World War I: M1903 Springfield Rifle

USMC using M1903 Springfields
US Marines with M1903 Springfields, 1918. Public Domain

The M1903 Springfield rifle was the primary rifle used by the United States Army and Marine Corps during the first several decades of the 20th century. Officially designated United States Rifle, Caliber .30-06, Model 1903, it was a bolt-action rifle that utilized a five-round magazine. The M1903 was used by the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I and was retained after the conflict.

It was not replaced as the standard American infantry rifle until the introduction of the M1 Garand in 1936. Despite this change, the M1903 was still in use during the early campaigns of World War II. In the years after the war, only the M1903A4 sniper rifle variant remained in the inventory. That last of these were retired during the early years of the Vietnam War.

Background

Following the Spanish-American War, the U.S. Army began seeking a replacement for its standard Krag-Jørgensen rifles. Adopted in 1892, the Krag had shown several weaknesses during the conflict. Among these was a lower muzzle velocity than the Mausers employed by Spanish troops as well as a difficult to load magazine which required the insertion of one round at time. In 1899, attempts were made to improve the Krag with the introduction of a high-velocity cartridge. These proved unsuccessful as the rifle's single locking lug on the bolt proved incapable of handling the increased chamber pressure.

Development & Design

Over the next year, engineers at the Springfield Armory began developing designs for a new rifle. Though the U.S. Army had examined the Mauser in the early 1890s prior to selecting the Krag, they returned to the German weapon for inspiration. Later Mauser rifles, including the Mauser 93 used by the Spanish, possessed a magazine fed by a stripper clip and a greater muzzle velocity than its predecessors. Combining elements from the Krag and the Mauser, Springfield produced its first operational prototype in 1901.

M1903 Springfield
Soldier with M1903 Springfield. U.S. Army Center for Military History

Believing they had achieved their goal, Springfield began tooling its assembly line for the new model. Much to their dismay, the prototype, designated M1901, was declined by the U.S. Army. Over the next two years, the U.S. Army laid out a variety of changes which were incorporated into the M1901's design. In 1903, Springfield presented the new M1903, which was accepted into service. Though the M1903 was a composite consisting of the best elements from several prior weapons, it remained similar enough to the Mauser that the U.S. Government was forced to pay royalties to Mauserwerke.

M1903 Springfield

  • Cartridge: .30-03 & .30-06 Springfield
  • Capacity: 5 round stripper clip
  • Muzzle Velocity: 2,800 ft./sec.
  • Effective Range: 2,500 yds.
  • Weight: approx. 8.7 lbs.
  • Length: 44.9 in.
  • Barrel Length: 24 in.
  • Sights: Leaf rear sight, barleycorn-type front sight
  • Action: Bolt-action

Introduction

The M1903 was officially adopted on June 19, 1903 under the official designation of United States Rifle, Caliber .30-06, Model 1903. In contrast, the British and Commonwealth forces used the Lee-Enfield Rifle. Moving into production, Springfield built 80,000 of the M1903 by 1905, and the new rifle slowly began to replace the Krag. Minor changes were made in the early years, with a new sight added in 1904, and a new knife-style bayonet in 1905. As these alterations were implemented, two major changes were introduced. The first was a shift to pointed, "spitzer" ammunition in 1906. This led to the introduction of the .30-06 cartridge that would become standard for American rifles. The second change was a shortening of the barrel to 24 inches.

World War I

During testing, Springfield found that the M1903's design was equally effective with a shorter, "cavalry-style" barrel. As this weapon was lighter and more easily wielded, it was ordered for the infantry as well. By the time the US entered World War I in April 1917, 843,239 M1903s had been produced at Springfield and the Rock Island Arsenal.

Equipping the American Expeditionary Forces, the M1903 proved lethal and efficient against the Germans in France. During the war, the M1903 Mk. I was produced which allowed for the fitting of a Pedersen device. Developed in an effort to increase the M1903's volume of fire during assaults, the Pedersen device allowed the rifle to fire .30 caliber pistol ammunition semi-automatically.

World War II

After the war, the M1903 remained the standard American infantry rifle until the introduction of the M1 Garand in 1937. Much beloved by American soldiers, many were reluctant to switch to the new rifle. With the entry of the US into World War II in 1941, many units, both in the U.S. Army and Marine Corps, had not completed their transition to the Garand. As a result, several formations deployed for action still carrying the M1903. The rifle saw action in North Africa and Italy, as well as in the early fighting in the Pacific.

M1903 Springfield in World War II
A GI with the 36th Infantry Division cleans his M1903 Springfield, equipped with sniper scope. Public Domain

The weapon was famously used by the U.S. Marines during the Battle of Guadalcanal. Though the M1 replaced the M1903 in most units by 1943, the older rifle continued to be used in specialized roles. Variants of the M1903 saw extended service with the Rangers, Military Police, as well as with Free French forces. The M1903A4 saw extensive use as a sniper rifle during the conflict. M1903s produced during World War II were often made by Remington Arms and the Smith-Corona Typewriter Company.

Later Use

Though it was reduced to a secondary role, the M1903 continued to be produced during World War II by Remington Arms and Smith-Corona Typewriter. Many of these were designated M1903A3 as Remington requested several design changes to improve performance and simplify the manufacturing process. With the conclusion of World War II, most M1903s were retired from service, with only the M1903A4 sniper rifle being retained. Many of these were replaced during the Korean War, however the U.S. Marine Corps continued to use some until the early days of the Vietnam War.