Springfield Model 1903 (M1903)
Bolt-Action Service Rifle / Sniper Rifle
The famous Springfield M1903 bolt-action rifle appeared in mass quantities but in few variations - such was the success of the base design.
Authored By: Staff Writer | Last Edited:
The M1903 "Springfield" bolt-action service rifle was the standard infantry rifle of the American Army throughout its participation in World War 1 and continued in service into World War 2 while seeing limited use in the Korean and Vietnam conflicts. The design had its origins in the tried-and-proven German Mauser action of which many other bolt-action rifle designs of the time had adopted (or outright copied). The result was a capable long gun with accuracy at range and a wholly reliable internal mechanism that made it a success for much of its career. After it fell out of wide scale use as a standard infantry rifle, the M1903 found a second life as a dedicated sniper rifle and in second-line support roles for guard and defense duty.
The story of the M1903 dates back to the late 1800s when, in 1892, the United States Army held trials between 53 competing designs for its new standard service rifle. Despite protests from local arms manufacturers, the foreign-born Norwegian Krag-Jorgensen rifle was selected the winner, becoming the first "magazine rifle" of the US military. Much financing was placed into its large-scale production and government facilities were heavily retooled specifically for the large-scale endeavor. Springfield Armory of Massachusetts was charged with production (which eventually earned the rifle the name of "Springfield Model 1892") and it delivered on some 500,000 examples between 1894 and 1904. The Krag-Jorgensen design was the standard issue infantry rifle of American soldiers during the Spanish-American War (1898) to which the type was deemed outclassed by the more effective charger-loaded Model 1893 Spanish Mausers being used by the enemy. This then led to the Ordnance Department to search for yet another new service rifle despite the heavy commitment in bringing the Krag-Jorgensen about. Springfield eventually produced a variety of rifle and carbine forms based on the Krag-Jorgensen and these were known under model designators of M1892, M1896, M1898 and M1899 showcasing their respective years of introduction.
Going along with contemporaries worldwide, the US went on to adopt the "Mauser" system under license from Germany, paying the then-hefty sum of $200,000 for localized production rights. First forms were developed around a 220-grain bullet sporting a blunt-nose shape but this was later abandoned when the Germans introduced their pointed-nose bullet (the "Spitzer") in 1905. Again following the world's lead, the US adopted the pointed bullet design and developed it into a 150-grain cartridge as the "Cartridge, Ball, Caliber 30, Model of 1906" (known as the ".30-06").
The cartridge would be paired with the American Mauser development designated as the "M1903". The rifle body itself was highly conventional for the time, featuring a long, two-piece single-banded wooden body with straight stock (lacking an integrated pistol grip in early versions) with inlaid metal workings partially exposed. The internal works were held at the rear of the body with the barrel protruding just a short distance ahead of the forend. Original barrels seen on the prototypes measured 30 inches long though this was later cut down to 24 inches for a more compact form (imitating the direction of the British and their approach to their Lee-Enfield "short" rifles). The bolt handle featured a ball at its end to ensure a firm grip in the heat of battle and the installation was set as a "turn-bolt" design over the right side of the receiver - shifted up-and-backwards to eject a spent shell casing and introduce a fresh cartridge with a forward-down action. The magazine was internal and fixed in place, requiring the use of cartridge "chargers" - prefabricated strips containing five ready-to-fire cartridges. Sling loops were set under the forend (at the second barrel band) and under the shoulder stock. Iron sights at the front and rear assisted accuracy at range. Unlike other operators around the world, the US Army elected to create a hybrid long gun that could serve as both a service rifle and carbine in one end-product. Other militaries produced two distinct rifles - a service rifle long gun and a dedicated short carbine form. Carbines were nothing more than shortened forms of full-length rifles and usually offered to specialist troops (such as cavalry who could appreciate a compact weapon at shorter ranges) or second-line operators such as logistical personnel. A long rifle design (ie longer barrel) increased accuracy at distance, a quality not required for non-infantry personnel though appreciated by infantry charged with targeting from extreme distances. The British produced their Lee-Enfields short rifles for this same reasoning. A bayonet could be fitted under the muzzle for extreme close combat (a standard feature of World War 1 rifles). For World War 2, a special muzzle adapter allowed firing of "rifle grenades" which provided a limited artillery-like reach for infantry.
As the Springfield Armory designed, developed and produced the M1903, it acquired the unofficial name of "M1903 Springfield" for its entire operational life. Similarly, the cartridge came to be known as the ".30-06 Springfield" for its relation to the armory.
The M1903 saw wide-scale issuance beginning in 1905 and these quickly replaced the Krag-Jorgensen rifles having lasted just nine years in service. The first production forms (known simply as "Standard") did make use of the aforementioned 220-grain bullet as well as a rod bayonet and manufacture stemmed from the Springfield Armory the Rock Island Arsenal and Remington Arms Company. In 1906, the adoption of the German 150-grain "Spitzer" bullet forced a new rear sight (leaf) to be added due to the differing ballistics of the new bullet. Overall length was 43.4 inches with a near-9lb weight (unloaded).
The original M1903 Standard stocks were followed into service by the "M1903 Mk 1". These rifles were designed to utilize the "Pedersen Device" accepted in 1918, a system allowing the M1903 to fire a short .30 caliber pistol cartridge through a semi-automatic action, the spent shell casings being ejecting through a port bored into the left side of the wooden frame. The device was developed by Remington Arms engineer John Pedersen prior to the US entry into World War 1 in 1917 and consisted of a 40-round vertical magazine fitted into the Springfield system, the internal sear and cutt-off of the M1903 being reworked. The idea was to provide the US infantryman with voluminous fire while he traversed the deadly kill zones of trench warfare known as "No Man's Land". After successfully demonstrating the device, Mk 1 rifles were put into production. However, the war was over in November of 1918. Some 101,775 examples were produced from 1918 into 1920 though, by this time, their usefulness was null and many of these rifles were eventually reworked back into the M1903 standard while the Pedersen Devices were scrapped.
A specialized target version emerged in the post-war years under the "US Rifle, Caliber 30, M1903, Special Target" designation. The rifle was differentiated by its high-end finish and attention to detail and remerged in 1929 under the new designation of "US Rifle, Caliber 30, M1903A1, Special Target".
The M1903A1 Special Target was then adopted by the US Army as the "US Rifle, Caliber 30, M1903A1" and formally introduced the pistol grip into the body's design. The trigger was milled for improved resistance while the elongated finger indentations found along the forend of previous Springfields were dropped. Overall dimensions were largely the same as the original M1903 though muzzle velocity was increased from 2,300 feet per second to 2,800 feet per second. Production of the M1903A1 was, however, quite limited overall when compared to other marks.
The M1903A2 designation marked a specialized form of the M1903 in which its action and barrel assembly were utilized in conjunction with training of artillery and anti-tank gun field pieces. The M1903A2 installation essentially allowed budget-minded artillery training.
The M1903A3 was the definitive World War 2 M1903. It proved a highly simplified production form of the M1903A1, its development handled by Remington Arms. A rear aperture sight device replaced the original leaf fitting and sheet-steel stampings were used where possible to speed up manufacture and lower procurement costs. The rear sight was relocated to the rear section of the receiver closer to the bolt-action (as opposed to the rear of the barrel) to help improve its usefulness in aiming. Interestingly, the M1903A3 appeared in both its straight-stock and pistol-grip-stock forms during its production life. It was the M1903A3 that would become the M1903 production-standard during World War 2, the standard instituted on May 21st, 1942.
The M1903A4 became the definitive standard sniper rifle form of the M1903 family during World War 2 and was based on an evolved M1903A3. Iron sights were completely removed and permanent scope mounting blocks were added. The standard scope was the Weaver Company "Telescope Sight M73B1" ("Weaver 330C"). Due to the placement of the optical sight, the bolt handle was slightly redesigned to avoid contact with the optics when actuated though the remainder of the rifle was left largely unchanged. However, it bears note that the installation of the scope negated use of the magazine well in the standard fashion (using charger clips) which forced the operator to load individual .30-06 cartridges into the weapon. Additionally, while the Weaver scope was the accepted optics standard, the mounting blocks could also accept other scopes from other manufactures - this countering the shortage of Weaver scopes during wartime.
In practice, the Springfield rifle proved highly effective for its given role of long-to-medium range service rifle. The action was smooth, proven and reliable in the worst of battlefield conditions, largely owing to the attention to detail in designs of firearms emerging from the early 1900s. Its outward design was well received and its accuracy made it a highly-valued system. A trained shooter could fire 15 rounds-per-minute when effectively managing the bolt-action coupled with efficient reloading. Ranges (unscoped) were out to 656 yards (effective) and targets could still be struck out to 2,500 yards in extreme cases. Beyond its rather hefty travel weight and overall length, the M1903 series was a pleasant service rifle and proved a very popular sporting rifle on the civilian market.
In World War 2, the M1903 was the initial front-line service rifle being handed out to American infantry when the nation went to war in December of 1941. The M1 Garand had become available though not in the numbers required which prompted US officials to order new production of the M1903 (these being the production-friendly M1903A3 models). Frontline personnel were equipped with M1903s well into 1944 including the D-Day landings of Northern France and elsewhere. However, in time, production of the semi-automatic M1 Garand rifles began to curtail the use of M1903 rifles (particularly in American hands) and this allowed them to be passed on to resistance units and desperate armies while also fulfilling the role of training new riflemen. Earlier in the war, the M1903 was issued on a small scale to British Home Guard elements desperate for any defensive weapon that could be had. Additionally, many-a-Pacific-island was defensed by personnel managing their trusty M1903 Springfield rifles - such was the global reach of the product during the war. Despite the dwindling need, M1903s remained in circulation throughout the war (unofficially ending in August of 1945), mainly with sniper elements and second-line personnel. During the Korean War, the primary M1903 model in use remained the M1903A4 sniper variant which continued to provide strong service. Its use was also noted with American USMC snipers acting in Vietnam jungles during the Vietnam War.
The last M1903s exited military service in 1974. During their active tenure (not necessarily all in American hands), the type saw combat actions in the US Occupation of Haiti (1915-1934), the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), World War 1 (1914-1918), World War 2 (1939-1945), the Second Sino-Japanese War (1931-1945), the Chinese Civil War (1927-1950), the Korean War (1950-1953), the Cuban Revolution (1953-1959) and the Vietnam War (1955-1975).