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The United States Rifle, Caliber .30, Model 1903 ('03 Springfield Rifle)

By David Tong


Model of 1903 Springfield Rifle
Model of 1903 Springfield Rifle. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Military arms races are as old as mankind’s want for power. One of the more famous ones is the late 19th Century rush by all major powers to adopt a bolt-action repeating rifle shooting smokeless powder cartridges.

The U.S. had previously fielded the .30-40 Krag-Jorgensen rifle of Norwegian origin. A finely made piece that exhibited many clever features, it went to war for the first time during the Spanish-American conflict of 1899. The salient feature of the “Krag,” as it is commonly known, was its side-loaded internal box magazine, allowing the soldier to top the magazine off one round at a time. The U.S. Army brass was little different from other military leaders world-wide in that they believed replacing the big bore, single-shot M1873 Trapdoor Springfield rifle with a magazine fed, five shot rifle of a mere .30 caliber might encourage troops to waste ammunition with less than precisely aimed shots, because of the capability to fire five rounds without a reload.

Meanwhile, Spain had adopted the 7x57mm Mauser Modelo 1893. The German Mauser Company was the innovator in the bolt action military rifle field and one of the most important features they incorporated into the ’93 was its stripper clip fed magazine. A Spanish soldier could fully recharge his internal magazine with a push of a thumb, while an American soldier had to individually load each round into his Krag.

This deficit became painfully obvious during The Spanish-American War in Cuba, when Lieutenant Colonel Theodore Roosevelt’s 1st Volunteer Cavalry (aka the Rough Riders) came across the ’93 Mauser’s withering firepower advantage. Say what you will, but if the incoming rounds are so plentiful as to inhibit one’s forces from executing maneuver, the enemy has achieved a tactical advantage.

The Spanish/Cuban troops were using the redoubtable 7x57mm Mauser rimless cartridge, which even in its round nosed form was technically more advanced and ballistically superior to the rimmed .30-40 and could reach further than the Krag. The reason is that the dual front locking lugs of the Mauser rifle were stronger than the Krag’s single locking lug, allowing higher pressure rounds to be accommodated. In addition, the Mauser system rifles were fitted with a long, spring steel claw extractor, ensuring positive removal of a spent case even if the chamber was dirty or lightly corroded.

In the aftermath of our victory over the Spanish, U.S. ordnance folks realized that they needed to close this technology gap. Thus, in 1902 the U.S. Springfield Armory, not to be confused with the current commercial firm using the same name, developed a rifle that was adopted by our forces in 1903.

Known forever as the Springfield, although it was also built by a number of other gun companies, the new bolt action rifle slavishly aped nearly all of the salient features of the latest and fully developed Mauser Model of 1898. These included an internal, machined magazine box incorporated into the bottom metal, the long one-piece extractor and dual front locking lugs with a 90-degree bolt lift.

However, old minds sometimes work slowly. U.S. Army Ordnance apparently didn’t get the memo about how modern warfare tactics required uninterrupted fire and fitted their new 1903 with a magazine cut-off, designed to turn the repeater into a single shot to conserve ammo. Essentially, all it did was lightly depress the magazine follower to allow the bolt to override the case rim of the uppermost round to preclude its feeding when the bolt was cycled. A soldier would then have to remove a round from a fully loaded stripper clip to single load the chamber.

Needless to say, when the Springfield rifle went to war in 1917, troops employing it did NOT use the cut-off function! One wonders why they clung to an 1870’s idea when thousands of Maxim and Vickers and Browning belt-fed machine guns were raining death on the battlefield.

Otherwise, the new American rifle differed mechanically from the Mauser by having a (more fragile) two-piece firing pin; the faulty thinking here being is that the front portion could be removed in case the pin’s tip had been broken, with minimal downtime. In addition, the Springfield does not protect the shooter from escaping gas from a punctured primer or blown case as well as the Mauser 98.

The Springfield stock's length of pull was much too short for most men, resulting in the practice of putting the thumb of the trigger hand alongside the grip (to keep it from hitting the shooter's face when the rifle recoiled), rather than around the grip, where it should be for the most secure and steady hold. Despite its minor shortcomings the Springfield was a successful rifle, beloved by American soldiers and sportsmen alike before the Second World War. However, it was clearly inferior to the inspirational Mauser 98.

The Springfield rifle was so similar to the Mauser M98 that General Crozier of U.S. Army Ordnance contacted Mauser in the spring of 1904 asking them to review the rifle, as well as the stripper clip designs, for potential patent infringement. By the summer of that year, the Mauser Company and the American Government settled on a payment of $0.75 per rifle and $0.50 per thousand stripper clips, to a total of $200,000. The last payment was made in 1909.

America's new bolt action infantry rifle came with a 24" barrel, had an overall length of 44-7/8" and weighed about 8 pounds 11 ounces. The magazine held five cartridges and was fed by a stripper clip.

For about the first three years (around 75,000 rifles), Springfield 1903 rifles were chambered for the .30-03 cartridge. This was an enlarged version of the deadly 7x57mm cartridge that used a .308" diameter, 220 grain round nosed bullet at a muzzle velocity (MV) of 2300 fps.

In 1905, the German Army replaced the 236 grain round nose bullet (MV about 2100 fps) previously used in the 8x57mm cartridge for which their Mauser 98 infantry rifle was chambered with a 154 grain pointed (spitzer) bullet at a MV of about 2850 fps. This change gave the German cartridge a much flatter trajectory and greatly extended its practical range, instantly making the American .30-03 cartridge obsolete.

A year later, in 1906, the U.S. Springfield Armory responded by shortening the neck of the .30-03 case 0.07" and loading a 150 grain spitzer bullet at a MV of 2700 fps. With those minor changes the famous .30-06 Springfield cartridge was born and the rest, as they say, is history. The 1903 rifles chambered in .30-03 were recalled and rechambered for the improved .30-06 cartridge. This was accomplished by simply unscrewing the barrel, milling a bit off the chamber end and rechambering for the .30-06 cartridge.

At the same time, the rifles were modified to accept the improved Model 1905 sights and bayonet. The original rod type retractable bayonet was discarded after a legendary meeting with President Theodore Roosevelt in the White House. He apparently broke one off and insisted on a removable, blade type replacement. Subsequent '03 rifle production incorporated these changes.

In addition, the early 1903 rifles, up to serial number approximately 800,000, received a single heat treatment, which hardened the receiver all the way through. This had proven to be an issue with receivers fracturing if dropped, so later productions of the rifle underwent a sequential heat treatment that eliminated the brittleness, along with a change to steel with higher nickel alloy content.

It has been widely recommended that if you own a “low number” 1903 (below 800,000) to refrain from firing it for safety reasons. While I think it is probably safe to fire one of the single-heat-treat rifles with cartridges loaded to moderate pressure levels, it should have its headspace checked beforehand and such shooting should be limited in deference to its age. I once owned an ’03 with a 500,000 range serial number; it stayed on my wall and never made it to the range.

1903's were renowned in the U.S. for their accuracy. Unlike nearly all its compatriots, the original 1903 sight had a folding ladder with very fine vertical and windage adjustments, along with a 547 yard notch when folded. The sight had graduations in 100 yard increments all the way to 2,850 yards. This was common at the time and (theoretically) used for indirect volley fire, another anachronism that proved impractical in the crucible of the Great War (WW I).

The last version of the 1903, the '03-A3, was developed much as the British had done when they simplified their Lee-Enfield into the No. 4 rifle. Stamped stock bands and bottom metal, a stamped magazine box, the replacement of the fine Vernier open sight in favor of a much more robust and practical aperture sight were changes made to both of these old war horses. These simplified rifles also became the primary sniper rifles of their respective armies by the addition of a better barrel, a telescopic sight and some careful assembly.

1903-A3 Springfield
Model 1903-A3 receiver area. Photo by David Tong.

Altogether, over 1,300,000 Springfield '03 rifles were produced. While it was officially supplanted by the semi-automatic M1Garand in 1937, units used it in WW II; especially the marksmanship obsessed Marine Corps. Ultimately, even they were forced to realize that the nature of battlefield tactics had changed. In addition to the two World Wars, '03 rifles were used in more limited conflicts, including the Mexican Revolution, Second Sino-Japanese War, Chinese Civil War, Cuban Revolution and (to a limited extent--mostly as a sniper rifle) even Korea and Vietnam.

I first encountered the '03 rifle during a Scout camping trip in the Mojave Desert. As a green teenager, the recoil of the powerful .30-06 cartridge was off-putting at first, but given my extensive reading of WW I and WW II history, I flat didn’t care. It was just something to overcome in the course of my study of the bolt action military rifles of the 20th Century.

I did find the early Springfield's straight grip stock to be too short, with excessive drop at comb. The flat steel butt plate beat my shoulder. It also didn’t help that surplus .30-06 ammo had way more recoil than a .22, .30-30, or even the .303 British. That said, the ’03 Springfield remains prominent in my memory, as it did for two generations of American fighting men who carried it into battle.

The 1903 Springfield rifle is a classic. During the 1920's, 30's and '40's, many fine American custom built hunting rifles were based on '03 actions. In addition, many surplus '03's have simply been “sporterized” into hunting rifles by shortening the forend, removing the top wood and other simple changes. These days, the escalating value of U.S. martial arms means leaving any Springfield in original condition alone is the best course. There are far better modern arms for sporting purposes, even if they lack the romance and history of the '03 Springfield.


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