|September - October 2002
Volume 34, Number
The Marlin Model 1894SS is outfitted with a 2.5x Weaver scope and the Model 1894CBC .38 Special features a color case finish. Rifle photo by Stan Trzoniec. Aoudad sheep photo by George Barnett.
Officially, the service life of the
Model 1903 Springfield came to an end in 1935 when the semiautomatic Garand was selected
to replace it. However, if the “Mills of the Gods” grind slowly, government
mills, when faced with unexpected problems, hardly grind at all. As it turned out, the
Garand, the now-familiar M1, was a much more complicated rifle to manufacture than anyone
had anticipated. Before any wheels could turn, a great deal of time was consumed designing
and making the jigs and tools required to produce it. In the meantime, our small army kept
right on training with and shooting the reliable but suddenly obsolete bolt actions.
When the Japanese struck Pearl
Harbor and invaded the Philippines, the ‘03 swung into action, and it wasn’t
until the Korean War sputtered to a close in the 1950s that the old Springfields fired
their last shots in anger. Exactly when the Marines turned in their 03-A4 sniper rifles
isn’t known, but that spelled the end of the rifle’s service life, the longest,
to the best of my knowledge, of any U.S. model issued since 1776.
What set the 03s apart from other
service arms was the genuine affection so many of the troops felt for them. Ever see
anybody pat the stock of an M1? Or an AR-15? Me neither. I saw plenty of 03-toters do it
though - and unashamedly too.
Several uncles of mine, who served
in the First World War, made no secret of their respect for the rifle. During the Second
War, I was constantly surprised at the number of old hands, non-coms mostly, who managed
to hang onto their 03s long after their units had been issued M1s.
In addition to those produced at the
two government facilities, Springfield and Rock Island, Remington Arms began turning them
out toward the end of 1941. At first, it manufactured the standard Model 1903 - 348,085 of
them, as a matter of fact - but in keeping with the old company’s tradition, its
engineers immediately began figuring out what changes they could make in the basic design
that would enable them to lower costs and increase production. The result of all that
pondering and plotting was the Model 1903-A3.
I can still hear the hoots and
groans that greeted the first sight we had of A3s. Nose and stock bands were stampings! So
were magazine followers, trigger guard/floorplates and buttplates. Worst of all, some
barrel exteriors still bore milling marks and were rifled with two instead of four
Before the war ended, Remington
churned out more than a million A3s. Rifles were also manufactured by Smith-Corona,
236,831 by the time the shooting stopped.
Although nobody mentioned it at the
time, the switch to A3s saved 11 pounds of steel per 100 rifles, and what was even more
important, production time was cut to 50 percent of that needed to complete one of the old
03s. Those Remington engineers earned their pay when they dreamed up the A3s.
As much as some hated to admit it,
A3s proved just as reliable and almost as accurate as the 03s. About the only significant
difference between the two was the fact that two-groove barrels didn’t last quite as
long as the four groovers when armor-piercing bullets were fired through them. That was a
cheap price to pay for lower production costs and increased production.
My experience with 03s dates back to
1942. Since then, every known variation of the marque, including the Match and civilian
models as well as a Griffin & Howe sporter, have passed through my hands. All, without
exception, were accurate; with the aid of the issue iron sights, they would group five
shots in 1.5 to 2.5 inches at 100 yards from the bench. An A4 sniper model, with its
Weaver 330C (2.2x) scope anchored in Redfield Jr. mounts clustered five-shot strings from
1.25 to 1.5 inches. In Korea, Marines mounted 8x and 12x scopes and gave them high marks
Two 03s remain in my possession: a Mark I
produced by the Springfield Armory in 1919 and an A3 manufactured by Smith-Corona in 1943.
To make sure my memories of their accuracy were factual, both rifles were taken out to the
range recently. Their magazines were stuffed with handloads featuring Speer 150-grain
boat-tailed softpoints backed by 54.0 grains of W-760 and touched off with Remington 9
1/2M primers. Velocities, clocked 8 feet from the muzzles, averaged 2,660 fps from the 03 and 2,663 fps from the
A3 - pretty close to the speeds of GI rounds clocked in the past. Extreme velocity spreads
of 10 rounds sent over the Oehler’s traps ranged from 33 to 39 fps.
At 100 yards, from the bench, four,
five-shot strings huddled in 1.5 to 2.0 inches from the 03 (sighting through the tiny
aperture) and 2.0 to 2.25 inches from the A3 - and keep in mind this shooters eyes
Mark I 03s are easy to identify. The
legend Mark I is stamped on the forward receiver ring. In addition, theres
a small ejection port (1.3 inches long) machined in the left side of the receivers
bolt channel. The sear slot is lengthened too. Those modifications were performed to
permit the rifles to accept what was called the Pederson Device.
Invented by J.D. Pederson, a
well-known and highly respected arms designer during the first part of the last century,
it consisted of a semiautomatic body/chamber that could be slipped into an 03s
receiver in place of the bolt. A 40-round magazine slipped into the top of the Pederson
action. The units cartridges looked like pistol rounds and were slightly more than
an inch long. They featured 80-grain roundnosed, .30-caliber bullets that clocked around
1,300 fps from the 03s 24-inch barrel.
Created with World War Is
trench warfare in mind, the device gave each soldier so armed a semiautomatic rifle,
capable of delivering 40 bullets as fast as he could pull the trigger. Since the little
missiles were lethal for several hundred yards, any infantry outfit so equipped could lay
down a fearsome and deadly barrage, one that could break up an enemy charge or reinforce
an attack of their own.
Although Pedersons brainchild
was approved and produced in numbers, World War I ended before any could be used in
combat. The exact number manufactured is subject to argument, but 65,000 of them were
placed in storage in 1919. Twelve years later, 64,873 of them plus sixty million rounds of
ammunition were destroyed. As always, a few of the gadgets escaped the crusher and found
their way into collectors hands. Years ago, I had an opportunity to examine one but
never saw it fired.
At least 101,775 03s were listed as
Mark Is. According to its barrel markings, mine was assembled in December 1919. Records
indicate that Mark Is were manufactured as late as 1920. As numerous taxpayers have
noticed, it often takes longer to stop a government program than it does to get one
It was often alleged that 03s were
designed and built by target shooters. Theres probably some truth to that charge.
Take the sights, for instance: That rear leaf is adjustable for both windage and
elevation, graduated from 200 to 2,850 yards and equipped with an aperture .05 inch in
diameter. Apparently, the sights creators envisioned combat as a leisurely,
relatively long-distance affair with 03-armed infantrymen braced in rock-steady shooting
positions and blessed with plenty of time to judge range and wind, set sights accordingly
and make each shot count. Hence the slender, relatively fragile and completely unprotected
front blade - and the painfully small aperture.
With time no problem and in good
light, Ive recorded a fair number of 1.25- and 1.5-inch groups with such sights -
from the bench, of course. Nonetheless, its an extremely slow sight to use in the
field, too slow for combat and almost impossible to see through if there isnt plenty
The rear sight on the A3 is much more
practical. Also adjustable for windage and elevation, its range graduations extend from
200 to a more reasonable 800 yards. Mounted on the rear of the receiver, it is closer to
the shooters eyes and, best of all, protected by stout guard wings on each side. Its
aperture is .1 inch in diameter, enabling a rifleman to align sights and target quickly.
Moreover, the apertures field of view is generous enough at combat ranges to permit
a decent lead when shooting at moving targets. Although A3 sights probably werent
produced with the care lavished on the 03s, it is certainly a far superior battle
Most 03 stocks were shaped from
black walnut. Other woods of similar quality were used during World War II. Stocks were
dyed with logwood stain until 1928 when that step was eliminated as a cost-cutting move.
Logwood-stained stocks are easy to spot, thanks to their reddish hue.
Most 03s feature the Type S stock, a
plain-jane design with no pistol grip. Type C stocks flaunted pistol grips. A few early
Remington-made 03s sported C stocks, but the vast majority were reserved for the Match and
Sporter Springfields. Eventually, A4 sniper rifles were fitted with them too.
Most 03 stocks were a shade too
short for anyone taller than 5 feet, 6 inches - at least, they were in warm weather. When
temperatures fell and extra layers of clothing were added, those old rifles fit more
comfortably. Length of pull, the distance between butt and trigger, ran from 12.5 inches
to 12.75 inches. That same dimension ranged from 12.8 inches to 13.3 inches on A3s Ive
been able to measure.
Weights of 03s ranged from 8 3/4 to
9 1/2 pounds, depending on wood density. Probably 90 percent of those checked personally
were right around the 9-pound mark.
They were exceptionally
well-balanced rifles. Loaded with five rounds in their magazines, balance points are just
about where barrels screw into receivers. Perhaps because their weight is distributed so
evenly, they are natural pointers and exceedingly steady-holding. If you ever get a chance
to shoot an as-issued 03, try a few rounds offhand. Youll be surprised at how well,
and how often, you can hit with one of those veteran bolt actions.
Critics ridiculed the two-piece
firing pin and insisted Springfield actions simply werent as smooth operating as
Mauser 98s. Granted, the firing pins design, supposedly an economy measure, wasnt
the actions best feature, but as far as manipulation is concerned, every 03 that has
come my way, GI and sporting, worked beautifully. Bolts opened, slid back and forth and
locked with a minimal amount of urging. Chambering and ejection were always positive and
If memory can be depended on,
though, 03 triggers were characterized by excessive travel, giving them sort of a mushy
feel. That isnt true of the two in my rack. Whether somebody worked on them before
they came my way or they just saw enough use to wear everything in properly is anyones
guess. Both are easy to control and blessed with match-grade let-offs. Pull weight on the
Mark I varies from 3 1/4 to 3 1/2 pounds; that of the A3s from 3 1/2 to 3 3/4
There are still plenty of 03s and
A3s around, but most have shed their GI stocks and hardware. Springfield actions and
barreled actions have served as the basis for thousands of sporters. Its a rare gun
shop that doesnt have a few in its used rifle racks. Undoubtedly the most famous are
those turned out by the old firm of Griffin & Howe. Former President Teddy Roosevelt
took one along on his favorite African safari and had a high opinion of both rifle and
cartridge. Needless to say, that kind of publicity didnt hurt the 03s
After World War II shuddered to a
close, our government decided to sell off the 03 inventory. The Director of Civilian
Marksmanship, with the help of the National Rifle Association, began advertising them
around 1947. A3s sold for $51.85. Those I saw appeared unfired. Later, in 1961, Unclassified
A3s were offered for $14.50 thats correct: $14.50. The meaning of Unclassified
was never really made clear to me. Each rifle was declared safe to fire, and again, those
I saw looked as though they had never been issued. Everyone who purchased one of those
rifles seemed more than satisfied with them. I dont ever recall hearing any gripes
about functioning or accuracy.
A surprising number of those old service
rifles are still on semi-active duty. They can be seen on the shoulders of American Legion
and VFW color guards most every national holiday. For some inexplicable reason, some have
had their metallic parts chrome-plated, but beneath those glittering exteriors, they are
the same old 03s and A3s that came to this countrys rescue so long ago.