50 Famous Firearms You've Got to Own: Rick Hacker's Bucket List of Guns (2015)
MODEL 1903 SPRINGFIELD
Once the .30-06 cartridge was adopted for the Model 1903, the flip-up rear battle sights were optimistically calibrated for 2,850 yards. With the leaf folded down, the sights were set for a slightly more realistic 525 yards.
Originally designed in 1900, revised in 1901 and 1902, and formally drafted into the service in 1903, the ’03 Springfield—or more officially, United States Rifle, Caliber .30, Model 1903—marked a turning point in the way the Army viewed the infantry rifle.
The milled trigger guard of the WWI 1903 would eventually be changed to a stamped steel version on the 1903A3, during WWII. Note the O.G.E.K. Elmer Keith inspector’s mark, showing this rifle was inspected by the well-known late gun writer during his stint at the Ogden, Utah, arsenal in the 1930s.
For one thing, unlike previous individual shoulder weapons such as the 1892-99 Krag-Jorgensen and the trapdoor Springfield, which were issued in both rifle and carbine versions, the 1903 Springfield existed only as a rifle. Moreover, it was a bolt-action that fired a new high-pressure smokeless powder cartridge with a spitzer bullet. The rifle’s development was given additional emphasis when Theodore Roosevelt—who had battlefield experience in the Spanish American War with the slow-loading .30-40 Krag—became president after McKinley’s assassination. Specifically developed as an improvement over the Krag, the 1903 Springfield was approved on June 20, 1903, and manufacturing was undertaken by both Springfield Armory and Rock Island Arsenal.
The 1903 Springfield weighed 81⁄2 pounds, had a 24-inch barrel, and featured a full-length wooden stock with elongated finger-groove forearm and a “humped” handguard to protect the rear sight. Its internal, five-round magazine was loaded via a stripper clip, with cartridges thumb-pressed into the magazine through the opened receiver. The rifle also incorporated a unique “rod bayonet” that slid out from the stock underneath the barrel, providing a comparatively flimsy means of close-quarters combat. Soldiers were thankful when the much sturdier Model 1905 bayonet, with its 16-inch blade, was adopted, largely due to the insistence of Roosevelt, who called the rod bayonet, “about as poor an invention as I ever saw.”
The ’03 Springfield incorporated many features, including safety and extractor modifications and stripper clip, from the 1893 Mauser. In fact, royalties were paid by the U.S. government to the Mauser factory, which was rather ironic, considering an impending World War with the Kaiser was on the not-too-distant horizon. But, among the 1903 Springfield’s other attributes was a non-rotary extractor that prevented the double feeding of cartridges, and a bolt-cocking plunger, which permitted the rifle to be de-cocked by pulling the trigger while holding back and manually releasing the plunger, thus without having to fire the rifle.
Bordering on the “What were they thinking?” syndrome was the M1903’s magazine “Cut Off Lever,” a thick steel tab located on the left side of the receiver and incorporated to allay governmental fears of a wanton waste of ammo by trigger-happy troops armed with this new “repeater.” It was no doubt prompted by some of the Old Guard, who may have still remembered doing battle with the single-shot Trapdoor Springfield. When placed in the middle position, the Cut Off Lever permitted the bolt to be withdrawn from the receiver and, when in the upward “On” position, the rifle functioned like a bolt-action should, ejecting and feeding rounds as the bolt was operated. However, when in its “Off” or downward position, which nestled the tab into an inlet in the stock, the Cut Off Lever disengaged the magazine follower. Thus, cartridges would not feed into the chamber from the fixed magazine when the bolt went forward. This effectively turned the rifle from a bolt-action repeater with a cycling rate of 15 to 20 shots per minute into a bolt-action single-shot.
During basic training, recruits were instructed to employ the magazine Cut Off Lever in the “Off” position and to load each round manually, keeping the cartridges in the internal magazine as a reserve. These instructions were no doubt immediately forgotten as soon as a doughboy got into his first firefight.
Originally, the 1903 Springfield was chambered for a round that almost immediately became obsolete, the .30-03, even though, at the time, it was heralded as an improvement over the .30-40 Krag. But it used the same 200-grain round-nosed bullet, which resulted in a rainbow trajectory that sacrificed range and accuracy. The .30-03 also built up excessive chamber pressures and, hence, recoil.
Consequently, in 1906, the Springfield’s caliber was changed to what has become one of the most famous cartridges of all time, the .30-06 Government. Designated “Cartridge, Ball, Caliber .30, Model of 1906,” it fired a 150-grain spitzer bullet (changed to a 172-grain boat-tail, in 1926), which left the barrel at 2,800 fps. This revolutionary new cartridge necessitated a slight redesign of the rifle, which included changing the rear sight to compensate for the flatter trajectory of the .30-06. The government optimistically calibrated the flip-up battle sights for 2,850 yards. With the leaf folded down, the sight was set for 525 yards. Rifles already chambered for the .30-03 were altered by having their barrels turned back slightly and their chambers recut. Today, any early 1903 Springfield in original .30-03 configuration is a rarity.
One such gun that retained its .30-03 chambering was serial No. 6000, which was ordered by President Roosevelt soon after the 1903’s adoption. Roosevelt heartedly embraced the new bolt-action, and had No. 6000 made into a customized sporter, the first such “sporterized” ’03 on record. Following Roosevelt’s lead, a budding group of custom riflemakers, including Griffin & Howe, Fred Adolph, and R.F. Sedgley, transformed these surplus workhorse military rifles into classic sporting arms, during the first part of the twentieth century.
By the time the U.S. entered World War I, in 1917, 843,239 rifles were already in service and production quickly ramped up. After the Armistice, manufacturing was halted at Rock Island, but the 1903 continued to be made at Springfield Armory, until 1927. The rifle was again brought into battle during World War II, with Remington and Smith-Corona joining in its production.
There were numerous variants of the Model 1903, including the 1903A1 with semi-pistol grip stock, the WWII-era 1903A3 with stamped metal parts, and the 1903A4 sniper rifle. It should be noted that early heat treating problems have resulted in a small number of rifles wearing serial numbers below 800,000 (Springfield Armory) and under 286,506 (Rock Island Arsenal) malfunctioning and causing damage to both gun and shooter. These guns are generally considered unsafe to fire without extensive examination of the metallurgy.
Manufacturing of the Springfield 1903, which had become the 1903A3, was halted, in 1945, when it was overshadowed by the M1 Garand. However, the Springfield’s excellent accuracy and superb balance kept it in the service, until 1957. In fact, it was this superb balance that first brought the 1903 to my attention years later, for it was not on the firing line, but in ROTC, as a member of the Pershing Rifles Drill Team at Arizona State University. Using military surplus nickeled rifles with white leather slings, we executed complex maneuvers with the 1903, such as twirls, spins, and the Queen Anne Salute. Today, as a shooter and collector, I have come to fully appreciate the 1903 Springfield as one of the finest and most versatile military rifles of the twentieth century, and well deserving to be on my bucket list.