December 17, 2018
By Joseph von Benedikt
Just over 100 years ago, the M1903 revolutionized the way American hunters viewed rifles, converting an entire nation of single-shot and lever-action men to bolt actions. Springfield’s M1903 provided unprecedented accuracy, emphatic authority, and unstoppable reliability. This, coupled with greater long-range ability than any previous centerfire rifle, endeared it to American riflemen, who returned home from the wars looking for a way to own and use such a rifle in the hunting fields.
Before long, surplus M1903s began trickling into the civilian market. The original configurations were considered too heavy for packing around in the woods, and hunters typically cut down the original military stock or replaced it with an aftermarket stock built along conventional sporting-rifle lines.
Many simply used the as-issued original barrel. Some had the stepped military barrel lathe-turned to a smooth taper. Others installed an aftermarket barrel. These home-project rifles became known as “sporterized” Springfields.
At its heart the M1903 is a turnbolt design featuring dual, opposing locking lugs; a massive Mauser-type controlled-feed rotating claw extractor; a fixed steel ejector; and a five-round box-type magazine. Loading was accomplished by opening the bolt and inserting rounds one at a time or en masse from a stripper clip. A large wing-type, three-position safety locked the bolt and blocked the firing pin when engaged; in the middle position, it blocked the firing pin but allowed the bolt to be opened to clear the chamber; and in the right-side position, it allowed the rifle to fire. Like many sporterized M1903s, the rifle shown here has been fitted with a two-position aftermarket safety compatible with scopes.
Squared at the rear, the magazine follower prevents the bolt from running forward when the magazine is empty—a valuable reload-reminder aid to soldiers in heavy action. Many hunters radiused the squared follower to enable the bolt to close on an empty magazine without having to manually depress the follower. Mine is unaltered.
A bullet tip is used to release the hinged floorplate and open the magazine from the bottom. Bottom metal is steel, preventing the trigger bow from getting smashed against the trigger (thus locking up the gun) by any sort of impact.
This M1903 was my first high-power centerfire rifle. Long before I purchased the barreled action and a roughly inletted walnut stock blank, a target shooter had had the action rebarreled by W.A. Sukalle with a semi-heavy, cut-rifled, match-grade tube. Twenty-seven inches long, it was fitted with a ramped Lyman barrel-band front sight base and a globe-type front sight with interchangeable inserts and drilled and tapped for a barrel-mounted scope base for a Unertl target scope. Additionally, the action was drilled, tapped, and fitted with a Lyman 48 aperture-type rear target sight and for a scope base.
Allegedly, the barreled action was originally bedded in a heavy target-type stock and used for long-range competition shooting. Eventually, the owner swapped the stock to a different action.
Because the action lacked a trigger when I got it, I installed a Timney, and I carefully bedded the action into my roughed-out stock blank using Brownells AcraGlas. I’m not particularly proud of the lines I hewed into the stock blank, but they fit me well.
Initially, I couldn’t afford a scope, so I made the most of the top-shelf Lyman aperture sights. A handload of 59 grains of H4831 under the Nosler 180-grain Ballistic Tip printed my first sub-MOA group at 1,000 yards. Another featuring a Sierra 150-grain MatchKing over a forgotten charge of IMR 4895 put five shots into a 100-yard group I could cover with a dime. At 520 yards I dropped a running mule deer buck a buddy had wounded. My eyes were young then.
Fifteen years later I had the faded, purplish blue hue of the metal parts Teflon coated to better protect against corrosion. I also finally put a scope on the rifle—and promptly managed to drop it muzzle-first into pea gravel at a local hunter-class benchrest match. I had it recrowned, but sadly, the rifle has not shot quite as well since.
Now, another 10 years later, I blew the dust off the M1903, dug up a selection of good hunting ammo and one or two match-grade .30-06 loads, and fired it for accuracy for this report.
Function is still smooth, and the rifle feels like an old friend. Because the Timney trigger is adjusted to a crisp 1 pound, 5 ounces, it’s easy to shoot well. Unlike most modern bolt actions, the jolt of the massive firing pin impacting is noticeable while dry-firing. Said mass was engineered to ensure reliable detonation of any and all wartime primers, including the super-hard cups preferred in ammo destined for fully automatic firearms.
My sporterized M1903 is also easy to aim steadily because it weighs 10 pounds, 10 ounces. Unlike most typical sporterized military bolt actions intended for hunting, mine is actually heavier than the original service configuration. It’s great for match use.
It still shoots well, too. Three of the five factory loads I tested averaged less than 1 MOA, and Barnes’s VOR-TX ammo loaded with 180-grain TTSX bullets shot splendidly, averaging just over 1/2 MOA.
Like all vintage military arms, the M1903 has come full circle from inexpensive surplus to valuable classic. Untouched rifles in original military configuration now bring upward of $1,000, and those in really fine condition, or with any sort of interesting history, bring twice that. Today, sporterizing a fine old M1903 is a crime against history.
However, already-sporterized M1903s are worth very little in terms of dollars, and as such they represent an outstanding value for budget-minded hunters shopping for a practical, high-quality big-game rifle.