1903 into a semiautomatic rifle that fired a .30-caliber pistol-type cartridge. A small, oval ejection port was milled into the left receiver wall, and a side-mounted 40-shot box magazine was fitted. The war ended before any of these devices were used in combat, and most were destroyed after the war.

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 1918, Springfield developed a double-heat-treating process that produced a stronger receiver. Rock Island began using nickel steel for receivers, something not done at Springfield until 1927.

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

M1903 production ended at Rock Island in June 1919, and only small numbers were produced at Springfield until 1927. On Jan. 9, 1936, the U.S. Army adopted the M1 Garand semiauto rifle, but teething problems with the Garand caused general issue to be postponed several times. When the U.S. became involved in World War II, the M1903 rifle was still standard issue for most Army units and the entire USMC. To make up for the shortfall in M1 production, the arsenal at Raritan, New Jersey, assembled M1903s from pre-war Springfield-made receivers with barrels and parts supplied by subcontractors.

In 1941, Remington leased the machinery at Rock Island Arsenal to produce M1903 rifles for an anticipated contract from Great Britain, but few were delivered due to U.S. entry into World War II. To reduce the time and cost of manufacture, parts such as the floorplate, trigger guard, and bands were constructed from stamped steel. Enough changes were made that these rifles were reclassified as the Model of 1903 (Modified) to distinguish them from earlier rifles.

It was necessary to issue several M1903 rifles to each U.S. Army unit for launching rifle grenades, as a suitable launcher was not available for the M1 rifle until late in 1943. Many M1903 rifles were also supplied to allied forces, especially the Free French and Nationalist Chinese.

The M1903's magazine was loaded with five-round stripper-clip chargers.

Shooting The M1903
I own an M1903 Springfield rifle that was assembled in 1944 with a barrel made by High Standard. It is in excellent condition with a Parkerized finish. My brother Vincent and I fired the M1903 with Remington and Winchester .30-06 ammunition for this report.

Folding up the M1905 rear sight and setting the aperture for 100 yards, we sent 20 rounds of each brand of ammo downrange. Not surprisingly, the rifle produced some very presentable groups. To be perfectly honest about it, I have tested this rifle on numerous occasions, and it has shown itself to be one of the most accurate iron-sighted rifles--sporting or military--that I have ever had the pleasure of firing. It's easy to understand why the M1903 was so popular with American soldiers and target shooters for more than half a century.

The M1903 remains one of the most popular surplus rifles in the U.S., and in spite of Springfield Armory having manufactured everything from flintlock muskets to selective-fire assault rifles, many American shooters will always consider the M1903 to be the Springfield.

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